Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Freedom Falters: Tiananmen Square to Haft-e-Tir Square

Never a real democracy, Iran has been forced — by forces who favor the most basic of democratic freedoms, a fair counting of the votes — to expose its dictatorial underbelly.

Iran's Supreme Leader, spooked by Mahmood Admadinejad's now firm control of those who own the military hardware, has entirely deserted his customary above-the-fray position to declare, before the sham investigation into election complaints was even begun, that the election results will stand.

As the riot-police truncheons fell and communications jamming continued, word came that one of the protesting candidates had withdrawn his complaint. One can only wonder what deal or threat, or both, this self-described "selfless soldier for the Islamic republic" was offered. Others have retreated into silence or, like the leading opposition candidate, Mr. Moussavi, muted their protests.

Journalists on the ground in Tehran assume, probably rightly, that the hundreds of recent arrests (including arrests of hospitalized protesters, taken right from their beds) will soon issue forth in forced public confessions. It's hardly unprecedented in the evolution of Iran's 1979 Revolution.

The state-run media reported a week ago that President Ahmadinejad will be sworn in for his second term sometime between July 26 and August 19. I have little doubt that that will be the case. Today, Iran's Guardian Council, on the same day it had begun a partial recount of votes, hastily reported that it had found "no evidence" of voter fraud, reporting instead that, in some districts, the vote had even been more lopsided, and then declared with finality that the incumbent president would get his four more years.

And in perhaps the most insulting development of all, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself called for an investgation into the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old student shot dead during a street protest, who has since become a potent symbol of Iranian hopes, particularly of its women. Mr. Ahmadinejad — whose government earlier in the week had insisted that Soltan's death was faked for the foreign press — now contends, of course, that "foreign powers" had her shot, in order to whip up protests against his lawful election.

The short-lived appeal for something resembling real democracy in Iran's sham revolution and the Iraninan elite's transparently obvious attempt to stamp it out hold grim lessons for us all.

Despite the efforts of Iran's conservative clerics and ruling politicians to divert world attention from their own underhandedness by painting the protesters as dupes of the Western press, this isn't a fight (despite some Western journalists' opinions) between "secular" and "religious" forces. The cries of "Allah-u-Akhbar" that still ring from protesters' rooftops in Tehran puts the lie to that simplistic assessment.

I saw no Iranian women tearing their head scarves off or desecrating mosques. In fact, the most remarkable and telling images of the protests were those of its covered women. Stories multiplied of girls and middle-aged women standing in the forefront of demonstrations, being clubbed to the ground and rising back up to continue forward, calling on the less-willing men around them to stand firm.

Indeed, Neda Agha Soltan has become a potent symbol of a battle that today underlies most others in Islamic society. The image of her dying in the street and the one of young girls in Afghanistan attacked by men who throw acid in their faces because they dare to want to go to school have been melded. These images have shocked Western and even some Middle Eastern sensibilities. And rightly, they should. They are horrific reminders that oppression of and injustice against women remain with us.

But before we blend those images together too seamlessly, let's set the record straight: Did you know that the number of women in Iran who are enrolled in institutions of higher education far outstrips the number of enrolled Iranian men? Percentage-wise, the woman/man ratio is greater than that in the U.S. We might want to curb our indignation long enough to sort fact from assumption.

Let me also point out, if I may, that we here in America have no cause to look down our noses at Iran. We have absolutely no grounds for self-righteous indignation. The women's rights movement began here, about 200 years ago. In fact, it was begun by Christian women, and then nearly quashed in the late 20th Century conservative Church by Christian men.

In America, religious or secular, we've never managed to get it right. Rosie the Riveter, for example, helped build the planes and ships American military men used to win WWII, only to be herded back into second-class citizenship when her G.I Joe came home.

And it still goes on: In the U.S., women are still paid much less then men for the same work. In American Christian churches, women are still systematically excluded from positions of power and influence, even in some of the religious groups that claim to be for women's ordination. (I know. I've seen it from the inside, first hand.)

After all these years, did we really expect that a battle not yet won after two centuries in the U.S. would be won in Iran in two weeks?

In their efforts to help Islam's women, many Western men are little better than their Islamic counterparts: French President Nicholas Sarkozy, for example, has now backed up his profoundly secular country's recent legislation banning head scarves in public schools with further calls to ban burkhas from any public place. Similar moves are contemplated in the U.K. Is forcing Islamic women to remove them any better than forcing them to wear them?

Lest we forget, as we compare the protests in Tehran's Haft-e-Tir Square with those that occurred in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, the latter was crushed by a fiercely secular state in reaction to a quasi-religious groundswell. This and the ongoing tension between Beijing and not-so-semi-autonomous Tibet have deeply anti-religious undertones. We need to ask, in all fairness, what about Sarkozy's anti-burkha campaign differentiates France from, say, China's recent security putsch against public displays during the anniversary of Tiananmen Square?

Whatever happened to the fundamentally democratic ideal of giving people the right to choose -- even to choose religious restrictions? Sarkozy would better serve women by offering to protect those who want to take the burkhas off, while also protecting the rights of those who wish to keep them on. Any other course puts Islamic women in a profoundly untenable position. But what does Sarkozy care? After all, he's a man.

Unfortunately, countries, corporations and churches, in the East and West, still operate, for the most part, on hierarchical systems. These top-down management schemes were invented by men, for men, to benefit men. They are power structures, not people structures, propped up by elaborate systems of authority and backed by the threat of armed force. They benefit the powerful, first and foremost. These organizations inevitably become insular, as they seek to preserve the primarily male-oriented institutions they serve. Sooner or later, they exist primarily to enable the "Good Ol' Boy" networks they inevitably spawn. (The "trickle-down economics" construct once in vogue here in the U.S. is a profoundly male approach to concern for one's neighbor.)

If you doubt my analysis, ponder this: If men birthed babies, there would be day care centers within 100 ft of every Good Ol' Boy's workplace. Tell me I'm wrong.

Ultimately, Iran's battle for freedom is not a fight between secularists and clerics or even women against men. It is a battle between socio-economic classes within Islam. Ahmadinejad's crew controls the rural populace and has the support of a military elite that (unlike the 1979 Revolution's ageing leaders) were on the ground in the bloody war with Iraq. (An Iraq which was supported by the U.S. and acquired from the U.S. the materials it used to make chemical weapons it employed against Iraninas in that war.)

Supporters of Iran's current president don't see the protest stories and images making the rounds on the Net. And they're fine with that. Like other generations who fear attacks from without, Ahmadinejad's cohort is fundamentally concerned with security. Despite its public claims, Iran's nuclear ambitions under the current regime do not spring primarily from the desire for peaceful uses. Iran sits on one of the world's largest deposits of fossil fuel. It's energy needs are not the driver. The motivation is much more understandable as defensive. Distrusted by the West, by Israel and by most of its Arab neighbors, Iran (like India and Pakistan) seeks the power to hold its many detractors at bay.

The current opposition in Iran comes not from Iran's poor and oppressed but instead from the middle and upper classes who have benefited most from the 1979 Revolution. Now better educated, and computer/Internet savvy, these folks have had the opportunity to view the world beyond and would like to engage with it. They're no longer willing to see life in revolutionary blacks and whites. They know that Britain and the U.S., in the past, contributed to the unrest in their country, but they also recognize that the times are ripe for re-assessing those past relationships. They accept that the children of a nation cannot be held to account for the sins of their fathers and mothers. They aspire, like many others, to be citizens of the world, not just Iran.

This is what poses a threat to Ahmadinejad's security-focused constituency. Indeed, the large protests in the three days after Iran's election might have been quashed immediately and much more brutally had it not been for the fact that Mr. Rafsanjani and other clerics also see the need to shed a simplistic world view. They know that it is no longer possible to use the threat posed by various sorts of "infidels" outside Iran to justify continued restrictions on life inside Iran. They fear, and are trying to resist, if only in the background, Admadinejad's increasingly obvious play for power. The current split among Iran's clerics and the surprisingly outspoken words from leaders of the 1979 Revolution are the strongest pieces of evidence that Ahmadinejad did, indeed, steal the election.

When security becomes the uppermost concern, there are predictable side effects. In the last two weeks, stories of Iran's Basij militiamen armed to the teeth and riding around packed into the backs of pickup trucks was a eerie reminder of the K.K.K. and other white supremacist groups whose adherents in the U.S. once openly clutched their quasi-fundamentalist sect's credentials in one hand and their weapons in the other. Although the latter, for years, have kept a low profile here, the God 'n' Guns clubs are hauntingly similar, no matter where you find them.

As if on cue, the news came this week that an American church pastor had invited folks to bring their guns to the parish sanctuary for a "celebration of their second amendment rights." Suddenly, carrying concealed to church, in some Christian circles, is right up there with fiery preaching in the pantheon of Christian celebrity.

This new development is defended, of course, from the Bible: Supporters pluck a single puzzling New Testament verse (Luke 22:36) from its context to justify their actions, ignoring that Jesus later told Peter to put away his sword, healed Malchus ear, and then refused to call down 12 legions of angels to rescue him from Pilate at his trial.

Despite their talk of protecting religious and political liberty, these almost exclusively white and either Southern or Pacific Northwest gun-toters are motivated far less by a desire to preserve their neighbor's freedoms as they are to protect themselves from their neighbor. If you doubt that, try honestly to imagine the enthusiasm these same second-amendment devotees would feel if a bring-your-gun meeting were held at the local mosque. Or in Pastor Wright's predominately black church in Chicago.

God 'n' Guns is all about fear and security. And there's always boogeymen to point to, to keep the troops in line. In Iran, this month, it's liberal journalists and President Obama. It is profoundly ironic that in America, the God 'n' Guns groups (and sympathizers like Rush Limbaugh and certain Fox News commentators) take aim at the same targets.

I think it's undeniable that the current gun groundswell is inextricably tied to the fact that we have an African American as President and the completely groundless fear the NRA has fanned into flame: That Barack Hussein Obama — who many conservatives still believe without a shred of evidence is a closet jihadist — will "pry their guns from their cold, dead fingers." As that pick-up truck bumper sticker slogan suggests, there are reactionary Ahmadinejad's-in-waiting, even here in America.

From Tiananmen Square in 1989 Bejing to Haft-e-Tir Square in Tehran, people who chafe under dictatorships see in Iran their own stories, played out again. But today, as always, there are still far too many (men and women) willing to abdicate their neighbors' personal rights to elites, religious or secular, that demand unquestioning allegiance in trade for the illusion of security.

These elites, no matter their ideological or religious bent or how well they wear the stolen clothes of democracy, seek not freedom, but control. I'm all for cheering on anyone who speaks out in favor of freedom and I deplore those who would trade freedom away for security. The current Iranian leadership is certainly an example of the latter.

Have we forgotten, in the stir of the moment, that we've traded away many of our neighbor's freedoms since 9/11 only to get Guantanano prison and a chilling public debate about the merits of torture as a security tool? That we, too, had a bitterly disputed election (remember hanging chads?) in which a president retained power after falling short in the popular vote? Do we now deny that, not unlike Iran, we were for eight long years distrusted and faced with censure in world opinion?

Let us not make the mistake of making Iran the boogeyman in our efforts to gloss over our own bloody history.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Iran in the Crucible of Democracy

Iran's religious hierarchy and the Iranian people who have lived under its precepts since 1979 have together come face-to-face with the inherent downside of democracy: For someone, things don't turn out as hoped.

Someone wins, and others lose.

Democracy's positive side, of course, is that it presents a way for a people to govern itself without resort to bloodshed. It is a system (as originally intended, anyway) by which the people, who are the true governors and the governed, select those who will carry out the people's will. Under ordinary circumstances — that is to say, when the election is known to have been conducted fairly and all parties agree that the votes were counted and tallied correctly — those who have agreed beforehand to accept the verdict of the people generally grouse a bit, then go on with their lives and accept the result. They can do so, because they believe they had a fair shot at it, and fairly lost. They can do so because they are confident that democracy will give them another chance.

In Iran, this week, a sizable portion of the populace does not now have that confidence. While it's possible that Iranian pollsters are so backward and primitive that there could be a 30-percentage-point error in their calculations, its not even remotely possible that poll officials arrived at a certifiable count just two hours after the polls closed. In the U.S., even a mayoral election in a middling small town can't be certified before breakfast the next morning.

No wonder, then, that all the opposition candidates are unanimous in their opinion that election fraud has been perpetrated in Iran on a large scale. These same leaders have charged that their observers (in the U.S., we call them poll watchers) were systematically excluded from polling places. People within the Iranian ministry that oversees elections have admitted, anonymously, to journalists that the election was fraudulent. Members of the Iranian national soccer team were seen wearing opposition green at an international match this week. The Iranian clergy is now openly divided over the election. And the list goes on.

Iran's current leadership, clearly worried by the continuing unrest, has attempted to stifle free speech, disrupt communications, bar the international press from reporting what everyone already knows. In short, they've employed all the time-tested techniques that modern despots regularly use when the quieter methods of holding a populace hostage are no longer sufficient to keep people in line. But without what the political scientists like to call "the consent of the governed," democracy (let alone what many now suspect is a sham democracy) cannot be made to work.

Remarkably — and likely a measure of just how pervasive the unrest really is — Iran's Ayatollah did a striking about face mid-week, suggesting that a "limited recount" might be in order ... with the proviso, of course, that opposition leaders stifle their supporters. More striking still, nobody was buying that line. People continue to march, to shout from their rooftops, to e-mail photos and videos of protest marches and militia violence, to tweet the news out of Iran, a sentence at a time. Now he's trying to blame Gordon Brown and the international press for his troubles.

Although his options diminish daily, the Ayatollah does have one have real ace in the hole: Rather than a recount (which no one would believe, given who's in possession of the ballots) he should call for a redo, with multinational supervision. (Hey ... how about the UN? They actually have some expertise in this area!).

That's right. Respect the Iranians on Tehran's Main Street enough to give them a do-over.

At this point, there's little to lose: Iran's international reputation (with all but, maybe, Vladimir Putin) currently weighs in the balance. The government's legitimacy is in serious question, whether it likes it or not. There is no way, through inaction or threat, to regain public confidence.

Conversely, there is much to be gained: Assuming the second election goes in the incumbent's favor, the world, having not been able to put up, must then shut up. And Iran's leadership would get credit for openess. It will have bent over backward to assure its own people, it's neighbors and the watching world that it is legitimate. Further, it would buy itself a stronger place at the negotiating table in talks with U.S. officials, should it care to participate. It's really a no-lose.

And if by some strange and unlikely turn of events, the election goes the other way? Not to worry: The clerics can take credit for having been willing to accept the possibility that the election had been highjacked, and can celebrate with its people in the correction of what could have been a national travesty (Allah be praised!) ... and then deal with the minor officials who, they will shortly discover, colluded with unscrupulous minor politicians to commit election fraud. The current president and others too big to fail could be quietly expatriated to ... well, how about Russia? (Putin seems to like them. Let him have them.)

No matter how you cut it, this is an eminently sensible and, politically, wise and pragmatic move. Unfortunately for those who rule Iran, it might be too late to take advantage of this option. In any case, it's one they're unlikely to take. The Ayatollah and his friends in the Iranian clergy and military have sold its populace the proposition that Iran's Supreme Leader speaks for God. This insistence on infallibility puts him in an unenviable position: If he blinks, God blinks. For those who go in for that kind of thinking, the one option that remains is to act to protect God's honor: crush dissent, jail the opposition, turn the militias loose, and "re-educate" the populace with show trials and public executions. We'll never know who really won, so everyone will lose.

If Iran's real governors (those with the guns) take that option, they'll plunge Iran into political darkness for another decade. But they'll also sow the seeds of their own defeat. Everyone will know. Everyone will remember. That small taste of freedom that slipped their grasp will grow bitter in their mouths. The blood of the Green Martyrs will inflame their hearts. Someday, inevitably, that broken dream will lift them up again.

The Iranian people are learning this week what we in the West too conveniently want to forget. Democracy has rarely been instituted without bloodletting. Those who prefer to rule outside democracy's consensual strictures are forever loath to accept them without a fight. Only those willing to die for the vote ever get it or keep it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Confessions of a Contrarian, Part 5

I had no intention of writing a Part 5. But sometimes you think you're done and realize, later, that you're not. In this case, it occurred to me that my recent defense and celebration of contrarians cannot properly end without consideration of those contrarians who, in the Church, we call prophets.

Prophecy has been a bone of contention since the 20th Century church (or at least parts of it) "rediscovered" the charismata after centuries of de facto cessationist rule. While many churches still resist this move of the Spirit, some have opened themselves to it, to various degrees.

For example, at the local church I attend, prophecy is encouraged, but within limits. Those who believe God has delivered through them a message for the church can check in with one of the pastors and, should the message pass muster, deliver it on Sunday morning, or at least have it paraphrased by the pastor. In such cases, the pastor who announces the upcoming prophecy usually provides some guidance to the gathered folk about the local policy concerning prophecy, particularly in regard to appropriate content.

There is nothing unreasonable about limits per se. To impose prudent limits to prophetic activity is indisputably biblical. The question is, are our sanctions in line with those we've been given?

Frankly, having prophets submit their prophecies to the pastor for approval probably wasn't what Paul had in mind. Hearing God speak through the spiritual gift of prophecy was intended to be a regular part of our corporate worship. In the "gifts" passages in 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul assumed that it would be. God would speak through the church to the church. And he affirmed this method of prophetic expression in a letter to a disorderly church, where prophecy and other gifts had been abused in the context of corporate gatherings. Paul is very clear about proper procedure in the Corinthians' public gatherings: "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said." (I Cor 14:29) From the letter's context — throughout, Paul is addressing matters of corporate worship — prophets are plainly directly to speak to the church at large. Paul calls for order, but nowhere speaks about pre-approval.

So where are the limits? Again, Paul's word on the subject is simple and clear: In the weighing carefully. Anyone can speak, but the act of speaking makes no one's words into God's words. They are God's words only when they are tested and found to be true by the church (the others, in this context, cannot mean merely the other prophets).

