28 August 2007

Jesus and torture

I’ve been meaning to blog on this for some time. Thom Stark makes a “Eucharistic” case regarding how Christians view, or ought to view, torture.

(Okay. Be fair. Stop right here and read Stark’s posting if you’ve not already done.)

It’s a very fine posting, but although I believe that torture may be inconsistent with Christian ethics I don’t agree with his reasoning. I also suspect that Stark and I will disagree upon which acts constitute torture. For example water boarding doesn’t make my list; I suspect it does his own. We will also disagree upon the grounds for objecting to torture.

1. Stark offers three definitions of torture, two from a dictionary and one from the UN:

[1] The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

[2]The deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield information or to make a confession or for any other reason.

[3] The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

If we are going to have a problem with torture from the perspective of a Christian worldview, then we ought to have the term defined by the worldview in which the act is wrong. For example, the Scriptures tell us that murder is wrong, but also tell us that not all killing is murder. In the Law are specified the types of conditions in which one is authorized to take human life, or to use deadly force; murder is killing which occurs outside of those prescribed bounds. We get both a prohibition and a definition. (We also know that not all intentional killing of non-combatants [e.g., women and children, even cattle] is considered murder.)

Do the Scriptures offer us a definition of torture? I don’t think they do. Let’s say they don’t. One could argue that we ought to accept the current definition given, let’s be honest, by the world. But why accept the contemporary definition? The contemporary spirit of the age offers a definition of “tolerance” which I cannot accept. That definition has it that I must pretend to agree the other guy is right when I think he’s wrong. And if I won’t make this pretense then I’m intolerant. If I do nothing more than say I think homosexual behavior is immoral then I’m intolerant, even if I do nothing else, even if I let him alone in his homosexual acts. Just thinking it’s immoral makes me intolerant. I reject that definition of “tolerance” because it isn’t tolerance; it’s agreement. And it is nonsense to talk about “tolerating” what you agree with.

So I see no reason to accept either the dictionary or the UN definitions of torture in a discussion of whether torture is inconsistent with Christian ethics. The OT law requires stoning people to death for certain crimes. The UN definition could be interpreted, without absurdity, to include something which God commanded under the Mosaic covenant.

If we are looking for a proscription of some act, then the source of the proscription must also be the source of the definition of the proscribed act. What the law prohibits, it must also define.

2. Having accepted the above definitions of torture, Stark says that people who are the followers of one who was tortured cannot support torture. Now there he might really be on to something and I think we’d have to accept that he’s right, except for the fact that he isn’t. Not to be unnecessarily contrary, but our Lord wasn’t tortured; he was punished for a crime (albeit one he didn’t commit). There may be a fine distinction between torture and punishment; but there is a distinction nonetheless.

Now, some might point us in the direction of the UN’s definition of torture, which includes “punishing [someone] for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed.” Clearly, if we accept this definition of torture, then Jesus was tortured. But then so is anyone and every who is punished for a crime he commits. I guess, in addition to putting an end to the death penalty, we need to shut down our prison systems, lest we be charged with torture by punishment.

No. I think we’ll have to accept a distinction between torture and punishment. And this is true even if torture and punishment are inflicted in the same way. In other words, whipping someone 40 times with a cat o’ nine tails could be torture or it could be punishment. I suspect that someone would argue that insofar as use of a cat o’ nine tails is involved it’s torture no matter what. But that would be like saying that all sex is adultery – or rape. There are conditions; and conditions can render the same act right or wrong depending upon those conditions. The condition of being married renders sexual intercourse right; the condition of being unmarried renders sexual intercourse wrong. (I’m speaking of adultery only from a Christian point of view.)

Likewise it’s possible that conditions can render use of a cat o’ nine tails right (as in punishment) or wrong (as in torture). But the simple act of whipping is not of itself torture. And neither is the simple act of nailing to a cross. Jesus was punished, not tortured. The most that we could say is that we who follow a man punished for a crime he didn’t commit should see to it that we do not do the same. But if there is a reason for being opposed to torture I don’t think that the suffering of Christ is that reason.

In addition to the fact that Jesus wasn’t tortured there is something about the OT sacrificial system which makes things problematic. Stark wants to link opposition to torture to the fact that Jesus was tortured. The Christian understanding of the OT sacrificial system is that the system pre-figured (i.e., is a type of) the sacrifice of himself (i.e., the archetype) that Messiah would one day offer. One would think, given the slaughter (torture) of the innocent animals for the sins of guilty humans, that the Israelites (or, more importantly, perhaps, their God) would have some scruples about torture. But this seems not to be the case.

3. Having said all that, I do have objections to torture. But any objections I have to torture are rooted in the fact that it amounts to the conduct of war against unarmed opponents, even if those opponents were armed when they were taken prisoner. (Of course, since I make a distinction between soldiers and terrorists, whose hallmark is the conduct of war against unarmed opponents, it’s hard to care very much.) Whereas Stark and others would like to ground Christian ethics, at least in part, in the Eucharist, I think it is better grounded in the Law. The attempt to ground Christian ethics in the Eucharist strikes me as an attempt to derive “ought” from “is”. I don’t think that can be done.

And when it comes to the Law, the thing I think is important to bear in mind is that despite its apparent harshness, the Law is actually intended to protect the innocent – even if that means occasionally the guilty go unpunished. The rules of evidence are very tough. They don’t look that way, of course – two or three witnesses (see Numbers 35.30; Deuteronomy 17.6). But even at Jesus’ kangaroo trial, it was not possible to get a conviction on the testimony of two or three witnesses (see Matthew 26.59, 60). A confession finally had to be wrestled from him (id at 63 - 65).

To inflict pain upon those who have not been proven guilty of anything, even for the sake of acquiring information which can save lives is something to which I would not easily agree. Of course, if the pain is inflicted as a consequence of being guilty of something, then it’s punishment, not torture. (And there is a distinction between the two.) But there is another important difference here. The question is whether, since terrorists claim to be waging war, they can properly be afforded protections provided to the accused. Moreover, since they refuse to conduct their war in accordance with the laws and conventions of warfare – these are infidel conventions, after all – it is difficult to assign to them the protections afforded to “lawful” combatants. So despite my own qualms about torture I can’t find the ethical or legal grounds for opposing torture. Application of ethical and legal norms requires categorization; and terrorists belong, at best, in some penumbral category, making the application of the laws and conventions of warfare more than a little difficult. Those laws and conventions were conceived when warfare was “conventional”. (Many years ago, in this blog, I suggested that terrorists were sui generis, neither “criminals” nor “soldiers”. As such they may require hybrid and even ad hoc means of dealing with.) But if Stark would like to assert that we should err on the side of neither torturing nor abusing, as at Abu Ghraib, I’ll stipulate.

The problem isn’t that some people condone torture and others do not. For the most part, it’s that torture is defined differently and some group thinks its definition ought to carry the day. (Kind of like the way some people think their definition of marriage ought to be normative for all Americans.) Let’s say the definition of torture was other than those Stark offers us. Let’s say that grabbing someone by the ear and tweaking it was considered torture. Let’s say also that on 10 September 2001 an intelligence operative got wind that something “big” was going to happen next day and that he also got some information on who one of the principals in the “big” act was going to be. Our intelligence operative finds this principal, grabs him by the ear, tweaks, and says, “Pardon me, but would you happen to have any knowledge about ‘something big’ happening tomorrow?” The informant, who is surely suffering from having his ear tweaked, tells the operative all about it, and the horror of 11 September 2001 is averted. Wouldn’t it be worth tweaking someone’s ear to save three thousand people? One gets the idea from Stark that three thousand people can die as long as no one’s ear is tweaked, and all because ear tweaking is covered by the UN’s definition of torture. (And we’re better people than terrorists, even if it kills some of us.) But ear tweaking isn’t considered torture by everyone, so one further gets the idea that for Stark there are people who are the right people, the correct people; and these correct people get to define torture. Like Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” who ultimately decides what everyone wears, these correct people decide for the rest of us what torture is. And if they say ear tweaking counts, why then it counts. And we dare not tweak any ears in order to prevent mass casualties.

Of course, perhaps even Stark would acknowledge that ear-tweaking isn’t torture. But if the person who has his ear tweaked howls and screams as if a toothpick has been inserted in his urethra, then nothing prevents us from acknowledging ear-tweaking as torture.

This is the problem with the aforementioned definitions of torture. Those definitions contain words that make whatever is to constitute torture either over-broad or relative: “excruciating pain”; “physical or mental suffering”; “severe pain or suffering”. Indeed, Stark, in addition to water boarding (which I can understand somewhat), also wants to include sleep deprivation and exposure to “extreme” cold on his list of tortuous acts. Sorry. Those don’t make my list just as such. I’ve been sleep deprived; and I’ve been exposed to extreme cold. (The temperature was sub-freezing and the exposure was long enough for frost bite to begin setting in [and put a damper on my military career plans], so maybe that could count as torture. Perhaps I should sue someone.) I have also almost drowned – for real, not water-boarding. (Always be careful going over waterfalls. That undertow can be a killer.) Pain, whether physical or mental, is experienced differently by different people.

The average American’s tolerance for pain or discomfort is apparently pretty low. Want to “torture” a teenager? Deprive him of his music and video games for a week. Want a visit from social services? Put a teenager who complains daily about the meals he’s fed on bread and water for three days. Social services will be on your door step in day or two; and they probably won’t knock before coming in to save the poor dear from his “abusive” parents. (Note: I’m not minimizing real torture. I’m pointing out the importance of tolerance levels when it comes to discomfort. Also note: I never put my child on bread and water rations during the teen years. I promised to, and would have, but it proved unnecessary – probably because she knew darn well I’d really do it. And, had I done, I’d have put myself on the same diet.) For crying out loud, we have college students complaining about the loss of tax-payer subsidized birth control. See? Low tolerance for discomfort, even the discomfort of having to go without sexual intercourse because one cannot afford it. (Perhaps Stark should add “promiscuity” to his characterization of our “way of life”.)

To make my list of torture we’d have to be talking about long-lasting (i.e., several months) or permanent physical damage, as well as insertion of objects into the body (so that will rule out the toothpick in the urethra, I’m happy to say). Not that the terrorists feel themselves obligated not to torture. But we’re better people, even if it kills us. But, of course, I’m not one of the correct people who gets to decide this, so it doesn’t matter how I define torture.

The greatest problem I have with “aggressive” interrogation techniques is precisely the aforementioned penumbral status of terrorists; and the conduct of a “war” against them. I said above that the conduct of a war against terrorists might be a hybrid approach, having elements of conventional (and unconventional) warfare and elements of law enforcement. Our hybrid approach should combine the protective aspects of our legal system and our desire, when it comes to war, to protect non-combatants as well as we can from harm.

It is inevitable that some people apprehended during this “war” will have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if they are apprehended on the “battlefield”. The possibility of “aggressively” interrogating people under these circumstances ought to be distasteful. Applying the principle in Christian ethics – and American law – that the accused are not to be mistreated, abused, tortured, or punished without trial, we ought to be wary of allowing them to be “aggressively” interrogated. Also in the conduct of this war, information being as critical as it is, some of these people who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time will be detained for long – even unreasonably long – periods of time. On the off chance that they have no terrorist connections everything ought to be done to make the detainment as short and as comfortable as possible. Finally, it should not be the determination of those who apprehend or those who will interrogate detainees that they have been detained properly, or that they will be interrogated at all, much less “aggressively”.

As long as we are trying to apply Christian ethical principles regarding treatment of the accused and the conduct of war, perhaps there should be a grand-jury type panel to review the evidence against the detainees, an inquest. It would be nice to say this panel should be of civilians, consistent with the American principle of military under civilian control. Of course, some of the evidence against detainees, will have come from intelligence sources which may be compromised by sharing with such a panel. That’s problematic, of course. But if we don’t hand people over for trial on the say-so of a prosecutor but on that of a grand jury, it stands to reason that detainees not be handed over for “aggressive” interrogation on the mere say-so of those who apprehended them or of those of wish to conduct interrogations.


One thing that concerned me about Stark’s posting was his linking our putative practice of torture with our fully-matured capitalist democracy. About capitalism and our present malaise, he says:
[A]all of this …means we are living in dark days. We live in a capitalist democracy approaching boiling point—capitalism all grown up. Of course, the “democracy” in the capitalist democracy is an oligarchy of transnational corporations, virtual nation-states in their own right. United States policy, domestic and foreign, is determined not “by the people for the people” but by global market trends, oil, munitions and fast food. Accordingly, we are a society of virtual killers (television, PlayStations), killers (high-schoolers and the LAPD), and credit consumers, who have been formed by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Hiroshima to inhabit the “real world” where expediency always trumps truth. In such a society the question, “Is torture necessarily immoral?” is no longer intelligible. The question assumes that “morality” is something that can be determined apart from considerations of national interest (oil, munitions and fast food = security). If it’s expedient for us to torture some sandnigger, if it prevents having our way of life (obesity, debt, poverty, warfare, torture) taken away from us, the very question is offensive. It’s immoral not to torture! A bleeding heart liberal is no better than a terrorist when our children’s lives are at stake. So if we have to kill a few Muslim kids to save our children, well, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make, for freedom.

One gets the idea that were it not for our adult capitalist democracy we wouldn’t be in Iraq, and we wouldn’t be torturing people. (Because, as we all know, torture has not existed until now, except for when Jesus was executed, which of course only happened because Rome’s own capitalist democracy was itself fully-matured.) Stark also comes close, I think, to claiming that countries which are not perfect have no business defending themselves, or their “way of life”.

Moving on. Note his claim that our foreign policy is “determined not ‘by the people for the people’ but by global market trends, oil, munitions and fast food” as if none of these things is a function of “the people” making economic decisions on their own. Global markets (and their associated trends) don’t exist because there’s a demand for products and services available through those markets. No, these markets are summarily forced upon us by these virtual-nation-state transnational corporations. The “people” are dupes of the pretended patriots running U.S. corporations.

To say that something is good for the American economy is to say only that it is good for transnational corporations. It’s not that we prefer petroleum products to power our engines because internal combustion engines are (albeit arguably) more powerful and efficient than other alternatives, at least for now. No, we are a people “who have been formed by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Hiroshima” to make these decisions. We, but not Stark and his fellow travelers. They are not dupes. They have freed themselves from the matrix; they are not afflicted with the same “imperial pathology” that afflicts the rest of us – the same pathology which gripped Pontius Pilate. (And here I have been thinking that Pontius Pilate – Mister What-is-truth? – was simply his era’s version of a post-modernist!)

To disagree with Stark about the moral permissibility of torture (or even “aggressive” interrogation) is not to have a different, but equally principled, position – even if wrong, or even just a different definition of torture. To disagree with Stark means “the question, ‘Is torture necessarily immoral?’ is [not]…intelligible” to you. You aren’t mistaken on the issue, reasoning from premises which Stark just rejects. Your moral sense is calloused, having been formed and shaped by transnational corporations. You don’t simply disagree with him on the question; you don’t even get the question. For you, “‘morality’ is [not] something that can be determined apart from considerations of national interest.” Morality –for you – is defined by national interest; the ends justify the means used in pursuit of those ends. For you to say (if you were to say) that torture is morally permissible is just your way of saying it’s politically expedient, justified by your desire to preserve not your and your neighbors’ physical lives but our national “way of life”, which Stark defines as “obesity, debt, poverty, warfare, torture”. Those are the things you really want to preserve, whether you know it or not. Your own protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

I don't fault -- I can't -- Stark his position on torture. Although I disagree with the reasoning that takes him there, I think he's right: Christians ought not condone torture. What I find objectionable is the basis dismissal of those who would(?) condone torture. His dismissal of any argument they might make is not grounded in any such arguments. The basis for his dismissal is certain things he finds objectionable about his opponents, not their arguments. Apparently, his opponents are either evil (e.g., the corporate masters) or stupid (e.g., the dupes who have been "formed" by these evil corporate masters).
26 August 2007

Knowing by faith -- Wisdom Sunday

A topic in epistemology which has long interested me is testimony, the question of whether – and how – we can know things by having been told them by another. Aurelius Augustinus – St. Augustine to you and me – has an opinion.

The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all. I thought that the Church was entirely honest in this and far less pretentious than [others], who laughed at people who took things on faith…. [F]or I began to realize that I believed countless things which I had never seen of which had taken place when I was not there to see – so many events in the history of the world, so many facts about places and towns which I had never seen, and so much that I believed on the word of friends or doctors or various other people. Unless we took these things on trust, we should accomplish absolutely nothing in this life. Most of all it came home to me how firm and unshakeable was the faith which told me who my parents were, because I could never have known this unless I believed what I was told. (Confessions, Book VI, 5).

Sure. We can know things by testimony, which involves faith. But only if the witnesses is trustworthy. But how can we know that?

Note that one thing that concerns Augustine is the fact that an insistence on proof would make Christianity a religion unaccessible to the unintelligent, those who could not understand the proof: children, the uneducated, the developmentally disabled and so forth.
23 August 2007
One thing – but certainly not the only thing – that liberals are good at is flattering themselves. They have a visceral need to believe they are better than conservatives on every level. They are more tolerant, more intelligent, more educated, more moral than conservatives, who are intolerant, unintelligent, uneducated and immoral. And anything they can grasp to justify this belief is a welcome sight.

If a poll is to be believed liberals read more books than conservatives – by a few books. This emboldens Pat Shroeder to assert that conservatives prefer slogans to books.

“The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple slogans: ‘No, don't raise my taxes, no new taxes,’” Pat Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers, said in a recent interview. “It's pretty hard to write a book saying, 'No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes' on every page.”

Apparently, if a book hasn’t been written by a non-liberal, Schroeder hasn’t heard of it – much less read it. I for one have yet to see the book written by a non-liberal which has nothing but “No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes” on every page.

Right. It’s not at all as if liberals have slogans. Surely it’s just as difficult to write a book saying, “No tax breaks for the rich, no tax breaks for the rich, no tax breaks for the rich” on every page. Or: “No war for oil”, “Bush lied; people died”, “Culture of corruption”, “Save the planet”, “Tax the oil companies”.

I’m really not bothered by the possibility that a liberal might read more books per year than I do.

First, I don’t read books; I study them, savoring them like good scotch accompanied by a fine Honduran cigar. I love books the way some people love food. Reading is one of two things a man should never rush. (Women never rush the other thing.)

Second, I tend to re-read books I’ve already read. If polled, I probably would not include books I read for a second, third or fourth time.

Third, the books I read are voluminous. For example, I’m presently re-reading/studying the entire Platonic corpus collected in a single volume, among other books. When I’m done, and assuming I can count books I’ve read previously, how many books can I say I’ve read? Thirty-eight? Or one? What about my two-volume Aristotle? How many books there?

Fourth, I have no idea how many books I’m reading right now (but they’re in a stack in my study, so I could always count them up), much less how many I read last year. I didn’t know there was a contest on.

Finally, the liberals I know don’t have as many books as I do; and I know they don’t read more than I do. They don’t need to: they already know it all.

Leave it to the Pat Schroeders of the world to believe there’s something to it simply to have read more books than another. What if one of my liberal relatives read fifty-six books last year, and I read only one? What would that mean if the fifty-six books were the original Nancy Drew mysteries and the single book I read last year was the aforementioned complete works of Plato, or, heck, even just The Republic? Or Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (which I’ve already read more times than I can recall!)?

I’ve never thought to keep even a ballpark figure of the number of books I’ve read in any period of time, much less a year. I’ve never thought it mattered. Hmmmm. I still don’t. What matters is not how many books, but rather which books. Most of my relatives are liberals. I’ve noted what books they read. I’m neither impressed nor threatened by the fact that they may read more books in a year than I do.

Hey. Not to be out-done by Pat Schroeder, let me put a spin on the poll: Perhaps liberals read so much more because they can’t think for themselves.

I wonder if the pollsters asked about the size of the books read. Maybe liberals read shorter books. I don’t know. I’m just asking.

Liberals never seem to want for something to use to disparage and dismiss their opponents. Their opponents are never just wrong. Their opponents are wrong due to some deficiency, in intelligence, morality, or education.

What’s at stake for Democrats/Liberals in the illegal immigration issue

Liberals know they're losing the demographic war. Christians have lots of children and adopt lots of children; liberals abort children and encourage the gay lifestyle in anyone with a flair for color.

They can't keep up.

Population expert Nick Eberstadt recently speculated in The Washington Post that a principal reason for America's high fertility rate compared to Europe's is its religiosity.

Well, that leaves liberals out.

The Democratic Party is in the fight of its life against a conservative demographic trend. Its only hope is to gerrymander America to make the poorest half of Mexico a state. Only a massive influx of criminals, wards of the state and rioters can save them. – Ann Coulter

It’s surely a possibility.
19 August 2007

Christianity And... --Wisdom Sunday

This week’s installment comes from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (Letter XXV). Written in the person of a demon named Screwtape to his dear nephew, these letters exhibit much of Lewis’ thinking on spiritual growth and maturity.

My dear Wormwood,

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them is the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity of the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity of Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.


The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding.” Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

Exegetical note: As Lewis uses the term here, “Liberalism” is not synonymous with “Leftism”; it is probably closer in meaning to what we would think of as Libertarianism with a conservative streak, or maybe conservatism with a libertarian streak.
12 August 2007

Giving scientific authority to moral judgment – Wisdom Sunday

Another bit of wisdom from Dr. Peck. This time from his book on human evil, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Touchstone, 1985). In this passage Dr. Peck writes on the subject of “cloaking moral judgment in scientific authority.”

[Cloaking moral judgment in scientific authority] is a major pitfall…because we ascribe to science much more authority than it deserves. We do so for two reasons. One is that very few of us understand the limitations of science. The other is that we are too dependent upon authority in general.

When our children were infants we were blessed by the very best of pediatricians, a kind and dedicated gently man of great erudition. When we visited him a month after the birth of our oldest child, he instructed us to start feeding her solid goods almost immediately, because such supplementation was needed for babies being breast-fed. A year later, when we visited him a month after the birth of our second daughter, he directed us to delay feeding this one solid good as long as possible so as not to deprive her of the extraordinary nutrition in breast milk. The state of the “science” had changed! When I was in medical school we were taught that the essential treatment for diverticulosis was a low-roughage diet. Now medical students are taught that the essential treatment is a high-roughage diet.


What is worrisome about this is the possibility that scientists—specifically psychologists—will make public pronouncements on the evil of certain personages or events. We scientists, unfortunately, are little more immune than anyone else to jumping to unsound conclusions. Many psychiatrists who had never even met the man labeled Barry Goldwater…"psychologically unfit" to be President. In the USSR, psychiatrists systematically abuse their profession by labeling political dissidents “mentally ill”, thereby serving the interests of the state rather than the interests of truth and healing.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the public is actually eager to be guided by the pronouncements of scientists. [T]he majority would rather follow than lead. We are content…to let our authorities do our thinking for us. There is a…tendency to make of our scientists “philosopher kings”, whom we allow to guide us through intellectual labyrinths, when they are often just as lost as the rest of us.

In our intellectual laziness we forget that scientific thought is almost as faddish as taste. Since the current opinion of the scientific establishment is only the latest and never the last word, we must for our safety as a public bear the responsibility of being skeptical of our scientists and their pronouncements. In others words, we should never relinquish our individual leadership. Demanding though it may be, we should all attempt to be scientists at least to the degree that we make our own judgments on issues of good and evil. Although issues of good and evil are too important to exclude from scientific examination, they are also too important to leave entirely to the scientists.

Fortunately, in our culture, scientists love to argue with one another. I shudder to think of a time and place in which there is a “scientific” gospel on the nature of good and evil that is not subject to debate. I use “scientific” in quotes [here] because debate is the cornerstone of genuine science, and a science without debate and exuberant skepticism is not a science at all. The best safeguard we have against the misuse of the concept of evil by scientists is to ensure that science remains scientific and grounded in a democratic culture in which open debate is encouraged (257-58)
An observation: It is interesting to note, in light of Dr. Peck’s warning, how often debates on certain subjects are declared to be at an end. I shudder to think of a time and place in which there is a “scientific” gospel on any issue that is not subject to debate. Of course, when one thinks about it, one understands that we do live in such a time and in such a place.

The world can do as they will. For Christians only Jesus is Lord; only He has unquestioned authority. All others, even scientists, get questioned.
09 August 2007

The Right’s 300

Watching “The 300” this past weekend reminded me of some of the negative reviews it received from those who were bent on seeing it as pro-Bush/Republican/War-on-Terror and anti-Persian/Arab/al-Qaeda.

Here’s one description (posted by “Reasoninrevolt”):

… “The 300” perfectly intersects with the world-view of the Bush-loyal wing of the Republican party and their…allies across the world.

In "The 300" we learn of a king (Leonidas, aka G W Bush) who has identified that Sparta (aka USA) must go to war with Persia (aka Persia/Iran) in order to preserve the liberty of the freemen of Sparta (aka largest slave-holding city of Greece at the time). He knows this because the big black man who came to ask him to surrender to Persia insulted his very white wife (I guess, he didn't say anything to her that a typical Republican traditionalist would not have, but he was black after all).

Unfortunately, the corrupt Senate (elected officials versus hereditary king) won't send the army to fight. So the king must go on his own, with his loyal posse of 300 soldiers, not nearly enough to fight off the 1 million Persians! Gosh darned pesky elected officials!

Leonidas' wife...waves him off in a field of golden grain (slaves not show, of course) as he and his 300 go to face Al-Qaeda, er that is, the Persians.

Leo is able to kick butt and kill may an Arab in gruesome form. Xerxes, the king of the Persians, turns out to be an eight foot tall drag queen, who offers Leo to come (literally and figuratively?) to his side by kneeling before him. Leo is no fag though, and he rebuffs Xerk.

Xerk sends wave after wave of blacks, gays, retards and Arabs to attack Leo. But Leo and his men are too white and too hetro to be overcome.

Notice what “Reasoninrevolt” has to do to the plot in order to make out his case. Leonidas has not decided that Sparta must be defended against the Persian (not Arab) Empire simply because the Persian army is coming. No, it’s because the Persian emissary, who is bringing an absolutely reasonable request (i.e., to “ask” for Sparta’s surrender) is a “big black man” who insults Gorgo, Leonidas’s “very white wife”. I for one felt really stupid upon learning that, according to Frank Miller, the cause for war was not that the Persians were invading with the intention to conquer all Greece but that a black man insulted a white woman. (Incidentally, we know Persia was coming to conquer Greece because in the film, Xerxes offers to make Leonidas master of all Greece.) Finally, there is this inconvenient fact: Persia was already in Greece; the invasion didn’t come after Leonidas killed “a big black man” who insulted his (white) wife.

Imagine how little evidence there might be for Reasoninrevolt’s case if only a white man had been cast in the role of the Persian emissary. (But then, we’d have been treated to cries of “Foul!” because the Persian empire really wasn’t populated by white people.)

One has to note also, how this reviewer must ignore both a key detail in the movie and a key detail of the contemporary scene in order to make a connection to the President. According to him the movie reveals that it is the fault of a “corrupt senate” that all Sparta does not go to war, requiring Leonidas to go into battle with only 300 soldiers. In fact, in the movie a religious holiday – observed in accordance with Spartan law – is what concerned the senate. This fact required that Leonidas climb a mountain to seek the will of the gods via consultation with the ephors (whom Dilios, narrating the story, refers to at least twice as “inbred swine”). According to the movie it is the council of the ephors – and only one senator – who are corrupt. The key detail of the contemporary scene is that the United States’ military machine is more comparable to that of Persia, not to 300 Spartans. I believe Leonidas would have preferred the position President Bush is in! There is also the fact that, unlike the Spartan senate, the Congress authorized the President to use military force in Iraq. (Whether he has used that force wisely is another matter.)

(On the subject of the ephors we should note that Miller’s portrayal of them in the movie is a departure from the historical record. The ephors were a council which existed to ensure obedience to the Lycurgan law, if anything more of a Supreme/Constitutional Court than a council of pedophilic priests with a fondness for teenage girls! One wonders why “Reasoninrevolt” did not see “The 300” as an anti-religion movie, with the “thousand nations of the Persian Empire” representing the religious hordes of all the (irrational) religions of the world (i.e., “the thousand nations”), led by none other than James Dobson. And the Greeks, under Spartan leadership, leading the revolt of reason, democracy, and religious skepticism against mysticism and tyranny led by Christopher Hitchens.)

“Reasoninrevolt” also objects to the films depiction of Xerxes as “an eight foot tall drag queen”. Drag queen?


is a drag queen?

I thought this…

was a drag queen.

Enough said about that, I think.

Again, “Reasoninrevolt” ignores both history and the film in treating us to this gem of wisdom: “Xerk sends wave after wave of blacks, gays, retards and Arabs to attack Leo. But Leo and his men are too white and too hetro to be overcome.” One would not know that it is a simple historical-fact condition that after a Greek traitor named Ephialtes helped the Persians encircle the Greek forces at Thermopylae, Leonidas dismissed all but his Spartans and a 700-strong contingent of Thespians and 900 helots (i.e., Spartan “serfs”) and that the losses of the Persians through the entire campaign at Thermopylae were disproportionately larger than that of the Greeks. And I cannot recall that Herodotus attributed this to the sexual orientation or skin color of the Greeks. Also, given that the film depicts Leonidas and his Spartan-led contingent being thoroughly defeated one just has to wonder how “Reasoninrevolt” can claim that the film informs us that Leonidas and his men are too white and hetero to be defeated. The film tells us what we know from history: the strength of the Spartans was the phalanx, not their skin color or sexual orientation. There is in the film a conversation between Leonidas and Ephialtes, during the course of which Leonidas attributes the strength of the Spartans not to skin color or sexual orientation but to the phalanx, especially the shield which is used by each Spartan to protect the man next to him from neck to thigh. (Besides, the sexual practices of the Spartan males is the subject of some disagreement among historians.)

