World Affairs

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead. Indeed he was an icon. An icon for everything that the modern world holds dear and yearns for—freedom, equality, justice, reconciliation and peace. He towered above other men. But as the testimonies and accolades pour into South Africa from around the world it is easy to miss the deeper realities.

Neither a god nor a saint, he was just a man. He was imperfect—as we all are. He was sometimes authoritarian—as some of us are. He was forgiving—as few of us are.

Twenty-seven years a political prisoner, he was cut off from the world, most of those years unable even to touch family. Only through coded messages could he communicate with others and learn of the continuing struggles for freedom in South Africa. But he persevered and emerged from prison not only a free man, but staunchly principled and resolute.

Like many prisoners, he was forced into hard labor—the useless task of breaking boulders with a hammer. Contrary to the desires of his captors, it did not break his spirit. He drew nourishment not from food, but from the truth. He grew strong through the power of justice and the inevitability of freedom.

In his solitude he managed to escape the lure of bitterness, discovering, instead, that the enemy was as weak and human as he was. He learned to love his oppressors. From that love he learned to forgive. From that forgiveness he was able to forge a path toward reconciliation, equality and justice. He rose to become the father of a new nation in an ancient land.

While it was encouraging to watch him walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison and greet the welcoming crowds of Cape Town, it was stunning to hear him speak not of retribution, but of peace, never wavering in his quest. Giving no inch to either hatred or prejudice, he called on everyone to embrace the needs of the other, especially the disenfranchised. He was a man for all people, a man for all seasons.

Despite his greatness it is slightly less than cynical to suggest that we will not see his like again. That is a sentiment we have heard before, because he have seen men like him before. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just two. To suggest that no others await the world stage is to guarantee that what they stood for will never be fully realized. The truth is that left to our own devices, without the inspiration of men like these, we choose to close our eyes to the needs of others. We choose to create and recreate worlds that are defined as us v. them. We choose to imprison ourselves in a world of our own concerns and desires. We almost always choose violence over peace.

Today we must do more than pray for Madiba’s passage. We must do more than give thanks for his life. We must commit ourselves to his work. Look at India post Gandhi. Look at the United States post King. Nelson Mandela’s life and accomplishments must not dissolve into discord, inequality and injustice. We must continue the cry of the poor, the cry of people the who are oppressed and denied their rights and freedoms: Amandla! (Power!).

Thank you, Madiba for an inspiration. May we do more than treasure your memory. "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa")
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The Quandary of Strange Bedfellows

Although launching cruise missiles into Syria will not likely lead to all-out war, President Obama has correctly decided to seek Congressional approval before undertaking such action. There is, however, a caveat. And we should not confuse the issues.

Seeking the approval of Congress is in keeping with the War Powers Resolution of 1973—legislation specifically designed to keep military intervention in check. It was precipitated by the actions of President Nixon during the Vietnam War. Although Congress overrode Nixon’s veto of the legislation, thus making it law, there are legitimate questions as to the constitutionality of the Resolution. Nonetheless, that is not really the issue.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, used forceful but accurate language to condemn the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians. That same language would be justifiable regardless of who the victims were. But…

Truth and trust are preciously rare commodities these days. Thanks to President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the failures of the intelligence community regarding Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, many people are demanding more evidence before accepting the judgment against Syrian President Assad.

Also, and more to the point, the people of the United States are tired of war. And it does not matter whether we have a Democratic or Republican president. The people want to have a voice when it comes to military action abroad.

One might be tempted to argue that the people’s will is articulated by its representatives in Congress. However, at least in the House of Representatives, that is no longer the case. The present House simply does not represent the majority of the people. By every statistical analysis, it represents an ever-shrinking and extreme minority, the result of ideological gerrymandering. And yet, there’s no place else to turn.

Like many others, I trust, or at least want to trust, President Obama. I do not trust the House of Representatives, and I am ambivalent about the Senate. But I am also realistic enough to recognize that we have not yet emerged from the moral bankruptcy of the Bush Administration.

