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Oct 24, 2004 7:05 am

Jokes, Certitude, and Last Words ...

For my friends on the secular left who've opposed or favored the American invasion of Iraq, I'd like to cite several very different statements. First, there is this initiative by two of my fellow Methodists that calls on our fellow Methodists, George Bush and Dick Cheney, to repent of their" crime, immorality, disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church (UMC), and dissemination of doctrine contrary to the established standards of doctrine of the UMC." Naive, yes; provincial, maybe; but it is a legitimate call to accountability within our denomination. It is irritating that Oxblog's David Adesnik says it is probably not"a joke," while mocking it as the work of"damn intolerant Christian fundamentalist liberals." He follows with an urbane secular humanist's condescension about what is and what is not legitimate doctrinal debate. Given conditions in Iraq and Adesnik's certitude that the invasion was the thing to do, it is interesting to have record of it and what is and what is not a"politicizing" of Christianity. Finally, there is Norm Geras's"The Last Word on the Iraq War.""There was," he argues,"no persuasive moral case against the Iraq war." That is consistent with his long held position. Odd that it is unqualified by all that we have subsequently learned.

Why do secular people tend, almost inevitably, to dismiss all of us who take religious belief seriously as"fundamentalists," even when we clearly are not? What pleasure do they find in the spectacle of the children of G_d killing and maiming other children of G_d, in whatever cause? So long as the killing goes on, Norm, there is no"last word." It is not ours to pronounce. Of all the parties in our current discussions, David, I should think that Christian liberals might be the last to deserve to be called"damn intolerant." The belief that absolute certainty is hidden in the inscrutable mind of G_d is a powerful restraint on all claims to pronouncing the"last word." When and if it is given, the joke may be on you.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 10/25/2004

I've not had many people say that they were praying for me; however, I think I would respond more or less as you do, by taking it as something positive unless proven otherwise.

Maybe it's the fact that I've been discussing Buddhism lately in World History 1 (Earth cools to 1500 CE), but Schell's HNN article makes me see Bush and even Cheney as men who have duped themselves as well as others. Men so caught up in their own illusions of grandeur that to awaken would seem hellish, at least at first.

That thought does not absolve, nor does it show that Methodists should not admonish Methodists. But it does make me wonder if the Buddhists have a point about the primacy of illusion in most human lives.

Or, as TS Eliot has it in "Murder in the Cathedral", that man cannot bear to much reality.

Lloyd Kilford - 10/25/2004

Your point about religious communities protecting their boundaries is well-made, but I am not sure that Bush *has* broken many of the rules of his faith. He's not a Quaker, so his use of violence isn't an automatic check. The use of torture would be the obvious thing that I would use in any inditement.

But I can't imagine the UM actually debating this. To quote from a linked article: "Its conservative and progressive factions have chafed for years on issues such as homosexuality." If *that* causes bitter disputes, debating the morality of the President's decisions will cause a firestorm within the church, and I don't think that this would be helpful or wanted.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/25/2004

Or to Lynne Cheney?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/25/2004

I do understand your feelings about this, Oscar. I felt the same way in the 1960s when I saw a crowd of students at UNC back the Dean of Students into a corner and one of my younger friends in the back of the pack yelled: "I hope your son gets nuked in Viet Nam!" I knew then that I didn't agree with everything that got said by people who were in my anti-war corner.
On the other hand, if as President Bush, his Methodist critics, and I believe, it is possible that President Bush, his critics, and I may go to hell, it is our mutual responsibility to each other to give forewarning of the possibility of it. It is, if you will, the very reverse of what the student shouted at the Dean of Students. President Bush's Methodist critics do not say "I hope you go to hell!" Rather, they say: "Repent! Do what you must in order to avoid going to hell!" If I may say so, it is a loving thing to do.
Beyond that, I've never understood the resentment of many faculty colleagues at the presumptuousness of evangelical students who told them that they were praying for them. My reaction has always been: "Thank you very much. I need all the help I can get."

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/25/2004

When you put it that way, yes, I do. I want a wide range of Christian voices out there. I have been pleased to hear a larger range making it into the media, although I am not positive if that range has jumped all the way to the mainstream (which is not their fault but that of the media gatekeepers).

While the Methodist call of Bush to repent seems reasonable on its face I will admit to finding the condemnation of Cheney and Bush in the name of God a bit disquieting. Please let me try to explain that.

Long ago (the 1980s) I saw a grafitti-laden wall. It started with "save the whales," then followed with diverse opinions including a number of variations on "save the nukes" and "nuke the whales." This was then followed by a plea that went something like, "Let's not nuke anything today, please."

To my secular ear the calls for Cheney and Bush to repent sound a great deal like statements that they are doomed to hell. On careful rereading of the one you mention, I have realized that this perception of mine is a mistake, and I kknow that most of the other calls to repentence and change do not state that Bush and Cheney are bound for Hell. However, at least one comment posted on HNN (I can't find it right now) went that extra step and suggested that Bush and Cheney were bound for Hell.

Where they'll meet Matthew Shepherd, I suppose.

I mention Shepherd because the hell thing is a touchy point. To many Christians, I and my secular colleagues (along with our gay and lesbian fellow travelers) are hell bound. Of those many Christians, most feel that in sorrow. A few seem pretty happy about it (and once again, they seem to be noisy).

So I tend to shy away from the sort of religious language that verges on the invoking Hell, even when I don't like the target. Or, to paraphase that grafitti, "Let's not damn anyone today please.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Dr. Kilford, Of course religious discipline is less efficient than political action. That is why I think Mr. Morgan is wrong to see a merely political motivation here. Nonetheless, religious communities have a legitimate interest in protecting the perameters of their faith. Mr. Morgan is quick to defend whatever action the Bush/Cheney team does, in whatever court it is tried. My point to Mr. Morgan is that there is a court from which there is no appeal.

Lloyd Kilford - 10/24/2004

I have noticed (as you mention) that a lot of (otherwise intelligent and perceptive) secular people have a visceral disdain for religious motivations of all sorts. It always seemed rather shortsighted to me.

Lloyd Kilford - 10/24/2004

(the inditement, that is). If you believe strongly enough, for religious or other reasons, that something is right or wrong, then it's almost certainly going to affect your political views. And if your political view is that the inditement should be brought, then political issues of timing are important.

As Shakespeare's Hotspur says, it's one thing to call spirits from the vasty deep, and quite another for them to come when you do call them. This is only a proposed inditement (fairly easy to do). I am sceptical that it will go very far, personally (do religious bodies *really* want to debate the performance of politicians who are members of their denomination?)

It seems like a potentially huge waste of time, politically (there is a large probability that the motion for inditement might be ruled out of order or otherwise blocked from debate). If I wanted to keep Bush from office I'd go for the political rather than the religious route - he doesn't hold a religious office, so going at things from a religious point of view seems less efficient to me.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

I'm afraid this discussion is going nowhere, Richard. You care nothing about the primary point of the post; and care only to defend the unconstitutional authority of the vice president and this administration. The assumption that whoever disagrees with you is an "idiot" bodes ill for any productive discussion.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

I have no problem with (A) since, as you've said, you don't defend the complaint. On (B) I'd say that the post of Vice-Commander in chief has no constitutional warrant, so we're talking about de facto influence on the part of Cheney, instead. The fact that Hillary was "highly responsible" for intervention in Yugoslavia is beyond dispute (and I salute her for it). That too is de facto power. If you want an example of de facto power, just look at Hillary's role in Waco, where Web Hubbell reported to Hillary, and delivered orders from Hillary (I don't salute that exercise of de facto power).

