First Monday in Advent

“Advent is a season of silence and rest with God. Take time to focus and examine your conscience. What is the shape of your emptiness? How are you still connected to God’s abiding beauty? This Advent, how will you fulfill the work of giving Christ life?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.'” Matthew 8: 5-6

Advent is a time of ambiguity. It invites us to embrace conflicting images. Not to harmonize them into one, but to simply let our soul be tempered and strengthened by the fire this conflict creates.

In the story of the centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant, we have the warrior and the weak. Our imagination expects several things.

First, since Jesus has just healed a leper, one of the least of these, maybe he’s tired and doesn’t need to heal again.

Second, Jesus isn’t a collaborator with the Romans. Why would he even speak with a centurion—storm trooper of the state?

Third, we expect the mighty centurion to ask for something for himself or one of his family—not to act with compassion for a servant.

Finally, we don’t expect the Roman commander to become an occasion for Jesus to be amazed, saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Today, pay attention to your response to ambiguity.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Cindy Sheehan Says “Don’t Go, Don’t Kill”

A few weeks ago I ran a commentary on Huffington Post titled Christian Support for DADT is a Double Edged Sword. This week anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan added her twist on this same theme with a piece on Al Jazeera titled Don’t Go, Don’t Kill. She says:

Some of us in the peace movement work really hard to keep our young people out of the hands of the war machine that preys on disadvantaged young people in inner cities and poor rural settings.

To see a demographic that is (without appearing to stereotypes) traditionally better educated, more politically progressive, and economically advantaged fight to join this killing machine is very disheartening.

I can see how one could view the repeal as a step forward, framed in the context dictated by the political elites of the Washington beltway. I can imagine much displeasure amongst the military brass – but I cannot reiterate enough how this is not a progressive moment in the social history of the United States.

The US military is not a human rights organisation and nowhere near a healthy place to earn a living or raise a family. My email box is filled with stories of mostly straight soldiers and their families who were deeply harmed by life in the military.

I also appreciated the response from Hank Stuever, a Washington Post writer and author of the book Tinsel, to Sheehan’s piece:

Here’s something you would never hear from the gay-rights crowd about DADT, certainly not here in the epicenter of defense spending and military careers, but nevertheless, I find it curiously spot-on: Just because you CAN join the military, is it the morally just thing to do? Cindy Sheehan (remember her?) making a very good point in an essay for Al Jazeera — THAT’s how fringe this thinking is. But it begs the question: Are there ANY peace activists in the gay-rights movement?

Authentic movements for social justice build allies across lines promoting human dignity.  As Dr. King said in Montgomery, “This is a conflict between justice and injustice.” The only real question is which side are you on.

Christian Support for Repealing DADT Is a Double-Edged Sword

Most Americans – including Christians – now support equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the US military.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 58 percent of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Large majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (62%) favor allowing gays to serve openly. Republicans are divided (40% favor, 44% oppose).

But let’s look at the religious breakdown too:
62 percent of white mainline Protestants support equal rights for gays in the military
52 percent of black Protestants support equal rights
66 percent of Catholics favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly

Let me be clear, I’m very glad to have Christians moving toward a strong stance in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians in all sectors of society. This is a positive step forward for the society at large and Christians should be part of it.

The Pentagon report released yesterday finds significant support for repealing DADT among the the younger “blue collar warriors,” while a vocal minority of top brass will be uncomfortable with the shift. And don’t get me wrong, I want the churches to continue to support fair and equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

However, there are other sticky questions I want to raise.

Are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also supporting gays and lesbians within their own churches? Do they advocate for LGBT justice and liberation? Do they invest in and promote gay and lesbian leadership and open their congregations to new, liberating ways of reading scripture in the context of the LGBT life experience?

Secondly, are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also calling into question military service in a era when the U.S. has the second largest standing army in the world (behind China) and has troops stationed on all 6 inhabited continents?

I can support equal rights for gays in the military – but there’s the bigger question: As a Christian should I be supporting military participation at all? And how do Christians critique the prevailing “Empire consciousness” and offer instead our “prophetic imagination” or “alternative consciousness,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it, on issues of war and peace?

If Christians are supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then are they also advocating strong teaching in their churches on the Christian pacifist tradition or the rigorous moral “just war” process that any Christian – gay or straight – must go through before participating in any given war?

