Friday, July 25, 2014

Jul 22, 2014

Dear President Obama:

As U.S. churches and Christian organizations, we join others worldwide who are calling for an immediate end to the violence--as well as its underlying causes--in Palestine and Israel. As the situation continues to deteriorate, and horrendous death and destruction mount in Gaza, we are called by conscience to say, “Enough.”

Sadly, the scenes that we are witnessing are all too familiar. Over the last decade, Israel has repeatedly carried out similar military operations in Gaza. In each instance, over a period of days or weeks, Israel bombed and invaded Gaza and Palestinian militant groups stepped up their practice of firing rockets into Israel. Each of these operations ended with a cease-fire that temporarily decreased military action but did not end the conflict nor lift the oppressive Israeli blockade institutionalized in Gaza since 2007.

It is our view that these cease-fires failed to last because they did not address deeper injustices. After each new cease-fire Palestinians in Gaza remained subject to the legal, structural, and physical violence inherent in Israel’s occupation and siege on Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment. This includes crushing restrictions and limitations placed on Palestinian movement, access to water and electricity, economic development, and other freedoms in both the West Bank and Gaza.

The Obama administration and Congress have rightly condemned the indiscriminate rockets from Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups into Israel. It is time for the U.S. to condemn the Israeli bombardment of civilian centers and the blockade just as strongly. This latest escalation cannot be divorced from the broader context of the Gaza siege and occupation.

To achieve a lasting peace, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, including the siege of Gaza, must end. The U.S. must, therefore, make ending the occupation and lifting the Gaza siege priorities for our foreign policy in the region.

Violence and military force will never bring peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Military aid to Israel amounting to more than $3 billion per year creates a heavy moral obligation for the U.S. to ensure that this aid is not used in violation of U.S. law and fundamental human rights. A key step in this direction would be for the United States to investigate the use of U.S.-supplied weapons and military equipment during this conflict and to ensure full accountability under existing U.S. law if human rights abuses have been committed using this equipment.

The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will only be resolved when Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is ended, and the inherent equality, worth, and dignity of all Palestinians and Israelis is realized.

We urge you to take action to both stop the current violence and use U.S. influence and diplomatic weight to push for a just peace that will benefit all of the people of the region.

We are grateful for the attention you have given to the search for lasting peace in the Middle East, and we offer you our prayers.

Sincerely,

American Friends Service Committee
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church
Pax Christi International
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Extended Justice Team
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society

cc:
Members of the U.S. House
Members of the U.S. Senate

(Source: http://fcnl.org/issues/middle_east/11_christian_org_stop_violence_gaza_israel/)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and The Problem of Evil


In recent months I have been intently studying The Problem of Evil, and so as I've seen the news reports about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 I've been naturally disposed to view the horrific event through the perspective of theodicy.

To clarify, the word theodicy comes from Greek and literally means "God (theos) Justice (dike)."

 Theodicies are attempts to justify God in the face of the evil we encounter on earth.  Every theistic religion has theodicies, developed by theologians.  We might say that theodicies are keys that attempt to unlock the box of The Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil can be succinctly stated like this:

    1. If God is omnipotent, God could prevent all evil.


    2. If God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent), God would want to prevent all evil.


    3. Evil exists.

The problem, formulated thusly (there are more complex formulations), lies in the question of how these three assertions can coexist.  If God is all-powerful and all-good then God would
have the ability and desire to prevent evil.  Yet our world, throughout history, is filled with evil.  The implication is that either, (A) God is not omnipotent; or (B) God is not omnibenevolent; or
(C) Evil does not exist.  To put it another way, if evil exists then an all-powerful, all-good God does not.

With the unfolding tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 we are witnessing a cornucopia of evil; the fruit of humanity at our worst destroying humanity at our best.  What we know so far is that a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down on July 17th by a surface-to-air missile while passing over a "conflict zone" near the Russian-Ukraine border.  All 298 passengers (including 80 children) and crew were killed.  Many of the passengers were HIV\AIDS researchers and delegates on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.  All the lives lost were precious and meaningful and irreplaceable.

