Saturday, January 14, 2006

Faith, Reason, and Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day is an occassion for Christians to consider both the liberating and the nefarious effects of our faith. Martin Luther King's faith was an important asset in his struggle against racism. On the other hand, if religion had not justified and codified racism in the first place, we might have dislodged hatred earlier and more thoroughly.

It turns out that faith may be selfish or charitable. One is cheap. The other is costly. One is greedy. The other is giving. One is blind. The other is reasoned.

The hope of blessings and salvation is cheap faith. That faith is opium for the masses. Making us prisoners of greed, selfish faith manipulates us and suspends reason. Engaging suffering at personal risk, like the Good Samaritan, is costly faith demanding our commitment here and now. Compassionate faith embraces reason and sets us free. We do not become more Christ like in those experiences that make us feel good but in those that pain us. We do not find God in triumph but when we look into the face of our suffering neighbors and meet their needs.

The story of Job and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman liberate modern human beings from the tyranny of individual success. And then there is the God, who, according to Martin Luther’s translation, was born in a manger among animals, became a refugee, hung out with prostitutes and corrupt officials, and entered paradise in the company of a murderer. He gave us the Sermon of the Mount, which is outdated with respect to sex but remains the best lesson about conflict and cooperation yet, best represented during the last century by leaders of the liberation struggles such as Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Václav Havel.

Modernity generated its own form of idolatry. Those who were arrogant enough to proclaim an end to suffering became the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The fact that even our God was not beyond suffering reminds Christians that no amount of virtue can bring about heaven on earth.

The difference between Gandhi's freedom struggle and Robespierre's terror was that Gandhi appreciated the suffering of his opponents. He loved them and strove to be their friend. Though Gandhi's determination was not free of arrogance, his faith was motivated by his commitment to the rights of others. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King made it a priority to minimize the suffering of his opponents while he and his people had to suffer like Christ.

I have been spared a similar experience. The most evocative accounts of Christ’s suffering are probably not in the gospels but in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach knew about suffering. His mother died when he was nine. Surviving his wife as the father of toddlers as well as half of his children, Bach found solace in the passion of his god. His music can instill a deep appreciation for suffering, though the progress brought about by reason denies some of us the requisite experience, thank heaven.

Friday, January 06, 2006

In the Words of a Father

Most of you will already have seen the editorial by Paul Schroeder whose son was killed in Iraq. You can read the whole story at the Washington Post. Here is an excerpt:

I am outraged at what I see as the cause of his death. For nearly three years, the Bush administration has pursued a policy that makes our troops sitting ducks. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that our policy is to "clear, hold and build" Iraqi towns, there aren't enough troops to do that.

In our last conversation, Augie complained that the cost in lives to clear insurgents was "less and less worth it," because Marines have to keep coming back to clear the same places. Marine commanders in the field say the same thing. Without sufficient troops, they can't hold the towns. Augie was killed on his fifth mission to clear Haditha.

At Augie's grave, the lieutenant colonel knelt in front of my wife and, with tears in his eyes, handed her the folded flag. He said the only thing he could say openly: "Your son was a true American hero." Perhaps. But I felt no glory, no honor. Doing your duty when you don't know whether you will see the end of the day is certainly heroic. But even more, being a hero comes from respecting your parents and all others, from helping your neighbors and strangers, from loving your spouse, your children, your neighbors and your enemies, from honesty and integrity, from knowing when to fight and when to walk away, and from understanding and respecting the differences among the people of the world.

Two painful questions remain for all of us. Are the lives of Americans being killed in Iraq wasted? Are they dying in vain? President Bush says those who criticize staying the course are not honoring the dead. That is twisted logic: honor the fallen by killing another 2,000 troops in a broken policy?

I choose to honor our fallen hero by remembering who he was in life, not how he died. A picture of a smiling Augie in Iraq, sunglasses turned upside down, shows his essence -- a joyous kid who could use any prop to make others feel the same way.

Though it hurts, I believe that his death -- and that of the other Americans who have died in Iraq -- was a waste. They were wasted in a belief that democracy would grow simply by removing a dictator -- a careless misunderstanding of what democracy requires. They were wasted by not sending enough troops to do the job needed in the resulting occupation -- a careless disregard for professional military counsel.

But their deaths will not be in vain if Americans stop hiding behind flag-draped hero masks and stop whispering their opposition to this war. Until then, the lives of other sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers may be wasted as well.

This is very painful to acknowledge, and I have to live with it. So does President Bush.