Thursday, December 25, 2003

Today is the day on which Christians have chosen to specially remember the promise that the world need not perish, but that anyone might be saved. Today my people remember the God who says, "I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies. Therefore turn and live!" (Ez. 18:32), and we remember the strange events set in motion when our chieftain invaded our sphere not for mankind but for each man and woman, individually. I offer the following in tribute to all those who have ever gone to the aid of another human being with no regard to the cost, and especially to my national brothers and sisters who are spending Christmas away from their loved ones to aid their fellow men.

"In the grim logic of the universe this may be a weakness. Perhaps some race that never bothers to rescue an individual may exploit this human trait to wipe us out. The Skinnies have such a trait only slightly and the Bugs don't seem to have it at all - nobody ever saw a Bug come to the aid of another because he was wounded; they co-operate perfectly in fighting but units are abandoned the instant they are no longer useful.

Our behavior is different. How often have you seen a headline like this? - TWO DIE ATTEMPTING RESCUE OF DROWNING CHILD. If a man gets lost in the mountains, hundreds will search and often two or three searchers are killed. But the next time somebody gets lost just as many volunteers turn out.

Poor arithmetic ... but very human. It runs through all our folklore, all human religions, all our literature - a racial conviction that when one human needs rescue, others should not count the price."
- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
- Julia Ward Howe, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," wartime version

May the day quickly come when the king returns once more for all, and the necessity for the arts of war will fade with the rest of this world like a bad dream. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Around this time of year you hear a lot about the Christmas spirit, by which I suppose people mean love and charity and warmth towards one's fellow men. That's a pretty decent message, and I'm all for love and charity and warmth towards one's fellow men. But I was reminded this past Sunday of what Jesus himself said about Christmas:

"For this is how God loved the world: that he sent his only begotten son so that everyone who believed in in him should not perish but rather have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world so that he might judge the world, but rather so that the world through him might be saved."

... "should not perish." In the original, mê apolêtai, the operative word being the verb apolêtai, from apollumi. What is meant by that? Check a Greek lexicon and you get an interesting sense of the connotations of that word. Jesus came so that all the world should not have to be destroyed. He came that they might not be emotionally destitute and rootless. He came that they might not be lost or forgotten. But rather he came for the explicit purpose that the world might be saved: sôthêi ho kosmos, the operative word being sôthêi, from the verb sôzô. He came that the world might be preserved for himself. That it might not die, that it might be rescued from danger. He came to remember it.

We are not forgotten - but rather, we are remembered. We need not perish, but rather, we may be saved. And such is the message of Christmas to all the world, from the mouth of the baby king himself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I'm writing this post separately because the previous one deserves its own post, but I feel sort of like I ought to comment on the Saddam Hussein thing. I posted the other one first because I figure of the two this one is the more likely to get comments, but let me just say right now that much more of my time has been spent thinking about how much I wanted Esther to be at Disneyland than it has been about Saddam's capture. This is partially because thinking about Iraq generally only succeeds in making me angry and frustrated, and partially because, let's face it, Esther is a lot more important to me than Saddam Hussein.

Anyway, I'm glad we've got him. I think that the military is being quite reasonable in saying to the press that they don't expect this to produce any immediate reduction of terrorism in the area. That's a prediction which I think is self-evident from the circumstances of his capture and statements from insurgents that have been flitting around the news, but I'm glad to hear the military saying it. I don't know if your average officer in Iraq views the press as very small children, but in my opinion they should. I think it's been fairly well established at this point that the major American news organs can't be counted on to infer even very obvious information from the situation in Iraq - or, if they can infer it, they can't be counted on to report to the American public in a way that acknowledges the inference. As far as I'm concerned, the more the military worries about being misquoted by the press or having their remarks used in a way that twists the fact, the better.

