Monday, June 30, 2003

We've known for a while now that Cornelius Fudge and the other top-level bureaucrats at the Ministry of Magic were nothing more than Soviet-style apparatchiks, men who know just two kinds of people--enemies and underlings. We knew that back at the end of book four when Fudge stuck his head in the sand after Dumbledore, Snape and Potter presented incontestible proof that Lord Voldemort was back.

Now we also know how utterly incompetent they are. Consider this article ripped from the pages of The Daily Prophet (chapter twenty-five in The Order of the Phoenix, so if you haven't read this far you might not want to read this post):

The Ministry of Magic announced late last night that there has been a mass breakout from Azkaban. Speaking to reporters in his private office, Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, confirmed that ten high security prisoners escaped in the early hours of yesterday evening, and that he has already informed the Muggle Prime Minister of the dangerous nature of these individuals.

So Fudge wants Tony Blair to be on the lookout for Death Eaters? Tony Blair has been the Mayor of Basra for two months, and he has yet to find a single weapon of mass destruction! How's he going to track down a bunch of serial-killing wizards on the lam?

If only our heroes were Californians rather than British. Then they could recall Fudge.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

My former hometown, Sweet Springs, Missouri, has made the international press. When we lived there in the mid-90s, we'd often see a disabled man zipping down the sidewalk in a motorized wheelchair. Since we moved, the man graduated to a golf cart.

Now that golf cart is at the eye of a hurricane of small town controversy. It seems that the local police chief ordered the man to drive his golf cart home, or else he'd be cited. The police chief maintains that a recent change in state law prohibits driving golf carts on public roads. Not according to the state attorney general's office, which responded to querries by the local newspaper editor about whether or not golf cart are considered vehicles under Missouri law. The editor of the Sweet Springs Herald, and many "concerned citizens," have been sharply critical of the police chief, but to date he has the backing of the mayor and the city council. (Full disclosure--my wife is a former employee of the Sweet Springs Herald).

Both CNN and The Guardian, a British newspaper, have run stories about the Sweet Springs golf cart controversy. I think that this is the most publicity for this part of the world since neighboring Green Ridge, Missouri was nuked in the 1983 movie "The Day After." I wonder if the Soviets cried "Fore!" before they let that particular missile rip.

Anti-war or Civil War? When I went on vacation I left my razor at home. Now my facial hair is racing to catch up to the hair on my head, which hasn't been this long since my last year in seminary. I say that it's a look befitting any war protester, but my wife says that if I were a blond, I'd be a dead ringer for General Custer. Sigh. It's so hard to make a statement these days.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

"People talk about the 'divorce epidemic' as if it were a disease that could and should be cured," complained columnist Jennifer Just in my local newspaper Sunday. The real problem with divorce, she argues, is the stigma that still cloaks those 39 million Americans who, for one reason or another, have decided to untie the knot.

After all, she reasons, folks live a lot longer than they used to. Isn't it unrealistic to expect men and women to "live, sleep and grow in tandem with the same person til death do them part, which statistically is 50 years and up?" Today, divorce ends marriages at about the same point that death did a century ago. And, she adds, the sheer numbers of divorced people demand that we re-evaluate our old prejudices. "39 million people can't be all wrong," writes Just.

A shrewd argument, I'll have to admit. I'll be mulling it over come Saturday when I assist in a wedding ceremony. Perhaps I'll issue a disclaimer to the bride and groom: "Be warned that the person you're exchanging rings with today is probably not the person you'll want to be sitting beside when your children do this." In Just's world, we'd have one spouse for our carefree twenty-somethings, a second one to raise the kids with, yet another spouse to enjoy the empty nest phase, and maybe a fourth to drool with in the nursing home common area.

Reformed Christians speak of marriage as a "covenant." That's a biblical term for the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship which, at least from God's side, is one of hesed, often translated "steadfast love." God's love is not a dreamy, eye-fluttering romanticism. It is durable, faithful, broad and deep. If marriage is indeed a covenant, an opportunity to express in horizontal terms the abiding love that binds us with our heavenly Father, then why can't our increasing life expectancies be an opportunity to plumb the depths of that love even further?

But is Just justified in complaining that divorce and divorced people are unduly stigmatized? Her opinion is seconded by a five year study of the family that the Presbyterian Church's Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy presented to the General Assembly last month. The report stressed an inclusive attitude toward all household forms. What really counts, the report contended, is how the various forms function and the quality of their communicative process.

