Sunday, March 31, 2013

Excited about Religious Movies

I haven't been able to watch the History Channel series on the Bible because I only get basic cable.  But what's odd is this: with all of my doubt about and even hostility towards organized religion, I am still happy when people are getting excited about God, or when prominent people give a stamp of approval to religion.

This has been the case in the past, especially when I was more of an evangelical.  When The Prince of Egypt came out in the theaters, and all these big-named actors and actresses and musicians were a part of it, I was excited.  I thought it was cool that "godless" Hollywood was recognizing the importance of faith in people's lives and was seeing some value in the Bible.  When Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ came out, I was happy that a big-named star, Mel Gibson, was stepping forward to proclaim his faith and to make a movie about Christ, and that actor James Caviezel was associating himself with that project.  I felt the same way when the first movie for the Chronicles of Narnia came out and made a lot of money.  Now, I feel that way about the History Channel's Bible series.

I think that many within Christianity would like for big names to endorse Christian beliefs, or for the entertainment industry to stamp those beliefs with some measure of approval.  I share some of that sentiment.  But it's about more than that for me: it's about admiring when Hollywood reaches across the aisle to acknowledge those who have beliefs that may not be widely held within the entertainment industry, or admiring when someone is bold about his or her beliefs, as unconventional as they may be within certain settings.  Part of it may also be some evangelistic hope that remains within me that people might come to know a loving God. 

Institutions Evolve!

I was watching ABC This Week (see the transcript for today's program here).  I liked what Matthew Dowd said in response to Republican Congressman Peter King's statement that "we have to look at the consequences of changing a 2,000 year institution", namely, marriage.  Dowd said:

"But the argument to me that people say this is an institution that's been a traditional institution for 2,000 or 3,000 years, ignores the fact that the institution that was -- if you really want to go to a traditional marriage, it wasn't monogamous, races couldn't marry, women [were] property and they couldn't give consent. That was the traditional view of marriage for 2,000 years.  [M]arriage has always evolved over the course of time and this is just another evolution."

Game Change

I watched the movie Game Change recently, which is about Sarah Palin.  The movie is widely considered to be a negative depiction of Palin, even by Palin herself (who, as far as I know, has not seen the movie).  And yet, I found myself actually liking Sarah Palin while I was watching it.  Not all of the time, mind you.  She could be pretty ruthless, as when she (on the movie) fired that one aide on account of a mistake.  But the Sarah Palin of the movie came across to me as someone who genuinely cared for her family, who depended on God, who was committed to certain principles, and who loved Alaska, enough to wear an Alaska pin and to care about the public opinion of those who were in her state (even though she later told Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, that she did not want to go back to Alaska).

I loved the scene where, right before John McCain was about to introduce Palin to the American people, her family was telling each other to pray for her.  Piper Palin's remark to her mom that it was cheating for God to help Palin win the Vice-Presidential debate was cute.  I also liked the scene where Sarah Palin's husband Todd was giving her advice on how to perform in the Vice-Presidential debate.  He reminded her of a debate she was in when she was running for an Alaskan office, and one of her opponents was a policy wonk.  Todd said that nobody understood what that opponent was saying, but Sarah spoke straight to the people, and she won.  This scene really humanized Sarah Palin, I thought. 

Was Sarah Palin as uninformed as she appeared on the movie?  I'm somewhat doubtful.  There have been some insiders who have said that she wasn't that uninformed.  Carl Cameron's interview with Palin (see here and here) tells me that she has at least some public policy understanding.  Does that mean that I'm saying that Steve Schmidt and Nicole Wallace are lying?  Not necessarily.  Perhaps they got the impression that Palin was less informed than she truly was.  People sometimes assume that I know less than I do.  (And Palin haters will probably point to my post here to say that their assumptions are probably accurate!)  I do agree with Schmidt and Wallace, however, that Palin most likely wasn't informed enough to step into the Presidency.

Easter for Doubters and Rebellious Unbelievers?

I went to Easter vigil last night at a Catholic church with my Mom and her husband.  This morning, I went to Easter services at the Presbyterian church that I normally attend.

I gained a fresh appreciation for a post that Rachel Held Evans recently wrote, Holy Week for Doubters, as well as the comments that followed it.  To be honest with you, when I read posts or comments by people who say that they agonize over Easter on account of their doubts about religion, the response that usually goes through my mind is: "Get a grip!  You're going to a service!  You go, you sit down, and you leave!  It's not a big deal!  Some people have real problems!"  But, after the Maundy Thursday service that I attended last week, I could somewhat identify with doubters who struggle with Easter.  Back when I was more of an evangelical, I would go to a service to be inspired.  But what if I'm not sure what I believe?  What exactly should I be feeling at a service, in that situation?  It's difficult for me to feel emotional and inspired when I hear Christian affirmations that I doubt are even true.

There are a variety of reasons that I doubt, both academic and personal.  But I'd like to mention a personal reason that I doubt: I would like to make choices, rather than forcing myself to be something that I'm not in the name of "obeying God."  I'm sure that conservative Christians could stand in line, get on their holier-than-thou high horse, and say to me: "You see!  Your problem is spiritual!  You don't want to submit to God!  You want to sin and do your own thing!"  Well, I don't want to do anything that harms people, I'll tell you that!  But, yeah, I definitely don't want to get back on a spiritual treadmill in which I beat up on myself for not being extroverted enough, or I feel that God does not forgive me because I have a hard time getting rid of a grudge, or I look at a woman with lust in my heart and ask God for forgiveness, knowing that my repentance is a sham because I am a human male and will probably look at a woman with lust again.  I'm tired of feeling that I have to be perfect, or that certain things have to be true in my life for me to know that I am truly saved.  I mean, life is tough enough, without adding spiritual insecurity to the mix!  I'm tired of feeling that I have to silence the moral sense within me----such as compassion for gay people who have an orientation that they did not ask for and who don't want to be celibate for the rest of their natural lives----in order to conform to a book (the Bible) that sometimes portrays God in morally-questionable terms.
It's not just that I have a hard time believing that conservative Christianity is true.  That would be doubt!  It's that I don't want for conservative Christianity to be true.  What's more, I get sick when I think about the possibility that such a belief system might be true.  A number of conservative Christians would probably label that as unbelief. 

Okay, that said (and, on some level, I've said this stuff before, in past posts), what do I have to say about the services that I attended?  Well, last night, I appreciated the sense of connection that I felt during the passing of the peace.  I also felt rather at peace at the end of the service, perhaps because of the music, or the friendliness of the people at the church.  This morning, the hymn that especially stood out to me was "He lives!"  The song is about knowing that Jesus lives on account of his kindness to us personally, and the things that he does around us.  It's a rather subjective or experiential belief in Jesus' resurrection----which differs from believing Jesus rose for classical apologetic reasons (i.e., the empty tomb, the disciples not dying for a lie, etc.) and from highlighting that Jesus' resurrection was his triumph over death.  But I somewhat value its humility: it speaks from experience (or an interpretation of one's experience). 

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 15

I have three items for my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs.  They'll focus on foreign policy, whereas my post tomorrow will cover Watergate-related topics, as well as the resignation of Nixon's first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew.

1.  On page 435, Nixon says the following about Vietnam:

"Congress denied first to me, and then to President Ford, the means to enforce the Paris agreement at a time when the North Vietnamese were openly violating it.  Even more devastating and inexcusable, in 1974 Congress began cutting back on military aid for Vietnam at a time when the Soviets were increasing their aid to North Vietnam.  As a result, when the North Vietnamese launched their all-out invasion of the South in the spring of 1975, they had an advantage in arms, and the threat of American action to enforce the agreement removed."

This is Nixon's explanation for how South Vietnam was lost to the Communists, and this line of reasoning has been echoed (on some level) by right-wingers, such as Ann Coulter in her book Treason.  I don't know what the rationale of those who supported cutting off aid to South Vietnam and removing the U.S. obligation to enforce the Paris peace agreement was, but that's why I continue to read: to learn about different sides of a given story.

One thing that interested me was that Nixon said that the Soviet Union was increasing its aid to North Vietnam, whereas, on page 427, Nixon relates that Soviet premier Brezhnev denied to him that the U.S.S.R. was sending "any new Soviet military equipment" to Indochina (Nixon's words).  So Brezhnev was lying during the friendly chats that he and Nixon had?

2.  On page 457, Nixon says the following about military defense:

"In terms of constant dollars, defense spending in 1973 was actually $10 billion less than it had been in 1964 before the Vietnam war began.  The draft had been ended and our defense forces were numerically lower than at any time since before the Korean war.  Yet the Senate was moving to cut overseas troop strength by nearly 25 percent----without demanding any corresponding cuts by the Soviets.  We were winning only narrowly in the congressional appropriations battle for the Trident nuclear submarine and the other important weaponry we needed to give us leverage in SALT."

Again, I don't know what the other side's rationale was.  But this passage is a good example of the frustration of more than one President who has had to deal with a Congress that is dominated by the opposite political party.  I can understand why there are people who would prefer for one person to have power (at least in certain areas), without having to get the permission of so many conflicting interests, for that at least could produce a coherent strategy.

But, according to Greg Mitchell in Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, Nixon as Senator "introduced a measure to override [President] Truman's authority and restore [General Douglas] MacArthur to power" (pages 252-253).  Whereas Nixon as President was critical of particular times when the Congress tried to limit his foreign policy power, Nixon as Senator (if what Mitchell says is correct) had no problem with limiting President Truman's foreign policy jurisdiction, when Truman did something (namely, fire MacArthur) that Nixon deemed to be unfair, and perhaps even deleterious to America's defeat of Communism.

