Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Christian voices against torture in SC

My attention has just been called to an article about a (very) few clergy who are speaking out against torture. Here are the relevant excerpts:

Who Would Jesus Torture? by Carolyn Click in The State, Columbia, South Carolina, October 15, 2006

Like most catchy slogans, the bumper sticker sentiment - a takeoff on the popular WWJD ("What Would Jesus Do?") phenomenon - oversimplifies a complex issue. It's about how Christians reconcile their spiritual beliefs with the actions of their government in times of terrorism and war. And it's about confronting the reality of evil in the world. As Congress and the Bush Administration parse the definition of torture and argue about the habeas corpus right of appeal denied enemy combatants, some Christians find themselves sorting through thorny political and theological concerns that haven't been raised in recent memory.

In some congregations, the issue of faith and torture hasn't come up at all. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the S.C. Baptist Convention, said he hasn't heard a word of the debate from Baptist pews.

But for other pastors, the issue has resonated even amid the latest congressional clamor over a House member sending salacious e-mails to young pages."I don't know how you can justify torture from a Christian perspective," said the Rev. Agnes Norfleet, pastor of Shandon Presbyterian Church on Woodrow Street.Practically speaking, she also worries, as do some military experts, that information extracted through torture too often is worthless because prisoners will say anything to make the pain cease.

Columbia's Jan Love, chief executive of the women's division of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries, said her organization has adopted a position paper opposing extreme interrogation techniques that violate the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.

"There's a lot of distress among leaders that we would even entertain the idea of torture," Love said. "I think Christians bring to the conversation a comprehension of the issue," she said."When we meditate on how Jesus died, it was a death by extreme torture."

At the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, conversations have turned on the language of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus delivered in the Gospel of Matthew. In that sermon to his disciples and a crowd on a hill near Galilee, Jesus exhorted those gathered to love their enemies. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also."

Christians can interpret the richly symbolic sermon, which contains the familiar Beatitudes, in varying ways, said the Rev. Virginia "Ginger" Barfield. "I believe it is not how we interpret these specific texts, but it is a bigger issue in Christian tradition: Whom do we trust?" said Barfield, director of the seminary's Baptist Studies Program and a professor of Greek and New Testament.

"The hard part for Christians is: Do I trust my government and its military power to make my life secure and safe, if that includes torturing my enemies to get the information I need . . . or do I, as a Christian, really trust God to take care of me and those I love?" Barfield asked."If I trust God, can I stand up and say 'no' to what I believe is wrong, even when my government says it is right?"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Looking for the age to come

Here is most of a superb article by the ever-reliable Peter Steinfels about Jurgen Moltmann (January 20, 2007):

Eschatology” is not exactly your everyday word. If you had read every word of this newspaper every day for the last five years, you would have encountered it fewer than 20 times. Half those times were somehow referring to fundamentalist religious beliefs about the final battles between good and evil, the coming of Jesus (or other messianic figures), the Last Judgment and the eternal assignment of the saved and the damned to heaven or to hell.

Defined as “beliefs about the ultimate future,” eschatology is very real for biblical literalists, even if they have never heard of the word. It inspires, for example, the complicated scripts and detailed timetables featured in the best-selling “Left Behind” series of novels. Liberal believers may also ponder questions of personal life after death, but many are inclined to shrug off as striking but disconcerting poetry the cosmic end-times dramas that capture the fundamentalist imagination.

Not Jürgen Moltmann. For four decades he has been influencing Christian theology in radical directions with his conviction that eschatology is central to understanding God, humanity and all the basic teaching of his faith. An emeritus professor of theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, he will be a featured lecturer next week at a conference titled “God’s Unfinished Future: Why It Matters Now,” sponsored by the Trinity Institute of Trinity Church on Wall Street in Manhattan.

Professor Moltmann, 80, grew up in a secular German family and was captured as a young soldier in World War II. Shaken by the deeds of his own country, he converted to Christianity while a prisoner of war in Belgium and England.

In the 1960s, his “Theology of Hope,” subtitled “On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology,” became one of the most widely translated and read theological works, stirring enthusiastic responses among Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, and among religious radicals in the developing world as well as dissident Marxists in Eastern Europe.
At the core of this theology were the principles that human consciousness is not shaped only by the past and present but also by anticipation of the future, that biblical revelation is centered on God’s promises, and that hope for the future does not rest on extrapolations of past or present trends but on something truly beyond them, namely those divine promises.

...[Moltmann's] lectures next Tuesday and Wednesday will offer an alternative to the eschatological thinking that dwells on catastrophic signs, violent tribulation and warfare, rewards and punishments and a division of humankind into friend and foe. Professor Moltmann has little use for the view of a wrathful God that would chastise the world with famine, epidemic and earthquake. In a text prepared for his lectures, he calls such a God “a world terrorist,” and says, “I can’t see anything divine or Christian or righteous here....”

“The image of the God who judges in wrath has caused a great deal of spiritual damage,” Professor Moltmann will be telling his listeners.

But he is not satisfied with the alternative that makes eternal destiny simply a matter of the individual’s own choice of whether to reject God. In that case, Professor Moltmann says, the Last Judgment becomes no more than “the ultimate endorsement of our free will.” God really has nothing much to do with it beyond implementing the human outcome; in short, “we are the lords, and God is our servant,” he says.

The alternative, in Professor Moltmann’s view, is to put Jesus Christ at the center of this final drama. “It is high time to Christianize our traditional images and perceptions of God’s Final Judgment,” he says. Any Last Judgment with Christ at the center must answer the cries of human victims for justice, without simply meting out vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice, Professor Moltmann suggests. A Christian eschatological vision would involve not the retributive justice of human courts but “God’s creative justice,” which can heal and restore the victims and transform the perpetrators.

The goal of a final judgment, in this interpretation, is not reward and punishment but victory over all that is godless, which he calls “a great Day of Reconciliation.” Professor Moltmann argues for the universal preservation and salvation not only of humans, as individuals and as members of groups, but also of all living creatures. It has been “a fatal mistake of Christian tradition in doctrine and spirituality,” he argues, to emphasize the “end of the old age” rather than “the new world of God,” the beginning of the “life of the world to come.”
This resurrected life will be bodily and worldly, and its expectation, he says, should teach people to “give ourselves wholeheartedly to this life here and surrender in love” to its “beauties and pains.”

In a phone conversation from Germany, Professor Moltmann acknowledged that his was a reinterpretation of traditional teachings, to which objections could be raised. Of course, it is not likely that his audience next week at Trinity Church, and by simultaneous broadcast at Episcopal institutions around the country and overseas, will be thick with devotees of the “Left Behind” series.

The greater challenge may arise from listeners for whom his political undertones and his generous spirit resonate, but who inhabit a science-minded and skeptical culture. Some of them may wonder what force they can give to the language of faith, especially of the cross and resurrection, that Professor Moltmann uses in as undiluted and vigorous a fashion as any evangelical preacher, even while giving it a different interpretation.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Inspiration for serious young women (or not so young)

Browsing the Internet for information on the respected “Southern” (sort of) writer Mary Lee Settle (author of the ”Beulah Quintet”), I found this stunning anecdote:

Interviewer: Still, you're not a historian. You're a writer. Was there ever a conversion, a calling?

Mary Lee Settle: In 1945 I came back from the war to work for Harper's Bazaar. I sat in editorial meetings with women in big hats while they decided whether to put the Belsen pictures [Bergen-Belsen, the infamous Nazi concentration camp] before or after the new French clothes. I think there are few times when the reality that crouches behind daily compromise springs out. It happened to me there. One day in late summer I came back from an expense account lunch at Voisin's. I wore a Bianca Mosca suit, the regulation large black hat, white gloves. I was 27. On my desk were layouts of Bill Brandt's photographs of Brontë country and the Modern Library edition of Wuthering Heights. I began to read the introduction to find captions. I saw that Emily Brontë had already written Wuthering Heights and was dead by the time she was 28. I could hear the cars passing below on Madison Avenue. I knew then that if I didn't move I would still be there when I was 40, writing on the fringes of "the arts." I took off the hat, pushed back the layouts, walked into Carmel Snow's office [she being the formidable and famous editor of the then-powerful magazine] and quit before I lost my nerve.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Alexander McCall Smith meets the New York Times

For those who love the adorable Alexander McCall Smith (I wish I knew him well enough to call him Sandy as his friends do) and all his works, the New York Times offers him in a new format. He is now writing a sort of blog for the paper, and the link is

In order to read this, you have to become a TimesSelect member, but it is well worth it for many reasons, not least of which is Mr. Smith's "Adventures of an Itinerant Scotsman." To my surprise, he lets us see that he has a serious side. He writes most movingly, with his own special touches, of the sadness in the world. For instance, on New Year's Eve he writes of the losses of the year past:

"And we have lost a lot. We have lost freedoms. We have lost trust between nations and between peoples. There is a great cloud of anxiety that has welled up in our lives: anxiety of our own making and of the making of others, for two hands are often required to stir that brew."

I will be reading this funny and wise man's blog as often as I can.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A refugee crisis caused by us

Today's front page of the NY Times describes the extreme difficulty faced by Iraqis who want to escape from their chaotic, violent country to the US. These are largely Iraqis who have worked for the American occupation and now find their lives, and that of their families, in danger. What clearer mandate for us could there be? We are commanded by Scripture to offer hospitality even to the sojourner who wanders as a result of some disturbance remote from us; what if the disturbance has been caused by us, ourselves?

Here are some excerpts from the article by Sabrina Tavernese and Robert F. Worth:
We’re not even meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who’ve been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government,” said Kirk W. Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005. “We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it’s shameful that we’ve nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour.”
...An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis are living outside Iraq. The pace of the exodus has quickened significantly in the past nine months. Some critics say the Bush administration has been reluctant to create a significant refugee program because to do so would be tantamount to conceding failure in Iraq. They say a major change in policy could happen only as part of a broader White House shift on Iraq.
...For Iraqis, a tie to the United States is a life-threatening liability, particularly in harder-line Sunni neighborhoods. In 2003, Laith, an Army interpreter who would allow only his first name to be used, got a note threatening his family if he did not quit his job. His neighborhood, Adhamiya, was full of Baath Party loyalists. A month later, his father opened the door to a stranger, who shot him dead.
Another interpreter, Amar, who did not want his full name used, went to at least 10 embassies during a trip to Jordan last fall, but found only blank faces. He counts his sacrifice for America in bones and skin. He is missing a finger, an eye and part of his skull, after a large bomb exploded next to his Humvee last year. He has received two threats to his life. Two bodyguards accompany him everywhere. He stays in three different houses to confuse potential attackers.
“They said they have nothing for Iraqis,” said Amar, sitting in a small house in western Baghdad. “We feel just like stupid trash.”
Until recently, the administration did not appear to understand the gravity of the problem. State Department officials say they are now open to increasing the number of refugee slots the administration formally requested for Iraqis in September. That request already allows for as many as 20,000 more refugees from unspecified countries. But advocates for refugees say that such an increase is unlikely if no special measures are taken, namely designating Iraqis as a group in peril and formalizing a system for receiving them.
Iraqis who work with the military often have to live separately from their families, to avoid putting them in danger. One 25-year-old interpreter left home when his parents in Mosul, in northern Iraq, learned of his work. Now in Baghdad, he has been back home rarely.
Laith lives with an aunt, away from his wife, in an area where no one knows him. After a visit to his parents several months ago, a stranger asked about his 8-year-old brother at a boys’ school. The family fears that it was the early stages of a kidnapping. “I bring a lot of troubles when I go to visit my family,” he said...
Congress approved one program last year to help get special immigrant status for Iraqi interpreters who have worked for the United States military. Laith has tried to apply. The law, which also applies to Afghan interpreters, is capped at 50 a year. Laith was told he needed a senior officer to vouch for him, but he has not worked with one recently, and the one he had worked with is now back in the United States...

Link to article: