Christians and the “Arab Spring”

The uprising against authoritarian rule in the Arab world leaves Christians in a precarious position.  Ask the Copts in Egypt:

The Arab Spring initially appeared to open a welcoming door to the dwindling number of Christian Arabs who, after years of feeling marginalized, eagerly joined the call for democracy and rule of law. But now many Christians here say they fear that the fall of the police state has allowed long-simmering tensions to explode, potentially threatening the character of Egypt, and the region.

“Will Christians have equal rights and full citizenship or not?” asked Sarkis Naoum, a Christian commentator in Beirut, Lebanon. A surge of sectarian violence in Cairo — 24 dead, more than 200 wounded and three churches in flames since President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall — has turned Christian-Muslim tensions into one of the gravest threats to the revolution’s stability. But it is also a pivotal test of Egypt’s tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law. The revolution has empowered the majority but also opened new questions about the protection of minority rights like freedom of religion or expression as Islamist groups step forward to lay out their agendas and test their political might.

Around the region, Christians are also closely watching events in Syria, where as in Egypt Christians and other minorities received the protection of a secular dictator, Bashar al-Assad, now facing his own popular uprising.

“The Copts are the crucial test case,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch here, adding that facing off against “societal pressures” may in some ways be ever harder than criticizing a dictator. “It is the next big battle.”

But so far, there is little encouragement in the debate over how to address the sectarian strife. Instead of searching for common ground, all sides are pointing fingers of blame while almost no one is addressing the underlying reasons for the strife, including a legal framework that treats Muslims and Christians differently.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the 80 million Egyptians, say the revolution has plunged them into uncharted territory. Suppressed or marginalized for six decades here, Islamists entering politics have rushed to defend an article of the Egyptian Constitution that declares Egypt a Muslim country that derives its laws from Islam. Christians and liberals say privately they abhor the provision, which was first added as a populist gesture by President Anwar el-Sadat. But the article is so popular among Muslims — and the meaning so vague — that even many liberals and Christians entering politics are reluctant to speak out against it, asking at most for slight modifications.

via Egypt’s Christians Fear Violence as Changes Embolden Islamists – NYTimes.com.

HT:  Kirk Anderson

The end of the megachurch?

As we have already blogged about, Robert Schuller’s megachurch has gone into bankruptcy.  Now the famous Crystal Cathedral has been sold to a real estate developer who plans to build apartments on the site.  See Developer to buy Crystal Cathedral campus for apartment construction – latimes.com.

Emergent church theorists have turned against the megachurch as a model for attracting people today, and traditionalists have always been leery of congregations so huge that the pastor and his people hardly know each other.

Megachurches are also under serious economic pressure, due to their vast facilities and big payrolls.

Obviously, lots of megachurches still exist.  But do you think their time has passed?

Candidates considering a run

I think we have a pretty good selection of Republican voters who read this blog.  Do any of you really want Sarah Palin to run for president?  How about Mitt Romney?  Rudy Giuliani?

Go East, young scientist

The United States is now facing a brain drain that threatens its traditional scientific and technological leadership, as more and more American scientists are heading for greater opportunities in China and other ambitious countries.  So says scientist Matthew Stremlau:

Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country. These labs drive innovation and keep the United States globally competitive. Today, however, only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though more would like to. Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether.

As public funding for science and technology shrinks, it just isn’t possible for people who want to become scientists in America to actually become scientists. So when a friend of mine who recently received her PhD in molecular biology asked for some career advice, the answer was easy. Go to China, I told her. . . .

The global science landscape is radically different from what it was when I started graduate school 10 years ago. Opportunities for cutting-edge science are sprouting in many other countries. China stands out. But there are plenty of others. India, Brazil and Singapore built world-class research institutes. Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits researchers for its King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. With a staggering $10 billion endowment there — larger than MIT’s — American scientists no longer need to suffer through Boston’s endless winters. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi opened the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in 2009. These emerging powers have a voracious appetite for good scientists. So they’re trying to poach ours.

I spent nearly two years doing molecular biology research in China. I have worked at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and at Peking University in Beijing. The Chinese are serious about science. Government spending on research and development has increased 20 percent each year over the past decade. Even in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-09, China continued to bet big on science and technology. China now spends $100 billion annually on research and development. The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do.

Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West. This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs. Chinese universities aggressively recruit foreign scientists. The start-up packages can be generous and in some cases comparable to what a young faculty member receives in this country. In the future, China might be a better option for U.S. scientists desperate to fund their research. . . .

Talented scientists in this country often fall through the cracks because they can’t get funding. Agencies are deluged with applications and often have to reject as many as 90 percent of the proposals they receive. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as budget cuts limit the resources available for research. So I’ve started encouraging my friends to think more creatively about their careers. Go to China, I tell them. Or Singapore or Brazil or the Middle East. If the United States can’t fund its scientific talent, find a country that will.

via Go to China, young scientist – The Washington Post.

Is this more evidence of American decline?  Or does it really matter in a global economy?

Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Those who believe ritual and ceremony are meaningless have never watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  This article by Sarah Kaufman on the soldiers who perform this duty–the precision of their marching, the seams of their uniforms tailored to 1/64th of an inch, their shoes and gear obsessively polished–makes for a good Memorial Day meditation.  Read it all, but here are some excerpts:

Like so many great romantic moments in the arts, it begins with the tolling of a bell. The sound dies. Hushed anticipation. Finally, the soldier makes his entrance — no ordinary recruit, but the relief commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, taking part in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

You could land an airplane on the flatness of his hat, balance teacups on his shoulders. He has been polished and honed to perfection, a man as monument, symbol and embodiment of order, respect and dignity.