3.  In my post on Nixon's memoirs yesterday, I talked about Nixon's stance on Israel.  In my latest reading, Nixon discusses this some more.  In October 1973, Syria and Egypt were about to attack Israel.  Nixon realized that the U.S. was in a delicate situation.  Nixon wanted (on some level) to support Israel because she was the victim of aggression and had a special relationship with the United States.  But Nixon also had no desire to alienate Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries, with whom he was trying to cultivate a relationship, and he feared that the Arabs might "try to bring economic pressure to bear on us by declaring an oil embargo" (page 477).  Moreover, Nixon did not want for the situation in the Middle East to become worse.  Nixon suspected that the Soviets were encouraging Egypt and Syria to attack Israel, and he did not want for the Soviets to intervene further into the situation "in any way that would require [the U.S.] to confront them" (page 477).  When Jordan sent a small contingent to assist Syria, General Brent Scowcroft tried to persuade Israel not to expand the war through an attack on Jordan.  And, when Nixon met with Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, even the pro-Israel people there were apprehensive about the possibility that the U.S. could become involved in another Vietnam.

In my latest reading, Nixon said that his strategy was to let Egypt, Syria, and Israel fight it out until they arrived at a stalemate and were ready for a cease-fire.  That, in his opinion, was preferable to trying to enforce on them a cease-fire that they did not want.  But, as the Soviets sent military supplies to Egypt and Syria, so did the U.S. (with Nixon's support) send military supplies to Israel.

I may include an item on the outcome of this conflict in tomorrow's post.  We'll see.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 14

For my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs, I'll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on page 418:

"In the year between the first and second Soviet Summits, a fusion of forces from opposite ends of the political spectrum had resulted in a curious coalition...On the one side the liberals and the American Zionists had decided that now was the time to challenge the Soviet Union's highly restrictive immigration policies, particularly with respect to Soviet Jews.  On the other side were the conservatives, who had traditionally opposed d[e]tente because it challenged their ideological opposition to contacts with Communist countries.  My request in April 1973 for congressional authority to grant most-favored-nation trade status to the Soviet Union became the rallying point for both groups: the liberals wanted MFN legislation to be conditioned on eased emigration policies; the conservatives wanted MFN defeated on the principle that d[e]tente was bad by definition."

Here are two items:

1.  Nixon's rationale was that more good could be accomplished if the U.S. had a relationship of dialogue with the Soviet Union than if the U.S. were on the outside looking in, throwing stones.  Nixon feared that "public pressure" on the Soviet Union would make it more "intransigent", and he doubted that the U.S. refusing to grant MFN trade status to the Soviet Union would ameliorate the U.S.S.R.'s "brutally repressive nature" (page 419).  From 1971-1973, Nixon notes, the number of Soviet Jews who were permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union jumped from 15,000 to 35,000, and Nixon attributes this to his Administration's dialogue with Soviet leaders.  In March 1973, after all, a Soviet leader assured Henry Kissinger that the U.S.S.R. had removed the requirement that Jews desiring to emigrate repay "state educational expenses", requiring them instead merely to pay a "nominal fee" (page 419).  But, in December 1973, the U.S. House passed a bill prohibiting MFN for the U.S.S.R. due to its "restrictive emigration policies" (page 419).  Nixon expressed to a Soviet official his hope that this would not poison U.S. relations with the U.S.S.R.  But, according to Nixon, the bill resulted in ill consequences, for "the number of Jews allowed to emigrate declined from 35,000 in 1973 to 13,200 in 1975" (page 420).

Do I agree with Nixon's stance on this issue?  I can see his point that more can be accomplished within a relationship than outside of it.  At the same time, I grew up reading right-wing literature that had quite a different point-of-view.  It contended that U.S. aid to the Soviet Union both propped up the failed Soviet system, and also provided the U.S.S.R. with the material to develop further its military capacity.  According to this story, the U.S.S.R. then supplied the arms that it developed to the U.S.'s enemies in Vietnam.

2.  Nixon's conflation of American Zionists with liberals intrigued me, especially since, nowadays, it is the right-wing in the United States that tends to be hawkish on Israel, whereas the left-wing seems to have more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.  Nixon talks more about Israel in the first volume of his memoirs, on pages 590-600.  I found his discussion there to be interesting, but I did not get around to blogging about it.  I'll do some of that here.

Nixon recognized that the Middle East was relevant to the Cold War, for the Soviet Union was supporting Arabs.  Within Nixon's Administration, there was some difference of opinion about what the U.S. should do.  Secretary of State William Rogers was for developing relationships with the Arabs, and he was also supportive of Israel returning the Arab territories that it was occupying, "in exchange for Arab assurances of Israel's territorial integrity" (page 593).  Henry Kissinger (who, according to Nixon, had a personality conflict with Rogers) did not care for Rogers' plan, for he thought that it "encouraged the extremist elements among the Arabs, gratuitously offended the Israelis, and earned the contempt of the Soviets, who saw it as playing na[i]vely into their hands" (Nixon's words on page 593).

At least in what Nixon narrates on pages 590-600, Nixon appears to have leaned more towards Rogers' position.  For one, Nixon did not want a situation in which the U.S.S.R. would support the Arabs, whereas the U.S. would support Israeli victories, for that could end up drawing both into the Middle East "against [their] wills" and their "national interests".  Nixon preferred to cultivate relationships with the Arabs to undermine Soviet influence in the Middle East.  Second, Nixon gave to Rogers and his Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs the responsibility for the Administration's Middle East policy, one reason being that Nixon feared that "Kissinger's Jewish background would put [Kissinger] at a disadvantage during the delicate initial negotiations for the reopening of diplomatic relations with the Arab states" (page 591).  Nixon reminded Kissinger that Kissinger would have enough other stuff on his plate: Vietnam, SALT, the Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan.  Third, while Nixon realized that Rogers' plan would most likely not be implemented because Israel would never accept it, Nixon still wanted to reassure the Arabs that he was open to their position on the occupied territories, as well as "a compromise settlement of the conflicting claims" (page 593).

Nixon decided to postpone delivering Phantom jets to Israel, for two reasons.  First, Arabs were pressuring the Soviets to increase their military aid to their Arab clients, to surpass the military aid that the U.S. was giving to Israel.  Nixon wanted to slow down that arms race without "tipping the fragile military balance in the region", and he thought that he could do so by postponing the provision of Phantom jets to Israel, since Israel was already strong militarily (page 594).  Second, Nixon hoped that his move would "renew diplomatic relationships with Egypt and Syria" (page 595).  Nixon had to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that the U.S. would stand with Israel in a crisis, for she wrote to him that "It is true that our pilots are very good, but they can be good only when they have planes" (Meir, as quoted on page 595).  Nixon himself expressed his support for Israel in a memorandum to Kissinger, as Nixon called Israel "the only state in the Mideast which is pro-freedom and an effective opponent to Soviet expansion" (page 596).

Nixon laments on page 595 that parts of the American Jewish community, Congress, the media, and "intellectual and cultural circles" equate not being sufficiently pro-Israel with anti-Semitism.  Nixon deemed it ironic that senators who desired more military aid to Israel were also against U.S. efforts to protect South Vietnam from Communism.  Nixon wrote to Kissinger that Israel should not trust American liberals (the doves) as a source of steady support, for, in the end, they are "peace at any price people", who will "cut and run", even from Israel, when "the chips are down" (page 596).  Nixon wrote that Israel's true friends were people like William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and himself, who were not for cutting and running!

Psalm 119: Daleth

My weekly quiet time this week will be about the Daleth section of Psalm 119.  I'll post it in the King James Version, which is in the public domain, then I'll comment on select verses.

25 DALETH. My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word.

If my memory of my reading on Psalm 119: Daleth is correct, some of the Christian commentaries that I read related v 25 to spiritual resurrection, of the sort that we encounter in such passages as Romans 6, Ephesians 2:5, Colossians 2:13, and I Peter 3:18: the Psalmist recognizes that he is spiritually dead and morally corrupt and thus needs God's word to revive him if he is to bear spiritual fruit.  Others say that the Psalmist is already regenerate, presumably because he loves God's law, and his carnal mind would be opposed to God's law if he were unregenerate (Romans 8:7).  In this particular view, the Psalmist seems to be asking for a spiritual pick-me-up, not a born again experience.

I think that the point of v 25 is that the Psalmist is in a state of suffering, and he wants for God to revive him through God's word.  The Psalmist says in v 38 that his soul is heavy and he desires to be strengthened according to the word of God.  In the Gimel section of Psalm 119, we read that the Psalmist is experiencing reproach and contempt, and that princes are speaking against him.  In a world of hostility and corruption, the Psalmist wants for God to instruct him in what is good and pure.  It's easy for one to become bitter and corrupt when one suffers or is rejected by others.  In such cases, I need for God to give me the pure water of his word.

26 I have declared my ways, and thou heardest me: teach me thy statutes.

I don't remember the comments that I read about this verse, to be honest with you, and so I'll speculate myself about what it could mean, without appealing to sources.  Maybe this verse means that the Psalmist was telling God what was happening in his life, including the negative stuff that I mentioned in my comments on v 25, and he wants for God to respond by teaching him God's statutes.  Alternatively, perhaps the Psalmist is taking a personal moral inventory: he is honestly sharing with God his understanding of the way that he is and what he has done, the good and the bad, and his desire is for God to guide him and to teach him God's statutes.  The Psalmist can keep on walking in his own ways, or he can try something new: he can learn God's ways and walk in them.  This Psalm may be by David, or it may have nothing to do with David, but I will say this: David himself struggled to stay on the straight-and-narrow, and there were times when he followed his own path rather than a better course.  I can envision David laying out his own ways before God, recognizing that they are flawed as he opens himself up to learn God's ways.

27 Make me to understand the way of thy precepts: so shall I talk of thy wondrous works.

The NRSV has: "Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works."  Is this suggesting that, when we understand God's precepts and appreciate their righteous content, we are drawn to meditate upon the good things that God himself has done: God has given the law, which illuminates to us the righteous path, and yet God himself has performed righteous deeds, deeds of love, compassion, salvation, and deliverance? 

