Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The war against Pope Francis

Guardian/UK                  27 Oct. 2017

Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.

But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private”. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives.

The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to renounce this effort. Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.

But Francis’s cautious reforms seem to his opponents to threaten the belief that the church teaches timeless truths. And if the Catholic church does not teach eternal truths, conservatives ask, what is the point of it? The battle over divorce and remarriage has brought to a point two profoundly opposed ideas of what the church is for. The pope’s insignia are two crossed keys. They represent those Jesus is supposed to have given St Peter, which symbolise the powers to bind and to loose: to proclaim what is sin, and what is permitted. But which power is more urgent now?

The Catholic church has spent much of the past century fighting against the sexual revolution, and in this struggle it has been forced into the defence of an untenable absolutist position, whereby all artificial contraception is banned, along with all sex outside one lifelong marriage. As Francis recognises, that’s not how people actually behave. The clergy know this, but are expected to pretend they don’t. The official teaching may not be questioned, but neither can it be obeyed. Something has to give, and when it does, the resulting explosion could fracture the church.

Appropriately enough, the sometimes bitter hatreds within the church – whether over climate change, migration or capitalism – have come to a head in a gigantic struggle over the implications of a single footnote in a document entitled The Joy of Love (or, in its proper, Latin name, Amoris Laetitia). The document, written by Francis, is a summary of the current debate over divorce, and it is in this footnote that he makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion.

With more than a billion followers, the Catholic church is the largest global organisation the world has ever seen, and many of its followers are divorced, or unmarried parents. To carry out its work all over the world, it depends on voluntary labour. If the ordinary worshippers stop believing in what they are doing, the whole thing collapses. Francis knows this. If he cannot reconcile theory and practice, the church might be emptied out everywhere. His opponents also believe the church faces a crisis, but their prescription is the opposite. For them, the gap between theory and practice is exactly what gives the church worth and meaning. If all the church offers people is something they can manage without, Francis’s opponents believe, then it will surely collapse.

No one foresaw this when Francis was elected in 2013. One reason he was chosen by his fellow cardinals was to sort out the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Vatican. This task was long overdue. Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as a relative outsider with the ability to clear out some of the blockage at the centre of the church. But that mission soon collided with an even more acrimonious faultline in the church, which is usually described in terms of a battle between “liberals”, like Francis, and “conservatives”, like his enemies. Yet that is a slippery and misleading classification.

The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church. Those are ideal types: in the real world, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most of them, one will predominate.

Francis is a very pure example of the “outer-directed” or extrovert Catholic, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. His opponents are the introverts. Many were first attracted to the church by its distance from the concerns of the world. A surprising number of the most prominent introverts are converts from American Protestantism, some driven by the shallowness of the intellectual resources they were brought up with, but much more by a sense that liberal Protestantism was dying precisely because it no longer offered any alternative to the society around it. They want mystery and romance, not sterile common sense or conventional wisdom. No religion could flourish without that impulse.

But nor can any global religion set itself against the world entirely. In the early 1960s, a three-year gathering of bishops from every part of the church, known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, “opened the windows to the world”, in the words of Pope John XXIII, who set it in motion, but died before its work had finished.

The council renounced antisemitism, embraced democracy, proclaimed universal human rights and largely abolished the Latin Mass. That last act, in particular, stunned the introverts. The author Evelyn Waugh, for example, never once went to an English Mass after the decision. For men like him, the solemn rituals of a service performed by a priest with his back to the congregation, speaking entirely in Latin, facing God on the altar, were the very heart of the church – a window into eternity enacted at every performance. The ritual had been central to the church in one form or another since its foundation.

The symbolic change brought about by the new liturgy – replacing the introverted priest facing God at the altar with the extroverted figure facing his congregation – was immense. Some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the reorientation, among them the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who has been touted by introverts as a possible successor to Francis, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’ most public opponent. The current crisis, in the words of the English Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite – a passionate partisan of Francis – is nothing less than “Vatican II coming back again”.

“We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human,” Sarah said at a Vatican gathering last year, in a denunciation of Francis’s proposals, “but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You can not join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”

In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women (more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry) and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy. After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.

Church attendance plummeted in the western world, as it did in other denominations. In the US, 55% of Catholics went to mass regularly in 1965; by 2000, only 22% did. In 1965, 1.3m Catholic babies were baptised in the US; in 2016, just 670,000. Whether this was cause or correlation remains fiercely disputed. The introverts blamed it on the abandonment of eternal truths and traditional practices; extraverts felt the church had not changed far or fast enough.

