Monday, September 24, 2007

War, Huh, good God y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely noting, say it again.
Edwin Starr (Bruce Springsteen, too)

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.

I found myself at a peace rally on Friday. O.K. I didn’t just stumble into it, I went intentionally, but also ambivalently. I went, in part, because I am concerned about the direction of the war in Iraq and our continuation of current policy. I opposed the war at its beginning, not because I am a Christian pacifist, but because I did not think it met the classic criteria Christian ethicists have developed that justifies going to war. These “just war” criteria include having a justifiable cause, war being a last resort, having legitimate and public aims for going to war, war as a proportional response to the threat posed, having a reasonable chance of success, and having an appropriate intention when going to war (for a good resource on Christian perspectives on war, see Joseph L Allen, War: a Primer for Christians. Dr. Allen was my doctoral dissertation advisor). Of course, Christians debate these criteria, and some argue that they are no longer valid or relevant. Does it make sense anymore to discuss war as a “proportional response” to any threat? I hold that these criteria remain relevant and consider myself a just-war Christian ethicist, but one haunted by pacifism. I am haunted by pacifism because I take seriously the words of Jesus which seem directed much more toward peacemaking than to thinking about what justifies war. I take seriously the strong anti-imperial implications of his message about God’s kingdom, and war is so often little more than an imperial tool. I am deeply disappointed by the ease with which people use the just war criteria to justify war quickly. It should not be so, and I remain haunted by pacifism.

Nevertheless, I also remain committed to using the just war criteria in my thinking about war (I still sing Edwin Starr’s song, and find it often true, but it does not exhaust my thinking about war), and in doing so, I do not believe the current war in Iraq met these criteria. Our cause was never very clear, and, in fact, we were deceived about it. There were people in our own State Department who warned about our slim chances for success in establishing a stable and more democratic Iraq after an invasion – our chances for success were not what some promised they would be. I don’t think we reached the “last resort” phase when we decided to launch “shock and awe.”

Beyond thinking that the war was morally unjustifiable from the beginning, I am troubled by our current policy which essentially stays the course, promising some small draw down of troops but without any change in mission or direction. Are our chances of establishing a more stable and democratic Iraq under a unified government really any better than they were six months ago? Is it time to think about other long-term strategies, such as a confederate Iraq with semi-autonomous regions that might quell the sectarian violence? No doubt there are other ideas that need to be pondered and I am disappointed that such options are not under active consideration by the current administration.

These are all pretty good reasons for attending a peace rally. So why was I ambivalent? Well, I had been asked to speak at a press conference promoting the rally, and had to say “no.” I had already committed myself to a meeting of some community groups looking at ways to help provide some transportation funding for Head Start families who might not otherwise be able to afford to get their children to the Head Start sites. Transportation funding for Head Start was eliminated in our community this year. Beyond the scheduling conflict, though, I was concerned about where this particular group was coming from. There are anti-war positions and then there are anti-war positions. Earlier in the summer I had been contacted by one group looking for my support and the support of my church. As I asked some questions it turned out that a major goal of the group was to organize a rally at the office of the Republican senator from Minnesota. As a citizen, I may feel free to participate in such an event, but as a pastor, I feel it important to limit “partisan” political activity. I will speak as a pastor about the moral issues involved in politics, but decline to publicly act in a partisan manner. It is a choice I have made. It is not always an easy choice to implement, and I am becoming concerned that every issue is now taking on a partisan tone, leaving little room for trying to say something about the deep moral issues involved without seeing to support one side or the other. I am constantly reexamining this part of my life an ministry. Anyway, I was concerned about the potential partisan nature of this event.

I was also concerned about the position that might be advocated by the primary speakers at the rally. I don’t believe this was a just war. I question our current conduct of the war. But I struggle with the idea that we should simply pull out our troops without some longer-term plan to work with Iraq and others in the region in hopes of securing a more stable and just peace. Will leaving tomorrow (were that even possible) really make things better, or will we watch a conflagration, a blood bath develop? I wonder if simply leaving is a little like a man telling a woman, “I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have had sex, but I recognize I was wrong so I’m leaving now even though you’re pregnant.” It seems to me we have entered into the life of this nation in a profound way, and while I question staying the course, I also question leaving without any other plan being in place.