28 My soul melteth for heaviness: strengthen thou me according unto thy word.

Do I find in my own life that the word of God strengthens me?  I'd say that meditating upon Scripture can take my mind off of my own problems and take me from a state of internal heaviness to one of internal equilibrium.  It can calm my internal waters, in short.

29 Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously.

The Psalmist could be saying that he trusts in God and God's law because he has found that other alleged sources of security are unreliable----they are lies.  Or could the Psalmist be saying that he himself does not want to follow a path of lying----he neither wants to tell lies, nor does he desire to follow a course of sin, which deceptively promises security and fulfillment but cannot necessarily deliver on those things?

30 I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.

Some of the Christian commentaries that I read noted that the Psalmist deliberately chose the way of truth.  Yes, following the way of righteousness is contingent on grace: the Psalmist recognized this when he desired that God quicken him, and when he highlighted the importance of God enlarging his heart in v 32.  But there was still a commitment and a tenacity on the Psalmist's part when it came to walking in the way of truth (in contrast to the way of lying in v 29).

31 I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame.

I think that there is value in following the way of righteousness simply because it is right, whether God provides a reward for it or not.  But I can understand and sympathize with the Psalmist's sentiment of wanting for God to honor his commitment: the Psalmist is trying to do the right thing, and he desires for God to honor that by delivering him from (or not putting him to) shame, in a world where people want to put him to shame!

32 I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

What is the enlargement of the heart?  Some say that it's being wise and knowing more, since I Kings 4:29 says that God gave Solomon largeness of heart, in the context of discussing Solomon's wisdom.  Some say that it means making the heart larger by giving it joy, for Isaiah 60:5 presents the hearts of the Israelites being enlarged (and simultaneously afraid!) as the abundance of the sea and the Gentiles come to Israel.  Another view is that it is about the heart becoming more affectionate, for Paul in II Corinthians 6:11-13 says that his own heart is enlarged towards the Corinthian church, and that he hopes that its heart will be enlarged towards him; in v 12, he seems to say that his affections are unlimited, whereas the affections of the Corinthian church are restrained.

Perhaps the enlargement of the heart in Psalm 119:32 encompasses all three of these things: the Psalmist wants for his knowledge and understanding of God's will and ways to be enlarged, for joy in the midst of situations that are afflicting him, and for greater affection for God and his neighbor.  Then, obedience would not be an uphill battle for him, for he would be eagerly running to obey God's commands.  (The Septuagint, however, says that God enlarged the Psalmist's heart in the past.)

There are things that weigh me down from doing the right thing: lusts and desires, jealousy, resentment, sadness, selfishness, constricting my love such that fewer and fewer people are the recipients of it, etc.  My heart is small.  But can God enlarge it?  Do I need fuller knowledge of God's will and ways?  I feel that I already understand Christian doctrines, as much as the smug evangelicals who act as if believing the way that they do is the way to comprehend the Bible (which, in my mind, is a tautology on their part).  Yet, could part of my problem be one of limited perspective: I need to learn more about God's love and goodness, as well as the beauty of God's way?  Maybe there is always some new facet of God's goodness and righteousness to learn about.  Regarding joy and a more expansive love for others, my need for those is a no-brainer to me.

Do I feel that I need to be emotionally happy in order to follow God, however?  Not necessarily, and I resent the smug evangelicals and self-styled spiritual people who like to show off how happy they supposedly are, as if they're better than those who are not so bubbly.  In my opinion, a person can be sad, and still be a good person.  There are many cases in which suffering actually influences a person to be more compassionate towards others.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Best of Both Worlds?

I went to my church's Maundy Thursday service last night.  We had a guest speaker, who was from another church, and she was preaching to us about Exodus 12.  She delivered her sermon in a rather mainline Protestant manner (since, well, she is mainline Protestant): demure, thoughtful, measured, etc.  But some of what she was saying sounded pretty evangelical, or at least conservative!  She was saying that we focus a lot on the grace of God, but we should also remember that God has rules that we should follow.  She also said that, if she were an Israelite living in the days of the Exodus, she wouldn't want to test God: she would follow God's instructions on how to preserve the lives of the Israelite firstborn while the death angel was killing the firstborn in Egypt.  She'd put blood on her door, blood that foreshadows the blood of Christ, which delivers people from God's wrath.

She made God sound real, tough, like the sort of God whom Marshall Hogan wanted to hear about in Frank Peretti's novel, This Present Darkness (which was why he was discontent with his liberal church).  What she was saying also reminded me of the evangelical cliche, "God is loving, but God is also JUST!", or "God is loving, but God is also HOLY!"

I suppose that it shouldn't be a surprise to me that a mainline Protestant would believe that there is a God who wants for us to live in a certain way.  As the pastor noted, the bad things that we do hurt ourselves and others.  It would be a wonderful thing if Jesus Christ came to earth to deliver us from the prison of sin.  I can use that!  I question whether I can truly be free from my imperfections----or whether I should instead just cope with them and try to keep them from doing damage.  But I can see why people long for deliverance from sin, and why they would feel limited and thus look to a higher power to bring that deliverance about.

I did an Internet search on the pastor who spoke to us last night.  In our denomination's conflicts over homosexuality, she appears to be on the side of allowing homosexuals to be pastors without demanding that they be celibate.  Moreover, she is a proponent of marriage equality.  Do I believe that this conflicts with her sermon?  Well, yeah, part of me does, and the reason is this: I myself believe that it's unfair to demand that homosexuals live in celibacy for the rest of their natural lives, but I think that way despite the Bible, which I believe is pretty clear in its opposition to same-sex sexual activity.  Therefore, I have a hard time conceiving of a position that takes the Bible seriously, while also believing that homosexuals should be allowed to have a life partner of their own sex.  Are there people who do manage to arrive at a position that they think contains the best of both worlds?  Yes.  That's why it shouldn't be a surprise to me that the pastor who spoke to us last night can believe in a real God, have faith that Jesus Christ provides hope, and see the Bible as God's word (though not necessarily as a fundamentalist might), while believing that God is okay with homosexuality.  I'm just saying that I haven't arrived at a position that makes sense to me, that preserves the best of both worlds.  I myself am not gay, but I can somewhat empathize with those who are gay.     

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 13

For my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs, I'll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on page 382.  The context is Bill Rogers' (whom I presume is this guy) advice to President Nixon that Nixon's aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, should resign.

"I asked [Rogers] if he would convey this to Haldeman and Ehrlichman for me.  He said that he did not think his relationship with them was good enough to do that----nor even objective enough...There had been some bitterness between them after the election during the reorganization, and he was concerned that they might feel that he was bringing personal feelings to the task."

This passage actually made me feel better, to tell you the truth!  The reason is that I have bitterness towards others, and there are people who don't particularly like me.  This passage reminded me that this is the case with a lot of people: that even people who are socially-competent have personality conflicts, for a variety of reasons.

I suppose that I could put on a Christian mantel and criticize Bill Rogers for being enemies with anyone.  After all, aren't we commanded to love everyone, to be at peace with everyone?  If we were truly Christ-like, would not people be drawn to us?  Wouldn't we get along with everyone?  Well, not necessarily, for it's often said in the New Testament that Christians will have conflict with people, not because Christians are seeking it out, but rather because people may not like what the Christians are doing and saying!  But I don't want to get bogged down in that topic!

Rather, what I want to say is that I admire how Bill Rogers handled this situation.  Sure, he was not perfect, for he had a bitter relationship with Haldeman and Ehrlichman.  But he did not allow his bitterness to be the determining factor in how he would act in a given situation.  He could have marched right over to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, told them that the President wanted them to resign, and gloated, getting satisfaction out of the fall of his enemies.  But he didn't do that.  Rogers could step back, take a fairly objective look at the situation, and conclude that he was not the right person to approach Haldeman and Ehrlichman, that he could make matters worse were he to do so. 

I think that it is good to overcome bitterness, and it's even better to be friends with everyone.  But things don't always work out that way.  In such cases, perhaps we can acknowledge our bitterness, while also refusing to let our bitterness rule our actions.  Rogers, for example, put other people's good above his own bitterness.

Common Sense and Absolutizing the Bible's Commands

For my write-up today on The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, I'll use as my starting-point something that M. Scott Peck says on page 148:

"There come many points on one's journey of spiritual growth, whether one is alone or has a psychotherapist as guide, when one must take new and unfamiliar actions in consonance with one's new world view.  The taking of such new action----behaving differently from the way one has always behaved before----may represent an extraordinary personal risk.  The passively homosexual young man for the first time summons the initiative to ask a girl for a date [;] the previously dependent housewife announces to her controlling husband that she is obtaining a job whether he likes it or not, that she has her own life to live; the fifty-year-old mama's boy tells his mother to stop addressing him by his infantile nickname..."

Something else that I'd like to note is a story that Peck tells on pages 152-153 about a patient whose minister father failed to protect her or himself from her abusive, manipulative mother.  The father exhorted his daughter to turn the other cheek and to be respectful and submissive towards her mother.

One reason that the passage on page 148 stood out to me was that Peck was commending a hypothetical homosexual for asking a woman out on a date.  This may imply that, at least when this book was written, Peck thought that homosexuality was a condition that could be cured.  The copyright on my book is 1978, and it was in that year that the American Psychological Association reversed its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.  What is Peck's stance on homosexuality today?  I do not know, but this article criticizes Peck by saying, "Peck also believes that homosexuality reflects God’s love for variety."
But I don't really want to focus on that subject in this post.  What I want to highlight is Peck's notion that people should stand up for themselves.  He mentions a wife who stands up to her husband and goes against his wishes, a son who stands up to his mother, and a father and a daughter who should stand up to someone who's abusive.

I was thinking about certain rules in the Bible and how a strict interpretation of them could land a person into trouble.  So we're supposed to honor and obey our parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1).  A person who smites his father or mother is to be executed (Exodus 21:15).  A wife is to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22) and imitate Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him lord (I Peter 3:6).  We are to turn the other cheek when somebody hits us (Matthew 5:39).

In a sense, and this is my opinion, there is a degree of rationality that underlies these rules.  There's something to be said for respecting authority, honoring people, and accepting an insult rather than fighting back.  There has to be some respect for authority in our culture lest there be chaos.  And there are situations in which it's preferable for us to swallow our pride and take an insult, rather than exasperating the situation by retaliating.  On the whole issue of wives submitting to their husbands, I'm somewhat of an egalitarian, myself.  But I appreciate that the author of Ephesians has as his goal the promotion of an orderly and loving home----in which the wife submits to her husband, the husband loves his wife, and the two submit to one another----even if I may have questions about or problems with his exhortation.

But, if these commands are absolutized, problems can occur.  Suppose the parents are abusive.  Should their children, in that case, obey everything that their parents command?  And does someone who strikes his father to protect himself or someone else (such as his mother or siblings) seriously deserve to be executed?  Should a woman obey everything that her husband tells her, when she has a mind of her own and is hurting herself when she suppresses her own identity?  And, if we turn the other cheek in certain situations, can we become a doormat?

I'm not saying that people should be selfish.  In a lot of relationships, people may find that they have to put their desires to the side, at least sometimes.  But I think that there should be give-and-take.  If there's a marriage in which a husband forbids his wife to work, and the husband is not making any effort at all to understand his wife's needs, then there's a problem.  I agree with Peck that the wife should stand up for herself in that case.  There are Christians who may say that the wife should simply submit to her husband----that, even if her husband is not loving her as Christ loves the church, she should do her part by obeying God's command to her to submit, and, if that squelches her happiness and desire for fulfillment, she should seek her happiness and fulfillment in the Lord, through prayer, Bible study, and worship.  But I have my doubts that this would be the best approach for her to take.

What I like about Peck is that he's a spiritual person, and yet he also has a common-sense approach to how to live life----an approach that includes a recognition of one's own needs, but also an appreciation for the needs of others.  I think that it's a good idea to employ common-sense even when reading Scripture, rather than absolutizing certain biblical commands.  (Of course, there are commands that probably should be absolutized.)  But was our version of common-sense in the minds of the biblical authors?  In some cases, I'd say yes.  For example, David did not submit to Saul by allowing Saul to kill him, even though David probably felt that he was supposed to respect the king.  But I'm hesitant to project our version of common-sense onto the biblical authors, for they lived in a different culture.  I'm just talking about a way that one can read Scripture profitably and apply it to one's own life----one can allow Scripture to serve as a guideline and seek to gather whatever wisdom he or she can from it, seeking a reasonable rationale even behind commands that may rub him or her the wrong way.  But one can choose not to absolutize certain commands, and to use one's own common-sense to determine what is appropriate for specific situations.

And what is common-sense?  Well, part of it is the wisdom of our culture about what is healthy and unhealthy, based on people's experiences.  In my opinion, several things that M. Scott Peck encourages are examples of common-sense.  Would I absolutize our culture's common-sense?  Well, no, for even our culture can be wrong, as past cultures have been wrong.  But common-sense can appropriately play a role in the dialogue of decision-making.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 12

For my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs, I'll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on page 356:

"'Whatever we say about Harry Truman,' I said, 'while it hurt him, a lot of people admired the old bastard for standing by people who were as guilty as hell, and, damn it, I am that kind of person.  I am not one who is going to say, look, while this guy is under attack, I drop him.'"

Nixon expresses admiration for Harry Truman for standing by his corrupt friends during Truman's Presidency.  This is ironic because, as Senator, Nixon was a strong critic of the Truman Administration's corruption.  It's also different from other approaches that Nixon takes in his memoirs.  Nixon argues that the sorts of shady things that were done within his own Administration and campaigns (though Nixon doesn't use the term "shady") were also done by Democrats.  Nixon also implies that he handled Watergate better than Truman handled some of his scandals, for, while Nixon did not seek to hinder the Justice Department's investigation and Congress' probing into the Watergate affair (though I'd say that Nixon pressuring the CIA to limit the FBI's investigation into Howard Hunt, which Nixon acknowledges doing, was somewhat of a hindrance), Truman forbade the Executive Branch to cooperate with the Congress on the issue of subversives in the Truman Administration.  (UPDATE: On page 413, Nixon mentions the story that he released claiming to explain why he encouraged the CIA to limit the FBI's investigation into Watergate: Nixon said in a document that he sought to ensure that the investigation would not uncover "secret CIA operations", I presume because Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt had done things for the CIA in the past.  But Nixon denied in the document that he wanted to impede the investigations into Watergate.) Nixon seems to present himself as more open, honest, and cooperative than Truman, in short.  But, on page 356, Nixon expresses admiration for Truman.  Nixon can identify with the man whom he attacked back when he was a U.S. Senator.  And Nixon looks beyond self-righteous partisanship in identifying a characteristic that he liked in someone from the other political party.

Did Nixon stand by people within his Administration?  As with much of Nixon's discussion of Watergate, Nixon's account of this issue strikes me as rather muddled.  Nixon certainly conveys that he cared about those who were accused of wrongdoing as well as their families, and he was even willing to provide concrete help.  At the same time, my impression is that Nixon also wants to portray himself as someone who didn't want the non-guilty people to be sacrificed, implying (perhaps) that he desired for wrongdoers to take responsibility.  Nixon also narrates that he did not like asking his aides, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, to resign, not only because he respected them, but also because he had doubts about their guilt (though he appears to equivocate on this in the book, at least in Haldeman's case).

What interested me was that Pat Buchanan encouraged Nixon to ask for the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.  On page 369, we read Buchanan's words: "Anyone who is not guilty should not be put overboard...however, presidential aides who cannot maintain their viability should step forward voluntarily...Howard K. Smith questioned on television: Will Nixon be the Eisenhower who cleans his house himself, or the Harding who covered up for his people?  This in ruthless candor is the question."  This somewhat surprised me because Buchanan said on pages 186-187 of Right from the Beginning:

"During Watergate, when reporters would ask me how I could continue to defend Nixon now that it was clear the President had deceived everybody, including their own, I wondered where, exactly, they had come from.  How, in that ultimate crisis of Mr. Nixon's life, could his own people not defend him?  No one I grew up with ever faulted me for staying with Nixon to the end...Whether Nixon was wrong was not the relevant issue.  Even if he had booted it, he had a right to be defended; and his friends had a duty to be there."

In that passage from Right from the Beginning, Buchanan exalted loyalty; privately, at least in that note that Nixon read, Buchanan was an advocate of subordinating loyalty to what was right.

The Loner

I got back to reading M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.

What particularly stood out to me in my latest reading was a scenario that Peck described on pages 131-134.  It concerned a hypothetical woman in her late forties who comes to church and slips out without greeting anyone, even the pastor.  If, by chance, she were invited to the coffee hour after the service, she'd thank the person inviting her but would decline, saying that she has another engagement, when really she's just heading back to her apartment.  She has a job as a typist, but she doesn't have any social connections.  In terms of activities, she goes to the movies on Saturday afternoons.  She currently has no pets, but she once had a dog, who passed on eight years ago.  If one were to tell her that her life seemed lonely, she would respond that she rather enjoys her loneliness.  According to Peck, she is trying to avoid pain, both the pain of loss and also the pain of rejection.  But in the process, Peck claims, she's missing out on things that make life "alive, meaningful and significant": "having children, getting married, the ecstasy of sex, the hope of ambition, friendship" (page 133).  Plus, she remains stagnant rather than growing.

This reminded me somewhat of the June 6, 2001 daily devotion in Our Daily Bread, which was entitled "The Loner".  In this daily devotion, Herbert Vander Lugt talks about a high school friend of his who was a loner.  This friend "spent his time reading books, [and] isolated himself in his parents’ home until they died..."  According to Herbert Vander Lugt, this friend "never had to sacrificially love a wife, never had his sleep disturbed by a crying child, never agonized over a rebellious teen, and never cried over the misfortunes of a close friend", and yet he also missed out on "some of life’s greatest joys and deepest satisfactions."  Herbert Vander Lugt then proceeds to give us a little lecture about how God is not a loner, as we learn from the doctrine of the Trinity, and he concludes by saying that "Through faith in Jesus, God forgives us and brings us into fellowship with Himself and others, saving us from the tragedy of being loners."

When I first read Herbert Vander Lugt's "The Loner", I was utterly disgusted.  A significant reason was that, well, I'm a loner, and thus I felt judged.  I did not think that Herbert Vander Lugt in that particular devotion really conveyed that he attempted to understand why his friend became a loner.  Rather, my impression was that Herbert Vander Lugt talked about his friend being a loner, judged his friend, gave a little lecture about how we shouldn't be loners because God is not a loner, and then said that Christ brings us into fellowship with other people.  Unfortunately, I thought, things are not so simple!  For one, sure, God may not be a loner, but there are plenty of people who are loners by temperament.  Perhaps they're introverts, or they are on the autism spectrum.  Why should they be made to feel guilty or second-class because they're not acting contrary to how they are?  Second, it's not easy for every Christian to fit into social settings that have other Christians, or other people in general, for that matter.

Perhaps Herbert Vander Lugt indeed did try to understand where his friend was coming from, and his whole point about his friend never having to sacrificially love anyone or agonize over other people reflects why his friend chose to be a loner.  I certainly think that these are reasons that some choose a life of solitude: they don't like to be bothered with people, who can be quite a hassle!  But I also think that Peck does well to offer other reasons: loners may fear getting too close to people and losing them, and they may fear rejection.

Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck may have a point that loneliness is not an ideal situation.  I have my reasons for being a loner, many of which overlap with what Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck discuss.  I'd add other factors as well: my difficulty in coming up with things to say when I socialize, my timidity, my fear of saying the wrong thing, the fact that there have been times in the past when I have said the wrong thing or said something in an imperfect way and thus turned people off, bad relationships in the past in which I felt mocked or dismissed, not wanting to give people the satisfaction of rejecting me when I want to be their friend, etc.  At the same time, it does feel good to me when I realize that there are people who care for me, and when I care for others (people and pets).  Of course, these are relationships in which I don't have to exert too much effort to be accepted, so that's why I like them.

One area in which I object to Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck's discussion is that they seem to suggest that being married and having kids is for everyone.  It's not.  At this moment, I don't think that I have enough love within me to be a father and a husband.  So why should I try to be a father or a husband, if I feel I'm not cut out for that right now?

Another point that I want to make concerns growth.  Growth is a significant part of Peck's conception of love, for he believes that we love ourselves when we pursue growth, and we love others when we are concerned about their growth.  Peck said that the loner woman was not growing, and I've heard similar things from other people: "If you isolate yourself, then how will you grow?"  This somewhat annoys me, for they should tell me why I should even want to grow.  I guess I can come up with reasons that I'd like to grow: so that I can meet life with greater serenity, so that I can get along better with others, so that I can have confidence and thus have and do well at a job, etc.  But, in the case of the loner woman and Herbert Vander Lugt's friend, these people have already found ways to support themselves or to be supported, plus they seem to be fairly content with life.  Why should they have to grow, to meet somebody else's expectations as to what constitutes a fulfilling life?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 11

From here on out, my write-ups on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs will most likely focus on the Watergate scandal, for, as I glance at the remainder of the book, that appears to be the main subject.  There may be some exceptions to that, though, for Nixon also comments every now and then about foreign affairs.  I will try to make my posts diverse, however, rather than rehashing the same details about Watergate.

For today's post, I'd like to use as my starting-point an interaction that Nixon discusses on page 320.  My quotation will appear rather elliptical, but I'll provide context for it, without getting too wonky:

"As for the payments up to this time, I said that our cover story was going to be that the Cuban committee had taken care of the defendants through the election.

"'Well, yeah.  We can put that together,' [White House counsel John] Dean said.  'That isn't of course quite the way it happened, but----'

"'I know, but it's the way it's going to have to happen,' I said."

The context is this: Nixon aide Bob Haldeman told Nixon about something that Dean had discussed with him (Haldeman).  $350,000 of cash had been taken from 1972 campaign funds to "help pay for such political projects as public polling" (Nixon on page 310).  When that money was not used, Haldeman reported, it was returned to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.  But Dean later told Nixon a different story: that he (Dean), Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman did not return the money unused to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, but rather drew from it to "make payments to the [Watergate] defendants" (Nixon on page 315).  Later in the book, on page 355, Nixon says that he did not think that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were trying to "suppress information based on firsthand knowledge of guilt", that is, to give the defendants payments in order to silence them "about the guilty involvement of others"; rather, Nixon believes that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were paying the attorney fees of the defendants and helping out the defendants' families so that the defendants wouldn't become bitter and hurl accusations.

So, on page 320, Nixon narrates that he agreed with Dean that Dean, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman used money to make payments to the Watergate defendants.  The story that Nixon wanted to tell, however, was that a Cuban committee helped out the defendants (perhaps because most of those who broke into the Watergate hotel were Cubans).  Nixon, according to his very own account, desired to tell a story that he did not believe was true.  He sought to lie (my word, not his).

It's interesting to me that Nixon in his very own account does not come off smelling like a rose in the Watergate scandal.  Nixon essentially says that he was going to release a story that he knew was not true, which I understand to be lying.  Why was Nixon so candid?  While Nixon in his memoirs does present some of the shady things that he did, he also, on some level, tries to exonerate himself.  He denies that he was aiming to obstruct justice, for example.  Perhaps he hoped that we would see him as an honest narrator of what truly happened: if we could accept that he was honest on the basis of his candid acknowledgements of the shady things that he did, perhaps we'd believe what he says when he defends himself.

Show No Pity, or Cultivate Pity?

One theme that has come up repeatedly in my reading of Deuteronomy is God's command to the Israelites not to pity certain people.  Specifically, God in Deuteronomy commands the Israelites not to pity the following: the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:16), an intimate who is encouraging an Israelite to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:8), someone who maliciously and intentionally kills another person (Deuteronomy 19:13), a false witness (Deuteronomy 19:21), and a woman who grabs a man's privates in an attempt to protect her husband (Deuteronomy 25:12).  The Canaanites, the idolatrous intimate, and the killer are to be put to death.  The false witness is to receive the punishment that he was hoping the person he accused would receive.  And the women who grabs the man's privates will get her hand cut off.

What I was thinking about as I read this passage was this: Shouldn't we be cultivating our pity, rather than suppressing it?  It seems to me that God (or people's characterization of God) expects for Christians to put up with so much garbage from people in this imperfect world with love, tolerance, grace, serenity, compassion, and forgiveness.  The cultivation of pity can help Christians on their quest to do this, for it can assist them in humanizing the people who do the garbage that annoys them, or that is just plain evil.  Christians can reflect that those who do bad things may perhaps have been victims themselves in the past, and so they are to be pitied rather than hated.  In light of this, Deuteronomy's command for the Israelites not to pity in certain situations slightly takes me aback.

And yet, Deuteronomy's tough stance makes a degree of sense.  How can God establish a holy people and get God's message off the ground if there are people----foreign and domestic----who are attempting to turn Israel from her God?  How can society be safe if people are maliciously killing others or are bearing false witness to get someone else into serious trouble?  I have a hard time accepting Deuteronomy's command that the woman grabbing the man's privates get her hand cut off, since she was just trying to protect her husband.  At the same time, her act could have had devastating consequences for her victim, for it could have deprived him of the ability to produce children.  This would run contrary to God's desire to make Israel populous, as well as deprive the victim of offspring who can work his land and take care of him in his old age.  Thus, it's understandable that Deuteronomy sought to discourage that sort of action on the part of women (but why not men?).

Should justice be tempered with mercy?  Deuteronomy screams "no" in the cases that I listed.  I don't think that most people would believe that those who hurt others should simply be let off the hook.  But is there a place for compassion when the sentencing is occurring----for society, to use an example, to respect the value of a killer's life rather than sentencing him to death?  If we're a "hang them high" sort of society, are we not brutal?  But then one could ask if anything less than the death penalty for murder is fair, in terms of the punishment fitting the crime.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 10

I have two items for my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs.

1.  For my first item, I'll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on pages 288-289.  The topic is President Nixon's controversial impounding of federal funds, his refusal as President to spend all of the money that the U.S. Congress had appropriated for certain programs:

"The major public battles in the executive-legislative conflict were also being fought on the issue of the impoundment of funds.  Presidents since Thomas Jefferson had considered it their prerogative, and indeed their responsibility, to withhold the expenditure of congressionally appropriated funds for projects that were not yet ready to begin or if inflation was especially severe and putting more money into the economy would make it worse.  This is known as impoundment.  In fact, as of January 29, 1973, I had 3.5 percent of the total budget impounded; Kennedy impounded 7.8 percent in 1961, 6.1 percent in 1962, and 3 percent in 1963; Johnson impounded 3.5 percent in 1964 but increased steadily to a high of 6.7 percent in 1967.  The Democratic Congress had not challenged my Democratic predecessors for their heavier use of the practice, so I saw the 1973 impoundment battle as a clear-cut partisan attack on me."

I first learned about the impoundment issue in a college course on American government.  The professor was telling us (if I recall correctly) that the articles of impeachment that were being drawn up in Congress against Nixon dealt with more than Watergate, for they included a criticism of Nixon for impounding funds, that is, for not spending all of the money that Congress had appropriated for certain programs.  As a Republican at the time, I somewhat admired Nixon for this.  Here was a President who was unilaterally taking the initiative to control government spending.  Of course, he went over Congress' head to do this, but how often do checks-and-balances stand in the way of doing the right thing?  How I feel about this sort of thing nowadays, I'm not sure.  I admire President Barack Obama when he goes over Congress' head by issuing executive orders that advance his progressive agenda.  At the same time, I think that checks-and-balances are important in terms of the United States being a republic of laws, rather than a country that is ruled by the whims of human beings.

Nixon's reference to the impoundment issue occurs within the context of his larger discussion of the importance of controlling government spending.  One reason that Nixon wanted to control government spending was that it was inflationary, presumably because it put more money into the economy, plus it could lead to tax increases.  Another reason was that he thought that the government was wasteful.  Nixon gives a variety of examples of this waste on pages 279-281: the richest 7 percent of farmers received 42 percent of the farm subsidies; there was a surplus of teachers, yet a federal program was encouraging students to enroll in teaching programs; the government was still subsidizing the construction of hospitals, when there was a surplus of hospital beds; and 85 percent of the money for the Office of Economic Opportunity went to "salaries and overhead before it ever reached the poor" (page 281).  Third, Nixon thought that there were too many government bureaucrats, and that most of them were Democrats or liberals.  In retrospect, however, Nixon felt that he undermined morale when he demanded the resignations of all of the White House staff and members of the Cabinet (even though he did not accept many of the resignations).

This discussion was interesting, since elsewhere Nixon brags about his role in increasing government spending for certain programs.  Perhaps Nixon would say that, yes, he did that, and he was right to do that, but he sought to do so while regulating the overall government spending.  Something else that enters my mind is a statement that Nixon made on page 640 of volume 1 of his memoirs: "The budget I submitted in January of 1971 was set to be balanced at full employment and run a deficit to help take up the slack when unemployment was high."  That tells me that Nixon may have thought that there was a time for deficit spending, and there was a time for greater austerity.  My impression is that Paul Krugman feels similarly: when unemployment is fairly high and people are not spending much money, that is not the time for the government to cut its own spending, for the government needs to put money into the economy to stimulate growth; when more people are working and spending, however, that's an opportune time for the government to cut back and pay off its debt, and the government would be adding inflationary pressures by putting more money into the economy.  But what does one do when there is stagflation----high unemployment and inflation?

2.  I have said in previous posts that Nixon did not have too much of a problem with dirty tricks.  Nixon regarded many of them as pranks, plus he noted that Democrats did them, too.  An example of such a prank would be Donald Segretti of the Committee to Re-Elect the President sending out fliers "inviting people to an open house with free lunch and drinks at Humphrey's headquarters in Milwaukee" (page 292).  Nixon does seem to draw the line somewhere, however, or at least that's what Nixon tries to imply: "But [Segretti] crossed the boundaries of pranks when he sent out phony letters on stationary from different Democratic campaign offices claiming that two of the Democratic candidates had records of sexual impropriety and that another had a history of mental instability" (page 292).

The Prayer of St. Francis: What I Like and Dislike About It

In this post, I'll be critiquing the Prayer of Saint Francis, as I discuss where I find the prayer helpful as well as the applications of it that do not help me so much.

An English version of the prayer goes as follows:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.  Amen."

Where I find the prayer helpful is that is teaches me to give rather than to receive.  This, for me, includes saying "Hi" to people even though they don't say "Hi" to me or treat me like a leper whenever I do say "Hi" to them.  Believe me, it's tempting to do otherwise.  But I have to remember that it's better to give than to receive.

Where I find the prayer problematic, however, is that I think that it pressures me to be a change-agent.  If I am in a place where there is a lot of hatred and strife, I don't feel compelled to make everyone love each other.  I'm not qualified to undertake such a challenge, to tell you the truth, for I'm not a trained facilitator.  But I can show love and forgiveness myself, on a personal level, even in places where people are at each other's throat.  Actually, I should strive to do so.

Another problem that I have with the prayer is the part about offering people faith, hope, and joy.  The last thing that I'd want if I had doubt, despair, and sadness is for some happy-clappy evangelical to lecture me on how I should be happy and just have faith.  Rather, I'd want for people to listen to me and understand where I'm coming from.  That's why I like the part of the prayer about seeking to understand rather than to be understood.  It's not that I wouldn't want any encouragement at all.  I think that, if someone prayed for me and asked God to be with me and to give me the strength and wisdom to deal with a situation, I would greatly appreciate that and would feel encouraged.  But my belief is that it's better to be with people in their pain and then to give them encouragement, than it is to pressure people to be in denial about their pain.

Perhaps St. Francis would agree with my insights, and I'm just misinterpreting him.  But my spiritual life is not just about accepting a lesson or teaching as authoritative, but rather it entails me wrestling with that lesson or teaching and seeking to process it for myself so that I can live a better life.  This does not necessarily mean that I reinterpret the lesson or teaching to make it palatable to myself, though I do try to make it at least manageable to me rather than something that I cannot do.  In doing so, I try to preserve the lesson or teaching as something that's challenging, while also not allowing it to burden me with guilt, if that makes sense.

Monday, March 25, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 9

I have two items for my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs.

1.  My first item will be the Vietnam War.  In a previous write-up on this book, I talked about the topics of civilian casualties in Vietnam and the objections of General Thieu, the leader of South Vietnam, to a proposed settlement.  In this item, I'll elaborate upon those two topics.  On the issue of civilian casualties, Nixon continues to follow his pattern of saying that his bombings of Vietnam were aimed at military targets, not civilian targets.  Nixon was considering stepping up the bombing in order to persuade North Vietnam to return to the table and negotiate a "fair settlement" (page 241).  The Haiphong Harbor would be re-mined, there would be "B-52 strikes against military targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong complex", and full-scale bombing would occur south of the 20th parallel, which Nixon says was "largely rice paddies and jungle" (page 242).  But, even according to Nixon's narration, these particular bombings were highly controversial.  That makes me wonder if there actually were a lot of civilian casualties due to these bombings, even if civilians may not have been deliberately targeted.  I'll be reading anti-Nixon books in the course of this Year (or More) of Nixon, so I'll probably get a different perspective on the bombings from them.

On General Thieu's objections to the proposed settlement, Nixon says on page 246 that Thieu was afraid that, after the Americans would leave, "the Communists would resume their guerrilla warfare", but "this time they would fight with knives and bayonets, being careful not to do anything to justify American retaliation" (Nixon's words).  But Nixon assured Thieu that the U.S. would be committed to keeping the North Vietnamese out of South Vietnam and would provide economic and military aid to South Vietnam, while Nixon also warned Thieu that the Congress might cut off aid to South Vietnam if it deemed him to be a roadblock to peace.  Thieu eventually agreed to play ball, and the Vietnam War came to an end.

2.  Nixon talks about the death of Lyndon Johnson, which occurred in 1973.  Nixon in this part of the book appears to be quite affectionate towards Johnson.  Nixon respects Johnson's contribution to the Vietnam War and values Johnson's support of him (Nixon) when Nixon was President.  Yet, Nixon does not believe that Johnson was much of a fighter near the end of Johnson's Presidency, when Johnson was harshly criticized by anti-war activists.  Overall, Nixon displays affection for LBJ, as well as an attempt to understand him, as Nixon says that Johnson was someone who wanted to be loved.

It's interesting to me which political opponents Nixon respects, and which he does not.  Nixon praises LBJ.  Nixon also appears to like Hubert Humphrey (his opponent for the Presidency in 1968) and Ted Eagleton, who was George McGovern's first running-mate in 1972.  Nixon regards George Wallace as a demagogue, yet he admires Wallace's patriotism.  Nixon also regrets how he bashed Dean Acheson (President Harry Truman's Secretary of State) in the early 1950's because Acheson was later a supporter of Nixon as President, when Nixon was conducting the Vietnam War.

But Nixon does not say anything positive about Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he ran against in 1950 for the U.S. Senate.  And, at least in my reading so far, Nixon is very, very sparing in terms of his praise of George McGovern.  Nixon one time calls McGovern sincere, but that's pretty much the only positive or humanizing thing that Nixon says about him! 

I'm not sure if I can some up with absolute, iron-clad laws that explain why Nixon liked whom he liked, and disliked whom he disliked.  I do think that there may be general patterns, but they're not absolute.  For one, Nixon seems to respect the humanity of those he can pity.  For example, Nixon had compassion for Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick, for Ted Eagleton when Eagleton was grilled over his depression and allegations of alcoholism, and for Hubert Humphrey after his political loss.  Second, Nixon tended to like those with whom he had a relationship in the past.  Nixon seems to have liked John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, even though they did things that made him mad (or at least Kennedy did), for he had a history with them.  But my impression is that Nixon didn't really know Helen Gahagan Douglas and George McGovern. 

The Purpose of Holiness and Morality

The December 2 entry for Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest stood out to me when I read it, particularly one line: Chambers' statement that "The emphasis of holiness movements is apt to be that God is producing specimens of holiness to put in His museum."

Why should we strive to be holy, or, if you prefer, moral people?  Is it so that God can put us into a museum to showcase to others what God can do, or to enable us to be inspiring examples to others?  That may be a reason, but I doubt that it's the only reason.  It only pushes the question back.  So we're supposed to advertise to others what God can do and live lives that inspire people to strive to be righteous and holy.  Why?  So that they can be righteous and holy.  But that only brings us back to our original question: Why should people strive to be righteous and holy?

I think that an obvious answer is that righteousness makes for an orderly world.  The world is a better place if people respect one another and live in peace with each other, maybe even love one another-----for the world would be a pretty cold place if people merely respected each other but did not care how others were doing.  Moreover, theistic religions hold that it's important that we believe in a power greater than ourselves, God, rather than seeing ourselves as the sum of all things.  A theme within Christianity is that the world got to be out of whack on account of sin, and Christ came to earth to heal the world.  When we are holy and righteous, we are participating in the orderly world that God is creating.

That should be good enough----that we should do what's right because it's right and thus has positive consequences.  But there are people who believe that there's more to the issue than that, that there are other reasons that we should cultivate holiness and righteousness.  I once heard a religious author interact with a question: What exactly is the Christian life preparing us for?  When we practice for basketball (or, more accurately, when others practice for basketball, since I'm not particularly athletic!), we're preparing for a game in which we can use the skills that we are practicing.  Is the same true with the Christian life?

I suppose that one can say that we're practicing morality so that we can meet the greater moral challenges, the times when it's especially difficult to be moral.  There's wisdom to that.  The answer of the religious author to his own question, however, was that we're practicing love now so that we'll be able to love people from different backgrounds in the new heavens and the new earth, which Christ will set up after his return.  I once heard an Armstrongite preacher argue along similar lines, only he used another apocalyptic example: he said that many Christians, during the time of their eschatological persecution at the hands of the Beast, will be in close quarters when God is protecting them.  During that time, they will have to love one another, otherwise how will they live with each other?  It's kind of like what Jack said on LOST: "Live together, die alone."  That may explain why people who live in the time of the end will need to be moral (depending on if you accept that eschatological scenario), but not exactly why people who lived before that time needed to be so.

But, overall, Armstrongites have another explanation for why we need to build character: that we will become god-like beings, part of the God Family, perhaps even ruling our own planets.  We're building character in order to be moral rulers, in short.  I wouldn't exactly phrase things in the extreme fashion that Armstrongites do, but I agree with them that there is a New Testament expectation that the saints will rule (II Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6).  Not just anybody can rule, for a person needs moral character to do so, lest he or she become a tyrant.  Rulers need to be like Mufafsa in the Lion King, sensitive to balance and the circle of life and what is good for the community, rather than like Scar, who was out for power and did not care for the community. 