I didn't write the complaint. I didn't derive moral claims, purportedly based in religious belief, as a direct consequence of international law. I happen to find that morally perilous. Under international law we imposed an embargo on Bosnia, etc. -- an embargo that gave Serbia a free hand to murder its citizens. Under color of international law, we declared Srebrinica a sanctuary, where UN troops (similarly under acting under color of international law) separated men from women, delivered those men to their murderers, and even gave their murderers gasoline to fuel their travels to the killing fields.

In contravention of international law, and at Hillary's insistence (thank God somebody with some moral sense was left in the White House), we intervened in Yugoslavia. Under international law we set up a sanctions regime in Iraq that enriched the UN, several individuals within the UN, several suppliers to Iraq, and Hussein (and even financed his illegal purchase of weapons), while delivering insufficient and substandard goods to the people of Iraq. In all probability, some of that misdirected money now fuels the murder of Iraqis by terrorists.

I only ask that my intelligence not be insulted by those who claim the religious right to selectively derive moral claims from a regime of international law that is so obviously morally deficient -- and ask that I take their religious professions at face value. We had a moral duty (religious and otherwise) to intervene in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and Darfur, and anyone who invokes international law as the last word in moral claims, and applies it selectively at that in Iraq, along with a religious basis for those claims, well, really doesn't have a claim to moral seriousness. They can make all the arguments against Iraqi intervention they want. I just ask that they don't make them on the basis of moral claims from religion, derived from international law -- unless of course they are dead set on looking like idiots.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Richard, A) I am a Republican and, therefore, am therefore not subject to the bias you accuse the petitioners of. B) Hillary was not the commander in chief or the vice commander in chief in the Iraq debacle. C) "liars and hypocrites" is an ad hominem charge more likely to be well laid at the feet of the powerful.
You hang, forever, on the claim that Saddam Hussein had some sort of relation with bin Laden. Bush's assertions to that effect are rather like Suleiman I insisting that Martin Luther had some sort of relation with Urban VIII. Well, yes, I suppose he did. It depends on your perspective; but Luther and Urban didn't quite see it that way.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

An apt analogy to Hillary, I'd say.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

Granted. And the distinction between minor and non-existent is till a distinction (sort of like the distinction between responsible and highly responsible?), and the claim of no connection is a lie, pure and simple, as is the implication that we introduced WMD into Iraq.

Your shoe shouldn't pinch. The shoe should pinch of those who brought a complaint against Bush and Cheney as highly responsible, and didn't bring a charge against Hillary as highly responsible.

Some well-meaning people seem to take the attitude that as long as a belief is dressed up in religious clothes, it is self-authenticatingly religious in nature. I apply (in part) the test of sincerity, which is (in part) a test of consistency. When Bush Sr. says the death of his daughter convinced him in his faith that life is sacred, and therefore abortion a sin -- except in the case of rape, of course -- I recognize a hypocrite hiding behind religion. When he said Clarence Thomas was the most qualified person for the job, I recognized a liar. And when people make dishonest, tendentious, incomplete arguments that apply (without sufficient argument) only to the Republican candidates, and in the last days of a campaign, and claim their complaint ushers forth from religious conviction, but somehow don't seem to apply that "belief" to cases as strong or stronger, then I recognize them for the liars and hypocrites they are.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/24/2004

What are we to make of both journalistic and campaign statements, then, that Cheney is an active leader in the administration? He is a member of the executive 'team' who apparently exercises authority subject only to contradiction by the President. His desk may not be where the buck stops, but it certainly passes through there often enough.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Richard, Whatever link there was between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda was so minor that bin Laden could celebrate the distraction of the United States into Iraq and the downfall of Saddam Hussein. I should think that you'd appreciate the charge of responsibility is made first and foremost against those who are most highly responsible. My shoe doesn't pinch.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

I doubt neither the bishops' right, not the right of Methodists, to bring their religious views to bear -- that's why I never questioned you on the subject. In fact, I think you're right to criticize Adesnik for invoking "fundamentalism" whenever people take their religious beliefs seriously. Hence I think the bishops are on solid ground, as are Methodists with morally serious arguments.

I have a hard time, however, accepting the moral seriousness of a complaint that makes demonstrably false or unwarraned claims -- that here was no connection between Al Qaeda and Hussein, and that the USA has introduced WMD to Iraq.

When the complaint lists only Bush and Cheney, says they are highly responsible, and makes no claim that they are the only Methodists highly responsible, nor makes an argument why only those Methodists who are highly responsible should be held responsible, and brings this complaint in the last days of an election campaign, then I have a hard time viewing it as a legitimate call to accountability. Forgive my suspicion that it is partisan politics dressed up as Methodism.

And yet, they state certain facts that are either uncontestable or at least arguable. It is certainly arguable that the Iraq war is illegal, against a sovereign nation, that posed no threat to our immediate national security -- considerations that apply a fortiori to Serbia. If these considerations warrant discipline against Bush and Cheney, then I think that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. You call that a distraction. That is your right. I call it equal treatment. Ain't it amazing how the shoe pinches when it's on the other foot?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Says me. Do you not tire of the religious right being made the characteristic religious voice in American life?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Your city is in flames. If you even cared to pursue a subject without inflammatory distraction, you might have asked me if, in my mind, the Roman Catholic bishops had as much right to pursue Kerry on abortion as these complainants have to pursue Bush/Cheney.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

You may not defend it, nor have signed it, but you have characterized it as a "legitimate call to accountability", while I don't think that a complaint that contains so many false assertions can even be said to aspire to legitimacy.

Moreover, if you examine my posts on this subject, Hillary does not loom large as the major focus. I persist in my view though, and will pursue it if this complaint gains traction, that she equally falls under the complaint of highly responsible for an illegal war against a sovereign nation [Serbia] which posed no threat to our immediate national security -- precisely the words of the complaint. If I have to go that route, at least I know I'll have BOD precedent on my side (if they do pursue Bush and Cheney). Think what a better world that will be. Then on to Bill with the Baptists. I see a shining city upon a hill.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/24/2004

Ralph, not all secularists tend to reduce all Christians to fundamentalists. But those that do are loud.

Not all Christians condemn secularists. But the loud ones, who tend to be fundamentalist, do.

When you say things like "Why do secular people tend, almost inevitably, to dismiss all of us who take religious belief seriously as "fundamentalists", you fall into the trap baited by the loud mouths on both sides.

Not only is there no proof of that contention, but the natural reaction of someone like myself, who is more or less secular but who works pretty hard at making such distinctions, is to descend from my Olympian calm and yell, "Says who?"

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Richard, I take no responsibility for defending the petition calling Bush & Cheney to repent. I'm not its author. Nor have I signed it. I defended it against the contempt of David Adesnik whose disrespect for the authority of religious communities of all sorts was obvious. If you want to talk about Hillary, that is a different subject and we can talk about it another day. But there's no point in your attempting to deflect the discussion.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

You keep asserting or implying that Cheney exercised executive authority (which of course, given his position, would be illegitimate). I can think of one instance -- when he illegally ordered the shootdown of the hijackers' plane. Of course you could be right and there could be others.

The complaint says that Bush and Cheney are "highly responsible", and thus the subject of complaint. It doesn't argue that ONLY they are highly responsible, nor that discipline should be limited to the highly responsible. I take your silence on most of the substance of my post, particularly concerning Hillary's responsibility in similar matters, as the best form of encouragement in pursuing that that I'm likely to get. Thanks again.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

Let's see: we're in denial again in re Cheney, aren't we? Why don't you tell the Cabinet members whose authority has been usurped by the Vice President that he has no executive authority? Nice to see you rushing to the defense of those without resources to defend themselves, Richard.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/24/2004

To deny that Cheney had an executive responsibility, Richard, is the sort of obfuscation of reality that is increasingly characteristic of you at your worst. Then, of course, you switch targets to Kerry & Hillary. They have their own responsibility, but that hardly excuses Bush/Cheney. Since you are so outraged by Rwanda, I assume that you are similarly outraged by Darfur, tho I can't recall your having demanded any action there. The reductionist question is still a legitimate question.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

I see some potential in the complaint. I also see some problems.

