Thursday, August 30, 2007

Speaking of Harry Potter and the Gift of Death

We are slowly getting there. This, however, is not part of the circling for a landing, but more surveying the landscape, noting landmarks that should not be ignored. In line with that, this question just came up over at Eschaton, directed to yours truly:

From your spiritual perspective, where does Cheney end up when he dies?
I mean that, sincerely. Is there some special place of evil wherein Cheney's soul will reside? Cheney, Hitler, Atilla the Hun...folks like that.Vicki, Who ♥ Al Gore

And I responded along these lines:

No idea. Seriously.

I lean, at the moment, toward J.K. Rowling's description of Voldemort's soul. The use of the forbidden killing curse tears the user's soul, and the only repair possible is remorse. But that's an extremely painful process, so Voldemort especially (Harry offers him the chance, at the end) can't do it.
It seems a small, silly thing. But I like to consider an after-life not where Cheney is punished (what does that do for his victims?) but comes to realize his errors, and feels remorse for them.

It would be a start. And hell enough for anyone, IMHO.
That deserves a bit of elaboration. Rowling posits "unforgiveable curses" in the world of Harry Potter, but only one is unstoppable: the "Avadra Kedavra," not coincidentally the curse used on Harry that sets him on the path to being "the boy who lived." The "Unforgiveable Curses," like all the magic in Rowling's world, are an effort of will, but, as Bellatrix tells Harry, to use those curses "you have to mean it!" The killing curse, however, extracts a greater price: the price of murder (other curses kill, to, but in self-defense, not as an act of homicide) is that it tears one's soul. Voldemort, of course, has done this so often he has almost no soul left to tear. Indeed, he uses this aspect of his favorite curse to create his near-immortality (which also creates the plot of the last two books of the series).

A torn soul is a not inconsiderable consequence of using a curse, and as with all spells in Rowling's world, there is a counter, a remedy, if you will: remorse. If the one who cast the spell can feel remorse for the death, can really regret what happened and wish to undo it, the soul can be healed. This, of course, would be equivalent to repentance in Christianity. So while it isn't offered in a Christian context, the idea is clearly derived, at least, from Christian teachings.

There are more explicit Christian references in the books, which we'll come to later. This idea of remorse is not exclusively Christian, but given the context of the books, it clearly comes from such teachings.

Voldemort, of course, is incapable of the remorse necessary to heal his soul. As Hermione says in explaining the "cure" for using the killing curse, the pain of remorse is great, and so seldom used to heal a torn soul. The pain of remorse for many, many deaths, would be impossible to bear, she implies. Now, it is no coincidence that Harry offers Voldemort one last chance in his final duel with the wizard. It is also no surprise that Voldemort never even considers the opportunity. But Harry has seen what Voldemort will be, and Harry knows that no one is to blame for his "after-life" except Voldemort himself, and Harry also understands that even Voldemort deserves a last chance at redemption.

There's also the matter of Harry's spell in the duel, and of how Voldemort dies; but the issue of choices is another we need to look at, a bit later. As ProfWombat said in comments below: "My brain is on fire..." Mine, too.

Rowling offers, finally, not a vision of hell as a place of eternal punishment for misdeeds, not even a metaphor of poetic justice a la Dante. What she offers is the life you have made for yourself by the life you have lived here, which is perhaps a more ancient, and ultimately more just, vision. I look in vain for examples of the teachings of Jesus, or even Paul, which describe an afterlife of judgment and eternal punishment. The closest you get is the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, and there the punishment seems to be exclusion from the presence of God, and again, based wholly on how one lived, not what one believed. Christianity is rife with doctrines of hell as a place of eternal punishment for one's actions, and that is considered justice. I think, rather, justice involves the consideration of what we have done, and what it did to others. Placed in a condition where that was all we could regard, where our remorse was all the company we had and our knowledge that our remorse came too late and was now far too little; well, considering that our victims would now be far beyond the concerns of this earthly life, and probably unwilling to be tied to their persecutors even by punishment of the latter (the doctrine of forgiveness releases both parties, not just one), why would that not be hell enough?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hieronymo's mad againe

These could be simply fragments I have shored against my ruin; but my thoughts refuse to run in one simple course and illuminate a meaning for me.

Scott Simon this morning opining on Mother Teresa presented to me again all that is wrong with the public discourse on religion. Mother Teresa "doubted the existence of God"? I seriously doubt that, and not because I don't believe Mother Teresa despaired and asked, more than once, "Where is God?" Answering that God is the child dying in your arms is cold comfort indeed, if scripturally and theologically accurate. Of course he has to be topical and drop in Christopher Hitchens' name (without, thankfully, giving his new book any more publicity, nor shall I), but the reference to Hitchens is useful, since it, too, goes so wide of the mark as to actually mark on of the edges of the proper discussion of the topic.

Hitchens, Simon says (sorry!), on the news of Mother Teresa's doubts, compares such sentiments to Communist leaders who couldn't see that Communism, as a political/economic system, was not the salvation of the world; could not see, even as it was collapsing, that the efforts of Communism had failed. Well, set aside the many threads of the collapse of government in the former USSR and Eastern Europe (does New Orleans mean capitalism and democracy failed? Or triumphed? Or that we're strong enough to ignore entire cities of "minorities"?) that attempt at analysis blurs into pointlessness, and just take Hitchens, arguendo, at face value. Is he right, in any meaningful sense?

First, we need to set out some terms. "Doubt," to begin with, is not the opposite of "faith." Simon mentions that "even Jesus" said "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Simon doesn't mention, of course, that those words were not original with Jesus, but are the first line of Psalm 22. Doubt, it would seem, incorporated into the very heart of the Hebrew Scriptures (is it accidental that, at least in the Christian version of those scriptures, the Psalms lie almost at the center? ). The Psalms, let us recall, were the prayer book of the early church, and still play a central role in every Christian daily office I know of. And it must always be remembered that the psalm just before the beloved, much read, and almost overused Psalm 23 is....Psalm 22.

I taught my lay caregivers as they went out to serve Christ by serving other church members that you don't get to Psalm 23 without first going through Psalm 22.

This business about the "doubts" (I put the word in quotes only because it is a term that needs to be defined, not to disparage her suffering or her experience) and Mother Teresa is not exactly a new one; it is newsworthy now because we get to read her own words. But doubt is the enemy of faith only if your definition of faith is "believing what isn't true." In that case, of course, doubt is the beginning of the end of faith. But for faith to be that simplistic, billions of people throughout time have to be considered as hopeless dullards and fools, a position about as tenable as claiming the world is out of sync and only you have true understanding and insight. If you cannot pardon the world for not agreeing with you, then there is little more that can be said to you about anything.

For the rest of us, belief may still be a difficult matter to define, but human experience alone dictates it represents something other than "believing what isn't true." It may be believing what isn't true to claim that Communism will still be proven superior to capitalism, and that it will still produce the greatest paradise on earth that human effort can achieve. There is, indeed, little evidence at all to indicate that outcome is either inevitable, or even possible. But faith as Mother Teresa had was surely tested on another field altogether.

Mother Teresa, the story goes, had visions of Christ, powerful mystical visitations of the type many Christian mystics have described: the true "presence of God" which draws one out of the world into another place. Her last such vision directed her to go to Calcutta to serve the poor. She never had another such vision in the 50 years she served there. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," indeed. And what, precisely, about that service would be soul-nourishing, soul-satisfying, soul-fulfilling? Do we, then, blame God, or human foolishness? And say nothing of the society that permits such conditions to exist, that ignores them, the thrives on them?

I'm still working my way through Harry Potter 7, albeit for the second time (and there are spoilers from here on, for those who wish to be warned). The amount of Christian imagery, references, and theology, in it is really quite surprising. Dumbledore, for example, is clearly presented as a saint (more on that another time), but the interesting bit here is how Dumbledore, as a young man, succumbed to the lure of "Magic is Might" which finally overtakes the Ministry of Magic ("MOM"! The libertarians should love that.) when Voldemort rises to power. As a young Hogwarts graduate, we learn Albus Dumbledore was himself tempted by "Dark Magic" to declare magic should be employed "for the greater good" (the phrase Rowling uses). Which, as Harry later argues, is what you sometimes have to do: think about the greater good. The crucial distinction between young Dumbledore and young Harry Potter is exemplified, not discussed, in the novel: young Dumbledore was willing to sacrifice others to achieve the goal of "the greater good." Indeed, it is a pursuit he follows until an argument between himself, his brother Aberforth, and his then-friend Grundlewald, ends in the accidental death of his sister, Ariana. It is a perfect example of the result of pursuing power: arguing over who should have power, and how it should be wielded, one of the three wizards fires the curse which kills the innocent bystander, the one who had no voice, who was not consulted, who was not considered, because pursuit of their "greater good" was for her, not for them. They, of course, forgot to ask her about their goals; they simply assumed it would be to her benefit, and they would shoulder the burden of achiveing it. All for her, of course.

