Saturday, December 31, 2005

Looking Forward

1 John 3:2 (New Living Translation)

“Yes, dear friends, we are already God's children, and we can't even imagine what we will be like when Christ returns. But we do know that when he comes we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.”

Another year has passed. Tonight Nancy and I will be celebrating the coming of the New Year with a group of friends who have been through the New Years’ rituals many times before. In our younger days most of us shed the old with drink and merriment, I think trying to drown out the hopeful expectations dashed by the year’s bitter realities. Tonight, though, we’ll be breaking bread, eating home made soup, reminiscing, sharing the aches and pains, and looking forward to a hope beyond the reality that so often drowns out that hope. It’s all part of another rite of passage, a maturing, a coming of age.

Two thousand and five was a difficult year. I think 2006 will be no less so. There will be, as there always has been, war and the rumor of war. There will, as there always have been, political battles. There will be, as there always have been, the evil deeds that choke out the hope of a better world. Like tares growing alongside the wheat, the cares of the world will way heavy on the hearts of mankind.

Oh, 2006 will be ushered in with words of hope. There’ll be fireworks and balls dropping, dancing and singing. But, soon enough, by January 2nd, the bitter reality will set in. It’s been that way for eons, it seems.

What’s at the heart of this dance with deception? It’s misplaced hope. We put too much faith in ourselves. Does that mean we shouldn’t dream, or hope, or act out, as much as is humanly possible, those dreams and hopes? No! But it does mean that we should take those hopes and dreams out of the shadows and bring them into the light.

There is, it is written, a glory to come, a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb, a time when justice will roll like mighty waters, a time when the glory longed for will become certain knowledge, a time when the dreams of the prophets will be realized. When that new day dawns, the cyclical reality of hopes expressed, then dashed by the events of the day, will, once and for all, be broken.

This morning I read a short essay, taken from C.S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory. As the old year passes and a new one dawns, I’d like to share it with you. It expresses my deepest hope for the year ahead, for me, my family, and for you:

“This brings me to the other sense of glory – glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun; we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more - something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves – that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it cannot. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rushing with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

I pray that your New Year will be filled with that longing. May it be filled with the hope that what now seems a distant shadow will become a living reality. May your New Year be blessed!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Surveillance and Snooping - Who's Kidding Who?

Psalm 64:1-6 (New International Version)

1 “Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint;
protect my life from the threat of the enemy.
2 Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from that noisy crowd of evildoers.
3 They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows.
4 They shoot from ambush at the innocent man; they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.
5 They encourage each other in evil plans, they talk about hiding their snares; they say, “Who will see them?”
6 They plot injustice and say, “We have devised a perfect plan!” Surely the mind and heart of man are cunning.”

With Congress on recess, much of the furor about the President’s authorization of warrantless wiretaps being conducted by the National Security Agency has died down. It’s only a temporary respite. The legislators will be back after the first of the year, the hearings will begin, and most will be distancing themselves politically from the President.

It all smacks of hypocrisy to me. Political opportunists from both sides of the aisle will make grand speeches about their dedication to civil liberties. Then, when the next terrorist attack takes place they’ll be in a fury, demanding to know why the president didn’t do anything to prevent it. And, don’t you know, newspaper editorial pages will be overflowing with condemnation, blaming the administration for what’s happened.

Andrew McCarthy, seeing the hypocrisy, sarcastically asked the question many of the legislators will in all likelihood be asking before long – “What makes the president think he can invade the privacy of Americans without a warrant?”

Upon asking the question, McCarthy went on to list twenty-five instances in which federal law recognizes such a right. For instance, federal law recognizes the right of law enforcement officials to “arrest American citizens, based on probable cause, without a warrant?” The right of law enforcement officials to “conduct a warrantless search of the person of an American citizen who has been detained, with or without a warrant” has also been recognized by the courts.

I occasionally go down to the Lyon County Courthouse here in Emporia. In order to conduct business there, I have to go through a metal detector. I can complain as much as I want about invasions of privacy as I do, but I won’t get to conduct business there unless I go through the metal detector. Any time I’ve ever been there I’ve never known of anyone issuing a warrant or getting a judge’s approval to search my person electronically. Nor have I ever gotten on an airplane without going through such a warrantless search. It’s the way things are, and should be, when terrorists and malefactors are lurking about.

Is our privacy being invaded? Sometimes, I think. But, I also think the government has far less interest in me than it has on trying to find out what terrorists, living in America, might be up to.

Myself, I like the idea. I don’t think that someone planning to kill thousands of Americans has an unlimited right to privacy. In fact, I think that terrorists have forfeited their right to privacy by engaging in in plots against United States citizens. Libertarians, politicians seeking political advantage, and journalists may believe that that terrorists have an unlimited right to privacy. I don’t.

Is the government the only entity invading our privacy? No! Just before Christmas I asked the boys down at the Gazette who they might be snooping on. I got no reply. Now, I doubt that a small town newspaper has an accomplished surveillance team, but I have no doubt that the big boys do. This morning I read a piece by Ann Coulter titled “Live and Let Spy.” Citing a New York Times Story published Monday, she noted:

“Monday's Times carried a major expose’ on child molesters who use the Internet to lure their adolescent prey into performing sex acts for Webcams. In the course of investigating the story, reporter Kurt Eichenwald broke open a massive network of pedophiles, rescued a young man who had been abused for years, and led the Department of Justice to hundreds of child molesters.”

Good for the New York Times, I say. I don't think that pedophiles have an unlimited right to privacy any more than terrorists do. It’s about time something that benefits society found its way on to its pages.

How did the Times get the information it needed to run the story? Coulter explained:

“In order to report the story, the Times said it obtained:

Copies of online conversations and e-messages between minors and the creep adults;

Records of payments to the minors;

Membership lists for Webcam sites;

Defunct sites stored in online archives;

Files retained on a victim’s computer over several years;

Financial records, credit card processing data and other information”

How did the New York Times get the information? They spied! Did they get warrants to invade the privacy of the pedophiles and their victims? No! Did they talk to a judge before they did their digging? Of course not. Do the New York Times and other big newspapers routinely snoop on the rest of us? You’d better believe it. And, when they do they don’t get warrants.

The Times, like the legislators who’ll be circling like vultures in a few days, would argue that they were acting in the public interest. I’d like to believe that, but I find it hypocritical that the Times believes it can conduct its own surveillance, yet would deny that right to the federal government. As Coulter said, “Would that the Times allowed the Bush administration similar investigative powers for Islamofacists in America.”

Who am I supposed to trust in all of this? Who has the security of me and my family at heart? The Congress? Not a chance. Our legislators have done far less to merit our trust in this regard than the president. Public polls taken recently, showing that fewer than one-third of Americans have confidence in either their senators or congressmen, tell me I’m right. Should I trust the press? No way! In a recent poll journalists rate even lower than used car salesman in the public’s eye. They’ve too great a penchant for cozying up to the tyrants of the world to suit me. They’d sell the security of the United States in a minute if it meant securing an interview with Usama Bin Laden. They’d kiss his derriere and give him the co-ordinates for the Sears Tower in exchange for fifteen minutes of questions and answers with him in his cave. There is no way I would trust a journalist with the security of my family.

On page fifty-one of the November, 2002 FISA Court of Review Case (case # 02-001) there’s an interesting footnote to the Court’s conclusion that “Indeed, it was suggested that the FISA court “requirements based on Truong may well have contributed, whether correctly understood or not, to the FBI missing opportunities to anticipate the September 11, 2001 attacks:”

The footnote, which follows, is, I believe, instructive:

“An FBI agent recently testified that efforts to conduct a criminal investigation of two of the alleged hijackers were blocked by senior FBI officials – understandably concerned about prior FISA court criticism – who interpreted that court’s decisions as precluding a criminal investigator’s role. One agent, frustrated at encountering the “wall,” wrote to headquarters: “(S)omeday someone will die – and wall or not – the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’ Let’s hope the National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, (Usama Bin Laden), is getting the most “protection.” The agent was told in response that headquarters was frustrated with the issue, but that those were the rules, and the National Security Law Unit does not make them up.”

I can’t predict how this will all play itself out in the courts. I can predict, however, that if the press and many in the Congress have their way, a lot of American mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers will be mourning losses inflicted by terrorists who used a sympathetic press and a politically motivated Congress to ply their deadly trade.

So, the question of who I can trust in this equation is paramount to me. Should I trust my security and right to life to the Congress, with seventy-one members who can’t get a credit card because of bad credit, fourteen who’ve been arrested on drug charges, eighty-four who’ve been arrested for drunk driving, and thirty-six of whom have been charged with spousal abuse? Should I trust the press, who would sell MY soul to Usama Bin Laden for a scoop? You may if you like. You’re free to be a fool. Me? I’ll trust the executive branch on this one.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Playing Al Qaeda Roulette - The Press, the Democrats, and the War on Terror

“A word to the wise ain't necessary, it's the stupid ones who need the advice.”

- Bill Cosby

I have some advice for the Democratic Party and the American press. Stop playing Al Qaeda roulette with the security of the American people.

It seems that the war in Iraq is going well. The soldiers conducting the war believe so. The people of Iraq believe it is. The President also believes that it is, calling his critics out in a televised national speech from the Oval Office last night:

“I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country — victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party because the security of our people is in the balance. I do not expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom.”

But, the Democratic Party and the national press, seems these days to be in a different league. The prospect of victory in the war on terror is troubling them.

I’m a Democrat and I have many issues with the President and his party. But, on the issue of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, I supported the President when we and our allies took Saddam Hussein from international circulation. I support that decision now, notwithstanding the effort of Saddam’s lawyers and assorted international “friends” to continue insisting that he is still “the president” of Iraq:

“Saddam’s lawyers use a video link to speak to him as he languishes in a jail cell inside the courthouse during his trial.”

“Bizarrely, his legal team address Saddam as “Mr. President” — despite the fact he tortured, gassed and butchered an estimated 300,000 of his own people during a 24-year reign of terror.”

While the quote may be from a tabloid, it is instructive. Only someone like Ramsey Clark, whose list of clients is a who’s who of evil in the world, would staunchly defend men like Charles Taylor of Liberia, Rwanda’s Elizaphan Ntikarutimana, or Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. Who but a fool would describe someone as debased and evil as Elizaphan Ntikarutimana as harmless pacifist:

“In February 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found both Ntakirutimana and his son Gérard guilty of genocide committed in Rwanda in 1994. The Tribunal found it proven beyond reasonable doubt that Ntakirutimana had transported armed attackers to the Mugonero complex, where they killed hundreds of Tutsi refugees. Ntakirutimana was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.”

Ramsey Clark, Defence Counsel for Ntakirutimana, described the clergyman as a pacifist who couldn't even “wring the neck of a chicken.”

Right! And Saddam Hussein is still the president of Iraq. Sure! Saddam was justified in the genocide he committed. This is a clear example of stupidity running amok.

How did a former Attorney General of the United States get to where he is now? The only answer I can come up with for his stupidity is, as comedians answer when asked about how one gets to Carnegie Hall, that it takes “practice, practice, practice.”

This brings me to the latest bout of stupidity that has infected the Democratic Party. As I said in my last post, the party I’ve voted for through almost all of my adult life put itself in jeopardy of being politically irrelevant by acting as implicit supporters of defeat in Iraq and the war on terror. The President, seeing where his political opponents were going, skillfully outflanked them. The Democratic Party has bet on the wrong horse in this race and unless they change horses in mid-stream they’ll continue to pay politically for their blunder. As John Podhoretz noted this morning:

“But in the end, “the need for victory is larger than any president or political party.” In the end, “the security of our people is in the balance.” Hate me. But if you love America and its brave men and women in uniform, you will agree with me that “the road to victory . . . is the road that will take them home.”

“Checkmate, Mr. Murtha.”

Unfortunately, though, I sense that the taxpayer subsidized stupidity is going to continue to be the mainstay of the Democratic Party playbook.

Over the weekend the New York Times seemed to give the Democrats the ammunition they feel they need to bring this President, and his war, down. The media claimed that the President violated the law by authorizing the wiretaps of Al Qaeda supporters making or receiving telephone calls or other communications from allies outside the United States. The Washington Post picked up on the story, then expounded on it as only the Washington Post can:

“Does the administration now claim that warrantless surveillance of hundreds of people by an agency generally barred from domestic spying is consistent with FISA? Does it claim that the congressional authorization to use military force against al Qaeda somehow unties the president's hands? Other than claiming it has done nothing illegal, the administration is not saying.”

The battle was joined. On Saturday the President responded:

“To fight the war on terror, I am using authority vested in me by Congress, including the Joint Authorization for Use of Military Force, which passed overwhelmingly in the first week after September the 11th. I'm also using constitutional authority vested in me as Commander-in-Chief.”

“In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.”

“This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security. Its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, our friends and allies. Yesterday the existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports, after being improperly provided to news organizations. As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country.”

The President further claimed that the surveillance was legal, necessary, protective of the rights of Americans, and that Congress has been briefed and consulted more than twelve times about the on-going problem.

The Democratic Party response was swift, and predictable:

“Reid (Senate minority leader Harry Reid) acknowledged he had been briefed on the four-year-old domestic spy program “a couple months ago” but insisted the administration bears full responsibility. Reid became Democratic leader in January.” “The president can't pass the buck on this one. This is his program,” Reid said. “He's commander in chief. But commander in chief does not trump the Bill of Rights.”
“House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Saturday that she had been told on several occasions about unspecified activities by the NSA. Pelosi said she expressed strong concerns at the time.”

I think I’ve got it. Harry Reid says he’s been briefed, but he bears no responsibility. Nancy Pelosi says she’s been told several times about the program and had expressed “strong concerns.”

The Democratic response was, sadly, every bit as stupid as Ramsey Clark’s defense of terror.

This morning I watched the President’s news conference. He came out swinging, calling the leak of the information about the highly classified program “shameless.”

So, the swords are once again crossed. There is political warfare going on in America’s newsrooms and the seats of power.

I suppose I should be more trusting of our press, but my repeated bouts with Patrick Kelley at the Emporia Gazette have jaded me. While Mr. Kelley is a harmless small town journalist, though, the folks at the Washington Post and the New York Times aren’t. They’re powerful and they’re deadly. Knowing this, I decided to check out as many of the relevant statutes they are claiming the President has violated. I suspect that in the space of four hours today I’ve read more about the law relevant to this matter than most journalists covering the story.

Did the President break the law in this case?

Today he said he acted in accord with the U.S. Constitution, Senate joint resolution 23 (later to become public law 107-40), the war powers act of 1973, the Congressional Resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq (October, 2002), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Let’s look at the relevant data. First, the Constitution. Article 2, section two states that:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”

The Democratic counter argument is that the surveillance violates the fourth amendment to the Constitution:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I doubt that the Democrats or the New York Times would say that the surveillance was unreasonable. The crux of their argument, then, is that no warrant was issued for the surveillance.

The issue of warrants was raised by several journalists during today’s news conference. Why hadn’t the President and the NSA used the provisions of FISA, which was passed in 1978, to get the information they needed. I decided to see if what the boys in the Fourth Estate squared with the legal realities. After a bit of digging I found some very interesting information. A report compiled by the Congressional Research Service, prepared in September, 2004, noted that:

“Investigations for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence give rise to a
tension between the Government’s legitimate national security interests and the
protection of privacy interests. The stage was set for legislation to address these
competing concerns in part by Supreme Court decisions on related issues. In Katz
v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), the Court held that the protections of the
Fourth Amendment extended to circumstances involving electronic surveillance of
oral communications without physical intrusion. The Katz Court stated, however,
that its holding did not extend to cases involving national security. (my emphasis added)

The report went on to highlight the tension between the executive branch to protect Americans from terror and the Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure:

“The Court held that, in the case of intelligence gathering involving domestic security
surveillance, prior judicial approval was required to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.
Justice Powell emphasized that the case before it “require[d] no judgment on the
scope of the President’s surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers, within or without the country.” (my emphasis added)
The Court expressed no opinion as to “the issues which may be involved with respect to activities of foreign powers or their agents.”

This is a fight that has been going on for years now. It all began with the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973. Using language stark, legal language, Congress appropriated to itself the power to direct the executive branch and to do its bidding:

“Notwithstanding subsection (b), at any time that United States Armed Forces are engaged in hostilities outside the territory of the United States, its possessions and territories without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.”

Since its passage in the Senate, lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, have used the law as a hammer against the White House. Democrats used it against Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Republicans used it to rein in Bill Clinton in Kosovo and prevented him from acting in Rwanda. The law has been challenged by successive administrations, who have argued that Congress violated the Constitutional provision for separation of powers in doing passing the War Powers Act. The debate still rages.

On September 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., Tom Daschle, Senate minority leader, drafted Senate Joint Resolution 23. The resolution was passed and became public law 107-40 on September 18, 2001.

The language seems clear, unambiguous:

“Whereas on September 11, 2001, acts of treacherous violence were committed against the United States and its citizens;”

“Whereas such acts render it both necessary and appropriate that the United States exercise its rights to self-defense and to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad;”

“Whereas in the light of the threat to national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by these grave acts of violence;”

“Whereas such acts continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States; and”

“Whereas the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States, Now therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America assembled,”

“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

After all the legal language, there are some things that still remain clear. The President of the United States, whether Republican or Democrat, is our Commander in Chief. The United States is also at war with terrorists, whether they be nations, organizations, or persons. And, the President does have recognized authority under the Constitution to take action. Finally, the President believes he has acted in accord with that authority and has also acted in accord with the Constitution, including the fourth amendment.

There are a couple of things that don’t seem clear. The War Powers Act of 1973 may not be as constitutional as its congressional proponents argue. It may violate the important doctrine of separation of powers. Additionally, it isn’t at all clear that the President violated FISA provisions for warrants in the surveillance issue. In fact, legal scholars, including a Supreme Court justice, seem to think otherwise.

We may now be headed for a constitutional showdown. In a time of war, when the energy and resources of the nation need to be focused on winning the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and national unity, the press and the Democratic Party are playing an exceedingly dangerous game. They’re playing with the lives of Americans, using them as political pawns in a power game. They may be, as the President said today, engaging in “shameful” acts. In fact, it might even be worse, a violation of article 3, section 3 of the Constitution under which journalists ply their trade and lawmakers have sworn to uphold.

This morning, John McIntyre, founder of Real Clear Politics, noted that:

“One of the major problems working against Democrats is many on their side appear to be rooting for failure in Iraq and publicly ridicule the idea that we actually might win. When this impression is put in context of the debate over eavesdropping or the Patriot Act, Democrats run the significant risk of being perceived to be more concerned with the enemy’s rights than protecting ordinary Americans. This is a loser for Democrats.”

“If Democrats want to make this spying “outrage” a page one story they are fools walking right into a trap. Now that this story is out and the security damage is already done, let’s have a full investigation into exactly who the President spied on and why. Let’s also find out who leaked this highly classified information and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. If the president is found to have broken the law and spied on political opponents or average Americans who had nothing to do with terrorism, then Bush should be impeached and convicted.”

“But unlike Senator Levin, who claimed on Meet The Press yesterday not to know what the President’s motives were when he authorized these eavesdropping measures, I have no doubt that the President’s use of this extraordinary authority was solely an attempt to deter terrorist attacks on Americans and our allies. Let the facts and the truth come out, but the White House’s initial response is a pretty powerful signal that they aren’t afraid of where this is heading.”

I don’t know what Mr. McIntyre’s political persuasion is, but I’m with him. Let’s finish our noble work in Iraq. Let’s win this war on terror. Let’s root out the terrorists, whether they live abroad or in the United States. Let’s stop acting on the basis of hate or political agenda. Let’s let the facts and the truth come out. It’s simple, really. The Democratic Party and the press need to start acting like loyal, responsible Americans. That’s the need of the hour, not stupidity.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Democratic Party's Dilemma - Success in Iraq Could Spell Defeat for Them

“We live in a political world
Turning and a’thrashing about,
As soon as you’re awake, you’re trained to take
What looks like the easy way out.”

- Bob Dylan – “Political World” (1989)

Yesterday’s parliamentary election in Iraq, with about seventy percent of the country’s eligible voters casting ballots, was, clearly, a success. I think it may have created a real dilemma for the Democratic Party.

Nancy Pelosi, possibly seeing the Iraq issue getting away from the Democrats, attempted today to distance herself from earlier Democratic statements on the war:

“House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday that Democrats should not seek a unified position on an exit strategy in Iraq, calling the war a matter of individual conscience and saying differing positions within the caucus are a source of strength for the party.”

“Pelosi said Democrats will produce an issue agenda for the 2006 elections but it will not include a position on Iraq. There is consensus within the party that President Bush has mismanaged the war and that a new course is needed, but House Democrats should be free to take individual positions, she said.”

“There is no one Democratic voice . . . and there is no one Democratic position,” Pelosi said in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.”

Pelosi, who supports John Murtha’s plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq, appears to be trying to moderate the strident rhetoric that’s been floating around, particularly the Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean’s “no can win” statement from a couple of weeks ago:

“In an interview with WOAI radio in San Antonio Monday, the head of the Democratic Party drew a parallel between efforts to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqis and similar efforts during the Vietnam War to the South Vietnamese.
That side ultimately lost the war.
“Of course, the South Vietnamese couldn't manage to support their own country," Dean said. "I do not believe in making the same mistake twice. And America appears to have made the same mistake twice.”
Dean said he wished President Bush “had paid more attention to the history of Iraq before we had gotten in there.”
“The idea that we are going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong,” he said.”

Dean later said that his remarks were taken “a bit out of context.”

I’ve looked at his statement and also listened to the audio of his interview and the context Mr. Dean created was clear. He was asked a question about the training of Iraqi soldiers and policemen and the impact the training would have on the withdrawal of American troops. Dean launched into a statement about Vietnam and Vietnamization, clearly comparing Vietnam to Iraq. He then said, clearly, that the war in Iraq is un-winnable.

Mr. Dean also claimed that the Democratic Party has a strategy for Iraq. That doesn’t seem to square with Ms. Pelosi’s statement that the Democrats should not seek a unified exit strategy. In sorting it out I’ve concluded that Ms. Pelosi’s attempt to recast the things that have been said is a flimsy attempt at trying to hide the Democratic leadership’s real political strategy, which is retreat to gain votes.

Here’s what I, a JFK/Henry Jackson see as the big problem the Democratic Party has created for itself by taking such strident positions. Successes, like yesterday’s elections, work against them. Success puts the Democrats on the defensive. That is, they have hitched their political hopes to the wagon of failure in Iraq. That, in turn, has left them in the unenviable position of being the cheerleaders for insurgent and terrorist success. They’ve pinned their hopes in the misguided notion that failure in Iraq will bring them success at the ballot box.

This morning I read an essay written by Fred Kaplan illustrates my point. Mr. Kaplan, even in the face of yesterday’s success, found more room for pessimism than he could optimism. It appears that democracy may be taking hold in Iraq, but that, according to him, may not be good news:

“A new book, Electing To Fight, by two political scientists—Edward Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack Snyder of Columbia—reinforces this pessimism. The book argues that, while mature democracies do tend to be more peaceful and almost never go to war with one another, emerging democracies tend to be more violent and aggressive than any other type of regime—and are more likely to erupt in civil war or revert to autocratic rule.”

“Exceptions, of course, abound: several of the post-Soviet nations of Central and Eastern Europe, some thriving new democracies in Central America. But, working from an exhaustive historical database, Mansfield and Snyder outline the conditions for a successful democratization, among them: a literate populace; a fairly prosperous and diverse economy; and a set of democratic institutions, not least a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.”

Things got worse as the essay went on. At one point, Kaplan added it all up and declared:

“That pretty well sums up Iraqi politics. What we saw today was not simply Iraqis going to vote for a new parliament. We saw Shiites going to vote for Shiite supremacy, if not an outright Islamic state. We saw Sunni Arabs going to vote for some restoration of Sunni power. We saw Kurds going to vote for the enhancement of Kurdish autonomy.”

While he never said that democracy in Iraq couldn’t succeed, he did leave the distinct impression that success was highly unlikely.

I gave some thought to what Mr. Kaplan had to say and the more I did the more I came to see that the same things could just as easily be said about the American political process. I’ve voted in enough elections in my lifetime to know that Democrats, Republicans, Independents vote for their party’s supremacy. And, I feel it’s safe and sane to say that the Democratic Party, like the Sunnis in Iraq, want their supporters to vote for them so that they’ll be restored to power. On the matter of autonomy, I wonder if Mr. Kaplan missed that red/blue map of the United States a few years ago. What option to this messiness would he prefer? Another dictator like Saddam? I’ll bet if we let it be known we’re looking for a strongman to stabilize the situation democracy may have created in Iraq, Osama himself, or possibly Saddam and his defense team, would gladly take the job.

When I lived in New Jersey back in the nineties my wife and I would occasionally go camping along the Delaware River with a group from our church. On one of those trips a small group of them got themselves caught out on a cold, dark night. They’d started out thinking they’d spend a few hours floating down the river. Instead, the trip took hours, and became a real ordeal. The sun went down, the temperatures plunged into the thirties. Most in the group were only wearing shorts or swimming trunks, which made them eminently unprepared for what happened. Thankfully, they did make it back to the campsite at around midnight. They were chilled to the bone, but they did make it back safely. Later, when the group had warmed up, one of them gave me an account of what had happened. One of the most telling things I learned was that one person in the group became the critic, trying to interpret every failure, every mistake, they’d made. The litany went on and on as the group inched their way back to the campsite. “We should have done this.” “We should have done that.” “We shouldn’t have even started out at all.” After hearing this over and over and seeing the negative impact it was having on the younger members of the group, Wally, my friend, shouted out the words everyone really needed to hear. “”Shut up, Darryl. Just shut up and keep walking with the rest of us!”

That’s what I, a Democrat, want to say to Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, Fred Kaplan, John Kerry, John Murtha, Joe Biden and the alliance of fear. “Shut up!” “Align yourself with the people of Iraq and Americans doing their very bestto ensure that democracy succeeds there.”

I recall an even earlier time in my life that parallels what’s going on now in the American political scene. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood, and had to spend a good part of my leisure time fending off hoodlums, gang members, neighborhood bullies, and local toughs. I was about fifteen or sixteen when it happened. A “friend” of mine had created some enemies in the neighborhood, which wasn’t particularly difficult to do. They were out to get him and he needed help. He knew I had a pretty good reputation as a fighter. I wasn’t afraid to fight for the right and I usually won. He sought my support, and I agreed I would stand by him. He then made it clear to everyone in the neighborhood that he was now prepared to stand up to the bullies and toughs who spent their time terrorizing everyone else. In the run-up to the battle he even taunted the enemy, letting them know he was prepared to stand and fight. When the time came for battle and the bloodletting began, though, he abandoned me. I took the beating and he got to criticize how I was conducting my mini-war. There’s a real friend for you.

I think that’s what the Democratic Party is doing to Americans serving in Iraq and the Iraqi people right now. All the party has to offer is an annoying set of lectures which are, I believe, preludes to abandonment. If the strategy is successful, there’s gonna’ be a lot of beating going on and allies will be abandoned. Then, in the flush of victory, they can tell us how it all should have been conducted in the first place.

How can it be that the party of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Henry Jackson has now become the party of retreat? How can it be that the party I once believed stood for principle and democracy has strayed so far from that course? I’d like once again to believe that my party believes in the principle of freedom, but events over the past two years have given me grave doubts. The party has placed its hope for success in future elections on the cynical notion that implicitly supporting tyranny gives them their best chance for success.

The people of Iraq have come a long way. They’ve had to fight, along with America’s finest, insurgents, terrorists, Saddam loyalists, international apathy, and political rancor coming from America. Yesterday, with seventy percent voting in spite of the obstacles, they took a giant step in the right direction.

In pinning their hope for electoral success on failure in Iraq, my party’s leaders have gone down the path of least resistance. It seems appealing; it seems safe. Actually, though, it’s the path of moral cowardice and defeat.

We can, and must, do better! Perhaps the good people of Iraq could send Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi some advisors and give them a primer on what freedom, principle, and loyalty are all about.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Elections in Iraq - A Time of Reckoning

“The great debate of my youth has returned. Once again, the world is divided between those who are prepared to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it. And, once again, the question that ultimately separates the two camps remains this: Do you believe in the power of freedom to change the world?”

Natan Sharansky – “The Case for Democracy” (page 17)

The people of Iraq are now just two days away from parliamentary elections. I pray that it become a historic milestone for the people of Iraq. As the day approaches, the rest of the world is anxiously watching and waiting, wondering whether Thursday’s elections will usher in a new era of promise for the Middle-East or new waves of terror.

These are momentous times. Some may accuse me of overstating the importance of what these elections mean to the world, but, then, freedom has always had its critics throughout history. The same critics who today dismiss the people of Iraq as incapable of self-governance and democracy now probably would have said the same sorts of things about America in the last three decades of the 18th century. The same critics who now say that the battle for democracy in Iraq cannot be won would probably have been ardent proponents of the status quo in 1776.

While I pray that Iraq and its people will prosper, I have no way of knowing it will be so. I do think it is safe to say that there will be days of great difficulty and a path with many challenges facing them. There will be no guarantees of success. The liberty they, along with their allies, have purchased with blood, must now be sustained and nurtured through the difficult days ahead.

I believe the people of Iraq are up to the task. They have suffered much over the past three and a half decades. Their lives have been left in ruins by an evil man and a world that refused to hear their cries for help. Their economy was left in tatters. The Kurds, the Shia, the Marsh Arabs, and anyone else who got in the way of the regime were tortured, murdered, and starved into submission. No one was exempt. The old suffered. Children suffered. Mothers and fathers suffered. I think a lesser people may have given up, but the people of Iraq didn’t.

There are some who now question whether America’s sacrifice on behalf of the people of Iraq was worth it. Over two thousand Americans have died in the fight to establish democracy there. Economic progress seems, based on media reports, to be slow. If the media reports are to be believed there is little reason to hope. The terrorists are reported to be smarter, tougher, more principled. They seem to be the darlings of the elites on the left and in the media.

The drumbeat of the naysayers has been effective. Some recent polls indicate many Americans surveyed do not believe that the sacrifices being made in Iraq have been worth it. I wonder how they would have felt about 18th century America’s slow, painful march to democracy. How would they have felt about four thousand lives given in liberty’s cause? Would the old ways be preferred to the sacrifice? How would they have felt about the years of economic difficulty that followed the revolution? How would they have felt about Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion? Would they have been seen as signals of democracy in its death throes? How would they have felt as they watched a fledgling democracy teetering on the brink of destruction? A lost cause?

When Nancy and I lived in New Jersey we would often take time to visit Morristown Memorial Park. Nestled close to the park’s entrance, preserved for each succeeding generation of Americans to see, are the rude huts that housed America’s earliest patriots. There, in the harsh winter of 1779, they hunkered down. They had no way of knowing that the war would go on for another four years until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, nor did they have any way of knowing that the years would bring more defeats on the battlefield than victories. Some, fearing the worst, abandoned the cause. History calls them “loyalists.” But, most chose to remain loyal to the cause of liberty. Their reward didn’t come in the form of prosperity. Their reward was liberty itself. The blessings of that liberty accrued to those who followed them, including us. They were self-less, caring more about principle and liberty for those who followed than for the comfort of tyranny.

They persevered because they knew that their cause was just. Yet, there are those who now enjoy the blessings of liberty who would deny it to the people of Iraq. The cause, they say, isn’t just. They are wrong!

By any measure the cause of the Iraqi people is just. All the remonstrations to the contrary by the critics of liberty cannot hide that fact. They talk about weapons of mass destruction and failed intelligence, but they refuse to talk about the cause of liberty. Why? The only reason I can think of is that they love liberty for themselves, but would deny it to others when the time for sacrifice came. They would expect others to come to their rescue at perilous times, but they would never come to the aid of another. They are prepared to secure and exercise their own liberty, but would abandon another at a time of need. The truth is, they have nothing to say. They are nothing more than self-absorbed fair weather friends.

The world, unfortunately has far too many of them. They have found places of power and privilege. They have spouted platitudes about freedom, democracy, and responsibility, but their actions have revealed the moral cowardice that infects their souls. It’s been that way for some time. The United Nations, the bastion of international freedom, for example, refused to act on behalf of Rwandans being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands. The United Nations refused to act on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia. The United Nations refused to act on behalf of the people of Iraq. The United Nations has turned a blind eye to all of this and more while their bureaucrats have produced documents that soothe their collective consciences:

“In both the broad conditions we identified - loss of life and ethnic cleansing - we have described the action in question as needing to be “large scale” in order to justify military intervention. We make no attempt to quantify “large scale”: opinions may differ in some marginal cases (for example, where a number of small scale incidents may build cumulatively into large scale atrocity), but most will not in practice generate major disagreement. What we do make clear, however, is that military action can be legitimate as an anticipatory measure in response to clear evidence of likely large scale killing. Without this possibility of anticipatory action, the international community would be placed in the morally untenable position of being required to wait until genocide begins, before being able to take action to stop it.”

They have decried the terror inflicted on millions, while at the same time they’ve condemned those who intervened on behalf of the abused and tortured. They have condemned unilateral intervention, while tacitly approving of terror and genocide by their inaction. Their inaction has made them traitors to the cause of freedom.

Where would the people of Iraq be today if the appeasers had their way? Being run through shredders. Being gassed. Being starved. I suspect that’s what many at the United Nations, along with their allies on the American left, would prefer.

In a few days the free people of Iraq will vote. In doing so, they will overcome decades of torture, murder, deprivation, and international neglect. They will do so, thanks to their willingness to fight for democracy and the sacrifice of her allies. They will prove their mettle, as they have over the past three years. They will prove that they are better than those who would give them over to terror. They will overcome. They will build a democracy. I pray that, as they do, their efforts will burn like coals of fire on what’s left of the consciences of those who would so easily abandon them.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Birthday Blues - The Christmas Closing Controversy

“We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.”

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man. (my emphasis added)”

From the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.)

Sometimes the powerful forget the source of their power. I think that may be the case for mega church leaders this Christmas. Many, citing the need for their staffs to be with family on this holiday, have cancelled services this year on Christmas day, Sunday, December 25th.

Willow Creek Community Church, possibly the best known of the mega churches, offered some creative explanations for the cancellations, as noted by the Chicago Tribune. First, there is this from one of the pastoral staff at Willow Creek:

“At first glance it does sound contrarian,” said Rev. Gene Appel, senior pastor of Willow Creek. “We don't see it as not having church on Christmas. We see it as decentralizing the church on Christmas--hundreds of thousands of experiences going on around Christmas trees. The best way to honor the birth of Jesus is for families to have a more personal experience on that day.”

And there’s this from another staffer:

“A spokeswoman for Willow Creek said the church has never held services on Christmas Day, except for one late-morning service on Dec. 25, 1994, the last time the holiday fell on a Sunday. About 1,500 people attended, said Cally Parkinson.”
“The resources that would have funded the church's Sunday service this year will go toward the DVD instead, potentially touching thousands more people than the same message from the stage on Sunday morning, Parkinson said.””[The Christmas season] is our Super Bowl,” she said. “Remembering our mission is to reach people who are far from God, and Christmas tends to be the one time of year when lots of those ‘unchurched’ people show up at Willow; why not give them a gift?”

I think I’ve got it. First, there’s a bit of newspeak. “We’re not “not” having church on Christmas, we’re decentralizing.” That’s clever, really clever. Big Brother would be proud. And, it’s quite enlightening indeed to know that the “Christmas season is our Super Bowl.” Whoopee! Let’s all break out the nachos, open a cold one, and let the games begin.

Closer to Emporia, one Kansas City media outlet weighed in on the controversy. Citing mega church officials, one reporter noted that the reason for the cancellations was because “the Christmas holiday is all about family.” Whether or not the quote was accurate, the impression has now been circulated that Christians think that the holiday celebrating the birth of their Savior is really all about family. I suppose it’s in keeping with history. There was no room for Jesus in the inn. There’s no room for him in our culture. And now there may be precious little room for him in some of our mega churches.

The mega churches do have an army of defenders and defenses. Sometimes the murkiness of Christ’s actual birthday is cited, as one blog commenter did a few days ago:

“Let us not forget that Christmas is a human and cultural institution that the Church recognizes. We all know that Christ was not born Dec. 25th, this is simply the day that many people world wide celebrate and recognize Christ's coming. Certainly the apostles did not celebrate Christ's birth nor were we commanded to do so. It is a matter of tradition.”

Another commenter had this to say about the issue:

“What if you really believed that the home was the true center of faith development and activity while church was merely an extension of that?”

“What if a church really trusted families to be at home, honoring Christ in meaningful ways?”

“What if church leaders wanted to give their volunteers a day off to spend with their kids – knowing that Sunday morning wasn’t the only “day of worship” they got?”

The defenses are quite interesting. Christmas is a “human and cultural institution.” Church is merely an extension of the family, and mega church volunteers need a day off. And so are the implications. Churches that have services on Christmas Sunday must not really trust their parishioners. They must be uncaring dolts who won’t allow their members to take a day off.

Well, count me in as one of those nasty traditionalists who insist that there is something special about Sunday and that there is also something very special about celebrating Jesus’ birth by worshipping Him on Sunday, December 25th this year. Count me in with the likes of David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

“That we would think that going to church is getting in the way of celebrating Christmas--that the family celebration shouldn't be impeded by having to go to church--it seems to me that our priorities are upside down.”

Count me in with Ben Witherington from Asbury Theological Seminary:

“Our culture does not need any encouragement to be more self-centered and narcissistic or to stay at home on Sunday. It is already that way. Christmas above all else should be a day when we come together as the body of Christ to worship and adore the Lord Jesus. Christmas should be the day above all days where we don't stay home and open all those things we bought for ourselves INSTEAD of going to church. Christmas should be the day when we forget about ourselves for a few hours and go and honor the birthday of the great King, our Savior.”

“What we are dealing with here are churches whose priorities are so askew that they somehow think it is more important for the church to serve the wants of the physical family than the other way around. This is a far cry from the pattern of the original disciples of Jesus who were seen leaving homes, relatives, jobs to come and follow Jesus. What kind of message does it send to our culture when churches close on one of its highest holy days? That it is o.k. to stay home and do one's own thing even on Jesus' birthday?”

As I said in my introduction to this essay, there are times when the powerful forget the source of their power. Mega churches have become so enamored with being culturally relevant and reliant on technical analysis and cultural trends that they stand in danger of forgetting what Christianity is all about. I appreciate the fact that their volunteers and staff members work hard. I really do. But, I suspect if mega church leaders saddled them with less regression analysis, marketing, budget and strategy meetings, they’d have the time to enjoy both their families and the opportunity to worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on this holy day.

This morning I read a bit from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. There, one page 135, was a small paragraph from the section titled “the uniqueness of Christ.” I think it stands in stark contrast to the defenses mega churches are making for canceling Christmas day services:

“Jesus Christ was unique in that he alone, of all men who ever lived, was both God and man. The New Testament teaches the fully unified deity and humanity of Christ. The Nicene Creed (325) states the uniform belief that Christ was fully God and fully man in one person.”

The birth of Jesus is unique! Mega churches can argue that the day it’s celebrated doesn’t matter, they can say that Christmas day is all about family, and they can say that Christmas is nothing more than a cultural invention, but I say they’re skating on thin ice. Giving in to the culture here could some day mean that Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus. After all, Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday. Better, based on the mega church rationale, to give their weary staffers and volunteers the day off. That way, Jesus’ resurrection wouldn’t have to compete with the opening of the baseball season. It wouldn’t take much tweaking. All we’d have to do is trade “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Baby Inspector

Luke 2:25-31 (New Living Translation)

“Now there was a man named Simeon who lived in Jerusalem. He was a righteous man and very devout. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he eagerly expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Lord, now I can die in peace! As you promised me, I have seen the savior you have given to all people.”

It seems like things have been non-stop for Nancy and me since the weekend.

On Monday night I attended a community planning meeting. The city has hired a consultant to help us develop a ten year plan for Emporia. I think it’s a great idea. For those of us who live close to the core of the city, the big issue is inner city development, which has been sorely neglected. For the past eight or nine years the city fathers have been concentrating on industrial development. The result has been that manufacturing companies have moved in for a short time, the development has then spread west, the manufacturers leave, people leave the heart of the city, and the slum lords take over the hundred year old homes in the core, turning them into hovels. The sense of those of us who live in the core is that the city needs to find a way, in the form of incentives, to get people buying these old homes so that they can be restored to their original beauty. That, and a move away from the constant treadmill of manufacturers coming and going, with an accompanying move toward attracting businesses more in keeping with the global economy and a younger workforce is what we’d like to see. There’s a lot that can be attractive about life here to a young, professional workforce. There’s a good quality of life. There’s the potential for real community life. There’s the Flint Hills. The key, we believe, lies in developing the core, creating an attractive community, and working out from there. It’s hard to convince the old timers that this type of strategy is viable. Most seem to be stuck back in the nineties, still trying to figure out why we keep losing manufacturing jobs. They blame a lot of it on Mexico and China. We try to tell them that everyone is losing manufacturing jobs, us, Mexico, China, Japan. The fact is, there has been a dramatic shift in the global economy and even here in Emporia we need to come to grips with that fact. Lamenting what’s happened isn’t going to help. My message seems to resonate with younger people here, many who now consider me pretty forward-thinking for an old man. It’s my generation around here that needs to get in tune with what’s going on. Many, it seems, lack vision. Time has ruined them.

Yesterday we took our fourth trip to Kansas City in the past two weeks. We meet our realtor, Susan Brier, and my son Michael at the loft we’re in the process of buying. Susan’s done a great job of working out a good deal for us and Michael, who works for Farmers Insurance, got the information he needs to get us properly insured. Nancy and I took measurements, to ensure that the furniture we’re buying will fit where we think it should. I think all the bases are covered. With all that accomplished, we capped the day off with lunch and an hour or so of wonderful conversation in Lees Summit with Nancy’s cousin, Bill Berrier, and his wife Barbara. All in all, it was a good day.

The really big event of the week, the one that even trumped the loft business, was our Sunday visit to Kansas City to honor her Uncle Arthur’s 102nd birthday. It was a grand event. In all, forty-four people attended, including family, friends, and a John Knox groupie or two, who have come to adore Arthur. The center of it all, of course, was Arthur. Unlike Thanksgiving, when his hearing aid battery went dead, he could hear, and was thus able to hold court. It was good to hear the old stories once more, telling us that Arthur’s memory is just as sharp today as it was when he first started telling them. The recounting is the same every time we hear them, which also tells me that his recollection is accurate, trustworthy. His son, Bill, has them numbered. There’s number one, number thirty-five, number forty-two, and so forth. Those of us who know Arthur can almost recite them along with him.I think we love hearing them no matter how often they’re repeated.

What was also especially rewarding for me was to once more see the glow on Arthur’s face. Time has weathered it, but it still maintains the glow of life. I was, as I always am, amazed by it. A hundred and two years of experience have given Arthur a special look. It’s as though the past, present, and hopes for the future are all held securely there. I’ve no doubt that there are some painful memories as Arthur looks back, but you’d never know it by the peace that’s mirrored on his face. I think that time has shown Arthur that the good in life will, in time, win out over the bad.

Seeing Arthur brought to mind one of my favorite characters of the Christmas season. While I always love seeing Scrooge’s redemption, reading Mary’s Magnificat, seeing little children in bathrobes or adorned with angel wings sitting in front of manger scenes, hearing Handel’s Messiah, crying when George Bailey realizes that life really is wonderful, or singing the familiar Christmas carols, Simeon, the old prophet who spent a good part of his life hoping to see the Messiah, has, over the past five years, found a special place in my heart.

His story is recorded by Luke, the gentile physician, in the second chapter of his gospel. I’ve not read a lot of scholarly work on who Simeon was. In fact, I think there’s little of it. He’s one of those characters who, at first blush, passes our way and is gone in a flash. The prophetic words to Mary are what we remember most. There’s little we know about this man. That’s left to human imagination.

I suppose that some with a more scholarly bent would be able to fault me for indulging my imagination too much about this man, but I’m going to indulge myself anyway. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, and the men in frocked coats to critique.

I suspect he was an old man, probably not as old as Nancy’s uncle Arthur, but old nonetheless. I see him as a man who had experienced the same types of joys and pains Arthur has over the years. I’ve no doubt that there were, for Simeon, periods when people disappointed him terribly. There were hopes he held that were at times held very thinly. The problems of his day had to seem every bit as overwhelming to him as the same problems seem to us today. The will to power was no less evident then than it is now. Evil was the same persistent reality then that it is today. With all of this confronting him, it must have seemed at times that the dreams he had would never be fulfilled.

This had to have been especially true about his Messianic hope. Here was a man who had lived a good part of his life during the inter-testamental period, the time between Malachi and the birth of Jesus. History was on the march. Alexander the Great had come and gone. The Romans had become, and were to be for hundreds of years, the dominant political and military power in the world. In the land of the Bible, the Herods were Rome’s compliant puppets. With all of that confronting him, Simeon’s hope of a coming Messiah must have seemed, at times, dim.

But, that hope was never extinguished. He believed that he would see the Messiah before he died. In fact, he was convinced that God Himself had told him that. I can imagine what things must have looked like as he fulfilled his duties in the temple. He would see parents bringing children to the temple for dedication, hold them in his harms, and ask the question, “Is this child the consolation you’ve promised us, Lord?” Each time he would perform his duties and dedicate the child, only to somehow see that this was not the child of promise. The scholars and critics of his day must have thought him to be a fool, a Don Quixote of sorts, who was chasing a windmill of unrequited hope. He must have made for interesting conversation. “Poor old fool, he’s more than a bit addled.” “Makes you pity him to watch him chasing his dream or whatever he calls it.” I think Simeon must have known what the rumor mills of his day were producing and what was going on in the back channels. But, he persisted in his hope. He kept coming to the temple and he kept dedicating little ones, looking for something special to be revealed to him.

Simeon was what I’ve come to see as a baby inspector, first class. His spiritual antenna was always raised when children were around. I’ve often wondered what he was looking for. Was he looking for an aura of some sort to be manifested like a halo around the promised hope’s face? Would the message he was to hear be audible? How would he know that promise was indeed fulfilled in human form? How could he explain all of this to his peers? To the question of how he could possibly know the dreamed of “consolation” had come on the scene, all he could say in response was “I’ll know when I see it. I’ll know when I hold it. I’ll just…..know.”

