August 17

Charlottesville and the Lessons of Gettysburg

The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.

The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.

That’s unfortunate.

As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.

There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.

Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.

As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.

Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.

In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”

Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.

What happened?

In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.

Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).

Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.

We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?

It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, History.com says,

Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.

Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.

It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)

But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?

Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.

I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.

Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.

But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.

Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.

I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?

I pray we will not.

July 23

The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous: A Response

Gabrielle Glazier’s article in The Atlantic, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is an interesting read–thought provoking, despite the fact that it contains misrepresentations and misconceptions about AA and a good deal of irrational thought itself. I’ll come back to those points.

Let’s begin by noting the question, stated more than once, that if alcoholism is a disease, why don’t we treat it medically? The answer, obviously, is that medicine has little to offer the true alcoholic. As Glazier notes, alcoholism is a complex set of symptoms. Psychiatry has advanced a great deal since AA was founded in 1935, but it remains basically alchemy. What is known about the workings of the human brain is dwarfed by what is not known. And in practice, psychiatry itself ignores scientific method (and the well-being of the patient) in favor of generalized strategies untailored to the individual and unreliable in the hands of individual practitioners. Some time ago, over a three year period, four professionals diagnosed me with four different psychiatric conditions, each indicating a very different course of treatment. All four were wrong. We must remember that there is no test for chemical imbalance. There is no test for alcoholism.

It is also ironic that at a time when religious people and even scientists are rediscovering the power of prayer for healing, psychiatry is dismissing God as unscientific. Well, yes, it is. But science is beginning to admit that it does not have all the answers, and psychiatry in particular should be at the forefront of that admission.

Glazier notes that there is not a bright line division between alcoholic and nonalcoholic. That is true in a sense. Yet we know from scientific research that there are physical characteristics associated with alcoholism, including changes to liver cells that result in processing alcohol differently, resulting in physical addiction to alcohol. Part of the problem with the article is its fallacy of equating alcohol abuse with alcoholism. Our society has largely adopted this attitude: people who get in trouble because of alcohol are sent to AA by judges, by parents, and by treatment centers. Not all of them are alcoholic. Some may become so, and some are just going through a period of heavy drinking due to negative or positive conditions in their lives. (My brother had to “re-evaluate his drinking habits” while in college; he’s never had a problem since.)

But the main complexity in treating true alcoholics– those who have both the physical addiction and a mental compulsion to drink– is that alcohol is a treatment for an underlying condition. Despite Glazier’s assertion to the contrary, AA well recognizes this fact: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 64). Of the twelve steps, only one of them even mentions alcohol. The others speak of finding a higher power, admitting fault, forgiving others, and setting things right.

The underlying condition of an alcoholic is difficult to identify. When I was drinking, I would have told you I was drinking to kill the pain. But it wasn’t physical pain. It was a deep, psychic pain. I might have told you it was the pain of living. Today, I would characterize it as a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with life that only alcohol (and various other drugs) could relieve. Until I found AA.

Therein lies the problem: Glazier relates that doctors in Finland are using a drug called naltrexone to block the components of alcohol from reaching the receptors in the brain. This would work for a person who drinks for the effect of getting drunk. Why drink if alcohol does nothing for you? But imagine for a moment that alcohol is the only thing you’ve found that makes life bearable. Take it away and life becomes unbearable. Naltrexone makes the alcohol not work. Will you live in agony, or stop taking the blocker? For an alcoholic, the answer is obvious. Absent some other way to ease the pain, we will return to alcohol again and again, regardless of the cost to our health, our families, and our careers.

Glazier, a self-described non-alcoholic, relates that she tried naltrexone and found that her desire to drink diminished. My wife (a recovering alcoholic thanks to AA) relates that to trying my prostate medication to see if it makes a difference. Absent the mental and physical addiction to alcohol, which non-alcoholics can’t grasp, an experiment like that is meaningless. Can Glazier imagine wanting a drink so badly that she would leave her baby alone in a crib while she went to a bar or liquor store, or drive drunk with her child in the car? So badly that she would drink the night before she was scheduled for a court-ordered urinalysis test to verify she was still sober? So badly that she’d drink even while taking antabuse, which would make her vomit violently and uncontrollably when she did so? So badly that, like my uncle, she would drink even if her liver had failed and the doctor told her that one drink would kill her? I seriously doubt it. I wonder of she can imagine the efficacy of naltrexone in those situations?

