Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Pair of Shoes

I do not consider myself poor, but I work basically a blue collar job now, not that there is anything wrong with that. I come from a long line of army grunts, tradesmen, and grease monkeys. Sometimes, I look back at the life I have had and the choices I have made and wish I had a job that paid a bit more, or that I had enough money to own this or that big ticket item. I think most people probably have moments like that at some point in their lives from time to time. Americans always want more stuff. It's just a part of our culture for good or for bad (probably mostly bad.)

As some of you may know, I do some freelance work for a small orphanage/children's ministry in Uganda. It is a long story, but basically a friend I know runs it out of the goodness of her heart. She takes in kids she largely finds in her neighborhood outside of Kampala. She can tell you some heart breaking stories about some of these kids. She found one living in some tires in basically a city dump, having been abandoned by whatever parent for whatever reason. There are no Department of Family social services to speak of in Uganda, and there are no public schools. If you want to go to school, you have to pay for it at a private institution. Combined with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the cycle of poverty is truly harsh.

There is a kid in the neighborhood there that is not one of the actual kids that the ministry cares for. My friend, Joy, who runs the charity orphanage describes him as someone who just "hangs around" the ministry compound. The kid lives in a shack with his grandmother. (When I say "shack," I mean I have a small tool shed in my backyard that looks like a mansion compared to this shack.) This kid  has no idea who his mother is/was. To make a long story short, his basically non-existent father is apparently a real winner. He liked to hang around the ministry compound to be around Joy's husband, who was about the only functional adult male the boy knows. 

I sponsor a child to go to school at this ministry, and it was her birthday last week. I had sent some extra money for a birthday present. I had forgotten that a scant $30 (I have spent more than that on a video game) in Uganda can buy an incredible amount of bare necessities, and so Joy had asked if she could use a bit of that money to buy this local boy a pair of shoes, of which he had apparently never owned a pair in his entire life.

One would think I had gotten the kid a new IPad or a Playstation 4. In fact, she told me on Facebook, "That little man meant business like he didn't want anyone close to his shoe..as the other kids wanted to touch them and get the feel😀"

Yeah, sometimes you feel poor, but then you realize Americans live better than 99% of the human history across time. We have things that Edward Bellamy in Looking Backwardwhich was published in 1888, could only dream about in his Utopian novel of the time period (the 3rd best selling book in the Victorian era). For example, getting instant music by pushing a button. Even the Roman Emperors of old did not have access to such luxuries. Ironically, people never get the irony that "utopia" comes from the Greek word for "no place."

Sometimes, I feel like America truly is a no place. A place where we delude ourselves with our amusements and money, blissfully unaware that people exist in the world who have literally never owned a pair a shoes, and when they do get a pair, they guard them like a gold bar at Fort Knox.

Don't live in a no place. Live in a real place.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

In War, The Law Falls Silent -Cicero

I picked up a book at the local library a few weeks. It was number 3 of 3 I checked out that day. It was a last minute while waiting for my daughter to pick out her books kind of grab. From the cover of it (it had a rather dated cover), I was dubious but for whatever reason caught my attention. They say never judge a book by its cover, but I think that's hogwash. I very seldomly enjoy books that don't have a good binding or cover artwork. If the artwork is flake, then the book usually is too.

The name of the book was Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. The cover had this real 80's looking panorama of modern Japan in yellow letters. It was kitschy looking, but like I said, it piqued my interest. I don't know why I grabbed it, as it had the vibe of "heavy handed anti-war hippie" panache written all over it. I usually don't go in for that sort of thing, particularly since I had another book I had really wanted to start reading in the pile, but I always enjoy a good non-fiction history book. I was willing to give it a whirl, at least for a few chapters to see if I was correct in my cover pigeon-holing assumptions.

From pretty much the preface of the book, I was sucked in immediately. Being a history major, I had studied World War II in some detail, though not greatly. I generally had a pretty good working knowledge of the military history and all of the war. I even remember getting into a spat with my world history teacher back in the day about the atomic bombings that ended the war. I am one of those rare birds that made it through a liberal arts college and graduate school without ever drinking the drinking the political koolaid that makes may such people become brainwashed Leftist sycophants. If anything, my experience in graduate school at an extremely liberal institution actually made me in some ways more conservative and not less, not that I have ever been any bastion of Right wingnuttery. I am still a leftover Dixiecrat at heart, but, that is neither here nor there.

