Saturday, October 31, 2009

The World Wide Web as a Forum for the Unfolding of Spirit

Meeting in Seoul, South Korea, the board of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) voted to make it possible for Internet addresses to be written entirely in non-Latin alphabets. Though a few security experts raised concerns that internationalization of names might make cyber-attacks more likely, Icann did not see the additional domain diversity as having a substantial effect on the threat level.

Both practically and symbolically, this clears the way for the Web to emerge more fully as a connection point within and between cultures. Thirty thousand years after the invention of human language, the remarkable evolutionary process continues.

Looking to put Icann’s decision in a theological context, I pulled my wife’s copy of Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit off the shelf. In a chapter on “The Liberation of the World,” I read about the importance of having “a universal horizon of encounter” (p. 310) when engaging in religious dialog.

Hodgson was writing in 1994, quoting another theologian (David Krieger), who had written in 1991; surely neither man had the Net much in mind. Fifteen years later, however, it’s become a truism to observe that if Martin Luther were posting the 95 Theses today, he’d be posting them on the Web, probably using a Blackberry. Two years ago, in its Reformation Day cover, the Lutheran magazine riffed on this fact by showing one of Luther’s theses on a Blackberry that had been rechristened a Wittenberry.

Of course, the Web is also a crowded marketplace where display ads constantly clamor for attention, no matter what the primary content is on the page. The tension between the respective roles — universal horizon of encounter vs. universal emporium of wares — is nothing new. But with the Word Wide Web, it’s taking place on a bigger stage than ever before, in, as they say, “real time.”

The First Things Have Passed Away

John’s soaring vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from Heaven in Revelation 21: 1-6 is packed with powerful imagery: Bride and bridegroom, Alpha and Omega − and God himself dwelling with his people, wiping away every tear. Death will be no more, the passage promises, “for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

When I read the phrase “first things” (τά Πρωτά), I thought of the journal of that name founded by Richard John Neuhaus. “So that's where he got the title,” I thought. I’d always assumed it was a synonym for faith, or things of the spirit, with an implicit rebuke to secular folks who may have their priorities wrong. The journal definitely carries those connotations, but it does so, I belatedly discovered, with a biblically based title.

For me, Neuhaus and his journal were very nearly synonymous. Before encountering First Things, I’d read the commencement address he gave at Valparaiso University in 1987, a year after I graduated from the law school there. It was a challenging call to measure one’s life in transcendent terms, in the context of the death and Resurrection of Christ.

A few years later, someone gave my dad, a Lutheran pastor, a gift subscription to First Things. Dad used to save the back issues for me, and I’d peruse them at leisure on Saturday nights while my wife, also a Lutheran pastor, made ready for worship the next morning.

Neuhaus’ polemical bent could be tiresome, and the direction he was heading was the opposite of my own. He became increasingly conservative and ended up as a close spiritual adviser to George W. Bush, opposing stem cell research and advocating the withholding of communion from Catholics who support abortion rights.

In the run-up to the Obama inaugural, I missed the news of Neuhaus’ death. It was not until I checked the Wikipedia article on him that I learned that he died of cancer on January 8, 2009.

First Things is still being published, but it is not a significant source for my own reflection on First Things. I am drawn instead to N.T. Wright’s call to reshape the church for mission by living in a way pointed toward the transformation of this world. After all, in Revelation 21, it’s not the elect going UP to the new Jerusalem; it’s God bringing that reconstituted city right down here.

Somehow I was not surprised to discover that the ever-strident Neuhaus, less than a year before his death, had attacked Bishop Wright’s book Surprised by Hope for supposedly being anti-Catholic. Given the biblcal passage from which First Things takes its title, it was with some sense of irony that Wright asked in his response whether Neuhaus had actually read the book of Revelation lately. That’s one trouble with endless polemics; they keep one from the source.

Monday, October 26, 2009

God Grows Tired - of Same Old Same Old Christmas

Nearly fifteen years after fleeing Sudan in a harrowing exodus of biblical proportions, a number of the Lost Boys made their way to America. A deeply moving documentary film, God Grew Tired Us, follows three of their stories in particular: John Bul Pai, who settled in Syracuse, New York, and two others, Daniel and Panther, who went to Pittsburgh.

Of all the memorable scenes, I’ll focus here on only one. Spending his first Christmas in America, only two months removed from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he spent ten years, John Bul seeks to understand the role of Santa in the American celebration of the holiday.

Santa doesn’t make sense to John Bul on any level. Quite rightly, he asks what a kitschy photo op prop for sales in the shopping mall has to do with the birth of Christ. After all, there is no Santa in the Bible. John Bul contrasts the preoccupation with the bulbous, bearded caricature of our commercial imagination with the experience of Christmas Eve at Kakuma, where the whole camp pulsed with dancing expectation of the imminent birth of Christ in each person’s heart.

And they really did dance at Kakuma − in a joyous, vibrant way that broke down the separation between people, what some philosophers call the principium individuationis.

In America, our experience of Christmas is highly privatized. Even those who venture out for worship do so for little more (or even less) than an hour before returning to the exclusivity of their private presents and expected foods of feasting.

At Kakuma, by contrast, the shared experience seemed to be more than the sum of the individual parts. Surely we have much to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this regard. Wouldn’t it be something, this Christmas Eve, if we not only reenacted the ageless story of the birth in the stable, but also linked arms in a more systematic way than we’re used to doing? Yes, we’re dealing with H1N1, but still . . . .

A place to start might be by recalling that St. Nicholas of Myra, the primary inspiration for Santa Claus, was a 4th-century bishop in what is now Turkey who was known for his generous gifts to the poor. What are we doing, for our part, for the many people struggling in this tough economy?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unsuccessful Sanctimony at Sentencing

A man convicted of mortgage fraud addressed the judge and others in the courtroom before being sentenced. Instead of expressing remorse, he self-righteously claimed that the world really needed a good Christian person like him.

The sanctimony was not a success. Judge Steven Lange sentenced Marlon Pratt, 34, to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for 17 theft-by-swindle and two racketeering convictions. Pratt was a mortgage loan officer who blatantly inflated the true value of property on loan applications and pocketed the difference between the sale price and the loan as a kickback. There were numerous properties involved in the scheme, and Pratt may have obtained as much as $700,000 for his role.

The judge called it greed with a capital G, justifying a sentence above the eight-year guideline. Pratt may also face additional charges involving straw buyers.

The far-reaching fraud, conducted between 2004 and 2007, led to $3.2 million in foreclosures on 17 properties. It affected Minneapolis and two suburbs, but hit north Minneapolis especially hard. Five others besides Pratt have been convicted or pled guilty in connection with it.

What was Pratt thinking, given these facts, when he stood up and told the judge to go easy on a good Christian? He should have taken a look first at Mark 10: 17-18, in which a man comes up to Jesus and address him as Good Teacher. Before answering the man’s questions about what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus corrects him emphatically: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Bonhoeffer. Just that one word, to those who know of his life and work, speaks volumes. Executed at 39 for his role in resisting Hitler, the German theologian's work continues to resonate across the decades.

Tonight, readying my house for a milestone birthday party, I happened to open a box of books. Inside was A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a selection of excerpts from his writings for daily mediation, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 2005. On the flyleaf was an inscription from Bishop Craig Johnson of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wishing my wife, Diane, well on her acceptance of a call to Shepherd of the Valley, in Apple Valley, in 2007.

Jim Walllis’ excellent forward describes the Sermon on the Mount as a manifesto for a brave new world order called the Realm of God.

So I reread the Sermon on the Mount. And given the primary focus of this blog, I reread it with American criminal justice policy in mind.

The verse that jumped out at me was this: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Why do we so rarely hear this word mentioned, in what passes for discussion of the proper response to crime in the U.S.?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Can Kevorkian Comment?

Seemingly a bit giddy that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had climbed back above 10,000 for the first time in a year, National Public Radio offered an unusual historical montage of the top stories from ten years ago, when the Dow first exceeded that level.

Suddenly one heard the voices of Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams running through headlines from 1999: The story about whether NATO-led bombing in Kosovo would put sufficient pressure on Serbian forces to avoid a ground war was rather eerie, as the Obama administration weighs whether to increase ground forces in Afghanistan.

Another story dominating the news ten years ago was the trial of Jack Kevorkian, the defrocked doctor and self-styled apostle of euthanasia whom a Michigan jury convicted of second-degree homicide. Sentenced to an indeterminate 10-25 year term, Kevorkian was paroled in June 2007 after serving only 8 years and 2 months. It was essentially a form of compassionate release, with Kevorkian seemingly terminally ill due to Hepatitis C.

Since his release, Kevorkian has regained a measure of health. In recent months, he has begun to flirt with violations of a condition of his parole requiring him to refrain from commenting publicly on issues involving assisted suicide. One wonders what types of internal discussions parole authorities in Michigan are having about this, particularly after Kevorkian addressed a sold-out audience at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in September.

With or without Kevorkian, issues involving assisted suicide are as timely as ever. Today, the Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota Board of Nursing had made public its revocation of the license of William Melchert-Dinkel, a male nurse who used international online suicide chat rooms to urge others to take their own lives. The evidence showed that on two separate occasions Melchert-Dinkel entered into suicide pacts, saying he would die at the same time as another person − then watched on his webcam as the victims killed themselves.

One victim was Nadia Kajouji, an 18-year-old college student in Onatario who was struggling with depression. The other was a 32-year-old man in England, according to the investigation in Minnesota that preceded the revocation of Melchert-Dinkel's nursing license.

When Camus said that suicide is the only serious philosophical question, he was not thinking of this.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bhopal and the Absence of Remorse

The massive toxic chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, on December 3, 1984, killed several times the number of people as the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda did in the United States on September 11, 2001.

At least 2,000 people died in Bhopal on the night of the leak, according to the Indian government. Aid organizations estimated that 5,000 people died in the fist 72 hours, and another 15,000 in the next few weeks. Tens of thousands more may have died over the years from lung cancer, kidney failure, liver disease, and other gas-related illnesses, with countless victims still chronically ill.

