With Dr. King, We Must ‘Break the Silence’

Worse than ISIS

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

With so much talk of war these days, it’s time to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King and once again break silence about our country’s evil character. Yes: it’s character is evil! We’re a war-mongering country, a terrorist country. As King said 51 years ago this month, we’re “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”

It’s time to face up to the fact that the United States has been taken over by Christianists far more violent than the Islamists we excoriate. To wit: “we” stand ready to risk all-out nuclear war with Russia. “Our” reason? An alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Our indisputable proof? None at all! It’s Iraq all over again!

And the hell of it is that to these Christian extremists, nuclear holocaust – the destruction of the planet – is acceptable, even desirable, because it will assure the Second Coming of the very Jesus who is presented in today’s Gospel selection as the great bringer of peace.

Just to be clear: No Muslims threaten the world with equivalent religious extremism.

(BTW If you think that statements like the above are unfair, because not all — not even the majority — of Christians hold such beliefs, think about how Muslims feel, when the views of their extremists are similarly universalized.)

In their zealotry, the fundamentalists in Washington somehow ignore the fact that the first words of the risen Jesus repeated in today’s Gospel (as they were in last week’s reading), are “Peace be with you.” They ignore the Jesus who was completely non-violent. He preached the Golden Rule. He said we should love our enemies. He accepted his own death rather than defend himself, his friends, or family. He died praying for his enemies.

Moreover, the Christianists in Washington are completely hypocritical. In the name of the international law, they’re outraged by the “dozens” perhaps killed in the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Meanwhile, they’ve killed more than a million Iraqis in a completely illegal war. Daily, they assassinate suspected terrorists, including American citizens, with death squads now mechanized as drones.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and in clear violation of international restrictions and the U.S. Constitution, those same Christian extremists have caused the deaths of thousands and threaten the lives of millions.

More specifically, since 2014, they have been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 and for the injury of 40,000 more. They’ve caused a devastating cholera epidemic and a famine that the UN describes as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

It’s all been the result of a U.S.-supported Saudi bombing campaign that directly targets hospitals, water supply sources, and sewage treatment plants – all prohibited be international law. In the process, the U.S. supplies those medieval Saudi kings with weapons, targeting information, and airborne refueling services. Pure terrorism!

Face it: our crimes in Yemen represent a far, far worse violation of international law than the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Yes: today, King’s words ring truer than ever. We continue to be “The world’s greatest purveyor of violence!” We’re a terrorist nation.

And how do the Christianists get around Jesus’ clear words? Typically, they spiritualize today’s Gospel greeting. “Peace be with you.” They say it refers to the interior peace that passes understanding.

How reminiscent of the Nazis who went to Mass, meditated and enjoyed “inner peace” on Sundays, while for the rest of the week they stoked ovens where they incinerated communists, socialists, blacks, homosexuals, and Jews!

Inner peace is fine. However, reality in the belly of the beast suggests that such spiritualizing is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a rogue nation. None of us should enjoy inner peace today.

Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that there can be no interior peace for terrorist Christian fundamentalists. They — our nation’s officials — are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace and denouncing transgressions of international law while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

It’s time for all of us to face up to the facts. It’s time to join the martyred Dr. King in breaking our silence!

“Captain Phillips”: Cavalry to the Rescue

captain-phillips-tom-hank

Prairie Schooners transporting goods across the plains are attacked by savage Indians. The cavalry comes to the rescue and slaughters the “tribals.” We all go home feeling safe and proud of our armed forces.

Mutatis mutandi, that’s the basic story of “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks and the splendid Somali actor, Barkhad Abdl. Though familiar in basic plot-structure, the film spins a nonetheless gripping account of the 2009 piracy of the container ship, Maersk Alabama, on the open seas. The ship is waylaid by four Somali ex-fishermen turned pirates. The captain, Rich Phillips, is abducted by the bandits. The Navy Seals are called in. They kill the pirates, rescue the captain. And normalcy returns.

The inattentive will no doubt experience the simple catharsis afforded by such “action thrillers.” However, in the case of “Captain Phillips,” there is more to the story than good guys rescuing the innocent from the clutches of savages. In fact, the story, based on actual events occurring in 2009, has much to tell about globalization, national sovereignty, and the military-industrial complex.

Begin with globalization.

The back story of “Captain Phillips” demonstrates that we’re living through an era of buccaneer business, where multinational corporations act like lawless pirates. They roam the globe and operate where they will, regardless of international law, territorial waters, national boundaries, environmental impact, and the noxious effects their investments might have on local populations.

