Things I Would Like to See (Part XIII)

Cold fusionAs any reader of this blog well knows, I am a science fiction enthusiast.  In ways both popular (Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, etc.) and a bit more niche (Farscape, Defiance, Dune,  Asimov, Heinlein, etc.), I’ve dipped deeply into this particular genre of literature.  I’ve said before that I think science fiction can carry with it some big ideas, and I’ve been pleased to consider many of them as I’ve read, watched, and listened over the years.

In the past few weeks I was able to read the award-winning novel Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman.  For the sake of this conversation the plot is unimportant.  What is in play, though, is Haldeman’s discussion of the emergence of viable fusion and replication technology in the near future.  A world where  fusion energy and a so-called “nano-forge” allows access to materials, equipment, and even luxuries with an ease heretofore unimagined.  krup2

Haldeman’s is no utopia, surely.  Just read his book and you’ll find out.  But it is intriguing to think of a society where abundant (and ostensibly clean) energy is available.  In such a universe, no longer would oil or other dwindling energy resources dominate economies and geopolitics.  National and international efforts could be directed elsewhere.  And even if said energy where not available in superabundance, its potential to make free and very cheap what was once purchased at great cost would be a sea change in human interaction.

Because we are human, of course, I’m sure we would still find a way to mess things up.  Free, abundant, and clean energy would almost certainly mean no Paradise.  But it might mean a worldwide rise in standards of living far beyond even the admirable achievements of tProfessor_frinkhe 20th century.  Though the fear would be that such a development would free up too much time and energy for global mischief or indolence, its potential to provide for the world in such a way would also open to door too much good as well.

Science friends may wish to remind me that this is all a pipe dream.  Maybe so.  Others would want me to remember that such developments could lead to very maladapted or repressive world systems.  Understood.  Feasibility issues and dystopian fears not withstanding, however, free and abundant energy for all the world’s citizens is still one of the things I’d like to see.

Old Enough to Vote

26th-amendment-i12My series on the Amendments to the United States Constitution has now reached its penultimate entry.  Today, we look at the Twenty-sixth.

Ratified in 1971, the amendment’s main provision succinctly states:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

As a Vietnam-era change, the move to align voting age with the military draft made sense to substantial number of citizens and lawmakers.  So much so that it was the quickest Amendment to be ratified after passage by the Congress.

For those generations alive during the change in voting age from 21 to 18, the Amendment’s effect will likely never be forgotten.  For the rest of us–having grown up with this policy since birth–it seems strange and almost quaint that it wasn’t this way since Day One.vietnam_sm07

Yet by implying–with the draft and the vote–that adulthood begins at 18, the results of this change also raise questions about maturity that reverberate in the present.  For while voting at 18 sounds great immediately following the decade in which the combination of a significant military draft, war, and concomitant political action by youth came to a head, it makes less immediate sense in our less active era.

Make no mistake: I’m not saying we should change it back to 21.  I’m simply stating that some of the philosophical and social force behind “voting at 18″ is much less strong today.  Though many brave young people have served beginning at 18 in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no longer a compulsory draft.  There is no longer the same political focus, dialogue, and involvement from college-age students as we saw in the 1960s.  18-year olds of today do not face the draft, and just don’t have to care as much about these matters as they did when–for many–their life literally depended upon it.

antiwarlargeAnd then, of course, we continue today to consider the problem of “extended adolescence” among many of our youth.  A process that begins biologically around 10-12 for some does not have a societal end until the mid-20s or even 30.  It is a common complaint that people simply aren’t “growing up” as quickly as they have in previous generations.

EA-TommyThe fact that our drinking age sits at 21 while voting, smoking, and the draft hover around 18 further complicates the picture of adulthood in the United States.  Though not an argument for lowering all barriers to drinking, it does point out an apparent inconsistency and disagreement about when full adult citizenship is achieved and what it means.

How we as a country understand personal/political maturity and raise the next generation to embrace that maturity are good questions for us to consider.  Helping 18-year-olds understand the stakes and place of their vote, citizenship, and more is a continuing part of this, even as other societal forces may continue to keep them ensconced in the world of adolescence.

Matthew 5

Note: This is a continuing weekly series on the book of Matthew that I began earlier in the year.