Harry's course is a bit different. His friends continually shoulder burdens for him that he regrets them undertaking. He doesn't even see that his stand against the powers of Dark Magic, of any kind of oppression, give hope to others, however small that hope may be. Neville tells him this, late in Book 7, but Harry hardly seems to notice. What Harry notices is how hard it is to be brave, to do what is right, to stand up against power that would supress, and how it sounds so much better in the telling than in the actual experience of defiance. In the end, when so many have willingly sacrificed in the fight, Harry finally understands, and offers himself as a willing sacrifice: not in a duel, not in battle, but in complete vulnerability. He comes to "a condition of complete simplicity/costing not less than everything." It is only then, that he begins to understand.

Did Mother Teresa ever understand? I hardly know. That she persevered is enough to qualify her for plaudits, perhaps even for sainthood. When Ron faces his own struggle against evil and finally overcomes it: "That makes me sound a lot cooler than I was." Harry replies: "Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was." We like to focus on the lives of saints and heros because they inspire us to do great things; or at least to do a good thing once in a while. If we denigrate our heros has people with feet of clay, proclaim our saints mere plaster, do we harm them, or ourselves? Did Mother Teresa despair? Working among the poor of Calcutta, wouldn't you? Who, after all, wants the Sisyphean task, the hopeless effort that cannot be stopped but cannot be accomplished? But hers was not the task of Sisyphus; she was not being punished by the gods for her presumption, nor for her misplaced trust in an outmoded metaphysics; if Teresa was punished at all, it was by the world, for her compassion. It was not, after all, God who created the poor in Calcutta: it was the democracy and capitalism Christopher Hitchens still holds up as righteously triumphant over communism. Which is not to say Communism would have done any better for the lot of the poor, but both systems suffer from the error the young Albus Dumbledore made: the idea that some person, or persons, have the burden to establish the greater good for everyone else, because they have the power (Dumbledore and Grundelwald, in the world of Harry Potter, were two of the most powerful wizards in the world; Voldemort is the third. The lesson on what power creates, is clear.) or the vision ("for the greater good," as even Harry immediately understands, is very little different from "Magic is Might," a motto which places wizards and witches well above non-magical folk), is the root of the problem. It always asks others to sacrifice so that you will be comfortable.

Mother Teresa made those sacrifices, willingly, selflessly, and at great cost to her spiritual comfort, perhaps even her faith (which must be understood as trust, not simply equated with "belief"). Hitchens makes no such sacrifice at all; nor can we demand that he do so. But we can weigh his deeds against hers, his words and hers, and decide which way the scales tilt. We can think about the matter of lighting a candle, versus cursing the darkness. Or, as Hitchens does, argue merely about which darkness is preferable.

Did Mother Teresa doubt the existence of God? Perhaps. Of what surprise is that? The question of existence is a poorly understood one, and doubts about it are usually equated to absolute presence, rather than the far more difficult concept of being. It is probably more accurate to say Teresa despaired of the presence of God, not of the reality of God, but even that is a presumptive statement on my part. Is faith a matter of absolutes, of final and unassailable knowledge, or of attitude, mental condition, perception, thought? Does it matter, finally, what we think, or what we do? A funny distinction, almost; one also brought up on NPR this morning. Odd that Anglo-Saxon philosophy would stand up to defend against a Continental presumption that faith is only a matter of mind. That, however, is another topic.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Prologomena to "Harry Potter and the Gift of Death"

Maybe prologue to a prologue is more appropriate. Large and complex ideas crowd my head, but the ability to condense them into a blog post doesn't. Consider this the beginning of a trickle, perhaps; or down payment on a promissory note of more to come. Or something like that.

I'm sure I've said this before, but it's actually kind of a prelude to a bubbling post on Harry Potter (so far, "Harry Potter and the Gift of Death." Coming soon to a D-level blog near you!) I'm still thinking about. Several issues tied together, actually; all having to do with faith, belief, confession, and evangelicalism.

Evangelism and evangelicalism are as good a place to start as any. "Evangel" is a but of a transliteration from the koine Greek of the New Testament, where it is actually "euuangelion," with the "g" hard rather than soft. We get our word "angel" from that word, too; "angel" simply meaning "messenger" (how messengers became warriors like Gabriel and Michael is another subject altogether). The "ev-angel" the, (or "euu-angel," if you want to be originalist about it), is the messenger of the good news. Now here's the rub, and it's an old one: good news to whom?

Christianity has its roots in Judaism, but Judaism is a resolutely non-evangelical religion. All that talk in Isaiah about people flocking to the holy mountain of God is not a description of a mass conversion event where everyone accepts the existence of the "one true God" and realizes they'd best worship that one or burn in hell. That's a gross distortion of certain schools of Christian thought, but it's hardly the meaning Isaiah had in that glorious vision, nor is it the only possible understanding of that vision. The vision of people flowing to God's holy mountain is a promise of the establishment of Israel as God's chosen people, and of the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abram. The people of all nations will come to the mountain because they will see the glory of God, the reign of God, the peace of God which passes all understanding; will, in short, to use the Gospels term, recognize the "kingdom of God," and want to be part of it. No coercion involved, no evangelical outreach based on arguments of doctrine or even appeals to Greek rationalism (yet another topic, one tied up with the question of faith and God's existence); just simple human awareness of the blessings possible when you can buy food without price, and drink without money.

The evangelical bent of Christianity, one established in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (at the very least and in the most obvious ways) could be the announcement of the fulfillment of this vision ("But you, go and proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand!"); or it could be the attempt to make the vision come true by various means of coercion. Too often in history since the first disciples, the latter has been the case. Such, as Lewis Carroll observed on an entirely different point, is human perversity.

This difficulty, this difference, feeds into the "evangelical" fervor being experienced today. But more importantly, it feeds into the distortions of Scripture made by both well-meaning Christians, and by ill-meaning critics of religion. Both groups try to use scripture for their own purposes, and both groups end up mis-using scripture entirely. Which, to say the least, is a little annoying.

Friday, August 17, 2007

You may be a a terrorist if....

"For many defense lawyers, this was a cautionary tale for citizens," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "In the view of many in the legal community, they were successful in gaming the system."
My memory of criminal law and the rules of evidence is just strong enough to remind me that I don't remember enough about either to comment as competently as Jonathan Turley on the Padilla case, but from what little I know, to call this a "cautionary tale" is to understate its importance. There are, for example, several lay versions of the crime Padilla was accused (and convicted) of, none of which quite explain precisely what the charges were, nor what the charge to the jury was. I remember enough about trial procedure to confidently state that what really matters are the questions the judge asks the jury to answer; but those are usually technical in nature, and so specific to the facts of the case they seldom more than mentioned in a newspaper account; so questioning what happened in this case, it a bit of a mug's game. Still, a few probitive questions can be asked.

First, jurors were not told Padilla had been in solitary confinement for 43 months. I first regarded this as irrelevant to the charges the government finally brought, because they alleged a criminal act long before he was incarcerated, and nothing about his incarceration would go directly to his state of mind at the time the crime allegedly occurred. However, I have reconsidered that point. If the defense was unable to say Padilla was in a Navy brig for 43 months, they were unable to present any of the evidence of Dr. Hegar about Padilla's mental state now, a mental state clearly probitive of the question of his guilt. After all, at the end of 43 months of solitary confinement, Mr. Padilla:

He was terrified. For him, the government was all-powerful. The government knew everything. The government knew everything that he was doing. His interrogators would find out every little detail that he revealed. And he would be punished for it.
More to the point:

He was convinced that -- I mean, I think in words he endorsed -- even if he won his case, he lost, because he was going back to the brig if he managed to prevail at trial. And essentially, if hypothetically one were to offer him a really long prison sentence versus -- with a guarantee that he wouldn't go back to the brig -- versus risking going back to the brig, the chance that he might go back to the brig, he would take the prison sentence for a very long period of time. I think he would take almost anything rather than go back to that brig.

So, after 43 months, with a prisoner so broken it is likely he didn't want to participate in any defense, for fear he would simply be returned to the brig, the most the government can do is indict him on the basis of "coded" phone calls and a document that was, at best, questionable. (But, true to the nature of the court system, the jury has spoken on that issue. One wonders, still, what the jury would have said had they known Mr. Padilla's present mental state, and the government's inability to link him to any conspiracy except on such evidence. On that issue, we'll never have an answer.)

Remember that Mr. Padillas was arrested in May, 2002 as a "material witness", then later declared an "enemy combatant." (where he was held without any criminal charges until 2005. It was late 2005 before he finally left the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, , finally charged as a criminal, just as the Supreme Court was about to hear his case again.) Small wonder he would assume a trial would not mean his release from government capture. This, it seems to me, is no small consideration for a jury, trying to assess if, out of 300,000, 7 conversations with Jose Padilla, and 14 more where he was mentioned, were both "in code" and indicative of a crime that, as his lawyer described it today: "was actually an agreement to agree to do something in the future." If he entered into such an agreement, why didn't he confess it after 43 months and such fear of being confined again?

And what was that agreement? That:

...the three defendants -- Padilla, Hassoun and Jayyousi -- conspired to provide material support for terrorists seeking to create radical Islamic states abroad during the 1990s. The three men are also charged with conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim people abroad in jihad theaters such as Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo.
That burden, interestingly enough, they met.

The point about the phone calls is worth considering in full for a moment. As his lawyer described this evidence to Amy Goodman today:

[T]here were 300,000 intercepts over a period of approximately ten years. Of those, approximately 14,000 were considered to be, quote, “pertinent.” The government introduced about just under 130 conversations or parts of 130 conversations. Now, of that 300,000, Jose's voice is heard on seven. And there are an additional dozen or so conversations in which other people are talking about him. So in a massive electronic surveillance involving home phones being intercepted, cell phones being intercepted, fax machines being intercepted, bugs in people's homes, we have a grand total of twenty-one calls that have anything to do with Jose, out of a grand total of 300,000 interceptions. Your audience can do the math. The result is, you know, just barely a pin drop in this tidal wave of sound that was recorded.
And as for the code? According to the International Herald Tribune:

Most of the conversations were in Arabic and purportedly used code such as "tourism" and "football" for violent jihad or "zucchini" and "eggplant" instead of military weapons or ammunition.
According to the Washington Post:

The code, an FBI agent testified, included terms for jihad such as "tourism," "football" and "breathing fresh air." One man on the calls, who refers to Padilla as his "partner," appears to visit sites where Muslims are fighting and being attacked.
In light of the wiretapping program that is or isn't happening (it's a secret!), it's perfectly reasonable to conclude that anything you say to anyone can and will be used against you in a court of law, especially if you are discussing dinner or your favorite sport. Even more chilling is the fact that all three defendants claimed they were raising money for charitable relief. One thing more this case means is that, if you are raising money for the wrong religious purpose, you are a terrorist.

There are many, many scary things about this story.

So, was Mr. Padilla's confinement relevant to the case? Mr. Turley makes the point I would raise, simply looking at if from the outside, and draws the conclusion I would draw:

Turley said Padilla's attorneys will likely appeal his conviction, perhaps with claims of his impaired mental state resulting from his military detention as the centerpiece of that appeal. Regardless, he added, the lesson of the case is "the chilling thought that you can abuse a citizen for three years with no recourse available to that citizen."
As for Mr. Padilla's future, we are back to his lawyer:

ANDREW PATEL: You spoke with Angela yesterday, Dr. Hegarty. Let me just say that nothing in the interim has happened to make him better. It's our belief that he was not -- that this trial should not have gone forward. That matter will be addressed before the court of appeals.

AMY GOODMAN: And will the issue of torture be raised, being abused over the years and the extreme isolation?

ANDREW PATEL: His competence and the way he was treated in the brig are completely interwoven.

AMY GOODMAN: The sentence he faces?

ANDREW PATEL: Maximum sentence on count one is life.
However, as Mr. Patel also pointed out:

He will -- and this is just my -- shall we call it an educated guess or expectation -- will be sent to a federal maximum security facility. The irony of that is that he will have more social contact with other human beings in the federal maximum security facility than he did in the brig.
Life these days seems to be full of such unpleasant ironies.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Legal Day here at Adventus

At least I'm not the only person feeling this way:

If you're the U.S. federal government, how can you prove to someone that something should be kept secret if you can't tell them what the secret is because it's a secret? If you're a federal judge, how can you decide whether someone gets to keep a secret if the secret-keeper won't say what the secret is?

The debate over liberty versus security in this post-9/11 age took a trip down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass in a federal courtroom in San Francisco Wednesday, over the alleged U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) program of monitoring the phone and e-mail communications of Americans to try to stop terrorists before they strike.

More than one participant likened the testimony to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," the classic children's book by Lewis Carroll. Compare and contrast this excerpt from the book with what went on in court. This snippet occurs when Alice, attending the Mad Hatter's tea party, suddenly notices the March Hare's curious timepiece.

"'What a funny watch!' Alice remarked. 'It tells the day of the month, and doesn't tell what o'clock it is!'

"'Why should it?' muttered the Hatter. 'Does your watch tell you what year it is?' Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

Testimony at the hearing Wednesday was in English but often left the judges "dreadfully puzzled."
The headline for the article: "NSA suit plays out like Alice's Wonderland". Here's what happened:

The DOJ sought the dismissal because, at trial, it could be revealed that the NSA worked with AT&T to wiretap Americans without a warrant, which is a state secret, if indeed such a program existed at all. The government can't say, because that's a state secret.

Airing evidence in the case "would reveal the sources, methods and operational details" of government intelligence activities, argued Gregory Garre, deputy solicitor general in the DOJ.

Appellate Judge Margaret McKeown responded by paraphrasing public comments by U.S. President George W. Bush, whom she reported as saying, "There is no surveillance of domestic phone calls without a warrant."

The Bush comment came up again when AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg, also argued for dismissal on the Wonderland-like grounds that allowing the case to go forward, yet not violate state secrets, would prohibit AT&T from presenting a defense.

"Any sort of program is a state secret," Kellogg said

"Even if the program doesn't exist?" McKeown replied, referencing the president's claim.

"Whether or not it exists is a state secret," Kellogg answered.

"But if President Bush said it's not happening, how could that be a secret?" the judge asked.
If you're wondering where you've heard this before, Kafka might come to mind, or perhaps Lewis Carroll:

`What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.

`Nothing,' said Alice.

`Nothing whatever?' persisted the King.

`Nothing whatever,' said Alice.

`That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: `Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,' he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

`Unimportant, of course, I meant,' the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, `important--unimportant-- unimportant--important--' as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down `important,' and some `unimportant.' Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; `but it doesn't matter a bit,' she thought to herself.

At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out `Silence!' and read out from his book, `Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.'

Everybody looked at Alice.

`I'm not a mile high,' said Alice.

`You are,' said the King.

`Nearly two miles high,' added the Queen.

`Well, I shan't go, at any rate,' said Alice: `besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now.'

`It's the oldest rule in the book,' said the King.

`Then it ought to be Number One,' said Alice.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. `Consider your verdict,' he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.

`There's more evidence to come yet, please your Majesty,' said the White Rabbit, jumping up in a great hurry; `this paper has just been picked up.'

`What's in it?' said the Queen.

`I haven't opened it yet, said the White Rabbit, `but it seems to be a letter, written by the prisoner to--to somebody.'

`It must have been that,' said the King, `unless it was written to nobody, which isn't usual, you know.'

`Who is it directed to?' said one of the jurymen.

`It isn't directed at all,' said the White Rabbit; `in fact, there's nothing written on the outside.' He unfolded the paper as he spoke, and added `It isn't a letter, after all: it's a set of verses.'

`Are they in the prisoner's handwriting?' asked another of they jurymen.

`No, they're not,' said the White Rabbit, `and that's the queerest thing about it.' (The jury all looked puzzled.)

`He must have imitated somebody else's hand,' said the King. (The jury all brightened up again.)

`Please your Majesty,' said the Knave, `I didn't write it, and they can't prove I did: there's no name signed at the end.'

`If you didn't sign it,' said the King, `that only makes the matter worse. You MUST have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man.'

There was a general clapping of hands at this: it was the first really clever thing the King had said that day.

`That PROVES his guilt,' said the Queen.

`It proves nothing of the sort!' said Alice. `Why, you don't even know what they're about!'

`Read them,' said the King.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked.

`Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, `and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'

These were the verses the White Rabbit read:--

`They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don't let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.'

`That's the most important piece of evidence we've heard yet,' said the King, rubbing his hands; `so now let the jury--'

`If any one of them can explain it,' said Alice, (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn't a bit afraid of interrupting him,) `I'll give him sixpence. _I_ don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it.'

The jury all wrote down on their slates, `She doesn't believe there's an atom of meaning in it,' but none of them attempted to explain the paper.

`If there's no meaning in it,' said the King, `that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any. And yet I don't know,' he went on, spreading out the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; `I seem to see some meaning in them, after all. "--said I could not swim--" you can't swim, can you?' he added, turning to the Knave.

The Knave shook his head sadly. `Do I look like it?' he said. (Which he certainly did not, being made entirely of cardboard.)

`All right, so far,' said the King, and he went on muttering over the verses to himself: `"We know it to be true--" that's the jury, of course-- "I gave her one, they gave him two--" why, that must be what he did with the tarts, you know--'

`But, it goes on "They all returned from him to you,"' said Alice.

`Why, there they are!' said the King triumphantly, pointing to the tarts on the table. `Nothing can be clearer than that. Then again--"before she had this fit--" you never had fits, my dear, I think?' he said to the Queen.

