Monday, March 28, 2011

Whatever Happened to Redemption?

S & H Green Stamps or Blue Chip Stamps, anyone old enough to have lived it, will remember those days.  Receive so many stamps for your purchases in participating stores, collect and paste them in a booklet provided just for that purpose, add them up, and Walla!  You’re ready to redeem.  Take them to your local S & H or Blue Chip redemption store and exchange these stamps for actual goods: toasters, toys, games, lamps, children’s books, and so-on and so forth.  Worthless anywhere else, useless for any other purpose, you could go to a redemption outlet and use these stamps to redeem any item on display or in their catalog, providing you had the required amount of stamps on hand.  That of course was the catch.  The most valued redeemable items required many hundreds, even thousands of stamps for the exchange.  One had to do a lot of stamp collecting in order to redeem the nicer things.

“Redemption,” to “redeem,” do we hear these words very much anymore?  To redeem something is to rescue, deliver, or salvage it from bondage or capture—for a price!  It also carries the idea of re-purchasing (buying back) something of great value that was sold reluctantly, out of necessity as in most pawn-shop transactions.  By extension, the word also includes the idea of renewing, repairing, or restoring something, making it useful again or making something old like new again, giving back new-life.

It’s a good word.  It speaks of restoring lost value, getting back what was considered lost, releasing what was held captive or held in ransom.  But redemption is never free, indeed, can often be quite costly even.  And so the item, the thing being redeemed, is also viewed as worth the cost; it is that valuable.  Thus, the word is commonly used in Christianity for describing the work of Christ for humanity: He redeemed us, bought us with a price (His life) by dying on the cross to free us from our guilt, delivering us from our sin.

But today we live in a throw-away society.  We often find that it is cheaper to buy-new than to re-new.  Things are generally no longer worth “redeeming.”  Repairing or fixing old and used, worn-out items is now often far more costly than purchasing a brand-new replacement.  It’s just no longer worth it.  The trouble is that we have extended this “throw it away, it’s not worth saving” mentality to our fellow human beings!

“Lock them up and throw away the key,” is what we say about criminals.  Mandatory sentencing, take the decision out of the hands of the judges and funnel all cases through the same set of rules, no exceptions, no qualifiers, no modifiers, no more chances.  In short, throw them away!  As in, “they are irredeemable, not worth saving, recovering, or restoring.

This kind of attitude is why our prison population continues to increase, and why we continue to require the building of newer and larger prisons, and why it is that in a cost-cutting political and governmental environment our State government here in PA is cutting everything, everything BUT the revenue that goes to pay for the maintenance and expansion of our State Correctional Institutions.  Our prison costs go up and up and we taxpayers pay it without question, while our lawmakers scale down all other “unnecessary” (?) expenditures like educational costs.  Apparently we no longer believe that these men and women in prison are redeemable or that it is worth the cost to redeem them!

Yet, the majority of incarcerated people within our prison system are there as a result of addictive behavior related to drugs and alcohol and other types of addictive substances.  If we thought these lives were valuable and therefore worth the cost, we’d funnel money into prevention care and/or redirection and recovery care.  The fact is that if we were to spend good money on recovery and renewal instead of imprisoning them, it would not only save us a lot of money—the cost of housing addicts in our State Prison System is far, far more expensive than rehabilitative and prevention care—we’d also be saving/redeeming lives.

Our habit of voting and our government policy on crime virtually says this: “It is better to spend and waste a lot of money locking up ‘users’ and ‘addicts’ time and time again, than it is to spend far less money on rehabilitating them by focusing on redeeming them from their addictive behavior.”

This is sad, especially when one considers that the majority of Americans believe in God and most Americans identify with the Christian faith.  It is Christianity that teaches us the great hope and value of redeeming humanity.  When it comes to human beings, it is a waste NOT to redeem.  Human Beings are, and always have been, worth the cost of redemption.

Ignoring their need, throwing them away, assuming that they are irredeemable and thus dehumanizing them, is not only a great waste of human lives but is always far more costly to society as a whole and has far more deadly consequences in the long run.  And when it comes down to it, which one of us has never needed the precious act of redemption in our own life?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Libya and the No-Fly Zone, Doing it Right

The United States is not an international police force whose job it is to patrol the world’s nations to arrest and detain renegade dictators and tyrants.  Yet can any nation of good conscience, which values justice and freedom for all, turn a blind eye to the oppressive and destructive acts of a cruel despot, especially when the people cry out for help and support against such?  Actually, nations do so all the time, including this one.

This is why any such international “police” action should always be done collectively and in unison with other nations within the international community, especially nations that are closely related either geographically, economically, socially, politically, and/or culturally.  It was therefore good and right that the Obama administration did not take unilateral steps to stop Gadhafi in his tracks.  This is an international issue and requires international cooperation and agreement.

Even so, I see in the news that apparently Russia and the Arab League believe that the present no-fly zone action against Gadhafi has gone too far, claiming that too many civilians are being harmed in the process.  And so, their thinking is, since the safety of civilians was the very reason international intervention was implemented, it negates any further justification for continued action.  (I suspect Gadhafi wouldn’t flinch at harming his own civilians in order to blame it on the no-fly zone action.)  This critique from Russia and the Arab League against the no-fly zone intervention serves as a good example as to why international cooperation is better than going it alone—three strands are stronger than one, four even better, etc.

Let’s be honest, international relations are never simply about good versus evil, black and white, cut and dry.  Self-interest comes first.  Every nation will and must seek its own interests above all else.  History has shown us over and over that nations will go to war over the slightest provocation respecting the smallest offense and yet refuse to lift a finger over the most horrendous atrocities committed against humanity within a nation.  In reality, the greatest motivator is National Self-interest.

But no nation can seek its own interest with total disregard to the health and welfare of its fellow nations, especially in this new world of global economy, international corporations, and world outsourcing and resourcing—a truth that very few nations seem to take-in very well, including our own.  These days what one nation does to another, or does to its own people, affects just about every nation on earth.

Truth be spoken, it is not merely the high and mighty ideals of fighting for equality, freedom, and justice that motivate a nation to action or inaction.  It is natural resources, strategic positioning, geographical power bases, and the possible gain of economic advantage that are the real motivators for a nation’s action for or against another.  Nevertheless, what nations need to realize is that people count.  All people—lower, upper, and middle class, people of color, black, brown, and white; they all matter and are of significant value.

Thus, a peoples’ welfare within any given nation-state should be seen as a natural resource and therefore as having strategic value.  Another way of putting it is that oppression, the cruel and unjust treatment of a people, whatever their class or ethnicity, is in the long run socially, economically, and strategically bad for a nation (as well as for its neighbors and the global community).  It is therefore in every nation’s self-interest to protect and deliver a people from severely cruel, unjust, and oppressive tyrants, dictators, and despots.

Nevertheless, such protective or delivering action only has true integrity (not to mention a far better chance of succeeding) when it is done by a community of nations with equal commitment and ownership, a truly international action serving the best interest (self-interest) of many nations collectively, not just one particular nation unilaterally (which is the mistake that W. Bush made by having the U.S. effectively declare, sustain, and pay the price for the war in Iraq virtually by itself.)

The international community is getting smaller and smaller and much more interdependent than its ever been in world history.  This reality may make us uncomfortable.  But it’s a fact.  Consider how what has happened way over there in Japan affects what happens way over here in the States.  We nations are in this together whether we like it or not.  Kudos to the Obama administration for understanding this and acting accordingly.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquakes, Tsunnamis, & Floods, Where is God?

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, where is God?  Does God even care?

How should we view God?

  1. God cares for humanity but is virtually powerless to prevent such disasters.  Thus, God is limited and NOT ALL powerful.
  2. God couldn’t care less; God has the power to prevent, but doesn’t care enough about humanity to stop the pain and suffering.  God is absent, as in “Out of sight out of mind.”  God is unconcerned with humanity.
  3. God is cruel.  God takes pleasure in humanity’s pains, receiving twisted gratification in human suffering.  God is virtually evil.
  4. God is good but there is an equal and opposite force opposing God’s goodness (the theological equivalent to Newton’s law in physics that says, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”).  That is to say, there is a duality of gods of equal force, one good and one bad, which explains why we experience both good and bad in this world.

Which god is it?  I’d say none of the above!  But of course it depends on one’s theology and faith tradition, doesn’t it.

Obviously this is only a question for those who presume God IS.  Take God OUT of the picture and you have a perfectly logical and reasonable answer to why there are natural disasters; which is to say that nature, the universe, the world and all that is in it, is random, chaotic, and meaningless (apart from whatever ‘meaning’ we humans impose upon it).  In short, it is what it is.  Without God in the picture, the best that we can say about life here on earth is that we have an accidental existence—no explanation required, no meaning possible.  Chemical reactions, gases and electrons, tectonic plate movements, all the elements, the “stuff” of nature within the universe, simply fall together willy-nilly and this is the result, stuff happens, good, bad, or indifferent.  God is not.  There is therefore no master mind, no providential god, no creator and maker to blame or hold accountable, no god of comfort and solace, no god of hope and promise, and no real meaning to the words good and bad, justice or evil, for we are but a chance happening of nature’s mindless but powerful forces.

Without ignoring or denying the laws of science, I not only believe that God IS, I also believe that God is ALL powerful and ALL loving.  God is just, righteous, and good.  God cares.  God created humanity to enjoy His Glory and embrace His love.  So, now I have a problem, how to explain our suffering.  Speaking from the Christian Faith tradition, this is where the Biblical account comes in, the story of creation and humanity’s fall into sin, God’s act of redemption/salvation for humanity, and our need to acknowledge God, turn back toward God and seek out his Love, Mercy, and Grace for our lives.  It actually makes a whole lot of sense.

Yes it does.  It’s not a matter of intelligence, education, and IQ, so it’s not being naĂ¯ve or ignorant to believe this.  Very highly educated and extremely intelligent people throughout history have embraced this Biblical faith account.  It gives meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives in the face of much human pain, suffering, heart-ache, and catastrophe.  It explains the world as it is, and as we experience it (without having to deny scientific insight), while also giving us a profound sense of hope and anticipation for a better future and real meaning beyond mere chance, happenstance.  It explains God’s mind and heart toward humanity and why we can trust that even in the face of such terrible disasters, God is still the God who loves and cares for us.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  The Gospel according to John 14:1-4 (NRSV).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Concerning Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

Many present and pressing global challenges are in the news these days, especially in the Middle East.  But I’d like to remind us of last year’s news regarding a Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi, who was given a death sentence for blasphemy.  Yes, under section 295-C of the Pakistani penal code, blasphemy charges carry a death sentence.  This kind of thing is what worries us about the possible rise of extreme radical Islamic groups within transitioning governments that are now taking place in the Middle East.

Apparently, blasphemy laws generally target Christians.  It’s said that if someone wants to settle a personal score and/or make life difficult for a Christian all they need do is accuse him or her of blasphemy.  Thankfully, I understand that many who have been given death sentences have had their death sentence overturned.  Nevertheless, it’s also said that the accused often spend years in prison even after being found innocent.  Furthermore they find it next to impossible to return to a normal life afterward.

Minimally blasphemy is irreverent talk about God; but more pointedly, blasphemy is to deliberately insult God’s Name or Person in one form or another.  But, the way most of us Westerners look at it, if I insult God, what is that to anyone else?  The business is between me and God.  Is it not?

“No!  It is not.”  I assume is their reply.  If I insult God and/or His Prophet, I insult all his followers and believers as well.  “And thus,” I imagine them saying, “it is an issue not only between me and God, but between me and all his followers.”  Okay, I readily acknowledge that I know little about the Islamic faith.  And so I am guessing here, trying to understand how it is that they could justify such laws, including the death penalty for blasphemy.

I don’t understand the social/political rationale, let alone the theological justification for a Muslim based society such as Pakistan to protect God from blasphemers by installing blasphemy laws and backing it with the death penalty.  It seems to me that blasphemy laws are a sign of weakness of faith not strength of faith.  It is evidence of little confidence rather than great confidence in their God.  Rather than a display of great respect for their God, blasphemy laws seem to me to be more of an admission of fear and insecurity before their God; a lack of faith in their God’s ability to protect His own honor and bring humanity to final judgment Himself.

As for respect, all humans expect respect from others.  Simple basic respect for our human dignity is due everyone.  Few of us will passively tolerate rude behavior, disrespectful talk, and insulting words by another individual, especially if we believe the individual is “beneath” us in social status (and oh yes, all humans play that one-upmanship game in social status).  And so, of course we’d expect that God will neither tolerate disrespect or rudeness toward Himself.  It only makes sense.

But is it not true that the greatest respect we can give to a fellow human being is the freedom of conscience, to act of his or her own volition, to believe or not believe, to love or not to love of his own heart, as a matter of choice?  And is this not also the greatest respect one could give to God, to freely choose to believe and trust God out of one’s own free will?

When humans take it upon themselves to police the conscience of their fellow human beings, in behalf of God, we have great trouble—persecution, oppression, and very strict and unjust religious laws—to say the least.  To begin with, we all know that humans disagree as to the nature and character of God in the first place.  So how can any mortal monitor and police the conscience and faith of another human being when he/she cannot even categorically prove that his/her God is the right, true, and only God to begin with?

For example, I will be the first to bear witness that I believe that Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God; was smitten, died, and was raised again on the third day, true God of true God; and that the God of what we now call the Old and New Testaments is the only true God there is.  And yet, for making this proclamation and confession, I would most likely be liable to be sentenced to death in many Muslim countries.  And by what moral right, capacity, or power do they have to do so?  They can no more prove that my faith is wrong any more than they can prove that their faith is absolutely right—or we wouldn’t be speaking of FAITH at all.

Really, the only One Person responsible for policing rude and disrespectful behavior toward God is God, God’s own self.  Only God, the creator and maker of humanity, has the right to determine life or death for one who chooses to blaspheme His Name, Person, and/or His followers.

For one, God is big enough to take care of Himself and to protect the honor and glory of His own Name.  God’s judgment may not be immediate as we count time, but it will come soon enough.  And consider this, for a fellow human being to bring a case before another human being within a human court of law for the sake of determining whether one has offended God is to belittle God by placing God’s cause in human hands, making God’s case dependent upon human judgment.  That is certainly upside down and quite backwards!

Finally, I would make this observation.  It seems to me that self-righteousness is the worst form of blasphemy.  Presuming to be superior, better, holier, and more righteous than others, simply because others do not believe as I do, is a step away from God not toward God.  A mean-spirited, cruel, hardened, and condemning heart is the exact opposite of a patient, compassionate, and merciful God, as Christians and Muslims believe God is.  Thus, a hardened, self-righteous condemning human heart in God's name, is far more blasphemous toward God than one who merely disbelieves or believes differently.