Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the Eve of the Our Reprisal Against Syria

            I am wondering about this international rush to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. I don’t like it. I fear that it is hypocritical and self-serving.

            But first a caveat. I am sure—as sure as a twenty-first century guy who didn’t live through the gas attacks on the front lines of some WWI battlefield like Ypres—I am sure that the use of chemical weapons is a terrible evil. No one in his or her right mind would condone such use.

            Why? It is a potentially painful way to die—perhaps like bleeding to death from shrapnel. It is a weapon that can be used as easily against civilians as against soldiers—like nuclear weapons or landmines. Chemical weapons are also a sort of mirror on human depravity. The suffering that followed their use in WWI has sunk so deep in (most) nation’s psyches that it is a place we just can’t go back to. But mostly, chemical warfare is thought of as especially evil because it is a weapon of mass destruction. Their use cannot be easily restricted to a front line or military installation. Noncombatants suffer.

            And that is just how it is with war, especially modern war. The truth is, whereas several hundred civilians died in the chemical weapons attack earlier this month, a hundred thousand have already died in the larger Syrian civil war. By bullets. Missiles. IEDs. Infection and disease. Bombs. And beyond Syria the toll rises into the millions. Why don’t we pull together an international treaty to outlaw bullets? Nuclear weapons? What is it about chemical weapons that move us more than these other, arguable far more effective and destructive weapons?
            I listened carefully to what John Kerry and Prime Minister David Cameron had to say, and while they were obviously outraged at the use of the chemical weapons, neither explained why this form of warfare was particularly immoral compared to the larger war or nuclear weapons or land mines  It was almost as if their outrage made a more nuanced explanation of the moral issues unnecessary. “Can’t you see how mad I am. Of course the use of such weapons is evil beyond imagining!” They reminded me of the preacher who put in his notes "weak point; pound pulpit." This has happened before. Who can forget Colin Powell’s raising the spectre of chemical weapons before the start of the Iraq war?

            I also believe our outrage at Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a rallying cry for the West right now because our cultural narcissism needs something to be outraged at to justify itself. We need to assuage a vague but collective sense of guilt we have that is occasioned by our pervasive lack of gravitas when it comes to almost everything we do or do not do, from popular entertainments to climate change.

            Of course, cultural narcissism is only a partial explanation for the outrage. For others, this moral outrage is a cover for our own reliance on even more deadly weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons. This moral outrage justifies our reliance on the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against. This moral outrage at Syria justifies our sales of arms to just about every nation that wants them. This moral outrage gives civil Christians the opportunity to act like peacemakers when generally they love nothing better than having their country build more chariots and rely on more horses. This moral outrage is a deep magic that excuses our boredom with news from Egypt and Syria and the Congo and so on. I mean, did you see Miley’s performance at the VMA? Now that was shocking!

            I do not pretend to know what the answer is in Syria or Egypt or anywhere else in the world. But that does not mean just a violent response is the best one. It reeks of international “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This approach has not made Middle East more prosperous or democratic or friendly to the West over the past fifty years or so. Remember how years before 9/11 Clinton was lobbing cruise missiles at Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps? Why should another round fired at Damascus help bring peace and prosperity or amity there? Why shouldn't it spark a wider war? Did shock and awe solve Iraq’s problems? Not knowing the right answer to Syria’s convulsions doesn’t mean we should fall back on solutions that have not worked before.

            So tonight I am sad. I’m tied up in knots, actually. Partly it is the swelling moral outrage that demands military action, now! And partly, it is the lack of similar outrage over the first 100,000 to die there. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Blue Jays and the Ordo Salutis

            My wife says my blog posts are good but too complicated. She says maybe I should write about the Blue Jays rather than the ordo salutis. The trouble is, the Blue Jays have been awful this year. Everyone in Toronto (well, except those who have moved here from New England and especially New York) had high hopes for the Jays this year. Last winter we brought MVP Dickey and Johnson and Cabrera and Reyes and Buehrle to town. Tragically, since then, the Jays have never clicked. Injuries have been rife and they are mired in last place.

            This year’s anguish reminds me of happier times. I remember going to a Jays game back when they were World Series contenders nearly every year. Once, in particular, I took my son David to his first ever game in what we then called the “Skydome.” Our seats were cheap blues on the very top row. If I reached up, I could almost touch the tracks the dome ran on.

            If I looked down, though, I could only barely see the baseball game. It was going on ten stories below. The players looked about a quarter inch tall. Then only way I could see what the Blue Jays were doing was by watching replays on the three-story high jumbotron television scoreboard.

            It was even worse for little David. Being all of four years old, David didn't even know what to look for. So he sat there wondering what all the fuss was about, for 14 innings, past midnight, before the Jays finally beat the Tigers.

            If baseball, the main event, was all the Skydome had to offer my David our visit would have been a disaster. Fortunately, though, there were other things that kept David happy. There was an uncle and two cousins to play with. There was a washroom with one hundred shiny-white fixtures lined up against the wall. I’ll never forget the way David gasped when he walked in there the first time! David went back for four replays. Best of all, there was a hotdog, candy, ice cream and coke.

            In fact, David was so distracted by the things close at hand, that it didn't bother him one bit that he missed out on the main event.

            Which is a life temptation for all of us. How often aren't we so distracted by the baubles and bright lights, the celebrities and Angry Birds, ESPN and the rat race—how many of us are so distracted by everything going on in the periphery of our lives that we miss out on the main event?

            What might that be? Well, I suppose different people will offer different variations of this answer. But from my perspective, the best way of putting it is that main event in life is my calling, my mission, my passion to be an ambassador of reconciliation.