`Never!' said the Queen furiously, throwing an inkstand at the Lizard as she spoke. (The unfortunate little Bill had left off writing on his slate with one finger, as he found it made no mark; but he now hastily began again, using the ink, that was trickling down his face, as long as it lasted.)

`Then the words don't fit you,' said the King, looking round the court with a smile. There was a dead silence.

`It's a pun!' the King added in an offended tone, and everybody laughed, `Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

`No, no!' said the Queen. `Sentence first--verdict afterwards.'

`Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!'

`Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

`I won't!' said Alice.

`Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

Where we are now

One of the justifications for continuting the war in Vietnam was the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," where our soldiers were tortured by the "evil" Vietcong. When the war finally ended with the iconic helicopter fleeing Saigaon, more than a few movies were made with the "tiger cages" as a central image prompting the need, and the satisfaction, of American vengeance. We've always said we were better than that, and that only "they" do such things.

We can't say that anymore:

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: Yes. In the darkness or in the light -- in the cells, the light would be all dark for a long time or all light for a long time. And for a very long part of his detention he had no mattress at all. And sometimes he would try to sleep on the pallet, if you will, the hard steel pallet, or other times he would be in essentially stress positions where he's got shackles and a belt and is in an awkward and uncomfortable position for long periods at a time.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you conclude he had been tortured?

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: Well, “torture,” of course, is a legal term. However, as a clinician, I have worked with torture victims and, of course, abuse victims for a few decades now, actually. I think, from a clinical point of view, he was tortured.
Dr. Hegarty is a psychiatrist who examined Jose Padilla for his criminal trial.

If you want to put this in a context that's recognizable, there is no Harry Potter in this story, but there is clearly a He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named:

AMY GOODMAN: How afraid was Jose Padilla?

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: How to capture that in an apt metaphor? He was terrified. For him, the government was all-powerful. The government knew everything. The government knew everything that he was doing. His interrogators would find out every little detail that he revealed. And he would be punished for it.
That's the power of Voldemort, in the Harry Potter stories: that he will know what you have done, and failed to do, and you will be punished for it. Voldemort is an abuser; that's no surprise. Simply by the first chapter of HP7, you can classify Voldemort as the worst boss you could ever fear to work for. Like Voldemort, abusers maintain their power through fear, and secrecy:

He was convinced that -- I mean, I think in words he endorsed -- even if he won his case, he lost, because he was going back to the brig if he managed to prevail at trial. And essentially, if hypothetically one were to offer him a really long prison sentence versus -- with a guarantee that he wouldn't go back to the brig -- versus risking going back to the brig, the chance that he might go back to the brig, he would take the prison sentence for a very long period of time. I think he would take almost anything rather than go back to that brig.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in the brig?

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being's mind. That’s what happened at the brig. His personality was deconstructed and reformed. And essentially, like many abuse victims, whether it’s torture survivors or battered women or even children who are abused by parents, as long as the parents or the abuser is in control in their minds, essentially they identify with the primary aims of the abuser. And all abusers, whoever they are, have one absolute requirement, and that is that you keep their secret. I mean, it’s common knowledge that people who abuse children or women will say, “Look at what you made me do,” putting the blame on the victim, trying to instill guilt. “People will judge you. People will think you’re crazy if you tell them about this. You will be an enemy. You will be seen as an enemy. You will be seen as a bad person if this comes out. There will be dire and terrible consequences, not only for you.” Jose was very, very concerned that if torture allegations were made on his behalf, that somehow it would it interfere with the government's ability to detain people at Guantanamo, and this was something he couldn't sign onto. He was very identified with the goals of the government.
You may say this is an "apt metaphor," but not an intended result of the government's "treatment" of Jose Padilla. You would be wrong:

Pursuant to 28 V.S.C. § 1746, I, Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, hereby declare that, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, and under penalty of perjury, the following is true and conect:

I submit this Declaration for the Court's consideration in the matter of Jose Padilla v. George W. Bush et al., Case No. 02 Civ. 4445, pending in the United StatesDistrict Court for the Southern District of New York.

I assess Padilla's potential intelligence value as very high. I also finnly believe that providing Padilla access to counsel ris~ loss of a critical intelligence resource, resulting in a grave and direct threat to national security.
Permitting Padilla any access to counsel may substantially harm our national security interests. As with most detainees, Padilla is unlikely to cooperate if he believes that an attorney will intercede in his detention: DlA' s assessmenits that Padilla is even more inclined to resist interrogation than most detainees. DIA is aware that Padilla has had extensive experience in the United States criminal justice system and had access to counsel when he was being held as a material witness. These experiences have likely heightened his expectations that counsel will assist him in the interrogation process. Only after such time as Padilla has perceived that help is not on the way can the United States reasonably expect to obtain all possible intelligence information from Padilla.

Because Padilla is likely more attuned to the possibility of counsel intervention than most detainees, I believe that any potential sign of counsel involvement would disrupt our ability to gather intelligence from Padilla. Padilla has been detained without access to counsel for seven months-since the DoD took control of him on 9 June 2002. Providing him access to counsel now would create expectations by Padilla that his ultimate release may be obtained through an adversarial civil litigation process. This would break-probably irreparably-the sense of dependency and trust that the interrogators are attempting to create.
As Dr. Hegarty says:

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: Well, there was a quote in the Jacoby declaration that caught my attention as a forensic psychiatrist. And that -- essentially it says that the purpose of keeping Mr. Padilla isolated was to foster a sense of dependence on his interrogators and to essentially foreclose in his mind utterly any hope of rescue. And it makes reference to the fact that, given that people who have had contact with the criminal justice system will expect to see an attorney and be rescued by an attorney, they want to essentially disabuse him of the notion that he will ever be rescued. They want him to believe that he is in their power forever. And I believe, in a sense, they succeeded.
Padilla was held in extreme isolation (Dr. Hegarty describes it in her interview) for 43 months.

According to defense motions on file in the case, Padilla's cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress.

He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla's lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years.

For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on.

Those who haven't experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, these experts say. And that makes it a potential instrument of torture, they add.
I started this post this morning. According to CNN, a verdict has already been reached in the case. He was not, however, finally tried for being a major intelligence source on Al Qaeda, but, according to CNN:

Prosecutors wanted jurors to convict Padilla largely on a five-page "mujahedeen data form" he supposedly filled out in 2000 to attend an al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Padilla is a U.S. citizen.
CNN notes the defense put on no evidence on Padilla's behalf. There may be more than one reason for that:

And in the course of the interview, he revealed to me that he essentially had been told that if he relayed any of what had happened to him, his experiences, people would quote/unquote “know he was crazy.” And he was very upset by this and very disturbed by it, and it’s just that his level of being so disturbed suggested to me that there was something more, but, you know, asking further questions, he wouldn't reveal it to me.

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: He was resentful of his lawyers. He had left the brig thinking he was about to be released. He told me that he had been given regular clothing and was actually surprised to find himself incarcerated. He was very angry at his lawyers that they hadn’t gotten him out and that, in fact, his conditions in the Miami detention center under the special conditions in which he was held were actually somewhat more restrictive and more isolating than they had been in the later stages of his detention at the brig. So he was angry with them. He also felt that everything had been established, you know, that the government knew everything and that essentially they would -- there was no need for him to be revealing things to his lawyers. And he was very uncomfortable.
He had developed really a tremendous identification with the goals and interests of the government. I really considered a diagnosis of Stockholm syndrome. For example, at one point in the proceedings, his attorneys had, you know, done well at cross-examining an FBI agent, and instead of feeling happy about it like all the other defendants I’ve seen over the years, he was actually very angry with them. He was very angry that the civil proceedings were “unfair to the commander-in-chief,” quote/unquote. And in fact, one of the things that happened that disturbed me particularly was when he saw his mother. He wanted her to contact President Bush to help him, help him out of his dilemma. He expected that the government might help him, if he was “good,” quote/unquote.
I must say, I love the bland way the New York Times is reporting this just now:

The charges brought in civilian court in Miami, however, were a pale shadow of those initial claims in part because Padilla, 36, was interrogated about the plot when he was held as an enemy combatant for 3 1/2 years in military custody with no lawyer present and was not read his Miranda rights.
You'd think it was all just a matter of some legal mumbo-jumbo. Damn those lawyers and their "technicalities!" But it's all good: he's guilty. And based on Hegarty's comments, I don't think Padilla is too upset by that verdict. The rest of us can rest assured the government is protecting us from people who fill out forms. And as for his incarceration for 43 months, it never happened:

Neither were jurors told that Padilla was held in a Navy brig for 3½ years without charges before his indictment in the Miami case.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Meanwhile, in Iraq

500 dead, and climbing:

The death toll in the suicide bombings Tuesday in northern Iraq has risen to at least 500, local officials in Nineveh province said Wednesday.

A girl wounded in the Tuesday attacks in northern Iraq arrives at a hospital in Dahuk, Iraq, on Wednesday.

