...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Serbs & Palestinians

Adam over at Pomomusings has spent the last several weeks in Palestine as part of an Encounter team (not sure what organization they are affiliated with). He has blogged on his summer experience here. I posted on this about a month ago, and lamented the one-sidedness of his views. This trend has continued, which is readily apparent from a scanning of his blog - though I do recommend Meeting With a Zionist for a particularly good presentation of the bias.

Normally, this kind of unbalance raises my ire because it smacks of intellectual dishonesty. If one cannot even try to appreciate the other side of the story, to see both sides in tension with each other and neither as perfect, then I cannot help but feel such ignorance is either intentional or due to some actual defect in the other person's mind. What I've come to realize, though, is that I have done the same thing in my past. I have shaken off the stigma the world has attached to a group and replaced it with my own rosy gloss after getting to know "them." I did it with the Serbs.

While serving in Bosnia, my group operated entirely within the Serb Republic and though we met with Croats and Bosnian Muslaims as well, our main dealings were with Serbs. My interpreter was a Serb. The people who worked on our base were Serbs. The people who owned and worked at our favorite restaurants were Serbs. We were surrounded by Serbs and I fell in love with them as a people. Their plight in post-war Bosnia is horrific - little or no international aid goes to Serb areas while Croat/Muslim areas are thick with it; displaced Croats & Muslims are returning to Serb areas and kicking Serb squatters out of their homes, but many Serbs are still not able to return to their homes in the Federation. Serbs are consistently vilified in the international press, as evidenced by recently discovered tapes of some of the atrocities that were committed in Srebrenica by Serb forces.

And that's the thing: Serbs really did these things. Serbs really did siege Sarajevo, they really did murder thousands in Srebrenica and elsewhere, they really did start the war. But I had a hard time dealing with that because I could not reconcile the kind, welcoming people who surrounded me with those events. They did not fit. Undoubtedly, many of them did not actively participate in the war, never picking up a weapon or directly contributing to the violence in any way. However, many Serbs deny that atrocities occurred and turned (and continue to turn) a blind eye to any evidence. They are, in essence, Holocaust deniers. It was easy, though, to forget this fact, to forget that the people with whom I interacted every day largely regarded Mladic and Karadzic as falsely accused patriots if not outright heroes. It was easy to think of the people around me as innocent and that these horrible crimes had been committed by "other people" or people who weren't really Serb. The picture of the people I met everyday was too far removed from the butchery and barbarity that marked the Bosnian war. But no - they were Serbs and Serbs had committed these crimes. I cannot deny this. I cannot deny that many Serbs felt and continue to feel as if the war was justified and do not believe such things happened. I cannot deny the victims their pain, nor the Serbs their aggression.

I think, in a way, that I am a Serb at heart. I was there when I was young enough to be formed by the experience, to be formed by the people who defined it for me. Thankfully, though, I have not been dominated by it. I can look and see the beauty and dignity of the Serbian people, as well as the festering sore of ethnic hatred & conflict. I can see both the good and the bad, but it is a view only gained by time and doing the painful work of scrutinizing that which I love. I can only hope that Adam will be able to do the same for his experience with Palestinians, and that we as Americans, will be able to do it with our own country. In this time of war and terror, it is too easy by far to fall into the Serbian pattern of denying our own failings and trumpeting our virtues instead.



Still nothing has popped on the house. We've had a couple of parties express significant interest, both bringing their respective parents back for a second look but no offers thus far. We're getting a little anxious, but have decided to go ahead and move to Fort Wayne even if the house has not sold yet. My wife gave her 2 weeks on Wednesday, so we'll be heading out in about a week and a half. We're hoping and praying the house will sell by then, but we'll be able to move in with her parents so (once we find jobs) we should be able to maintain the payment without too much trouble. For those of you nothing the record heat-wave sweeping through the Mid-West, know that I spent all day Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and a goodly portion of Sunday morning, engaged in painting the front & back of the house, as well as the trim, and taking care of the lawn, so yes, I can attest that it was indeed quite toasty outside. Well, that's actually not accurate - toast is dry and this was more like going through the hot-wax setting in a car wash. Or so I would assume, having never experienced a car wash on my person.

Please keep praying for the sale, for our move & finding jobs and our spirits during this time.


Exposition of the Faith

Now that majority of home-improvement projects are over, I've been taking some more time to read through the Church Fathers. I hopped around a bit, reading a few random things here and there, but then I spotted St John of Damascus on the spine and thought I'd give his Exposition of the Faith a go. It starts off a little on the light side, with a few short chapters that deal with questions of the existence of God and his nature in almost casual fashion. Not that St John is treating those issues casually, but its clear that they are not the primary focus of this piece and he appears to assume that his intended audience may well have already settled those questions for themselves quite satisfatorily. However, when St John gets into his discussion of the Trinity, his writing becomes quite intense and meticulous. Certain descriptive phrases are repeatedly presented to qualify his statements and, apparently, to make sure that his readers understand exactly what he means. For instance, when speaking about Christ's begotten-ness, St John almost always says something like "like the Father in all things except in subsistence". This and similar clauses pepper the page, making for long sentences and sometimes dense passages, but overall, his meaning is quite clear. As is his intention: precision & accuracy in every possible detail. He wants no mistakes, no ambiguity, nothing that can be twisted or misused by another party.

And this is, of course, quite understandable. John wants neither to lead anyone astray through an easily avoidable misunderstanding, nor does he want to feed the flames of heresy by failing to ensure that the proper meaning, and only the proper meaning, can be taken from his words. The latter is likely the stronger factor, because it is clear that St John's world was permeated by people who think. It would seem a significant segment of the population was capable of deep-thinking, of analyzing his arguments for weaknesses, holes or mistakes. Obviously, though, the majority of the population was probably not able to read his arguments, much less pick them apart, and in that, things are not too dissimilar from today. Even a brief perusal of any Christian bookstore or the Christian section of a larger retailer, will show a distinct negation of theology and thinking. Just about everything is a how-to book of some kind, claiming to contain the secrets to happiness, abundance, prosperity, spiritual wholeness, etc, conveniently provided in 7 easy steps. No difficult drudgery of actually reading the Bible for yourself, or learning the difficult work of prayer through long, persistent hours - just $16.95 plus tax and would you like your receipt in the bag?

Of course, not everyone is like that and there are still many Christian authors who produce carefully considered works of theology and philosophy. I think the primary difference between then and now, though, is that these authors are unto themselves. Whereas in St John's day, church leadership was greatly concerned with correct theological discourse and took great pains to guarantee that no false thing entered the doctrines of the faith, today we are (in the Protestant evangelical church) largely saddled with leaders who are not theologically minded and frankly, measure success by factors other than fidelity to the deposit of faith. Scholarly works never cross their desks or night-stands, and it would appear most are not capable of deep, analytical thought. They are un-thinkers, operating at the shallowest levels of thought. They have not been trained in deep thinking and don't see any inherent value in such efforts - that is left up to to others, who will hopefully trim it down to 5 easy steps and come out with a paperback edition in the near future. This, I think, is one of the largest departures from the church of St John's day. We are a church of unthinkers, lead by unthinkers.

This obviously has a huge impact on the form, function, theology, worship and bonds of the modern church - which I won't discuss here. Since I have been reading 1 John of late, with its emphasis on abiding, I am considering whether this departure into unthinking also represents a true break from the historic faith. Not in the sense of a mere difference, however incorrect that may be, but a going out as described in 1 John 2:18-19. The question then, in my mind, is whether opening the door to this intellectual and theological frailty, to this antipathy towards deep reflection on God, is itself an antichrist in some way?



Uncomfortable requests

The wife and I had dinner with the church planter (and his wife) from our former church - a man named Dave. We went to a new Japanese restaurant in town that is, apparently, still hammering down its menu & service. The food was good, but something did not sit well later that evening, if you know what I mean. During the meal, Dave asked us to get more involved in his church plant. Not just attending more often, but my possibly preaching now and then, doing the announcements fairly regularly, leading a small group or young marrieds Bible study, and being a part of a elder-in-training program which I dubbed the "Youngers". I'm touched by his requests and desire to keep me involved; he obviously respects me and appreciates my talents & gifts, but frankly, I just don't know what to say to him about it. If we're to stay here, I've got to find a job that pays reasonably well (which, realistically, would not be a huge amount in this area). So far, not so much as a blip on the screen in that area, so that provides an easy excuse. Should a job come available, then I'd be put into the position to tell him the truth: I don't want to be involved, not at that level and probably not at any level. I respect him and what he's trying to do - his intentions are good & holy - but I think he's just perpetuating, at some levels, the standard Protestant failure - reinventing "church" with some whiz-bang model at regular intervals. Fortunately, I don't think Dave will fall into the God-as-therapist-and-life-coach heresy that seems to be the dominant form of Prot-Christianity in the US. I'm just worried about the underlying foundation of the entire edifice.


Encouraging democracy

A somewhat disturbing, if unsurprising, report from CSMonitor.com, that parts of southern Iraq are falling under a very strict religious piety similar to that in Iran. The article introduces speculation that this change may, in fact, be sponsored by Iran - no big surprise there. But this raises a number of questions - how do you encourage democracy to flourish in the face of a fervent, anti-democratic faith (ain't no electoral college voting on the 12th Imam)? how will the US promote a pluralistic society that makes room for both faith and secular political activity? will federalism solve the problem or only create religious enclaves, each with their own rule of law? can a society with no real history of democracy successfully make the transition from despotism?

On that final question: I don't think there is anything inherent about Arabs or Muslims that will prevent them from fostering successful, free democracies - they're people and it can be done. The problem is that our democracy took a while to get rolling and our polity was formed from a conglomeration of many different groups, ideologies and backgrounds. This forced us into compromise and it made things slow-going until everyone got used to the system. The problem in Iraq is that there is a history of political corruption and antagonism between relatively few groups - they will have to learn to overcome their history of distrust and animosity just to get to a point where they can realistically approach questions of governance and law. Some may argue that the constitutional process currently underway is proof that is already occurring, but I think such an assertion is unfounded. That system may work for a while, but I believe the whole thing may be scrapped, eventually, as the Iraqi people and Iraqi culture develop in this new age. In 10 years, will Iraqis view the constitution prepared at the behest of the coalition forces as still valid, or even relevant? If the southern Shiites make a move to religious fundamentalism or are manipulated into seeking a more theocratic government by Iran, how will the country respond? How will the US respond?

On another point - earlier I discussed issues of proportionality. Another tenet of Just War Doctrine (JWD) is a reasonable chance of success. If our goal was to reshape the Middle East in more democratic, Western-friendly ways, do we still have a reasonable chance of pulling that off? Did we ever? I think its clear the Bush administration vastly underestimated the requirements of this task. No matter how good the intentions might have been, is naievete or ignorance a legitimate excuse in light of the moral requirements of war? Can a war still be just if the instigators didn't plan well and didn't anticipate likely outcomes?


New blog

Thanks to Doug for finding Fr Mirabile's blog. He wrote the article I linked to in the previous post and I've added him to my blog-roll.


Emergence and the Divine Order

Interesting article over on the Ooze - a pomo-emergent online magazine. It offers a good critique of the emergent church's ongoing antipathy towards order and structure, as if transitioning into some kind of institution or establishment is the reason the modern Protestant church is struggling/dying. An excerpt:

Modernity therefore, has left us looking for a church that is complex rather than shallow, rich and deep, rather than flat and one dimensional. I want a church that expresses its theology with robust intelligence, not shallow propositions or open-to-interpretation half-truths. I want a church that meets the entire human person in all his or her complexity and not one that addresses human beings as if they were one dimensional wills or intellects alone. I want a church that is stronger by diversity according to it’s kind, its order of genus, rather than a vaporous non-organization or one so open to diversity that it ceases to possess its distinguishing features. The church ceases to be the church when the principle of emergence-towards-order is replaced by open ended emergence towards no definable end.



I've been chapter hopping in a book I got a few months back but haven't picked up until now - Kosovo: Contending Voices on Balkan Interventions. The book is a collection of essays by diverse authors from a wide range of fields - religion (including pieces from Bishop Ware and Fr Harakas), politics, military strategy, as well as eye-witness and first-hand accounts from both Kosovars and Serbs. Each author does not necessarily present a balanced picture, but on the whole, the diversity of presentations makes for a fair degree of parity.

Several of the authors try to examine the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in light of the Just War Doctrine (JWD), and pretty much all of them make a great deal of hay about proportionality. Did the bombing campaign meet this criteria, especially after the campaign was expanded to include Serbia proper and all the civilian deaths this brought? Some say yes, some say no, but it got me thinking about the 2 wars our country has fought in the last few years - Afghanistan and Iraq - and I started wondering about their proportionality. Do they meet the criteria? This is just kind of an exploration - I'm no theologian and certainly not a philosopher, so this is just my own relatively uninformed thinking on the matter.

The proportionality criterion is rather simple - one can't hurt the enemy worse than they hurt you. If an enemy took control of your territory, then you getting that territory back would be proportional. If you took more than you previously owned without good reason (like preventing further aggression), then it was not proportional. You also shouldn't kill more of the enemy nation's people than it killed of your own, unless you have to in order to secure peace. Other factors play into this, though. As in Iraq, overthrowing a dictator and giving sovereignty back to the people is a huge good that could potentially outweigh a directly disproportional body count. Its kind of like a scale with both the good (installing a democratic government) and the bad (death toll & others) coming into balance. So do the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq balance out? Did the good achieved outweigh the evils undertaken in pursuit of peace?

Pinning down civilian casualty numbers for Afghanistan is hard - estimates range from a few thousand to upwards of 30,000 when you include deaths indirectly attributable to US military action. As in Iraq, the US apparently did not even try to maintain an accurate record of civilian deaths, so we're left with no solid source. For the sake of argument, lets assume it was 12,000 - thats about 4 times as many as died on 9/11; clearly a disproportionate amount. But we installed a democracy that seems to be making some gains, thousands of kids (including girls) are able to go to school, and the entire country is experiencing a greater degree of freedom. However, the government's control diminishes outside of the capital and many areas are still under the thumb of local warlords. And it will be years before the country is stable enough to exist without the presence of foreign troops and without billions of dollars in foreign aid. Which is one reason why poppy production has increased dramatically - potentially flooding the market with heroin, which makes the drug cheaper and more available to a wider range of customers. We've clearly got a mixed bag - freedom, democracy and the elimination of a base of operations for al Qaida on the good side and a weak, dependent government, disproportionate death toll and increased drug production on the bad. How do we weigh this? If you could quantify it all - how many points does democracy add to our tally and how many does 12,000 deaths subtract? How many points are added for the future generations who will get to live without the violent control of the Taliban? How many are subtracted for the many thousands of lives that will be negatively impacted, or taken, by Afghani heroin?

Of course, things get a lot murkier and more abstract when talking about Iraq. Our (purportedly) main justification for the war - WMD - has turned out to be a farce, though I suppose one could argue the alleged intention was good. Yes, we've installed a democratic government, but our own failure in implementing a good post-war plan (which was available but not used) encouraged this insurgency. And, of course, the death toll is far higher than in Afghanistan. Iraqbodycount.net puts the civilian death toll between 22,000 and 25,000. The Lancet reported some months back that their research suggested the death toll was over 100,000, and we really have no idea how many Iraqi soldiers died during the war. There is also the psychic toll the presence of US forces is having on both the Iraqi people and our own soldiers - shouldn't that be included in our calculations?

This, I think, is one of the primary weaknesses of the JWD - its conventions are too ambiguous to really be useful. How do we calculate the value of freedom? Does that value change if freedom was brought by a conquering army versus a home-grown revolution? What about the intangibles of hatred, animosity, resentment or love, good-will, gratitude? How do these things weigh against a civilian death toll? Or a military one? What is the relative worth of a civilian life versus a soldier's life in this scenario? And have these things even been taken into account by our political leadership, military commanders or the American people? I don't think they have, because we seem to lack the moral imagination to bring all facets of a conflict into play - and doesn't that factor into any question of whether or not a war was just? Does naive moral reasoning excuse its results?

So to answer my own question about the proportionality of these 2 conflicts, I am forced to admit that I just don't know. My gut tells me that Afghanistan was probably pretty close to it, and Iraq a far-cry. But we can't govern by intuition - we have to ask and attempt to answer these hard questions, always hounded by the stark realization that, on this side of heaven, we'll probably never have a good solution.


The house is finally on the market and almost 100% of the work is done. There are a few minor things to take care of, but after the marathon of house-related work that started Wednesday afternoon when my uncle arrived to help re-furbish our kitchen and ended Monday night (no fireworks for us, sad to say), I'm going to take my own sweet time in addressing them. Its mostly just keeping the place clean & tidy in hopes of a few showings. Now, it just has to sell and we just have to figure out where God wants us to go or if he wants us to stay. Its been a stressful month in that regard, but at least we're finally at a point when things can start happening one way or another.