Finally, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the fact that this group had been planning this rally for a long time without asking for the involvement of my church or any other church for that matter, but now two weeks before the rally, they wanted me to “bless it.”

My ambivalence did not keep me from the peace rally, and I appreciated much of what I heard. An Iraqi-American who I know from the community spoke eloquently about the devastation and destruction wrought on his country by the war. It was obvious to me that his family had done fairly well under the prior regime, and he said little about the dark underside of Iraq under Sadaam. He wants the war to end immediately. His voice needs to be heard. The speaker from Veterans for Peace also spoke movingly about how she is not against all war, but this one was not a war defending our country, that preemptive war was not what she signed up for when she joined the military. Another eloquent perspective. I left before the end of the rally, and that was probably a good thing. In the next day’s newspaper, I read that ten people were arrested for blocking the door to the Federal Building in town. Civil disobedience has its place in a democracy, but I believe its place is rather narrow, and that such disobedience is best directed toward laws that are themselves unjust. Breaking the law by sitting down at a segregated lunch counter with people of varying races makes some sense to me. Violating trespass laws does not. One great irony is that one of the rally speakers spoke about our need to defend civil liberties. Isn’t one of the precious rights and liberties guaranteed by our constitution the right to petition the courts for redress of our grievances? By blocking the way to the Federal Building which house the U.S. District courts, these protestors were denying people access to those courts. It is our right and responsibility to speak out as citizens in our democracy when we disagree with policies being propagated in our name. But we should do so in such a way that we appreciate the genuine achievements of our democracy. We may not think it is working very well sometimes, but when you consider the history of humankind, democratic governments are a rather rare and all too fragile achievement. Our protesting should be wise and prudent, and our rhetoric measured.

Somehow, my complicated thinking and concern for humility, gentleness, prudence, and measured rhetoric was not represented very thoroughly by any of the speakers I heard at the rally. Maybe this kind of thinking doesn’t make for great rally speeches. Such speeches have their place, but I will probably always listen with a concern for what shade may be left out, what angle of view might be missed, what nuance might be disregarded. And still, I may just go again sometime.


With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 15, 2007

You know sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over and I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem and its called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
Cannonball Adderley

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy is a wonderful song, a rare song that started as a jazz tune then got picked up by a pop/rock band and made into a hit. Yes, The Buckinghams had a hit with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy in the 1960s – but it began as a jazz tune written by Joe Zawinul. Joe Zawinul died this past week. Within the last month two venerable jazz artists have died, the other was drummer Max Roach. Zawinul was a pioneer in bringing electronic keyboards to jazz – with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, and Weather Report. Max Roach played drums with some of the greats of the be-bop era – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and worked with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown before Brown’s untimely death in an auto accident.

I remember when I first had my breathe taken away by jazz. It was in a college class, Arts in America. The professor was talking about America’s most unique art form, jazz, and he dropped a needle (this was the days of vinyl records) on John Coltrane’s Central Park West. It was absolutely beautiful. I bought a couple of Coltrane records (including the phenomenal A Love Supreme), a Billie Holiday record, and a Charlie Parker record (I got his name through my interest in Kerouac). I liked what I heard, but I was listening to a lot of rock music at the time, and, well, the jazz kind of got shelved with other things taken out only occasionally. I enjoyed the occasions, but they were sporadic.

In 2003, though, I hit a bit of a wall. A chronic health condition I had had for over twenty years, and that had been stable due to medication, flared up. The medication was no longer working and I was not feeling well. That summer, I spent extra time lying down, and one of the things that kept me company was the Ken Burns series Jazz. I know it isn’t perfect, but it reignited a love in me. Jazz became my listening of choice. Bix Beiderbecke’s Singin’ the Blues haunted me. I have a vivid memory of driving that autumn and listening to the Miles Davis Quintet’s Fall. The list could go on (and on and on). Jazz remains a frequent listening choice for me – not the only one, but often and irreplaceably so. And by the way, some new medication finally worked to bring my health condition under control.