1 of 2 Iraqi Army and Mosul police sources earlier put the number at 260, but said it was likely to rise. 320 were reported wounded.
But it's not about the Iraqi people; they are merely pawns on a chessboard. It is, instead, and of course, all about America:

The Tuesday truck bombs that targeted the villages of Qahtaniya, al-Jazeera and Tal Uzair, in northern Iraq near the border with Syria, were a "trademark al Qaeda event" designed to sway U.S. public opinion against the war, a U.S. general said Wednesday.

The attacks, targeting Kurdish villages of the Yazidi religious minority, were attempts to "break the will" of the American people and show that the U.S. troop escalation -- the "surge" -- is failing, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said.
You have to think about the cause and effect relationship there to truly understand this. The surge isn't failing because 500 people were killed in a single event. This was simply calculated to make ordinary Americans think the surge is failing. But we should not be fooled. The terrorists are only trying to win hearts and minds by killing foreigners we don't seem to really care about anyway; or something. Maybe it depends on who the terrorists were this time:

"We still have a great deal of work to do against al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have great deal of work to do against al Qaeda networks in northern Iraq," Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman, said Wednesday.

The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed Sunni extremists for the "monstrous crime." He said a committee has been formed to investigate.
Or what they were up to:

"This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will -- almost genocide when you consider the fact the target they attacked and the fact that these Yazidis, out in a very remote part of Nineveh province, where there is very little security and really no security required to this point," Mixon said.
Which means they cleverly found a place where the surge wasn't working, in order to fool Americans into thinking it was working, by an act of ethnic cleansing or genocide which Americans won't really understand (how many Americans can identify a Sunni from a Shi'ite on sight, or even explain the difference, or even know there is a difference?) but which is still aimed at breaking their will to go on to victory in Iraq, which will look like....? Well, they'll get back to us on that one.

Of course, it could have something to do with this:

The Yazidi sect is a mainly Kurdish minority, an ancient group that worships seven angels, in the form of peacocks, who are subordinate to the supreme god who created the universe.

A couple of related incidents in the spring highlighted the tensions between Sunnis and Yazidis.

In April, a Kurdish Yazidi teenage girl was brutally beaten, kicked and stoned to death in northern Iraq by other Yazidis in what authorities said was an "honor killing" after she was seen with a Sunni Muslim man. Although she had not married him or converted, her attackers believed she had.

The Yazidis condemn mixing with people of another faith.

That killing is said to have spurred the killings of about two dozen Yazidi men by Sunni Muslims in the Mosul area two weeks later.

Attackers affiliated with al Qaeda pulled 24 Yazidi men out of a bus and slaughtered them, according to a provincial official.
Certainly makes more sense than: "Let's kill lots of people the Americans have never heard of in some place besides Baghdad! That'll convince 'em to withdraw!"

All is vanity

The last time I addressed this question of Christianity and power,, I noted Walter Breuggeman's distinction between the politics of scarcity and the theology of abundance. I bring that up because my ears are burning, again, and in fact my last post on the subject was prompted by much the same discussion. The more things change, and all that, and in fact we're still stuck on the question of definition, which is the question of identity. What is "identity" if not the boundaries (the definition, the visual artist would say) of who you are? But we're back to this question, too: "Is God simply an idea?"

Definition is one of those baseline topics that you can't get away from, and you can't work without. It all becomes rather slippery in very short order. If your definition of who you are resembles "Just some yahoo pastor with a bad habit of writing letters to the editor that no one ever bothers to read," then you are free to ignore this and move along. We'll also set aside the argument over whether or not "blogs and other new technologies...allow people who previously have gone unheard to have a real voice in the democratic process for the first time in decades." Seems to me they do if your blog is Firedoglake, or Daily Kos, or maybe even Eschaton. But all this blog does is allow me to spout off to whoever passes by. I'd probably have a larger audience standing on the Drag in Austin. I'd certainly be no more influential on the democratic process. Nor do I presume to represent anybody other than myself. Which is yet another matter.

No, what I'm interested in is the question of the Christian life, and how to live it. And whenever I have to be concerned that some other Christian is not saying the things I want to say, well, then, I'm suddenly thinking like Pharoah, it seems to me. I'm thinking about power, of which there is never enough around, and about the scarcity of my power, and about how much more power I need, especially the power of that other guy who's talking, and how I need to take some of his power away, because there isn't enough for both of us, and besides, he's not using it right! And right then I should start to wonder: if I am a yahoo pastor, how much of me is interested in being a yahoo, and how much is interested in being a pastor?

"Yahoo" is an interesting word. I don't know if it originated with Jonathan Swift, but it was the word applied by the Houyhnhnms to the uncouth and irrational humans who lived among them. Gulliver, of course, thought himself better than the Yahoos because he had language and civilization behind him. The Houyhnhnms, after hearing his stories of European history, warfare, and weapons, decided he was even worse than the Yahoos, and banished him from their country.

At this point I begin to sound quite unfriendly, because this reads like a thinly veiled personal attack. It is nothing of the sort. I'm pondering the question: "Is God simply an idea?" If so, then indeed we have to fight over the scarce resources, be they money, oil, land, power, even pride and shame. Of shame there certainly seems to be an abundance in the world, of pride far too little to go around, and if I have to take away from yours to insure my store then, so be it.

Is all this anti-democratic, in some sense? Well, I suppose it is. "Consider," as I said before, "the actual historical experience of the Pharoahs, who could not take it with them. Sooner or later, someone else took it." Power is the same way. Those who can, will take it: be they Karl Rove or Barack Obama. David Frum, as Josh Marshall observed, has realized that Karl Rove not only failed in his bid for absolute power, he did harm to the Republican Party (if not actually the country. Frum gets partial credit for insight, at least). Rove reached for power, took it, and used it; and then it used him. He saw power as a commodity, as part of the scarcity of the world, and drew as much to him as he could. As Josh Marshall says, this has damaged not only a political party, but a country. But then accruing power in a world of scarcity is the game of nations. It has been since Cain decided Abel was horning in on his action.

It really isn't a question of moral high ground, or even of morality. It is a question of faith. Am I obligated, for example, to proselytize, to take the words of the "Great Commission" as an overriding command for my discipleship, and proceed to teach as many as I can the doctrine of atonement and the soteriology that springs therefrom? Or am I obligated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, because in doing so I serve my Lord directly? That's not a simple distinction, and it's not a distinction with bragging rights. It's actually a distinction of humility: just how humble am I willing to be? And if you think that's pointing a finger at someone, then the old cliche is still true, and four more are pointing back at me. My initial question remains: Is God simply an idea? Or is God a present reality? How real, after all, can an idea be? How much comfort can an idea finally give? When was the last time an idea handed food to a hungry person, a shirt to a naked person, paid a visit on an invalid? The idea might provide the motivation, or the excuse. But a person has to do those things, and do them to, and for, another person, a present and distinct reality.

It's the problem of the idea, v. the reality. How do I love an idea? I don't, of course. I love, or hate, a person. An idea may goad me, may motivate me, may inspire me; but it cannot love me, or hate me, and I cannot love or hate it.

This is a fairly consistent message in the scriptures (there are many consistent messages in the scriptures; the problem is figuring out which ones they are). Only a few weeks ago it was the words of the Preacher, the speaker to the ecclesia:

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

1:12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,

1:13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

1:14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

2:18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me

2:19 --and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

2:20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,

2:21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

2:22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?

2:23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Not words any pastor or priest wants to speak to his or her flock these days; not honeyed words calculated to charm and soothe. But these are words so prickly with truth we hardly know where to grasp them. One key is the vanity of looking for anything substantial, worthwhile, or valuable in the world, aside from God. Ecclesiastes doesn't reach the conclusion directly, but it is there nonetheless:

Remember your Creator before the silver bowl is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, befoe the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel broken at the well, before the dust returns to the earth as it began and the spirit to God who gave it. Utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile.
This is the end of the matter: you have heard it all. Fear God and obey his commandments; this sums up the duty of mankind. For God will bring everything we do to judgment, every secret, whether good or bad.
And as for our knowledge? Well, it is no knowledge at all:

49:1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,

49:2 both low and high, rich and poor together.

49:3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

49:4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

49:5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,

49:6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

49:7 Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it.

49:8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice

49:9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.

49:10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.

49:11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.

49:12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
And what is pomp except the trappings of power; any power? And what does that purchase you? As Psalm 49 ends: "For human beings like oxen are short-lived; they are like beasts whose lives are cut short."