Stubbornness is most often thought of as a fault. In Simeon’s case it turned out to be a virtue. God, it seems, was every bit as stubborn as this old man. The promise, made centuries before, was kept and the old man’s dream realized. Mary and Joseph, on that wonderful, fateful day, brought their child, Jesus, to Simeon at the temple for dedication. I don’t know when in the process Simeon’s revelation was realized, or how. It might have been when he first cradled Jesus in his arms. It may have come when he began to recite the dedication litany. I don’t know exactly what it was he saw that triggered his response. Was it something he saw in the child’s eyes? Was it a bolt from the blue? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that Simeon knew that he knew. His beautiful response tells me so. “I can die now, Lord. I’ve seen him. Everything you’ve promised me has come true. I’m seeing and holding the hope and consolation of Israel. I can now go in peace.”

I’m sure Simeon saw some of the same things we all see in the faces of little children – the innocence, the unfettered joy, the insatiable appetite for learning, the expectation of love. I see it every year, as I will later today, in the faces of little children at my local Lion’s Club Head Start Christmas party. But there was so much more that Simeon saw in Jesus, more than most of us could ever dare imagine if we were living out the same circumstances. A lesser man, someone like me, would probably have given up. But, Simeon didn’t, and he saw redemption, glory, sight, and light all unfold before him in those glorious moments. And there, mixed with this wonderful promise, he also saw the pain and agony to come, a mother’s soul pierced. He saw it all! It was, I believe, the reward for his stubborn belief that God had done as He’d promised he would. Every time I read the account and give thought to it, I’m amazed.

I think that only an old man like Simeon could have been the recipient of such a promise. His was not a young man’s role. It’s not that Jesus’ birth excluded the young, it just that only an older, wiser man could have seen all that needed to be seen. Simeon was, I believe, a man much like Nancy’s uncle Arthur, a man who had seen all that life had to offer, the bad the good, the noble and the evil, and had come through it all still holding on to the hope that God’s best would be fulfilled in spite of all the signs in the world to the contrary. I think that Simeon must have seen some of the same signs in the child Jesus that were mirrored on his own face, in the same way I was able to see the brightness of life written on Arthur’s face a few days ago. It was insight only an old man, knowing the past, living in the tempered hope of the present, and projecting it all into the future, could have. That, coupled with years of maturing, compiled wisdom, and experience, gave Simeon a unique window on the world.
Holy Writ declares that Jesus came to be in our midst “in the fullness of time.” The term is rich with meaning, and, for me, much of that richness stems from the hopes and dreams of an old man rewarded. Simeon’s words are as much ours as they were his when he spoke over two thousand years ago. You’ll rarely find them on Christmas cards, and our culture knows little of them. But, in the high history of heaven they are recorded and heaven’s citizens know them well. There, I believe, they have an honored place. We would do well to consider and honor them too.

Friday, December 02, 2005

No Room for Baby Jesus in the Inn, No Room for Him in Our Culture

“I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out.”

Bertrand Russell

I just finished poring over some interesting poll numbers just published by Fox News. Some of the numbers are eye-popping. Seventy-seven percent, according to the poll, believe that America’s courts have gone too far in their attempt to drive religion out of the public sphere. And, fifty-nine percent believe that “Christianity is under attack.”

The findings cut across political lines. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans believe that the courts have gone too far, as do seventy-three percent of Democrats and sixty-nine percent of Independents.

If you have further interest, just click on this hyperlink to the PDF file with all the poll information.

The poll, I think, reflects a growing recognition of what has been going on for years now. The assault on religion, Christianity in particular, and the public celebratory customs attending to religious belief, is nothing new. For example, while Nancy and I were celebrating Christmas in New Jersey, the thought police were afoot, enforcing anti-religious codes:

“In the latest manifestation of what Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition calls “secular fundamentalism,” the South Orange/Maplewood, New Jersey School District has banned playing the instrumental music Christmas carols.”

“In the early 1990s, the district prohibited the singing of Christmas carols. However, in an embarrassing oversight, bands continued to play “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

“Such gross insensitivity and incipient theocracy shall cease forthwith, the district’s superintendent decreed. From now on, the 40-member Columbia High School brass ensemble will be restricted to uplifting numbers like "Frosty the Snowman," according to the Newark Star-Ledger.”

In another case, teachers and officials in a Portland Oregon school found an offending child and saved the city of Portland from the offense of religion:

“Last year, a kindergartener at a school near Portland, Oregon was told he couldn’t bring cards with a religious message to a school Christmas party. When a teacher noticed that little Justin Cortez’s cards contained the dreaded J-word (Jesus), she confiscated the offending items and forwarded them to the principal who sent them to the superintendent. Thus was the school’s secularist early-warning system activated.”

While a significant majority of Americans believe the courts and, by extension, legal authorities have gone too far in secularizing America, some groups, so called “civil libertarians” say that they and the courts only want to protect all our rights. In 1999, the ACLU, attempting to address the concerns of young students, posted a series of questions and answers outlining their positions in some detail. To the question “Is it constitutional to teach religion in the public schools?” the ACLU’s answer was an emphatic “No!” “Can my school have a prayer at graduation?” “No!” “Is student led prayer constitutional?” “No!” Toward the end of the litany the ACLU found some room in their collective hearts for celebrating religious holidays in public schools. To the question of whether or not such celebrations are okay, the ACLU responded, “It depends.”

I suspect that, after listening to all of this, could only safely assume that religion is dangerous, counter-productive, anti-social, or anti-American.

For those who still believed that religion was something they were being denied the right to practice in public, the ACLU offered their support:

“If a school official has told you that you can't pray at all during the school day, your right to exercise your religion is being violated. Contact your local ACLU for help.”

But, don’t count on it. I’ve gone that route with one of the ACLU’s sister organizations, Common Cause, over an issue much like those being answered by the ACLU. I found that I’d have been much better off if I’d believed in a god who sat around on the rings of Saturn, wearing a grapefruit on his head, eating toasted cream cheese sandwiches than believing in Jesus Christ.

How on earth did we get to this point? According to Joseph Knippenberg, Sandra Day O’Connor may be the culprit:

“Back in 1984, she wrote a concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, a case dealing with a publicly-owned crèche in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Speaking then only for herself, she argued that the essence of the First Amendment is that it “prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.” If, for example, the government in effect acts in such a way as to promote or “endorse” religion, it “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

That gobbledygook raised an interesting question. How could one possibly know that the display of a crèche at Christmas amounted to government endorsement, leading Christians to assume they are insiders and non-believers are outsiders? Justice O’Connor had a ready answer for:

“The meaning of a statement to its audience depends both on the intention of the speaker and on the “objective” meaning of the statement in the community. Some listeners need not rely solely on the words themselves in discerning the speaker's intent: they can judge the intent by, for example, examining the context of the statement or asking questions of the speaker. Other listeners do not have or will not seek access to such evidence of intent. They will rely instead on the words themselves; for them the message actually conveyed may be something not actually intended. If the audience is large, as it always is when government “speaks” by word or deed, some portion of the audience will inevitably receive a message determined by the “objective” content of the statement, and some portion will inevitably receive the intended message. Examination of both the subjective and the objective components of the message communicated by a government action is therefore necessary to determine whether the action carries a forbidden meaning.”

Once you cut through all that you’ll find that the bottom line is that we need a judge in the audience, in some form or fashion, to make the determination for us. The net effect of it all is that, while the vast majority of us try to act out our religious faith in public, try to pray in schools or at graduations, display nativity scenes, sing Christmas carols with the word “Jesus” in them, the ACLU sues, and Sandra Day O’Connor gets to decide against religion.

We’ve come a long way since Justice O’Connor’s 1984 gobbledygook. Judges are now in firm control:

“Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a subjective process, yielding results that differ with each judge’s personal assessment of what the overall governmental message means. Are there secular images associated with the religious images? Are they comparable in size? Is their placement as prominent? Is the relevant site the immediate scene of the display or a larger geographic area? Are we talking about a small portion of a park, the whole park, or, for example, the entire downtown business district? Should we regard proximity to a public building as happenstance or design, endorsement or accommodation? As Justice Kennedy once noted in dissent, judges seem to be reduced to “using little more than intuition and a tape measure.”

All of this anti-religious parsing has brought us to where we are now. Everyone’s walking on eggs. There’s a fear that any religious words, religious sentiments, religious practice will bring an onslaught of lawsuits and judicial pronouncements. Yesterday, for example, Jonah Goldberg noted:

“Just this week, the Capitol performed its own minor Christmas miracle of transubstantiation. At the beginning of the week, House Speaker Denny Hastert unveiled a “holiday tree.” But a few days later, after some entirely predictable bah humbugs, he rechristened it a Christmas tree. (Similarly, when the city of Boston tried to unveil its official “holiday tree,” the premier of Nova Scotia, which had provided it as a gift, called it a nifty trick because “when it left Nova Scotia, it was a Christmas tree.”)”

“These miracles aren't exactly up there with keeping lamp oil burning for eight days, never mind rising from the dead, but they're pretty good for government work.”

I’d be willing to bet it won’t be long till Dennis Hastert is the target of an ACLU lawsuit.

It’s all pretty damned silly, if you ask me. We’re now obliged to heed the dictates of lawyers who, like medieval philosophers trying to determine how many angels can sit on the head of a pin or whether or not God can make something so big he can’t lift it, are trying so hard to be judiciously fair that only the rights of a narrow minority and the powerful are being served.

In all the years I was an atheist I never once felt that religious practice or celebrating religious holidays gave Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Confucians, or Hindus any special political privileges. I never felt I needed the ACLU or the Supreme Court to defend my right to disbelieve. I did it all without their help. I never once felt pressured in those days to believe. In fact, seeing religion practiced only re-enforced my belief system. It took an act of grace, an act of revelation, far beyond the power of the state to change my heart and mind. I suppose that might offend some, but better now, I believe, to have truth revealed to me by Jesus than to have “it” crammed down my throat by the ACLU and Sandra Day O’Connor.

In 1993, Dr. Stephen Carter wrote “The Culture of Disbelief.” There, on page six, are some words I believe the ACLU, anti-religious antagonists, and Sandra Day O’Connor would do well to read:

“One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion. More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one’s faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid. If you must worship your God, the lesson runs, at least have the courtesy to disbelieve in the power of prayer; if you must observe your Sabbath, have the good sense to understand that it is just like any other day off from work.”

I doubt they will. I suspect that our culture will, for the foreseeable future, be in the grip of judicial tyranny masquerading as justice. If it keeps moving in the same direction it may not be long before we’ll all have to genuflect as we pass ACLU lawyers or Supreme Court justices on the street. We’ll have a new religion, with a signature prayer, the one originally penned by Ernest Hemingway:

“Our nada, who art in nada, nada be they name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

The only thing left after that will be the creation of a new god, one made in the image of its creators. Grapefruits and cream cheese, anyone?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

'Tis the Season

“I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
Charles Dickens

The weather’s gotten colder here in Emporia, creating the appearance of an old fashioned Christmas season. Things are just about right, which is one of the benefits of living in a city that is tucked between two major storm routes, one to our north and one to our south. We get the cold weather, but little of the crippling snow that the folks around us do.

We spent Monday in Kansas City. Nancy and I were there looking at condominiums and apartments there. We’d been discussing this for a couple of weeks ago. Over that time our thinking, both corporately and individually, had come to a consensus. A second place was not only desirable, but also sensible. The sensibility was the most difficult hurdle for me. I’ve never been one for toys. I’ve never wanted to own a boat, especially knowing that the two times of great joy in a boat owner’s life are the day it’s bought and the day it’s sold. I occasionally see retirees tooling down the highways in motor homes, but the bug has never bitten me. The thought of something I’ve just purchased depreciating by thirty percent as soon as I’ve pulled out of the dealer’s lot or getting six or seven miles to a gallon have always been pre-emptive cures for any itch I might have.

But, a condo or a loft seemed, to us, more sensible. First, real estate appreciates in value. Second, Nancy and I occasionally get the small town blues and a getaway place has become very attractive. Third, we have friends and family who could also crash there for a day or two.

In the end, we decided on a loft in Kansas City’s River Market area. The price was right. The view of the river is wonderful, the amenities superb. So, we’re taking the plunge. We close on January 4th.

Ever since we got back from Kansas City Nancy’s been almost constantly browsing through catalogues, looking for sleeper sofas, day beds, area rugs, wine racks, ladder style book shelves, and what not. Just a while ago she got everything done. She came downstairs, proclaiming, “I know EXACTLY what I want and how I want things to look.” I’d have to say that settles it.

All of this, of course, will make cataloguers like Pottery Barn, Ballard Designs, and LL Bean very happy. For me, this will cut down on my Christmas shopping considerably. Now it’s just the kids and others on our Christmas list.

I think this will fill two needs for Nancy. She loves life here in Emporia, but there’s a considerable part of her that is a city person. I remember how, during our days in New Jersey, she loved going into New York City or our trips to Boston to visit with my brother and sister-in-law. Those trips had a way of putting her in another gear.

It’s not as though we’re abandoning Emporia. It still holds a great deal of charm for us. There are things available to us here that we know we’d never be able to find in a big city. Here in Emporia, for example, we meet friends all the time as we’re out and about. No trip to the grocery store or the Wal-Mart is complete without three or four stops to talk with friends. Here I get to do battle with folks, like Patrick Kelley, who fancy themselves great cosmopolitan crusaders. Here I have the beauty of the Kansas Flint Hills. And, here I get to hear my buddies complain about the Sixth Avenue bottleneck, which usually amounts to nothing more than having to wait in line behind four other cars at traffic lights on the way home from work. The big cities have no such charms.

The grandest sign of the season here in Emporia came last night. Along with a few thousand or so intrepid Emporians, Nancy, Bin Na, our foreign exchange student, and I braved the cold to attend the annual Christmas parade. By big city standards it would in all likelihood be a non-event, but here it’s really big. There were fire trucks, marching bands, floats pulled by farm tractors and pick up trucks, kids dressed like sheep, shepherds, or angels. Just about every float had a Christmas tree. One even had a tree with ornaments reading “Eat Beef,” with a gallery of cowboy cooks barbequing hamburgers a few feet away, at the tail end of the float. I’ll bet you big city types have never seen anything like that at Christmastime.

I don’t think there were any ACLU spies there, but if there had been they would have spent the evening grinding their teeth, in much the same way the legalists of the Apostle Paul’s day spied out Christian liberty, decrying grace and freedom. The kids on the floats kept telling everyone to have a “Merry Christmas.” There were Roman Catholic churches represented, as well as Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. There were community groups, including a group of about thirty or forty women from the local Red Hat Society. There were lots of nativities, some in English, some in Spanish. Why, there were even some “happy holidays” floats in evidence too. In sum, there was something for everyone except the miserable among us. For them, nothing would be satisfactory. Their primary aim in life is to maintain misery, and they do it quite well. The rest of us, at least here in Emporia, just celebrate the season and allow them the liberty of their misery. That, it seems to me, is diversity practiced as it should be

As happens almost every year here in Emporia, there was a glitch. At about eight o’clock, while everyone was shivering from the cold, a large army transport vehicle broke down on the corner of Eight and Commercial. While the National Guardsmen searched frantically for jumper cables, the parade just stopped, held in a state of suspended animation. It took about ten minutes or so to get the big rig re-started and things proceeded as originally planned. At about eight-twenty Santa, who brought up the rear, passed in review and it was all over.

I capped the big night off with a big piece of fudge from the Sweet Granada and that was that.

In a month or so Nancy and I will have a crash pad of sorts, a place where we can mingle with the big city folks. We’ll enjoy the life available there, but we’ll also bring the wonder of our life here in Emporia. The result may be a renewal of the country and the cosmopolitan in both of us. Who knows, a bit of the country may rub off on the city folk we meet at the Kansas City River Market and a bit of the cosmopolitan may rub off on friends as we meet them at the Wal-Mart. What could be better?