Of course churchgoers should avoid judgmentalism. But a generation of data on the family are in, and there's no way to avoid making some judgments. In their book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially, Linda White and Maggie Gallagher report the following:

1. Mortality rates are 50% higher for unmarried women and 250% higher for unmarried men than their married counterparts.
2. Married men and women are more satisfied with their sex lives than co-habitating men and women.
3. On the verge of retirement, the typical married couple has accumulated $410,000, compared to $167,000 for the never married, $154,000 for the divorced, $151,000 for the widowed and just under $96,000 for the seperated.
4. Married men are far less likely to abuse their wives and children than unmarried men are to abuse their lovers or minor children with whom they live.

Now, is it judgmental to report these facts? Not any more judgmental than it is to report that smoking increases your chances of getting cancer, and that a high fat diet increases your risk of heart disease. Don't shoot the messenger.

Why can't the church deal with marriage and divorce the way that the health care system deals with good health? Doctors put out the word that immunizations, exercise, and a diet blessed with fresh fruits and vegetables are the keys to good health. At the same time enormous amounts of time and energy are invested in healing the sick, even those whose diseases are largely the result of poor lifestyle choices. No lung cancer patient is denied chemotherapy because he or she was a smoker.

In like manner, congregations need to encourage their members to get married and stay married, and equip them with the skills and virtues that make for a good marriage. At the same time the church needs to welcome divorced men and women. When a person goes through a divorce, that individual has often been through hell. God forbid that the church be a community that shoots its wounded.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Was the Iraq War a "just war?" Note the quotes around "just war." I'm asking if the Iraq War met the criteria for waging war that Christian theologians have developed over the centuries, the so-called Just War Theory. I'm not asking if the Iraq War was technically legal under US or international law, politically shrewd, or defensible on the basis of a cost-benefits analysis.

Just War Theory states that Christians are permitted to wage war if the following critreia are met:
1. War is the last resort.
2. War is declared by a legitimate authority.
3. The war is for a just cause, not for plunder.
4. There must be a reasonable hope of success.
5. The war must disciminate between combatants and non-combatants.
6. The warring party must use the minimum amount of lethal force necessary to win (proportionality).

The first four criteria are the jus ad bellum criteria, the criteria for entering the war. The last two criteria, jus in bello, govern one's conduct during the war.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, most debate has focused on the jus ad bellum criteria. Has the failure to find weapons of mass destruction undermined the rationale for going to war?

But a couple of recent articles I've come across focus our attention on the jus in bello criteria. Was the war waged in a just manner? The Associated Press just released its investigation of civilian casualties in the Iraq War. A survey of 60 of Iraq's 124 hospitals confirmed that 3,240 non-combatants died between March 20 and April 20. More than that certainly perished. We don't know how many. Some died in the hospitals that the AP reporters didn't visit. Others died and were buried without being processed at a medical center.

It is sobering that in the second installment of our "war on terrorism," the United States military, funded by American taxpayers, killed more innocent civilians than the 19 hijackers did on September 11, 2001.

Jean Bethke Elshtain has argued (Commonweal, April 25, 2003) that the Just War Theory doesn't demand that states never kill innocent civilians when they wage war, just that they try their best to avoid civilian casualties. Elshtain writes that the use of precision-guided munitions and the willingness of the military to "embed" 600 journalists in combat units demonstrates the military's commitment to meeting criterion #5 in the above list. There's a world of difference, Elshtain and many others would argue, between trying to demolish an office building, and a bomb targeted at a tank going astray and demolishing an office building.

I wonder. At the beginning of the 20th century the military to civilian kill ratio in wars was 9:1. In a given conflict, nine soldiers died for every civilian who died. 100 years later, the ratio has roughly reversed itself. In today's wars, on average, nine civilians die for every one soldier. Robert Higgs writes, "When US forces employ aerial and artillery bombardment--with huge, high explosive bombs, large rockets and shells, including cluster munitions--as their principle technique in waging war, especially in densely inhabited areas, they know with absolute certainty that many innocent people will be killed. To proceed with such bombardment, therefore, is to choose to inflict those deaths."