So what? (The Miles Davis question!!!! – see his album Kind of Blue). You’ve been very patient if you have read this far, but is there going to be anything more here than three cheers for jazz? For me, jazz has not only been a joy, it has deepened my spiritual life, and that is not coincidental. Writer Albert Murray said about jazz, “it’s the creative process incarnate.” To hear jazz is to witness creativity, and creativity has something to do with the divine within us. Philosopher-theologian Nicholas Berdyaev wrote, “a creative act is therefore a continuation of world-creation and mean participation in the work of God.”

I also affirm with a New Testament writer that “every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the God (Father-Mother) of Light” (James, chapter 1). Jazz is a good gift of light and life. That’s not to say everything that has every happened under the umbrella of jazz is straight from God, but the music and creativity are genuinely beneficial gifts. Jazz drummer, Art Blakey, liked to say, “jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” Sometimes we need that dust washed away gently, in music that meets us quietly. So I listen to Coltrane’s Naima, Central Park West and After the Rain, or Miles Davis’ Blue in Green, or Billie Holiday’s Autumn in New York, or Bix Beiderbecke’s I’m Comin’ Virginia. Sometimes the dust needs to be blown off in celebratory breezes, so I listen to Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, Potato Head Blues, or Dippermouth Blues; or Beiderbecke’s Singin’ the Blues; or Charlie Parker’s Ko Ko (on which Max Roach played drums); or Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s Groovin’ High; or Duke Ellington’s Take the ‘A’ Train; or Thelonius Monk’s Straight, No Chaser; or Dave Brubeck’s Take Five; or Coltrane's My Favorite Things. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy really does help when adversity strikes. Again, enough name dropping!

The Righteous Brothers, not a jazz group, once sang, “If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, you know they have a helluva band.” Well, if there are bands in heaven, think of the jazz band possibilities!!!

God speaks in tongues, and one of those is jazz.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, September 9, 2007

People would be surprised if they knew what their souls said to God sometimes.
Brother Lawrence

Mother Teresa is in the news again, this time not for Noble Peace Prizes or canonization conversations, but because another side to her life has come to the fore. In a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light we gain unprecedented access into some of the inner spiritual life of this remarkable woman. We get to hear some of what her soul said to God, and some of it, much of it, is painful. I have not read this entire book, and so my picture is incomplete. I have only read the excerpts printed in Time magazine and a few pages from the book.

From what I have read, however, I would say that my respect for Mother Teresa has grown and deepened. She can no longer be considered in any sense a plastic saint, a one-dimensional person, whose “holiness” is so far removed from the normal lives of mortals that she can only be admired, but certainly not emulated. She sought to follow Jesus and in that following struggled with internal doubt, with dark nights of the soul - - - yet she continued to follow. She continued to trust that her actions on behalf of the poor were meaningful, and meaningful to the God she once experienced as so close, but whose distance became her internal reality. If the essence of faith is trust, then Mother Teresa remained a person of deep faith in the midst of her experiences of doubt.

In reading about Mother Teresa’s life, I was reminded of words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who lost his life to the Hitler government. There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his or her life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. (Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 329)

The Christian life is as much about practices as about experience – practices of prayer, of worship, of compassion, of justice. Christian faith is about openness to the world and responsiveness to its beauty and pain. When we engage consistently in these practices, when we are open to the world and responsive to it I believe we find Jesus (that’s what I preached this morning – in part, reflecting on Mother Teresa), but maybe we find Jesus in a very different form than what we may hope for or expect. Mother Teresa did not experience the Jesus she hoped to, but I’m not sure that Jesus was absent. One follower of Mother Teresa could say of her, “She always led us to Jesus, especially in very difficult moments” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 336). Jesus seemed to be there somewhere, even if Mother Teresa had a difficult time finding that presence.