In 1966, a papal committee of 69 members, with seven cardinals and 13 doctors among them, on which laypeople and even some women were also represented, voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI overruled them in 1968. He could not admit that his predecessors had been wrong, and the Protestants right. For a generation of Catholics, this dispute came to symbolise resistance to change. In the developing world, the Catholic church was largely overtaken by a huge Pentecostal revival, which offered both showmanship and status to the laity, even to women.

This is the first section of a very long article. You will find the full article at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/27/the-war-against-pope-francis

Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize

Nicola Davis                Guardian/UK                        27 October 2017

On 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was on board the Soviet submarine B-59 near Cuba when the US forces began dropping non-lethal depth charges. While the action was designed to encourage the Soviet submarines to surface, the crew of B-59 had been incommunicado and so were unaware of the intention. They thought they were witnessing the beginning of a third world war.

Trapped in the sweltering submarine – the air-conditioning was no longer working – the crew feared death. But, unknown to the US forces, they had a special weapon in their arsenal: a ten kilotonne nuclear torpedo. What’s more, the officers had permission to launch it without waiting for approval from Moscow. Two of the vessel’s senior officers – including the captain, Valentin Savitsky – wanted to launch the missile. According to a report from the US National Security Archive, Savitsky exclaimed: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

But there was an important caveat: all three senior officers on board had to agree to deploy the weapon. As a result, the situation in the control room played out very differently. Arkhipov refused to sanction the launch of the weapon and calmed the captain down. The torpedo was never fired. Had it been launched, the fate of the world would have been very different: the attack would probably have started a nuclear war which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of civilian deaths.

“The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,’’ Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the Boston Globe in 2002, following a conference in which the details of the situation were explored. Now, 55 years after he averted nuclear war and 19 years after his death, Arkhipov is to be honoured, with his family the first recipients of a new award.

The prize, dubbed the “Future of Life award” is the brainchild of the Future of Life Insitute – a US-based organisation whose goal is to tackle threats to humanity and whose advisory board includes such luminaries as Elon Musk, the astronomer royal Prof Martin Rees, and actor Morgan Freeman.

“The Future of Life award is a prize awarded for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time,” said Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT and leader of the Future of Life Institute.

Speaking to Tegmark, Arkhipov’s daughter Elena Andriukova said the family were grateful for the prize, and its recognition of Arkhipov’s actions. “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism. He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation,” she said. “He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.” The $50,000 prize will be presented to Arkhipov’s grandson, Sergei, and Andriukova at the Institute of Engineering and Technology on Friday evening.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel peace prize-winning organisation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Arkhipov’s actions were a reminder of how the world had teetered on the brink of disaster. “Arkhipov’s story shows how close to nuclear catastrophe we have been in the past,” she said.

The timing of the award, Fihn added, is apt. “As the risk of nuclear war is on the rise right now, all states must urgently join the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons to prevent such catastrophe.” Dr Jonathan Colman, an expert on the Cuban missile crisis at the University of Central Lancashire, agreed that the award was fitting.

“While accounts differ about what went on on board the B-59, it is clear that Arkhipov and the crew operated under conditions of extreme tension and physical hardship. Once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it is hard to imagine that the genie could have been put back into the bottle,” he said. “President Kennedy had been very worried about the possibility of a clash between American warships and Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and it is absolutely clear that his fears were justified,” Colman added, noting that certain decisions at the operational level were out of his control. “Ultimately, it was luck as much as management that ensured that the missile crisis ended without the most dreadful consequences.”

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-soviet-submarine-captain-who-averted-nuclear-war-awarded-future-of-life-prize

Monday, 16 October 2017

Faith, Reason, and Democracy

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                Oct. 13, 2017 

With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris

Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Winston Churchill considered it “the worst form of government except for all the others”. And said the best argument against democracy is “a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country – and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well. There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as “socialist” and “conservative” slipped into the background. Even “left” and “right” nuanced into “progressive” and “stable” – though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human well-being? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?

One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm. National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of “welfare” to one of “social investment”. This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency – and if that’s what it takes, so be it.

Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal. The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of health care, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.

Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to “the other lot” (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, Trumpeting [Subs: cap is intentional] a fictional $11.7-billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.

But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.

Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP Parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Till 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years. True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won.

However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities. Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the “stories” that drove politics in the 20th century – Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism – inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls “the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid”.

Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through “a politics of belonging”– Monbiot’s new story – would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here. Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

I wanted to know why racists hated me, so I met some Klansmen

By Daryl Davis                    Sydney Morning Herald               2 October, 2017

One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. "I really enjoy y'all's music," he said. I shook his hand and thanked him.

"This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis," he continued. I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learnt his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn't buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, "This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man."

Why? "I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognised the Klan's symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn't even know me?

I decided to figure it out by getting to know those who felt hostility towards black people without ever having known any. Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I'd got the grand dragon's contact information, James gave it to me.

By then I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: how can you hate someone you've never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, Klan-Destine Relationships, was published in 1998.)

I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. As per my instructions, she did not reveal the colour of my skin.

The grand dragon agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a motel in Frederick, Maryland, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the colour of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.

Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon's bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. "Hello," I began, "I'm Daryl Davis." I offered my palm, and the dragon shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves.

We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, "What did you just do?" The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.

My secretary realised what had happened: the ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch. It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could have led to gunfire had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.

Even though the grand dragon,had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.

Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hell-bent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.

There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But afterwards I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.

Imperial wizard Frank Ancona, who headed one of the largest Klan groups in the country, would also become a very close friend. When Frank was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with murdering him), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan's invitation to participate in his funeral service.

Three weeks after this summer's violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was invited by the leaders of the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of Ancona's branch of the Klan to speak at their national Konvocation. I accepted, spoke and took audience questions after the lecture. Whether or not anyone there immediately changed their minds, we talked as people - and we all benefited from that.

I am not so naive as to think everyone will change. There are certainly those who will go to their graves as hateful, violent racists. I never set out certain that I would convert anyone. I just wanted to have a conversation and ask, "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"

What I've learnt is that whether or not I've changed minds, talking can still relieve tensions. I've seen firsthand that when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may be yelling and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. Violence happens only when talking has stopped.

And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, the Klan leader from the motel interview, whom I watched go from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologised for having been a member.

He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood - one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing. [Abridged]

Daryl Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships and the subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy, is an award-winning musician, actor, lecturer and race relations expert.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/i-wanted-to-understand-why-racists-hated-me-so-i-befriended-klansmen/2017/09/29/c2f46cb8-a3af-11e7-b14f-f41773cd5a14_story.html?utm_term=.7087db60ae83

Reclaiming the Truth About Vietnam

Robert C. Koehler                  Pub by Common Dreams            2 September, 2017

Just the other day 89 senators voted to pass the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signing off on a $700 billion defense budget, which ups annual military spending by $80 billion while also authorizing the production of 94 F-35 jets, two dozen more than the Pentagon requested.” And of course there’s no controversy here, no demanding to know where the money will come from.

The Full Disclosure campaign rips away the lies that allow America’s wars to continue. The U.S. Air Force dropped over 6 million tons of bombs and other ordnance on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1964 and 1973, more than it expended in World War II, Howard Machtinger notes at the Full Disclosure website. And more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals, including the infamous Agent Orange, were dumped on the Vietnam countryside.

“Accurate estimates are hard to come by,” he writes, “but as many as three million Vietnamese were likely killed, including two million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, millions of internally displaced, croplands and forests destroyed: incredible destruction — physical, environmental, institutional, and psychological.

And then there was the war’s effect on the soldiers who fought it and the “moral damage” so many suffered: “To date,” Machtinger writes, “estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000 to 150,000, the latter almost triple the number of U.S. deaths during the actual conflict.” So I pause in the midst of these numbers, this data, letting the words and the memories wash over me: Agent Orange, napalm, gook, My Lai.

Slowly, the powers that be regrouped, redefined how we fought our wars: without widespread national sacrifice or a universal draft; and with smart bombs and even smarter public relations, ensuring that most of the American public could watch our clean, efficient wars in the comfort of their living rooms. Eventually, endless war became the new normal, and blotting the shame of our “loss” in Vietnam from the historical record became a priority.

The Full Disclosure campaign is saying: no way. One aspect of this campaign is an interactive exhibit of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers rounded up and killed more than 500 villagers. The exhibit was created by the Chicago chapter of Vets for Peace, which hopes to take it on a national tour and rekindle public awareness of the reality of war.

A slice of that reality can be found in a New Yorker article written in 2015 by Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the story some four and a half decades earlier. In the article, Hersh revisits the story of one of the GI participants in My Lai, Paul Meadlo:

After being told by (Lt. William) Calley to ‘take care of this group,’ one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier ‘were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.’ When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, ‘Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, “Waste them?” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley ‘opened up and started firing.’ But then Meadlo ‘started to cry.’

And that’s the war, and those are our values, buried with the dead villagers in a mass grave.

https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/09/21/reclaiming-truth-about-vietnam