Dear President Trump . . .

Kerry & Zarif at the tableDear President Trump,

Thank you for again re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal the other day. Although you did not want to do this, and although you are still looking for a way to rip up the deal, you listened to and took the advice of all your major national security advisers. That was a wise decision. Your European allies have breathed a sigh of relief, and many of us hope that you will make every effort to re-certify the deal next time around.

I know you have a lot on your plate, but just to say…. It seemed clear from your speech in Saudi Arabia last month that your Middle East foreign policy includes moves to increasingly isolate Iran. Wouldn’t it be wiser to get the diplomats, negotiators, and mediators to work to try to bring Iran out from the cold? If a deal with Iran could be reached on its nuclear program, why not on other crucial matters?

Wisdom is gained from history’s learned lessons. You may be unaware of the big mess, really big mess, that resulted when in 2003 the Bush White House snubbed Iran’s unprecedented and formal diplomatic reach-out to the U.S. The snub occurred because many of the President’s closest advisers talked him into it. For the next ten years Iran ran it’s nuclear program in full tilt boogie. That snub is a huge reason why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program. You can read a summary of the snub here, and about the stunning details that Iran wanted to discuss with the U.S. It’s pretty clear what has been lost by not talking.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. But I think it would be unwise in the extreme, and harmful to America, for a U.S. president not to put honest, serious, and concerted efforts into trying to build diplomatic relations with Iran. How about using the nuclear deal as a springboard for that? Not to mention that Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom. And as one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after seeing peace ensue from unlikely diplomatic mission, wisdom is better than weapons of war.

Thank you for listening.

A concerned American,

Charles Strohmer

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image permission Press TV, via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you would enjoy more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

War: An American Pathology

“Old men start wars. Young men fight them. And everyone in the middle gets killed. War is natural. Peace is accidental. We’re animals.” I was recently thinking again about those words from Sylvester Stallone (talking to Joel Stein in Newsweek some years ago). Stallone wanted Rambo to say those words, about how he felt about war, in the new Rambo film. But he decided he would cut that dialogue, “because Rambo is a silent man, and blurting out your thesis is for college papers, not movies.”

“What I was trying to say,” Stallone said, when Stein pressed him, “is that the world will never come together and say we are one. Rocky represents the optimistic side of life, and Rambo represents purgatory. If you think people are inherently good, you get rid of the police for 24 hours – see what happens.”

Historically, Americans have gained a reputation for being an optimistic people. Having lived many decades as an American in America, I’d say that there’s a good deal of truth in that. Until lately. It doesn’t seem as if we Americans think very much about the optimistic side of life any more, at least not when we are looking abroad. Since September 11, 2001, and more so in recent years, our foreign policy seems intent on fulfilling Hobbes “war of all against all.”

After a little research I was startled to find that except for four years since 1961, we Americans have either been at war or participated in a war or a engaged in a some sort of military action overseas. Think about that. During the last 56 years there have only been four years (as far as I can calculate) when we have not been engaged in some sort of warfare in some way some where. There’s something wrong with us, people.

I am not suggesting that at times real evil does not arise evil in the world that needs excising. And I cannot speak for those who have fought in war, or for those who have had a family member killed or maimed in a war or one who suffers from painful memories that lie buried and then surface. But to those of us who have never been to war, etc., I want to ask: why have many of us in recent times endorsed wars that now seem questionable in the extreme. Maybe war is just an idea to us. Or maybe our own endorsement of war gives us a vicarious satisfaction about the itch for a fight that lies latent even in those of us who hate fighting. Twenty-seven hundred years ago a discerning man concluded that the heart is deceitful above all things; so, he then asks, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Despite all the considerable good it does in the world, a nation with nearly sixty straight years of uninterrupted warfare looming large in its current international legacy surely must have a pathology of war in its midst. And there is this. As that pathology spreads in our foreign policy, could it not in no small degree be implicated in why we have become a people who are so much at each others throats here at home. In medical science, besides the known symptoms of a pathology, knowledge continues to expand to reveal effects previously unknown.

People, we need to wise up. The sages tell us there are ways wiser than war (Ecclesiastes 9:18; Proverbs 3:17). And from them we learn of the foolishness of the human arrogance that trusts in military might (Psalm 20:7-8; 33:16-17).

We Americans claim to be a nation that trusts in God. And today we are complaining incessantly about the bitter polemics that are dividing the nation. The Gospels are replete with teachings from God’s son to put others first. Do we want to take our hands from each other’s throats here at home? Perhaps if we start thinking and acting peaceably first toward the foreign other, God will shed mercy on us and we will start accruing peaceable fruit here at home.

We are not animals. We are human beings. And peace is not accidental. Peace is wrestled out of adversarial foreign relations by human beings through the tediously skilled moves of diplomacy, negotiations, and mediation to prevent war. The potential to listen to the better angels of our nature is part of who we remain, even in our tragic state. We must to listen to them much more that we currently do in our foreign affairs. An increasingly militaristic foreign policy is not the solution. A return to health at home begins abroad.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images: permissions via Creative Commons: guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launching a Tomahawk cruise missile; a doctor helping Afghan woman and child.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

 

The Rise of the Military Solution and the Decline of Diplomacy

“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.”

