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Sunday, May 31, 2009

dr. george tiller murdered in church

I'm shocked and saddened by this morning's tragedy in Wichita. I'll have a longer post when I've collected my thoughts. For now, here are some links:

The story from Associated Press

The George Tiller I Knew by "loree920"

Whoever Killed Tiller Was Not a Christian by Dan "pastordan" Schultz of Street Prophets

Jesus's Jihadis by Sara Robinson

and the disturbingly titled George Tiller — Killed! from Operation Rescue

Update 6/5: More perspectives

On George Tiller, Reformation Lutheran Church, and "excessive certainty" by John B, a member of of the same church as Tiller

Tough Questions about George Tiller's Murder by Ken Brown

The Ethics of Murder from Charlie at Another Think

Tiller, Operation Rescue, and Bonhoeffer by Julie Bogart, refuting the notion that Dr. Tiller's murder is equivalent to the assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

to me it seems?

An anonymous commenter left this on my recent post hierarchy of english adjectives:

Is either of these more correct.
It seems to me.....
To me it seems.....

Short answer:
"it seems to me..." is more correct, if you're talking about the name of this blog. Otherwise they are both OK.

Long answer:

I'm not an expert on the English language, any more than I am on anything else I post here. Don't take my word as the final word.

The standard form of the phrase is "it seems to me...." In English, most sentences follow the SVO(Subject-Verb-Object) pattern. The subject here is "it", whatever "it" is. The verb is "seems", meaning this is the way it appears, even if it really isn't so. The prepositional phrase "to me" is an indirect object, the person who is affected by the seeming. The sentence usually concludes with a dependent clause that begins with the word "that" and explains what "it" is.

The phrase "to me it seems..." is an example of inversion of word order for emphasis. In the standard sentence order, "seems" appears before "me", therefore the emphasis is on the seeming, that is, the uncertainty of what follows. Inverting the word order puts the focus on "me", emphasizing the personal nature of what follows.

That's how I understand it. Fellow language nerds, what do you say?

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

cafeteria christianity

Whenever I've heard the term "cafeteria Christianity", it's always been used in a negative sense — until now. James McGrath has peeled open the metaphor and served up a meaty defense of the idea.

Now before you get all steamed and rush off to flame him for it, simmer down and feast your eyes on the way he dishes out a new understanding of the phrase:

All who consider themselves Christians are in the cafeteria. The difference is that some of us enter delighting the buffet, eager to taste new things and help ourselves to a little of this and a little of that, aware that we are not eating absolutely everything that is on the menu. Others simply enter and say "I'll have what he's having" and believe that they are tasting everything, when in fact what their pastor, family, church or denomination is serving is never everything Christianity has to offer, never everything "the Bible says", never everything that Christianity is, was or has been.

I'm sure some people will find this interpretation hard to swallow. They will decide this is a half-baked idea, not worth its salt, a recipe for disaster.

But I'm going to chew on it for a while. The extended metaphor seems a bit raw; I'm not sure whether it would withstand a grilling. But McGrath does have a point: if we limit ourselves to the white bread teachings of one church, we won't get the whole enchilada of the Christian experience.

So I'm going to let these ideas marinate overnight.

For now, I'll just savor this tasty morsel from McGrath:

Let me close by noting that the cafeteria is full of people debating the merits of this or that food. But the point of the cafeteria is not simply to stay there, but to feed there and then go forth with fresh strength and energy to do something more useful than simply debate food tastes.

That's a delicious way to refer to the work of the church.

Please, go devour McGrath's entire post. It's some good food for thought.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

just how bad is it?

We've been told we are currently in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Just how bad is it? CNN has the scoop.

Sample comparisons:

Bank failures: 9,096 between January 1930 and March 1933
57 between December 2007 and May 2009

Unemployment rate: 25% during the Great Depression
8.5% during the "Great Recession"

Times may be tough, but they could be a lot worse.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

rethinking foreign aid

Does foreign aid benefit Africans? Dambisa Moyo says no.

Few will deny that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian and charity-based aid to step in when necessary, such as during the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Nevertheless, it's worth reminding ourselves what emergency and charity-based aid can and cannot do. Aid-supported scholarships have certainly helped send African girls to school (never mind that they won't be able to find a job in their own countries once they have graduated). This kind of aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth.