If the allegations against Assad’s government are true, the international community must respond. This is not merely a question of how history will judge us, nor can it be reduced to a measure of our war-weariness. If the world is to escape the ever-tightening grip of violence and death, there must be limits to how we resolve conflicts. To paraphrase President Obama, there are lines no one can cross. But how to respond? Thus, the truism about politics and religion.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (boldprogressives.org) is a prime example. This organization has fought against the House of Representatives’ attempts to dismantle the U.S. Government and its cold disregard for the common good. On more than one occasion it has sounded the alarm about the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, and it has documented the House’ failure to represent the majority of Americans. Today it has stated its support of President Obama’s decision to consult Congress over a response to Syria. It has, however, let the bedfellow syndrome cloud its language. PCCC’s Sunday email reads:


“Yesterday, the president made the right decision by asking the people's representatives in Congress to vote on whether our nation uses military action in Syria.”

Regardless of how one views the War Powers Resolution; regardless of one’s attitude toward war in general; regardless of one’s fatigue after more than a decade at war, Obama’s decision may, indeed, be the right one. The American people should at least have a voice in this and future military actions. But let us not conclude that the present House is the “people’s representatives”. It is not.

I applaud President Obama’s decision to consult Congress. But make no mistake. For anyone interested in “truth, justice and the American way,” getting in bed with the current House of Representatives is not good politics.

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Why…and Why Not? Questions about the Sandy Hook Shooting

The peace, joy and celebrations of Christmas and the holiday season have been shattered by despicable violence. In many parts of the country, people have been physically sickened and have shed tears, some uncontrollably. The first question, the Why, is not an attempt to seek and understand an explanation for the massacre. Rather, it queries the reason so many in our country care what happened.

Certainly for the families and friends who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the pain and sorrow are obvious and understandable. Families have been ripped apart, literally, as they lay the bodies of their little ones to rest. Sadly, neither our President, nor local politicians, nor our teachers, nor even our pastors can craft adequate words of consolation. Darkness hangs over the city of Newton; an oppressive darkness that obscures even the light of Christmas. On a basic and intuitive level we understand the concern and care of each of the families and of their friends.

But why should the rest of the country care? Most of us did not know these little children or their families. Could it be that the wanton murder of twenty little first graders creates an existential disruption in our own lives? After all, for most of us, the massacre was, and remains, incomprehensible. Our own sense of order has been distorted and thrown into chaos. Or could it be that we have become afraid? Afraid for ourselves and our own children? Or maybe it is that the massacre of innocent six and seven-year-olds is simply too unsettling to fathom, compounded by the fact that their little bodies were riddled with close-range bullets. Could it be our own repugnance at the terror they must have felt as their bodies were pierced and life ripped from their tiny frames? There are many legitimate and humane reasons to care. And as a nation, we care deeply.

But we are challenged by the second question:
Why Not? Why do we not demonstrate the same outrage and grief for the innocent children killed in Pakistan and Yemen? I don’t mean children who are victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, or even children who die of starvation or disease. I am not speaking of children caught in the crossfire of soldiers’ rifles in the midst of war. No. I mean the 178 children killed by drone attacks ordered by our own government, the United States of America. That is nearly nine times the number killed in Newton!

The children at Sandy Hook faced a madman. Children living in Pakistan and Yemen faced unmanned drones. Is their terror any less because they cannot see their killer? Are they any less innocent? Are their futures filled with any less promise? Are their dreams of being teachers or doctors, scientists or musicians any less deserving? Why don’t we rise up in anger and protest? Why don’t we care?

Could it be that they are not massacred together in a single violent act? Could it be that the media doesn’t deem these deaths worthy of news coverage? Could it be that we do not see their faces or know their names? Could it be that we consider them the “other” because they are not us? Could it simply be that they are different?

