Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Is Syria The West's Latest Moral Failing?

First, a small preamble to this post. I have no special expertise in foreign policy. I'm just a guy who watches and reads the news, and who has been trying to make sense of the ongoing debate (which apparently has been resolved, sort of), as to whether the West should intervene in the Syrian Civil War. Last week I posted a review here of UK historian Michael Burleigh's book Moral Combat, an ethical study of good and evil in World War Two. I suggested in my review that Burleigh makes the case that it is still possible to think about war with moral clarity. Thinking of Burleigh in light of what's going on in Syria set this post in motion.

As the death toll climbs towards one hundred thousand in Syria, and some political figures in the West are comparing this moment to our moments of shame in the 1990s when we did nothing in Rwanda or Bosnia, I've been wondering if it is possible to speak coherently of good and evil in the Syrian conflict, and whether there is a moral case for the West to intervene.

Last week Aaron Miller wrote that while the present moment shows much peril in any Western (which in practice wouuld be mostly American)intervention, there is also the fear that history will look back and judge this moment, like Rwanda and Bosnia, a moral failing. "From where we sit today, it is easier to reach the conclusion that Syria is a trap for America. But once Obama's term concludes, there will be a different evaluation. People will forget the details and circumstances --they will only see the dead and the wounded, the refugees and the physical devastation. They will want to know why America wouldn't or couldn't do more. And that's partly why the pressure to do something will grow. Obama knows that Syria is the key story line in the so-called Arab Spring and that his own legacy will suffer unless he moves to counteract the negative appraisals currently gathering force. So, does he want to share the legacy of the last Democratic president, who failed to intervene in Rwanda and almost in Bosnia, too?"

There are lots of military reasons why intervention at the level of the no-fly zone would be a bad idea. It may very well be that the West has shot its bolt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now has neither the force, the money, nor the political will to project much strength into the region. Nevertheless, as of this weekend, with US President Obama's decision to start arming the Free Syrian Army, it now appears that we are taking some steps into the conflict.

Leaving aside questions of how we proceed tactically, there is still time to ask why we should proceed. Is there an ethically compelling case for acting? The best, and most depressing, Syria analysis I've seen yet on FP comes from Marc Lynch. His article is well worth reading, but here's a quick summary. If the West wants to be idealistic, that is, if we are truly interested in ethics and humanitarian relief, then the only way to end the war and save more lives is to deal with Assad and his backers, including Iran and Russia, to bring about a peace that would allow the Assad regime to survive in some form. Such a policy might be a "stunning success" in terms of ending the fighting. allowing some return of refugees, and opening the door to rebuilding and redefining of boundaries, but from a realist point of view, it would be an "epic disaster" that would strengthen the position the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah triangle and weaken Israel's position.

From a realist point of view, Lynch says, the best thing to do would be to strengthen the rebels and prolong the war, thus bleeding our rivals. "From this perspective, Hezbollah's entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing -- Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran's most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy's queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat -- and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran -- should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States." Unfortunately, this view pretty much guarantees more deaths, more displacement, and the spread of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Middle East. This course of action leads to a future of proxy warfare in the middle east for a generation, and from a humanitarian point of view is morally bankrupt.

So we have two depressing options. Idealism says to pursue a diplomatic, humanitarian solution at the expense of regional security and the balance of power. Realism says we should stoke a proxy war that will kill more people and further destabilize the region, and hope that by degrading our rivals something better might emerge.

To resolve this dilemma, I thought I would go back to Michael Burleigh thinks about Syria. His most recent comment, from April of this year, wasn't encouraging. Speaking of his own country, the UK, he writes, "Cameron’s government is once again full of moralising outrage, raising fears that it might soon be willing to send our war-weary forces into yet another hopeless conflict in the Middle East. Why this sectarian civil war concerns us, rather than Arab armies we regularly equip with billions of pounds worth of high-tech weaponry, remains a mystery to many British people. And if [we send] in troops, the result would be nothing less than a catastrophe." Clearly, Burleigh does not think this is an historic moment to rival Munich.

It may well be that, as Conrad Black wrote in yesterday's National Post, only the peoples of the region, Turks, Persians, and Arabs, can sort out the future of the region, and if so, the most we can do is to provide humanitarian aid where possible. I wonder, though, if that pragmatism will be enough for the ghosts of Rwanda and Bosnia, whose presence, however insubstantial, still haunts us as we debate what we should do in Syria.