Moyo's concerns are threefold: Foreign aid props up corrupt dictators, it undercuts local industry, and it promotes rampant inflation.

The corruption is the most severe problem:

As recently as 2002, the African Union, an organization of African nations, estimated that corruption was costing the continent $150 billion a year, as international donors were apparently turning a blind eye to the simple fact that aid money was inadvertently fueling graft. With few or no strings attached, it has been all too easy for the funds to be used for anything, save the developmental purpose for which they were intended.

But even aid that reaches its intended recipients has a cost:

Say there is a mosquito-net maker in small-town Africa. Say he employs 10 people who together manufacture 500 nets a week. Typically, these 10 employees support upward of 15 relatives each. A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to.

Finally, free money has a devastating effect on an economy:

Then there is the issue of "Dutch disease," a term that describes how large inflows of money can kill off a country's export sector, by driving up home prices and thus making their goods too expensive for export. Aid has the same effect. Large dollar-denominated aid windfalls that envelop fragile developing economies cause the domestic currency to strengthen against foreign currencies. This is catastrophic for jobs in the poor country where people's livelihoods depend on being relatively competitive in the global market.

The big problem, it seems to me, is that foreign aid agencies are going to Africa as competitors to local industry. That's maybe not their intention, but it's the end result.

A better plan would be to try to work within the local economy, building it up rather than tearing it down. Instead of importing 100,000 free nets, buy them from the local manufacturers. Instead of donating food and clothing, donate money to buy these things at the local market, THEN distribute them to the poor.

This might not be as effective in the short term, because the capacity isn't there to produce the quantity that aid agencies bring. But in the long term, the influx of income for local producers is the type of stimulus that is needed to bring real economic growth to impoverished countries.

Microloans are another piece of the puzzle. Small loans enable local producers to expand their businesses or to start new ones. And when the money is paid back, it becomes available to loan to someone else. Through repeated turnover, a small loan goes a lot further and makes a much bigger difference than a one-time gift, plus it strengthens the economy rather than undermining it, plus loan money is harder for corrupt officials to steal. And it's becoming easier for the average person to participate in this kind of direct aid. Kiva helps match lenders with entrepreneurs via a website.

African poverty is not an insoluble problem. Even the poorest nations have many hard working people who just need some seed capital to get going. In the richer nations, both the money and the will exist to solve the problem. All that is now needed is to replace the old distribution channels with something that can make a real difference.

It seems like such a small thing. How long will it take?

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

the case against torture

Ted Koppel has a practical and succinct definition of torture:

If we would define a given technique as torture when it is inflicted on a citizen of ours, then that is also torture when our interrogators employ the methods.

Koppel is calling for the U.S. to outlaw torture, and to impose stiff penalties for violating that law. He further calls for us to act now, during a time of relative calm, so we don't descend into the murky legal ambiguities of post-9/11 interrogations:

A series of revelations about U.S. prisoners being subjected to sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold, loud music, stress positions, wall-slamming, enclosure in small, dark boxes (with or without the company of insects) and, of course, waterboarding, were euphemistically sanitized under the catchall category of "enhanced interrogation techniques." (How many angels can writhe on the head of a pin?)

The issues, as Daniel Schorr points out, are twofold:

whether inflicting pain on terrorism suspects is effective in loosening their lips, and whether the practice can be morally and legally justified.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, claims that U.S. interrogators "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives," due to information gleaned from tortured captives. He has asked the CIA to release documents that he says will back his claims.

Koppel counters that tortured prisoners don't always give good information:

Of course torture works, in some measure. There have, no doubt, been brave and incredibly strong-willed men and women who have resisted the most horrific tortures and given up nothing. The greater likelihood, however, is that a torture subject will give up not just all, but frequently more than he knows; anything, just to put an end to the pain.

By definition, this information must be something for which we have no independent verification; otherwise, the Dick Cheneys of the world could not argue that it was the torture that got us the information.

So the captive can say anything, and we have to trust them while we act on what they said. Schorr points to an instance where this led us down the wrong trail:

Only this week, word came of the death in a Libyan prison of Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi — apparently a suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper. The Washington Post called him a one-time "high-value source for the CIA." Under pressure in an Egyptian jail, he told of training al-Qaida militants in Iraq for chemical and biological warfare.