2553995_origDuring a recent conversation with some fellow ministry-minded friends, the subject of the Sermon on the Mount came up.  Though relatively brief, a comment was made that I found interesting: the Sermon on the Mount is not the gospel.

For someone like myself who admires and finds great affinity for Jesus’ discourse here in Matthew, I was not a big fan of the statement.   To be sure, there is a very real sense in which I understand what my friend was saying.  The Sermon on the Mount is not directly about the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the grace and mercy of the Lord.  It is not specifically about Christ’s salvific atoning work.  What is it?  A sermonic reworking of the Ten Commandments.  A proclamation of the different ways of the Kingdom of God.  A way of reminding us that living for God is a lot deeper than simply avoiding the letter of the Law.

So I understand that from a certain point of view the Sermon on thesermon-mount Mount is not the gospel.  But I still have trouble with the statement.  On the face of things, calling something “not gospel” runs the risk of making it a kind of second-class portion of the Scripture.  Further, it has the danger of diminishing what the gospel–or good news–might actually be. 

This is, after all, the most lengthy of Jesus’ discourses in the Scripture.  It is a sustained period of teaching in which our Lord–often deeply parabolic elsewhere–says some pretty direct things.  Things that I would contend are quite fitting with the idea of the proclamation of the gospel (and least broadly conceived). To imagine that such instruction is not constitutive of Christ’s larger mission is hard to believe. 

Is Jesus talking about John 3:16 style things here in Matthew 5?  No.  Is he laying out the plan of salvation through the forgiveness of sins?  No.  But he is saying some things that I would say are very good news indeed.  Think about the Beatitudes.  The poor in spirit?  The meek?  Mourners?  Those who are persecuted?  All blessed in Christ.  All blessed because of Christ.  Followers of Christ are salt and light.  In Him and through Him they have a real place in the world. 

Admittedly, it is not these things but the specific prohibitions against oaths, holding murder in your heart, lust, divorce, and more that would lead someone to proclaim the Sermon on the Mount as not “the gospel.”  I understand this.  If we read the Sermon on the Mount as a set of instructions for living or how to sin or not sin (i.e. a new Law), then I’d have to admit the gospel-as-salvation content would seem a little slim.

jesus_sermon_on_the_mountBut if we see the Sermon on the Mount as a radical proclamation of the new ethic, orientation, and operation of the Kingdom of God, there’s a lot more positive to see.  It might then be understood as an effect of the gospel, if you will.  Phrased alternately, it could be what a gospel-infused life might look like.  Further, if we understand the gospel (as God’s great YES to us) to be inextricably tied to our separation from God (the great NO to our broken ways) then the Sermon on the Mount is closely linked with good news.  Who, after all, can avoid despairing when we learn that hatred or lust in our heart are as bad as murder or adultery?  By revealing this, Jesus–like John the Baptist before him–points to the need for repentance and reliance upon grace.  Good news and bad as two sides of the same coin.

So is the Sermon on the Mount the gospel?  For the sake of discussion, I’ll say yes.  I say so because it is good news.  Even if that news can at times only be seen in negative, it is still there.  Though a broader view of “gospel” than others amongst my coreligionists might allow, I offer it as a way of thinking about the mission of work of Christ beyond only the salvation of the soul. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

The Possibilities of Power

51+0F7fKcdLOne of my newer summer traditions is to take on a substantial reading project.  Last year I read through the published chronological volumes of the Oxford History of the United States.  This time around, the summer months were dominated by one man: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The project in question is called The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  Now running four volumes, author Robert Caro has been working on the more than 3000-page project for over thirty years.  Even more notable is that in all those pages he has still only progressed to 1964.  Considering that Johnson was President until 1969 and lived until 1973, there remains plenty for Caro to detail in the next installment.lyndon-b-johnson-color

The project is a relatively well-known and audacious one, and its sheer magnitude drew me in as an historian.  To spend the bulk of one’s life researching and writing about the life and times of one man is a bold and risky undertaking.  In reading Caro’s work, though, it seems the gamble has paid off.

Lyndon Johnson was not, we might say, a particularly moral man.  But then that’s not the point.  The point is that he was a complex man living in complex times that defined him and which he himself helped define.  His bullish personality, use of power, political skill, and the contradictions johnson2in his character all paint a picture that is as compelling as it is at grotesque.