In any event, as I began to read through Southard's book (Southard is a white American who has no ties to Japan other than as a foreign exchange student in Japan as a high school student back in the 1980s) I was pleasantly surprised at the even handedness she presented the effects of the atomic bomb on normal everyday people in Nagasaki. The whole thing was extremely well researched and footnoted, if one is into such things.

One of the things that immediate caught my attention about the book was because it focuses exclusively only on the second of the atomic bombings. It largely ignored the bombing of Hiroshima almost entirely throughout the entire book. I do not believe I have ever encountered a narrative of the atomic bombings that focuses only on the latter. Usually, they are always packaged together as a set, with the research focus tending toward Hiroshima or else the different types of atomic bombs used. Those topics I had read in some detail in the past, but I found I knew very little about Nagasaki itself, other than that it had been bombed and suffered like Hiroshima with the second hand radiation fallout and all that. But, I really did not know anything about the city itself.

The second interesting thing this book did was basically follow 5 of the survivors of the Nagasaki bombing, not just in the immediate aftermath, but throughout their adult lives. That was also a new twist on studies of the atomic bombings. Many books have been written on the immediate destruction and radiation fallout, but I do not recall ever having read something that focuses on whole life stories of survivors and how the war affected people even decades later.

One of the most telling things about the book is that it tries to stay fairly evenhanded with its analysis of whether or not the bombs were justified. Most of the 5 survivors she interviewed extensively for the book later became peace advocated and anti-nuclear arms protesters, so that does tend to color the later chapters.

However, the author makes some surprisingly subtle theological arguments that I was completely not expecting, given the secular looking cover of the book. I was expecting it to be a finger waging America-is-bad screed. Had the book been that, I probably would not have read more than a few chapters. I do not find politically-based moralizing of that sort particularly helpful or engaging. I also was taken aback by the logic the author used. It was a logic I had not heard before.

Basically, the author's argument, subtle though it may be, was extremely thought provoking. Basically factoring out Hiroshima entirely, she makes the argument of whether the Nagasaki bombing was a just war military maneuver. She clearly thinks it was not justified, but here is how she got there: she says (again with copious footnotes and documentation) that Nagasaki was a primarily Christian city. The biggest building in town was a Catholic church. The majority religion was Christianity. This is why Nagasaki was largely untouched by bombing raids until the very end because many traditional bombers would fly over, see the huge church, and not wanting to bomb a town with a church, would fly on to gravity or fire bomb other targets.

Furthermore, Nagasaki had one Mitsubishi munitions plant, but other than that had no strategic military value. It had no standing army or navy base to speak of. They were all virtually civilians, and Christian civilians at that. The author's basic argument was that if you are going to ethically justify the bombing of Nagasaki and say it was a moral just war bombing, you have to be okay with the US Government intentionally and knowingly targeting a Christian city of civilians with nuclear bomb.

Like I said, that was a logic I have never encountered before. And, honestly, I don't have a good response to that argument, other than to lapse into some form of Cicero's rhetorical logic of inter arma enim silent leges: in war the law falls silent.

I understand the traditional argument that the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. That does carry some weight in my analysis of things. However, even General Eisenhower, who is probably one of the people of the 20th century of whom I have the utmost respect, cautioned Truman against using the Bomb as strategically unnecessary. I also understand that when two combatants that over their own free will agree to wage total war on each other (and in Japan's case, horrendous murdering and raping of Manchuria and China during the occupation, amongst other horrible crimes), then to a certain extent, all is fair in love and war, as they say.

But, I still can't get over that notion of intentionally targeting a city known to be almost entirely civilians with such a horrendous weapon. Over two dozen nuns in a convent were literally vaporized.
Maybe I am over-analyzing this, but I have certainly been re-thinking some things over the last week as I have been thinking about these historical issues.

Being a realist, maybe assigning blame in a moral morass of war with hindsight being 20/20 is not productive. Looking to the future and "what can we learn from this awful tragedy?" is always the most important question. With North Korea and America saber rattling over nuclear weapons, I think this lesson is all the more crucial to ponder. Let's just hope someone in the halls of power learned something from Nagasaki. I fear that might not have.

More's the pity.

Friday, August 18, 2017

An interesting thought experiment

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from JerusalemTennessee mountain holler to JerichoAlabama, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priestProtestant minister happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a LeviteCommunity Organizer, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a SamaritanKlansman, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denariitwo hundred dollar bills and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

There but for the grace of God, go I

There have been some interesting culture events that have happened over the weekend. There was a political rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended in a crazy person running over a bunch of pedestrians, killing one and injuring several. The rally was under the banner of "Unite the Right" and was sponsored by various groups that the media/political intelligentsia have labelled the "alt-right"-which I am not exactly sure what that terms means exactly. It is sort of an omnibus boogeyman term for everyone in the supposed "alternative right" in the country that seems to encompass neo-Confederates, Neo-Nazis, Southern Nationalists, the Klan, and any other assorted racist goons, regardless of type or ideology.