How can this underlying pain of an alcoholic be addressed? Carl Jung said a massive psychic change was required. AA suggests a spiritual experience. Buddhist practitioners have had success with intensive meditation. There’s been some success with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). But in general, psychology and psychiatry have little to offer. Psychology too often fails because alcoholics themselves do not tell the truth. We fear giving up the only thing that makes life bearable, and we lie and obfuscate to ensure that doesn’t happen. Psychiatry fails because, well, it’s a science only when compared with astrology. They don’t know why an alcoholic is so maladjusted to life. How can you fix something when you don’t understand its cause?

AA offers a simple (but not easy) approach that creates a spiritual experience in the practitioner. Yes, it works. I’ve been sober 32 years. But does it work for everyone? Obviously not.

As an aside, I’ll be the first to admit that AA is difficult for atheists. I was an agnostic when I got sober, and that was a challenge. The difficulty for atheists is obvious if you go to a meeting in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka or Thailand: there aren’t many sober Buddhists. Using AA as an atheist can be done. I’ve known atheists who have. (They often don’t remain atheists, though; the spiritual power of the process eventually causes them to acknowledge faith in God, though it may take years. I myself, formerly agnostic, am now a seminary student.) But I agree that AA is not necessarily for everyone.

Here we run into one of the first misconceptions about AA: the claim cited in the article, originally made in the 1955 version of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, that 75% of the people who came to AA stopped drinking. That number is now closer to 5-8%. But that’s not what the original claim says.

“Of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way, and 25% sobered up after some relapses…” (Alcoholics Anonymous, xx, emphasis added)

Two things are of note: first, they were dealing with alcoholics, not problem drinkers. Oldtimers who got sober in the 1950s told me that back then, hospitals wouldn’t take an alcoholic, and health insurance wouldn’t cover their treatment. People detoxing would often go into seizures in a meeting, and no one called an ambulance because it wouldn’t come. The social stigma against alcoholism was so strong at that time that you had to be pretty far gone to go to AA. You just didn’t see the casual DUI driver or tippling college student in meetings.

The second point is the phrase “really tried.” The Twelve Steps are not rocket science. AA wisdom says that no one is too dumb to work them but some of us are too smart. They demand a level of honesty and willingness that most people just can’t muster. They demand a level of commitment that comes from the certainty that there is no other possible way to survive. The dying alcoholic is a good candidate for this program. The DUI driver trying to stay out of jail or the binge-drinking college student trying to please his or her parents is not.

As more and more sources send drinkers to AA, the proportion of alcoholics who are willing to “really try” drops. Obviously, so does the success rate. What is AA’s success rate among “true” alcoholics? No one knows, because there’s no effective way to measure them. It’s an anonymous program, after all. Clearly it’s higher than 5-8%, but no one knows how many of the people being sent to AA are actually alcoholics.

It is also noteworthy that not all step-based recovery centers take the steps seriously. During my bout with mental illness, I attended one that had patients read the first three steps while undergoing therapies, CBT, and various other activities. We didn’t actually work the steps. Meetings were optional. Perhaps it was coincidental that many of my fellow patients were there for the second or third time.

Here’s one of the more frightening things I read in the article: the statistic that some 22% of those treated for alcohol dependency could return to moderate drinking. I’m not against drinking–for the nonalcoholic. But for the alcoholic, the risk is so great, why would I take a 4 out of 5 chance that I can’t  drink moderately? I’ve been told by certain ministers that if I’ve accepted Christ into my life, I can drink socially. Maybe so. But if they’re wrong, I would lose my career, my family, and probably my life. Why would I even try? That’s irrational.

Herein lies another irrationality in the thinking behind the article: that drinking is normal, and that normal is good. That idea alone drives many who struggle with alcohol back to the bottle. We desperately want to be “normal.” The truth is, from the time I first got drunk at age 16, I never wanted to just “have a drink with dinner.” I wanted to get as drunk as I could as often as I could. Yes, I’d lie to you, both about how much I wanted and how much I’d had. But honestly, I wanted to be shitfaced drunk as much of the time as I could. Periods of sobriety were miserable. (They usually lasted about ten hours while I went to work.) Why would I think that even after 32 years sober, it would be any different? More to the point, why would I take the chance? That would be irrational.

This thinking also blurs the lines between those who struggle drinking responsibly for whatever reason, and those who are alcoholic. That line can indeed be blurred, as some of the former work their way along the spectrum into the letter category. But by failing to distinguish between those who truly have an addiction and those whose drinking habits we just don’t approve of, we do both a disservice.

Glazier highlights one fact that is undeniably true: abstinence alone will not work in the treatment of alcoholism. An untreated alcoholic will crave that which gives him or her relief until he or she eventually gives in and drinks again.

Let’s put this another way: unlike the problem drinker, alcohol is not the problem for an alcoholic, it’s the self-prescribed treatment of the problem. The problem is far deeper, and is as yet unidentified by science.

Something has to change if an alcoholic is to get sober. This article, while trumpeting the scientific method, highlights that science has so far failed in the treatment of alcoholism. In the absence of real answers (or even real understanding) from the psychiatric community, and with the increasing respect for the role of God in healing, why take aim at AA? It’s not the only answer, but it has gotten million of alcoholics like me sober.

Surely that’s a good thing.

May 14

Revelation Part 3: The Ongoing Restoration

 

In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.

Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.

This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.

Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.

As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.

With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.

With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
    and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)

The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:

Let anyone who has an ear listen:

If you are to be taken captive,
    into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
    with the sword you must be killed.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)

Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.

Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.

Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)

Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:

[H]is servants will worship him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)

In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.

Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.

 

May 7

Where Are Your Works?

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12

I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture. Suddenly, I saw a vivid image of Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross, at the moment before he was pierced by the spear. At the same time, I heard a cacophony of voices chanting, “Where are your works? Where are your works?” It grew louder until I couldn’t hear what my professor was saying. This went on for about five minutes before it began to fade. But the image reappeared to me several times throughout the day.

Modern Christians are skeptical of works, and rightly so. In the 1200 years following Constantine, works were sometimes viewed as the means of salvation. They aren’t. The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved through grace. Surely any evangelical Christian can quote this verse:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Yet for some reason, many tend to ignore the following verse:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

The presence of grace does not negate works, it makes them inevitable. How do we miss that? In our skepticism of works, we discount the words of James, the brother of the Lord:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you? (James 2:14)

Martin Luther seems to have found a conflict between Paul and James. (He preferred Paul.) I don’t see any conflict at all. If we have received grace, if we have received faith, we will do works–not to become saved, but because we are saved.

What were the works that Jesus did, which he tells us we will do more of? He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He fed the poor, healed the sick, and challenged traditional authority. He prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles. He warned the rich about the dangers of wealth. He reminded his listeners that they were sinners, that they (in Paul’s words) fell short of the glory of God.

And he gave his life to save others.

Look around at the Church today. Do you wonder, as the voices caused me to do, “Where are your works?”

I look at my own life, and I wonder, “Where are your works?”

By this, I mean works of the Spirit. I’ve done works. I gave up a lucrative career that was, in my view, unethical. I believe strongly in social justice, and have written, protested, organized, and campaigned. I helped bring about a six-year cease-fire in a faraway, war-torn country. I’ve fed and housed people who needed it. I’ve “loaned” money to people I knew couldn’t pay it back. But I did it to try to get closer to God, not because the Spirit moved through me.

(I do believe that the Spirit moved through me when I was doing peace work. But that wasn’t because I had faith. The results we achieved were clearly the work of God, but at the time I was not a Christian and I came home scarred and exhausted. I was not living in the Spirit. Thankfully, God can use anyone to achieve his intentions.)

Last August, I finally accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for my sins. I’ve shared before about my long and meandering journey. I’d been baptized, but still hadn’t fully accepted Christ. Have I fully accepted him now? I think there’s still another step I need to take. Perhaps more than one.