The natural inclination when an event like this occurs is to ask, "How could God let this happen?"  It is a question as old as humankind.  The question might have been even more complicated had there been survivors: "Why did God spare some and not others?"  The survivors and their families might publicly thank God for saving them, leaving the families of the dead to grapple with the meaning of the loss of their loved ones.  This is The Problem of Evil in tangible form.

Christian theologians--from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Barth and beyond--have wrestled with this Problem of Evil.  These men forged a chain of thought that stretches from the early centuries of Christianity, through the Middle Ages, to modern times.  Their theological and philosophical constructs are the infrastructure of what we now tend to think of as Christian doctrine.  Most Christians, I would venture, are unfamiliar with these men's writings, yet have received their thoughts through sermon and song as being intrinsic to Christianity. 


The writings of these theological luminaries are voluminous (Barth once quipped  "I haven't even read everything I wrote.").  Yet it is possible to sift through and distill the essence of their answers to The Problem of Evil.  They are surprisingly consistent, having each built upon the formulations of their predecessor (for a detailed analysis I recommend David Ray Griffin's book God, Power, & Evil).

To summarize in very simplistic terms:

On the assertion that if God is omnipotent God could prevent all evil, these theologians agree that God is indeed omnipotent and that God could indeed prevent all evil.  Augustine wrote that "nothing happens other than what God wills to happen" while Aquinas added that "God's [omniscient] knowledge, will and causation are identical, so that for God to know events is for God to will and cause those events."  Luther likewise surmised that all power belongs to God and that therefore everything that occurs (including the destructive decisions and actions of humans) is predetermined according to God's will.  Calvin wrote, "If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death — all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse ... are governed by the secret counsel of God."  The great 20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth likewise maintained that everything, down to "the slightest movement of a leaf in the wind," occurs because God wills it.

On the assertion that God is omnibenevolent, these five shapers of modern Christian theology likewise agree that there can be no question that God is absolutely and perfectly good.

So then, how do they answer the question of why evil exists?  When you sift and distill to get to the essence of their thinking they all agree--from Augustine in the 4th century to Barth in the 20th--that, to put it bluntly, evil does not really exist.  That is to say, what we perceive as evil is actually willed by God and therefore must be good.  Each of these theologians wrestled with how this could be, using ingenuity and nuance, but the bottom line they all reached is that, based on their presuppositions regarding God's goodness and omnipotence, evil must be an illusion;  what appears to be evil to us is not genuinely evil but only apparently evil--willed and allowed by God for the purpose of bringing about greater good.  


Augustine wrote, "If it were not good that evil things exist, they would certainly not be allowed to exist by the Omnipotent Good."  Aquinas believed that God's creation is perfect and that nothing could take away from the perfection of God's creation.  A beautiful painting has both colorful parts and drab parts (which serve as contrast to the colorful parts); in the same way a perfect world requires evil, which is intentionally placed there by God and, therefore, serves a good purpose.  For Luther, whatever God does is good and right and since nothing happens apart from God's will, evil is somehow good and right in the greater scheme of things.  It is difficult for us to grasp from our limited human perspective how this can be.  As Calvin wrote, "In a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God's will, not even that which is against His will. ... Yet, God's will is therefore not at war with itself, nor does it change, nor does it pretend not to will what he wills.  But even though his will is one and simple in Him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place."  In other words, we are incapable of understanding why God wills things to occur (such as airliners being shot down by missiles) and we ought not to question why or argue with God about it.  We simply don't understand the good purpose of evil in God's larger picture.

An important question to ask about theology (or philosophy) is this:  Does the concept match our lived experience?  Or must we engage in cognitive dissonance and denial of reality in order to embrace a concept?  Is a given concept both doctrinally and empirically consistent?

The problem with the theodicies of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth is that they are built upon certain presuppositions which came to them from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus).  Just the other day I heard on the radio Hank Hanegraaff, the self-designated "Bible Answer Man," describe God as the "unmoved mover" and I wondered if he knew we was quoting Aristotle.  Aquinas purportedly said that "philosophy is the handmaid of theology"--in other words philosophy has been brought into the service of theology.  


Early Christian theologians were Gentile philosophers, educated in Greek thought.  They merged elements of the Jewish theology they received from scripture with elements of the Greek philosophy they knew from their upbringing to form what became Classical Christian doctrine.  From Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus they incorporated the view that God is immutable (unchanging and unaffected) in contradiction to the Hebrew God who reacts to the choices and actions of humans.  Immutability is related to omnipotence since to affect God (such as making God angry or sad or pleased) implies having a modicum of power over God.  Griffin writes, "But when the Aristotelian unchanging God was combined with the Biblical God who knows the world, it became necessary, in order to achieve a self-consistent position, to deny all genuine contingency. ... For if God knows everything that occurs in the world, and knows this infallibly and unchangeably, without any additions to the content of divine knowledge, then the total truth
about reality, including what is future for us temporal beings, must be completely determinate." 

From Plotinus (the father of Neoplatonism and a massive influence on Augustine) the idea was incorporated into Christian theology that evil is necessary in order to form a complete and perfect picture.  Thus evil is ultimately in the service of good and therefore only appears to be evil.

But what if one starts from a philosophical basis other than Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus?  What if one replaces omnipotence (meaning that all power resides in God) with omni-relationality (meaning that God is utterly and intimately connected to every aspect of creation)?  It would mean that God is affected by the choices and actions of beings--as the Hebrew scriptures clearly depict.  But if creatures have the power to affect God--to make God happy or angry or sad--then that implies that God is not omnipotent and immutable in the Greek philosophical sense.  Further, the New Testament clearly states that God is love, and love requires reciprocity.  Jesus is the ultimate Imago Dei, the image of God, and Jesus was utterly relational and quite affected by the choices and actions and situations of those he was in relationship with.  The Gospels repeatedly depict Jesus as encountering persons and being "filled with compassion."  Aristotle's immutable God could not experience compassion or love towards humans.

A relational God is a God that does not coerce but instead persuades.  It is a God that not only allows but requires free-will on the part of creatures.  Love that is unilaterally mandated and
pre-programmed cannot truly be love--it is a sham, like taking a robot for a spouse.  Love requires choice--freedom to not love, to respond, to be vulnerable.  A relational, non-omnipotent God is also a creative God.  It is the God of jazz, constantly interacting and responding and improvising along with creation.  God is a poet and visionary and risk-taker, rather than a puppetmaster.  Can God be perfect, yet not exercise (or even be able to exercise) coercive absolute controlling power?  I believe so, if we think of perfection in terms of relationality rather than power.

But this means that evil is real.  Evil occurs not as a result of God's will but in contradiction to God's will.  Evil is a potential by-product of freedom, and freedom is a requirement for love.  Evil is not necessary, but the possibility of evil is.  We can choose to love God and live according to God's intentions, or we can choose not to.    We are co-creators with God of what our world is and what it becomes.  God is constantly speaking to us, wooing us, luring us, calling us towards goodness and wholeness and beauty and harmony.  The inevitable trajectory of the universe is towards shalom, but we can choose whether or not to participate in that movement or go against it.  God is able to creatively guide and transform us all incrementally as we journey together with God towards what God envisions the universe can be.  It is a dance rather than a script.

So, was the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian missile evil?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was.  Was it God's will?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was not.


Friday, July 18, 2014


"In its early days our Society [The Religious Society of Friends] owed much to a people who called themselves Seekers; they joined us in great numbers and were prominent in the spread of Quakerism. It is a name which must appeal strongly to the scientific temperament. The name has died out, but I think that the spirit of seeking is still the prevailing one in our faith, which for that reason is not embodied in any creed or formula. It is perhaps difficult sufficiently to emphasize Seeking without disparaging its correlative Finding. But I must risk this, for Finding has a clamorous voice that proclaims its own importance; it is definite and assured, something that we can take hold of--that is what we all want, or think we want. Yet how transitory it proves. The finding of one generation will not serve for the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking. It is the same too in science. How easy in a popular lecture to tell of the findings, the new discoveries which will be amended, contradicted, superseded in the next fifty years! How difficult to convey the scientific spirit of seeking which fulfills itself in this tortuous course of progress towards truth! You will understand the true spirit neither of science nor of religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront."

-- Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, British astrophysicist and philosopher


Bonus: Here is the excellent film 'Einstein and Eddington' in its entirety...

Thursday, July 17, 2014


"Like a good parent, God does not seek absolute conformity to God's aim for us, but rather invites creatures to embody the divine vision in their own unique way.  In the dynamic interplay of call and response, our creativity allows God to explore novel possibilities that would not have been relevant apart from our freedom.  However, deviating significantly from God's personal and communal vision for our lives and our relationship with others can become sinful when we consciously choose behaviors that are self-centered and harmful to ourselves and others. ...
[S]inful behavior involves putting our individual, local, or national needs ahead of the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.  Sin may also involve the turning away from God's aim at creative transformation by holding on to outworn traditions.  In seeking to preserve a particular tradition or way of life, we may be standing in the way of the future God intends for us and our communities.  We may be stifling the imaginative and innovative possibilities that are part of what it means to be created in the image of God."

-- Bruce G. Epperly, Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

By how you've probably heard the recording of a conversation between tech writer Ryan Block and an obnoxious Comcast customer service agent in which Ryan and his wife spent 18 minutes trying to cancel their service.  If you haven't heard the recording, here it is:



The recording seems to have struck a chord with the masses and gone viral.  Comcast has responded by expressing their "embarrassment" and, of course, are making their customer service representative the scapegoat.  I'm guessing that the poor guy does not have any kind of union backing him and thus is screwed.   

As blogger John Herman insightfully points out, "If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual. The customer service rep is trapped in an impossible position, in which any cancellation, even one he can't control, will reflect poorly on his performance. By the time news of this lost customer reaches his supervisor, it will be data—it will be the wrong data, and it will likely be factored into a score, or a record, that is either directly or indirectly tied to his compensation or continued employment. It's bad, very bad, for this rep to record a cancellation with no reason, or with a reason the script should theoretically be able to answer (the initial reasons given for canceling were evidently judged, by the script, as invalid). There are only a few boxes he can tick to start with, and even fewer that let him off the hook as a salesman living at the foot of a towering org chart. The rep had no choice but to try his hardest, to not give up, to make it so irritating and seemingly impossible to leave that Block might just give up and stay. The only thing he didn't account for was the possibility the call would be recorded. Now he's an internet sensation. The rep always loses." (Source: http://www.theawl.com/2014/07/sympathy-for-the-comcast-rep-from-hell)

What this interaction (which some are calling "Kafkaesque") brought to my mind is the book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland which chronicles how average working-class middle-aged German men were conscripted into Nazi extermination squads and proceeded to commit mass murder and unspeakable atrocities.  Author Christopher Browning explores the question of how such "ordinary men" could become soul-less minions of evil.  What is it that causes some (many?) people to lose their moral compasses and sell their souls to the powers that be? 

Obviously, this obnoxious (and now unfortunate) Comcast customer service rep is not a brutal murderer, or anything remotely close to that.  But I see the same basic principle at work.  His need for a job required a small sacrifice of principles to the corporate god.  Other than that, he was just a regular guy doing his job.  He was only following orders.

"Process theologians see Jesus as a reflection of God's aim toward creative transformation, calling humankind forward from what is to what can become.  Christ calls us to be open to God now and in the future.  While God's aim at creative transformation is present in all things, seeking beauty, intensity, and community, God is specifically present in Jesus Christ in ways that create a life-transforming field of force among those who hear his message.  The interplay of divine-human call and response resonates in all things, but Jesus Christ's life and mission creates an intensified field fo force that transformed persons in the first century and still transforms persons today.  Jesus Christ 'saves' us, to use traditional language, by opening and empowering us to experience God's vision for our lives in new and lively ways.  Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do not transform God's attitude toward us, involve Jesus paying ransom to demonic forces to liberate us, or require his suffering on our behalf in order to appease God's wrath.  Rather, as the model for what we can be in our time and place, in every century, Jesus Christ calls us to become fully human as we embody in a variety of ways our vocation as God's healing partners in  our world.
...
Although deeply rooted in the Jewish faith of his parents, Jesus nevertheless challenged his tradition to reflect God's all-embracing realm of Shalom, that included oppressed and oppressor, outcast and righteous, and foreigner and neighbor.  Jesus' message and mission, process theologians assert, was not supernaturally-oriented toward life beyond the grave, but a call to embody God's vision for this life and this world.   In this regard, Jesus embodied the prophetic vision of Shalom, God's alternative vision of reality in contrast to the injustices and oppression of the world in which we live.
...
Faithfulness to Jesus' vision challenges us to challenge and transform our own faith tradition as Christians in light of God's call to Shalom in our time."

--Bruce G. Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed


Friday, July 11, 2014

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Professor of Process Theology, on prayer (from In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer)

"God is like water, flowing throughout the universe, like an ocean touching innumerable shores.  The action of those waves is sometimes like a chaotic clash of elements, whose terrible dynamism reshapes what is and brings new things to emergence.  And the action of those waves is also gentle and quiet, nourishing all forms of existent life.  The one form does not contradict the other, nor the varieties in between, for the nature of water is interaction with all elements in its path, taking the nature of each element into account in the resulting action.  God is like water.

And we?  Are we those shores touched by God, showing in the shape of our sands what we have done with the waves of God upon our lives?  And what of our effects in God as our sands find their way into the vastness of that ocean?

All images break down as we push them to their limits.  But the force of this image is to give a sense of the very pervasiveness of God, so that prayer, far from being supernatural or even superstitious, simply follows from the reality that we live in--and within--God's presence.

God creates and works within an interdependent universe, both interdependent within itself and with God.  The universe is not 'finished'; God's creativity cannot be so easily stilled!  Stars are yet born, and race toward unfathomable reaches of space.  Suns yet burst in fireballs of energy, spawning yet new planets and who know what forms of new life.  In our own small portion of this universe, generation yet follows generation, and we turn life into story, and yet again into history.  In such a teeming universe, what is prayer but God's gracious invitation to us to participate in the continuing work of creation?  If prayer constitutes our openness to God's own purposes of in creating communal well-being, then prayer is God's creation with us of this very well-being!  Prayer is central to the how of God's continuing work in our world.

And so our prayers of confession purge us of blockages against our own and others' well-being, opening us to the transforming work and will of God.  Prayers of intercession actively join us with God's will toward the well-being of the greater community and are used by God to whatever degree possible to bring such well-being into existence.  Liturgical prayers express and deepen our communal identities, and can open us to goodwill toward communities not our own.  We may yet with God turn this world into a community of communities, rejoicing in identities that are what they are in and through their differences as well as similarities!  Then we would be woven into a world with a sparkling story, creating together with God a new history of interdependent care for one another and for this wondrous Earth.

And prayers of thanksgiving are like breathing spaces in all the work of prayer and the work that flows from prayer.  Gratitude shapes and forms us, flows through us and from us, mingling with our sorrows as well as with our joys.  Gratitude is the sheer delight of being a conscious participant in the dance of God, the dance with God.

And now, you see, in the end my image of God as water shifts, becoming the image of the dancing God who woos us to partnership through prayer.  But shall we not swim in those waters, dance in that dance, and merge all our metaphors together in gratitude to the One who surpasses them all?  Oh yes!  So let us pray; so be it; amen."

Thursday, July 10, 2014


"In Gaza last night, while Israeli army forces launched military attacks against Gaza, by sea, air and via artillery shells, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children were unable to sleep inside their roof- tinned homes, clinging to their parents, crying, and terrified. The shelling last night was earth shattering, and went through the entirety of the Gaza strip- at least 100 attacks have already taken place. 

In Gaza, we do not have bomb shelters to escape and hide."

--Dr. Mona El-Farra, A View From Gaza