Having grown up in a Southern county that is historically very economically depressed and had for many years an active Klan presence (they used to have a lodge building at the county seat and march during parades and such), I have been amused at the media trying to use this narrative of "alt-right" and paint all Southern dissident groups (and all Southerners by extension) as these huge racist bigots. Ironically, the crazy man who ran down the counter-protesters and many of the Neo-Nazis were not even from the South. In fact, the Klan and Neo-Nazis generally hate each other. Neo-Nazis are National Socialists and often anarchists, which makes no sense philosophically, but fringe loonies are not well renowned as systematic philosophers, but that is neither here nor there. Both of those things are generally anathema to the worldview of most Southerners. I am not actually posting this entry to discuss any of that.

What I have found almost as disturbing as the mayhem, nonsense, and racism on display by Tiki Torch Nazis is the reaction by many of my Christian friends in response to all this. Many have gotten onto their sanctimonious high horses to condemn not only the violence and racism (which is totally justifying) but to outright condemn all the people in the alt-right altogether, basically as not fit to live. While odious, this rancorously snotty blanket condemnation has not set well with me for a number of reasons.

First of all, not all Southerners are racists or alt-right (for lack of a better term) folk. This is not to downplay the sad history of race relations in the American South, but I have been distressed at how hateful some of the social media blanket condemnations have been of everyone. We are all sinners, let us not forget.

Secondly, let us not forget Christian charity that we owe to all people, not just the kinds of folks we would like to invite to dinner parties. People in the alt-right need our charity and love, lest our blanket condemnations and hateful respites to them turn them more violent and extremist. For, always remember the aphorism: There but for the grace of God, go I.

I bring this up because what is missing in this whole discussion is the reason people join gangs. By gangs, I do not just mean alt-right groups like Neo-Nazis or the Klan, but criminal gangs of any sort that play on race identity.

How can people end up like those people waving Nazis flags?
How can people end up joining violent groups like the Black Panthers?
How can people join notorious criminal gangs like MS-13 or the Crips or Bloods?

The knee jerk response is to say that people join these games because they are ignorant, no account scumbags.

Actually, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags.

To illustrate what I mean by this, let me tell you a story that happened to me when I was living up in South Dakota. I worked occasionally in my Anglican priest days at a youth camp in the Black Hills. I was chaplain one time for an elementary school camp, many of the campers being Lakota. I was giving a small group talk to some 4th and 5th graders about making good decisions that can affect your life. I had started the discussion by asking where the kids saw themselves in 10 years.

We went around the circle, and some of the kids said things like working or being in the military or what have you. I came to this one Lakota kid who could not have been  more than about 10 years old. He thought for a moment and said, in all seriousness, "I'll be drunk on a park bench somewhere."

At first, I was taken aback by this answer. I thought the kid was being a punk, but upon asking him why he said that, he appeared to be in earnest. He just said, "I'm Lakota. That's just what Lakota men do."

I do not remember exactly how I responded, as I was so taken aback by this matter-of-fact statement. But, eventually, we modulated back into a discussion of making good decisions like not doing drugs or joining gangs. One thing led to another and another of the Lakota kids basically told me, when I asked why people would join gangs told me one of the most amazing sociological insights I have ever heard, "People join gangs because they give you an identity. Something to do. It's like having a family, but a family that you are proud of."

In cultures where the family unit has disintegrated, parents are drunk, on drugs, or otherwise of no account, no kid wants to be a part of that family, but they are stuck with it. A gang, on the other hand, gives you that sense of family, of belonging, of worth, twisted and criminal as that may be. It gives you an identity, a horrible, twisted identity, but an identity of your own choosing nonetheless. People join groups like the Klan or Aryan Nation or MS-13 to escape the family they are ashamed of. Again, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags. These groups give them the identity and a sense of pride and belonging that their family and society has failed to give them. Therein, is the tragedy of it all.

This is why I repeat that people in these groups need not so much of our undying scorn and reverse hatred, but our Christian charity and prayer. We can disavow their odious actions and beliefs, but these people need our love. They need to hear our message that God loves them, and that they can be a part of God's family.

The world needs less hate, not more of it, especially not coming from us.