Following my acceptance, I began to experience gifts of the Spirit. I had already learned that I can (sometimes) see demons. This gift grew stronger. I also began to have visions. I’ve had one experience in which, through me, the Spirit healed someone. This is all to the good.

Yet I’ve read the Gospels and seen what Jesus did. “You will do the works that I do,” he said.

I’m not there yet. But I’m willing.

How about you?

May 6

Welcome to Israel

Israel is a strange place. First of all, I took this photo on my phone and posted it to FB. But now this photo (and only this photo) is missing from my phone. I can only speculate as to how that might have happened.

They did let me in. I was concerned that with my history of peace work and my friendship with some critical voices, they might not. But they barely asked me any questions at all.

One of my friends was not so lucky. An American Christian, he was detained for four hours at passport control because his last name is Lebanese. They did eventually let him in. They had no reason not to– and no real reason to question him in the first place, since he was a member of a tour group from a Christian university. But one thing I am learning: Israel likes to let people know who has power and who doesn’t.

We spent much of today seeing religious sites. St. Mark’s Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that boasts the Upper Room, and King David’s Tomb, which also boasts the Upper Room. Today we saw the Church of the Holy Sepluchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried. Tomorrow we’ll see the other place where Jesus was crucified and buried. We’ll also walk both paths he took to his death. Such paradox seems fully accepted in the world of religious tourism.

In a similar vein, we visited the Church of the Dormition, where Mary died–based on a 12th century story that led to the construction of this “ancient” church in 1910 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Clearly, religious real estate is at a premium here such that there’s a market for new ones!

How does one evaluate the validity of what one sees here? It’s not easy. Jerusalem was razed by Emperor Hadrian in 132. There’s some archaeological evidence for some of the sites. But mostly, I go by feel. The Upper Room at St, Mark’s was a primitive room under the church, since centuries of building layer-upon-layer have put the first century stuff well underneath. The Tomb of David, on the other hand, has the Upper Room upstairs (over a tomb that is itself of questionable validity). But more to the point for me, when I entered the Upper Room at St. Mark’s, I felt a flash of Spirit. When I entered the other one, I felt nothing. That’s hardly a scientific diagnosis, but it works for personal use.

What else is there to say about my first day in Israel? I had a lovely lunch at a sandwich place run by Palestinian Christians who served an excellent spicy felafel sandwich. for 15 shekels. I later discovered I could have paid three times as much around the corner near the tourist attractions. That’s not much different than anywhere else.

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May 2

Fusion, the Future, and Us

Tokamak Energy in the UK has reportedly successfully tested a fusion reactor. That puts it on schedule to provide electricity generated from fusion to the grid by 2030, 13 years from now.

For those who don’t know, fusion is a clean source of energy that works (much like the sun) by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium. It produces no radiation or pollution, and requires only hydrogen, the most abundant element, as a fuel. No mining, no drilling, no dumping.

How abundant is hydrogen?

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. (Harlan Ellison)

Which brings up my next point:

We live in a world in which Scotland gets almost all its electricity from wind, in which Germany (hardly a sunny locale) produces so much renewable energy that some days it pays its customers to use electricity, and in which traditionally-conservative China is installing one wind turbine and a soccer-field-sized area of solar panels every hour. Renewable energy is the future, and fusion will eventually lead the way.

Where is the United States in this race to the future?

Unfortunately, we’re stuck in the past, building pipelines, drilling new oil wells, and lifting restrictions on coal companies.

What do you suppose will happen when the global fossil fuel industry collapses due to lack of demand? Economies that rely on oil will collapse with them. Those who work in oil will find themselves suddenly (but predictably) unemployed. Civil unrest will likely result. The Middle East will lose most of its income.

And, barring a future-oriented approach, we’ll be in trouble.

We don’t have a future-oriented approach. We have a short-term, profit-maximizing approach. But don’t worry: the invisible hand of the market will correct that in time. The market abhors outdated technology. And it’s merciless in its judgment. The market will correct us, but that doesn’t mean it will be pretty. How many companies still exist that failed to keep up with emerging technology? Not many.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way.

