Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

11 September–Again.

As an act of silence in the face of horror, I will not blog today.  In memory of the victims of 9/11.  In the days to come, I will reflect on the misuse of this tragedy to warp our national character–but not today.  Today is simply a time for memory and grief.

September 11, 2007 Posted by | the tragic | 1 Comment

VA Tech Tragedy and Mental Illness

In the comments section of my post on the horrible VA Tech killings, Looney, a semi-regular commenter, brought up the role of  mental illness and specifically the rights of the mentally ill (which he placed in quotation marks). Because I am not familiar with the case he uses as an example, I won’t mention it, and we are still discovering things about Cho Seung-Hui, the killer-suicide at VA Tech, so I will try very hard not to rush to judgment.  But it does seem clear that he had some form of mental illness and that teachers and fellow students had both noticed alarming signs and tried to warn authorities of them. However, absent specific threats or indications that a person is a danger to himself and/or others, trying to force said person into therapy or an institutional setting is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Looney seems to indicate (correct me if I am wrong) that he would repeal or amend the ADA and restrict the rights of the mentally ill. But before we rush headlong into that direction, let’s remember how the mentally ill were treated in this (and other) societies before the ADA and similar measures.  AND, let’s remember that while certain mental illnesses can increase aggression and, thus, the likelihood of violence to self or others, this is a very small increase. Alcohol and drug abuse lead to violence far more often than even severe mental illness. The vast number of acts of violence are carried out by people without any mental illness and the vast number of mentally ill never harm themselves or others–and this is true even about people who are depressed, schizophrenic, bi-polar, or have other conditions wherein they have suicidal or homicidal thoughts.  Here, I speak not just from looking at the data, but from personal experience. I have a tendency toward clinical depression and control this with medication.  Prior to my diagnosis and treatment, I had literally YEARS of suicidal thoughts and (more rarely) thoughts of violence toward others.  I didn’t act on them, at least in part, because I am a Christian and have moral convictions against harming myself or others. (Had my illness been more severe or I not found treatment, I have no idea whether these theological and moral convictions would have been sufficient to prevent me from harming myself or others and I pray I never find out.)

Prior to the passages of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we often forcibly hospitalized people who weren’t mentally ill at all (see the movie, Frances, a true story for which Jessica Lange was nominated for an Oscar). Family members or employers had people committed for bogus reasons in order to control their money or for other reasons.  People were lobotomized, given electro-shock therapy, and other forms of torture disguised as treatment.  We need to be able to protect society from dangerous individuals, including those with mental illness, but we must be careful not to start locking up large numbers of people in order to try to stop the small number of dangerous ones.

There are no easy answers. Law is a blunt instrument, but churches have difficulty responding in gospel-centered ways to the mentally ill, too.  The congregation I attend, because of its ministry to homeless folks over the years, deals with more than the usual number of “mental health consumers” (as one such puts it) in most churches I have known.  (If you don’t have mental illness before you are homeless, time on the streets is likely to change that!)  One former member, not homeless, who suffered extremely (schizophrenia, I believe, but I am no doctor) was both a great blessing and a great challenge to us.  He had been quite brilliant before the onset of his illness, then had to be institutionalized for awhile, and made some recovery–but never full. Eventually, he made threats against some church members that we felt compelled to take seriously.  After much discussion with his family members (who were afraid of him) and his counselor, we felt compelled to sever our relationship and to take out a restraining order forbidding him to come near any of us or the church property.  It was not a decision we made lightly and some of us were never sure we did the right thing.  Some months later, this man committed suicide.  We have never been sure that our expulsion was not a factor.  We regard this as a failure to have found a redeeming path and it troubles our membership still. Even those he threatened cried when he died.  We are glad that he did not harm others before he killed himself, but it is cold comfort.

So, here is an area where neither law nor the gospel ministries of the church availed. We need far more help for those with mental illness. There have been cases where some who knew they might become dangerous sought help and had to wait in line (that’s “que up” for the Brits out there) for an opening in a mental health facility. If some readers do not want to see more government money available for mental health, then they better start working to see that more church-related and private facilities fill the gaps. Do you realize that most health insurance policies in the U.S. STILL do not even cover mental health? (Fortunately, mine does or I could not afford my anti-depressant meds.)

Returning to Blacksburg, VA:  Because the number of mental health consumers who become violent are so few (even of people who write things like Cho Seung-Wi did), it is exceedingly difficult to know for sure who will and who will not pose a real danger until after the fact. In this case, the danger signs were real and, it appears (with what has been revealed so far) that many individuals noticed and made all the right referrals to the authorities.  Perhaps the authorities failed to act when they should have or perhaps not. I reserve judgment until more facts are known.  Maybe a Christian church’s outreach program could have made a difference.  However, I still maintain that if it were harder to obtain guns in this nation (and Kentucky, where I live, has looser restrictions than Virginia), it would have been harder for Cho to commit this tragedy. Armed with a knife, he might have killed one or even two, but not 32 persons. (And, in the case of my former church member, how was it that someone who had been institutionalized could legally obtain the gun he used to commit suicide?)

These and many more questions remain.  I continue to pray for all those in Blacksburg and all related to this university–whose name will now become a synonymn for violence like “Columbine High School” is. I give a special prayer to Korean-Americans and Koreans in America who are feeling increased hostility because of Cho’s nationality/ethnicity. And I pray that we work harder to help the mentally ill–whatever role churches should play in this.

P.S.–Some have pointed out that this many civilians are dying daily in Iraq and question whether Americans feel that only our lives count. I do not draw this conclusion–even in the midst of their own grief, the faculty and students of VA Tech placed their suffering in global contexts.  I didn’t hear anyone questioning whether the British cared only for their own in the wake of the London subway bombings, or the Australians after the Bali, Indonesia bombings. Why assume that U.S. Americans ignore the plight of others when grieving over our own tragedies?

April 20, 2007 Posted by | the tragic | 8 Comments

Nagasaki Mayor Warns Against Nuclear Arms on 61st A-Bomb Anniversary

As reported by Agence France Press, the mayor of Nagasaki, Japan rebuked the world’s nuclear powers for not doing more to disarm and to prevent nuclear proliferation. “What is the human race doing?” he said in his address. “The world’s nuclear non-proliferation regime faces the risk of collapsing.”
“Sixty-one years since the bombing, the city of Nagasaki is filled with anger and frustration,” Ito said. “The nuclear powers are not making sincere efforts for nuclear arms reduction.”

Read the rest of the article here.

August 9, 2006 Posted by | just peacemaking, nuclear weapons, the tragic | Comments Off on Nagasaki Mayor Warns Against Nuclear Arms on 61st A-Bomb Anniversary

The Nagasaki Principle

Writing in the Boston Globe, historian James Caroll talks about “the Nagasaki Principle.” On 06 August 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. No matter whether we believe that act was justified or not, there was NO excuse or justification for dropping an additional nuclear weapon on Nagasaki three days later. We had seen what happened to Hiroshima. On 07 August 1945, 61 years ago today, we could have called off the strike on Nagasaki, but we went ahead as scheduled on 09 August 1945. Caroll refers to this kind of momentum in war, which we are seeing now in several wars around the world, as “the Nagasaki Principle.” Here’s a brief excerpt:

It is commonly said that war operates by the law of unintended consequences, but another, less-noted law operates as well. War creates momentum that barrels through normally restraining barriers of moral and practical choice. Decision makers begin wars, whether aggressively or defensively, in contexts that are well understood, and with purposes that seem proportionate and able to be accomplished. When destruction and hurt follow the outbreak of violence, however, and then when that destruction and hurt become extreme, the context within which war is begun changes radically. First assumptions no longer apply, and original purposes can become impossible. When that happens, what began as destruction for a goal becomes destruction for its own sake. War generates its own force in which everyone loses. This might be called the Nagasaki principle.

The Nagasaki principle comes in two parts. It can operate at the level of close combat, driving fighters to commit atrocities that, in normal conditions, they would abhor. It operates equally at the level of the commanders, leading them to order strikes out of desperation, frustration, or merely for the sake of “doing something.” Such strikes draw equivalent responses from the other side until the destruction is complete. After the fact, massive carnage can seem to have been an act for which no one is responsible, like the result of a natural disaster.

That’s when a second aspect of the Nagasaki principle comes into play — the refusal to undertake a moral reckoning with what has been done.

Read the rest of the essay here, before renewing efforts to work for peace. Call the White House Comment Line 202-456-1111 and urge them to try harder for an unconditional ceasefire in the Middle East and to call for a Middle East Peace Summit. We’ve seen the unintended consequences of the Nagasaki principle far too much recently.

August 7, 2006 Posted by | nuclear weapons, peacemaking, the tragic | Comments Off on The Nagasaki Principle

Nagasaki 1945

On this Hiroshima Day, I had no pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima. This is Nagasaki, Japan 1945. (Courtesy of angevoix who runs the blog, Inexpugnable, at http://inexpugnable.blogspot.com/ ) As I mentioned yesterday, Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in Japan. Ground Zero was the St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Catholic community and both pilot and bombadeer were practicing Catholics–National loyalties trumping the supposedly greater ties of sisters and brothers in Christ.
Tonight, I will attend in Louisville a candle/paper lantern lighting ceremony, a traditional Japanese prayer for peace. The point is not who was right or wrong in that terrible war or any war. The point is to mourn the dead and work to make certain such evil never happens again.