Caro’s third volume Master of the Senate is perhaps the most popular, for it details Johnson at the height of his pre-Presidential political power as he guided the course of legislation by sheer force of will and political deftness.  Two additional sections amongst the four volumes stand out as worth the price of admission: one that describes the life of the citizens of Johnson’s homeland in the Texas Hill Country in the days before 1930s-era electrification and another that lays out the deep history of the United States Senate as an institution.  I well consider both of these worthwhile stand-alone essays on their subjects.

The most notable element in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, however, is Caro’s reflection on power: “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.”  Power shows, in other words, who a person really is.  For Johnson, this might be said to be a mixed bag.lbj_civil-rights-leaders  Power revealed him to be a domineering bully and a man of hubris eventually brought low by Vietnam.  But–and this is important–it also revealed him as a vital proponent of civil rights.  The landmark legislation he pushed through as President showed many in America who he was.  The fact that he had grown up in Texas in the first half of the 20th century and built his power base on oil money and southern Senators make his actions all the more surprising.  But then that’s how power works: it reveals.  

If Caro is right, there are questions to be asked about what power reveals in so many throughout history…and what it might even reveal in us.  Not just–or even necessarily–corruption, but perhaps something else entirely.  Who, after all, would we prove to be when faced with the possibilities of power?

A Return to Form

capaldiWith the beginning of the academic year here at Northwest University, I once again return to my traditional habit of reflection via blog.  It is something I have attempted to make a regularity during the months in which I teach.  During the fall semester, this has been a fairly firm practice; in the spring semester, things have tended to be a bit dicier.

It has been more than six months since I last sat to write an entry, and what a six months it has been.  Though the world remains the same broken place it has always been, the passage of time that has marked the immediate past year has, for me at least, been particularly troubling. 

A missing passenger plane.  Russian incursion and meddling in the Ukraine.  Another plane shot down.  Open warfare between Israel and Hamas.  Race riots and police actions in Ferguson.  ISIS running rampant through Iraq and parts of Syria.  The public beheading of a journalist.  The emerging narrative of a potentially moribund presidency.  The suicide of one of our nation’s most beloved comic actors.

There’s likely more I’m not recalling at the moment.  More to alternately sadden and concern us.  I realize that all of this makes me a bit of a bad news harbinger, and I’m sorry about that. There is good in the world–in ways both big and small–and I do believe that God is in sovereign.  It is simply that there has been so much…else going on this past half year.

And so, as I turn in the coming days and weeks to reflect upon, pray, and work through such issues (and much more) I hope that you’ll join me in this journey.  We may not always agree.  We may not see things from the same perspective.  But let’s do walk through this life with our eyes open, minds working, and hands ready, prepared to be not just fellow travelers but active citizens in a world on fire.

Succession

President_George_W._Bush_and_Barack_Obama_meet_in_Oval_OfficeAfter so many posts, my long series on the Amendments to the United States Constitution is beginning to come to a close.  After today, there are only two more left.

But then I get ahead of myself.  The Twenty-fifth Amendment is our present concern.  Not sweeping or broadly inspirational in orientation like others amongst its small family, this change to the Constitution is more of a clarification and nuancing of our American plan for governance.  Comprised of four sections, it: 1) states that the Vice-President is first in order of presidential succession, 2) provides for the appointment of a new Vice-President when necessary, 3) allows for the President to write a statement of their inability to perform their duties, making the Vice-President the “Acting President,” and 4) details the procedure by which others may officially decide that the President is unable to fulfill his or her duties.

The amendment is basically a housekeeping measure that seeks to forestall controversy should questions arise Nixon-departabout the office of the Chief Executive.  While no amount of definition is probably going to stop a bit of chaos surrounding the potential enactment of (especially) Sections 3 and 4, at least we’ve got it in writing.

It is helpful for our nation to have such defined policy.  Especially when considered together with the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, there is a clear path for the inheritance of the office in case of death, disability, or impeachment.  That these laws were passed during the Cold War era makes sense, both due to the growing power of the Presidency and the potentially of far-reaching and devastating nuclear attack.