Ecclesiastes presents us with the truth about the world, and it is so unflinching it seems too harsh to have a place in our scriptures. But Ecclesiastes is not a small part of the truth; it is a small book because truth can be stated so simply. It is a dark parable that addresses some of the base mysteries of existence. As the Speaker says:

So the Speaker, in his wisdom, continued to instruct the people. He turned over many maxims in his mind and sought how best to set them out. He chose his words to give pleasure, but what he wrote was straight truth. The sayings of the wise are as sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they guide the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd.
Ecclesiastes does not set out to give answers, but to undermine human vanity. It's an odd connection, but I caught something of the same note when J.K. Rowling introduced the centaur, Firenze, as the Divination teacher in HP5 (a character sadly missing from the movie):

It was the most unusual lesson Harry had ever attended. They did indeed burn sage and mallowsweet there on the classroom floor, and Firenze told them to look for certain shapes and symbols in the pungent fumes, but he seemed perfectly unconcerned that not one of them could see any of the signs he described, telling them that humans were hardly every good at this, that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priorty did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs' knowledge, was foolproof.
(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pp. 603-04)

Perhaps more to the point, that "vanity of vanities" language is echoed, slightly, in Firenze's dismissal of the astrology Professor Trelawney has taught the students:

"That," said Firenze calmly, "is human nonsense."

Parvati's hand fell limply to her side.

"Trivial hurts, tiny human accidents," said Firenze, as his hooves thudded over the mossy floor. "These are of no more significance than the scurryings of ants to the wide universe, and are unaffected by planetary movements."
Centaurs, Firenze explains, "watch the skies for the great tides of evil or change that are sometimes marked there. It may take ten years to be sure of what we are seeing." It's a sentiment I can almost compare favorably to the Hebrew prophets, who saw the great tides of events in the life of Israel, not the fate of any individual in the next 24 hours. Even today the prophets of Israel are used to "predict" the "trivial hurts" and "tiny human accidents" that afflict us; even today we don't understand that it may be years before we are sure of what we are seeing. We are addicted to the short view, not the long one; and we think our knowledge, whatever knowledge it is, must surely be foolproof; especially when we are impatient for confirmation of our power.

Ecclesiastes fits into the scriptures not because he ends by telling his audience to fear God, or even because he serves up a warning to theologians and contrarians like me: "One further warning, my son: there is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome." No, Ecclesiastes belongs in the canon because, more than any other book outside the work of the prophets or the parables of Jesus, it reminds us of the folly of human wisdom. Now, the problem there is, without human wisdom, what have you got? A lot of bizarre stories about widows finding coins and waking the neighbors, or people selling all they have to own a single pearl? And where is the wisdom in those? It is, indeed, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But without our humanity, what are we? Small wonder "Israel" usually translates as 'struggles with God.' Perhaps we should take this entire notion of Christianity as much more like i'jaam than like our birthright, and we should add to our vocabulary the Islamic concept of jihad, which means not "religious war" but "struggle." And while we're at it, we could pick up intifada, which doesn't promote violence either, but simply means "throwing off."

We could do worse, after all, than to struggle with ourselves and these things and the reality of God, and to throw off what our culture insists on, rather than to struggle with each other.

When did we see you?

There are two types of people society really doesn't like to deal with: prisoners, and the sick.

It's almost unseemly to lump them together like that, since prisoners are presumed to be victims of their choices, and the sick are presumed to be victims of chance. But we put prisoners away because they scare us, or because we want them isolated from "decent society." Indeed, as social animals, the punishment we seem to prefer most is removing "criminals" from human society. Given this, it's odd we don't think about how subversive the parable of the sheep and the goats is.

Jesus, of course, asks those on judgment day: why didn't you visit me in prison, or when I was sick? We don't visit the sick unless we know them personally. Family members visit their sick; friends sometimes drop by, too. We don't do it because Jesus told us to; we do it because we are social animals. We put the sick in hospitals, places most of us don't go unless we have to. We don't mean to be cruel, but we put them away as surely as we put people in prisons. And how many of us visit prisons? Well, why should we? Isn't that what prisons are for, to put people away from society, as punishment?

I bring this up because Democracy Now! reports this morning that 5000 more prisoners have been added to US run prisons in Iraq in the past four months. The total number of prisoners in Iraq is now 23,000. I have no idea how this compares to population in Iraq, or to the percentage of Americans behind bars; though I know we incarcerate more of our own citizens than almost any other industrialized country in the world, and certainly at a rate we used to associate with "police states" like the former USSR. And it leads me to wonder: do we have an obligation to oppose the state in this matter, to object to the bloodless idea of incarceration? Or do we, we Christians I mean, have an obligation to subvert the system by refusing to allow those people to be made invisible?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Call the the the names....

I know, I know; I complain too much; but what else can you say?

Where once the war in Iraq was defined in conversations with these men by untenable ideas - bringing democracy or defeating al-Qaeda - these days the war in Iraq is defined by different ways of expressing the idea of being weary. It is a theme that is endlessly reiterated as you travel around Iraq. 'The army is worn out. We are just keeping people in theatre who are exhausted,' says a soldier working for the US army public affairs office who is supposed to be telling me how well things have been going since the 'surge' in Baghdad began.

They are not supposed to talk like this. We are driving and another of the public affairs team adds bitterly: 'We should just be allowed to tell the media what is happening here. Let them know that people are worn out. So that their families know back home. But it's like we've become no more than numbers now.'
There's a rather obvious and almost fatuous comparison here, brought to mind because I'm re-reading the Harry Potter series having finished #7: it's that Voldemort kills without compunction, mercy, or concern for who dies, and is equally ruthless to his supporters as to his enemies. Harry, on the other hand, feels every death personally, starting with the stunning death of someone he barely knew, Cedric Diggory at the end of HP4, and on through the deaths at the end of HP7. It's an almost facile but still accurate comparison: to Voldemort, those who stand in the way of his goal, or even who are recruited to achieve it, are "no more than numbers." His first words in Harry's hearing are: "Kill the spare." By book 7, he has almost achieved his goal by a ruthless slaughter of anyone he can reach, and he willingly sacrifices even his own supporters in his pursuit of power.

This is the face of evil. That our soldiers are no more than numbers, no more than markers in a game of some kind, in a bet, in an investment speculation. People are no longer people, they are widgets, gears, fungible goods. This is employment, American style, and even the Army is using it:

The first soldier starts in again. 'My husband was injured here. He hit an improvised explosive device. He already had a spinal injury. The blast shook out the plates. He's home now and has serious issues adapting. But I'm not allowed to go back home to see him. If I wanted to see him I'd have to take leave time (two weeks). And the army counts it.'
Counts it, and makes you come back and give them that two weeks before you can go home, only to return again.

'I counted it the other day,' says a major whose partner is also a soldier. 'We have been married for five years. We added up the days. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan we have been together for just seven months. Seven months ... We are in a bad place. I don't know whether this marriage can survive it.'
5 years of war, and where do we stand? Any closer to a goal than when we started? Is their sacrifice, even if it is only of their marriage, worth this? What have we asked of them, and why? Who are we to insist they pay this price? Add to this the fact that the soldiers now what is being reported at home:

When the soldiers talk like this there is resignation. There is a corrosive anger, too, that bubbles out, like the words pouring unbidden from a chaplain's assistant who has come to bless a patrol. 'Why don't you tell the truth? Why don't you journalists write that this army is exhausted?'
They know that isn't being written because:

'...the soldier in Vietnam,' interjects Sergeant John Valentine from the same unit, 'did not get to see the coverage from home that these soldiers do. We see what is going on at home on the political scene. They think the war is going to end. Then we have the frustration and confusion. That is fatiguing. Mentally tiring.'
The soldiers know the truth is not being told here. The all volunteer army is broken. A draft is politically impossible. The end of our dreams of empire may have finally come, at the hands of our most imperial President in U.S. history.

And us? We voted for it. Or allowed it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. That's the ugly flip side of Niebuhr's evaluation that nation's cannot be moral agents. There is still a morality involved, because there are still people involved, still human lives involved; and in a democracy, the people are still the sovereign, the people still bear the ultimate responsibility. A responsibility we still fob off on the unfortunate individuals who don't have health insurance, or enough money to afford shelter, or who volunteer for military service.

Call the names. We are all responsible for this. Which makes no one responsible, since there is no one to shoulder this burden. How convenient.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Time for a paradigm shift

When is a minority not a minority?

Leading a national trend, Texas has 43 counties — the most of any state — that are "majority-minority," with non-Hispanic white residents outnumbered by African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other racial and ethnic groups, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday.

Starr County, on the border with Mexico, has a "minority" population of 98 percent, the highest of any county in the country.

Nearly one in every 10 of the nation's 3,141 counties has a population that is more than half minority. In 2006, eight counties that had not previously been majority-minority pushed the national total to 303, the Census Bureau reported.
How can a county be "more than half minority"? Isn't that an oxymoron, like military intelligence or jumbo shrimp? The numbers just get funnier:

Los Angeles County, Calif., had the largest minority population: 7 million, or 71 percent of its total. The county is home to one in 14 of the nation's minority residents.

In Texas, Harris County gained 121,400 minority residents between 2005 and 2006, which led the nation in growth. With Houston as its largest city, Harris County had a minority population of 2.5 million in 2006, 63 percent of its total.
The problem is, of course, we simply don't know how to talk about this. But our language about race is about to change. It will simply have to.

