God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Nuclear war remains immoral, 75 years after Hiroshima

Abolish War with Atom Bomb Image

Fresno Bee, August 2, 2020

The unique immorality of nuclear weapons remains apparent 75 years after they were first used in war. On Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by a single bomb. Nagasaki was incinerated three days later. 150,000 died in Hiroshima, 80,000 in Nagasaki. Most were noncombatants.

Nuclear weapons have such a terrible moral stigma that they have never been used again. But nuclear deterrent strategy rests upon a sinister paradox. Deterrence means we threaten to use these immoral weapons in hope of preventing their use.

Ethicists have routinely criticized this devil’s bargain, often condemning the mere possession of nukes. In a speech in Hiroshima last year, Pope Francis said, “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.”

The immorality of nuclear weapons transcends the question of who is right or wrong in a war. Japan was at fault in attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. But the laws of war provide noncombatants with immunity from deliberate attack.

Today, we possess nuclear weapons that are many times more powerful than“Fat Man” or “Little Boy,” the bombs used against Japan. Typical American nuclear weapons such as the B83 bomb are 80 times more powerful.

As destructive power increased, people saw the moral madness of nuclear war. In the 1940s, Albert Einstein urged America to get the bomb before Germany. But in 1955, he signed a manifesto opposing nuclear war, which asked, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” In a speech at the UN in 1961, President Kennedy said something similar. “Mankind must put an end to war — or war will put an end to mankind.”

Attempts have been made to ban nuclear weapons. The UN recently sponsored a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by more than 80 nations. But the U.S. and other nuclear states have not signed on.

Critics claim the treaty is a pipe dream lacking effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. Critics seem to suggest that there is no practical solution other than deterrence.

At one point it seemed that deterrence could coexist with deescalation. After the Cold War ended, there was hope for slow disarmament. But the Trump administration has reversed course, accusing nations such as Russia, North Korea and Iran of nuclear malfeasance. The U.S. now plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal and resume nuclear testing. The last U.S. nuclear test was conducted in 1992. 40 years after the end of the Cold War, a new nuclear arms race seems about to unfold.

The madness of all of this is found in the Cold War phrase “mutually assured destruction.” People have forgotten what this means. But it captures the point of deterrence. To deter a nuclear attack, you threaten to annihilate the enemy in retaliation. The enemy will, of course, threaten the same thing. If the nuclear fuse is ever lit, a chain reaction unfolds, and we all end up dead.

This perverse strategy has worked so far. Nuclear-armed nations have not used their weapons. But the moral logic of the strategy is deeply troubling. It depends upon our willingness to deliberately kill tens of millions of innocent people.

Deterrence also depends upon the rationality, competence and goodwill of those who control the nuclear buttons. But rationality is often in short supply. During the past 75 years, we have witnessed profound failures of leadership and morally suspect uses of force.

In his 1961 speech, President Kennedy warned that nuclear weapons are like the sword of Damocles, hanging over our heads on a slender thread. The fragility of that thread becomes apparent when we consider the extent to which policy is guided by instinct, resentment and wishful thinking rather than by rational calculation.

I have no idea how we might disentangle the vicious web of deterrence or blunt the nuclear sword. But the first step is sober moral reflection. We might begin by reflecting on the horror of Hiroshima as Pope Francis did last year when he said, “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering.”

MEMORIAL TREE PLANTING

There will be a ceremonial tree planting in the Fresno State Peace Garden to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, cosponsored by the Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley, Fresno State’s Ethics Center and the Japanese American Citizens League. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event on Aug. 6 at 8 a.m. is invitation-only but will be streamed on Facebook at FresnoEthicsCenter.

Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.

Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion

I am please to announce the publication of my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.

I was invited to write this book in 2019, with the goal of producing a short, readable introduction to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a perennial and important topic. But with the way things have unfolded in 2020, following protests against police brutality and the backlash against these protest by security forces, the topic has become even more important. The publisher agreed to speed up the publication process in light of the unfolding events of 2020. And with substantial effort, we were able to bring the book out in July of 2020.

The book provides an overview of nonviolence. It offers answers to the questions of what nonviolence is, how and why it ought to be used, and who ought to employ it. The book discusses examples of successful nonviolent social protest, from twentieth century movements for civil rights and colonial liberation to the Arab Spring and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, and considers recent research that explains the power of nonviolence. It also explores philosophical and religious sources of nonviolence, while discussing key historical figures including Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai. This book offers insight into the link between nonviolence and democracy. It reminds us that nonviolence gives us the power to build a better —more just, truthful, and loving— world.

Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.