There are Armstrongites who tend to look down on Christians who lack the expectation that the saints will rule in the millennium and the new heavens and the new earth.  These Armstrongites characterize such Christians as people who think that God regards people as pets rather than future rulers, who look forward to sitting on a cloud with a harp, and who do not posit any real purpose for the Christian life.  I can somewhat understand where these Armstrongites are coming from.  I am seriously doubtful that many Christians expect to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp, but it does seem to me that a number of them lack a belief that they will rule.  Rather, my impression has been that they present heaven and life after the resurrection as a time when they will worship God and spend time with their families, friends, and loved ones.  I'm not against that, for I expect that, too, but, like Armstrongites, I'd like for there to be more than that for us in the time of eschatological hope----projects that we can work on, unlimited possibilities, opportunities for us to put into practice our knowledge and creativity, etc.  

That doesn't mean that I look down on Christians who lack this sort of hope, or feel that I can learn nothing from them.  For one, if they teach and practice righteousness, then I can learn from them, for righteousness has practical value in this life, in that it makes for an orderly society and hopefully makes us into orderly individuals, rather than people who are continually hitting our heads into brick walls and suffering bad consequences from our action.  Second, while the Bible does talk about the saints ruling, my impression is that it does not seem to offer a whole lot of specifics, or even to harp on the issue as much as Armstrongites do.  Consequently, I think that people who believe that the saints will rule should be humble, not looking down on those who lack this eschatological expectation.  God has worked with and through people who lack this hope, and my opinion is that God still does so.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Christ to Love

At church this morning, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey that had never been ridden. 

The pastor made three points that really stood out to me.  First of all, the pastor said that the crowds welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, yet they were calling for Jesus' crucifixion a few days later.  The pastor asked us if we are consistent in how we feel about Jesus----will we feel the same about Jesus tomorrow as what we feel about Jesus today?  Second, the pastor noted that Jesus rode on a donkey that had never been ridden.  The pastor was saying that this was miraculous, since it is hard to ride an animal that has never been ridden before----or at least it's hard to ride that animal smoothly!  Third, the pastor was noting that some of the Pharisees were criticizing all of the rejoicing that was occurring as Jesus rode into Jerusalem.  The pastor said that was should rejoice rather than being negative and dour.

The pastor's second point----about Jesus riding a donkey that had never been ridden----resonated with me on account of something that a Christian lady told me years ago.  I asked her why she believed that Jesus was the Messiah, since I was struggling with that issue, having heard Jewish arguments against the idea.  She did not respond with the usual Christian apologetic spiel----that Jesus fulfilled hundreds of prophecies, the empty tomb was historical, etc.  She may have said that the change in the disciples from fearful to courageous was one factor that convinced her that Jesus was the Messiah, but, overall, she was not giving me some elaborate apologetic spiel that would require me to believe her way, or else.  Rather, she talked about what she believed that Jesus had done in her life----that she met her husband, when neither she nor he prior to meeting each other had dated that much; and that her grandmother lived long enough to see her become a teacher.  But the lady also mentioned the donkey who had never been ridden.  She said that Jesus must have had a gentle, loving personality to convince that animal to trust him.  She then said that it's the little things that convince her that Jesus is the Messiah.

This, in my opinion, overlaps with and reinforces my pastor's other two points.  How would I consistently love Jesus, rather than waffling in my feelings about him?  I would do so if I saw Jesus as loving and gentle, as he was with that donkey who had never been ridden.  And what would convince those critical Pharisees (not that all Pharisees were critical, but some were) to rejoice rather than being dour?  Perhaps an appreciation of Jesus' love and gentleness would have encouraged them to rejoice----they wouldn't need to worry about Jesus infringing on their power and influence, for why crave power and influence to feed one's soul, when one has God's love?

I realize that there are more factors at play: the Pharisees may have feared that the rejoicing crowd would get the attention of the Romans, who wouldn't like a Messianic uprising on the Passover; the people who rejoiced about Jesus may not have been the same as those who called for his crucifixion; Jesus doesn't always appear gentle (though, even then, I'd say that he was nicer than the Christians who act as jerks then claim that they're merely following Jesus' example), etc.  But my pastor and that Christian lady still made edifying points. 

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 8

I have two items for my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs.

1.  Nixon talks more about the Watergate scandal (which, as you can probably guess, will come up often in the remainder of this book).  In my latest reading, Nixon mentioned some of the bad things that the McGovern campaign and supporters of McGovern did.  Nixon narrates that supporters of McGovern broke into, burned down, and blew up Nixon campaign headquarters in different parts of the U.S.  There were also raucous pro-McGovern mobs that disrupted Nixon campaign events.  And Nixon relates on pages 215-216 that he himself was a victim of spying:

"After the campaign it was revealed that, for all its sanctimony, the McGovern high command was not above considering organized spying of its own.  At the highest levels of their campaign it was proposed that a paid operative be planted aboard Ted Agnew's campaign airplane to spy on Agnew and report his activities to the McGovern camp.  According to Senate Watergate Committee records, one of those responsible for this plan claimed that the same thing had been done successfully against my campaign in 1968."

In my reading of Nixon's memoirs so far, Nixon's account of Watergate has been interesting.  My impression is that Nixon had no problems with dirty tricks or bugging, for he says that the Republicans who were doing so were merely doing what the Democrats had done.  But he seems to have initially doubted that his intimate aides ordered or had advanced knowledge about the Watergate break-in, even if they may have wanted for the Nixon campaign to gather information about the other side.  (UPDATE: As my reading progresses, Nixon appears to waver on this doubt.) Clear as mud?

2.  On page 217, we read the following in Nixon's diary.  This entry was composed on the day before Election Day in 1972:

"Today I went down to the Red Beach, walked two miles, went in the water for about twenty minutes.  The tide went out further than I have ever seen it----a real ebb tide.  Whether this is a good sign or a bad sign only time will tell.

"When I went further down the beach----I decided to first go just to the half-mile mark and then went on to the peace sign which someone had carved in the red sandstone cliff, which is about three-quarters of a mile.  Interestingly enough, the peace sign had been worn down by the weather.  It was very dim.  It looked like a man with a frown on his face.  This may be an indication that those who have held up this sign finally have had their comeuppance and they are really in for some heavy depression."

Nixon...looking for signs in nature about what the future holds!  I don't know if Nixon was seriously that superstitious (or perhaps religious would be a better term), for he often strikes me in my reading as a hard-nosed realist.  Perhaps he was just letting his mind play around a bit!  As Bruce Mazlish notes, Nixon was a day-dreamer.  If I were taking a walk alone in nature, perhaps I myself would look for signs in my surroundings, while still recognizing that I had to do my part.  But, even when we have to do our part, so much depends on factors outside of our control, and so it's not surprising that there are people who seek some assurance from the universe that things would turn out all right.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 7

My latest reading of volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs focused on the Vietnam War.  I have two items.

1.  In an earlier post on this book, I talked about Nixon's discussion of the topic of Vietnamese civilian casualties in the Vietnam War.  Nixon's view appeared to have been that the U.S. should focus on attacking military targets while minimizing civilian casualties.  In my latest reading, Nixon addresses this topic some more.  Nixon dismisses as Hanoi propaganda the claim that "the American bombers were deliberately hitting the crucial system of dikes and dams in North Vietnam in order to kill large civilian populations in the resulting floods" (Nixon's words on page 185).  According to Nixon, anti-war leaders such as Ted Kennedy were buying that claim.  But Nixon narrates: "In one of my press conferences I tried to introduce at least an element of logic regarding this charge: if in fact we had decided on a policy of deliberately bombing the dikes and dams, we could have destroyed the entire system in a week."

I don't know whether or not American bombers were taking out dikes and dams.  I do have some questions, though.  In his account of the Vietnam War, Nixon paints a picture in which he as President was using bombing as a way to persuade the North Vietnamese to yield to U.S. demands: if North Vietnam became aggressive, U.S. bombings would continue; when North Vietnam and Kissinger were trying to hash out an agreement, the bombings were reduced.  My question is this: Were all of these bombings aimed at military targets?  Just how many military targets were there to bomb?  In volume 1, Nixon at one point expresses support for bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail because supplies came to Communist forces on it.  But how often does the U.S. need to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail for the U.S. to get the job done? (Not that I know the extent to which Nixon had the Ho Chi Minh trail bombed.)

Well, come to think of it, maybe one attack on certain military targets was not enough in terms of the U.S. meeting its goals.  To use an example, my impression from volume 1 of Nixon's memoirs was that Nixon ordered an attack of Cambodia twice, since supplies were coming to Communist forces in Vietnam from Cambodia.  The first time that happened, U.S. casualties were reduced.  But Nixon apparently felt a need to attack Cambodia again.  And, even later, in North Vietnam's talks with Kissinger, there was discussion of cutting off supplies to Communist forces in Vietnam from Cambodia.  Were supplies still coming to the Communist forces from Cambodia, even after Nixon's attacks on the country (or, more accurately, the Communists in the country, for Nixon narrates that the leader of Cambodia didn't particularly care for the Communists in his country, either)? 

Did Nixon bomb military targets over and over, or were there also civilian targets?

2.  On page 190, Nixon outlines a proposal by Vietnamese Communist Le Duc Tho that met Nixon's major requirements for an agreement.  First of all, there would be a cease-fire, and sixty days later U.S. troops would withdraw from Vietnam, as prisoners-of-war (POWs) on both sides would be returned.  Second, because North Vietnam claimed that it did not have troops in South Vietnam (and I think this was because, according to North Vietnam, the Viet Cong in the South was a separate entity from North Vietnam), North Vietnam could save face by not being required to withdraw its troops from South Vietnam.  At the same time, North Vietnam could no longer receive supplies from the Communists in Laos and Cambodia, and Nixon thought that this would sap the North Vietnamese forces of their strength.  Third, there would not be a coalition government in the South consisting of Communists, but there would be a National Council of Reconciliation and Concord, which would consist of the South Vietnamese government, the Viet Cong, and "neutral members."  Nixon states that, on this council, "Unanimity would be required in its votes; thus Thieu [the leader of South Vietnam] would be protected from being outvoted by the Communists and their supporters."  Fourth, Thieu would remain the leader of South Vietnam.  Fifth, the U.S. would provide economic aid to North Vietnam, which the Communists would see as reparations, but which would increase the U.S.'s leverage with North Vietnam.

Thieu of South Vietnam was not particularly happy with this proposal.  He wanted for the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam, and he was also leery about a National Council of Reconciliation and Concord that would contain Communists.  There was also a sentiment that some of the Communist POWs were terrorists and should not be released.  And there was the factor that the North Vietnamese were trying to gobble up as much land as they could before the cease-fire.  Moreover, Thieu did not really want for the American forces to leave, for he did not feel that he could hold off the Communists without them.

At the present time, I'm not sure how all of this turned out.  (Well, I know that North Vietnam won in the end, but what was the agreement that ended the war under the Nixon Administration?)  Nixon acknowledged some of Thieu's concerns, and Nixon himself objected to mandating equality of arms between North and South Vietnam, for Nixon felt that South Vietnam's military advantage was essential to keeping the peace.  However, Nixon was trying to get Thieu on board with the overall proposal by saying that it would weaken the Communists in Vietnam, and by warning that the Democratic Congress might vote to cut off aid to South Vietnam if it deemed Thieu to be standing in the way of peace.  As is often the case in negotiations, there was a lot of delicate ground.

Psalm 119: Gimel

For my weekly quiet time today, I'll post Psalm 119: Gimel in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

17 GIMEL. Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word.

The Psalmist does not want God's blessing merely for the sake of being prosperous; rather, the Psalmist desires it because he feels that this will enable him to survive and thus to keep God's word.  A question that I have asked more than once on this blog is whether the Psalmist sincerely loved serving God, or merely used service of God as a bargaining-chip to get God to deliver him from whatever scrap he was in.  I do not know the Psalmist's heart, but it does seem to me, at least in Psalm 119, that the Psalmist truly valued God's law, for the Psalmist appears to have a clear idea about why he deems God's law to be valuable: because it provided him with reliable guidance, because it was a refuge to him in difficult times, because it contained wonderful things that weren't immediately obvious, etc.

18 Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

I have long loved this verse.  Whenever I sit down to read the Bible, I would love to learn something new and wonderful.  Do I myself pray verse 18, though?  I'm usually hesitant to do so, for I tend to believe that the interpretation of the Bible is a human endeavor, as opposed to something that proceeds from God's guidance of the reader or hearer.  That's the basis of whatever humility I have in reading and interpreting the biblical text: that my interpretation may be flawed, that there are other ways to see the biblical passages, that there is information that I do not currently know about, and that my limited interpretation does not close the door on any subject.  So are my times in Scripture utter vanity, as I seek solid ground but can never quite find it?  I wouldn't go that far, for I do believe that I learn good, moral, and wholesome outlooks and ways to live my life as I read Scripture.  Could God have something to do with that?

19 I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.

Why does the Psalmist call himself a stranger, or, in the Hebrew, a "ger"?  A ger was a resident alien in the land of Israel.  Because the ger did not own land in Israel, he was dependent on the goodwill of the Israelites, and God commanded them to leave gleanings for the ger in the fields.  Later, within the Septuagint and also rabbinic Judaism, the ger was often interpreted to be a convert to Judaism.

According to various interpreters whom I read, the Psalmist called himself a ger because he realized that he was a sojourner on earth, not a permanent resident, for his life was short (as are all lives).  As David says in I Chronicles 29:15 (and I quote the KJV): "For we are strangers (Hebrew: gerim) before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding."  What does life being short have to do with the Psalmist's desire to learn God's commandments?  According to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, the Psalmist does not want to waste his brief life, for he desires to infuse his life with meaning through observance of God's commandments.  Do I identify with this sentiment?  Personally, my attitude is that life is short, so why should I spend it beating myself up because I fall short of some perfect standard?

The Midrash on the Psalms offered an interesting interpretation of Psalm 119:19, as it understood the "ger" in light of the rabbinic view that the ger was a convert to Judaism.  According to the Midrash on the Psalms, the Gentile who converts to Judaism does not know much about the Torah, and so he needs someone to teach the Torah to him.  While I am doubtful that Psalm 119:19 means this, since the Psalmist may not have regarded the ger as a convert, I do think that the Midrash on the Psalms is getting at something that underlies the verse: that the Psalmist, like a resident alien, is vulnerable and dependent.  He needed God's help, deliverance, and guidance.

Moreover, the Psalmist may have felt like an outsider in the world, the same way that a ger in Israel did not feel as if he were totally a part of Israel.  Why?  The Psalmist is experiencing reproach and contempt (v 22), and princes are speaking against him (v 23).  In the midst of this alienation, the Psalmist desires and finds a home in God's commandments.  The Psalmist longs for God's judgments and meditates on God's statutes when people are opposing him.  The Psalmist finds delight in God's law within a world that is not a particularly delightful place for him.  Do I identify with this?  I do.  I myself have often felt alienated from others in my life, but I experience joy when I study and meditate upon the Bible.

20 My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times.

The Psalmist does not just find a home in a book of laws, in my opinion.  The Psalmist also finds a home in God's direct guidance of him, within the relationship that the Psalmist has with God.  God opens the Psalmist's eyes to the beautiful things in God's law (v 18), and the Psalmist longs for God's judgments (v 20).  Why would the Psalmist's soul break in longing for God's judgments, when he could simply read them in a book (assuming he could read, and, if he could not, others could read them to him) or recall them in his memory?  Perhaps he's not just talking about thinking about laws, but thinking about laws under the guidance of God, within a relationship with the divine.  In that case, the Psalmist would long for God to intervene.  Or maybe the Psalmist in v 20 is saying that he treasures the times that he spends with God in the contemplation of the Torah, and he wishes that he had more time to do so, as well as a greater capacity to understand and to appreciate what he contemplates.

21 Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed, which do err from thy commandments.

In my opinion, this verse is important because it shows that the Psalmist is not just talking about a hobby that he has (namely, contemplation on God's laws) that might not be for others.  Rather, God's commandments are for everyone, for they contain the right way to live.  No one is exempt from the necessity to love others.

22 Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.

I've long had the attitude that I can hide myself in God's word, and God will ensure that everything will turn out all right in my life.  I've thought that, if I am diligent in studying the Bible, going to church, attending Bible study groups, etc., then God will honor my devotion by giving me blessings, which would include favor in the eyes of other people.  Nowadays, to be honest, I'm a little more skeptical about this approach.  Whether I read the Bible or not, there will be people who will not like me, and I will have ups and downs in life.  Moreover, just speaking for myself, I do not think that me just reading the Bible and going to church are sufficient in terms of helping me to navigate my way through life, for I need the counsel of wise people about such things as social skills, searching for employment, etc.  But does reading the Bible help me to have a better attitude and perspective on life?  Yes, absolutely.  There are a lot of good things in the Bible.

23 Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes.

The Hebrew phrase that the KJV translates as "speak against me" is "bi nidbaru".  We have the niphal of d-b-r ("to speak") plus the preposition "b" (which can mean "in", but does not always).  The Septuagint translates this phrase as "katelaloon", which deals with speaking evil and slander.  Moreover, in Malachi 3:13, the niphal of d-b-r (which appears with the preposition "al", which can mean "against") seems to refer to speaking against.  It may mean that in Ezekiel 33:30 (where it appears with the preposition "b", like in Psalm 119:23), or it may not.  The Septuagint for Ezekiel 33:30 does not appear to regard the niphal of d-b-r negatively, for it merely says that the people speak concerning the prophet, rather than saying that they speak against them.  Some English translations hold that Ezekiel 33:30 presents the people speaking against the prophet, while others maintain that its saying that the people speak concerning him.

Here's what puzzles me: Malachi 3:16 states (in the KJV): "Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name."  The word translated as "spake often one to another" is the niphal of d-b-r.  That doesn't sound negative, does it?  Those who fear the LORD are simply talking with one another.  It doesn't sound like they're saying negative things, right?  Yet, for some reason, the Septuagint for Malachi 3:16 uses the word "katelalesan" for the niphal of d-b-r, and "katelalesan" is speaking evil of someone or slandering.  Could it be that the fearers of God in Malachi 3:16 were speaking negative things to one another----perhaps they were lamenting God's reluctance to act, or criticizing the wickedness that was around them?

But, back to Psalm 119:23, it makes sense to me that the princes are speaking against the Psalmist rather than merely talking about him, for why would the Psalmist make a big deal about people just talking about him?  Plus, v 22 indicates that the Psalmist is experiencing his share of reproach and contempt, so that tells me that people are talking negatively when it comes to the Psalmist.  What historical situation would this scenario fit?  It may fit the Davidic monarchy, as the king laments that princes are undermining his authority and are plotting against him.  Or it may fit the exilic and post-exilic periods, when Jews were at the mercy of rulers who did not always care for them.

24 Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counsellors.

The Artscroll says that this verse means that the Psalmist can trust the counsel of God's testimonies, even though he can't necessarily rely on the counsel of his princes.  The Artscroll goes on to say that the Psalmist is not guided by what's fashionable among the rich and powerful.

I can identify with this, at least in part.  As I said in my comments on v 22, I think that I need people to counsel me, not just the Bible----or perhaps I can say that I need people to help me to apply concretely the principles within the Bible (at least the principles that are moral).  I also feel that I need people on my side, though I try to have faith that God is on my side, whether I think that enough people are on my side or not.  At the same time, I can understand the Artscroll's point that we shouldn't be guided by what is fashionable among the rich and powerful, for that may not necessarily be what is moral or right.  The rich and powerful do right things, and they do wrong things.  We should admire and follow the right things, the things that enhance humanity and demonstrate compassion for others.

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