Since 1982, the white population of Houston has declined and aged, a shift which led to Houston becoming a majority-minority city in the 1990s. Over the next 10 years, Houston will become increasingly Hispanic, with young families driving the growth, said Karl Eschbach, director of the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

"If we cut off the growth completely tomorrow with a perfect fence and no more migration, we would still see rapid growth of the Hispanic population relative to other groups," Eschbach said.
Other things will have to change as well:

Klineberg, a specialist in Houston demography, said the city's minority makeup offers a glimpse into Texas' future two years down the road and America's "ethnic amalgam" in 20 years.

The two groups growing most rapidly, blacks and Hispanics, are the most likely to live in poverty and lack access to educational opportunity.

"If Houston's African-American and Latino young people are unprepared to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, it's hard to envision a prosperous future for Houston," Klineberg said. "The American future is here in Houston right now."
Welcome to the future. I think Lou Dobbs and the immigration issue just became completely irrelevant.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Value of the Liturgical Calendar

"Monday, by the way, was the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima."

It was also the Feast Day of the Transfiguration. Dorothy Day called Hiroshima the anti-Transfiguration. Grandmère Mimi

All the news that fits

Continuing what John Pilger started, I'd heard this story before, in the usual bits and pieces (not being a reader of The New Republic), and Josh Marshall piqued my interest again with his summary of the situation of the Army blogger who may, nor may not, have lied. Given the Pat Tillman story and the Jessica Lynch story, one's sympathies, of course, are not with the Pentagon. But I'd also heard this story yesterday on NPR, and while Josh points out the very fishy nature of the Army's rebuttal, NPR led me to believe it was the blogger who was the fabricator of stories.

But then I went to the NPR website and noticed they did no original reporting on this. Yesterday Michelle Norris talked to David Folkenflik, "who has been following the story" (I love how journalists are now professional stalkers of gossip!). And nowhere in the conversation between these two journalists do they mention what Josh Marshall mentions: that this story of the Army's report comes exclusively from The Weekly Standard. Mr. Folkenflik did talk to a conservative blogger who said the story "didn't pass the smell test." But that's the sum total of his evidence and his sourcing. Folkenflik does mention the Pat Tillman case, but seems to imply Mr. Beauchamp is the fabricator as the "original reporter" of this story; he certainly doesn't cast aspersions on the reliability of the Pentagon, the real reason both the Tillman story and the Jessica Lynch story were such blatant lies.

On Day to Day, according to their website, this kind of incestuous journalism continued, as Alex Chadwick talked to Philip Carter of Slate Magazine. In neither report is any of the information Josh reports included. Mr. Carter writes a "war column" for Slate, and calls himself a "born skeptic." But neither the secret nature of the report, nor the fact that TNR got a "I have no knowledge of that" response from the Army, is included. Philip Carter is sure TNR was bamboozled, but again, on what basis? A report of an Army report which, apparently, no one has read? Both of these reports by NPR are purest, rankest speculation, including Mr. Carter's absolute flight of fancy as to how Pvt. Beauchamp will be punished. Were he to note, as Josh does, that Pvt. Beauchamp had lost access to his cellphone and his computer, Mr. Carter would obviously approve of such measures. But is that the position of an objective journalist, or even of a person involved in the story? It is neither. Mr. Carter has no more knowledge of this story than Mr. Folkenflik does.

And neither makes so much as a passing mention of TNR's rather complete defense of their journalistic practice. Mr. Carter, like the conservative blogger Mr. Folkenflik talked to, seems to think the Beauchamp reports don't smell right. That's hardly a rebuttal of the kind of investigation TNR says it did before publishing those stories, yet it's good enough for two stories on NPR.

It may well turn out TNR screwed the pooch on this story. But I'm with Josh: "This hardly inspires much confidence." Either in the military's response to the story, or in the journalistic practices of NPR.

John Pilger speaks, you listen

I like to review history from time to time, not so I can avoid repeating it, but so I can see that things really haven't changed all that much. John Pilger speaks, you listen:

The title of this talk is Freedom Next Time, which is the title of my book, and the book is meant as an antidote to the propaganda that is so often disguised as journalism. So I thought I would talk today about journalism, about war by journalism, propaganda, and silence, and how that silence might be broken. Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, wrote about an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. He was referring to journalism, the media. That was almost 80 years ago, not long after corporate journalism was invented. It is a history few journalist talk about or know about, and it began with the arrival of corporate advertising. As the new corporations began taking over the press, something called "professional journalism" was invented. To attract big advertisers, the new corporate press had to appear respectable, pillars of the establishment—objective, impartial, balanced. The first schools of journalism were set up, and a mythology of liberal neutrality was spun around the professional journalist. The right to freedom of expression was associated with the new media and with the great corporations, and the whole thing was, as Robert McChesney put it so well, "entirely bogus".

For what the public did not know was that in order to be professional, journalists had to ensure that news and opinion were dominated by official sources, and that has not changed. Go through the New York Times on any day, and check the sources of the main political stories—domestic and foreign—you'll find they're dominated by government and other established interests. That is the essence of professional journalism. I am not suggesting that independent journalism was or is excluded, but it is more likely to be an honorable exception. Think of the role Judith Miller played in the New York Times in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Yes, her work became a scandal, but only after it played a powerful role in promoting an invasion based on lies. Yet, Miller's parroting of official sources and vested interests was not all that different from the work of many famous Times reporters, such as the celebrated W.H. Lawrence, who helped cover up the true effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August, 1945. "No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin," was the headline on his report, and it was false.
One could argue, of course, about the "intent" behind "objective journalism." Certainly the journalism of the 19th century, at least in America, was as partisan and biased as it could be. And while post-modernism has taught us that "objectivity" is just another way of saying "My bias is sound and approved by the best people, but your perspective is wrong-headed and worse, 'unreasonable'," it's still good to see something in stark black and white once in awhile. "No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin" is the kind of information that could only come about by being a stenographer for the government.

Monday, by the way, was the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The best story about that bombing was written by John Hersey, who talked to real people, not government mouthpieces. We remember John Hersey because he was a real journalist, not a Judith Miller.

Objectivity, of course, is always subjective; it's just a matter of whose ox is being gored:

The BBC began in 1922, just before the corporate press began in America. Its founder was Lord John Reith, who believed that impartiality and objectivity were the essence of professionalism. In the same year the British establishment was under siege. The unions had called a general strike and the Tories were terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new BBC came to their rescue. In high secrecy, Lord Reith wrote anti-union speeches for the Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and broadcast them to the nation, while refusing to allow the labor leaders to put their side until the strike was over.

So, a pattern was set. Impartiality was a principle certainly: a principle to be suspended whenever the establishment was under threat. And that principle has been upheld ever since.
And then there's the whole issue of "censorship":

One of my favorite stories about the Cold War concerns a group of Russian journalists who were touring the United States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked by the host for their impressions. "I have to tell you," said the spokesman, "that we were astonished to find after reading all the newspapers and watching TV day after day that all the opinions on all the vital issues are the same. To get that result in our country we send journalists to the gulag. We even tear out their fingernails. Here you don't have to do any of that. What is the secret?"

What is the secret? It is a question seldom asked in newsrooms, in media colleges, in journalism journals, and yet the answer to that question is critical to the lives of millions of people. On August 24 last year the New York Times declared this in an editorial: "If we had known then what we know now the invasion if Iraq would have been stopped by a popular outcry." This amazing admission was saying, in effect, that journalists had betrayed the public by not doing their job and by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and his gang, instead of challenging them and exposing them. What the Times didn't say was that had that paper and the rest of the media exposed the lies, up to a million people might be alive today. That's the belief now of a number of senior establishment journalists. Few of them—they've spoken to me about it—few of them will say it in public.
Let me stop here to demur, and point out that "popular outcry" is clearly in the eye of the beholder. One of the largest mass protests in world history occurred before the invasion of Iraq. It was roundly ignored. A huge outcry met plans to radically alter the immigration laws of this country. That caught everyone's attention, but when it wasn't repeated, it was as if the first spontaneous generation of protests (a truly grass-roots phenomenon) had never happened. It really doesn't matter what the public thinks. All that matters, in America, is what the elite, the powerful and wealthy minority, think.

Ironically, I began to understand how censorship worked in so-called free societies when I reported from totalitarian societies. During the 1970s I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship. I interviewed members of the dissident group Charter 77, including the novelist Zdener Urbanek, and this is what he told me. "In dictatorships we are more fortunate that you in the West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West. We've learned to look behind the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive."