Yet considered together, the 25th Amendment and our laws regarding succession are a bit odd.  After the Vice-President, the office would descend to the Speaker of the House, then the President pro tempore of the Senate, followed by the Secretary of State and the rest of the Cabinet.  This person, whoever they might be, would serve for the remainder of the presidential term (up to nearly four years).

roslinWhile in the case of the Vice President this would seem to make sense, I’m a little less than comfortable with our plan should such a disaster befall the nation that someone like the Secretary of Health and Human Services or Secretary of Energy inherit the office.  First and foremost, it would have to be quite a tragic and dire turn of events (thus requiring strong leadership in response) for so many governmental figures to be eliminated in such a short time.  Second, the odds that a designated successor, chosen for their skills in more specialized roles, would have any idea how to govern the nation, are rather low.  Barring some sort of miraculous Laura Roslin/Battlestar Galactica situation, I really don’t want the Secretary of Education (whoever they might be at the time) to serve as the President of the United States for very long.16386wink

Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that if over half of the presidential term remains that a national election should take place so that the people themselves could choose a new leader?  The inheritor of the office after the death(s) or removal from office would still be in charge during the interim.  But in case they are not suited to the office or are not particularly desirous to inhabit it, this would provide a helpful option.  Stability in terms of succession is important, yes.  But so too is having  person with the proper skill set in place to lead the country.  All said, I think that 25th Amendment and/or the Presidential Succession Act could probably use a little tweaking.

There are certainly other options here.  Your suggestions?

Matthew 4

temptationSin.  It’s an ugly word that we rarely want to confront…especially when it has to do with us.  As a  particularly religious term, some like to avoid it entirely.  Talk about ethics, though, or matters of right and wrong, and a lot more people are on the same page.  Mention hubris or flawed human nature and pretty much everyone else is with you.

Lapses in judgment, moral failures, humanitarian wrongs, and deep betrayals are all part of our shared human history.  While we might not accept that we ourselves are necessarily caught up in “sin,” acknowledging this about the rest of the world is rather easier.  Further, though we may not all agree what constitutes right or wrong, that there are such things is near universally acknowledged.

Knowing that sin–or whatever we call it–exists means that its corollary (temptation) must also be recognized.  After all, each of us are faced with decision points at which we might consider the wrong choice or path.  To hurt or heal.  To love or hate.  To sin or not.

None of us are immune to these moments–not even Christ Himself.  In Matthew 4, He is thrice tempted by the Devil.  Three times indexHe is strongly encouraged to contravene the commands of God and go against the right He knew He had to do.  As the ordeal progresses, he is tempted to do something that he feels he needs (bread).  He is tempted to do something he can get away with (jumping from great heights knowing there are angels to protect him).  He is tempted to do something in order to get what He might want (all the kingdoms of the world without having to go through that nasty crucifixion business).

While I’m probably reading more into this story than is intended, these three ideas: perceived need, entitlement, and desire form a nice troika in the psychology of temptation.  At least in my life.  I’ve been tempted–and sometimes failed–so many times.  I know the pattern will continue to repeat.  I don’t say this happily or proudly, but simply as a matter of fact.  To live means to make decisions, and as long as our decisions can move in the wrong direction, we will face the temptation to do so.  More specifically, I face the temptation to do so.

Girl Peeking Over the CounterThe fact that God Incarnate faced such temptations is comforting for many.  It is for me.  But then of course He never gave in.  He never gave up.  That isn’t my story.  And the assumption is, of course, that after this episode in Matthew 4 he was never tempted again.  How different this is than our lives, we say.  But then I’m not sure this is the case.  I think that Christ was continually tempted even after this period.  If you had the potential of all the power in the universe and were facing the seemingly inevitable reality of your own public execution, wouldn’t you be?

For me, Matthew 4 is not so much about Jesus’ only three temptations, but perhaps just those at the beginning of his ministry.  Though the text doesn’t specifically say that, it makes some sense.  Because I am sorely tempted from time to time.  Tempted to do what I shouldn’t.  And I sometimes give in.  The temptation won’t stop.  Not for me, and not for any of us.  Though God is there for us in the midst of our struggles and can help us in these places, Christ reminds us just a little later in the book of Matthew that temptation and sin are continual realities in our lives and consistent matters about which to pray.  Why else would the Lord’s Prayer speak of daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and avoidance of temptation all in the same breath?  A healthy reminder, surely…and a confirmation of sorts of one of Luther’s most famous maxims: that the Christian is simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner).