Saturday, March 31, 2012

current bike crush: Dynamic Runabout

Before Pinterest existed, I had (and still have) this place, the Umblog to post pictures of bikes I want. Look under the biking category. Here's one, the Dynamic step-through Runabout Easy Step 7. I like that it uses a drive shaft instead of a chain and that it's sold from Bristol, Rhode Island, not that far from me. BTW, this is not a women's bike, it's a "step through" for people who don't feel the need to swing a leg to prove their masculinity.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The UmBlog's 7th anniversary just came and went

It started March 24th, 2005 with a post on the purposes of this blog. Now at 2111 posts later, I'm one of the endurance bloggers, where are my big paychecks?

Friday, March 23, 2012

book response: Journeys of Faith by Plummer, Ed. 2012

I happen to follow Francis Beckwith's blog, Return to Rome, at Patheos, and he posted that a new book he contributed to was coming out, Journeys of Faith, an irenic dialog between those who switched from Baptistic, non-liturgical American Evangelicalism to a liturgical branch of Christianity and those who are firmly in the evangelistic quarter by personal conversion or transfer. I immediately asked Zondervan for a review copy, and they were kind enough to send me one.

The first story is Wilbur Ellsworth's journey to Eastern Orthodoxy. The second story is Beckwith's journey back to Roman Catholicism. The third story is Chris Castaldo's journey from Catholicism to evangelicalism. And the last story is Lyle Dorsett's into Anglicanism. Each writer tells their story, explaining and sometimes defending why they left their former group and entered their current place, then a response is made pointing to the complicated parts, typically not mentioned in the original story, that make acceptance of all that the tradition under discussion difficult, which the original author has an opportunity to respond in a rejoinder. It's unfortunate that such a great discussion like this has to be limited to 200+ pages. It would be so much fun to read the converts interact with each other as well as their evangelical foils.

I am very interested in the other traditions of my faith as I've only been a low church evangelical my entire life and when I've changed churches, it hasn't been that dramatic. I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren Bible Chapel, then joined a Vineyard which became a Calvary Chapel several years later. The only thing that really changed for me was the perspective on charismatic gifts. But I'm very interested in how other churches live out the faith, so I read their blogs and try to keep my mind out of my ghetto. Last year I finsished Jaroslav Pelikan's 2nd volume in his series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) and learned so much about the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It took me months to finish it, and I hope to read volume 3 on the Roman Catholicism someday.

Everyone's stories were fascinating and really put their new found or rediscovered tradition in such a great light, so I appreciate General Editor Robert Plummer's inclusion of another perspective. Both Ellsworth and Beckwith share a big tent perspective on Team Jesus, but their responders point out that their perspective, even if official is not always lived out in those countries where their ancient churches are the dominant faith. Not enough time is spent on the barnacles of each other's faith, except for evangelicalism's, but we do that pretty good on our own as it is. Avoiding American evangelical criticism is like trying to not breathe. It's the evangelical genuflection of the modern age. Half of the book is an evangelical-Catholic dialog though. I learned so much about Roman Catholicism from the Catholics Beckwith and Brad Gregory and evangelicals Castaldo and Gregg Allison. I really miss Catholic self-criticism though. Castaldo and Allison came back to a couple examples extreme in the evangelical perspective which the Catholic writers did not address, specifically Mariology, purgatory, indulgences and papal infallibility. Perhaps this a corner the church has boxed itself into, official doctrine inaccessible to questioning. Castaldo brought up an interesting story of meat that was accidentally served as a Bishop's dinner on a Friday during Lent. This was a mortal sin, which means that a faithful Catholic believes their ticket to heaven was in jeopardy. But all was not lost because the Bishop had the authority to declare a special dispensation, which he did. I appreciate the Bishop's grace in that action, but, as an evangelical, think "how is that a serious sin anywhere in the New Testament?" On the other hand, Castaldo's explanation of the Catholic mass was very helpful to me. Anti-Catholic literature is easy to find in evangelical bookstores, but irenic discussions, like this one are much more helpful. None of the authors portray the other church as demonic constructs to be feared, but as different expressions.

The section on Anglicanism at first seems like an awkward fit in this book's discussion. It is not as ancient as Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but it is a high liturgical tradition, which is still intriguing to a low church guy like myself. In fact, I have a friend and a friend of a friend of a friend who has moved from the Vineyard to Anglicanism. Until I read Dorsett's story, I thought these moves were bizarre. But I didn't know that Anglicanism was open to charismatic gifts, nor that there are conservative as well as the liberal branches that get more attention here in the United States.

This book is perfect for low church guys like me who love hearing about the other parts of Christ's body. My attitude of late has been seeing our divisions over time as a fulfillment of Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Each branch has been on the job for different lengths of time, but Jesus will reward us all equally, which I am looking forward to, not just for myself, but with all these brothers and sisters around the world.
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Sunday, March 18, 2012

book response: Growing up Amish by Wagler (2011)

Last year we took a family vacation in Lancaster County about the same time this book, Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler, came up as a pre-pub review option. I heartily recommend the Old Summer House we stayed at, and I was so intrigued by the culture we visited that I really wanted to get into this book back then. But I was too late, all available copies were claimed, and I put the book on my Amazon wish list. But I didn't get to it until it recently showed up on sale on Amazon's Top 100 Kindle titles. I'm glad I did.
Ira Wagler is not a Lancaster Amish but was born in Canada, to an Old Order Amish family that had relocated from an Indiana Amish town. He enjoyed his childhood, but not the religious cultural restrictions. His older siblings also had difficulties and left the community to the shame of his father, an influential writer in Amish circles. So he relocated the family again to another community in Iowa. But the change in scenery, did not address the heart issues. Ira left his community multiple times, living an "English" life without those restrictions. He also self-medicated with nicotine, alcohol, and further illegal substances, in addition to the friendship of the opposite sex. Even those things left his soul empty, so he kept returning to the Amish fold of his family and community, hoping that getting those passions of the flesh out of his system might enable him to finally embrace his culture. The religious culture of his home community never addressed the hunger in his soul. He found the traditional prayers and hymns of the faith beautiful but the beauty was not enough to bring his soul transcendence. Even an engagement to a lovely Amish woman did not satisfy his soul. He feared that the marriage would trap him forever in a culture that not only did not satisfy him but dehydrated him spiritually. He entered into depression and decided to leave again.

Still, he could not liberate himself from the pull of the Amish, so he decided to try another community in Indiana. Yet there he encountered the worst Amish religious leader in his life, bitter and hateful. Out of the dryness of his soul, he broke all his conventions and prayed independently and casually, asking God to help him. God answered. He met an extremely rare person among the Amish, a convert. Wagler was intrigued by someone who would choose the Amish straitjacket. But this man also lived a life in God's grace. Both these things drew them into a close friendship. As they discussed religion and life, even as the straitjacket continued to again suck the life out of Wagler's soul, his new friend filled it again with the grace of God that flowed out of him. God's grace changed everything for Wagler.

Miraculously, a seed of faith sprouted in his soul, and he was able to believe in the Jesus he had heard about his entire life. But he also realized something else, "The box of Amish life and culture might provide some protection, but it could never bring salvation." This was everything Jesus railed against in his disputes with the Pharisees, whom he called white washed tombs, pretty on the outside but full of internal corruption and death. Not that every Pharisee was a hypocrite, Nicodemus, nor is every Amish person one either, Wagler's friend, but Wagler realized one did not have to wear that label and live that lifestyle to live in the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Wagler did not go far from the Amish way, he is Mennonite now and he blogs. His story gets as depressed as he was. This reader could not detach from Wagler's emotional journey. The trip down was long and terrible but the resolution and joy was all too brief. I'm glad to hear that Wagler is working on a second book that goes into more detail about his life after his conversion.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

book response: Ordinary Men by Browning (1992)

Christopher Browning sought to find out how the Germans turned into genocidal mass murderers in World War 2. He used as his sample set the post-war testimonies given by men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 out of
Cover of
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Hamburg and placed them against the back drop of official Nazi records of the time. These guys were "ordinary men," who had signed up as a reserve policeman either before the war or to stay out of the war. They just wanted to stick around Hamburg and work there, but like our National Guard, they were needed in Poland, behind the lines, not in combat with the Red Army, to prepare Poland for the expansion of Germany in it's blood purity. Eventually, over the next 16 months, all the men participated in mass murder, facilitating Himmler's Final Solution. Directly, the 500 men of this reserve police battalion, shot to death at least 38,000 Jews. (For all the Holocaust deniers out there, this number is from the Nazi's own records.) Indirectly, they herded onto trains headed to the Treblinka gas chambers and furnaces, another 45,000 Jews.

