Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The War on Drugs and the birth of a police state

Boston SWAT, April 16, 2013
(Photo by Jozef Stazka/Flickr)
The terrible events in Boston last week were many things. One thing that struck me was the massive show of power on the part of police departments. Shutting down an entire city, conducting a sweeping manhunt, etc. This is no small task. In the case of events like last week, this is generally seen as a very good thing, even if it was somewhat surprising and shocking to many, least of which the residents affected by the whole ordeal.

For a nation that's been at war for over a decade, perhaps seeing armored vehicles, assault weapons, and camouflaged police officers isn't a big shock. But it does give some pause.

One thing to ask might be: How did police forces end up looking like paramilitary units?

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, offers some clues. The "War on Drugs" - that is by now seen as a colossal failure - began its life as a political utterance in the late 1960s, made a rhetorical device over the next decade, and then in the 1980s was institutionalized by the Reagan administration and foisted onto all levels of law enforcement, from federal all the way down to local/municipal departments. (It also had a racial dimension, which is key to her argument, but that's not this topic.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Good news and bad news for the information age

Your brain on news; w/ thanks to Rod Dreher. (Image from Up!; copyright Disney/Pixar)
"Gospel" literally means "good news." To most Christians this is obvious. Yet sometimes the obvious needs to be called out of its obviousness to us. We need to make this word, gospel, appropriately strange.

In his book God and Gadgets, theologian Brad Kallenberg says that as news, the gospel of Jesus Christ is something that must be offered in such a way that it can be rejected. Otherwise it is not news; it is rather propaganda (e.g. "We've always been at war with Eastasia"). Further, to be received as news that is good it must be offered non-coercively. The gospel cannot be shoved down peoples' throats. If it is offered coercively, then it is bad news for those on the hearing/receiving end. Or as Kallenberg puts it, "The Crusader who cries 'Christ is Lord!' while cleaving the skull of the Turk has got something terribly wrong" (48; Kallenberg cites John Howard Yoder in this section).

So far so good? Kallenberg then draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to argue that absorbing the gospel - if the news is heard as good and is accepted - takes time and practice with other people. How much time? A lifetime. (It is a long game.) How many people? The entire body of Christ across its long and rich history. Our "fluency" in speaking "Christian" is inextricably bound up with the faith overtaking our whole body/mind/spirit in the community of gathered believers. By God's grace and Spirit, embodying the gospel reconditions our seeing of and being in the world.

That's the good news. Now, the bad news...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hunger games and martyrdom at Gitmo

"How long, O LORD?" -Ps 13
(Illus. by Matt Rota/NTY)
I want to make the claim here that there is a kind of  martyrdom happening at the US military prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

First, read this blood-chilling first-hand account of the hunger strikes and the treatment being carried out on the bodies/souls of imprisoned human beings: Hunger Striking at Gitmo...
ONE man here weighs just 77 pounds. Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago. I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.
The man offering the account is Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Yemeni Muslim who has been detained without charge or trail for over ten years. He and others prisoners have been stripped of every last shred of human dignity they have, including their ability to deprive themselves of sustenance to protest their inhuman treatment. So in their attempts at meager protest and the response by their captors - forced feedings - there is a sick "hunger game" playing out.

It is martyrdom because these protestors are bearing witness ("martyr"="witness") to the moral depravity of the entire system that's got them captive, Gitmo and the legal (extra-legal) gyrations that were concocted in order to bring its sick existence into being over 10 years ago.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mere Orthodoxy: The Frame for Watching Mad Men

Matthew Lee Anderson, the editor of the Mere Orthodoxy blog, was gracious enough to let me contribute a post in their series on AMC's hit drama, Mad Men...

The Frame for Watching Mad Men: When Joan sells Johnny

The MO crowd tends to be - by my assessment - socially, culturally, and theologically conservative American evangelical...but they're part of the new generation of evangelicals that's trying out loud and in public to re-imagine what that means in intellectually rigorous ways. Though my radical neo-Anabaptist impulses set me apart from some of their thinking, I've really enjoyed tracking with what Matthew is up to and the conversations I've had with him over the past year and a half, since reading his excellent book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. Thanks, Matthew!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Brethren droning about drones?

