Balancing Power

You will be regarded as insane, if you suggest that the federal government has a constructive role to play in remedying the corrosive societal effects of excessive income inequality. It has become accepted wisdom that government is almost always the problem, and is almost never the solution.

One enticing argument for this view, is the argument from nostalgia: once upon a time, Americans were self-reliant, hard-working, and thrifty. Government programs, by fostering dependence, make (a certain segment of) Americans irresponsible, lazy, and profligate. Therefore, to restore America, we should pursue policies of “tough love” that continue  to dismantle social programs, and force people to become self-reliant and hard-working again.

The problem with this argument from nostalgia is that today is not yesterday. Opportunity inequality in American society is now entrenched, and constructing ramparts. It’s only human nature for winners to make rules to protect their status as winners. Social stratification is hardening; the possibilities for economic mobility are  evaporating like thin puddles in the desert.

Governmental power is the only power strong enough to address opportunity inequality in American society today. The pendulum will be swinging back from its currently extreme anti-government position; our unquestioned acceptance of the notion that “government is the problem” will be exposed for the shibboleth that it is.

Looking at the current state of our politics does not induce optimism. Still, we don’t live in 1840 anymore. The deleterious effects of modern global capitalism need buffered by effective government power.


The President

A central element of Obama’s argument for targeted military action against the Assad regime, is that NOT to act would lead other rogue states (see: Iran) to calculate that they can use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with impunity. Our national interest, according to the president, would be compromised by any action short of using deadly force, in response to Assad’s decision to deploy sarin gas on August 21st.

Because I am not a pacifist, and because I view international politics as largely (though not totally) anarchic, I find the above strategic calculation to be the strongest part of the president’s argument. That he is willing to wait on using deadly force, and see whether Assad will agree to place his chemical weapons under international control, is also pragmatic statecraft.

Where Obama overreaches– and where we should always be suspicious of anyone who wields great earthly power– is the moral argument. As an emotional appeal for our support of military action, several times he mentions the suffering of innocent Syrian children poisoned in the sarin attacks. Yes, this suffering is outrageous and obscene. But when we respond with a “targeted military strike” with the intent to “deter Assad” and “degrade his regime’s ability” to use chemical weapons, is there anyone who thinks that no innocent person will be killed? And so then: what kind of morality is it, exactly, that accepts the suffering of innocents, to pay for the suffering of innocents?

We Americans would do less harm in the world if we repented the self-flattering self-deception that the violence we use is redemptive: that, because our aims are righteous, our violence is somehow cleaner.  It is one thing for a state to have just cause for war; it is false to then claim, therefore, that your just cause means you are acting morally. In the Christian moral universe, everyone is a beloved child of God. Everyone.

In the rhetoric of persuasion, appealing to your audience’s emotions is page one in the playbook– so we know why Obama mentioned the suffering innocent Syrian children so many times. As an argument, though, it is weak. If bombing Damascus ends up being our policy, let’s do away with pious posturing, and name it for what it is: we’re bombing you because we believe doing so is in our national interest.

Statecraft is statecraft. It’s about power– blunt and brutal power: power that does not discriminate between the bad and the good, the blameworthy and the blameless.

via FULL TRANSCRIPT: President Obama’s Sept. 10 speech on Syria – The Washington Post.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower….”

The Forces at Work in the Cosmos– Yarkovsky Effect

The near-miss asteroid last week raised questions regarding how these space rocks move in orbit. Astronomers are studying the “Yarkovsky Effect”– a subtle force caused by the uneven heating of an asteroid’s surface. University of Arizona astronomer Ed Beshore [excerpt below] likens the force of the Yarkovsky Effect to the pressure you feel when holding two grapes in your hand– an almost negligible force for the duration of a moment, but which, accumulated over millennia, has appreciable influence on an asteroid’s orbit. Over time, the Yarkovsky Effect can “move mountains.” (Beshore)

This is a reminder of how many and varied are the powers at work in the world– and a reminder that power is not just big and loud. Small pressures, applied patiently and relentlessly, can shift seemingly irresistable objects. So it is good to pause and recollect these small pressures, these soft powers: the powers of love and commitment; the powers of prayer and trust; the powers of truthful words and good deeds. They don’t move asteroids, but they can move the human heart.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” is Dylan Thomas’s poetic rendition of another power: the life-force, pulsing and moving, in flower and human alike. For some of us, Christ is the fullest expression of this life-force: the willing renunciation of domination (power over), and the willing embrace of suffering love/compassion (power with). Even death, we affirm, is not stronger than this force for life.

The asteroid story from The Christian Science Monitor follows:

For instance, when sunlight hits the surface of an rotating asteroid, the asteroid returns that energy to space in the form of heat.

“The heat acts like a tiny rocket thruster that can push asteroids out of otherwise harmless orbits,” he says. The reason: A rotating asteroid sheds the heat unevenly across its surface, in effect sloughing it off in the direction of “dawn” on the asteroid. This direction may or may not coincide with the direction the asteroid is traveling along its orbit.

Indeed, this force, known as the Yarkovsky effect, is thought to help resupply the inner solar system with asteroids that otherwise might have stayed in the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter.

A year ago, Dr. Beshore says, one of the mission’s team members performed “a really exquisite set of measurements using radar data and came up with a preliminary estimate for the kinds of forces” this effect imposes on OSIRIS-Rex’s target asteroid.

It’s about the same as “the force that you feel when you hold a couple of grapes in your hand,” he says, adding “that force, applied over millions of years, can literally move these mountains of rock around.” [Emphasis added]

Since the force also plays a role in shaping and reshaping the orbits of near-Earth asteroids, “it’s really quite important for us to make sure we understand this force much better.”

via Friday’s near-miss asteroid could help track more dangerous ones +video –

The Long and Sober View

Religion in the Balance aims to comment on our world, taking a long view: in the words of James Hunter, looking at the “climate” (trends over time) rather than the “weather” (what’s happening now). For our culture of instant gratification, short memory, and pain-avoidance, the long view brings a needed “yin” to the culture’s dominant “yang.”

The other balancing we seek, is to counter-weight our culture’s dominant rosy view of human nature and that rosy view’s relatives, such as limitless progress (more is more!) and American exceptionalism (the tragedy of history stops here!). On the question of human nature, we acknowledge and embrace limitation, humility, and finitude– the ultimate expression of which is the memento mori, the remembering that we will die. No conception of the good life (individually, communally, or societally) can be unfettered from this sober recognition of our contingency.

It was from this perspective, then, that I was happy to read the following reminder in a recent issue of The Christian Century:

This much the church should make clear about any election: it is about fallible people choosing between fallible candidates in an electoral process that is deeply flawed.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t act as though political power is ultimate power.

Going to War and the Desire for Transcendence: Destruction or Creation?

“What It Is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes

This outstanding book by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes is notable to Religion in the Balance because what it’s like to go to war, from Marlantes’ perspective, can be ecstatic in a way that is akin to religious ecstasy. To wreak violence and destruction– to kill– is to exercise godlike power. It is to be transported from the mundane into the experience of a barely-filtered, almost-pure transcendence, marked by the animal immediacy of “kill or be killed.” It is to enter the amoral Nietzschean region, beyond good and evil.

This book, however, is not a glorification of war. Much more interestingly, it is an unvarnished  account of– and a clear-eyed assessment of– the emotional and pycho-spiritual realities that soldiers must face. Marlantes’ argument is that, if we’re going to have war (and, he says, we are going to have war), then we need to do a better job of preparing warriors to deal with crossing the threshold into the transcendence of destructive power, and returning home again. Our current military training, and our larger cultural practices and religious rites, do not sufficiently recognize the psycho-spiritual powers with which soldiers come into contact, when they engage in violent destruction and killing.

The larger lesson at the heart of this book– at the same time both its reiteration of a timeless theme, and its helpful insight into the age we live in– is that we are creatures who seek transcendence. We want to be up with the gods, whether we’re building wings of wax to fly high (too high!), or building towers in order to steal a place in heaven. Whether we can marry our fiery moments of transcendence with the grounding anchor of humility– AND whether we can achieve the transcendence we desire through godlike creativity rather than godlike destruction– are at the heart of the religious quest in our time and place.

via What It is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes – Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.

Established Power and Truth-Telling

Brian Haw: English Prophet?

Our popular usage of the word “prophet” casts it in the direction of  “fortune-teller” or “one who possesses secret wisdom.” Prophesy in the Hebrew Bible is not about fortune-telling, but is more accurately understood as “truth-telling”– and especially the kind of truth-telling that established power doesn’t want to hear.

Whatever one’s view of war– from the most aggressive neo-conservatism to the most non-violent pacifism– no one can reasonably deny that innocent people get harmed. (Some will maintain that there is no such thing as a “non-combatant” (i.e., “innocent person”) anymore, in this age of total war. We can dismiss this, for now, as an unreasonable view.) One’s view of war surely shapes one’s judgment regarding the moral significance of innocent people being harmed, but one’s view of war cannot change the fact that in war, innocent people get harmed.

Englishman Brian Haw arrived at the conclusion that children being killed in the war in Iraq was morally unacceptable. Acting on that conviction, he encamped in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, protesting English government policy that supported the war. Whether English government policy should have or shouldn’t have supported the war in Iraq is debatable. What is prophetic– that is, “truth-telling”– about Brian Haw’s protest, is that he confronted members of Parliament with a significant truth about war: innocent people get harmed.

And the response of established power? Entirely predictable, whether in Western democracies or in Arab plutocracies rife with nepotism (Tunisia, Egypt): marginalize the truth-teller (or tellers) whose truth-telling challenges the dominant narrative or threatens the regime. To the credit of the English legal system– and to the tradition of Western political liberalism– attempts by established power to have Brian removed failed.

While the freedom of speech protects the right of people to speak stupidity or plain falsehood, it also protects the right of modern-day prophets to speak truth to power.

Brian died last Sunday, June 19th. The link is below.

‘Unsung Hero’ Brian Haw, 1949-2011

British anti-war activist will be remembered for his unyielding protest on behalf of children killed in conflict.

via ‘Unsung Hero’ Brian Haw, 1949-2011 – Features – Al Jazeera English.

In Brief: An Old Story, the Prophets, and the Life of God

Here’s a real shocker (he says sarcastically) from Al Jazeera:

How did Egypt become so corrupt?

A picture is emerging of a state where wealth fuels political power and political power buys wealth.

(via How did Egypt become so corrupt? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English.)

The old story (as old as human civilization) is the self-reinforcing connection between wealth and this-worldly power. The prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures exposes this self-seeking aggrandizement as unjust: not simply as unfair, but even more, as an affront to God’s word that wise rulers– people with power– express their faithfulness by taking care of their poor, and their widows and orphans. In the prophetic understanding, such care is not merely ritual observance; nor is it the hollow and lifeless, going-through-the-motions obedience to a Divine Tyrant– far from it. On the contrary: such care takes part in– participates in– the very life of God.