Paul here affirms an operative principle that we can see at work in Jewish history: The prophets' words enshrined in the Old Testament came to be there after the nation of Israel sifted them (and was sifted by them) and time proved them worthy of preservation. Many prophets arose in Israel, but only a few spoke God's incontrovertible Word to the ages. A local church and the church at large finds its true prophets by allowing aspiring prophets to speak. Those who over time speak truth earn the ears — and the trust — of the church and, as a result, lay a claim to legitimate authority.

It's important to note that Paul also makes no statement about what is or is not proper subject matter for prophecy. Many churches have responded to this astonishing omission by instituting local rules. One can empathize with this tendency. We don't want people to be offensive or make accusations in public (at least, not until after having exercised the prescriptions outlined by Jesus for confronting sin recorded in Matt. 18). Besides, there are children in the room. The potential for hurt and misunderstaiding is very real. Our tendency to impose limits (Paul, after all, did not say we shouldn't limit content) is entirely understandable. But again, the question is, are such limits biblical?

One common guideline springs, I think, from a particularly unbiblical assumption: The prescription that all prophecy must be "encouraging." Unfortunately, that word has acquired a modern meaning roughly equivalent to positive. In practice, this often boils down to the baseless idea that prophecy must, in all cases, be nice or make people "feel better." This is not only a narrow definition of the word encouraging, but it also reflects a misconception — and this is the heart of the matter — of the essentially contrarian nature of the prophetic office.

(By the way, I do not mean Office. I do not believe that prophet should be an officially recognized position in the church. Nor should anyone wear the word Prophet before their name, as in Prophet Jane Doe. Paul says everyone should aspire to prophecy! That passage in the book of Joel (2:28-32) is pretty clear that God intended to "pour out His Spirit," on "all people," men, woman, old, young. Prophecy, in the age of the church, was not intended to be the special preserve of a chosen few. It's lay ministry.)

Here, a look at the wide sweep of prophetic history is helpful if not particularly satisfying. The prophets whose words are preserved as Scripture were (let's be honest, shall we?) an unseemly lot: And just in case you're still laboring under the illusion that only Old Testament prophets were a bit off, let's keep in mind that John, the forerunner of Christ, lived in the desert, ate bugs, and went about warning people to repent, and both he and Jesus variously referred to the respected religious leaders of their day as hypocrites, snakes and whitewashed tombs. Paul continued this practice in his letter to the Galatians, chiding that church in no uncertain terms for departing from the gospel and calling for the offending Judaizers to ... well, read it yourself. It's not pretty. And John the brother of Andrew, in the Bible's final letter, the Revelation, takes several churches to task for their shortcomings in surprisingly strong terms. There was nothing nice about any of this. With that as backdrop, it is difficult to appeal to Scripture in support of what are, at best, extra-biblical limits.

It is a sad fact that, within most church organizations, correction is no longer considered a legitimate prophetic function. (Unless, of course, you're the paid professional — one reason why my statement above about "office" should be heeded by the church). We need to reconsider what it actually means to encourage. Webster's says:
To inspire with courage, spirit or hope; to spur on.
It means to call up courage in someone. There is nothing to indicate that this is inconsistent with correction. Consider the following example, a wife pleading with her Marlboro Man: "George, you've got to stop smoking. I've heard you coughing in the morning. And you can hardly climb stairs without wheezing. You promised the doctor that you'd 'cut down' but I know you've been sneaking cigarettes on the 'walks' you take. Honey, I want the best for your health. Please, let's kick the habit. We can do it together." Have a problem with that? I don't. I'd hope to hear that from someone if I was addicted to nicotine. I'd want to be busted for sneaking ciggies on the sly and be encouraged to clean up my act with the help of someone who loved me enough to confront me. And I'm sure about this because that was the contrarian/prophetic message my Dad's wife delivered to him at age 55, after his doctor announced that Dad had emphysema and if he didn't quit the habit, he'd be dead in five years. What did Dad do? He not only kicked the cigarettes, but caffeinated coffee, too. (That cup of coffee and first cigarette in the morning were two of my father's favorite things ... he told me years later he still missed them.) Not only that, he kicked the excess weight, and exercised his way to better health at 60 than he'd had at 45. He lived long enough to celebrate with my Mom their 50th wedding anniversary and died in his 80s with her by his side to the last. Her prophecy was entirely consistent with Dad's best interest, but its delivery wasn't a happy moment for him (I know, I was there) and it issued from a warning of dire consequences.

Why should it be any different when one of the prophets who make up Christ's Bride pleads similarly with the those who stand in for the Bridegroom?

It shouldn't be different, but it often is, and while this disappointing, it's not surprising. Institutions are rarely open to correction. Religious institutions are no exception (also disappointing). Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches alike have historically silenced or otherwise sidelined those whose voices bring the discomfort that inevitably comes when the institution's or its leaders' shadow side is exposed to view.