Browning follows their duty stations and actions chronologically. It was so gut wrenching that I had to take breaks every chapter or so, to breathe and clear my mind by reading another book or watching a movie or a TV show. As I learned from Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, there were not that many Jews in Germany, but Poland was the epicenter of European Jewry. Most of the genocidal gassing centers were built by the Nazis in Poland. In fact, one reason the gas chambers were needed was that direct murdering demoralized the Germans doing it, up and down the ranks.
The psychological burden was serious and extended even to Bach-Zelewski himself. Himmler's SS doctor, reporting to the Reichsfuhrer on Bach-Zelewski's incapacitating illness in the spring of 1942, noted that the SS leader was suffering "especially from visions in connection with the shootings of Jews that he himself had led, and from other difficult experiences in the east." p. 25
But until those genocidal sites could be brought on-line, men like those of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were given the orders to clear towns of Jews, bring them into the woods, line them up in front of pits dug to receive their bodies, and place the bayonets of their rifles in the right location on the neck for the most efficient kill shot, one at a time, hundreds per town, all ages, all genders, no exceptions. The commanding officer wished he did not have to give such orders to his men, in fact, he even let those who asked the freedom to any assisting job instead of the actual murdering. Despite his own misgivings, he was an ordinary man, he did not want to disobey orders. "He said something like, 'Man,...such jobs don't suit me. But orders are orders.'" p. 58 He was sure what they were doing was wrong, "'If this Jewish business is ever avanged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans.'" p. 58 He knew it was wrong, but acted as if the greater wrong was to disobey the orders. The Final Solution needed absolute genocide, so the reserve police were ordered to go on "Jew hunts" in all possible hiding places, in basements and barns or in hand-dug bunkers in the forests, even in a hollowed out hay stack.
...the "Jew hunt" was not a brief episode. It was a tenacious, remorseless, ongoing campaign tn which the "hunters" tracked down and killed their "prey" in direct and personal confrontation. It was not a passing phase but an existential condition of constant readiness and intention to kill every last Jew who could be found. p. 132
What enables ordinary men to become hunters of other humans, able to converse with them in one moment about shared experiences, some Jews they killed were German Jews who had left Hamburg, before sticking a gun at the back of their heads in the next moment and killing them? Browning discusses some of the theories offered, but he seems to agree with the one I also agree with, and I suspect Iris Chang would have also. She wrote about the same level of cruelty and genocide by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking. See my book response here. Chang says the veneer of civilization is thin. I believe we are all subject to our sin nature to one degree or another. Browning quotes the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
Bauman argues that most people "slip" into the roles society provides them, and he is very critical of any implication that "faulty personalities" are the cause of human cruelty. For him the exception - the real "sleeper" - is the rare individual who has the capacity to resist authority and assert moral autonomy but who is seldom award of this hidden strength until put to the test. p. 167
We know what happens to courageous people, Jesus, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Bonhoeffer.  Not all courageous people are assassinated, but it only takes a few examples to overpower our moral duty with our will to live, and if not that bad, our will to live comfortably. Courageous soldiers lay on live grenades to save their friends. Courageous people choose to enhance the lives of others at their own expense, quite the rarity. Courage involves tremendous self-sacrifice, which is not ordinary. Browning focuses more on peer pressure, which I consider more the excuse than the ultimate cause.
Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot? p.189
I agree with his implied assertion that most of us cannot. But I think so few of us are able to assert moral autonomy at great personal sacrifice. I thought of my Jewish friends as I read these pages and wondered how many more of them are missing because of the Nazis, and would I be a courageous friend if faced with the choices the Reserve Battalion did? I hope I am one of those "rare individuals."
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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

book response: False Economy by Beattie (2009)

I know nothing about economics, but the topic floods the airwaves. I figured I need to learn something about this critical topic, so I went to the library and found this available for my Kindle. Alan Beattie is the
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International Economy Editor of the Financial Times. I am finding that I really enjoy books written by journalists. The crucible of the daily deadline tends to refine the art of writing. I also enjoy books that are historical. The subtitle of False Economy is "A surprising economic history of the world."

I enjoyed the amoral perspective of an economist. Every social decision is viewed through the effect onto accounting. He only condemns poor business decisions, not human rights violations. I admit, I'm jealous of the liberation that perspective brings from melancholy. Of course, poor business decisions do diminish the quality of life of entire nations. Maybe the melancholy is over the collective instead of the individuals.