Those words were spoken by President Trump on April 6, in his closing remarks about the targeted military strike he ordered on Shayrat air base in western Syria. The President is right. Our world is indeed very troubled. Even the inimitable Mikhail Gorbachev has weighed in:

“The world today is overwhelmed with problems,” Gorbachev wrote in a recent editorial published by Time. “Policymakers seem to be confused and at a loss. But no problem is more urgent than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority… Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”

The United States, for one, faces international challenges against which its traditional wisdom seems to stand enfeebled. So it is good that the President prayed for God’s wisdom to meet the challenges. With all due respect to the President, however, I can’t agree that deep cuts to the State Department and a large increase to the Defense Department is wise. Yet that is this President’s position, at least currently. Will it make the world a less troubled place if the Pentagon’s already superior war machine becomes even more superior?

It is the State Department, through diplomacy, negotiations, and many other means, that it tasked with easing adversarial relations to prevent conflicts and wars. Wisdom to move in that direction needs to emerge in Washington to help make the world a safer place. In this article, I will try to explain why.

I’ll begin with a conclusion I’ve come to: the greatest challenge for the United States is not overseas; it’s not Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad or Russia or Syria or China or North Korea or Iran or ISIS. The greatest challenge is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

This political orientation did not materialize overnight or with any one President. It is a result of a long-standing policy emphasis in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to steadily increase American military superiority. The build-up of the U.S. military, including its nuclear capacities, did not ease up, as some expected it would, with the end World War Two (1945). Instead, by the end of his tenure as President (1960), Eisenhower warned in an historic speech of the dangers to liberty and democratic processes that hid latently in what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex,” the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”

This was something new in the American experience, having arisen as a result of World War Two and expanding with Korean War and the ongoing Cold War. Eisenhower predicted that the dependence of the U.S. military and the arms industry on each other would get out-of-control if it were not resisted by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (This, from a retired 5-star general and former  Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WW2.)

Commenting in 1970 on the 1960s, Hans Morgenthau (a leading American realist political thinker) had seen Eisenhower’s admonition going unheeded, both by Washington and by the citizenry, and he wrote an essay critical of what he called “the militarization of American life.” (Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-1970, Hans Morgenthau; Praeger, 1970; see the Prologue.) (More recent political analysts and historians could also be cited who document the obvious as well as the hidden perils of an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a public disinterested in knowing them. See, for instance, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, an important book by historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich.)

By the start of the new millennial, the centrifugal force of the military establishment and the arms industry had by then pulled the deliberations of Congress solidly into their orbit and a military-industrial-legislative complex was born. One effect of this three-way conjunction has been presidential end-runs around Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Article 1 makes Congress, not a President, the authority to declare war. But that no longer seems to concern our elected officials or to the citizenry that elected them, Democrats and Republicans alike. A President just goes to Congress seeking a “joint resolution” authorizing the use of military force. Of all the “wars” the United States has fought since the end of WW2 (1945), Congress has not issued a single declaration of war since WW2.

The Mythology of the Military Solution
By the time of the unprecedented terrorist attack on America (September 11, 2001), much of Washington had become a faithful believer in the mythology of the military solution.* Bolstered by the military-industrial-legislative complex, this mythology arose around a body of beliefs, values, and ideas that promote and fund policies, supported by both liberals and conservatives alike, to do whatever it takes to ensure U.S. military supremacy.

The cost of the mythology’s power over the faithful on both sides of the aisle and among a majority of the citizenry was evidenced when the U.S. war to dismantle al Qaeda and oust the Taliban from Afghanistan (late 2001) shifted in 2002 to extensive military preparations for the invasion of Iraq (launched in March 2003). Then when the war about Iraq did not end after the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power, but instead worsened and lengthened, Washington faced a serious economic challenge.

As the “war” quickly surged far beyond the $50-$60 billion that the George W. Bush administration had initially estimated as its cost, what to do? Because the U.S. government runs on budget deficits, there was no ready cash in the U.S. budget to pay for what was becoming a hugely expensive war. Trying to raise taxes – a traditional U.S. method of paying for a war – would be political suicide, out of the question. In fact, taxes were cut in 2003.

This posed a serious and unexpected problem for the Bush White House, and afterward for the Obama administration. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Afghanistan festered and bled. The country became a haven in which terrorist groups regenerated themselves and the Taliban regained footings. As James Fallows has written, Afghanistan “never had the chance, because America’s premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.”

As conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan grew increasingly more violent, Congress needed to find hundreds of billions of dollars a year of additional funds for the Pentagon to sustain a U.S. fighting presence in situ. But there were no increased tax monies to draw from. By the end of 2010, the cost of the war about Iraq alone had risen to just short of $1 trillion. In September of 2016, the Military Times reported that the financial cost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fighting ISIS, had cost the U.S. nearly $5 trillion to date, including costs such as for Homeland Security and expanded Veterans Affairs monies for returning troops.