We try to justify our drone attacks by saying we are pursuing an enemy. We are hunting the “bad guys.” Well, little children are not the bad guys—no matter what country they live in. The fear that overwhelms them as they hear a drone humming in the sky above is just as real as the fear of children who hear gunfire in the next classroom. And it is just as evil.

This is not a lecture, and I do not have the answer. I have only the question:
Why don’t we care?
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9/11 New York Memorial

This is the United States of America. So it should come as no surprise that controversy has arisen over New York’s planned commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. What’s more, this is probably the most ridiculous kind of objection, for it is rooted in the fact that no religious leaders will be included in the ceremony.

For the record, a commemoration has taken place every year since the attacks. The format proposed for this 10th anniversary is the same as those over the last decade. Although many religions have memorials in their repertoire of services, the 9/11 commemoration is not a prayer service and it is not hosted by any religious body.

The commemoration at ground zero is significantly different from the prayer service held at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. That service was specifically religious and included representatives from several different religious traditions. It was not a civic event and did not foist religion upon the nation, even though the nation was tuned in.

The feigned outrage (I say “feigned” because it is not rational enough to merit legitimacy) of people like Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention serves only to diminish the value of religious tradition in the United States.

The First Amendment of the Constitution presents us with the establishment and fee exercise clauses regarding religion. A careful reading will reveal that this amendment guarantees not just freedom “of” religion, but also freedom “from” religion. The framers of the Constitution understood the dangers of imposing religion, any religion, on others. This is the reason that courts throughout the land at various levels of judicial review have banned the use of prayer at civic events.

For some reason, people on the fringe of reason, just don’t get it. I find it instructive that the Catholic Archbishop of New York and the President of the Board of Rabbis have voiced no opposition to the format for the commemoration. Perhaps it is because they are both a little more secure in their respective faith traditions.

As a Catholic priest with many years of service, I can attest that people who are grounded in their faith do not need to shout and scream; they do not need to threaten with damnation; they do not need to foist their beliefs upon others. People who are secure in their faith are capable of respecting the traditions of others, even those who have no belief at all.

In his objections, Mr. Land stated, “We’re not France” proceeding to claim that the United States is not a secular society. Actually, we are a secular society. More precisely, we have a secular government for the reasons stated above, coupled with the fact that we (at least some of us) learned through the long and tragic period of Christendom, that governments run by a religion are dangerous and self-defeating.

It is unfortunate that we are not more like France. At the risk of confusing the issue, there were many speeches given to the world community in the build-up to the Iraq War. Yet there was no more eloquent or profound speech than the one given by the French Foreign Minister in opposition to the war. Though not religious, it was rooted in the deepest of moral principles. It was tragic that his argument did hold sway. That oft-lamented hindsight proved him correct.

Any person of faith is entitled to commemorate the 9/11 attacks in a prayer service with his or her fellow believers--or any other believers. There is no law preventing it. However, the national commemoration at the site of the attacks is neither the place nor the time.

This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to hijack this national and international tragedy and politicize it under the guise of religion. In the last ten years, one would hope that we had finally learned that we are not engaged in a religious war. Nor are we engaged in a war of cultures. Whatever the roots or religious beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists, their actions were an attack against the civic structure of this country.

The planned commemoration is exactly what it should be. During the period of silence all present call pray to their God in their hearts. But the commemoration should not be polluted by the misguided intentions of religious fanatics.
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The Death of Bin Laden—A Second Look

There is, of course, no picture of Osama Bin Laden in this blog. It would serve no purpose other than to further agitate the distorted intellects of conspiracy theorists who are already frenetically claiming Bin Laden’s death is a hoax. Still, if a picture paints a thousand words, then moving pictures sketch a dictionary. While photographs possess the power to entrance, often leaving us wanting more, moving pictures transport us to the very heart of action itself, exhausting and exciting our emotions whether for good or for ill.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people all over the world were stunned and alarmed. Not only did we watch in horror while planes flew into the Twin Towers, we were also dismayed at the level of destruction as the towers collapsed with mini mushroom clouds vainly attempting to shroud the ruin. To make matters worse, the world was subjected to videos of cheering crowds dancing and celebrating these unprovoked acts of death and destruction.

For almost ten years Osama Bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had eluded the combined efforts of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence organizations. Though he never faded from memory, most people had understandably begun to wonder if he would ever be caught, if justice would forever be denied.

Then, on Sunday night, May 1st, President Obama announced a successful intelligence operation that ended with the death of Bin Laden. The President delivered the announcement with cultured elegance. It is difficult to imagine the emotions he must have been feeling. There appeared to have been excitement in his eyes—resulting as much from the magnitude and impact of his speech as from any possible joy or satisfaction. Obama pronounced a verdict of justice with sedate solemnity, and his words were filled with gravitas as he reaffirmed the perilous milieu of terror that still grips our world. Through it all, Obama was profoundly presidential and resolutely restrained.

Contrast the President’s demeanor with the throngs that gathered outside the White House, in New York City and elsewhere—chanting masses that seem so eerily similar to the cheering crowds of 9/11. It is tempting to dismiss this reaction as Schadenfreude. The truth is more sinister and therefore more difficult to correct.

Certainly there is a mix of emotions welling from within, most uniquely from within the hearts of those who have lost family and friends to the violence of al-Qaeda. From those whose loved ones have been ripped from life, we expect to find relief, gratitude, closure, perhaps even some sense of peace. No one can sit in judgment on how any individual who has suffered such tragedy should feel or react. Indeed, there probably is no “should”.

At the same time, a desire for understanding and compassion must not deter anyone from probing deeper questions of response. Specifically, what is an appropriate collective reaction when a perpetrator of mass violence ends up the prey of violence, himself? There is simply no triumph or honor in the ability to kill. That was what Bin Laden stood for; it cannot define us, also. There is something terribly obscene about watching people celebrate any death, even the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Whether in the Middle East or in the United States, such assemblies demonstrate a depraved indifference to life and exhibit a duplicity that is beyond the pale of reason. If all human life is of value, then every human life is of value. For believers there is also a religious component. After all, even the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world are created in the image of God. Although they betray that image by acts of violence, we also betray that image--and our faith--by celebrating their executions.

In the United States today, perhaps in every country, we cry out for leaders, for men and women to serve as examples the rest of us can admire and emulate. It was evident on Sunday that we have at least one politician who understands what it means to lead and to inspire. President Obama did not taunt the enemy in his Sunday address. He spoke with candor about justice, but his words did not evoke revenge.

Public displays of emotion, even those that originate from conflict, are not inherently perverse. Innumerable photos and newsreels abound of citizens from various countries celebrating the end of World War I & World War II. In those pictures we see men and women rejoicing, not because someone has died, but because the specter of violence has ended. They celebrate in the hope that perhaps no one else will have to die by bloodshed. They celebrate a peace that was won with incredible sacrifice.

While that hope certainly surfaces with the death of Bin Laden, the mobs we have seen in the streets of America are not celebrating peace. As the president stated, the fight against terror goes on. No, the mobs are celebrating violence itself, and that kind of rejoicing debases us all. However difficult it may be, we must reach deep within ourselves to embrace the more courageous and truer principles of peace. We must be better than Osama Bin Laden was.
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The War in Afghanistan--10 years later

President Obama, among others, is fond of saying that the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, while the war in Iraq was a war of choice. Those designations have been used, in part, to emphasize the extraordinary miscalculations of the Bush Administration between 2001 and 2009. A significant part of the problem was the way the two wars were prosecuted, coupled with the fact that the majority of our resources were directed to the war in Iraq--the one of so-called choice.

People are divided, and probably always will be, over the issue of these wars and their perceived necessities. Those who supported President Bush feel the hairs on their neck rise in indignation whenever someone suggests that the war in Iraq was about oil. Still, an honest exchange demands that we at least acknowledge what clever pundits have said for years: If Iraq produced bananas instead of oil, we would never have gone there.

The truth to that rather colloquial wisdom can be seen in the way the Bush Administration neglected Afghanistan in its pursuit of Iraq. After all, if one were to grant the claim that Afghanistan was/is a war of necessity, then why was it not the primary focus of military operations? It appears that capturing Saddam Hussein, a personal ambition of Bush, was more important that capturing Osama Bin Laden, a national need of the country and much of the world. Yet, it seems to me that distinguishing these two wars between necessity and choice, does not address the whole truth.

One reason this distinction has been drawn is that Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was based in Afghanistan. Although not everyone will agree, one can legitimately argue that sending the U.S. military to route Al Qaeda and capture Osama Bin Laden was a justified response. Due to the ineptitude of the Bush Administration, and the unjustified war in Iraq, that is not the situation we find ourselves in today.

It is not my intent here to argue over the justifications of this or any war. I would suggest that those interested in the truth about just wars follow this link to the Just War Doctrine. My purpose here is of a different nature. My purpose is to question why the United States is still in Afghanistan, beginning its 10th year of military operations.

The question is not wholly a political or military one. If we look at the reasons for entering Afghanistan in the first place, then Al Qaeda has been routed. Osama Bin Laden has not only not been captured, but he fled Afghanistan long ago. George W. Bush ran for office expressly opposed to nation building. And yet, that political argument should dominate the discussion today, for it is the only possible reason that the U.S. is still waging this war. Somehow, the war morphed from dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda into dismantling and defeating the Taliban.

I personally despise everything that the Taliban stands for and if they were attempting to run my country or even run for political power, I would oppose them in every justifiable way. But they are not! The Taliban control some 90% of their own country and, for the most part, are supported by the people--at least those in the rural areas that they dominate. So what is the real truth here, 9+ years later?

The United States is engaged in the worst possible example of nation-building. On this issue we find ourselves in contradiction with stated U.S. policy. We are also in direct contradiction of essential Catholic teaching. Embedded within the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church is that all peoples have a right to self-determination, period. People have a right to choose their own government, even if we disapprove of their choice. They are not answerable to the United States of America for that choice!

Democracy in most of its current forms represents a highly evolved form of government. It is certainly a pertinent example of self-determination. At its core is the right to vote, and that means the right to choose. Sadly, most Americans do not want to admit that we are indoctrinated in the principles of our democracy, and that we are unable to understand how any people could choose another form of government. Worse, that indoctrination frequently prevents us from accepting the choices other people make.

The result is that the history of U.S. foreign relations is rife with interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Sometimes it has led America to side with dictators and despots, including Saddam Hussein, while they run roughshod over the civil rights and liberties of their own people. Sometimes we have been directly involved in the overthrow of legitimately elected governments. Arguably, the most notorious example is the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, and America's subsequent support for the dictator Pinochet.

When the people of Nicaragua voted the Sandinistas into power, the Reagan Administration violated U.S. law, supporting the Contras in their violent attacks against both political and civilian targets. Why these actions still do not shock the conscience of the American people is mystifying. One might argue strongly that the plight of the oppressed is intensified by this kind of American interference.

The political issues aside, the deepest truth remains that all people have a right to self-determination. If they decide that they can no longer abide the despotic and arbitrary actions of a government, such as the Taliban, it is their right to rise up and seek new leadership. But it is also their right to choose the Taliban.

This might be a good time to end this blog. It might also be a good time for the U.S. to exit Afghanistan!
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Iran, Stoning, the Koran and the Bible

As a matter of full disclosure, I am unabashedly pro-United Nations. If that loses some readers just as I begin, I make no apologies. I consider it their loss. At the same time I am a committed Christian, specifically, Catholic. Finally, I am profoundly anti-death penalty. Just how much can be covered in one blog? Let me try to limit it this way.

It is embarrassing to me as an American that our country is the only developed nation that still executes convicted criminals. There is an English phrase that some might want to resurrect and reconsider: "A man is known by the company he keeps". As countless others have pointed out, capital punishment puts us in league with Iran, Iraq, North Korea (the three countries designated as the Axis of Evil by former President George W. Bush), Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, and a number of other less objectionable countries. One thing that sets the U.S. apart from some of our death penalty pals, is that for the United States, capital punishment is not a command of God. It is enacted for purely secular, and, I might add, unsupported reasons, such as deterrence. In the quiet of our solitude and the recesses of our hearts, I suspect we all know that the only reason for capital punishment is revenge. Unfortunately, that cannot be voiced aloud in our current political climate.

America's problems with the death penalty might best be served in a future blog. For now, the real concern is religion and its misuse in determining the laws that control governments and their citizens. Recently, much unfavorable coverage has fallen on Iran. That in itself is no surprise, since Iranian President Ahmadinejad continues to offer reason for disdain. But recent coverage has dealt with decisions to stone people to death, in particular a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. It is very reminiscent of biblical times. Except that for educated Jews and Christians, their sacred writings have been subjected to the tools of literary criticism, thus enabling them to filter out those elements of the Bible that are conditioned by the social structures and mores of the times in which they were written, thus approaching a more accurate understanding of what God is saying through the writers of the Bible.

I say educated Jews and Christians, because among both groups there are still those who take a literal view of the Bible suggesting that the Bible is inerrant and every word should be accepted exactly as it is written. It is somewhat sad that in this day and age it is necessary to point out the absurdity of such a position. There were no secretaries taking shorthand notes, no dictaphones and no digital recorders when the Bible was written. The Holy Spirit inspired people to reflect on their situations, on God's presence in their lives and on how they might respond to God's call. But they did not always get it right. There are contradictions throughout the Bible beginning with two different and irreconcilable creation stories presented in the first two chapters of the very first book, Genesis.

When I was in the seminary I was fortunate to be taught by an internationally recognized Scripture scholar. One of his favorite statements was: "The Bible is the Word (read singular) of God in the words (read plural) of the men and women who wrote it" (The parentheses are mine). He also suggested that no significant conversation can take place with someone who does not acknowledge that the Bible can be subjected to the same principles of literary criticism that every other writing can.

To be fair, there are educated Muslims who understand that the same principles of literary criticism must be applied to the Koran, though for some reason that seems to be a far more difficult process--perhaps because there are several countries that have established Sharia, or some form of it, as their civil law. This makes it quite difficult to read the Koran and conclude that stoning a woman for adultery is neither the will of Allah, nor an acceptable practice under any concept of human rights.

Thus we arrive, once again, at the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It can be strongly and accurately argued that the Declaration should outlaw capital punishment in every country. It should also be noted that there are a number of articles that many, if not most countries violate in the name of national legislation, and which should bring down condemnation by the UN as a whole. Unfortunately, that might actually lead to the dissolution of the only organization capable of moving the peoples of the world toward some kind of order and peace.

I would like to suggest that those countries that implement the death penalty because of religious law are especially onerous. It seems to me that they stand in violation of at least the following articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 and 28. As such they deserve their own form of condemnation, while not excluding or exonerating more secular governments such as the United States. It also seems that countries that impose Sharia, or some other form of religious law upon its citizens stand in violation of articles 18, 29 and 30. Given the extremism of some elements of Islam, I guess this is where I consider myself lucky to be a Christian.

I realize that the United Nations, both by its structure and mission cannot exclude or expel countries that rule under some kind of religious law. But I would like to suggest that no religious text can supplant the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This includes the texts that the three Abrahamic faiths consider to be revealed such as the Bible (Hebrew and Christian writings) and the Koran. It also includes writings that are deemed sacred and holy such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Tse Ching, etc.

As a Catholic, I am committed to the truths contained in the Bible and I believe that it offers time honored principles of justice and peace that are often dishonored by its most vociferous defenders. But I also believe that in the effort to bring about cooperation among the world's nations and eventually to achieve world peace, there may be no greater writing than the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

It may be acceptable in some countries to establsh a law that adultery is illegal (though I would have difficulty finding such justification). But to suggest that the penalty should be death is as great an affront to Allah as it is to the person caught in the act.
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9/11--A Day of Remembrance and Forgiveness

The 20th Century has often been cited as the most violent in human history. The two world wars, coupled with seemingly unending civil conflicts; military coups and repressive dictatorships; genocide in all regions of the globe; the rising specter of street violence and escalating terrorist activities; all these succeeded in nearly numbing the world to the horrors of violence. It is almost surprising, then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should have so stunned the sensitivities of the world, that for a brief moment there arose a renewed sense of humanity and common purpose.

More than stunned, the world found itself in a state of shock. Partly because nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a matter of minutes, partly because more than 70 countries lost citizens in the attacks, and partly because this all happened on U.S. soil--a land often thought to be immune from such foreign violence. For almost everyone, the attacks shattered the routine of a tranquil September morning. As we look back on the past nine years, we find so much to commemorate on this anniversary, the most treasured being the lost lives--not only of innocent workers and travelers, but also of the heroic emergency personnel who risked everything to bring others to safety.

Few, if any, experiences in life are as emotionally draining as the death of a loved one. When that death is caused by unprovoked violence or terrorism, the bonds of love only grow stronger. In the process, the human heart is stirred to canonize the memory, and the will is driven to avenge the lives of those so unjustly reduced to an untimely death. In reality, however, that stirring of the heart and driving of the will are polar opposites that cannot coexist in any kind of peace or harmony. The bonds of love that are sealed in the heart end up shattered by the pursuit of vengeance. The memories of loved ones lost are betrayed in a relentless desire for retaliation. Such is this tragic polarity that the same pain that tears us apart ends up being inflicted on other people, who also lose innocent loved ones, thus creating a spiraling cycle of violence from which we can rarely extract ourselves.

Memorial celebrations, museums and monuments are a necessary part of collective therapy. War is not. Retelling stories of life, and remembering heroic acts inspire admiration. War does not. Embracing and supporting one another strengthens the spirit and initiates healing. War cannot. War is simply the most powerful, organized and hypnotic example of a violence unleashed in response to a violence perpetrated.

Let me be clear. People who execute the kind of violence we witness in acts of terrorism must be held accountable and brought to answer for their actions. But our responses are often out of proportion and far beyond reason. It is no accident that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made with haste in the midst of the confusion that followed 9/11. And given that the entire country was in the grip of fear, it is no wonder that few sane and thoughtful voices were to be found opposing the war. Even religious leaders from a variety of traditions capitulated to the seduction of violence. It is also a little ironic that our political leaders would ignore a guiding principle of counseling, namely, not to make any major decisions while in the throws of emotion. Such is the power and effect of this kind of violence. It is called terrorism for a reason: It strikes fear and terror deep into the psyche of even the most thoughtful and peaceful people.

So if war is not the best response, what is? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were discussing forgiveness. During our exchange he told me that he could never forgive the terrorists who organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. I believe that to be a common, perhaps near universal feeling. It also is quite understandable. It is far easier to give into the desire for retaliation, as happened nine years ago. Learning to forgive takes repeated effort in a myriad of situations. In any given circumstance it also takes time.

Immediately following 9/11 I did not feel like forgiving any more than others did. But consider what resulted from an unwillingness even to try to forgive. The United States has spent nearly a decade waging war in Afghanistan. In the process, the goals advanced to justify the war have not been met. We have failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, and countless innocents have lost their lives in this conflict. We have even managed to use video games (drones) far from the battle field to kill innocent Afghanis while protecting American soldiers.

Add to this the corrupting influence of vengeance and its unquenchable thirst for violence. This corruption distorted our thinking to the point that we launched a second, illegal and immoral war--one not even connected to the terrorist attacks. That war cost many more billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American lives, hundreds of allied casualties and another countless number of innocent Iraqi deaths. On balance alone, these two wars cost more than the 9/11 attacks both in terms of money and lives. The second war also squandered the goodwill of a world community that was willing to seek the common good. Instead it reduced the United States to the same level as the terrorists themselves.