Vandana Shiva has called this subjugated knowledge. The great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn got it right when he wrote, "Never believe anything until it's officially denied."
And then, connect that with the Beauchamp/TNR story, and tell me Pilger isn't right.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Same as it ever was redux

I suppose we should be grateful Gonzalez didn't try to call Angelina Jolie:

In March, Mariane Pearl, the widow of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, received a phone call from Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General. At the time, Gonzales’s role in the controversial dismissal of eight United States Attorneys had just been exposed, and the story was becoming a scandal in Washington. Gonzales informed Pearl that the Justice Department was about to announce some good news: a terrorist in U.S. custody—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who was the primary architect of the September 11th attacks—had confessed to killing her husband.
As Jane Mayer goes on to point out, Ms. Pearl had already received this information from Condoleeza Rice, in 2003; but then, it was a secret. Gonzales said they would release a transcript of the "confession" this time. It's a sign of the times that this is a lead-in, not to Administration mendacity and media manipulation as in the Pat Tillman case, but to an article about CIA "black sites," and the question of tortured confessions. Let's just say that Pakistan imprisoned another person for the murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002, and that no one who knows anything about Mr. Pearl's murder thinks the person the Administration has privately and publicly accused of the crime, is the guilty party. As Mariane Pearl says: “An intelligence agency is not supposed to be above the law.” But we are clearly so far beyond that side of the looking glass there's no reason to even pretend anymore that such sentiments are anything more than comforting lies for a high-school civics class. Why do I say that?

The [CIA black sites] program was effectively suspended last fall, when President Bush announced that he was emptying the C.I.A.’s prisons and transferring the detainees to military custody in Guantánamo. This move followed a Supreme Court ruling, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which found that all detainees—including those held by the C.I.A.—had to be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions. In late July, the White House issued an executive order promising that the C.I.A. would adjust its methods in order to meet the Geneva standards. At the same time, Bush’s order pointedly did not disavow the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would likely be found illegal if used by officials inside the United States. The executive order means that the agency can once again hold foreign terror suspects indefinitely, and without charges, in black sites, without notifying their families or local authorities, or offering access to legal counsel.
Most of those latter provisions, I'm guessing, would also violate the Geneva Convention as well as the Hamdan decision. And, of course, we have the President's assurances that We don't torture." So it's not like we're ignoring the Supreme Court, or anything. And even if we are, why is that a surprise? And why the CIA, again? Because even the Pentagon won't do it.

And when you get through thinking about all the implications of that, read the article in the "New Yorker," and ask yourself: When do we decide this really is as bad as it sounds?

UPDATE: That last, is, I know, a stupidly rhetorical question. I just happen to think Marty Kaplan is right, and looking for salvation in a political party is a fool's dream. The people who were supposed to change things in D.C. obviously don't have the power to do so, and the people who have the power to do so, really, really like the status quo, no matter how disgusting it is to the rest of us. Funny, I've just been watching a post-WWII movie on Turner Classic Movies (ah, it's The Best Years of Our Lives; hooray for the intertubes!), and a minor character tells a Navy veteran who's lost his hands that the war was fought by "Washington radicals," that the US fought the Nazis and the Japanese when they should have fought the "Reds." The roots of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era are right there in that time capsule of a movie scene: the pro-Fascists of England (the key plot point of The Remains of the Day, if you don't know your history that well) were obviously not confined to England before or after the war. When you look at it, you realize the roots of this problem are very, very deep indeed. This didn't start with Ronald Reagan or Dick Cheney in Nixon's White House, and it won't end in 2009.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"...for of such is the kingdom of heaven..."

Judaism and Christianity and Islam all deal with the idea of nations and communities. I think that's where the 3 great Abrahamic faiths go off the rails - there is such an emphasis on nations, and nationalism instead of dealing with good and compassion at the only level they can be dealt with if one wishes to deal in reality - and that's at the personal level. That's the only control we have at all in this universe - our own minds and our own intentions and our own actions and inactions.

The Abrahamic faiths have built-in political content. Have had from the very start - it's all about Abraham finding the One True Nation God has given His People. Morality becomes wrapped up in nationalism. If you follow Abrahamic thought all the way to Islam you see it become more and more political and social rather than personal and I fail to understand how religion can be authentically political or social.

But then I guess I am still fundamentally a Buddhist. And I guess some of what I tried to say is why I am.
The great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures, they taught us in seminary, are: covenant; land; children; and the promise. The Abrahamic covenant granted access to the land ("Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you."); land, of course, is necessary to life (unless you can build that castle in the air), and children secure the land for your posterity (especially when the average life span was much shorter than it is today). The great theme of the Gospels is the Kingdom of God, the basileia tou theou (sometimes, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven). This is set up in stark contrast to all human communities, because all human communities eventually mean someone must be excluded. Some of the history of the Hebrew Scriptures is about excluding people from land. Although the Mosaic law set up procedures to limit that exclusion as much as possible (care for the alien, the widow, the orphan; and the Jubilee year) some of those laws were more honored in the breach than in the keeping. Human communities eventually mean someone must be excluded.

I was thinking about that this morning when NPR reported on two "detainees" at Gitmo who don't want to leave. Because they find the accomodations so comfortable? Hardly. It is because they have nowhere else to go. Victims of political persecution, or afraid of political persecution, they don't want to return to their homelands; no other country, however, will take them. One is still in Gitmo; the other has been released, and now lives in a refugee camp.

It struck me that "refugee camps" were a recent phenomenon, and another example of the "Omelas factor," of how our system of nationalism and governments and international agreements functions by excluding and, at least in America, ignoring, the least and the lowest. Refugee camps are certainly a new creation in human history, but hardly a new concept. Before them, we had the "Gypsies," people romanticized in James Bond movies and literature, but people largely without a country. Before the creation of Israel, you might almost have considered them on par with Jews. Jews also never had a homeland, after the fall of Jerusalem under Roman rule. When Shakespeare created his comic character of Shylock, it was not from knowledge of experience of British Jews; there had been virtually none in England for almost 200 years before he wrote his play. Some 400 years before "nationalism" became an English word or a European concept, and still people found ways to exclude certain groups of other people from their political boundaries. "The Wanderer" and "The Wife's Lament" relate exile from what were little more than tribes. We have always created communities, and then found ways and excuses for excluding individuals from them.

This exclusion is still seen, and commonly described by adherents as well as critics, as fundamental to the Abrahamic faiths. The irony is, it wasn't meant to be. When God called Abram in Genesis 12, God included a promise:

"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you."
That is not, as commonly understood in post 19th century "Enlightenment" terms, a promise to create a New Jerusalem ("And did those feet in ancient times...?") or a power center among the nations; it is a promise to bless all the "nations" (read "people," or "ethnicities," if you prefer) of the earth through the children of Abraham. This understanding of the blessing is repeated over and over again across time and people in the Hebrew Scriptures: not that Israel will dominate the earth and rule like a super-empire, but that through the blessing of Israel, all the people of the world will be blessed. This is the reason Matthew includes the Magi in his nativity story; it is the reason John on the island of Patmo saw a "New Jerusalem" coming down from heaven, fulfilling the promise of blessing echoed in the Psalms, in the prophets, in the story of Abram.

While it is often read as exclusionary (right down to the exact number of 144,000 "elect" deduced from John's vision on Patmos), it is not meant to be. Nor is it meant to be a call to conversion, to all the world conforming to the laws of Moses and submitting to the covenant of Abraham before that vision can be fulfilled. The God of Abraham is never so constrained. As John the Baptist says in Luke: "Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks!" He is, of course, speaking to those who say "We have Abraham for our father," and who think because of that alone, they are righteous. While righteousness is often abused as: "Stand away from me, for I am holier than thou," the very concept of holiness is not meant to induce hubris, but humility. Isaiah's statement was not a brag, but a rebuke. Such, as Lewis Carroll observed, is human perversity, however.

Abraham, in fact, was never about being righteous, except as he was righteous before God, and that righteousness was only shown in obedience to God. The obedience of Abraham, however, was never simplistic. The iconic story is Abraham and Isaac on Moriah; but before that, Abram travelled through several lands after leaving Ur of the Chaldees, and in each one he feared the king he visited more than he trusted God, and each time he presented Sarai, his wife, as his sister, the better to be sure he would not be executed and his wife taken from him. Each time the king took Sarai as a wife, each time God told the king Sarai was Abram's wife, and each time the king let them go free, ashamed for his mistake and perplexed by Abram's lie. And then Abraham had to wait through three promises before he was given one son, and even Abraham betrays some impatience with God's timetable.

But it's never been about Abraham finding the One True Nation given to him by God. It has always been about obedience to God. "And what does the Lord require of you," asks Micah of Israel," but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." That is the eternal golden braid what binds all the stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and all the gospels and letters and visions of the New Testament, together. It is not about truth, it is about justice; it is not about power, it is about mercy; it is not about holiness, it is about humility. Have people abused that, refused that, misused that? Certainly. It is the way people are. But the basiliea tou theou is not about entrance requirements or admissions exams or even proper I.D. The kingdom of heaven is that place where no one is excluded, where no one is kept out, except that they keep themselves out. It is the place without any need for a refugee camp, because while we make widows and orphans and determine a person's value, God makes people, and accepts every one of them.