This review at DailyKos was better. It had the merit of being the author’s speculation of how the movie would be viewed by right-wingers, as opposed to the out-right assertion that the movie was a bit of propaganda.

Clearly, I think “Reasoninrevolt” and the DailyKos reviewer are mistaken about how the right view the movie. To the extent that any of us on the right took away anything from the movie with any contemporary significance it was, at least for some of us, this: A smaller, highly-trained and well-motivated professional force can do a great deal of damage to a larger force, if that larger force relies upon nothing else for its success than its numbers. In other words, don’t get cocky just because your army’s bigger. The battle is not necessarily to the strong (see Ecclesiastes 9.11).
06 August 2007

Blame first; ask appropriate questions later--if ever

Word on the street has it that the 500 billion we’re spending on Iraq just happens to be the amount it will take to fix our infrastructure (bridges, highways, pipelines) – which Katie Couric informs us is falling apart.

Of course, this talk of the war and Iraq with the link to our “infrastructure” is an understandable attempt to pass the buck along to the administration. And it will probably work. After all, it is the interstate highway system; so it must be owned and maintained by the fed, right?

But the dirty little secret is this: while states do receive considerable federal funding for the Interstate Highway System, the highways are built, owned, and maintained by the states in which they are located. That would be the reason why last year’s bridge inspection report was submitted to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and not the federal DOT. You wouldn’t know that, the way some people carry on.

With respect to any blame for the federal government, there are at least four questions that really needed answered before anyone pointed a finger at anyone outside the State of Minnesota: (1) Has the administration cut the budget of the federal DOT, and if so has this cut resulted in a diminution of federal funding for interstate highway maintenance such that but for this diminution the bridge repairs would have been made (per last year’s bridge report)? (2) If the DOT’s budget has not been cut, then has federal funding for interstate highway maintenance been cut nonetheless, such that – again – but for this cut the aforementioned bridge repairs would have been made? (3) Did the State of Minnesota, pursuant to its responsibility to maintain it’s interstate highways, and assuming lack of state funds, petition the federal government for the funds necessary to conduct the require bridge repairs, and if so was the State turned down by the fed? (4) If the answer to (3) is yes then why did the fed turn down the State of Minnesota, lack of funds due to the war in Iraq?

Before someone is accused of a crime the accuser should ascertain just what law has been broken. Laying the blame for "our" infrastucture problems at the feet of the present administration, while understandable, assumes something that is not the case, which is that the federal government has as one of its responsibilities the care and maintence of highways and bridges.

A final word about “our” infrastructure: it really isn’t our infrastructure; it’s our states’ infrastructures. This pretense that the federal government has powers it doesn't have is more dangerous than the worst provisions of the Patriot Act, and the broad powers exercised in the prosecution of the "War of Drugs".
05 August 2007

Adapt and overcome – Wisdom Sunday

This week's wisdom comes to us from the late M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist, writer and troubled soul.

Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. One we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. The voice their belief, noisily, or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?


What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or rear or anxiety or anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings, often very uncomfortable, often as painful as any find of physical pain, sometimes equaling the very worst kind of physical pain. Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender in us all that we call them problems And since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy. – M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, pp. 15, 16.

When Dr. Peck wrote The Road Less Traveled he was not a Christian. But I share his words here because it was the research for this book that led him to faith in Jesus Christ. (After his conversion Dr. Peck wrote what I believe is a fine little book on human evil called People of the Lie.)

I also share this because Dr. Peck is right. Once we truly accept it that life is difficult, in a lot of ways, it really does cease to be difficult!

I share this also because one group which does a lot of moaning in this country is the group which ought to know why life is difficult. And because they know, they really ought to be the quietest when it comes to life’s difficulties; I mean Christians of course. Christians of all people should expect life to be difficult -- and surprised when it isn't. Why?

Because there once was a tree in the middle of a garden. Sadly, one day a bit of the fruit of that tree was desired, and plucked and eaten. Life has been difficult ever since, a struggling garden, by the sweat of a brow, always on the verge of death and always filled with thistles and thorns needing removed.

But there’s another tree, a tree of life, watered and nourished with the blood of a spotless and blemish-free Lamb.

For now, Christians, life is difficult. Stop your bitching and deal with it. If you won't, then why should anyone else?
01 August 2007

Prepare for glory!!!

I bought the deluxe DVD yesterday.
Yes, I know it's not exactly accurate historically. But it's an action movie I want. When I want history I read books. Generally, I don't really like historical fiction.



About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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