For Christians, I think our responses to this terrible situation are somewhat more straightforward. There remain almost a million refugees from this war and their numbers seem to be increasing. Several of the denominational magazines that come across my desk now feature advertisements appealing for donations to organizations working with presons displaced by the war in Syria. As the Canadian Presbyterian magazine put it, indifference is not an option. Besides supporting these organizations as part of our own stewardship, we need to remind our elected representatives that the cause of displaced persons matters to us. Now is also a good time for Christians to reach out to local Moslem communities, and pray with them. Finally, we need to pray for our leaders, that God give them the courage and the wisdom to choose peace over the temptations of realism, security, and war without end.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Showing Gratitude: A Sermon

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 16 June 2013

Readings for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Lectionary Year C: 1 Kings 21: 1-10, Psalm 32, Galatians 2: 15-21, Luke 7:36 - 8:3

Imagine that you were standing in front of a door. Behind that door is a room in which God is present. You can open that door and go inside to meet God. How would you do it? What would your manner be? Would you be shy and respectful, as if you were visiting Buckingham Palace? Would you be breezy and friendly, as if you going into a coffee shop to meet a friend? Would you be hesitant and fearful, as if you were going before a judge in a courtroom?

Certainly your manner would depend on your image of God, and on your idea of what behaviour would be appropriate for that image. Recently a friend and I had an exchange on this blog as to the devotional practice among some evangelical Christians of seeing God as a friend and conversation partner, with whom one could share a cup of coffee.

My friend had some difficulty with seeing God as a friend one might meet at Starbucks. He shares my fondness for formal worship traditions such as choral evensong, where a greater degree of reserve and an attempt to to justice to the dignity of the divine are called for. If I were to put my question of the first paragraph to him, I could imagine my friend saying that he could, see himself entering the presence of God as if entering a cathedral, with piety and reverence.

How one answers my question would not just depend on our images of God. It would also depend on our images of ourselves. My friend put this quite well when he wrote that "Ours is a relationship has no equality in it, just endless grace on one side and a sort stumbling aspiration on the other". What my friend was getting at was the idea that theologians sometimes divine condescension, the willingness of God to set aside the obstacles of inequality to be in relationship with us.

Luke's story of the anointing woman from today's gospel is a story of someone who dared to open the door and go into God's presence, despite her unequal relationship with God. All Luke tells us about her unequal relationship with God is that she is a sinner, and we would do well, as Jeannine Brown notes in her commentary, to resist the obvious conclusion that as a woman her sin must be sexual. Certainly she is not the only sinner in the room.

Simon, Jesus' host, does not think that the woman should have crashed his party, and he is scandalized by her behaviour when she goes before Jesus, kissing his feet, wiping them with her hair, and perfuming them from her jar of ointment. It is shockingly intimate behaviour, inappropriate for the house of a righteous man entertaining a supposedly godly prophet, and Simon is quite happy to judge both of them. If Jesus knew what sort of woman she was, he thinks, well then, he obviously isn't much of a prophet.

Simon is fairly easy for us to figure out. The point of the parable of the two debtors that Jesus tells to his host, Simon, is that he too has an unequal relationship with God. Whether the debt of his sin is small, as he thinks it obviously is, or great, as the woman obviously thinks her is, both are still debtors, and God, she says, is their creditor. Furthermore, Simon's worthiness, as seen by his lack of hospitality and love to Jesus in comparison to that of the woman before him, suggests, to extend the parable, that he is more in God's debt than he thinks he is.

The woman is a greater puzzle. It's tempting to assume that her behaviour is what the Catholic tradition would call contrition, behaviour born of remorse and a sign that one is sincerely asking God's forgiveness. If so, then Luke is telling a story about how we have to earn the forgiveness of God through extravagant behaviour, but that interpretation is not born out by the parable which Jesus tells to Simon. In that parable, all that we are told about the two debtors is that neither could make repayment. We are not told that the creditor's decision to forgive their debt is motivated by their behaviour. The love that they show comes after the debt is forgiven, not before.

If the woman's behaviour is motivated by love for a debt already forgiven, then an intriguing way to read Luke 7 is opened up. What if, as David Lose has suggested, the woman came to Simon's house to thank Jesus for a previous meeting where he forgave her sins? What if, when Jesus tells her before Simon and his guests that her sins are forgiven, he is reminding her of something that has already happened, something so good that she can scarce believe it? If so, then the story is, as Lose suggests,
"about forgiveness. And it’s about the gratitude that forgiveness creates. And it’s about the extravagant acts of love and devotion that gratitude prompts."