This was the fear that gripped me immediately after 9/11. The attacks took place on a Tuesday morning. In my preaching the following Sunday, I took direct aim at the words and actions of our political leaders. In my homily I challenged the United States as a nation, and my congregation as believers, to step back from the violence and seek a truer, more peaceable path.

As a Christian I look to Jesus for inspiration and strength of purpose. But I also hope this blog will reach people who are not Christian. So, while Jesus places before us the awesome challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who do us harm, I would like to suggest that for the non-Christian or the non-believer, forgiveness is not just some spiritual exercise. To rise above the destructive forces that tend to overwhelm us; to seek a good in people that they themselves have cloaked in darkness; to forgive the most grievous offenses committed against us; these enable us to tap into what poets call our better nature. That is where we discover the truth of who we are. That is where we learn to call out the best in ourselves and in others. That is where we develop the skills to work together to build a world of justice, of equality, of peace.

Today we remember, we weep and we celebrate those many loved ones who died on 9/11. Perhaps the greatest way to recall the joy they brought into our lives is to forgive those who took those lives away. War and violence will neither give us an internal calm nor bring the world a lasting peace. But if the love that causes us to remember also enables us to forgive, it can overcome violence and establish that elusive, lasting peace that we all claim to desire.
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United Nations Millennium Development Goals

When I was an associate pastor at St. Eugene Parish in Los Angeles, there was a parishioner who plastered his car with bumper stickers expressing extreme political positions. One such sticker became his mantra: "Get US out of the UN." Regardless of his right to hold such political positions, that particular slogan did a drastic disservice to history and to America's commitment to world peace. Both the United Nations and the League of Nations that preceded it, were constructs of the United States and attempts to rid the world of the need for the specter of death that encompassed the globe in the First and Second World Wars. The League of Nations suffered from serious defects that made it impractical even as it defined idealism. The United Nations, also, is not without problems. But then again, the same can be said of every national government, including the United States.

While the UN may not have succeeded in averting all wars and violence over its 65 year history, it has accomplished more toward universal peace and equality than any other organization or government. Beginning with the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the work of the World Health Organization, to its developmental work, to special peace keeping forces, to the World Court, the United Nations has consistently, if haltingly, moved the world toward peace, equality and justice. Is there any doubt where we would be as a world community without the United Nations?

In 1998 philanthropist Ted Turner made an historic gift of $1 billion dollars to support UN causes and activities. That led to the establishment of the UN Foundation. As with the success of any governmental democracy, this is not solely the work of the world leaders who will be gathering in New York City on September 20, 2010. There are ways that all of us can participate in making the founding dream of the United Nations a reality in our world today. Following are eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that offer an opportunity for everyone to be involved. Follow the links below to learn more about how you can make a commitment

Goal #1 End Hunger and Extreme Poverty
Goal #2 Universal Education
Goal #3 Gender Equality
Goal #4 Child Health
Goal #5 Maternal Health
Goal #6 Combat HIV/AIDS and Other Diseases
Goal #7 Environmental Sustainability
Goal #8 Global Partnership

Ted Turner has suggested some "To Do" items that are simple ways for all of us to participate in the eight MDGs that will be discussed in New York. They are as follows:

1) Share this page with your friends on Facebook and Twitter
2) Thank a UN Peacekeeper
3) Recycle
4) "Stand Up" against global poverty
5) Submit a photo to the TEDxChange Flickr photo campaign
6) Send a malaria-preventing net to the Central African Republic
7) Learn about issues affecting girls in developing countries
8) Sign up for email updates from the UN Foundation
9) Donate $1 to immunize a child against measles or polio
10) Make your own action!

This to do list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is easy to check off the items we participate in, but they will hopefully spark the imaginations of everyone who wants to make the world a better place.
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