Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The most Christian country?

Nicholas Kristof, nationally syndicated columnist, has been writing favorable things about evangelical Christianity for years, in case you haven't noticed. Here is a recent sample (note especially the projection at the end):

Excerpts from Kristof column, New York Times, May 31.
Every evening in a little village near this coastal city, peasants gather in a private home and do something that used to be dangerous. They pray.

They are Christians gathering in a little “house church,” reflecting a religious boom across China. But their story also underscores another trend: the way the legal system here offers hope of chipping away at the Communist Party dictatorship.

The tale begins a year ago when the authorities here in Shandong Province raided this house church and carted 31 Christians off to the police station. Such crackdowns are the traditional way the Communist Party has dealt with house churches in rural areas, and some Christians have even been tortured to death.

But this incident ended differently.

Tian Yinghua, a 55-year-old evangelical Protestant who runs the church in her living room, was outraged after she was ordered jailed for 10 days.

“We had done nothing wrong at all,” explained Ms. Tian. “We weren’t criminals.”

So Ms. Tian contacted a prominent Christian and legal scholar in Beijing, Li Baiguang, who traveled to Shandong Province to do something that once would have been unthinkable: Sue the police.

Even more unthinkable, Ms. Tian won. The police settled the case by withdrawing the charges. The police also formally apologized, paid symbolic damages of 1 yuan (a bit more than a dime) and promised not to bother the church again.

It was a historic victory for freedom of religion in China — and, even more important, for the rule of law....

That seems to be a growing pattern. The central government’s policy toward religion is much more relaxed than a few years ago, and in coastal areas the government usually lets people worship freely....

“In most places, it’s no problem today,” said Mr. Li, who himself was imprisoned for more than a month two years ago for his legal activism. “It’s just a problem in backward areas, or if you directly attack the Communist Party....”

Han Dongfang, a Chinese labor activist now exiled to Hong Kong, says that he has also found that suing the authorities is often an effective way to increase labor protections. Mr. Han was a leader in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, but now he is trying to bring about change from within. “I believe this is the way to develop a civil society, not through a revolution,” he said.

Of course, the legal system is still routinely used to oppress people, rather than to protect them. China imprisons more journalists than any country in the world, and one of them is my Times colleague Zhao Yan...

Still, the rule of law has gained immensely since the 1980’s...If the Chinese government continues to nurture the rule of law, China could increasingly follow the path of South Korea and Taiwan away from autocracy toward greater democracy.

Easing the repression could also change the religious complexion of China. Estimates of the number of Chinese Christians vary widely, but the number may be approaching 100 million, many of them evangelical Protestants who aggressively recruit new believers. And with the more relaxed policy, the numbers are soaring.

“In 20 to 30 years China will have several hundred million believers,” said Mr. Li, the lawyer who helped the Shandong church. “That will make China the biggest Christian nation in the world, with more Christians than the entire U.S. population.”
The one thing worrying about this is the qualification about criticizing the Communist Party. When Christianity is not subversive, it's not Christianity. Let's hope and pray for the Church in China to be more like the Eastern European churches in the late 80s and less like the Russian Orthodox under Stalin and his successors.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

God at work in Zimbabwe? continued...

In Tips For the Times, we've been following the courageous Roman Catholic archbishop of Zimbabwe who has been personally courageous and forthright in his opposition to the horrors being perpetrated by President Robert G. Mugabe. We have also noted that the Anglican community in Zimbabwe has been notably silent. Now today, along with other news about the Archbishop of Canterbury's invitations to Lambeth 2008, comes a bulletin that Nolbert Kunonga, the archbishop of Harare, Zimbabwe, risks being disinvited to Lambeth. Kunonga is an ally of President Mugabe. Hang in there, Archbishop Rowan... in the long run this is more important than the pros and cons of invitations to homosexual bishops.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Finally! A politician addresses the issue of torture

Michiko Kakutani's New York Times summary review of Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason, is notable on many levels, but the part that strikes most forcibly is the reference to the "culture of impunity" that produced Abu Ghraib and countless other shameful episodes. It is disgraceful that no other political candidate, either in 2004 or 2006, has been courageous enough to address this. Thank God Mr. Gore finally has.

Here are some excerpts from Ms. Kakutani's review:

The administration’s pursuit of unilateralism abroad, Mr. Gore says, has isolated the United States in an ever more dangerous world, even as its efforts to expand executive power at home and “relegate the Congress and the courts to the sidelines” have undermined the constitutional system of checks and balances.

The former vice president contends that the fiasco in Iraq stems from President Bush’s use of “a counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent and intimidate those who questioned his logic both inside and outside the administration.”

He argues that the gruesome acts of torture committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq “were a direct consequence of the culture of impunity — encouraged, authorized and instituted” by President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. And he writes that the violations of civil liberties committed by the Bush-Cheney administration — including its secret authorization of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a court order on calls and e-mail messages between the United States and other countries, and its suspension of the rights of due process for “enemy combatants” — demonstrate “a disrespect for America’s Constitution that has now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of democracy.”

Similar charges have been made by a growing number of historians, political analysts and even former administration insiders, and President Bush’s plummeting approval ratings have further emboldened his critics. But Mr. Gore writes not just as a former vice president and the man who won the popular vote in the 2000 election, but also as a possible future candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 race for the White House, and the vehemence of his language and his arguments make statements about the Bush administration by already announced candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton seem polite and mild-mannered in contrast.

And yet for all its sharply voiced opinions, “The Assault on Reason” turns out to be less a partisan, election-cycle harangue than a fiercely argued brief about the current Bush White House that is grounded in copiously footnoted citations from newspaper articles, Congressional testimony and commission reports — a brief that is as powerful in making its points about the implications of this administration’s policies as the author’s 2006 book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was in making its points about the fallout of global warming.

This volume moves beyond its criticisms of the Bush administration to diagnose the ailing condition of America as a participatory democracy — low voter turnout, rampant voter cynicism, an often ill-informed electorate, political campaigns dominated by 30-second television ads, and an increasingly conglomerate-controlled media landscape — and it does so not with the calculated, sound-bite-conscious tone of many political-platform-type books, but with the sort of wonky ardor that made both the book and movie versions of “An Inconvenient Truth” so bluntly effective.

Mr. Gore’s central argument is that “reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions” and that the country’s public discourse has become “less focused and clear, less reasoned.” This “assault on reason,” he suggests, is personified by the way the Bush White House operates. Echoing many reporters and former administration insiders, Mr. Gore says that the administration tends to ignore expert advice (be it on troop levels, global warming or the deficit), to circumvent the usual policy-making machinery of analysis and debate, and frequently to suppress or disdain the best evidence available on a given subject so it can promote predetermined, ideologically driven policies.

Doubts about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction were sidestepped in the walk-up to the war: Mr. Gore says that uranium experts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee told him “there was zero possibility” that aluminum tubes acquired by Saddam Hussein were for the purpose of nuclear enrichment, but felt intimidated from “making any public statement that disagreed with the assertions being made to the people by President Bush.”

And the Army chief of staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s pre-invasion recommendation that several hundred thousand troops would be needed for a successful occupation of Iraq was similarly dismissed. “Rather than engaging in a reasoned debate on the question,” Mr. Gore writes, administration members “undercut Shinseki for disagreeing with their preconceived notion — even though he was an expert, and they were not.”

Moreover, Mr. Gore contends, the administration’s penchant for secrecy (keeping everything from the details of its coercive interrogation policy to its National Security Agency surveillance program under wraps) has dismantled the principle of accountability, even as what he calls its “unprecedented and sustained campaign of mass deception” on matters like Iraq has made “true deliberation and meaningful debate by the people virtually impossible.”

Mr. Gore points out that the White House repeatedly implied that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Iraq, when in fact no such linkage existed. He observes that the administration “withheld facts” from Congress concerning the cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which turned out to be “far higher than the numbers given to Congress by the president.”

And he contends that “it has become common for President Bush to rely on special interests” — like those represented by the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi before the war, and ExxonMobil on the climate crisis — for “basic information about the policies important to these interests.”

Friday, May 11, 2007

Gen. Petraeus, saying what the church ought to be saying

Down here in Virginia, reading the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, I've learned that Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, is disturbed by the Pentagon report (discussed in the previous Tip) that fewer than half of Marines and only a little more than half of Army soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or harming an civilian in Iraq. Moreover, more than 40 percent support the idea of in some cases, and 10 per cent report personally abusing civilians. Worst of all, only 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of Marines surveyed said that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Is this not deeply shocking? (and what's with the Marines?)

General Petraeus has sent a letter to US service members stating that adherence to the highest moral values is essential for US forces. He said that he understood the desire for revenge under stressful circumstances, but "hard as it might be, we must not let these emotions lead us-- or our comrades in arms-- to commit hasty, illegal actions," he writes.

Many of our soldiers are church-going, religious young people. If the churches matched their enthusiasm for "supporting the troops" with teaching about "respecting the dignity of every human person" as the baptismal service says, our troops would be better equipped for moral decisions in the cauldron of Iraq.

Gen. Petraeus has an earned Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton. Maybe Princeton is doing a better job of teaching ethics than the church.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pentagon reports that our troops may be a danger to themselves and others

The Pentagon has just released a detailed report on the mental health of our soldiers in Iraq. The report was completed in November, but was not released until now; Pentagon officials have not explained why the public release was delayed, a move that kept the data out of the public debate as the Bush administration developed its plan to build up troops in Iraq and extend combat tours.

News reports about the findings are deeply disturbing, although no one who believes in the Biblical account of human nature should be surprised. From the New York Times article yesterday, this summary:
The survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines was conducted in August and September of 2006. The military’s report, which drew on that survey as well as interviews with commanders and focus groups, found that longer deployments increased the risk of psychological problems; that the levels of mental problems was highest — some 30 percent — among troops involved in close combat; that more than a third of troops endorsed in certain situations; and that most would not turn in fellow service members for mistreating a civilian.

“These are thoughts people are going to have when under this kind of stress, and soldiers will tell you that: you don’t know what’s it’s like until you’ve been there,” said Dr. Andy Morgan, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University who has worked extensively with regular and Special Operations troops. “The question is whether you act on them.”

The Pentagon’s analysis also identified sources of anger besides lengthy and repeated deployments that could lead to ethics violations...Most of all, there were uncertainties about deployment: 40 percent of soldiers rated uncertain redeployment dates as a top concern.

When the administration decided in January to send more troops to Baghdad to try to reverse the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq, it sought to ease the strain on the armed forces by announcing its intention to expand the active duty Army and Marine forces by 92,000 troops. But it takes years to recruit, train and equipment an expanded ground force, and the decision to increase the size of the military was made too late to relieve the stress on the forces now in Iraq....

The report noted a direct relationship between involvement in intense combat and soldiers who exhibited signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress. Almost 30 percent of soldiers who were engaged in “high combat” were discovered to be suffering from “acute stress,” according to the report.

Particularly shocking is this finding:

The report said psychological ailments and built-up anger resulting from combat stress increased the likelihood that the troops would lash out at civilians. The survey noted that only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Troops who had high levels of anger were twice as likely to violate ethical standards, the report found. The survey found that 40 percent of troops who scored high on measures of personal anger reported insulting or cursing at a civilian, and 7 percent reported having hit or kicked a civilian. Among those low on measures of anger, only 1 percent said they had hit a civilian, and 16 percent reported insulting noncombatants.

The Iraq war, experts say, is a new kind of war — a 360-degree battle space, with no front or rear, no safe zone outside the large fortified bases, and the compounded physical uncertainty of roadside bombs and mortar attacks. The lack of any control over these factors, and the generally limited sense of progress, only intensifies the stress for troops.

“You can endure a lot of physical and mental exhaustion as long as you feel you’re having an impact, you’re accomplishing something and that you have some control over your situation,” Dr. Morgan said. “If you don’t feel you have any of that, you quickly get to a point where the only thing that’s important is keeping yourself and your buddies alive. Nothing else much matters.”

--by Benedict Carey, The New York Times, Sunday, May 6
The ubiquitous prayers for our troops are not enough. We need to take seriously our roles in teaching young Christian men and women. Patriotism in itself is not sufficient. We need soldiers who have been trained from childhood in their churches to care for all people created by God, so that they will have built-in restraints that will help them when they are in these positions of extreme stress. And surely the military chaplains can help with this under battlefield conditions.

Liberation theology is still with us

For those who, like me, have always had a spot in our hearts for Latin American liberation theology, here is a link to an article assessing its current strengths (significant) and the possibility of a more sympathetic Vatican attitude: