Breach of Trust: Has Our U.S. Policy Lost Its Way?

Our American commitment to perpetual war now seems fairly self-evident. We have been engaged in some kind of military conflict, almost without significant pause, since the end of the Vietnam War. Our current military action in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the wider Middle East) is nearing fifteen years and there is virtually no reason to see a real (final) end in sight with the election of an aggressive military advocate now in the White House. The president is surrounded by generals who believe in the goals and commitments of our present time in military history and thought the strategic use of force might change I am not convinced it will bed for the better. Let me explain.

Warmongers and militarists talk about bombing North Korea, or at least increasing our presence on their border, if necessary. They also talk about intervening in the Syrian civil war. We continually talk about “defeating ISIS” by “bombing the hell out of them” through using the full power of our vast military power to destroy them, a prospect that has no chance for lasting success. President George W. Bush sought to redefine America’s heroic role in the world by winning a war fought simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama has continued to make war, through he ran against the Iraq War and did end major troop deployments. While Obama drew down the number of “boots on the ground” he upped the use of drone attacks and established a significant military presence for eight years that is designed to train others to fight “for” or “with” our American goals. Now we have no clear idea what the new Commander in Chief will do with our military.

The problem, according to esteemed author Andrew J. Bacevich, is our acceptance of “perpetual war.” This is a condition fostered by our great distance from the conflicts that America has continually waged beyond our homeland. As a nation we are detached from the real cost of war and yet we want safety and security so long as someone else pays the price for it. Our military services are a professional warrior class. Says one, “[We have traded our shared investment in service] for the civic virtues for [feel good] flag-waving.” We celebrate our heroes in commercials and at ballgames, standing and cheering as if we vicariously are involved in a great struggle for freedom, while those soldiers far away “defend” our freedom to remain removed from any great national sacrifice. We even fight these wars on the cheap, running up a growing debt that has no end in sight.

I was reminded of these facts last week by reading Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (New York: Henry Holt, 2013), by Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich is a professor of history (Boston University) who served as an officer in the U. S. Army for twenty-three years. Bacevich says there is a yawning gap between America’s soldiers and the society in whose name they serve and fight. Even our former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has acknowledged this reality by saying armed conflict has become an “abstraction” and military service “something for other people to do.”

Bacevich’s book takes stock of the damage done to our nation and its role in the world by sowing what this disconnect has brought about. He argues that national defense should be the world of “we the people.” Unless we take our responsibility much more seriously he warns that we will continue to fight “endless wars” for our security. We have hired a “foreign legion” and the fiscal price is considerably higher than we can afford over the long term.

The military’s professional ethic is historically threefold: “Duty, honor, and country.” It seems quite clear that the majority of us have no sense of obligation to such a creed. Alternatives to this present professional soldier model include various forms of required national service that do not obligate everyone to serve in the military, especially if their conscience forbids it. But these alternatives would require all, both rich and poor, to serve their country. Bacevich concludes: “The all-volunteer force is not a blessing. It has become a blight. Americans can, of course, choose to pretend otherwise, but those choosing such a course cannot be said to love their country. Nor can they be said to care about the well-being of those sent to fight on the country’s behalf” (196).

I am not a pacifist. I am sympathetic with the pacifist tradition as it has been defined and defended within Christian ethics. I did personally train in an ROTC program in high school. Many of my classmates went on to become officers. But with this background I have opposed every American conflict in my memory, from Vietnam to the present battles and advisory roles that we conduct in the Middle East. I want to “secure” our nation but I fear that those who talk the most about this security have little idea what is involved and even less commitment to how this can be done. We are so inured by our constant wars that our troops who die, even to this day, are almost forgotten by the general public. Did you notice that a Navy Seal team carried out a mission in Yemen last week that appears to have been botched, at least from the early reports? Did you know another U.S. solider died? Do you care? When will this “breach of trust” stop?

My Story: An ABC Chicago Television Special

 

Several years ago a special ABC Channel 7 Chicago program was done on my life and mission. It appears on our resource page inside the ACT3 site but I share it here for those who are new to this ministry and have not yet seen it. This is 28-minutes long.

 

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017 in Atlanta

Last Tuesday evening, January 24, I preached a sermon on reconciliation (1 Corinthians 5:14-20) at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at Emory University in Atlanta. I shared this program with leaders from across much of the Christian tradition. The event was inspiring and deeply Christ centered. The Archdiocese of Atlanta made a video about the evening which you can see here in less than three minutes.

On Saturday, May 20, I will be back in Atlanta to lead a “Unity Factor Conversation” for the city. Information will be available soon. Registration is free and a meal is provided. Mark the date now and if you live in the area plan to join us for interaction and worship around our shared desire to be an answer to our Lord’s prayer in John 17:21-24. God is doing good things for unity in Atlanta. Pray for the city, pray for me and pray for ACT3 and our work there. If you wish to follow ACT3 sign up for our ACT3 Weekly.

Do Not Confuse Your Plans with God’s

One of the most persistent problems I face, as both a Christian thinker and leader, is to confuse my plans with God’s plans. I seek God, I pray, and I read widely and study a great deal. I often see a clear way forward, at least sometimes. I sometimes feel quite sure I know what God wants. But my plans are not God’s plans. I have learned this again and again over nearly seven decades of life. But I still fall into the trap even as I watch others do the same in large numbers.

The hope of humanity is Jesus Christ. This hope is clearly being challenged today. It is challenged by politicians. It is challenged by social engineers. It is challenged by entrepreneurs. And it is challenged by ministers as well. Dr. Ralphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 2005, rightly says, “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.” It sure does.

I have found holding on to hope very difficult over the last twelve months. I personally came through a quintuple heart bypass operation on February 11, 2016. I am physically fine. In fact, the two months following surgery I was better than I had been (inwardly and spiritually) in decades. But since then the reality of what is happening in the church and our nation has brought waves of distress across the bow of my ship.

This week I was in Atlanta, preaching for the Prayer for Christian Unity service held in Cannon Chapel at Emory University on Tuesday, January 24. I was filled with hope in ways that I am still sorting out today. The crowd on was not large. The service was definitely not highly emotional. The participants were varied and interesting. We were Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominatonal and Catholic. (Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory shared in the service.) I felt the gentle wind of God as I preached but I felt as if the sermon was for me more than for anyone else. I sensed that my hope was slipping. (I will try to put my sermon on our various platforms soon.)

Hope has been widely written about in recent years but it is rarely understood. Theologian Jürgen Moltman writes: “It is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the word ‘Abandon hope, all who enter here.'” Yes, abandon hope and do not hold on to faith. All of us need hope. But we all face times when our hope wavers. Yet with hope we can face the future powerfully. I would not argue that non-Christians cannot have hope at all. I would argue that Jesus alone can carry our hope on to future grace, or to a lasting hope that transcends this life. Christian hope abolishes all our false hopes and leads to a radical openness in its application. Our country needs hope more than ever. We are deeply divided. Many of us feel profound darkness has descended upon us as “we the people.” But we must be careful here. Dr. Warnock is right: “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.” Dare we seek this kind of hope?

Hope is our God-given tether to reality. It is our true bulwark against despair, even the kind of despair I have felt in recent months. God-given hope is both with and beyond history. I must remember once again that my plans are not God’s plans. I must confess God as Trinity and live hope.

Cannon Chapel at Emory University

The Death of the Holy Innocents

The Gospel text for Sunday, January 1, 2017, was Matthew 2:13-23. It is a text I have rarely, if ever, heard preached. I have never personally preached from it in forty-five years.

Our congregation is faced with a unique trial and a season of life I hope you never go through as a Christian. On Christmas Eve our beloved pastor, Rev. Greg Moser, passed into the presence of Jesus his Lord at fifty-two years of age. We were stunned. It felt as if the joy of the season was sucked out of us. We were confused and reeling. What do we do now? Where do we turn with all our questions, fears, and doubts?

I have been asked to preach and lead the eucharistic celebration at Lutheran Church of the Master until we call an interim pastor, hopefully by February. During this time I will follow the liturgy and lectionary faithfully and seek to give pastoral wisdom and comfort to us as a people walking through deep grief.

So what to do with a text like Matthew 2:13-23? You can hear my attempt, feeble as it was, to respond to that question via this audio of my sermon from yesterday.

 

The ACT3 Cohort for 2017-18

The most important personal work I do is mentoring and preparing new leaders for missional-ecumenism. This work is high demand and high reward ministry, for both me and those who enlist. Our next group begins in March of 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. Information is on our website. Here is a video which shows you how the ACT3 Cohort works. It changes lives and reaches people in profoundly personal ways. Please watch this video and share it with anyone you think would benefit by considering this experience. Ask me any questions if you are interested. If you are interested contact me directly and I will guide you to the right person to get more information about the Boston group. Our meeting dates in Boston are March 19, May 7, September 24, and December 3, 2018.

On Reading Fiction in 2016

Daniel Silva has been called one of our generation’s finest writers of international intrigue, a spy novelist extraordinaire. I was introduced to one of Silva’s novels by a pastor friend several years ago. I confess the book he recommended was so compelling, haunting, and brilliant that I could hardly put it down. I finished it in just a few days. Thus began what turned out to be a “love affair” with the fiction of this popular writer. Almost all of Silva’s books have reached #1 New York Times bestselling status within months of their publication. His fan base is huge. I am numbered among them now.

Silva’s first book, situated in World War II, was The Unlikely Spy (1997). It is a novel of love and deception set around the Allied invasion of France. His second and third novels, The Mark of the Assassin and The Marching Season, were instant New York Times bestsellers and starred two of Silva’s most memorable characters: CIA officer Michael Osbourne and international hit man Jean-Paul Delaroche. I was hooked by reading The Mark of the Assassin and then decided this year to go back and read Silva’s novels in their publication sequence. I finished the most recent one, The Black Widow (2016), yesterday.

Daniel Silva knew from a very early age that he wanted to become a writer, but began his career as a journalist. He was pursuing a master’s degree in international relations when he received a temporary job offer from United Press International to help cover the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. As a result of this assignment, he would abandon his degree studies and join UPI full-time. Eventually, he became UPI’s Middle East correspondent in Cairo and the Persian Gulf.

In 1995 Silva confessed to his wife, NBC Today Correspondent Jamie Gangel, that his true ambition was to be a novelist. With her support and encouragement, he secretly began work on the manuscript that would eventually become the instant bestseller The Unlikely Spy. He left CNN in 1997 after the successful publication of this first book and began to write full-time. Since then all of Silva’s books have been New York Times and international bestsellers. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is currently at work on his twentieth novel.

I have learned more about Israel, valuable art and the work of restoring art, the inner life and work of Israeli spies, various parts of modern Europe, terrorism and the modern global threats of ISIS, from Daniel Silva that from all my news sources. While I remain well aware that this is fiction it is fiction rooted in a great deal of contemporary reality. But it is so much more. It is just good writing with well-developed characters. The plots are different enough to keep you guessing and each book ends making you want more. (You can begin anywhere but I recommend reading his first book, The Unlikely Spy, first. If you want to read the more contemporary Gabriel Allon series then begin with The Kill Artist.)

Last night I embarked on reading Shusaku Endo’s book, Silence (1969). This is an entirely different novel for me and was translated from the original Japanese into English in 1980. An adaptation of this novel, directed by the famed Martin Scorsese, will appear widely in theaters in early 2017. I decided to read the novel first. Endo has been called “the Graham Greene” of Japan. This book has been translated into many languages. The theme is the story of Christianity in Japan and the period of martyrdom in the seventeenth century. Even within the church in Japan the novel has been a sensation. Endo believes, as I do, that a Hellenized Christianity must adapt to take deep root in cultures outside the West, especially if they are in Asia.

I only began to appreciate fiction later in my life. I was raised with a rather Puritan view of literature that I finally gave up about twenty-five years ago. It was my friend J. I. Packer who told me about his reading at night, which helped to induce rest and sleep for his busy mind, that helped me begin to enjoy fiction. Such reading now expands my enjoyment of art, feeds my imagination, informs my spirit in a unique way and employs many gripping story-forms to keep me thinking in fresh and creative ways.

Our Population Decrease and Missional-Ecumenism

Population growth in the United States is slowing each year. It reached its lowest rate since the Great Depression in 2015-16. Demographers say that this slow growth is largely due to the aging of our population. But immigration growth is also declining, though during the past three years our levels of immigration have grown for the first time since the 2007-2009 recession. The lead cause in these shifts is our declining birth rate. Yet in spite of the numbers we still have a positive natural increase while countries like Germany and Japan do not. Demographers predict this decrease will continue for some years to come. This will stress our social systems such as Medicare and Social Security, stressing again the warnings we’ve had for several decades but rarely had the political will to resolve.

What solutions do we have to protect the needs of our aging population and the well-being of our society overall? Answer: invest in a serious immigration strategy that shores up the younger segment of our society overall. Do we have the resolve and will to do this? Based upon our recent election it seems quite doubtful. Our aging population needs immigrants who earn a living and invest in programs like Social Security. I believe it is imperative that we be aware of this shift and that we resolve to increase legal immigration even while we are attempting to slow illegal immigration.

In 2016 my state of Illinois lost more residents than any other state in America for the third consecutive year. We are one of eight states that lost residents overall. In the past year 37,000 more people have left our state. Why? Again, the reasons are both clear and unclear. One is our high tax and incredibly high cost of living. Working class people cannot afford to live here and even upper middle income people are finding it desirable to find a more tax-friendly state without the problems that our state faces with its budget and legislative failures.

During the recession Western and Southern states such as Nevada, Arizona and Florida took big hits but they are now recovering and growing again. States with higher costs of living, like New York, California and Ohio, are all declining. Once robust California also saw an increase in what is called “out-migration.” Domestic workers are moving away in search of better jobs and a lower cost of living. New York is seeing more people move to the Southeast while Utah is now the nation’s fastest-growing state. Its population increased by 2.0% to 3.1 million, while North Dakota, the growth leader in 2014-15, fell to the 15th slowest growth state in 2015-16. Why? Its economic growth was based on oil extraction and the slow down in this industry has caused the decrease. Illinois, however, also had the largest out-migration since 1990.

These changes will likely have some bearing on future elections but more importantly the overall trends do not reveal a robust economic growth for the largest number of our people. We still have the problem of the wealthiest are growing their income each year while larger numbers of our people are left behind with stagnant economic growth or, in most cases, a loss in overall income. We’ve seen the political implications of this reality recently.

We are likely going to see more social and spiritual impact from these realities in the coming days. Churches in our area in sharp decline. The exception, in my area, is usually the large evangelical mega-church, though the growth in these churches is not huge. Yet few talk about how many smaller evangelicals churches have closed in recent years. In my area three of the five largest evangelical churches during my five decades here are now near death.The net growth of the church continues to decline sharply in every part of the country. This trend is especially in my state and region. In time this will result in more churches closing, more church buildings being sold and more people without anything like a spiritual home that resembles a church. This will also lead to an increase in social needs without churches to care for people.

In an age that I call “post-denominational” I see a silver lining in all these changes. We might embrace missional-ecumenism out of the sheer reality that our church patterns have failed and people are leaving. A new way of being and doing church is clearly necessary. Will our leaders awaken to these simple facts before it is too late to stem this rising tide of loss? Will we became partners in mission or remain competitive?

“I tweet, therefore I am!”

It seems difficult to imagine, but there was once a time when human beings did not feel the need to share every waking moment with hundreds of millions, even billions, of complete and utter strangers. If one went to a shopping mall to purchase an article of clothing, one did not post minute-by-minute details on a social networking site; and if one made a fool of oneself at a party, one did not leave a photographic record of the sorry episode in a digital scrapbook that would survive for all eternity. But now, in the era of lost inhibition, it seemed no detail of life was too mundane or humiliating to share. In the online age, it was more important to live out loud than to live with dignity. Internet followers were more treasured than flesh-and-blood friends, for they held the illusive promise of celebrity, even immortality. Were Descartes alive today, he might have written: I tweet, therefore I am. (Daniel Silva, The Heist, 2014).

When I read these words in Daniel Silva’s novel this weekend and could not help but pause to consider their relevance during Advent. Do you treasure the “flesh-and-blood friends” in your life more than your social network connections with people you’ve never met or shared an “enfleshed” conversation with that led you to love them deeply? Jesus came into the world as “flesh-and-blood.” Let us celebrate and remember this central truth during these days. Enjoy the friendships you make online but treasure more those you know in the flesh. I have made good friends online, and someday I hope to meet them in person. But my close friendships are those I share in my daily life.