I also think that the military is being reasonable in focusing its statements on what seem to be the most plausible effects of Hussein's capture - the sense on the street that the man is gone, and that America a). believes in the best interests of Iraq, and b). is going to win. In other words, I think the military has been quite reasonable in focusing on Saddam's value as a figurehead (and really, without a country, what practical value does he have?). Those are predictions that I hope will come true. The less killing goes on over there, the faster we hand them a government which is willing and able to look out for the interests of Iraq, the better. The more the people of Iraq refuse to countenance the terrorism being directed against the reconstruction of their homeland, the faster that will happen - and hopefully having Saddam as a symbol of American implacability will hasten that.

I also hope it will give the cause of reconstruction a shot in the arm at home. This raises the question of why I care so much (which I manifestly do) about the Iraq war and its aftermath. I could plead Christian charity directed towards the people of Iraq, and to a certain extent that is true. But the truth of the matter is that I feel that the honor and integrity of my own people is at stake. We are a lousy country in a world full of lousy countries. I don't think that we went into Iraq primarily to depose a dictator (although I think we did intend to do that for the sake of that nation's people), or primarily to smash a regime which was a threat to its neighbors (although I do think we did intend to do that) - no, I think we went into Iraq because we thought we would benefit from having a U.S.-friendly nation in the area that wasn't Israel; let's not be silly. And there are lots of other terrible regimes we turn a blind eye to. I know that. Nevertheless, I think that we went in with some honorable motives mixed in with the nationalist ones, and the important thing, in my mind, is that America has a chance to do a truly good thing, something her people can be proud of. I think we really do have a chance to give Iraq a nationhood which will be governed by and for her people, which will create a society where parents can raise their children free from fear and look forward to giving them better things than they had.

More importantly, having smashed the nationhood which used to exist in that area of the world, I don't think we have any honorable choice other than to pursue that chance. If we don't stick it out until Iraq has a government with enough muscle to stand up against the terrorists which are trying to abort it before it's even born, then I think it's pretty clear that the area's going to devolve into Somalia, and that must not happen. We tore down a Bad Thing, that is well - but we can't just walk away or something equally bad (or worse) will take its place. If Iraq devolves into factionalist warfare where no faction has a clear military advantage (we just smashed the only source of clear military advantage in the country) - and in which ethnicity and/or religion can come into play - how long do you think the country will digest itself in civil war? The picture I have from Archimedes on how long civil wars last nowadays is not a pretty one.

I think America has a chance to prevent that, and I hope that the American people have the backbone to give it our best shot. Of course that means that our nation's sons and daughters will continue to die, and our media will continue to shrill about it. But not pursuing the chance that Iraq's reconstruction can succeed means condemning the sons and daughters of Iraq to die for many years to come, in numbers hundreds of times as great as our own people are dying. Our own men and women have training, equipment, resources, and organization that make them more invincible to terrorism than mankind has ever before known how. The people of Iraq do not have those advantages. I hate to sound like John Travolta, but what is all of our power good for if we aren't going to protect the weak from those who would (even unintentionally! I know that many of those "terrorists" are honestly fighting for the cause of Iraq as best they know how) bring the desolation of civil war upon the weak and their descendants, possibly for many generations to come?

And the thing that makes me angry and frustrated is that our military is, in that area, essentially invincible. I hope that people have been paying attention to the news articles and interviews recently which have finally admitted what was an obvious inference from the start: that the insurgents' strategy is not to defeat the American forces stationed in Iraq (as if they could!) but to kill so many of our sons and daughters that the American people demands we pull out. I desperately hope that my nation - my people - will not be scared off from doing the right thing because our troops are being killed in the line of duty. That is not the way to win a fight. I like this quote from the sixth Honor Harrington book on that subject: the secret to winning a fight and coming out alive, it says, is "making up your mind going in that you're not just gonna try to defend yourself. It's deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the mother-fucker if that's what it takes." That is essentially how I view the Iraq situation. If my people can decide right now that we're going to see this through until Iraq's people have their country back, we will win. If not, I am very much afraid that we will pull out and it will be a matter of decades, not a few years, before Iraq is owned by her people once more. And it won't be for any military reason. That unhappy fate will be inflicted upon Iraq because the United States of America, as a people, refused to pay the price of doing the right thing. If Saddam's capture gives the cause of reconstruction a stupid, irrational, political shot in the arm to make that eventuality less likely, then I will be glad.

Two more issues I've been wanting to comment on. Saddam's possible execution? Well, I don't know that the Governing Council's war crimes tribunal represents the Iraqi people per se, and I'm not sure what I think about our attempts to dodge the "commander-in-chief" argument for making him a prisoner of war (the legal consequences of which I am unsure of). I do know that many of the people who are arguing for POW status (and, presumably, for the situation to be handled by parties other than the U.S. or the Iraqi Governing Council) seem to be against execution primarily because they don't believe in killing, ever, and I think that's foolish.

Second, our decision to exclude certain foreign firms from bidding on lucrative reconstruction contracts. I can't say that I really see any injustice in keeping the best contracts for nations which did the work. If a nation didn't fight the war, and if her sons and daughters aren't dying in the Sunni Triangle to protect that war from having been fought in vain, what right does that nation have to reconstruction projects? I hope The Little Red Hen is still being read across the Atlantic.
Yesterday I went to Disneyland with the family, which was the first time we had done that (I mean, the four of us) in four years or so. It was so wonderful. I guess Disneyland probably gets old for some people, but I am not one of those people, and I don't live with any of those people.

This isn't a SoCal thing, it's a magical thing. Disneyland is not an amusement park in the conventional sense; it's a purveyor of magical lifestyles. Disneyland is about the total package experience of being wide-eyed and child-like and transported to a magical place where everything is good and sparkly and wonderful. Every love story that has ever been told, every prince charming that has ever loved, every beautiful princess that has ever loved, and every child that has ever hoped to wear shining armor on a white steed or a beautiful ballgown on a marble dance floor - this is what Disneyland is about. And especially at Christmastime, Disneyland takes on a special magic. And, as if that were not enough, now that Downtown Disney is up and running, Disneyland has good food. Wow was it good. Granted the prices are higher than you'd find for equivalent items elsewhere, but that doesn't really bother me. Of course it means that Disneyland cannot be a regular outing, but the whole point is that you aren't elsewhere. Disneyland has a value all its own. I wished that Esther Selene could have been there. Oh, how I wished that.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

As most of you are probably aware, Christmas is coming. This is the time of year (i.e., finals) when I feel most lonely for home. Maybe it's the fact that I keep forgetting to burn the proper Christmas albums and bring them up here, so my Christmas music is impoverished, and the fact that a college campus doesn't exactly get decked out in holiday finery (though the freshmen have tried, which I appreciate. And people wonder why I wanted to live here).

Lately I've been thinking about Christmas as a holiday - I mean Christmas as Christmas, not as the holiday which Christians decided would be our winter solstice holiday. Christmas is something that I think people tend to leave out of the Jesus story - I mean the fashionable Jesus story, which likes to paint Jesus as a traveling rabbi who said some decent things and was executed as a result of power politics. The Christmas story - the story that God made Himself a man and invaded the territory to which He had banished the Accuser all those eons ago - that doesn't fit in the fashionable Jesus story. The story of the return of the High King of Existence does not mesh very well with a story about Decent Moral Teachings. The moment you introduce Christmas into the narrative you have to ask what it was really all about, and the Christian explanation - that the King marched into enemy territory for the express purpose of getting Himself killed - is really the only one on the market.

Now of course that explanation is, in its way, a moral one. The idea that "greater love has no man than this, that someone should lay down his life on behalf of his friends" - the idea of selflessness - is, I think, the heart of Western morality. Possibly Heinlein's Col. Dubois was right and it's the foundation for all morality. But that is clearly not what Jesus, at least, is getting at. "This is my command, that you love one another just as I loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that someone should lay down his life on behalf of his friends. You are my friends ..." The "someone" in question is, at least in the immediate sense, Jesus. Which raises again the problem of Jesus dying (in fact, looking for death) being the central point of the Jesus story.

So what I've been thinking is that Christmas as Christmas is a holiday about freedom from morality. Let me explain what I mean by that. I suppose the purpose of morality (by "morality" I mean "virtuous conduct") is to produce righteousness (by which I mean being in line with the moral standard). Those are, of course, pipe dreams: the first thing anyone learns about morality is that nobody can do it. And I mean nobody can do it all the time, which is really the only satisfying standard: who wants a moral standard that says, "well, you tried your best, that's good enough?" That would be a moral standard which compromises, and the whole point of being a standard is that you don't compromise. Christmas is the story of the Return of the King, who set things up so that righteousness could be attained in a way different from morality. Morality doesn't work for human beings. Maybe it was supposed to (that's my opinion, anyway), but for human beings as they are now it doesn't. Christmas is the celebration of the incident which allowed morality to bypassed on the way to righteousness.

Now, I don't for a moment mean to suggest that Christmas throws morality out the window. (I remember Antilles and I talking to Violet about this four years ago.) It does mean that the motivation for morality changes - and this entry has gone on long enough, so I'm going to leave it at that unless somebody actually wants to talk about it.

Friday, December 05, 2003

It is dead week up here at Stanford, which at other schools (so we are told) means "the week where there are no classes so students can study." At Stanford, it means "the week in which there are classes but you still have to study." I think what sustains most people through this week is the thought that soon, for better or worse, it will all be over. I'm certainly looking forward to going home: to seeing my sister and the DM after their Italian sojourns, to telling those who haven't heard about Esther Selene (I wrote a rather lengthy e-mail on the subject, then pressed some arcane combination of keys which deleted both the e-mail and the draft, which was so depressing that I couldn't bring myself to write another one), to finally resuming Phoenix Earth, to Christmas with the family. This will be the first Christmas break since coming to Stanford which doesn't start with a Testimony tour, so hopefully it will include lots of good roleplaying. To a certain extent I realize that I'm holding on to outmoded conceptions of the place of roleplaying in my life - but it is still something I love in a universe which I love, with people whom I love, and I am looking forward to presenting my characters with moral problems. And of course there is Disneyland, which truly is the most magical place I know. More magical, on a per-area basis, even than Maui or Disneyworld.

My dead week has not been bad at all (I mean, seriously, I can't complain) but it has had its own stresses (e.g., my early short story final and tomorrow's LSAT), and that is distressing in its own way. Lack of sleep and scholastic stress are enough to push a body over the edge into old patterns and out of modes of living fitting for Christians. As a Stanford Christian, I wonder about this a lot: how much do we work against ourselves by punishing our minds and bodies? I mean, to be sure, a certain amount of stress must simply be lived with. But on the other hand, how much do we stray from holiness because our wills are tired from lack of sleep and our emotions are frayed from stressing about school unnecessarily?

I don't mean to blow this out of proportion, of course - it is not our lifestyles which are credited to us as righteousness, but our pistis - our faith, or trust. Nevertheless the desire to live becomingly is there; it's even more organic than that - hoitines apethanomen tê hamartia, pôs eti zêsomen en autê? And when it comes to what I do, there is still that preposterous truth, that all really depends on what I do. But I am still an animal; the state of my will is not insensible to the state of my body. It is like Max Payne says: you look back and see the choices you didn't know you'd made. Procrastinating for an hour now might be harmless. But it might mean (and all too often does) losing that extra hour of sleep, which leads to that extra iota of stress. And then when the time comes to stand on the battlefield of moral decision you are fighting with a stressed-out, sleep-deprived will ... and what kind of weapon is that?