Monday, October 09, 2006

DARK HEARTS AND BODY COUNTS: Defining the true enemy in the War on Terror

The numbers are staggering.

By conservative government estimates, around 1,500 innocent civilians were killed in the initial bombing attacks on Afghanistan that commenced in October of 2001. Most independent sources place the count much higher, somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. “Collateral damage,” was the response from the Department of Defense, which recently released a report that placed the number of our U.S. Military casualties in Afghanistan at 278. Now let’s move to Iraq. The US Military body count in Iraq has now surpassed 3,000 and continues to rise. The Iraqi civilian body count, even by the most conservative estimates, is around 40,000 men, women and children. This “War on Terror,” the Bush administration’s response to the tragedy of 9/11 which killed just under 3,000 innocent Americans, has now claimed—by extremely conservative estimates—just under 45,000 more innocent lives (I’m intentionally excluding the combatant deaths on both sides).

This “War on Terror,” which ostensibly was launched to prevent the taking of more innocent lives by terrorists, is now directly complicit in the violent deaths of fifteen times more innocent people than the number of innocent people who died on 9/11 at the hands of the terrorists. And the end is not in sight.

Go ahead. Do the math, and then explain to me why you think the war is still logical. Explain to me on what planet, in which universe, this war makes good sense and should be continued at all costs.

The truth is that we’re looking at a situation that contains not one ounce of logic or common sense. It’s a situation that’s so flawed from the start that any attempt to explain the war in rational terms only leads deeper into the madness that drives it. What we’re looking at is a world gone mad, a world that believes that striking back with devastating, murderous force is the best way to achieve its means (and this description applies to the folly that drives both the terrorist organizations and our own US government).

But let’s get back to the number of deaths. Measured purely in the number of innocent people currently being killed in an effort to prevent the future killing of innocent people, the math alone shows the colossal failure of using force to achieve such a questionable victory. If you do the math, it’s immediately obvious that the “War on Terror” is not winnable, and was in fact lost from the very moment it was conceived. But that’s just scratching the surface. The most horrifying fact of all is that so many American Christians are still in full support of this madness, and view it as the forces of Good striking a mighty blow against the forces of Evil, an Evil that must be suppressed at any cost, no matter how ridiculous that cost may be. That Christians can allow themselves to feel this way is only a sign of good marketing and good PR, but not good sense or sound faith.

And it’s right here that we start getting into the really thorny issues.

To effectively combat an enemy, it must first be clearly defined. More than any single element of the broad “War on Terror,” there’s been a failure of massive proportions in the area of defining the enemy. From a secular perspective, the United States government has suffered from a lack of clarity in defining its terror enemies abroad, tending to lump them all together and selling them to the public in one neat package. From a Christian perspective, which should focus on the spiritual side of the equation, many Christians suffer from the same problem as the United States Government. Both camps tend to view the situation as “us against them, good versus evil,” and therefore a necessary battle that must be fought at all costs, which in this case means accepting the violent deaths of nearly 50,000 innocent people abroad (with many more deaths on the way) as a means to ensure that more Americans aren’t killed by terrorists on our home soil.

And that, my friends, is a cold, hard fact. That is exactly what the U.S. government is telling you, only not in those crystal clear terms.

The government, with its focus on the ever-present need to spin the situation to its own advantage, wants us to see it as a simple issue of good versus evil, and if anyone dissents, they’re shouted down as “morally and intellectually confused,” as Donald Rumsfeld recently stated. But Christians who are supportive of the war and the current administration’s policies are in dire need of a wake-up call. They need to realize that what’s taking place is completely unacceptable, not only because of the deaths to date, but because we’re fighting a war that isn’t winnable, a war that will only perpetuate the evil that’s taking place. We’re contributing to a greater body of death and destruction than was present in the original act for which we’re now retaliating… and worse, many who call themselves Christians seem to be okay with that. How did they grow so blind?

As a Christian, I already know that my personal response must be a non-violent one. I cannot repay violence with violence. I cannot repay evil with evil. Any action I take must be consistent with Christ’s message to turn the other cheek. The only way to expose true evil is to turn your back to it, to avoid engagement. When you repay evil with evil, you join forces with it. This is a bitter pill to swallow for many people of faith largely because they’ve allowed their faith to become secularized and blended into their patriotic love of country. It feels so good to talk about God and country, but so many of the demands of patriotism are at complete odds with Christ’s calling. You cannot call yourself a follower of Christ and then disobey what He’s called you to do as a follower. If you’re a Christian, please read this passage (1 John 2:4-6) and try to justify repaying evil with evil, which Christ very clearly commands us not to do.

The man who says, "I know Him," but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.

Whoever claims to be a Christian must walk as Jesus did… or be a liar.

Now let’s take another shot at defining the true enemy, and this time from a spiritual perspective. The true enemy we’re fighting here isn’t another person or another culture.

The enemy is within all of us, within the darkness of our own hearts, even the hearts of those who claim to be followers of Christ. If we don’t walk in His footsteps, we’re liars. We’ve surrendered to the evil that drives the need for revenge, the evil that allows us to justify killing, the evil that allows us to demonize a person as a way to harden our hearts so that we might kill him without feeling guilt. We’ve surrendered to the evil that allows us to justify the violent deaths of 50,000 innocent people as a fair price to pay for making sure 3,000 more Americans don’t die. We’ve surrendered to a callous, pedestrian evil that says it’s okay for any number of innocent people to die violent, bloody deaths just as long as they don't do it in our back yard.

It’s time we recognize the fact that the enemy resides within us all, and start to deal with it. Until our politicians (and the Christians who support them) change their approach to fighting evil, the body count will continue to climb.

And we will all be diminished by it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

MONKEY BUSINESS: Thoughts on the Neo-Darwinists vs. Creationists Debate

I love science. I've loved it since I was a little kid. I was fascinated to learn how the natural world worked, and never once doubted the theory of common descent. As a kid who also believed in God, I never had a problem believing that God was completely responsible for the physical world around me. It never occurred to me that the two concepts could be viewed as incompatible.

So after following the Intelligent Design versus Hard Science debate over the past several years, I’m left feeling rather ambivalent about the whole dust-up. I’d like to just say it’s silly, but it’s more than that… it’s also damaging to the practice of our faith as it’s become such a divisive issue among Christians. As a person of faith, I’d obviously like to see more of the secular world consider the possibility that God is responsible for the creation of the Universe and all that’s in it. As someone who loves scientific discovery, I have no problem with the theory of common descent…by all accounts, it does a solid (although quite incomplete) job of explaining how some of the pieces fit together. In fact, to be intellectually honest, the term uncommon descent appears to be a much more accurate term to describe what appears to have taken place.

So where’s the common ground?

As clearly as I can see it, the only real problem arises when ardent neo-Darwinists insist that there’s no room for God in the equation, that life arose through the chance assembly of atoms, and all complex life developed through a rather fantastic series of events that have never been repeated nor witnessed. But there’s more to the problem than the ardent neo-Darwinists. The other half of the problem is with people of faith who insist that origins science is all wrong, that scientists are largely atheists with an anti-God agenda, and that the only acceptable view is their own simplistic and literal reading of Genesis.

The facts of the issue are pretty clear. It’s virtually impossible to dispute the notion that life arose first as single cells and then progressed toward multi-cellular complexity. It's also impossible to ignore the striking gaps in the fossil record, the anomalies that suggest there's something else going on that's well outside the material constraints of neo-Darwinian evolution. Geological, biological and paleontological studies have painted an accurate picture of the progression of life from simple to complex. What these studies haven’t done, however, is explain with anything approaching certainty how single-celled life first arose, or how such a fantastic array of complex, conscious life forms could arise so quickly during the Cambrian period when there’s simply no evidence of earlier complex life forms to show the transition from single-celled life to complex life. In other words, if life arose gradually, where is the fossil evidence? These two issues—the arrival of the first living cells and the subsequent speciation of the planet—are the two hurdles that neo-Darwinism can’t explain through empirical studies. These are the two big holes in the theory, and if they cannot be explained through empirical studies, then any purely naturalistic theory is going to be built upon at least a few assumptions. “Not to worry,” says Science. “It’s pretty obvious that purely natural processes are all we have to work with. We just need more time to discover them.”

Enter Michael Denton, whose 1985 book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” rattled more than a few cages. What made Denton’s book so explosive was that he was a scientist himself, a biochemist of note at the University of Otago in New Zealand. In his book, Denton simply pointed out the flaws in current Darwinist theory. His approach was not that of a Creationist. He simply pointed out the flaws and the gaps and then committed the unthinkable… he offered nothing to replace them with!

The world of evolutionary science flew into a tizzy and it hasn’t stopped since, even though the major flaws in the theory are no closer to being answered. It should be noted that Denton never attacked the broader theory of common descent. He simply pointed out that existing neo-Darwinist theories that attempt to explain the two problems noted above fall short of their goal. Twenty odd years later, Science is no closer to answering these questions. We still don’t know how the first single-celled life formed, nor do we know how to explain the huge gaps in the fossil record. These issues continue to stare back at us across the eons as vast, unsolved mysteries lurking in the shadows of our past.

Since its publication, Denton's book has continued to inspire the wrath of ardent Darwinists who possess a selective grasp of the facts. Any fair-minded follower of Darwinist thought would have to admit that Denton points out the major failings of the theory with grace and aplomb. Far from laying out a Creationist argument, Denton simply uses science to refute a theory that still lacks the "smoking gun" evidence to support two major tenets. For an evolutionist to state that "evolution is a fact, so get used to it" is to engage in some fact-fudging by omitting the truth that all known evolutionary mechanisms fall far short of explaining the origins of life and subsequent speciation by complex life. Evolution does quite well at explaining small-scale change within the confines of a species, but not how life first arose or later diversified into entirely new life forms. Yes, small-scale “evolution” by natural selection is a fact, but anyone making a broader statement needs to qualify it better. Using the certainty of small-scale evolutionary change to justify making a broader, all-encompassing statement about the "truth" of neo-Darwinist theory as a whole is intellectually dishonest.

Many evolutionists feel that since Natural Selection (micro-evolution) is a fairly well established fact, then it can only follow that the General Theory (macro-evolution) is as well, in spite of the troubling evidence that disputes it. The fact is that Denton, using hard science (most notably the fossil record and molecular biology), has demonstrated how evolutionists are forced to fill in the blanks with conjecture, some intelligent and thoughtful, some outlandish and fanciful. This observation doesn’t sit well with some scientists.

The bottom line is simple... there is far more contradictory evidence against existing theories of macro-evolution than there is supportive evidence for these theories. Any truthful person will examine the evidence and go where it leads them. Anyone who has already bought into "neo-Darwinism at all costs" will never accept it, even if the evidence does not support their point of view that large-scale change can be explained by purely natural mechanisms. For this camp, the idea of rejecting pure Darwinian evolution would mean accepting a belief system that they've already condemned as bunk. Yet Denton doesn't approach this as a Creationist—as I've mentioned, he uses only science to refute theory. Any steps taken beyond that—steps toward a Creationist point of view, for example—are up to the reader.

This book is over twenty years old, and still holds the power to stir the mind. Looking beyond pure science, Denton speaks to our reason and asks us not to be afraid of considering other avenues of thought. This book asks us to stretch our minds, open them to other possibilities. Regardless of your leanings, if you read this book with an open mind, you'll have to admit the validity of Denton's arguments even if you don’t follow or understand biochemistry. Little has been published since to refute him... yet more has been discovered since to support him. Most of the people who dismiss this book like to point to its publication date and write it off as out-of-date or inconsequential. It’s a very flawed argument. Common sense never goes out of date.

So as Christians, how can we resolve this issue? Should we even care? The truth is that it shouldn’t matter one whit because how we choose to understand the unfolding of God's Creation is not a salvation issue. But can we compare God’s topical account with mankind’s temporal account? The answer might surprise you, and I’ll save it for a later post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this great quote about the dogma of neo-Darwinist theory from Lynn Margulis, a brilliant and outspoken biologist who is famous for stating what most evolutionary scientists already know (but won’t say in public): "It is totally wrong. It's wrong like infectious medicine was wrong before Pasteur. It's wrong like phrenology is wrong. Every major tenet of it is wrong.”

Does this mean Ms. Margulis is anti-evolution? Absolutely not. She simply knows that as it stands, neo-Darwinian theory cannot identify a biological mechanism to explain the emergence of early life—and later, highly complex life—in purely natural terms. Darwinists like to think there’s no room for a supernatural Creator in their theory. As a believer in that same supernatural Creator, I’ve come to realize, through studies of both scripture and science, that God has left plenty of room within the Genesis account to believe in "uncommon" descent as long as we continue to recognize Him as the causal agent behind it all.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

THE GROUND TRUTH: A film review

In the opening scenes of Patricia Foulkrod's powerful documentary about our questionable military venture in Iraq and its effect on the psyches of the soldiers who fight in it, we’re introduced to a number of young soldiers who speak candidly and powerfully about the motivations that led them to join the military. As their stories unfold, we hear their surprised reactions to boot camp and combat training as they were taught to dehumanize their enemy, to “kill hadjis and ragheads.” Each soldier describes in tight, careful detail their transformation from idealistic civilian to highly-trained killing machine. One soldier states quite bluntly and without sentiment how he watched his own resistance to killing grow weaker and finally fade away as the indoctrination took place. Even more chilling is his later description of looking forward to taking his first human life. “I’d been trained for it,” he said, “and I wanted to do it.”

For most of the soldiers in this movie, their turning points and epiphanies arrive in the shocking moments when their worldview is shattered, when the solid black line between right and wrong suddenly turns to muddy, indistinct gray. In nearly every story, we hear of their complicity in the deaths of innocent men, women and children, people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One soldier describes having an old woman in the sights of his rifle and being forced to make a split-second decision as she approached an armored US military vehicle. After firing two rounds himself, he watched in horror as the occupants of the armored vehicle opened fire as well, tearing her to pieces. As she fell to the ground, the soldier saw the white flag in her hand. He tells us that he threw his gun to the ground and broke down into tears. As another soldier notes, "It's one thing to replace your worldview with a new one, but another thing entirely to have your worldview shattered and have nothing to replace it with."

What I found so amazing about this movie was the lack of obvious editorializing. It’s a spare, lean movie without obtrusive direction. The soldiers simply tell their powerful stories to the camera. There are virtually no distractions or breaks save for a few brief “intermissions” that feature photo montages overlaid with music, and then it’s right back to the soldiers. I’ve read other reviews that complain about the one-sidedness of the film, but what documentary isn’t? That’s what documentaries do... they present a biased (yet hopefully intelligent) point of view. They’re made with bias and the hope that viewers come to embrace, or at least take into account, the point of view presented by the film.

Any good war documentary is made with a clear agenda, and this film’s purpose is to show the madness of a war that lacks a clear objective, a notion that seems to have filtered down to the soldiers as well. One soldiers states that most of the soldiers he speaks with have no clear idea of the war’s stated mission. “Something to do with 9/11” is a common response. Without a clear stated goal, the soldiers adopt the only one that makes any sense to them... kill or be killed. Kill so that you can eventually go home to the ones you love. Kill because if you don’t, you’re not a good soldier. It’s little wonder that they return home with little or no idea how to readjust to civilian life.

And yet one of the most powerful things about this film is passion of the soldiers themselves. Even before we hear each soldier’s entire story, we can tell that they aren’t a bunch of whiners. Each was a patriotic young person who stepped forward to do his or her duty. Most went to boot camp with a sense of purpose and pride, and returned home disillusioned with what they learned. In the end, each made a very personal decision how to deal with what they discovered, a decision to either suck it up and put a cap on it, hoping it wouldn’t blow, or confront it and be willing to speak the truth, no matter the consequences. The Ground Truth is the story of soldiers coming to terms with the reality of a misguided war, and dealing with their discovery with grace and courage.

Friday, October 06, 2006

WITNESS: Searching for God's Purpose in the Amish Schoolhouse Murders

The breaking news headlines were horrific. Another school massacre, this time in a quiet Amish community supposedly removed from the secular world. Like everyone, I was stunned by the news as it unfolded on television and the Internet. And like most people, I found the usual questions spinning out and demanding to be answered yet again. How could God allow this to happen to them, of all people?

Like many Christians, my commitment to my faith goes far deeper than those who know me might suspect. I say this because I’ve discovered that in today’s religious climate, my words may be ignored while my actions have far more impact, even though it often takes longer for my actions to have an effect. My belief is so complete that, like the Amish, I believe we must forgive anyone who commits evil acts against anyone, no matter how distant or how close they are to us, regardless of nationality, faith or culture, no matter how atrocious the offense. The forgiveness must be total, without reserve or conditions, and I believe that there can be no exceptions to this rule, a rule that commands us to repay evil with good at all times. It’s an absolute that Christ has given us to follow because He did the same, offering Himself as an example. But here’s the rub… as long as horrors such as the school massacre do not touch those I love, or those within my own community, it’s easy to give lip service to this creed. But what direct action would I take if something like it happened to those I knew and loved?

I pray that I would act in exactly the same manner as the Amish community that, whether they fully realize it or not, has provided us with a perfect witness to the true message of Christ. “Forgive and you will be forgiven. Be merciful and you will be shown mercy. Judge not, and you will not be judged. Love one another as your Father has loved you.” In the perfect wisdom of these words, the Amish found the ability to love the killer of their children, to forgive him completely and without reserve, and to bind the wounds of the survivors—all the survivors, including the killer’s family, which must have been as devastated as the families of the victims. To the amazement of many, the killer’s wife was invited to the funeral of one girl, and when it was announced that donations were pouring into the Amish community to help cover medical bills, Amish leaders asked that a fund be set up for the killer’s family as well. As the world watched, it was privileged to witness the unfolding of amazing—and quite uncommon—grace.

Over the past few years our nation has witnessed the aftermath of high-profile murders of children by sex offenders, and the horrible emotional toll it exacts on the survivors. It’s devastating to watch family members speaking on television about their children “going to be with God,” and then in the next breath let their bitterness spill out as they voice their hopes for a brutal punishment for the killer. It’s heartbreaking to watch because the evil that poisoned the killer has been passed to them…they’re infected with it and until they learn to let it go, it will continue to devastate their lives as well. Even more heart-wrenching is to hear them proclaim their faith in Christ while still demanding swift, retaliatory punishment, as though their belief in Christ demands it. Yet Christ clearly eliminates this option in Chapter 5 of Matthew, when He states: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also… You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven… Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Amish community in Pennsylvania, with its unblinking faith in the literalness of Christ’s command that we forgive one another and love those who persecute us, has demonstrated the absolute truth of this all-important commandment. Only by repaying evil with good, by forgiving the perpetrator of a vicious and heinous act, could the Amish conquer the very evil that spawned the act. They demonstrated this truth not only to the secular world, but to an often divided and distracted nation of Christians as well, a nation that claims a Christian faith majority, yet as a whole struggles mightily to abide by the simple teachings of that faith on a consistent basis.

In a nation where a surprising number of Christians are still supportive of the invasion of Iraq, supportive of capital punishment, supportive of tax cuts for the wealthy and supportive of an invasive, soul-numbing consumer culture that grows more unsustainable by the year, we see a version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to the message preached by Christ two thousand years ago. This message, the last time I checked, instructs its followers to reject violence in all forms, avoid the accumulation of worldly riches, love one another regardless of nationality, culture or faith, open our hearts to travelers and aliens from other lands, turn the other cheek to evil, help the poor at every opportunity, avoid judging others, and extend the same love to others that Christ extends to us. It’s not just a list of philosophical ideals to talk about, by the way… we’re instructed to live by these rules if we’re to claim ourselves among His followers.

So how did we get so off track? And how can we find our way back?

The recent witness of the Amish community’s Christian faith stands in stark contrast to the much of the self-centered, graceless, finger-wagging stuff that tries to dress itself in the robes of righteousness these days. We live in an increasingly secularized nation that’s drifting into “cultural Christianity,” a largely soulless blend of watered-down faith that requires little more of its members than a simple claim of belief. Once this claim is made, its members often allow themselves to feel positively virtuous about any number of actions that are in complete contradiction to the teachings of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister who was hung by the Nazis for refusing to compromise or deny his faith, had a term for this sort of secularized faith-without-discipleship. He called it “cheap grace.” In a nation where many Christians settle for this cheap grace, it was incredibly moving to watch the Amish take Christ’s words to heart and forgive what might be considered unforgivable by many of this nation’s “cultural” Christians. Cheap grace in the Amish community? Not a chance...

In the weeks since the murders, a community has stood together and provided witness to an unshakable principle that holds the power to conquer evil. Whether you believe in Christ or not, you must consider the incredible, transcendent power of forgiveness. As we search for God’s purpose in these senseless murders, we must look at the whole picture that has unfolded since they took place. Evil was repaid with Good, and Evil was conquered, rendered toothless and impotent in the lives of the Amish community. Their witness is all the more powerful because we live in an age of technology that has allowed the entire world to watch their response. It’s no small irony that this technology, largely rejected by the Amish as too worldly, has been made a vehicle by which they’ve spread this witness to every corner of the planet.

Were those violent deaths part of God’s will? Clearly not. But when we look at the grace and beauty of the response, we find His fingerprints everywhere. Five innocent girls were murdered, and yet the killer was forgiven without hesitation. The murders were senseless and brutal, yet the aftermath was infused with a love and compassion that defies worldly logic. Somewhere in this process, wretched and horrifying Evil was transformed into perfect, redeeming Love right before our very eyes.