The Phantom City

Notes from our travels across a mysterious world.

Category: Religion (page 3 of 3)

This is insane…

I really wanted not to comment on the Terri Schiavo case. I really wanted not to comment on it because I don’t think our comments matter. In the end, this is a personal, family matter that has been blown out of all proportion. (Yes, there are larger issues here, but what is happening to Terri Schiavo is happening across the United States right now with other patients and we haven’t been paying attention to them.) So, why am I commenting now? No good reason, other than to get it out of my head.

There’s so much noise out there right now, and very little of it means anything. I’m kind of embarrassed to say I did add to the noise on one blog, because I had noticed an idea the writer had come up with was spreading rapidly through other blogs I read and I felt the need to comment on it. He took CT scan images of Terri Schiavo’s brain and a normal brain and compared them. Seems reasonable, except for the fact that 95% of blog readers aren’t used to interpreting the information given, and the other 5% would often tell you that one image of a scan isn’t exactly enough for them to offer an opinion. So, I was amazed when I noticed a lot of people doing just that. (Okay, this fellow probably has a good idea. Or maybe this fellow? Darn hard to tell from folks just commenting on a scan they saw on the Internet.)

Then I notice things like this, and it raises my blood pressure again. So Bill Frist, M.D., offered an uninformed medical opinion in the role of “Top Doctor in Congress,” huh? And it’s big deal because it might be against medical ethics? Great, another illustration of how much this has turned into a partisan debate. If it wasn’t for uninformed medical opinions from doctors who should know better than to offer them in public, there wouldn’t be much news for our national media outlets to hyperventilate over. In other words, this isn’t unusual, folks, even though it is wrong.

For what it’s worth, this case has made me think a lot more about living wills and medical power of attorney, which is a good thing. I do want to have some say in how I go, and I trust my wife to make those decisions for me. That needs to be spelled out, though.

What is my take on larger questions, as if it’s worth knowing any more than anyone else’s?

  1. Removing hydration and food from a person is cruel, and all the medical opinions about “can’t feel pain, doesn’t know what is happening” do not change that. We’re still debating whether fish feel pain. How can we tell with humans?
  2. If a person wishes to die, and is unable to do so themselves, we should make it as comfortable and quick as possible. Yes, I’m talking about assisted suicide. I’m not in favor of suicide, but we already have it. It’s happening right now. We need to make it more humane, if we have it at all.
  3. Where the decision to die has not been explicitly made, it has to belong to the next-of-kin. In Florida law, that’s her husband, and yes, it will mean people we as outsiders may not approve of get to make that decision. I can’t in good conscience deny her husband the same right I would wish my wife to have, unless he was proven unworthy of it in some fashion, such as a court of law. The court has not so ruled.
  4. No, making a federal law out of it is not a bad thing. It’s amazing to see people who would have looked upon states’ rights as potential evidence of the Confederacy rising again immediately turn against federal control when they don’t agree with the federales who will be doing the controlling. (And vice versa. Everybody thinks national control is good when their party is in power.)
  5. Note I didn’t say that would lead to good law. Just that there wasn’t anything wrong with a federal law as opposed to a myriad of state laws. I’m personally a fan of moving political control as close to the people as possible, but we haven’t proven good stewards of that faith many times in our history.

What are things that make me very angry during this debate?

  1. Our President signed a law in Texas that allows hospitals to decide to remove life support when the family of the patient can’t pay for it and an ethics board deems the care “futile,” even if the family asks for that care to be continued.
  2. Is Tom Delay ranting about that one? Nope, this is about political gain. And his own “victimhood.”
  3. Congratulations, everyone, for somehow making this a partisan matter. Particularly Rick Santorum.
  4. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Michael Schiavo doesn’t come off very well in interviews normally. This is the best one I’ve seen with him. However, I’ve noticed people’s interpretation of him seemed for a while to be “Cruel Bastard” vs. “We Can’t Know What He’s Going Through.” Now that the national Republicans are fully involved, it’s gone to “Cruel Bastard” vs. “Loving, Dedicated Husband Who Has Fought for Years.” I’ve been guilty of idle speculation about the family situation, but we really don’t know one way or the other, folks. If you’re morally or politically outraged, making up the story as you go along isn’t going to help. That goes for everyone.
  5. Amateur metaphysicians that are debating whether she’s “truly alive” or not. Do y’all have a good test for soul presence?
  6. Materialists who point out that she is non-communicative and non-contributing, therefore not a true human. Have fun when you get old, folks.
  7. Are we so tabloidized that we can’t deal with the personal, ethical, moral, and political issues at least somewhat on their own terms? There are a lot of questions to be answered here, yet we seem incapable of concentrating on any of them.
  8. Stories about the European attitudes toward the U.S. The Europeans go through this sort of moral/legal struggle as often as we do. If the story you’re writing is just quotes illustrating “enlightened European comment,” you might want to check them out during an election.
  9. Commentary on the “Coming Great Cultural War.” Mm-hmm. Man the barricades, whatever. Perhaps we should note that if Pat Buchanan exhibited little sense of recent history when he said it, it doesn’t make it better when we say it now.
  10. Is it just me, or do Florida courts and state government seem particularly unsuited to handle major cases?

Anyway, I’ve now ranted my uninformed opinions, which makes me no better than millions of others. For anyone who’s coming in late, check out the timeline of this particular case. The University of Miami (Florida) has a nice site that actually tries to do something constructive.

Update: A fair article in Slate about what is wrong with what Congress is currently doing.

Update, again: This doctor, however, needs to learn how to make his point:

“To the families and loved ones, and to inexperienced health care professionals, PVS patients often look fairly ‘normal. Their eyes are open and moving about during the periods of wakefulness that alternate with periods of sleep; there may be spontaneous movements of the arms and legs, and at times these patients appear to smile, grimace, laugh, utter guttural sounds, groan and moan, and manifest other facial expressions and sounds that appear to reflect cognitive functions and emotions, especially in the eyes of the family.” – Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota Medical School

So, wait. That’s a pretty long list there, and could be construed to cover many of my activities during a day. I think he needs to work on that one a bit more. He’s had time to do so. He’s a leading figure in talking about the ethics of the right to die, and has attracted some controversy down through the years. Google him.

The Passion, or Hotel Rwanda?

A pastor asks why so many churches urged their members to go see The Passion of the Christ but aren’t urging them to see Hotel Rwanda.

Having seen neither movie yet, I couldn’t tell you what their relative merits are. However, I can make a guess as to two reasons why:

First, The Passion had a truly amazing marketing push behind it. To talk about it as a purely grassroots hit movie is to ignore the accomplishments of Mel Gibson and the distributor in promoting this film as a must-see for Christians. There is a common mistake made when talking about evangelical Christians. Despite the talk about cutting ourselves off from the world, we are very much aware of it and are exposed to the tools used in the rest of culture. In other words, it’s hard to separate “religious” church and/or school life from the “secular” world of working and shopping. The evangelical community has always had a large community concerned with marketing to it, just like any other niche market with special interests.

Second, it’s far easier to feel sorrow and horror over the depth of sacrifices made for you than it is to watch and accept that you yourself might be called upon to make a difference. There’s a remove in the first place, even for those who feel it deeply. This is not a knock on The Passion. I’ve met several folks who found it inspiring in their own lives and wanted to make that difference. But I suspect a marketing message saying “Look what was done for you!’ goes over easier than one that says “Look what you can do for others!” when you’re trying to reach millions of moviegoers.

But, that’s always been the dichotomy in Christianity. Is it about your life, or is it about how you live? According to the Gospels, it’s both, but we’ve always had trouble with that idea. 😐

Link courtesy of The Revealer

Yemen’s Koranic Duels

The Christian Science Monitor describes a novel approach to dealing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.

“If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle,” Hitar told the militants. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.”

I like the idea of the theological contest. I hope it continues to be effective.

Link via Obsidian Wings

Faith in many things

Another writer makes the mistake of assuming faith is only present in religious belief and gets called on it in a review by Reason.

If faith is “belief in things unseen” — the definition I grew up with — it’s not hard to see that we run a substantial portion of our lives on faith. And if that is the case, it’s pretty obvious that just because some people do bad things because of their religious faith doesn’t somehow mean it is qualitatively different when others do bad things because of their faith in a utopian system, a strong leader, or Jodie Foster finally noticing them if they just assassinate that president.

Link courtesy of The Revealer

Bush’s Faith in his Reelection

Ron Suskind writes in The New York Times Magazine about Bush’s “faith-based” presidency.

While the article runs on the anti-Bush side — Suskind isn’t coy about what he thinks of “Bush’s faith” vs. the world of reason and picks and chooses the worst quotes, as most folks do when they are trying to prove a point — it brings up an interesting point: Is faith without doubt good for a fallible human being? Even — or perhaps especially — as a person who respects faith as much as I do, and who has and probably always will be a Baptist at heart, the idea of having certainty that your words are the voice of God bothers me a great deal.

However, as an American who is used to living in a country with checks and balances that tend to damp down our tendencies toward theocracy, I think what bothered me even more in this article was the idea that Bush talks in his “faithful” way to evangelical audiences and tones it all down in the swing states, where he might upset one of the undecideds. Apparently, for our President, the voice of God speaks loudest in situations where it can get you elected, and hushes up when it might offend. It’s good to know that our President’s belief in God is so convenient to his reelection, and that folks who should be most angered by his pragmatic appropriation of their beliefs may be out voting for him as a bloc come November.

Courtesy of The New York Times (free registration required)

Update: The Revealer has an interesting take on the difference between Bush’s version of faith and the more fundamentalist views. Of course, the President is not alone. The “magical realism” he describes is a old, venerated strain of religion in this country, and probably describes the beliefs and practice of as many evangelicals as New Agers.

Update link courtesy of William Gibson’s Blog

Update, Part 2: Al Gore’s take on the issue. (You know, I wonder what the world would have been like if Al could have won his own home state, or even perennially Democratic West Virginia?)

Update, Part 2 link courtesy of electablog

Terrorist Movements without Borders

A recent Spiked article has some interesting things to say about modern terrorist movements and their globalist, as opposed to nationalist, backgrounds.

I don’t agree with the main thesis — that Western humanitarian intervention weakened the concept of state sovereignty so much that terrorist movements no longer have nationalist aims — because I don’t think the weakness of the state is a new thing. Internationalism has eroded state sovereignty for quite a long time, but a large part of the weaknesses of the state system are the same ones that it has had all along. (A reliance on national identity for legitimacy, for instance, makes it very hard to fill the entire world with brand-new states, which was the one of the effects of decolonization. Former colony space simply could not remain “empty” of states when the powers of the world were states themselves. After all, with whom do you set trade rules?)

I also take issue with the implication that modern terrorist movements do not have political goals. Of course they have goals. They might have goals that are foreign to our minds. Some of their goals may be so prosaic that we could not imagine shedding lives over them. But they have goals.

(To give the writer credit, the statement about goals is passed over so quickly that I doubt it was explained clearly. It was likely meant to draw a distinction between what Westerners see as clear political goals and what we have actually encountered.)

What the article did to intrigue me, however, was describe “rootless” groups wandering around the world and committing atrocities that shock Western sensibilities for reasons not understandable to those same Westerners. Sound familiar? I don’t think you have to look to internationalism as a primary cause of new-form global terrorism, except in the way that it makes the global adjective realistic through improved communication, logistics, and transportation. I think you just have to look back at what we’ve been doing to each other for centuries.

Sometimes in international relations we forget that sovereignty and the state are not basic concepts, even if they are useful. Both depend on the basic concept of power and are then refined through additional qualifications. However, power does not have to be a complex relationship between a person and his/her government. Humans have been conducting power relations with each other on much more intimate scales throughout our history. Person-to-person, leader-to-tribe, warlord-to-followers…we’re familiar with those concepts. After all, it’s how we built monarchies.

So what are the aims of our modern terrorists? So varied it isn’t even useful to try to describe them globally. There isn’t a lot of agreement between the aims of the various groups we describe as terrorist. Tamil Tigers are not the same as Hamas, who are not the same as Al Qaeda, who are not the same as Chechen rebels, who are not the same as a dozen groups in Iraq who are kidnapping people, who are not the same as…you get the point. In cases of cooperation, primarily only shared enemies, shared religion, and perhaps a few shared goals keep the fragile coalitions together. (Hmm, starts to sound a bit like Western international cooperation.) As we’ve seen in the past, in many cases if you withdraw that enemy from an area, the area dissolves into a patchwork of warlords. (This is less likely for actual nationalist movements, but those we claim to understand better, even if we condemn their tactics and goals.)

Do those groups have aims? Of course, even if they come down to something as simple as “Get me more power” or “Make them pay.” (A couple of classic motivations, by the way.) To act as if those aims are something new and mystifying if they cannot be fit into the context of statehood or nationalism is to ignore a large amount of our own experience.

I’m thinking, for instance, of the Crusades, a time we try to analyze in terms of broad geopolitical and religious goals, when in reality what it boiled down to was a highly organized form of “roving bands of men,” taking land and gold and settling down in areas to exercise power: The mass export of feudalism to a land that already had a mostly settled civilization. (I don’t think our current turn towards romanticizing the Muslim defenders is simply a politically correct balancing out. I think it’s because we actually somewhat identify with them now.)

Christianity’s power to organize those groups, even if their ultimate goals may have differed or conflicted, should teach us something about cooperation, however. We should not discount the organizing factor of radical Islamic aims, even among groups that may fundamentally disagree. (But, really, our preoccupation with Islam as the organizing factor is misguided. If it wasn’t that, it would be something else. Just the past few decades we’ve had international movements based on Communism and post-colonial nationalism…as odd as that sounds.)

What happens if a terrorist act occurs that has no clear political aim? Aside from the constant human fear for one’s life and the health of others, the primary effect of terrorism is the fear of disorder. We may support resistance groups if we do not like the order they resist, but we fear groups that try to take away the order with which we are comfortable. A lot of terrorist acts have aims that are simply not publicized or discounted. (“Surely they didn’t kill all of those people just because one of their leaders was arrested.”) The acts that go beyond all bounds of normal understanding, such as Beslan, may have been driven partially by such goals, but the method of the violence is designed to create greater disorder, or at least the perception of it, which creates more fear, which creates more perception of disorder, and so on. Since we create order by shared agreement, the perception of disorder creates a vacuum that offers room for the terrorist group to create its own perceived order, no matter what it is.

Is it a winning long-term strategy? Possibly, on a very occasional basis. (While it would be hard to characterize Moqtada al-Sadr as a terrorist, rather than a classic warlord/resistance leader, his disruption of what little order the U.S. had managed to impose may have vaulted him into a seat in the Iraqi government.) However, an eventual apocalyptic showdown with the West — as Al Qaeda’s aim seems to be — isn’t likely to produce anything except many more deaths. Short-term goals may be more achievable, though, and as anyone can tell from reading the local newspaper, short-term goals can make people do some crazy, violent things.

So what has been our own reaction to terrorist acts designed to create disorder? Well, we were determined not to “let the terrorists win” — an interesting statement, since we usually go to war aiming to win ourselves, not just keep someone else from doing so — so we started chasing those terrorists, even into Afghanistan. (Small confession: I think that was the exact right thing to do.) Of course, then we let many of them get away and didn’t provide enough help to the Afghans to keep the country from falling into greater disorder. (The exact wrong thing to do.) Then we invaded Iraq without enough people or commitment and created yet another disorganized space on the pretext we were still hunting terrorists. (Even more wrong.) So, has humanitarian intervention weakened the state? Probably not. However, our own country stomping on anything it recognizes as an organized government, creating plenty of disorder for groups to operate in and reconstruct in their own ways, while failing to pay enough attention to the perverse NGO that is Al Qaeda is accomplishing much of what the author worries about. (Am I saying we always respect the sovereign state? Of course not. But we treat the sovereign state as a state, declare war, and have a clear idea of why we are doing so and what we want the results to be. Doing so while already involved in an unconventional war is a mistake.)

In the meantime, at home, we create enough disorder ourselves as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks that we fill it with such new order as the Patriot Act, a document that makes us feel better, but has yet to prove its worth given the potentially permanent loss of civil liberties we paid to get that promise of more security.

Do the terrorists win? That depends on the minimization of the perception of disorder. If they don’t have room to operate — if the reaction to their acts, for instance, doesn’t turn into sympathy from the local populace — it is unlikely terrorist acts will accomplish political goals any faster than other means, and may actually slow that process. Do we win? Since the state system has proven adept at handling more disorganized forms of power, I doubt they do unless we accomplish their goals for them. Unfortunately for our foreign policy and for the Russians in Chechnya, it looks like that accomplishment becomes more likely with every stumble.

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