            The Apostle Paul uses this striking phrase in 2 Corinthians 5 to describe what Christians are all about. We're “ambassadors for Christ,” in order to let the world know that God is reconciling the world to himself—making all things new. Christians are people who contribute to that newness (by their love) and signal that newness (by their love) in whatever they do. We are ambassadors of reconciliation.

            Now, being an ambassador is a big deal. I suppose that in all of Canada or the United States there are only two or three hundred people who are ambassadors. Few get the call. Caroline Kennedy is going to Japan. Ken Taylor of Argo fame was an ambassador who smuggled Americans out of Iran. Bush One was an ambassador to China.

            But if being an ambassador for Obama or Harper seems like a big deal, just think of how much more it is to be an ambassador for the God of heaven’s star fields and earth’s beauty and grandeur. An ambassador who has one, key, central message from the God who posts us: “love one another, as I have loved you.” A message of reconciliation.

            For me, that’s the main event. When I keep that part of my life front and centre there are no wasted summers or disappointing seasons. And distractions are just that—brief (though often pleasant and relaxing) moments away from the one, central task that gives everything else meaning and joy.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Strange Lord

How does one find God after losing God? I’ve asked this question a lot, mostly in view of my own crises of faith. Looking back, I see that sticking with God wasn’t one thing for me but a number of circumstances not all directly related to faith. Being a pastor was certainly one. Friends and family made a difference. Some books made an impression. But here I am, still a pastor—albeit in a different denomination and in a congregation where post-theism is a going concern.

Others, like philosopher Richard Kearney, have left and come back.

Richard Kearney’s book, Anatheism: Returning to God After God is very good. He writes, “My wager through this volume is that only if one concedes that one knows virtually nothing about God that one can begin to recover the presence of holiness in the flesh of ordinary existence.” One does so by encountering God in the stranger.

Although I enjoyed the book a great deal, I think Kearney claims too much for such encounters. And anyway, I’ve always been suspicious of people who claim divine encounters.

Still, within scripture, God often seems a stranger. There is the whole concept of holiness, for example. The divine attribute of holiness has the sense of “apartness,” or “otherness” to it. When scriptural characters meet God—and there were very few who did, outside of dreams and visions—God’s holiness usually turned them away, put awe and fear into them, because God’s holiness is a wall of unknowing.

But there is also something incongruous about how God reveals himself to Biblical characters. I’ve just reread L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. In the first throne room scene where Dorothy and her companions meet Oz, he appears to them, in turn, as a giant head, a beautiful woman, a ball of fire, and a terrible beast. But in the end, these all turn out to be apparitions created by Oz. He is really something else, entirely.

And that is how it is with God in the Old Testament. God shows up in all sorts of guises.

God talks with Adam and Eve and walks with Enoch. Under the Oaks of Mamre, God appears as a guest to Abraham. God is a wrestler when he comes to Jacob at the Jabbok River. Gideon isn’t sure whether it is the angel of God or God who meets him, but thinks he’s going to die either way. The prophet Elijah can’t find God in the great wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire—though perhaps, oddly, God speaks in the silence. God is so bright and holy on Mount Sinai that the best Moses can manage is to get a glimpse from the back. Which one is the real God? Such encounters underline the strangeness of God.

God is a stranger in the New Testament too. Here we find the suggestion that Jesus—who goes around Palestine trying to keep his identity secret—is actually God. And then Jesus tells us that if we really want to meet him, we need to find him in the prisoner, the naked, the sick, and the stranger.

Over and over again, God is portrayed in scripture as a stranger—sometimes benevolent, sometimes angry, sometimes fearsome, and sometimes invisible.

The portrait of God as stranger is especially powerful in the non-name God gives himself at the burning bush. Yahweh.

Yahweh is probably best described as a verb that means something like “I am whoever I am.” So the name for God in the Old Testament is something like a long-running enigma or riddle—this God can’t be named, thus can’t be controlled, and can’t be explained. Every time I read this word in the Old Testament—thousands of times—I am reminded that it isn’t so much just that God hides from us as we can’t comprehend God, even if God is right before or behind us. In a way, Yahweh is saying to Moses, and to all of us, “I am a stranger to you.”

One of the ways that Jews acknowledge this distance between God and themselves is that they now refuse to say the word “Yahweh.” This honours God’s holiness and thus God’s strangeness. But I wonder if perhaps Jews also refuse to say the name “Yahweh” because they are also a bit disappointed with this apparent snub when Moses asked for a name at the burning bush. If so, I sympathize. Not ever saying “Yahweh” could be a Jewish strategy for asking God for a more personal and friendly relationship. It is a way of mourning the impossibility of a personal relationship with God. We are not on a first name basis with God. God is a cipher. God is beyond human knowing, explaining, or buddying around with. A stranger.

         I don’t mean, by saying so, to suggest that we can know nothing of God. I’m sure—no, better say I’m hopeful or I have faith—that God is the ground of all being. And, by saying God is a stranger, I don’t mean to suggest that in some wonderful and mysterious way, Jesus and his path of sacrificial love didn’t reveal something of God that we can hang onto. I guess that is why Jesus once said to the disciple Philip, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. But even here, we have not met and known Jesus like Philip did. The New Testament contains a fascinating portrait of Jesus. But this path to God is incredibly circuitous and obscured by the nearly 2000 years that have passed since these words were written. God is a stranger.

Which is why, I think, that in the Old Testament, we are told—so says Richard Kearney—thirty-six times to love the stranger, and only twice to love our neighbor. 

The bottom line is that Kearney’s book has made me wonder about the strangers in my life, in the news, the aliens in our gates we marginalize by defining them as "Illegal."I wonder who lives in and with all these strangers near and far. And I wonder whether seeing them, I can believe.