Washington life swirls around him — crowds gather and disperse, jets climb into the clouds, the cemetery’s infernal lawn mowers roar. The weather may bake or freeze him — the high, marble mesa on which the tomb rests, at the top of a hill affording one of the loveliest views of the city, can feel like the hottest spot on Earth, even in May. It can also approach the coldest, as when blizzards covered the city two winters ago, and snow buried the plaza as fast as soldiers could shovel it. They replaced their shiny black shoes with combat boots. But the vigil and guard changes went on around the clock, as they do now and have since 1937.

The world doesn’t matter here, in this outdoor theater where the show always goes on. This guard posting is a marathon of purity, a spectacle of the finest abstraction and strictest minimalism, where precise, unthinking repetition blots out just about everything else.

The commander strides across the plaza, past the sarcophagus containing the remains of service members from World Wars I and II and Korea. (An unknown from the Vietnam War had joined them, but his remains were removed and returned to his family when DNA testing revealed his name.) He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body.

It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes. You know this even though you can’t actually see his eyes because of his sunglasses, so tightly fused to his skull they must be giving him a migraine. But there’s enough expression in his granite jaw to suggest that those hidden eyes are cold. Still, that delicious walk goes on, 18 steps, 20, 21 . . . clack! It’s brought up short, punctuated by a sharp clap of the heels. The metal plates on the inner edges of the shoes are one of many modifications to the basic dress-blues uniform.

The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men — commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel— alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops. With that same liquid gait, the relief sentinel makes his entrance, brandishing the most beautiful, sparkling M-14 you’ve ever seen. . . .

[Sgt. Benton Thames] recalls a time when several World War II veterans in wheelchairs were watching the ceremony. As Thames walked past them with that stately gait, buttons blazing, uniform pressed to a razor sharpness, behind his sunglasses he could see the old soldiers pushing down on their armrests, trying with all their trembling might to stand.

“Those that could saluted me as I passed,” Thames says, swinging his right hand up to his brow with a shy smile, a gesture both casual and elegant.

“That kind of got to me.”

A veteran once told Thames that he’d lost a buddy in World War II and that the body was never recovered. When he comes to the Tomb of the Unknowns, the veteran imagines that those remains belong to that guy — and this becomes the place where he can be mourned as if his name were cut in stone.

This is why the sentinel buffs his shoes, hollers for a good tucking-in, submits to having his creases measured to within a fraction of an inch. This is why he has seemingly shaved away every shred of his own individuality, his identity, for a task whose purpose is, at the heart of it, exquisitely tender. It is the physical expression of an intangible wish, the fulfillment of a promise.

Long past Memorial Day.

“All soldiers recognize that it represents them,” says Barrett, The Citadel professor. “Underlying the tomb is that if something happens to you and we can’t identify you or find you, that ceremony still honors you.

“We ask them, if necessary, to lay down their lives,” he continues, his voice faltering with emotion, for he was once a soldier. “This is the corollary: They will not be forgotten.”

via At Tomb of the Unknowns, a ritual of remembrance – The Washington Post.

Absolute ethics vs. Pragmatism

If postmodernists are right in saying that there are no absolutes of truth or morality, how can they function?  The answer, according to both the masses and philosophers such as Richard Rorty, is pragmatism.  Just do what “works.”  Don’t worry about what is true or what is good, just pursue your practical agenda.

Now pragmatism is a philosophy, an ideology, and a worldview that is utterly opposed to Christianity.  And yet many Christians adopt it unthinkingly, determining the way they worship and the things they teach according to the tenets of pragmatism.  (We want to get more people to join our churches, so let’s eliminate the obstacles to that, whether in practice or theology.)

It’s interesting to see how people who perceive a moral issue nevertheless appeal to pragmatism to make a better case.   For example, in the debates about torture, most of those who reject the practice do so on moral grounds but then make a pragmatic claim:  Torture doesn’t work anyway!

Conversely, many people who do hold to moral absolutes often revert to pragmatism.  Yes, torture may be wrong in principle, but if we could save a thousand lives by torturing one person, it would be worth it.  (This is actually an example of Enlightenment-era utilitarianism, which sought to evade Biblical absolutes and to justify the abuses of the Industrial Revolution by promoting “the greater good for the greater number.”)

Now it appears that torture actually DOES work.  Not by crudely getting someone to tell the truth to make the pain stop–which, of course, would encourage saying ANYTHING–but by a sophisticated process of psychological manipulation.

M. Gregg Bloche, a physician and lawyer, faces up to the fact that his fellow liberals need to be willing to oppose torture on moral grounds even though it works pragmatically.  A sample:

Torture, liberals like me often insist, isn’t just immoral, it’s ineffective. We like this proposition because it portrays us as protectors of the nation, not wusses willing to risk American lives to protect terrorists. And we love to quote seasoned interrogators’ assurances that building rapport with the bad guys will get them to talk. . . .

The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.

But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse can indeed work.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.

Certainly, interrogators using this approach have obtained false confessions. Chinese interrogators did so intentionally, for propaganda purposes, with American prisoners during the Korean War. McCain and other critics of “torture-lite” cite this precedent to argue that it can’t yield reliable information. But the same psychological sequence — induction of hopelessness, followed by rewards to shape compliance — can be used to get terrorism suspects to tell the truth, or so the architects of enhanced interrogation hypothesize.

Critical to this model is the ability to assess suspects’ truthfulness in real time. To this end, CIA interrogators stressed speedy integration of intelligence from all sources. The idea was to frame questions to detect falsehoods; interrogators could then reward honesty and punish deceit.

via Torture-lite: It’s wrong, and it might work – The Washington Post.

So can those of you who oppose torture AND those of you who believe it justified make your case WITHOUT referring to pragmatic arguments?


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