Back in the early 1980s, I was a dispatcher at an industrial gas company. We delivered liquid helium, used to supercool other materials, to a secret lab at a local government-funded facility. Our truck driver said they had some crazy idea that they could turn liquid hydrogen into helium and generate electricity doing it. They worked on it for several years. Then they started using enormous amounts of liquid helium. One day, the driver told us that whatever they were building, they had it working. (He had no idea what fusion was.) Two weeks later, the Reagan administration cut the funding and the project was closed down, never to be heard from again.

Why would our government shut down a project that produced cheap, clean energy? The more elucidating question is, who benefited from shutting it down? Instead of fusion, we got 30 years of fossil fuel domination, 30 years of CO2 emissions, 30 years of drilling, mining, spills, and pollution– and 30 years that included record oil company profits, heavily subsidized by tax breaks that shift the burden of paying for our government to us, the taxpayers.

Now England is developing fusion, and it looks like we’ll be left behind.

When will we start running our government with the future in mind?

I’m not holding my breath.

April 30

Revelation, Part 2: Three Faces of Christ


Jesus appears in three ways in Revelation. We first encounter him as the Son of Man in 1:13:

clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (1:13-16).

This is Jesus the warrior, as we will see in 19:11. Yet Jesus’ weapon is his tongue. We are told,

his name is called The Word of God… From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:13-14).

It’s noteworthy, however, that the word ποιμανεῖ, translated as the verb “to rule,” is more appropriately translated “to shepherd;” the same root appears in Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:16: “Shepherd (or feed) my sheep.” Despite the warlike images Revelation offers, Jesus’ “war” is conducted with Truth, not steel, and his goal is to care for, not conquer. If this seems ironic, presumably it is meant to be; like the Gospel of John, Revelation contains a great deal of irony.

The Son of Man appears again in Chapter 14:

“Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14:14).

Here, Christ the majestic becomes the reaper of the earth. The text does not say exactly what was reaped. In the following passages, angels reap grapes and make wine (14:17-20).

The second appearance of Jesus is in Chapter 5. Here we find more irony, as the elder tells John that only “the Lion of Judah, the root of Davis” can open the scroll. But what John sees is not a lion, but lamb “standing as if slaughtered” (5:6). It is not Jesus’ power and glory but his sacrificial death on the Cross that makes him worthy to open the scroll.

As the seals are broken and the story unfolds, we are told more about the Lamb. Washing robes in his blood makes them white (7:14), he will shepherd (the same verb ποιμανεῖ is used as in 19:14) to the water of life (7:17, cf John 4:10, 10:11), he keeps the book of life (13:8, 21:27), and he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). The “great multitude” (7:9) has been saved, we are told, because “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14, cf 1 John 1:7). It is not only belief in the Lamb that saves, but participation in his blood sacrifice. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more” (7:16, cf John 6:35, Isaiah 49:10).

We should note here that despite the plagues being unleashed on the people of earth (which I’ll discuss in another post), what believers are called to do is to remain firm in their faith, even in the face of persecution. There is no allowance here for violence. In no way do the followers of Jesus participate in God’s judgment. They are called instead to a radically nonviolent response in the face of gathering armies and falling empires.

In Chapter 12, we see the third representation of Jesus: the innocent infant. He is described as ““a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…” (12:5). (Note the use of the word ποιμαίνειν, another form of the verb “to shepherd”.) Here, in the midst of God’s Kingdom being declared, we encounter the birth of Jesus, the hope for the future. In Part 1, I argued that John intends to place these events outside our concept of time, a topic I’ll return to again; this is surely more evidence of that intent.

There is one final appearance of Jesus that stands out. In the closing passage, John  writes:

 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:8-9).

But a few lines later, this very same speaker tells him,

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (22:16).

As we read Revelation, we find a great deal of ambiguity between Jesus and God, as we do also in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 14:7, 14:10-11). In this particular verse, we find ambiguity between Jesus and his servants, suggesting that just as there can be oneness between Jesus and God, there can also be oneness between Jesus and those who serve him (note the language in 22:9: “I am a fellow servant”). Again, this echoes the Gospel of John: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (e.g. John 15:4a).

Books could be written about Jesus as he appears in Revelation (and they have been). However, this short summary of the three (or four) representations of Jesus do give us an overall feel for where Revelation is taking us. Jesus is the Savior, and Jesus is the Word. Yet despite the warlike language describing him, Jesus does not fight his battles with military force. Instead Jesus conquers through Truth and through his own sacrifice on the Cross– a ritual execution by a conquering power that, to readers of the 1st century, was conventionally associated with defeat.

April 23

Revelation, Part 1: The Context

The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)

What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.

The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.

The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.

The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)

Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.

We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).

There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.

The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.

As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:

“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)

These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?

As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.

April 20

The Ludlow Massacre

Striking miners at Ludlow, CO.

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. On April 20, 1914, private security guards and Colorado National Guard troops attacked a tent city occupied by 1,200 striking miners. Twenty-six  men, women, and children, were killed.

My family has a personal interest in the massacre. My wife’s great-great grandfather was one of the union organizers, and was present for the massacre. He and his family survived, but the family memory is still strong.

Giuseppe DiGiovanni was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. He moved to Colorado, where he worked as a coal miner. According to one source, “In 1912, the death rate in Colorado’s mines was 7.055 per 1,000 employees, compared to a national rate of 3.15.” They were also forced to live in “company towns,”in which all stores were controlled by the mining company– the background to the song “Sixteen Tons.” Appalled by the conditions the miners had to endure, Giuseppe became an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America. Banned for his organizing activities, he changed his name twice in order to get work, first to Joe White, and then to Joseph DiJohn.

Joe DiJohn, later in life (seated).

The union presented demands to the three major coal companies, which included safety protocols, limits on hours worked, and pay for non-producing activities like laying track and setting braces. Miners at the time were paid only by the ton produced. In September, 1913, the companies rejected these demands, and the miners went on strike.

The companies responded by hiring a private security firm to bring in strike breakers. These were supported by the Colorado National Guard, which was also strongly pro-company. Their union-busting activities included “unofficial martial law includ[ing] the suspension of habeas corpus, mass jailings of strikers in ‘bullpens,’ a cavalry charge on a demonstration of miners’ wives and children, the torture and beating of prisoners, and the demolition of a striker tent colony at Forbes.” However, the state was nearly bankrupt, and most of the National Guard units were disbanded.

On April 20, 1914, the day after the camp celebrated Orthodox Easter, private security and the remaining National Guard troops surrounded the damp at Ludlow. The miners, as shown in the photos, had some bolt-action rifles. Their opponents had machine guns, including at least one Browning M1895. One of their more frightening weapons was an armored car with a machine gun mounted in the back, which the miners called the “Death Special.”

The “Death Special.”

The attack began about 9:00 am and went on for ten hours. The miners and their families were trapped, until dusk when a passing freight train blocked the attack from one side and allowed them to escape. By 7:00 pm, the camp was razed and burning. The camp leader, Louis Tikas, was captured and executed.

The aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre

News of the massacre spread quickly, and resulted in the Ten Day War, in which miners all over Colorado attacked mine sites and destroyed mining equipment. This continued until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops, which disarmed both sides.

In the aftermath, over 400 miners were arrested, and over 300 charged with murder. Only one was convicted, strike leader John Lawson, and his conviction was later overturned by the State Supreme Court. Of the National Guard troops, ten were charged but only one was convicted– the man who executed Louis Tikas– though he only received a slap on the wrist. None of the security guards were ever charged.

The UMWA failed to gain recognition, but John D. Rockefeller did implement reforms and allowed the miners to form a “company union.” The clash represents one of the deadliest conflicts in American labor relations, and in the aftermath, Congress imposed new labor laws, including restrictions on child labor.

While I have issues with the role of unions in our post-modern economy, I remain very much aware of the work they have done and the lives they have lost to change working conditions across the country. The Ludlow Massacre was a tragedy, but it also was a turning point. These brave miners, most of the immigrants, gave their lives to ensure that American workers would have a better future.

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