In his book Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder identifies nearly 20 forms of pacifism. One form that the pacifist might take is that of the person who would support a war if it met the Just War criteria, but is in practice a pacifist because modern war simply can't be waged in a just manner. More Christians ought to consider this position, given the New Testament's teaching on suffering love and the destructive nature of modern war.

I suppose that more could have been done to prevent civilian casualties in Iraq. The military might have decided to dispense with aerial and artillery bombardment altogether and conquered Iraq one soldier at a time. "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" might be a surer way to avoid civilian casualties than lobbing a cruise missile at a tank parked on a Baghdad cul-de-sac, even if the cruise missile is a "precision-guided weapon." But fighting a war like that would vastly inflate the US death toll, and that is unacceptable to both the US military and the American people.

Elshtain is wrong. When it gets down to it, avoiding US military casualties is far more important to everyone involved than preventing the deaths of innocent civilians. As long as we Americans demand wars without body bags, our military will continue to sweep away the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18: 23), and the guilt will be on our heads.

Monday, June 23, 2003

Are wizards Carolina fans or State fans? It's impossible to say for sure, but the Hogwarts curriculum does give us some clues. Harry, Ron and Hermione's course work seems to come straight out of a land grant university's parallel universe. They study animal science (Care of Magical Creatures with Hagrid), chemistry (Potions with Snape), and astronomy (Professor Trelawney's Divination class gives them a thorough grounding in astrology).

Hogwarts does not neglect the humanities entirely. The History of Magic is a required course. Alas, this worthy subject (the one in which I majored at N.C. State) is taught by a professor almost as boring as the history teacher Ben Stein played in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Professor Binns also happens to be a ghost (what better creature to teach history?) Aspiring wizards must also complete many writing assignments, but the writing is more technical than creative. For instance, one might have to turn in two parchments on which spells ought not be mixed together on a particular subject at the same time.

So picture 15 or so young adult muggles in the parking lot of Carter-Finley stadium peering into telescopes. Astronomy lab at NC State, in other words. I'm not saying that these 15 are any more likely to discern a portent of disaster in the heavens than the muggles who attend that little liberal arts insitution 27 miles up highway 54. Nor is it the case that if they looked to the east, they'd see unicorns prancing in the pasture surrounding the vet school. But if Hogwarts ever decides to admit muggles (and today's Supreme Court ruling may force them to), it's clear where Professor Dumbledore ought to recruit.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The weather turned--just in time for our vacation. Sunday, the long, cool, wet spring finally gave way to summer. Sunny, warm and humid. I was a puddle of sweat wrestling the luggage into the car. Ditto here at Oak Island, North Carolina. Ninety degrees today. No wind, except at the seashore. It feels great in the surf. Think I'll go eat lunch and take a nap.

The new Harry Potter book is due out in a couple of weeks. Just now I'm picking up the first one in the series. There are nine-year-olds who've forgotten more about Harry Potter than I'll ever know. I'm humbled.

What can I say about Harry Potter that hasn't already been said? Probably nothing, so I'll simply report my first impressions. It's not politically innocent fiction--no good fantasy story ever is. Harry's evil relatives are mean, materialistic TV watchers. Sound familiar? If it's true that there is one Harry Potter book in print for every four Americans, do we realize that the joke's on us? Now I'm wondering who the "wicked step-sisters" in Cinderella really were.

This text seems important in defining the moral vision of Harry Potter:

Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him. Very strange strangers they were, too. A tiny man in a violet top hat bowed to him once while he was out shopping with Aunt Petunia and Dudley... A wild-looking old woman dressed in all green had waved merrily at him once on a bus. A bald man in a very long purple coat had actually shaken his hand in the street the other day and then walked away without a word.

The very strange (and scorned) among us are actually gifted with extraordinary powers. Imagine: every old fool muttering to himself has a flying broom in the closet at home; every bag lady can turn into a cat, and every picked on kid is a wizard in disguise. Of all us earthen vessels, the cracked ones hold the greatest treasure.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

I'm almost ready to go on vacation. We hate leaving a messy house, so Laura vacuumed and cleaned the bathrooms. I straightened up the garden. Out with the kale, lettuce and peas (and weeds). In with the okra.

A sparkling countertop. A freshly vacuumed carpet, fibers all lying in the same direction. Freshly turned soil with nary a dandelion or stubborn piece of crabgrass. All three are immensely satisfying.

Ethan, of his own volition, offered to help by hoeing around the squash. He's becoming quite the gardener. The other day I took him with me to the nursery. The idea was nothing more than to give Laura a break; plus, I had just weeded a spot next to the wall, under the rose-of-sharon. What it needed was a few impatiens. But Ethan had his own ideas. Some pink petunias caught his eye. He insisted that we buy them. So we added them to the purple impatiens I had selected. We found a good location for them, a sunny, empty patch of dirt next to the corner of the house. He dig the holes and planted the petunias.

That night we said prayers. Ethan prayed for the petunias. "God, please give my flowers lots of sun, and lots of rain, and make the rain good, clean water." Thursday and Friday were sunny, and today's been a washout. Who says that God doesn't answer prayers?

Ethan doesn't know the song, but he does know that "His eye is on the sparrow."

"They haven't dug up any nerve gas canisters because they're too busy digging up bodies," my friend John explained to me. A great retort, I have to admit. (I can always count on John, whose antennae are particularly attuned to liberal hypocrisy and self-righteousness, to snap me back into line whenever I stray). When we lament intelligence failures or outright lies that led up to the war against Iraq, aren't we in fact shedding tears for Saddam Hussein?

Some people can make this argument better than others. If you were on the side of humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, then you can play that card. Tom Friedman is a good example. A liberal who's not reflexively against all Republican wars, Friedman supported the intervention in Kosovo and cautiously supported the war against Iraq, because it gave us an opportunity to bring democracy to a major Arab country.

But if you spent the last decade decrying "nation-building," then the fact that Saddam Hussein was an evil (that all-too-popular adjective) dictator ought to be of no consequence. After all, you spent the last decade pointing out that the US can't be the world's policeman. The world is full of thugs and dictators, you said. We have to be pragmatic, you said, especially when the thugs rule a huge, emerging market, like China. Limit military operations to the defense of vital US interests, you said.

Well, eight weeks after the fall of Baghdad, we still cannot find any weapons of mass destruction. No threat to US vital interests. If you're a foreign policy realist, you should be concerned.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Five Big East schools are suing the University of Miami and Boston College. The suit alleges that these two schools, while publically professing fidelity to the Big East, engaged in secret talks with the ACC about leaving (and destroying) the Big East.

I think I'm going to start suing my parishioners who transfer to other congregations.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

"The truth will be revealed," President Bush assured the troops in Qatar. Both he and Prime Minister Blair express confidence that somewhere, in all that sand, a canister or two of nerve gas is waiting to be unearthed.

Give Blair credit: he's said that locating and destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is paramount. It was THE rationale for war. No WMD, no rationale for war, and no credibility for the Blair government.

But on this side of the Atlantic, Bush's sycophants in the press are trying to lower expectations. Kathleen Parker writes,

We entered Iraq with Oz-like expectations, wide-eyed in search of a yellow brick road lined with happy Iraqis pointing to the brightly colored arrows, "Weapons of Mass Destruction Here!"

Did you hear that? If you're disappointed that they haven't found anything yet, it's your fault. But who raised your expectations to Oz-like levels? Your government did. The Bush administration told you and the world, in no uncertain terms, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and war was the only way to disarm them.

It's the military that's expressed the most astonishment that nothing's turned up. I read of one general who stated that his troops had gone through countless ammunition depots and other Iraqi military facilities, but had found nothing. He confessed to being "surprised." Those silly generals, off to see the WMD wizard.

Parker says, "Pay no mind to that man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to the elephant in the living room. Worry not that you might have been lied to by your government, or that, at the least, your government made a mountain out of a molehill." Parker says that we ought to worry about where those weapons got to.

Ah, I see. War's failure to locate and destroy WMD in Iraq becomes the justification for--more war. War on Syria. War on Iran.

In the car Tuesday, I heard an NPR guest report that the names of wars change over time. For instance, few people referred to the Civil War as such between 1861 and 1865. Northern newspapers called it, "The Rebellion," while southern papers called it "The War of Northern Aggression."

I can already see a new name taking shape for The War on Terror: The Second Hundred Years War.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Why "The Ivy Bush?" It's the name of Samwise's father's pub in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I'm trying hard to become a hobbit. Tolkien reports that hobbits have a passion for three things: good food and drink, a good pipe, and well-tilled earth.

I do enjoy a good meal, especially when it features produce from my garden.

HOWEVER: The garden in our back yard is not planted in especially well-tilled soil. Muddy, sticky, Piedmont, North Carolina red clay. It will take several years of digging compost into it before any self-respecting hobbit would deign to muddy up his hairy feet in it.

HOWEVER TWO: The pipe is right out. What to replace it with? A good book, perhaps. But that makes me less hobbit-like. Hobbits are an insular breed. If I recall correctly, they only read geneaological book--and not just anybody's family; it's gotta be their own. News of events beyond their fair Shire was of little interest, except to keep the children awake at night with tales of dragons, goblins and the like. Books open you up to new, far-away worlds. Not necessarily a good thing in most hobbits' estimation.

Now in this respect most of us would desire to be less Hobbitish. Americans have been escaping the smothering provincialism of the small town for well over a century now. But is the big city, its crime (fueled in part by the very anonymity that makes the city so alluring), its noise, its pollution, its estrangement from nature, an improvement? Is it an entirely good thing that through inventions like the web, we now know more about events in distant countries than events in the lives of our neighbors? (Our neighbor to the right of our lot has lived next to us for three years, and we just recently had him over for dinner for the first time).

Wendell Berry has argued in prose, poety and trenchant non-fiction, that we need more provincialism, not less. We need to take a new interest in and responsibility for, our immediate neighborhood and community. Raise your own food, or buy it from a local farmer's market. Trade with neighborhood merchants. Discover what's growing in the vacant lot down the street from you. Recognize your contingency. You are not a global citizen, you reside in a particular time and place, and you ought to take note of and responsibility for that time and place.

Clearly, I have a long way to go. But this I do have in my favor: I am short of stature and hairy of feet!

While Ariel Sharon does the Nixon Goes to China shuffle, his army is cracking down on human rights activists in the occupied territories. Case in point: the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation in Hebron. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) informed CPT that they could no longer move about in areas formerly controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Nor could they come near Jewish settlements in the IDF areas. This pretty much confines the CPTers to house arrest.

One has to wonder why a group of pacifists running around the Occupied Territories with pen, paper and cameras is so threatening to Israeli security.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Teen Sex. Now there's a topic worth pontificating on. I haven't had a chance to write the word "salacious" since impeachment. This morning's Charlotte Observer announced that some teenage girls are (gasp!) acting like boys, aggressively seeking sexual encounters with no emotional strings attached.

We all knew that, right? These girls today--nothing but a bunch of freak dancin' hoochie mommas. Except that the article went on to note that overall teen sexual behavior is down, from 55% to less than 50%. The number of teen girls with four or more sexual partners is down from 18% to 14%. But those mitigating factors were located on the other side of the jump.

So if teens are having less sex, why write an article trumpeting the few who are giving Sadie Hawkins a bad name? You know the answer, Gentle Reader. Sex sells. Our article in question had seven instances of the phrase "oral sex," (a post-impeachment record?) The banner on the front page advertizing the article featured two hot (like, soap opera hot) kids on the verge of attacking each other's lips. (Although the article assured us, at least seven different times, that the sexual contact in question was not lip-to-lip.) What would the graphics look like for a banner saying, "Teens abstaining from sex--See Living Section"? Some wholesome, home-schooled girl in a gingham dress? Yawn.

Well, the good news is that a lot of teenagers are getting the message--from parents, teachers, houses of worship, the difficult lives of older brothers and sisters--that delaying sexual activity is in their best interest. No matter what MTV and BET are trying to tell them. And no matter what The salacious Charlotte Observer is trying to tell you.

Monday, June 02, 2003

Good evening. This is my first attempt at web publishing, and already I have writer's block. Shall I introduce myself? No, not necessary. It's still a private blog. If you're reading this, it's because I've invited you to this site, right? You know me, right? Obviously I don't know much about this blogging thing.

Why a blog? Ahh--Here's a good place to start. I need to write again. A couple of years ago I was a guest columnist for The Charlotte (NC) Observer. A great opportunity to vent, put my thoughts into writing, disill them down to 750 words, talk about things important to me that few were talking about in the regional media.

But when my year came to an end, so did my writing forum. That wasn't altogether bad. In 2002 I chaired two community non-profit boards. No time to write. All those well-formed arguments, witticisms, snappy ripostes to the gobbleygook spewed out by politicians, preachers --stillborn. Well no more.

I need to write again. It's good for me. And maybe reading my rants will be good for you too!