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” what does he mean? Or when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? Or “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic”?

Early generations of Christians refused to participate in war (though those who did were counseled and sometimes asked not to seek communion for a period of time, but were not cut off from community). Soldiers who subsequently converted to Christianity often left military service, viewing it as incompatible with their new life.

Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. “Love of enemies is the principal precept of the Christian,” said the Tunisian theologian Tertullian in the first century. Until the time of Constantine no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

In a democracy that enshrines civil rights and “justice for all,” it is right and good for Americans to support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and promote LGBT civil rights in the society at large.

Christians, however, have another set of values to examine. For traditionalists it may be whether you can be gay and Christian. For progressives, it’s whether you can be Christian and ‘Army Strong.’

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and regular writer on faith and justice.

McChrystal v Obama: Battle of the ‘Hard Hearts’?

General McChrystal's gold engraved nunchuks. Photograph by Mikhail Galustov for Rolling Stone/Redux

Yesterday U.S. top Afghanistan warrior General Stan McChrystal was very publicly called to the carpet in the Oval Office. Sources say his job is on the line. President Obama wants McChrystal to answer for comments he made in a Rolling Stone interview (July 8-22, 2010 issue).

The short form is that McChrystal disses the counterterrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, calling it “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” He outright insults Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and says he feels betrayed by the US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry. Overall, McChrystal conveys a deep-seated contempt for civilian leadership.

And, despite the “it’s a tough slog, but we are winning the Afghani  hearts and minds” rhetoric from the White House, the civil societies in the countries of our NATO allies have forced their governments to change direction on the failed war policy in Afghanistan. (Having watched The Princess Bride numerous times, they apparently learned the lesson: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”)

In the Rolling Stone article, author Michael Hastings writes:

Opposition to the war [in Afghanistan] has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. …

But facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply f*&^%d up things are in Afghanistan. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn’t prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” a senior military official in Kabul tells me.

While the White House is debating whether or not to fire McChrystal and what the fall-out might be on U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, Rabbi Arthur Waskow frames the argument differently: “The ‘strategy’ is already a failure, and the ‘civil-military issue’ is the Constitution at stake, not a failed and stupid war.”

Waskow sets Obama’s current dilemma in historical context:

Harry  Truman knew what to do: When the issue was insubordination by General MacArthur over whether to escalate a stupid war  with China that MacArthur had brought on (beyond defending South Korea), Truman fired MacArthur. (I remember Congress begging MacArthur to address a special joint session. I remember how he ended with a bathetic, bedraggled song: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”)  Right. Despite the resulting furor, the arrogant old soldier did indeed fade away.   …

McChrystal’s strategy was arrogant & stupid;  it has already failed  because it was arrogant & stupid;  and many of us, including Biden & Ikenberry, did indeed tell them so.  …

The trouble is that Obama accepted the arrogant, stupid advice from McChrystal — and now has to face the consequences in a failing and mistaken war.  When John Kennedy came new into the White House, he accepted similarly stupid & arrogant advice from the CIA about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — and when he realized how stupid it was, he fired the lot of them and refused to get trapped into more arrogance and more escalation.

Now we will see what Obama is made of: whether he has the guts and good sense of Truman & Kennedy.

But beyond the political power struggles that are as old as the military strategies of Uzziah in II Kings 15, there is a deeply spiritual issue. It is the issue of arrogance. It is always arrogance that hardens the heart and impedes the ability to listen.

“Refusing to listen breeds stupidity,” writes Rabbi Waskow. “Stupidity arising from a spiritual failure, not an IQ failure, breeds political disaster. There is a deep relationship between the arrogance of the Generals and the CIA in their contempt for China, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan — and their contempt for civilian leadership. And the contempt of BP for the oceans, the forests, the air. The obsessive belief that Conquest and Control are all that matters.”

The consequence of King Uzziah’s failed military strategy is summarized by a proverb from King Solomon: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

McChrystal – who carries around a gold, custom-made, set of nunchuks engraved with his name and four stars –  has got pride and arrogance in spades. (Read the entire Rolling Stone article to get the full experience of this.)

But Rabbi Waskow reminds that pride and arrogance are not the marks of a great military leader. Instead, he says, the Talmud teaches: “Who is the greatest [military] hero? The person who can master his own impulses … and the person who can turn his enemy into his friend.”