Regarding an alternative American Civil War outcome, no tears over slavery.
Even if the North had lost, and failed to bring the South back into the Union by force, it would likely have gone its own way, building an economy based on manufacturing and commerce and leaving the South to wallow in its victorious stagnation. Manufacturing and finance were supplanting farming. No country was going to keep up with the leading pack by remaining in agriculture. p.19
He sees globalization as the best route forward for economic success. Becoming self-sufficient in every sector of an economy, including those where the geography are not conducive to success, only hinder a country, not help it. He uses Egypt as an example, that even with the great Nile River only has so much water, so they import grain, when they used to be the breadbasket of the Roman world. Wheat is a water-intensive crop, so is cotton, but they can export their cotton and buy grain on the international market and get a better return on their water investment. He shares the novel concept of another economist that Egypt is actually importing water this way, but not in casks but in food. In contrast he points to American cotton farms, which are owned by relatively few families, who lobby successfully for import protections, so they can  compete on the wallets of American consumers. Beattie argues if others can do it cheaper we should use the land for something competitive that we can export without the need for tariffs. Does America really need to be self-sufficient in cotton?

He investigates the impact of mineral wealth on countries. Diamonds and oil can bring sudden wealth, but that wealth will destroy a weak country but enhance a strong one. Weakness and strength are not about dictators, but about collective morality and economy. Does the new wealth dominate the economy or become a part? If the economy is weak, does the political leadership have the morality to resist claiming it all  to the neglect of those it represents?
In Norway, oil revenue above a certain level is kept in a national oil stabilization fund, a giant state savings account. The money is held in dollars to prevent sudden surges of upward pressure on the Norwegian krone and released for spending according to projections of Norway’s future wealth and future needs. Chile, which is the world’s largest copper producer, has a similar system. These funds need be treated like endowments, not windfalls. Spending should flow at a rate that can be maintained into the long term. p.118 
He investigates the impact of religion on economic success and doesn't see it, contrary to the "Protestant work ethic" claims. The United States was successful with it's Calvinistic origins, but Scotland was not, though sharing the same theology. It made me chuckle to learn that WWJD was used as a political economic rally cry in England in the 1800's.
John Buckmaster, a free-trade agitator who toured country towns and villages, trying to recruit farm laborers and craftsmen to the cause of repeal, employed a prototype “What would Jesus do?” campaign. “If the Corn Laws had been in evidence when Jesus Christ was on earth,” he rather presumptuously declared, “he would have preached against them.” p. 178 
Morality is also important to economies as long as it is consistent. Infrastructure is more than roads. Although roads are important, so are laws, and a consistent response to them. If bribery is accepted, the bribery has to be consistent as well, which makes it simply another business tax which can be figured into expected costs.
Still, it is African countries that seem to suffer most from weak infrastructure: not just bad roads, but the lack of an efficient economic system. As we have seen, trade needs suppliers to trust that they will get paid, and legal and judicial systems that help rather than hinder business. A recent World Bank study that asked four big freight companies about shipping times around the world found that three-quarters of the delays in transport were administrative procedures—customs clearance, tax, cargo inspections, and the like—and not potholed roads or crumbling ports. p.216 
He looks at ancient China and Indonesia under it's dictator, Suharto, as examples of consistent graft that allowed economic trade and growth. Either there are expected payments at each level of bureaucracy or one payment at the higher levels that guaranteed no trouble from those further down. But when anyone in the bureaucracy can ask for a bribe for any amount, effectively randomizing the export process, then the costs will make the exports too expensive to compete, thus killing the goose that could have laid golden eggs.

Over and over again, he points to the greater good. If sectors can't compete, don't prop them up. The pain will be short term, but can result in a less expensive economy in the long term. But thinking of others before ourselves and for the long term instead of today is so anti-American, but I think I've heard that worldview before.

This 10 minute interview with the author about the book might be what you need to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, like I did.

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Friday, March 09, 2012

book response: The Kindness of Strangers by McIntyre (1996)

Sometimes readers who spend too much time learning about genocides need a break with something light, humorous, quick but also well-written. Mike McIntyre's travelogue fits the bill. In fact, the bill was even better because it was on the Kindle's free list, though not anymore, sorry. This isn't the meatier cross country travelogue like Steinbeck's, but an enjoyable one nevertheless. McIntyre is a journalist, a profession that usually delivers good writing, and he doesn't fail to deliver. He has a mid-life crisis near 40, and decides to hitchhike across the country from San Francisco to Cape Fear, NC without a penny (or plastic or cell phone) in his pocket. It's in flyover country that he meets his most interesting and generous patrons. This Christian blogger was fascinated with his repeated encounters with born again Christians who kept trying to ensure he was on his way to heaven by believing in Jesus. Those weren't the only people he met, but there were so many I started to wonder if he was going to have a conversion story by the end. On the other hand, his observations of people tended toward the carnal at times as well, as faithful Christians were not the only generous people who crossed his path. Some of his patrons were rascals or even criminals, yet still kind to him. As he shared his story, people felt safe to share theirs with him, and some even invited him into their homes and lives, entwining their stories wit his for a day or two. Some stories are tragic and some are delightful, but you will laugh much more than notice a tear in the corner of your eye.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

book response: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Marquez (1981)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Noble Prize in Literature in 1982 for the sum of his works only a year after his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In my limited experience with fiction, I heard echoes of Edgar Allen Poe's first person narrative horror mysteries. There is no mystery in this story though, but there is horror. One of the horrors is the small town hypocrisy that permits young men to fulfill their lusts, but any young women who do likewise bring shame on their family, a shame that seeks retribution by honor killing. One of the many ironies in the book is that it is the Latins who perform the honor killing against an Arab. The author also condemns the rash decision to murder by contrasting the findings of the narrator over a decade later, finding that the accusation by one woman, was enough to bring judgment, though the victim was known for his Romeo ways. Most of the town served as a jury in Santiago Nasar's "trial," also agreeing with the decision of the murderous twin brothers who repeatedly announced to any who would listen their intention. But the narrator asserts the twins were actually hoping someone would thwart them. The mayor took their butchering knives, but went home and got two more. They had just spent the night partying with Nasar, now they felt condemned to kill them and defend their sister's honor.

Since almost no one accepts responsibility to stop a murder, everyone ends up sharing the blame. This last concept makes me think of Nazi Germany. I actually started this book to take a break from my reading on the genocides of World War 2.

On an entirely different angle, the religious themes were loud. Santiago had hoped to visit the bishop who was steaming down river, but the bishop did not pull into port, only waving at those who brought gifts and offerings to celebrate his visit, suggesting the church does not really care to visit with the back country folk, such as Santiago (Saint James [Jacob in Hebrew, the crafty grandson of Abraham]) son of the Arab immigrant Ibrahim (Abraham) who also slept with his maid (Hagar). Maria Cervantes runs a brothel (Mary Magdalene). The defended sister is Angela Vicario (angel priest/vicar). One of Santiago's wound marks are described as stigmata. I still can't figure out if those overlapping names are significant, but as someone overly familiar with the Bible's stories, I can't escape noticing those names and the characters.

In the Bible, Abraham cannot make a child with his wife Sarah, so she offers him her servant, Hagar as a surrogate. She conceives and gives birth to Ishmael, but Sarah, casts her out in jealousy. Eventually, Sarah miraculously conceives and gives birth to Isaac, who inherits everything of his father. He ends up with twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricks Esau out of his inheritance and ends up fleeing from Esau to save his life. Jacob ends up with 2 sister wives and each of their nurses as concubines/surrogate mothers. In this book, Santiago Nasar is more of a conflation of Isaac and Jacob. The murderous twins are Pablo (Paul) and Pedro (Peter). It could possibly indicate Marquez's perception of Christian hatred toward Jews in general history, or maybe that of Columbian Catholics and Columbian Jews in particular. There were Jews who fled Hitler by coming to Columbia when the author was very young. The Columbian government actually halted immigration throughout most of Hitler's reign, from 1939-45.

I'm not claiming to have solved the deeper meaning of this novella, but it's my response to it.

This story is interesting, but not compelling. It's a good break from depressing historical reading, but it's not a book I'll keep on my bookshelf.
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Sunday, March 04, 2012

the American church's anti-creedal creed

When I read this statement of faith, I felt I stumbled upon the "creed" my more liberal Christian siblings seem to believe in deed if not in creed,
Historically, ******** has always taught that deeds matter more than creeds; that the quality of our lives counts for more than the “correctness” of our beliefs. In keeping with these principles the ***** states that “integrity of life” and “free thought” shall be the Society’s first aim, as together we seek to promote “truth, righteousness, reverence and charity among all.” Although ******** in general and First ******* in particular have changed a great deal since the late 19th century, these principles still are central to our identity. We are a freedom loving, justice seeking people with wide-ranging interests and universal sympathies. We draw from many sources -- ancient and modern, East and West – for inspiration, and we trust that inner harmony will lead to ethical action.
There is so much that is nice in this church's statement of faith. I left their name out so that no conservative's alarm bells go off while reading it. What's missing? What is there to criticize? In John's gospel, Jesus dialogs, out of the cultural norm, with a woman whose creed was lacking, which influenced her practices, in chapter 4. When Jesus catches her off guard with his knowledge of her serial marriages and current live-in boyfriend, she acknowledges his prophetic ability and switches the conversation off herself and onto religious hot topics, the dispute between her people, the Samaritans, and his, the Jews. Jesus responds they worship what they don't know, but the Jews worship what they know, but their knowledge is lifeless. Jesus then says God is looking for worshippers who know what they worship and are enlivened by it,
John 4:23-24 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. 
"Must" is a critical word here, dei in Greek, roughly translates, "it is necessary." Jesus rightly criticizes his own people, who have the correct knowledge, of not doing anything with that knowledge. The priests and scribes were the bad guys in the story of the good "Samaritan" because they didn't do anything to help the injured guy, but the Samaritan with the poor knowledge did the right thing. "Deeds over creeds" which this church quoted above, and a frequent ethos I encounter in the liberal Christian blogosphere, does not take Jesus serious enough. My favorite verse in the Bible, is from Jesus' prayer for his followers, the night before he dies, in John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. Eternal life is not a "know-nothing" experience, but a "know someone" experience, but that someone is so immense and wonderful and amazing that we need  eternity to do it. But our eternal life begins now. God has revealed himself to the world in Jesus. Earlier in the night Jesus told his disciples, John 14:7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. Again, the "know" word. Which comes back around to those divisive words, creed and doctrine. The creeds come from challenges in the church's history to what is true about God. If anything is true, nothing is true. So, as Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, "what is truth?" (John 18:38)

Jesus says there are two commandments that everything boils down to. Love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-39) Deeds without creeds focuses on the 2nd commandment and diminishes the 1st, contrary to Jesus' emphasis. How can we love anyone if we refuse to know them? That's infatuation, not love. The creeds tell us what is true about God, so that we can rightly worship Him. He wants worshipers in spirit and truth. We worship with our hearts, our minds, and our hands.

The Bible is his love letter to us, why would we avoid it, diminish it, or overwrite it? He conforms us to His image, not Him to our image. So we learn his image by reading what he left for us and act on what we've learned. Creeds and deeds.

By the way, the only reason I used that church's statement of belief was because I was learning about their award winning green addition to their Frank Lloyd Wright structure.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

book response: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder (2010)

If you are not a melancholic person like myself, you might not “enjoy” this book, because only a 
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
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melancholic person can “enjoy” the depression brought on by a history of Eastern European genocide. Timothy Snyder writes Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, about the hyperbolic topic of the murder of fourteen million people without supplementing the inherent tragedy of the history sensationalistic writing. Although he weaves the story together with deftness, bringing clarity and, at times, poignancy, he stays out of the story’s way. Only a fool would try to bring attention to himself before something already so immense. Snyder is no such fool.

In my recent reading on the 2nd World War I’ve been stepping out of my America first perspective on it, and looking at the Eastern Front, where we provided materiel, but not the bodies. This book looks back a decade before the German invasion of the USSR to examine the horror Stalin previously wrought there. He writes,

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. Loc. 41-43
(My Kindle version, borrowed from the local library, does not have page numbers in the preface, so I provide location numbers.)

Of those 14 million, Stalin killed nearly five million of his own people, both before the war, in the Great Famine, but even during the war. His secret police were arresting and torturing Soviet citizens during the siege of St. Petersburg, when hundreds of thousands died of starvation in the city. Starvation, in Snyder’s argument, was the most effective means of murder for both Stalin and Hitler in Eastern Europe.

“Of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the twentieth century. The two largest mass killing actions after the Holocaust—Stalin’s directed famines of the early 1930s and Hitler’s starvation of Soviet prisoners of war in the early 1940s—involved this method of killing.” Loc. 139-42

More civilians or prisoners of war were murdered than soldiers killed in action on the eastern front, and the soldier deaths were about ten million.

“The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war.” p. 155
Generally, Snyder follows the chronological unfolding of the waves of mass murder, starting with Stalin’s unintentional famine caused by his collectivation policy, which was followed with an intentional famine, to shift blame off his policies onto the mythical Kulaks, peasant farmers who did better than other peasant farmers, and resisted the deprivation of their property and life so the state could steal their grain for export. I say mythical, because Stalin actually had quotas for his secret police to fulfill in their arrests of Kulaks.

“At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, “we create kulaks as we see fit.” p. 26.
Kulaks also included starving children rounded up for begging.
“In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with the police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air... “ p. 22

One of the strengths of Snyder’s book are his sources. He uses public sources found in multiple countries, not only of official records, but also of family anecdotes found in written oral histories. This is not a history book dependent on English-only or English translated sources.

The insanity of Stalin’s narcissism meant that those millions that starved only had themselves to blame. “Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner.” p. 41 Even the appearance of starvation, like those waifs on the streets of Kiev were defying Stalin by looking like walking skeletons. The rationale also provided emotional inflexibility for the police working for Stalin, who executed the kulaks for being hungry, and attacking them for holding back crumbs from the state. Even communist supporters from other countries could buy Stalin’s line, “Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity.” p. 54 Of course the religiously devout peasants saw it differently,

“Though their Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna.” p.29

It’s not that citizens of the USSR were stupid, but if they could be kept ignorant, the easier things were for Stalin. The USSR was an amazing record keeping juggernaut, in the time before spreadsheets, and they tracked everything, and kept those records in order to assist central planning. One important record was population. But that record was not acceptable to Stalin.

“The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected: most of these were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not then have. Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.” p.53

Repeatedly, those who did whatever Stalin wanted eventually made Stalin feel threatened and were subsequently murdered. Stalin’s ruthless quest for efficiency did not end in his collectivation efforts, but also included his secret police. He kept his killing squads small and their bullet supply limited. “When bullets were in short supply, NKVD men would force their victims to sit side by side, their heads in a line, so that a single bullet could be fired through several skulls at once.” p.99 “Only a very few people were directly involved. A team of just twelve Moscow NKVD men shot 20,761 people at Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, in 1937 and 1938.” p.83 Instead of spreading the killing job around, by keeping it to a few, if some of them cracked under the psychological strain, acting from the pathology of another, they could themselves be killed and replacements found.

Snyder sets up the contrast of Stalin to Hitler by pointing out the bar Stalin established before he allied with Hitler. “In the years 1937 and 1938, 267 people were sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, as compared to 378,326 death sentences within the kulak operation alone in the Soviet Union.” p. 86 When Stalin acquired his half of Poland from Hitler, things continued on as before. Stalin also blamed the failures of collectivation on the Poles and made them pay.  “Of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed. Not all of these were Poles, but most of them were.” p. 103 Thousands of Polish military officers were executed in the Katyn forest.

Hitler did not treat the Poles any better. The Jews in Poland were Hitler’s problem. I learned from Snyder that Jews were more of a hypothetical issue in Germany than actual. They comprised less than one percent of Germany’s population when he came to power in 1933, and a fourth of one percent by the time of the invasion of Poland. (p.61) Poland, however, was ten percent Jewish. (p. 122) All the death camps were outside of Germany, mostly in Poland. “The German mass murder of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union, not in Germany itself.” Loc. 59-60. In no way am I belittling the Jewish genocide of Hitler’s, but the population was small enough for him to do it, but his intentions did not end with Jews.

“The Germans murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (more than three million) and residents of besieged cities (more than a million) or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (the better part of a million, chiefly Belarusians and Poles).” Loc. 72-74 As the movie Conspiracy showed, Hitler’s original solution for Jews was relocation to Madagascar, but that didn’t work out, and the rest of the world, except for the Dominican Republic, did not offer to take them, and save their lives.

“Jews at the time comprised no more than one half of one percent of the German population, and even this total was shrinking with emigration. There had never been very many Jews in Germany; but insofar as they were regarded as a “problem,” the “solution” had already been found: expropriation, intimidation, and emigration. (German Jews would have departed even faster than they did had the British allowed them to go to Palestine, or the Americans seen fit to increase—or even fill—immigration quotas. At the Evian Conference of July 1938, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take more Jewish refugees from Germany.)” p. 112

Slavs, however, were stuck between their enemies, Stalin and Hitler. When Hitler crossed over into the USSR, the genocidal plan was put into place to starve them while stealing their food to supply the army and the Germans back home. Hitler found historical precedent in European settlers’ treatment of Native Americans.

“The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.” p.160
If they couldn’t starve them in their homes, they’d starve them in their prisoner of war camps. “As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War.” p.182 Hitler actually collaborated with Stalin in the deaths of Soviet soldiers since Stalin declared that any soldier captured could not have been a loyal citizen who should have fought to the death. “All in all, perhaps 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed.” p.184

Their psychopathic narcissism found scientific justification in Darwinism.

“Hitler and Stalin both accepted a late-nineteenth-century Darwinistic modification: progress was possible, but only as a result of violent struggle between races or classes. Thus it was legitimate to destroy the Polish upper classes (Stalinism) or the artificially educated layers of Polish subhumanity (National Socialism).” p. 156

By believing the Slavs as subhuman, ordinary German soldiers were able to write home about their atrocities, uncensored by the military watchdogs,
“...Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.” On the second and third of October 1941, the Germans (with the help of auxiliary policemen from Ukraine) shot 2,273 men, women, and children at Mahileu. On 19 October another 3,726 followed. p.205
This “subhuman” mentality worked on Jews as well. “On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.” p.227

The body counts do start to numb the mind, but it has to be proclaimed. The sheer immensity of human depravity needs to never be forgotten. I recently met a Belarusian after finishing this book, she noted my last name as German, and immediately I offered my apologies, though she bore no hard feelings. But the German atrocities in Belarus were just as bad as in Poland.

“Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). These three general campaigns constituted the three greatest German atrocities in eastern Europe, and together they struck Belarus with the greatest force and malice. Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army.” p. 250

As the Red Army pushed into Poland, within sight of Warsaw, they encouraged the Poles to rise up, not to assist them in their invasion, but to assist Stalin in getting rid of uppity Poles who resist invaders. Without support, the Warsaw uprising was a massacre. The Western allies begged Stalin to let them use their air bases to bomb the Germans in assistance to the Jews, but Stalin wouldn’t give in until it was too late.

“The massacres in Wola had nothing in common with combat. The Germans lost six dead and killed about twenty Home Army soldiers while murdering at least thirty thousand people.” p. 304

“Great Britain had gone to war five years earlier on the question of Polish independence, which it was now unable to protect from its Soviet ally.” p.306

I have read and heard the guilty conscience of those opposed to bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they need to be put into the context of what the Germans and Japanese were doing themselves. “About as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945.” p.405

“More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone than Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” p. 406

While Hitler’s Final Solution involved the demonically efficient gas chambers and crematoria, the completed facilities were late to the genocidal campaign. “By the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes at Birkenau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.” p.383

Somehow, name calling allows humans the fortitude to kill with less resistance of conscience. Stalin used the name Kulaks. Hitler used Untermenschen. As Snyder comes to the end of his work, he tries to summarize what we can learn from this experience.

“People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” p. 400

I think World War 2 is essential to keeping things in perspective. It’s the low water mark within living memory. Humans around the world are still trying to emulate the depravity, but no country has achieved the scale that the war did (except for Mao in China). When 14 million civilian lives are lost in eastern europe, there are 14 million stories to be told, and there aren’t enough books or historians to write them to give even a fraction the honor they deserve. I think all of us today can honor them by at least reading one of these books.

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

not every tool in the toolbox is a hammer

Tonight, in the high school Bible reading group, we read John 16.
v.12 "I still have many things to tell you, but you can't handle them now."
Out of the 12 guys Jesus had been investing in for 3 years, one betrays him, and three leave written messages for the future of the church, Matthew, Peter, and John. The other eight guys end up dying for the faith as they spread it around the world, but they weren't the theologians of the crew. Peter and John are practically snuggled up with Jesus, but the other guys might have been acting like my group of ten students tonight. Some of them might have still been adolescents. My group tonight was very distracted , but I couldn't get upset, because they weren't any worse than Jesus's crew in John 16. By verse 17 they realize they are missing something important,
17 That stirred up a hornet's nest of questions among the disciples: "What's he talking about: 'In a day or so you're not going to see me, but then in another day or so you will see me'? And, 'Because I'm on my way to the Father'? 18 What is this 'day or so'? We don't know what he's talking about." 19 Jesus knew they were dying to ask him what he meant, so he said, "Are you trying to figure out among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'In a day or so you're not going to see me, but then in another day or so you will see me'?
In other words, "Hold on. What did Jesus just say?" This really is a continuation of the cluelessness earlier in the night in ch. 14.
6 Jesus said, "I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You've even seen him!" 8 Philip said, "Master, show us the Father; then we'll be content." 9 "You've been with me all this time, Philip, and you still don't understand? To see me is to see the Father. So how can you ask, 'Where is the Father?'
Jesus is surprised at Philip's question. But I'm happy to know that Jesus's crew has kept the bar pretty low for what to expect from a small band of his followers. There could be a few theologians in my group, there might even be a future apostate, but my hope is that most of them keep the faith. One of the recurring themes in the upper discourse that I keep pointing them to is that people around them will hate Jesus without a logical reason and will turn the hate toward those of us who identify with Jesus. It won't make sense. In the beginning of ch. 16 he warns them some of us will be martyred by those who claim they are doing it for God, the ultimate of ironies. But he also promises us at the end of the chapter,
33 "I've told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I've conquered the world."
The war is over. Jesus has won, the rest of history is details.

All Bible quotes from The Message.