O God Whom we crucified anew in the fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Whose Image and Likeness in humans is even now being repeatedly destroyed in Iraq, Israel, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon, give us wisdom and courage to find a better Way, a Way to stop the bloodshed and make peace. Amen.

August 6, 2006 Posted by | peacemaking, the tragic | Comments Off on Nagasaki 1945

Renouncing the Nuclear Idolatry: No More Gods of Metal!

06 August 1945, the day that death rained from the sky on Hiroshima, Japan. 09 August 1945, a second atomic bomb of a different design (might as well test out both models) was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The first city had little military significance and the second had none. Nagasaki had the largest Christian population in Japan, including a large Catholic monastery and convent. Ground Zero was the Catholic Cathedral. The pilot, bombadeer, and even the chaplain, were all Catholics. [See the excellent post on this over at Payne Hollow under my “Kindred Spirits” links.]

These two “weapons of mass destruction” ended the Second World War–and have threatened the annihilation of the human species, and perhaps all life on the planet, ever since. Tomorrow is Hiroshima Day, the 61st anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. It is also Peace Sunday, commemorated by churches throughout the world each year on the Sunday closest to Hiroshima Day. Given the events of this last month, our focus tomorrow at Jeff Street Baptist Community will not be primarily on the resurgent nuclear threat. But with Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal of around 30 warheads, George W. Bush’s doctrine of “preemptive war” and desire to use “mini-nukes” in conventional wars, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the mushroom cloud shadow hangs over the current Middle East violence in Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, too.

During the Cold War, I was one of many who realized that the possession of nuclear weapons, even as a deterrent, was a form of idolatry–trusting in the ability to threaten God’s creation for our security, rather than in the living God. The religious dimensions of the Bomb have been there from the begining: refrring to the original testsite as “Trinity,” Oppenheimer’s quotation from the Hindu Bhaghavad Gita (“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”), and the pervasive naming of the nuclear weapons and systems for delivering them after pagan gods (e.g., Nike missiles, Poseiden nuclear submarines, Titan rockets, etc.). Gods of Metal indeed.

Further, like the Greek story of Prometheus or the Genesis narrative of the Fall, the advent of the nuclear age meant a deep realization (at least for a time) of usurped power and loss of human innocence. The power of life and death on a vast scale has been stolen from God and humans living afterward are East of Eden, cast out of any garden of innocence. Clearly this is blasphemy.

Yet, more than a decade after the end of Cold War’s “justification” for these abominations, there has been little nuclear disarmament from the nuclear nations, and now more and more nations scramble to join the “nuclear club.” The fevered dreams of the Dispensationalist heresy that grips so many U.S. churches has a large (and politically influential!) minority of U.S. Christians praying and working for global thermonuclear annihilation as the fulfillment of their apocalyptic expectations.

We must meet this threat with the weapons of faith: unilaterally disarming our hearts and trusting God alone for our security. I have for years admired those whose faith has led them to “Plowshares Actions,” radical forms of civil disobedience where these individuals break into sites which make or store nuclear weapons in the U.S. and in literal reinactment of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4, use hammers to destroy the function of a nuclear warhead (and sometimes pour their own blood on the vile things, too), before calmly waiting to be arrested. Such Christians have usually had stiff jail sentences for their civil disobedience, but have been able to use their arrests and trials to raise awareness of the blasphemous danger of these gods of metal. If we understood their courage and faith, we would be offering such witnesses medals instead of jail cells. I know that if I were single and without children, I would have joined them–and for the sake of all the world’s children God may yet call me to such action.

Short of a plowshares action, what witness might God be calling on us to make in the face of the nuclear blasphemy? In the last year of his life (2005), the late Rev. Dr. William Sloan Coffin, Jr. of blessed memory, former Protestant chaplain at Yale and later Senior Minister at Riverside Church, NYC, and a longtime Christian peacemaker, helped form a new interfaith response to the resurgent nuclear danger. It is called Faithful Security: The National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Danger. If you click here http://www.faithfulsecurity.org/html/resources.html
you can find their new organizing kit, “Breaking Faith with Nuclear Weapons: A Guide for Religious Communities.” I urge you to check it out and bring it to the attention of your local church and your denominational leaders.

In 1948, only 3 years after the advent of the nuclear age, General Omar Bradley, the last surviving U.S. 5-Star military officer from World War II, said:
We live in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about dying than about living.”

God have mercy.

August 5, 2006 Posted by | nuclear weapons, the tragic | Comments Off on Renouncing the Nuclear Idolatry: No More Gods of Metal!