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She’s the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).

My Day on the Hugo Chavez Show

Tonight, PBS’s Frontline will air “The Hugo Chavez Show: An illuminating inside view of the mercurial Venezuelan president, his rise to power, and the new type of revolution he seems to be inventing – on television.” In the Washington Post review of the show, David Montgomery writes:

What Americans have been missing is a direct encounter with the temperamental, charming, fierce, cruel, seductive, whimsical and overwhelming personality that comes through on “Aló, Presidente.” When Chávez, 54, isn’t ordering troops to the border, he’s singing folk songs, riding horses and tractors, tramping through gorgeous countryside or castigating cabinet ministers who fail pop quizzes that he administers as the cameras roll.

In 2004, I was in the audience for Chavez’ “Aló, Presidente” … for 5 hours. And this was one of his shorter

Hugo Chavez at taping of Alo Presidente 2004
Hugo Chavez on Alo Presidente in 2004/Berger

shows! It was one of the most fascinating examples of political theater I’ve ever seen. He used media deftly to create a politically engaged populace.

Here are some of my journal notes from that day – January 18, 2004 – Caracas, Venezuela:

We were invited to be in the audience during the screening of President Chavez’ weekly television program. After coffee and about an hour’s wait, we were led to a tent behind the presidential house where the filming would take place (it is in a different location each week) and seated in chairs with our names on them in the midst of cameras and microphones and the “set” for the show.

Then Chavez sat at a desk “on stage” and for five hours hosted a program with only two short breaks. He talked about teachers in honor of National Teachers Day – honoring and joking with the Minister of Education who was present. He introduced an old prize fighter who was also present. He talked about the cross and scapular he wears. He chatted on the phone through a call-in mechanism with a number of people from around the country – a young girl about her school, one woman about the need for her to get involved in elections for mayor in her town, another woman about jobs for her sons and her nephew.

He talked about how unemployment was often the result of the neoliberal capitalist model and how Venezuela was creating a new economy – that they were going to initiate another revolution within the revolution by starting a new “mission” called Mision Vuelven Cara. This new mission will train and incorporate workers into development projects that will emphasize small farms and forestry projects, petroleum related businesses, tourism etc. The unemployed will be included as they build Venezuela’s capacity for productive employment. Then he recommended a book on the rebellion of 1840.

Then he went on to talk about how Venezuela has a deficit of beef and would be importing beef for a while from Brazil and Argentina, but that Venezuelans will be trained to raise beef, as well as for dairy farming. He said that it was good for poor people to eat more beef for the protein and that beef would be made available in poor neighborhoods for purchase in small quantities. He introduced the new Minister of Defense. He read from newspaper articles about the strengthened position of Venezuela in the world.

Then he spoke about the 1979 Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops which outlined the preferential option for the poor and he talked about the death of Oscar Romero. Chavez said that the challenge before Venezuela now is to take up the challenge of an option for the poor. Fr. Roy Bourgeouis was invited to make a statement. Fr. Roy talked about the School of the Americas and asked Venezuela to stop sending soldiers there for training. Chavez listened very intently. When Roy finished Chavez said quite a bit about the SOA. He had obviously done his homework. Then he moved on to talk about the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith. And so the program went on and on.

Chavez continues to be an ego-obsessed narcissist who doesn’t mind using his cult of personality to promote a particular political and social agenda and he’s not above taking direct, anti-democratic action against his enemies and to maintain his own power. So what else is new in the world of politics?

He is also “the peoples’ choice” in Venezuela’s fair elections. This week Chavez’ party swept most states, according to The Guardian, in Venezuela’s regional elections. The record turnout of 65% among 16.8 million registered voters shows the passion and antipathy elicited by this larger-than-life personality.

The Frontline show is tough, fair, and shows Chavez with his good points and his bad points. “The documentarians credit Chávez with being the first president in the 50-year history of Venezuelan democracy to elevate themes of poverty and social justice to the top of national discussion,” writes Montgomery. “But they suggest that his methods for addressing those issues have been uneven and over-hyped.”.

Military Empire Requires Religious Blessing

“What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?”–Tertullian (160–220 AD), De Idolatria

“In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.”–Jim Wallis, Dangerous Religion (Sojourners, September-October 2003)

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