If Lose is right, and I think he is, then we have an invitation to rethink the way we approach God, both in worship and in our lives. Perhaps, as my friend suggested, our relationship with God is indeed "endless grace on one side and a sort stumbling aspiration on the other", but if so, then our aspiration is not that should please God extravagantly enough that he might someday forgive us, but rather that we might show the love and gratitude that comes from already having our debts forgiven. The complex interrelationship of forgiveness, gratitude, and love, is one of the great themes of Luke's gospel and of the Christian life in general, and effects not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with others, as Simon is made to see.

So there you are, at the door to God's presence, or, if you prefer, to Jesus' presence. You're welcome to enter. You may go in facing the divine Other or the good friend, but either way, Luke's anointing woman shows us that there is more room for intimacy in this relationship than we might think.
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Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Soldier's Duty To Read: The General Mattis Reading List

A little while back, I posted here on a reading list endorsed by Britain's top soldier. A little later, I learned while reading Andrew Exum's mil-pol blog on the Middle East about the now-viral email written by Lt. Gen. (retd.) Mattis< USMC, when he was about to lead 1st Marine Expeditionary Force into Iraq in 2003. Mattis defies every conceivable stereotype of the ignorant jarhead general. Exum calls Mattis "the reincarnation of Chesty Puller and Albert Einstein", and it's hard to think of a better example of the soldier-scholar from modern history, or of a commander who thought harder about his stewardship of the lives entrusted to his command. Here's the Mattis email; if you don't know about it yet, it's worth reading in full:

Message 1: from General James Mattis, on the matter of professional reading, 20 November 2003

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG, and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who
virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t
know a hell of a lot more than just the TTPs? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher HQ can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.)

And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught
flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated? Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.

This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes Officers”…), “Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’ relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others. As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that
many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.
Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the only officer I know who has read more than I. Semper Fi, Mattis

If you want to see how Mattis put together reading lists for various ranks and theatres for troops under his command, the Small Wars Journal has a collection here.

Finally, if you want to see the stereotype of the incompetent senior officer who says he is too busy to read, check out this Doctrine Man video., a clever piece of satire by what I'm guessing is a very clever officer who has been boned too often in various staff jobs. Extra points if you found the "Slim Whitman" joke laugh out loud funny,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

With Appa The Volksbison To The Badlands

As our time in Alberta comes to an end this summer, Kay and I are trying to see as much of this spectacular province as we can. Last weekend we took Appa The Volksbison to Dinosaur Provincial Park, a place of great interest to paleontologists, birdwatchers, geologists, and people who like strange, otherworldly landscapes.

Appa the Volksbison, our 1985 VW Westfalia camper, got us there and back safely, and was a welcome refuge when a storm blew in around dinnertime on Friday. Appa, as faithful readers of this blog may remember, was the faithful six-legged flying bison which was the faithful mount and companion of Aang from the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and was the inspiration for our Westy's name , and has since become the spirit or avatar of our camper.

A silly picture of me and friend at the lookout site at the park entrance, overlooking the badlands.

Much more sensible photos by Kay.

Prairie smoke (Erythrocoma triflora), one of the amazing plants that manages to survive in this harsh landscape. Kay has been doing some wonderful photo studies of plants and flowers, especially now that she has a macro lens.


Fragments of a a dinosaur fossil that we saw on a guided tour of the park's protected area. These are part of the leg of a hadrosaur, a large plant eating Cretaceous era beast. Dinosaur Provincial Park was the equivalent of a goldrush for 19th and early 20th century fossil hunters, and contrbuted specimens to many famous museums. Our guide gave us several ways to recognize dinosaur fossils. 1) they look like bones, as you can see here. 2) (and I didn't know this), if you lick your finger and touch it to what you think is a fossil, it will be sticky, unlike rocks. Who knew?

Kay took this picture of a camel-shaped hoodoo named (so said our guide), well, Fred. I love the pyramid shaped formation behind it.

It's an amazing experience to drive through the prairies for miles and then to see the ground fall away, exposing this alien landscape as one approaches the park. Highly recommended if you have the time to travel through southern Alberta.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil In World War Two

It's been a while since I posted a book review here. This review was published in the Spring 2013 edition of Dialogue, the journal of the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplains Branch.

English historian Michael Burleigh’s 2011 book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil In World War Two (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), is well worth reading by anyone who gets paid to think about military ethics and the use of force. The moral history of World War Two is important because it was, for the Western democracies, a conflict between doctrines of just war, which Burleigh defines as “a series of injunctions about the lawful authorisation of armed conflict and the relationship between ends and means”, on the one hand, and the need, on the other hand, to defeat institutionalised and industrialised evil and barbarism by any means necessary. The outlines of this conflict have been obscured not only by time but by decades of revisionist history, postmodern ambiguity and moral relativism. Burleigh’s book is a convincing rebuttal of these trends, and shows that it is possible to think about war with moral clarity and vigour.

History can be a depressing thing to contemplate. Regular, recurring examples of human failure can threaten to undermine our faith in moral judgement. The decision made in 1938 by France and Britain at Munich to hand over three and half million Czechs to Nazi Germany was, as Burleigh argues, a failure of “moral conscience”. Contemporaries, like France’s Prime Minister Daladier, felt that Munich was only “preparing the way for the destruction of Western civilisation and of liberty in the world”. When one compares Munich to the Yalta Conference of 1945, when the Allies handed the Poles from German to Russian tyranny, it can be tempting to adopt a stance of moral relativism. Slogans such as “history is written by the victors” or, as a young CF Captain told me recently, “We’re in Afghanistan for big oil”, illustrate the prevailing relativistic notion that all war aims are somehow equally corrupt and venal.

The first part of Burleigh’s book is a ground-clearing exercise, rebutting the view that the Western democracies and their enemies were morally equivalent. This exercise is accomplished by a detailed examination of the ideology, governance, and industrialised repression and murder of the police states of Nazi Germany and the USSR”. The police states, he writes, served a cause that was “responsible for the arrest, torture, imprisonment or execution of vast numbers of people because of their class or national origin, with the lucky merely having their lives ruined”. Both regimes abjured moral universalism, dismissing it, in Trotsky’s words, as “papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life” and replacing it with the view, spoken by Hitler, that “the strongest man is right”.

It has been said that the most unethical thing the western democracies could have done in World War Two would have been to lose. In the second half of his book, Burleigh carefully analyzes the “moral calculus” of the Allied war effort, from special operations in occupied Europe, to an alliance of expediency with the USSR, to the bombing of German cities. Burleigh notes that the bombing campaign, still controversial today, was the subject of intense moral debate at the time, a debate impossible to imagine in the dictatorships. It was also a theological debate, with many churchmen, including the Rev. John Collins, a Bomber Command chaplain, condemning the effort as immoral and “soul destroying”. These voices were not universal. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, felt that the “worst of all things is to fight and do it ineffectively”. Likewise Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, concluded that “it is the lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow countrymen who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

It was the opinion of politicians and generals, not church leaders, that decided the fate of the vanquished in 1945, and as Burleigh notes, rebuilding and the rule of law prevailed over rough “victor’s justice”. The Nuremburg and Tokyo trials established precedents and models that are followed today in The Hague. By comparison, “One needs only to imagine a war crimes trial conducted by the Nazis to reach the conclusion that Nuremburg was fair by the lights of the day”.

Burleigh’s book demonstrates that it is possible to think through historical events with moral clarity, and even with moral outrage. As he notes in his introduction, his subject is morals and not moralising, which are as different to one another as religiosity is to religion. World War Two involved millions of responsible adults confronted with difficult decisions and an often “overpowering” temptation to immorality. In such a context, it is indeed remarkable that “a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all”. Seventy years later, in our own age of terror and counter-terror, our militaries, governments, and peoples continue to confront moral temptations in a much more ambiguous war. As chaplains and ethicists, we have a role to play in arguing that it is possible to think and act with moral clarity.

Friday, June 7, 2013

T.M. Luhrmann on Faith, Belief, and "The Reach For Joy"

T.M. Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. She has written a book that I quite want to read, When God Talks Back: Understanding the A,Erica Evangelical Relationship With God. While ambivalent about the existence of God ("I don't have a horse in that race"', she told one interviewer), her book is a sympathetic and careful study of how evangelical Christianity in North America is more and more about a personal relationship with a God who can be imagined (her word, and quite nuanced) as a conversation partner. A good summary of her conversation with NPR's Terry Gross, and their interview, may be found here.

In a short and very readable essaypublished last week in the NYT, Luhrmann has some interesting things to say about how secular, liberal people look at religion and see it as an intellectual thing, about whether or not one can give assent to the idea of an invisible agent called God. She writes:

"And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place."

What Lurhmann calls practical faith, the perception that an unconditionally loving God is interested in our lives and can be encountered there, is helpful as I think about my own preaching and ministry. When I came from seminary, and being a bit of an egghead, I thought and talked a lot about doctrine and theology. Doctrine and theology have their place, but in ministry and then in chaplaincy, I learned that one has to get beyond propositions to the place where, as Luhrmann says, one can "reach for joy". Too often, I think, especially in parts of the church that are intentionally (small "o") orthodox, we think that all will be well if we hold fast to certain credal and propositional claims. These claims may be foundational, but they will not sustain and attract believers if faith is not also about joyfulness.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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