Yes, this is a real toy Predator drone.
Read the customer reviews; you'll be glad you did.
A few weeks ago the Mission and Ministry board of the Church of the Brethren issued a resolution against drone warfare. It's on its way to the Annual Conference this summer, where it could potentially be adopted by the highest governing body of our denomination. Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to read or think this resolution over, but I did so today in conversation with my NuDunker pals over e-mail and also with one of my pastoral mentors.

It's a good resolution, and I deeply resonate with much of what it's about. It makes appeals to Scripture as well as historical statements from the Brethren peace tradition, such statements themselves arising out of particular challenging issues of the past such as the draft in the days before conscientious objector status. It also makes some pretty strong calls upon "districts, congregations, and individual members"within the denomination to wrestle seriously with the issue.

As a pacifist, I've watched with a growing sense of dread at the development of this country's drone warfare program. It's one thing that totally demystified me about Obama in terms of his foreign policy vis-a-vis his predecessors. Drone warfare will soon begin to impact us more locally here in Iowa, as an Air National Guard base in Des Moines is transitioning from flying F-16 fighter jets to piloting drones (not completely unopposed). I have a friend and fellow Brethren who's worked on that base for years, so I'm trying to be pastoral first and foremost here. And yet...

Drone warfare should be deeply troubling for a number of reasons, some of which are illustrated in this excellent piece on what drones are doing to us, as a society:
  • Increasing fear in communities (our own, as well as those we're dropping bombs on)
  • Increasing impersonal engagements of conflict
  • Avoiding the roots of conflicts
  • Diminishing key virtues (namely: empathy, solidarity, courage, justice, nonviolent peacemaking)

These points, couched in virtue/human flourishing language, resonate with what I learned in a graduate peacebuilding program. So yes, this resolution is timely and important. But I have a few cautionary notes to strike...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Brethren Love Feast as sacred liturgy

My kinda countryside. Approaching Salem Mennonite, Freeman, S.D.
Last week I had the pleasure of spending Monday through Wednesday in Freeman, South Dakota, teaching and preaching at joint Holy Week evening services between four Mennonite congregations in the area, hosted at Salem Mennonite Church, where my friend Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard is pastor. He and I worked together over the evenings to try and give an account of how worship works, relying heavily on the work of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith and his "Cultural Liturgy" series.

To summarize, Smith's work is all about desires and loves, using ancient and contemporary wisdom to argue that we humans are worshipping animals who are what we love, and therefore worship what we love (in the churchy and non-churchy senses). The tasks for Christians, then, is to cultivate our loves toward faithful ends, namely love of God and neighbor (even enemies), and seeking first the peaceable kingdom of God. This happens by the enlistment of our imaginations, which is a whole-bodied enterprise. In volume 2 of his series, Imagining the Kingdom, Smith argues that "the way into the heart [and therefore the imagination] is through the body, and the way into the body is through story" (p. 14). Christian worship is the training ground to allow the "big story" of God's redemption of the world through Christ capture our imaginations, seep into our bones, train our loves/desires, and pull us toward a vision of the good life. Because of our sinful proclivity for self-deception, it's important that Christians also train our vision to see what other stories we've been enlisted into, and what false kingdoms we've been misdirected toward, because not everyone who confesses "Lord, Lord" with their lips and rational beliefs is a full-bodied Christian disciple. True evangelical faith takes practice, and the story-shaped, Spirit-filled practices of the church help cultivate faithfulness.

So on the final night of worship, the night before Maundy Thursday, I gave a narration of the Brethren Love Feast as I experienced it as a youth in Prairie City, Iowa, and made the argument that it is an example of a particularly "weighty" sacred liturgy, especially during Holy Week, and one that the wider church (and Brethren who have been letting it go by the wayside) should take up and appropriate. Rather than celebrate the full Love Feast in that service, we then moved into a time of washing the feet (or hands) of our sisters and brothers in Christ. In this area, these Mennonites have not commonly practiced feet washing, it was a beauty to behold children and parents, spouses, young people and elders, washing each others' feet and hands. Here's hoping a Love Feast might follow in time!