Nor is this anything new: Before there was a Christian community or its Christ, God's Chosen People regularly killed their prophets and awaited the Messiah only to reject all who came in his name. (Jesus was not, by any means, the only one to make the claim and be killed for it.)

Killing those who question the received wisdom (as interpreted by the prevailing religious leadership) is a long, sad tradition in Christian polity. Read Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and you'll find that a substantial number of those who lost their lives for Christ did so at the hands of others who claimed the name of Christ. If you read closely enough, you'll find that most of that subset were contrarians who died for having the audacity to call the church to change that most Christians now take quite for granted: Advocating that the scriptures be translated into the vox populi, for example. Or how about printing the scriptures in book form so that someone not officially connected with the clergy or a monastery could actually read and study them? Yes, people died so you can have that leather-bound, gold-leaf edged, red-letter-edition family Bible on your coffee table.

Thank God, killing those who think outside the box is no longer an official option in most Christian churches. Sometime in the 1600s, people finally wearied of burning and drowning their neighbors and decimating the populations of neighboring realms over whether the communion wafer was or was not the actual physical body of our Lord. A wiser more aware populace began to see that leaders were not infallible and that the fact that God permitted evil leaders did not equate to a divine right to rule.

But we are far from rolling out the welcome mat to those bear gifts of correction. Today, we excommunicate them, stigmatize them, marginalize them — or boo them and heckle them at commencement addresses, as was done to President Obama recently at Notre Dame. (Yes, he's a Christian and, yes, if you are a Christian, he's your brother in Christ, whether you like it or not. And, yes, I'm saying that what he's said recently about the so-called culture wars might be prophetic. Are we willing to listen and discern before we pass judgment?)

Some marginalized prophets eventually go elsewhere and start yet another "protest" church, which accounts for much of church history (even monasteries were a less obvious form of schism). This phenomenon is largely responsible for the current mutilated state of the Body of Christ.

Some don't start new churches but, as is the fashion now, they write books, go on speaking tours and advocate leaving church altogether.

And I want to make very clear, I do not mean to imply that the issues that currently divide us are not serious. On the contrary, discerning what God is saying to his church about such things is of the utmost importance. But we cannot hear Him if we suppress the mechanism that God ordained for the airing of difficult issues and prayerfully, humbly getting at what God might want us to do about them. In it's absence, we inevitably settle for a veneer of "nice" beneath which germinate seeds of discord that, absent the purifying light of the Spirit, sprout in dark corners, like poisonous mushrooms, and emerge into view as full-blown conflicts. The result are bitter, prolonged and often terribly public battles that should have been family discussions.

Prophecy, properly understood, is a God-given means by which God's Family, when it gathers around the Lord's Table, is encouraged, both negatively, by warnings and the potential for negative consequences, and positively by the expectation of pleasing God and seeing His Kingdom advanced. The Scriptures are clear. Prophetic messages are not to be accepted uncritically. But they are equally clear that it takes a whole church to discern what God is saying to His Church. Rather than making extra-biblical rules, leaders ought to be practicing and teaching discernment (not to mention making use of those in the Body who have spiritual gifts of discernment of spirits).

Yes, that's the more difficult path. And it's messy — no argument there. But the church has been a mess since day one (imagine Acts 2 at your church this Sunday: Tongues of fire? OMG! Are they drunk??). At some point, we have to learn to love the mess, don't we? When you have small children, your house is never clean. You don't, for that reason, lock the kids in a closet, even when people come to visit. (Not if you're a healthy parent). Kids are kids. You have to let them be kids before they can grow up. Why would it be any different with prophets (or pastors, or missionaries, or church secretaries, for that matter)?

We all learn by experience. How can the members of the Body learn to discern God's voice unless we're all in a position to hear it? And we need to hear it unchecked and unmediated by man, no matter what that man's title.

If some of God's most articulate voices go unheard because what they say might make us uncomfortable, then we will be left to wonder, when disaster strikes, how did things go so wrong when we were feeling so comfortable?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Abuse of Authority: The Gitmo of the Heart

The dust barely settled from years of revelations about its pedophile priest coverup here in America, the Roman Catholic church now faces another round of public exposures: According to this recent NY Times story, a nine-year investigation points a finger of indictment at the church for covering up an "endemic" pattern of sexual and physical abuse took place from the 1930s into the 1990s in church-run reformatories and special-education schools in Ireland.

Patterns of religious abuse, historically, are by no means limited to the Catholic churches. Evangelical Christian groups and a number of charismatically inclined churches, along with a host of religious fringe groups, have been called out in the past, in books, TV exposes, movies and legal proceedings, for a variety of abuses of organizational power. In May, for example, the nephew of Warren Jeffs, a now imprisoned former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS, the LDS splinter group that still practices polygamy), has broken his silence about the inner workings of the sect in a much touted book, Lost Boy, in which he reveals the full extent of the religious abuse that led to Jeff's arrest and trial. (Hear the National Public Radio program about it here.)

An op/ed piece in the May 20 NY Times, penned by someone who experienced life in the Irish Catholic system indicted in the report above, opens a window for those too young to have lived through the middle part of the 20th Century into just how differently things looked back then. The writer's account reminded me of my own childhood, when what we today consider to be scandalous abuse was often tolerated and sometimes condoned.

When I was a kid, there was a family on the next block where the husband beat his wife and his kids. How do I know this? Everyone knew. What went on in the home across the street stayed in the home across the street. You didn't interfere. There was a conspiracy, but not one of silence. And as I look back, I wonder how much we didn't know.

This "open silence" was the way. But it was not the right way. How do I know? This is how: By all accounts, the oldest son from that family was a real nice kid. Respectful to adults, he was the only kid I ever knew who unfailingly called my dad Mr. Musselman. He dated my sister. Yeah, he smoked, but back then, except in front of the pastor or priest, almost everyone did. Years later, however, he was arrested elsewhere for the murder of a neighbor in a rundown apartment complex in which he had been living as a bitter, friendless man. Nobody could figure out why. I know why. Abuse breeds abuse. Anger breeds anger. Perpetrators create perpetrators.

In this case, that boy's father was not religious nor was he raised religious, but that makes my point: abuse, no matter what the motive or who the perpetrator, ultimately begats more abuse. Religious people (like my parents and our catholic neighbors) tolerated such behavior because authority figures had broad discretion in my father's world, inside and outside the church. The worst that happened to an abusive dad like that was that he would have to pack up the family and move because of the gossip. When abusive dad's actions were cloaked with a religious veil — in the pulpit or by membership on the church board — they were untouchable. Who would bring down the church, even to save it from a monster? Sadly, it was more important to keep up the appearance of respectability. Although I look back and wonder, who exactly were we trying to fool? God?

And there were plenty of religiously veiled perpetrators in my neighborhood: Everyone knew that the great guy up the block, a devout Catholic, was also an alcoholic and, when he had a few too many beers, could get abusive. No one was surprised when his wife finally got up the gumption to confront it and divorce him. But no one was there to help her, either, and many criticized her. Divorce, of course, wasn't the respectable thing. An interesting sidelight: The oldest son of that family had the guts to take his mom's side and later married a woman whose career and independence he has faithfully supported all these years. He's still married, and happily — and not an alcoholic. But not a Catholic, either. More importatntly ... he was an exception.

In our neighborhood, there were some Lutheran families. In one, the father, a altogether respectable fellow, was an ingrained racist. The word nigger was a common noun in his household when the Freedom Riders cruised the South. Another beat his son and told him he was worthless. That fellow's son, 40 years later, still can't hold a consistent job and is still overcoming that judgment on his life.

And everyone knew that the stern but biblically conservative pastor (he preached against homosexuality, I remember) who served in a nearby church for many years had at least once (that, we knew) beaten his wife in a rage.

Scratch an atheist and, all too often, you'll find someone who, in some way like those reform-school kids in Ireland, suffered at the hands (if not physically then, mentally and spiritually) of a religious authority figure, at home, at school, in a church. A personal example: I learned my catechism one summer at the hands of my racist Lutheran neighbor's pastor during a week-long barrage masquerading as Vacation Bible School. We were seated at tables with printed copies of the catechism. We were told to memorize it. Then we were called up, one-by-one to face the pastor and serve it up without looking at our notes. This man of God never smiled, not once. I was terrified of him ... and, as a result, terrified of God as well. Those who managed the catechetical feat were treated as if it was only to be expected. Those who, like me, were too terrified to perform, were held in barely disguised contempt.

Every time one Christian victimizes someone else, in the church or out, for any reason, it becomes an effective argument against the reality of the church's connection to God. So we shouldn't be too surprised, therefore, that there is a sort of general horror at the idea of the Pope or some other religious leader "calling the shots" in public life. You've got a couple of generations of people who suffered under those leaders, who now write, speak and live as journalists, teachers, lawyers, judges and politicians. They're bent on protecting another generation from what they suffered, and if I were in their shoes, I might do likewise. (In fact, I am. Here. Now.)

We can't forget that Jesus himself said, "The world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." And if we don't love one another? If what the world sees coming from the church isn't consistent with Jesus' message of love, but rather a holdover from the church's unfortunately lengthy history of abuse of authority, then who can blame them for their unbelief?

We have to face an uncomfortable truth: People whose "map" of Christendom has been drawn by abusers, angry right-wing politicians, uptight latter-day Pharisees and the like are very unlikely, apart from the amazing grace of a loving God, to find the Way.

There are implications here, of course, for the current debate over whether or not "enhanced interrogation" carried out at Guantanamo and other locations by CIA operatives were "useful." The Obama Administration has taken the admirable tack of stepping back and looking not just at the immediate result, which (for all we'll ever know) might have secured information that stopped some terrorist plots from unfolding. Instead, he's looking at how this plays in the Big Picture. He's asking not only how such actions affect the way the U.S. is perceived and how we see ourselves but he's asking the more important — the critically central — question: How are terrorists created?

I know how. I've known from childhood. Abuse breeds abuse. Anger breeds anger. Perpetrators create perpetrators.

You look at the history of the regions that now breed terrorists and you will find decades of ill treatment by those who have abused positions of power. Some of it financed by American money, and perpetrated by people trained by American military operatives. Afghanistan and Pakistan come to mind. Mr. Obama, I think, was right when he said that Gitmo has probably created more terrorists than it has stopped.

At least one U.S. soldier has taken this historical perspective to heart and, in a remarkable act of courage, questioned U.S. policy on this point by stepping forward to defend the rights of a single detainee. A SWAT team member in his civilian life, Capt. Kirk Black now trains Afghani policemen in counter terrorism. At first skeptical that any detainee could be innocent, Black investigated and then took up the case of a man held in Bagram (one of our "offshore" prisons in Afghanistan) even helping him obtain legal counsel.

Capt. Black, previously assigned to Gitmo, has learned by experience to question the wisdom of U.S. policy in the region. He's too young to remember the time when taking a suspect to the police station basement and beating a confession out of them with a rubber hose was a all-to-common law enforcement procedure. (And yes, I have spoken with an older chief of police personally, who acknowledged that fact from his own personal experience. I'm not just repeating "liberal dogma.") The fact that it appeared to be effective caused officialdom to look the other way for decades until court decision after court decision established beyond a reasonable doubt that confession by compulsion was a way to get a quick conviction, but a very bad way to get at the truth.

Mr. Cheney and others who defend America's treatment of suspected terrorists are children of a generation that accepted abuse of authority as a normal, even necessary, part of life, laboring under the illusion that those so abused can flower, somehow, into moral rectitude. Like Capt. Black, we must all acknowledge that such assumptions are not born out by the facts.

History indicates quite the opposite. Authority unchecked, is inevitably abusive. And more to the point, is patently ineffective at accomplishing good ends. Gitmo is a product of what is still resident in our community heart: The residue of a cultural belief that force, compulsion, shame, disrespect, dishonor and rejection are legitimate or effective tools for moral people to use in moral redirection. Whether we are protecting Americans from terrorists or our own children from the fires of hell, compulsion, castigation and cruelty simply don't work. They feed the disorder they intend to end. They kill the faith they meant to instill. They drive underground the discontents that can only be addressed in the light of day, with understanding and compassion.

Mr. Obama also is right to look to the future and resist retribution for those who created Gitmo. Mr. Cheney is sadly mistaken. But he is not a monster. He, too, is a victim. You do not silence the Rush Limbaughs of the world with vitriol. It is vitriol that feeds them. Peace, forgiveness and reformation never rise from retribution and shame. Do we not have the witness of the Reconstruction era and the aftermath of WWI as witnesses to that? The one gave rise to the Jim Crow South and the other to Nazi Germany. Do we not have the witness to the wisdom of rejecting retribution in the post-WWII period, when the U.S. helped Japan rebuild and gained, to this day, an important ally?

Gitmo has given an ironic form of aid and comfort to fanatical jihadists, giving them ample fuel to fan hatred of America in the hearts of Islam's dispossessed. It has made a negative impact on our collective soul and further soiled our already sullied reputation in the global community.

What we do about it has serious implications for our future. What does it say about our decades-long refusal to extend a hand of conciliation to Cuba? The refusal to speak with leaders of Iran? And countless other decisions the U.S. has made, from its position of power, that have often unnecessarily alienated both foe and friend?

Indeed, what does it say about campaigns to prevent gay marriage? Or reverse Roe v. Wade? The lessons of Gitmo might have special relevance for those on both sides of the abortion battlelines, since the wounds of this particularly painful "culture war" were opened afresh this week by the murder of a Wichita, Kan. physician who performed the procedure in the third trimester.

Abuse breeds abuse. Anger breeds anger. Perpetrators create perpetrators. And we, corporately and individually, still so easily become both abusers and victims.

It's time for America to close Gitmo and for each of us to close the Gitmo in our own heart.