The complaint says that Cheney, in his role as Vice-President led the country into an illegal war against a sovereign nation. Cheney had no executive authority, and no legislative role (except possibly as President of the Senate to preside over debate -- a role that precludes his participation in debate). In any case, as I remember it, Cheney did not vote on the authorizing resolution. Moreover, what is the justification for limiting this to Bush and Cheney, and not every Methodist who voted for the authorizing resolution? Certainly the two had a greater role, but where is the justification for drawing the line precisely where they drew it? And since Cheney had no executive or legislative role, but only an advisory one, what exactly distinguishes his role from that of Hillary in pushing for a similarly illegal war against the sovereign nation of Serbia? A nation that similarly posed no "threat to our immediate national security"? This isn't germane to the complaint against Bush and Cheney, just germane to whether I decide to have my Methodist friends bring a complaint against Hillary.

Moreover I' m not aware that we have engaged in "usurpation" of Iraqi oilfields. In fact, we have spent money to repair them, and the proceeds of the oil fields have gone to the Iraqi government, rather than the pocket of Hussein. The charge of usurpation is just plain false.

The complaint also makes the following claim:
"There was no connection between Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein". Unfortunately, as even the 9/11 Commission has documented, this complaint is false. Hussein's intelligence services met with Bin Laden in Sudan, and recorded their intent to develop further relations, to be pursued through other channels, and they maintained contacts. And as Richard Clarke pointed out, Iraq and Bin Laden were connected through the pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, where a controlled precursor of chemical weapons was found. The charge that there was no connection between the two is similarly false.

The complaint goes on to imply that the US used WMD in Iraq. They provide no details. I must therefore conclude that that too is false.

I have to say that while many of the complaints state facts, others are quite problematic, while still others are out and out false. I find the latter quite disturbing. It's been a while since I was a Methodist (and even then, not by choice), and a while since I've read the Book of Discipline, so I'll have to see what the Church's position is on bringing complaints on the basis of demonstrably false representations (and act accordingly).

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

When you ask, Ralph, just what pleasure secular people take in the spectacle of children of G-d killing and maiming other children of G-d -- that's precisely the kind of reductionist, "enthusiastic", and intellectually problematic "argument" secularists tend to associate with fundamentalists, and that secularists take issue with.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/24/2004

I'd say there's a good degree of "certitude" in the complaint's pronouncement that Bush and Cheney are "undeniably guilty". That said, I see some real potential for this, not all for the worse.

Here we have Cheney the subject of complaint, and he had no executive or legislative role (though Senators like Kerry, who did have a legislative role are spared). Fair enough. Guess who else is a Methodist? Hillary (you remember the two for one Presidency, don't you?). And guess who pushed for what Wesley Clark even admits was an illegal war in Serbia? You guessed it -- Hillary.

And maybe the Baptists have a similar procedure. Let's see. Clinton lied about Rwanda, violated international law by not intervening, and used the good offices of the US in the Security Council to make sure that the UN did nothing (resulting in the deaths of close to a million people). I give Chris Pettit's friend Boyle credit for this much -- he has prepared indictments of both Bush and Clinton. I think we might have the beginnings of a movement here.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/24/2004

Norm Geras' argument is valid only in an abstract moral calculus, a world without law. It is also valid only if there is no thought whatsoever to being consistent in application of similar moral calculi (i.e. the world war we must unleash if his arguments are unqualified, and his argument that Hussein's Iraq was the worst of all is, I suspect, a function of over-dependence on short-term journalistic sources.). Also, though he pooh-poohs the idea that anything we replace the regime with could be worse, that depends on a rather limited view of the options and likely consequences of our situtation.

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