The information prodded out of him served to undergird the speech of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The coerced confessions of al-Libi, combined with the fabricated testimony of Ahmad Chalabi, were the grounds for returning to war in Iraq. That conflict has resulted in approximately 100,000 documented deaths in 6+ years. And this is only one example. So even if Cheney is being truthful that torture has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it has come at an enormous cost.

The moral case against torture is more clear. Koppel's definition itself contains the seeds of the answer. Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel expressed it like this: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law." Against this golden rule, all of the slick justifications for "enhanced interrogation techniques" fall flat. Even if torture showed itself to be effective for gathering information, it's not worthwhile if it turns us into the type of people that we don't want to be.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

monday music: habitat for humanity celebration

It's not really a music video. Habitat for Humanity was started by Millard Fuller in 1976 on one premise: Everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live. 300,000 houses later, Habitat continues to change the world, one family at a time.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009


In a comment on my recent post The Stumbling Block, philobyte said:

the comment about God creating flagella of viruses that kill children, is really just a special case of why an Omnicient, Omnipotent God allows for evil in the world.

Some apologists are quick to defend the idea of God's omnipotence. Here is what Answers in Genesis has to say:

But the Bible says that God is omnipotent; He is all-powerful. He is a God of love. He performs miracles, and He speaks to us through His Word. We have reason to love this God. We have reason to trust and to worship this God. And above all, we have a reason to hope.

This line of reasoning strikes me as naive. Why should we believe that an all-powerful, all-loving God who stands idly by while our loved ones suffer is worthy of our love, our trust, our worship? How can such a being offer us hope?

That's too great a leap for me to take.

The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a different route. It asserts that "Omnipotence is the power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible." And just what does that entail?

As intrinsically impossible must be classed:

  1. Any action on the part of God which would be out of harmony with His nature and attributes;
  2. Any action that would simultaneously connote mutually repellent elements, e.g. a square circle, an infinite creature, etc.

Well, that's a very convenient loophole. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes further, defining "Actions out of harmony with God's nature and attributes":

(a) It is impossible for God to sin
(b) The decrees of God cannot be reversed
(c) The creation of an absolutely best creature or of an absolutely greatest number if creatures is impossible, because the Divine power is inexhaustible

The net result of all this, it seems to me, is that the term "omnipotent" can be preserved even though it has been sucked dry of all real meaning. I don't see how this is any better than the Answers in Genesis approach.

Tony Campolo is led to a different conclusion:

Perhaps we would do well to listen to the likes of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who contends that God is not really as powerful as we have claimed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent. Kushner points out that omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, but it is not in his Bible. Instead, the Hebrew Bible contends that God is mighty. That means that God is a greater force in the universe than all the other forces combined.

Now I don't know the Hebrew language, so I can't say whether Rabbi Kushner or Answers in Genesis is correct about the meaning of the Hebrew words used to describe God's power. But Kushner's view makes a lot more sense to me.

I can't put it any better than philobyte does in his comment:

If he knows everything, and can do anything, and loves us, well then surely close to the top of his agenda would be stopping bad things from happenning to good people.

But this is not what we see happening. Rabbi Kushner wrote his classic book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" after the death of his son Aaron, who was born with progeria, a condition which caused accelerated aging. Aaron's skin grew wrinkled, he lost his hair, his body became frail, and he died at age 14.

Why would an all-knowing, all-loving God let children be born with progeria? For that matter, why would an all-knowing, all-loving God let anyone continue to suffer for years without relief?

Some people would say we just don't understand the ways of God, that God's love is so much higher than ours that what we call love might not truly be love. In some cases that might even be true. BUT, that's not an answer; it's an excuse. If God is trying to use needless suffering to teach us what love really means, his pedagogical skills are seriously lacking.

On the other hand, I don't see that we've really answered anything if we accept that God is not omnipotent. I like the view espoused by Kushner and Campolo, but it seems to me that this just leads to more questions: Exactly what IS God capable of, then? Can we trust a God who might not be able to always take care of us? Is such a being worthy of our worship? Do we have a reason to hope?

I have no answers, only questions.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

monday music

I was first introduced to the classical harmonica of Robert Bonfiglio back in the mid 1990s when he was a guest on the Jim Bohannon show. I'm still amazed that anyone can make a harmonica sound like this.