When the Bhopal leak occurred, I was taking exams for the fall semester in my second year of law school. Though I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune and watched the news on McNeil-Lehrer (not yet called The Newshour), the tragedy seemed so far away. The main thing I remember about it, beyond the raw number of 10,000 dead (a gross underestimate, it now seems), was that numerous American personal injury lawyers headed to Indian in the aftermath of accident, seeking to sign up clients.

I hadn’t thought about the case in years, until I read a brief item last summer about the warrant issued by a magistrate in Bhopal for the arrest of Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide. Anderson was briefly detained in India at the time of the lethal leak, but was quickly released. The magistrate reissued the arrest warrant and ordered the Indian government to initiate extradition proceedings against Mr. Anderson.

In late July of 2009, reporters seeking comment about the arrest warrant and possible extradition showed up at Anderson’s home in the Hamptons. His wife, Lilian, offered a rather incoherent defense of her husband:

● Warren Anderson is 89 and doesn’t remember so well, she said − but she still tried to garner sympathy for him by saying he has been haunted by the incident for nearly 25 years.
● CEOs were not paid all that much back in her husband’s day, she asserted − as a silver Cadillac sat parked in their driveway in the prosperous Hamptons.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that an 89-year-old man who may be in poor health should be sent halfway around the world for trial. But Warren and Lilian Anderson would do well to not merely defend themselves, but to come to terms, at least in their own hearts, with the devastating cascade of death and disease unleashed by the negligence of the company Warren headed.

In India, that pain is not some historical footnote; it is a real and present ongoing grievance that continues to afflict tens of thousands of people in body and soul. Although Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to the Indian government in 1989, victims groups claim that the money was never properly distributed.

A crowd gathered outside the court in Bhopal and cheered the news of Mr. Anderson’s arrest warrant. A few of these people beat a hooded effigy of him with a stick. A nasty image, to be sure. Yet the Andersons, if they are of sound mind, should not look away. Not wanting to be a scapegoat is understandable, but has Warren Anderson ever really acknowledged the immense scale of the suffering in Bhopal and his role in it?
Generationally, the Andersons are probably too old to be attuned to Bob Dylan’s music. But they might benefit from considering the lyrics to his song What Good Am I?

"What good am I if I know and don't do.
If I see and don't say, if I look right through you.
If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky,
What good am I?"

Nearly 25 years after the Bhopal sky filled with toxic fumes, one suspects that the head of the corporation that caused the carnage is still looking right through the victims. If he really is haunted, why did he make no act of expiation?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Facebook Burglar

National Public Radio treated it as one of their humorous snippets, leading into the hourly news headlines. Someone burglarizing a house outside Rome used the victim’s computer to post Facebook messages before stealing cash and jewelry. He left the computer open to his Facebook page, however, and was quickly apprehended by Italian police.

After hearing about this episode from a friend, I went to the Web looking for more details. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported that the burglar is 26 and the victim, who is not on Facebook, is 52. Though the burglar did not actually post anything about the crime he was committing, he did post several messages on his wall.

One wonders why the burglar didn’t also steal the computer. NPR joked that maybe his next post will be from jail, but that is not likely. Even in the age of seemingly ubiquitous Internet usage, online access for the incarcerated is severely limited.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael J. Fox Soldiers On Despite Parkinson's

The Twins defeated the Royals 5-4 in an exciting penultimate regular season game at the Metrodome. In the post-game interview with Michael Cuddyer, who hit the game-winning homerun, the final question from the television broadcaster was about the quality time Cuddyer had spent before the game with a young boy suffering from an incurable disease, a visit made possible through the nonprofit organization Make a Wish.

The Make a Wish question changed the tone completely, from reveling in ephemeral sports victory to the hard reality of a child dying young. It immediately affected even my perception of the figure of Cuddyer on the screen. Suddenly I saw the shadows underneath his baseball cap, as it shielded his face from the glare of the Dome lights. Rembrandt lighting, I thought . . . . maybe even Caravaggio.

Then we went to commercial. But instead of some silly screed for Geico or The Colonel’s Grilled Kitchen, it was Michael J. Fox, earnestly urging donations to his Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The Rembrandt lighting took on an even more serious tone, and the Caravaggio shadows got even deeper and more complex.

For many years, Michael J. Fox has been one of the most well known people in America living with Parkinson’s. When my dad was diagnosed in 2003, Fox, Pope John Paul II, and Muhammed Ali were among the highest profile people suffering from the disease. John Paul died in 2005, and my dad in 2007 − partly from complications of Parkinson’s.

Michael J. Fox soldiers on, patiently and passionately making the case for more research into the causes and possible cures for Parkinson’s, a nasty, progressive brain disease that insidiously robs people of much of their capacity to perform even the most basic tasks.

The Twins won the game, pulling within ½ game of the Tigers on the next-to-last day of the season. The true hero of the day, however, was Fox, still hanging in there, after losing so much to Parkinson’s, still trying to raise the money to fund the research to find a cure.