Somalia provides a case in point. There, overfishing by factory ships from Europe and the United States has left tribal fishermen without income. What fish escape the nets of the giant sea trawlers have been poisoned by toxic waste flushed from container ships off Somalia’s coast. Along with loss of income by local fishermen, plummeting living standards, and otherwise avoidable deaths from poverty and starvation are the predictable results.

This is where national sovereignty comes in.

In the absence of an effective national coastguard, such practices have forced locals to form citizens’ defense groups like the National Volunteer Coast Guard . Initially, these attacked the offending ships to drive them from Somalia’s territorial waters. Though characterized as “pirates” by western media, such groups enjoyed the support of Somalia’s affected population. According to a survey by Wardheer News, about 70% in Somalia’s coastal communities “strongly support[ed] the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”

Eventually, such “pirates” discovered that responding in kind to buccaneer businesses (represented by container ships) could itself replace lost revenue from fishing. Whether understood as such or not, “reparations” could in effect be seized by attacking ships on the open seas. There goods could be confiscated and hostages taken in return for large ransoms. Ensuing battles amounted to one highly financed buccaneer business competing against another more primitive, poorly financed counterpart.

Never mind limiting concepts such as open seas, territorial waters, international boundaries, or other legal considerations. From viewpoint of the impoverished “pirates,” if such limitations did not apply to their competitors, neither did they apply to them. It’s all “free enterprise” at its rawest – the law of the jungle, the Wild West, or of Cowboys vs. Indians. As Muse, the “captain” of the pirates attacking the Maersk Alabama put it, “No al-Qaeda here. This is just business.”

But then comes the overwhelming response from the military-industrial complex. Giving the lie to right-wing claims of independence from government, Maersk Shipping demonstrates the ability to call in the Navy Seals to protect its private enterprise operations. As portrayed in “Captain Phillips,” the White House itself is involved. After all, if private firms are threatened, “America’s” credibility is on the line.

Two cruiser ships, their crews of hundreds, several helicopters, and parachuting Seals are all employed to enforce the Law of the Sea on four impoverished “pirates.” This is a law whose rejection by the big-time pirates and their protectors was the root cause of the Somalis’ small-time piracy in the first place.

What to take away from all of this? Myths are powerful. And we should beware of their ability to blind us. Though Hollywood can no longer get away with enforcing such archetypes by portraying Indians as savages, it’s still free to do so with Muslim tribals. After all the West has already been won; there is no longer need to vilify “Indians.”

Muslim tribals are another story. Their resources are still up for grabs.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Our Wake-Up Call

Pakistan Drone Victims

Last Tuesday I shocked some of my blog readers by observing that the carnage of the Boston Marathon bombing paled in comparison with the mayhem the U.S. inflicts daily on anyone who happens to be near designated enemies in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. My observations were dismissed by some as “incredibly insensitive” and as the “garbage” comments of an armchair philosopher unacquainted with the brutality of “those Jihadists.” One former army chaplain accused me of having a screw loose somewhere.

Be that as it may, I was in reality simply trying to highlight the double standard most of us have internalized concerning our own victimhood when tragedy strikes close to home. We wring our hands and ask “Why us?” Meanwhile we exhibit little compassion for those our country’s policies punish with the equivalents of Boston Marathon bombings virtually every day. Our media regularly ignore those tragedies and so insult our country’s victims with the mainstream media’s (and our) own brand of incredible insensitivity.

The implication of ignoring the suffering of the victims of U.S. policy is that “American” lives and children are more valuable than the lives and offspring of “those others.” We seem convinced that our “holy wars” are somehow different from their jihads. Any fool, we imply (and sometimes state) would see that we are good and they are evil. We are, after all, the exceptional, indispensable nation.

That conviction of American exceptionalism seems impervious to fact and memory. It allows U.S. perpetrators of human rights abuses such as wars of aggression, death squads, drone killings, torture, imprisonment-without-charge, voter suppression, and incarceration of whistle-blowers to pontificate about those same human rights violations when they occur in other countries.

Consider the following:

• The Obama administration is currently withholding its recognition of the results of last week’s election of Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela. Maduro was the personal choice of U.S. bête noir, Hugo Chavez. Standing alone in its refusal to recognize his electoral victory (except for the arch-conservative Spanish administration) and despite assurances of international election observers and the Venezuelan National Election Commission, the United States solemnly insists that Venezuelans deserve a complete recount of every single vote.

Apparently, the Obama folks have forgotten the 2000 election of George W. Bush when its country’s own government refused to perform a recount, even though the eventual loser had verifiably received more votes than the winner. That victor was finally selected not by popular vote but by the Supreme Court dominated by his cronies.

In the light of such irregularities, not to mention gerrymandering, legalized vote-buying sanctioned by “Citizens United,” voter suppression of minorities, and refusal to set up the paper trail the Venezuelan system has so firmly established, wouldn’t you think our government would recognize that it’s lost all moral ground to lecture others about or adjudicate “free and fair” elections? No – not when inconvenient truths can be successfully flushed down George Orwell’s memory hole. Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans are still convinced their election system is the world’s gold standard. Go figure.

• The week before last Beyonce and Jay-Z decided to celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary in Cuba. Their decision drew immediate response from Miami expatriates of Cuba who descried the couple’s implied support for such an egregious violator of human rights as Cuba.

Apparently, the objectors had forgotten that the U.S. has a higher percentage of its population in prison than Cuba or any other nation in the world for that matter. Additionally, the “Americans” maintain a world-wide system of secret jails for political prisoners. Practically all of the 166 incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are currently on hunger strike protesting their inhuman treatment there. The “American” torture and even murder of its political prisoners is better documented than any alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Cuba or anywhere else you might care to name.

And yet, U.S. patriots somehow feel free to lecture Cuba about respect for human rights. Can you say “denial;” can you say “1984” or “memory hole?” Once again, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Americans are still convinced that the United States is somehow the world’s leading defender and observer of human rights.

• Last week the Obama administration’s press secretary, Jay Carney sanctimoniously justified (with a straight face) the refusal of visas to 18 Russian citizens. The banned individuals were all linked to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower lawyer who had exposed widespread corruption and theft of national resources by high officials in the Russian government. Magnitsky had died in prison while awaiting trial. His death sparked congressional passage of the “Magnitsky Act” to protect whistle-blowers – in Russia.

Carney intoned,

“This administration is committed to working with the Congress to advance universally recognized human rights worldwide, and we will use the tools in the Magnitsky Act and other available legal authorities to ensure that persons responsible for the maltreatment and death of Mr. Magnitsky are barred from traveling to the United States and doing business here.”

Apparently, Carney wants us to forget the fact that untold (literally) numbers of incarcerated individuals have died in U.S. political prisons – many of them directly under torture. He wants us to forget that the Obama administration has virtually transformed whistle-blowing (i.e. the exposure of government and military crimes) from an act of virtue to a felony.

More specifically, Carney’s consigned to the memory hole the fact that the Obama administration has indicted more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations combined. In doing so he has criminalized the prophetic act of speaking truth to power. This is best illustrated in the case of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army whistle-blower who obeyed his conscience and Army regulations by going public with the war crimes he observed. His reward? Imprisonment without charge, torture, and a possible life sentence. Here again we’re expected to believe that the United States respects “universally recognized human rights worldwide.” We really respect them universally only in places like Russia.

You see, it’s not just that official hand-wringing over the Boston Marathon Bombing highlights U.S. hypocrisy concerning the injuries and deaths of the innocent people it’s responsible for killing; it’s that such hypocrisy has become a way of life. It has blinded U.S. citizens to the fact that their country is not at all exceptional except in its disregard for universal human rights and international law.

It’s time for “Americans” to realize that their country long ago lost any moral ground they once believed it occupied. It’s time for politicians to observe humble and repentant silence about human rights, election validity, and whistle-blowers.

As it turns out, the Marathon Bombing is only a faint “retail” reflection of the wholesale mayhem the United States routinely wreaks in every corner of the planet. Cuba is a paragon of virtue compared to the U.S. Nicolas Maduro owns far more legitimacy than did George Bush who committed those war crimes Bradley Manning has been punished for exposing.

The Marathon Bombing was a wake-up call.

Jesus and “Les Miserables”

Les-Miserables[1]

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012013.cfm

Last Sunday Peggy and I went to the movies. We saw “Les Miserables.” Of course, that’s the film that made such a stir at last week’s “Golden Globes.” “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. Both Peggy and I loved the movie and ended up in tears at its conclusion.

“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure if ever there was one. Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.

Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.

But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.

However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.

Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.

Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.

Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.

There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. He takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.

But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?

The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine is an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter. And that brings us back to Valjean and Javert. Like Jesus Valjean observes the spirit of the law by disobeying its letter – whose observance Javert (and Jesus’ opponents, the priests, scribes, and Pharisees) took to be the entire point of life.

In John’s story, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.

He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).

We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is so clearly used against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Our prisons are full of the poor and minorities. Meanwhile, the rich hold themselves above the law on the one hand, and use it on the other to increase their already obscene wealth.

Presidents and generals shred the Constitution and contravene International law by initiating wars of aggression, by extra-judicial (drone) assassinations, by suspending habeas corpus, torturing those merely suspected of “terrorism,” and by running prison camps rivaling those of Nazi Germany for their heinous brutality. In the process they kill millions. And though required by law to face the punishment due such crimes, the rich and powerful are generally rewarded for their crimes with medals and prizes.

Bankers and speculators bring the country to its knees by their shady maneuvers and dubious “financial products.” But almost none of them goes to jail. Instead they are invited to White House dinners and given cabinet posts to facilitate the crimes of others like themselves.

In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges, Bradley Mannings, and Aaron Swartzs — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.

Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.

Both John and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying THE LAW by disobeying its letter.

The New York Times on Drones: In Defense of Mafia Face-to-Face Hits

One of the unmanned drones in the growing U.S. arsenal

The New York Times recently  published an article called “The Moral Case for Drones.” It was authored by one if its national security reporters, Scott Shane. As the title indicates, the piece’s intention was to argue that U.S. drone policy is indeed morally defensible. However the article refused to address the really difficult moral issues. It concentrated instead on providing a rather obvious response to the question whether the use of drones avoids the wholesale slaughter of civilians that has been associated with modern warfare since the U.S. Civil War.

Of course it does! Is there anyone who would argue that carefully calibrated drone use would be worse than the direct targeting of civilians that occurred in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However by focusing on the “lesser of two evils” approach and resolving it in favor of drones, Mr. Shane’s article leaves inattentive readers with the impression that drone policy is somehow moral and humane.

But what about those other questions?

For instance, nowhere in the article does Mr. Shane even gesture towards the basic moral issue (not to mention its constitutional counterpart) of whether or not the President of the United States actually possesses the authority to order extrajudicial assassinations by drone or any other means. If the President claims that authority, do we accord that same right to any head of state — even if he or she decides that Mr. Obama himself is an international outlaw?

But that’s not the only issue the Times article chooses to ignore. In fact, it begins by bracketing a whole host of moral questions about drone use. Mr. Shane opens by saying:
 

“For streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.”

At the outset, then, the Times author mentions some of the real issues only to set them aside. What about remote control assassinations? What are the moral implications of human agents making life and death decisions safely sequestered in air conditioned locations thousands of miles from the kill zone? Does it make a moral difference that justification comes from questionable sources, or that such justification is frequently circumstantial, based on hearsay, and often amounts to guilt by association? Is it a moral issue that the executioners’ decisions might be erroneously or casually made since they are immediately based on information provided by devices resembling video game screens?

Similarly removed from moral analysis is the fact that lethal operations inside sovereign countries not at war with the United States are not only “contentious” (as the article admits), but clearly contravene international law, not to mention the U.N. Charter. Is it possible to make a “moral case” in such a context? Wouldn’t that be like waxing eloquent about the moral case for face-to-face Mafia hits rather than spraying restaurants with machine gun fire? Like their drone equivalents, such hits successfully avoid all that messy collateral damage. However both types of extra-judicial killings are the work of “professionals” who immorally place themselves above the law.

Moreover, in an essay that will make that argument that drones diminish civilian casualties, Mr. Shane’s piece from the beginning chooses not to consider whether in the final tally, drones actually increase civilian casualties. Are the civilian deaths caused by such terrorists not to be calculated? Similarly what about the casualties caused by making drone technology available to those “odious regimes?” Their leaders find the United States similarly “odious.” Will the civilian casualties they cause seem thankfully minor when representatives of those particular agents fly their drones into the Sears Tower in Chicago?

Choosing not to consider such questions is like asking Mrs. Lincoln, “Apart from the assassination, what did you think of the play?”

However such incomplete and inconsiderate “moral analysis” also leads to the conclusion that United States drone policy is (as one of the article’s quoted experts says) “not only ethically permissible but might also be ethically obligatory because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

It’s the type of incomplete and deceptive moral analysis that would do Mafia ethicists proud.