Yet she kept on, she maintained the practices that were so important to her faith – prayer and compassion for the poor. Our experiences, those of us who are Christians, will continue to be experiences of doubt, of God’s presence and of God’s seeming absence. Will we have the faith to keep the faith even in the dark and dry times? I hope I will.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. For other insightful comments about the recent stories about Mother Teresa, please follow the links to the blogs of Michelle Hargrave and Jeff Ozanne.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.
Henry James, The Ambassadors

But there are degrees of feeling – the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligible, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word – the power to be finely aware and richly responsible.
Henry James, Preface to The Princess Cassamassima

Each week as I come to write here, there are usually a number of tales to tell, stories to weave, thoughts to share. It is always a matter of choosing some one thing, and saving some for another day. Someone asked me this week if I were going to write about Mother Teresa. I think I will, but not today.

It is Labor Day weekend, the traditional ending of summer. School begins this week for my wife and our two daughters. I begin teaching a course in Medical Ethics at a local college this week. 2008 will be here before I know it. Before leaving summer, I want to reflect on some reading I did, especially on vacation.

I took three books with me on our vacation: Henry James, The Ambassadors; Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway; and Maura O’Halloran, Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. I did not finish James’ book until after our vacation, but there was an interesting confluence of ideas as I read all three.

I read The Ambassadors because it was a book I had been wanting to read for sometime. My interest in Henry James was sparked by the work of philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Her book, Love’s Knowledge was one of the first books on ethics I read after completing my Ph.D. in the subject of religious ethics. It is a book of essays on literature and philosophy, especially ethics. She writes with deep appreciation for Henry James and the kind of ethic she finds in his novels. In reflecting on James’ book The Golden Bowl, which remains on my reading list, she discusses the moral development of a character as James writes about it, her development of a new way of being in the world, a new ethic. We might describe the new ideal this way: See clearly and with high intelligence. Respond with the vibrant sympathy of a vividly active imagination (p. 134). Nussbaum believes many of James’ works seek to portray persons who have an ethic in life that is “finely aware and richly responsible” (to use James’ own words). The Ambassadors is one such work. The main character, Lewis Lambert Strether is a person who sees “fifty things” and appreciates them in his “quiet inwardness.” While he is not perfect in his ability to be finely aware, he strives for this, and seeks to act with rich responsibility. In reading James, I needed to slow down to catch all that he was trying to say in his long sentences filled with emotion and imagery. It was almost as if his style were trying to get readers to be more finely aware. I enjoyed letting James’ prose wash over me in waves.

While I was reading Henry James I was also reading the other two books mentioned. Each of these books is about a spiritual journey in Zen Buddhism. Maura O’Halloran’s book is comprised of journals and letters of this young Irish woman who went to Japan to study Zen in a monastery. In 1982, at age 27, after three years of studying Zen, she was killed in a motor accident, and the monks at Kannonji Temple in Japan dedicated a statue to her on that site, giving her the posthumous name of “Great Enlightened Lady, of the same heart and mind as the Great Teacher Buddha." Reading her journals and letters one gets inside, a little, the experience of Zen meditation and life in a Zen monastery. Slowing down, being aware, that is one point of Zen meditation – zazen. Natalie Goldberg’s book is both about her life as a writer and her own experience with Zen meditation, much of it in Minnesota at the Minneapolis Zen Center. Again, I was struck by the cultivation of awareness that is at the heart of this practice.

While it may seem a stretch, I saw some overlap in James’ encouragement of being finely aware and richly responsible, and the experience of two women with Zen meditation. I also recall many of the teachings of Jesus where he encourages people to watch, to pay attention. He chides those who think they see, but really don’t. Does Jesus, too, want me to be finely aware and richly responsible? Maybe so.

And then I consider how so much of modern Western life mitigates against just such a thing. We move at the speed of light and sound. Our schedules are crowded with events and "to do" lists – I know mine is. Where do we cultivate the habits and practices that help us slow down enough to be finely aware? There are practices in the Christian faith tradition that encourage cultivation of awareness, but they are often ignored. And such awareness is not an end in itself. As we see the world deeply, we need to respond to its joy and beauty, its pain and hurt and injustice. For Christians that would seem a no-brainer – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). But Buddhists, too, are encouraged to respond to the world’s suffering. That, after all, was at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching - ending suffering.

So here I am, rushing headlong into fall. Will I be able to take the lessons of my summer reading with me? I hope so.

With Faith and With Feathers,