With no new taxes to help pay for these ongoing military interventions, how then? The Bush administration kept the surging costs off the books, so to speak, by not asking Congress to include them in the U.S. budget with each passing year. Instead, the Pentagon received “supplemental appropriations” from Congress. This was one way to keep funding both fronts of what was originally deemed the war on terrorism. And by keeping the mounting hundreds of billions out of the annual U.S. budget debate, both the Bush and the Obama administrations benefitted by keeping the enormous costs out of the public’s mind.

But supplemental appropriations were not enough to pay for the ongoing wars, which seemed to have no end in sight, and for reconstruction, which never seemed to get completed. So Congress also began using billions of dollars that it borrows from other nations, including Japan and China. It works this way. The United States issues (sells) U.S. Treasury securities (bonds) to foreign countries (American citizens buy them, too), which come with a guarantee to buy them back with interest. These securities are not sold as program-specific. Congress does not say to China: buy such-and-such specific securities to help us pay for our war. Instead, the money that comes in from issuing securities to China and other nations goes into a pot that the government draws from to cover the cost of any number of government expenses. Congress began taking billions a year from that pot to help pay for the increasingly expensive wars.

Of course we’re just talking columns on a ledger here. The economic figures merely hint at what a full accounting of the “costs” of the long war, as some call it, or the endless war, as others call it, would be. The deaths and woundings of soldiers and civilians, including children, and the effect on families. The millions of refugees. The vacated battlefields left full of landmines. These and many other human dimensions of war’s tragedy must be included in any attempt at a true cost. And there is also this consequence to the next generation. Trillions of dollars have been added to the U.S. deficit as a result of going for “military solutions.”* Debt that the American people did not sign off on, and which many are still unaware of, has been dump-trucked on to the backs of their children’s children. Will they be able to shovel themselves out from under this mountain?

The Decline of Diplomacy
If our elected officials in Washington, their advisors, and the American citizenry allow allegiance to the mythology of the military solution* to influence their looks abroad, a crusading spirit will more easily instruct U.S. foreign policy at the expense of diplomacy and negotiations. A case in point is President Trump’s proposal to Congress to pass a 2018 U.S. budget that includes deep cuts to the State Department and increasing funding to the Defense Department.

The State Department’s budget for the fiscal year 2017 was roughly $50 billion. Military spending in the United States for the fiscal year 2017 ran to roughly $582 billion. President Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 will not be finalized until probably sometime in the autumn, but recent figures from the White House revealed the administration asking Congress to increase defense spending by 9% and to slash funding to the State Department by a whopping 29%. This would add roughly $52 billion to military spending and subtract roughly $14.5 billion from an array of State Department operations and programs, including diplomatic initiatives.

United States military spending already exceeds the combined military spending of the next seven countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan. Where does Congress spend all that money? Here’s just one way. The United States has nearly 800 military bases around the world, in more the 130 countries, of various sizes and functions, manned by half a million troops, spies, contractors, and others (see the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report). Yet despite the hegemony of U.S. military bases circling the globe – not to mention U.S. nuclear superiority and the fact that America faces no existential threat – President Trump nevertheless seeks an additional $52 billion for the Pentagon.

With regard to decreasing State Department funding, the Trump administration’s official “America First Budget Blueprint” for 2018, released by the White House in March, states that the proposed budget seeks to “reduce or end direct funding for” programs that “are duplicative, or are not well-managed.” Fair enough. But next comes this: “Additional steps will be taken to make the Department and USAID leaner, more efficient, and more effective. These steps to reduce foreign assistance free up funding for critical priorities here at home and put America first.”

Slashing the State Department while making military solutions,* so called, easier for the White House to reach for seems an incredibly naive rationale for keeping Americans safe in very troubled times. For it is not the arms of the Pentagon but the diplomatic teams of the State Department that are tasked to reach equitable agreements with other nations. Such negotiations seek, for instance, to keep international relations on an even keel, or turn adversarial relations around, or start to repair broken relations rather than resort to war.

As far as the President’s rationale for cutting the State Department’s budget, could not the same rationale have the Pentagon in its sights? Why does the President want to cut waste, curb duplications, and end any possible misuse of funds at the State Department but not at the Defense Department? Has there been none there? Further, does the President really believe that nearly one-third of the State Department’s funding ends up duplicated, wasted, and mis-managed? Is there less of that at the Pentagon? Even if the Defense figure turned out only to be five percent, that would still be approximately $29 billion. That figure doesn’t seem unreasonable. In December 2016, a story in The Washington Post explained a detailed investigation that uncovered $125 billion in bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon.

Be that as it may, rather than proposing draconian cuts to the State Department, wouldn’t it be wiser to leave that funding alone but shift whatever funding may be found to be amiss there into credibly existing well-run areas or to create needed programs and initiatives? If Congress is unwilling to cut waste at the Pentagon, wouldn’t it be better to leave the Defense budget alone (let it increase automatically, as it does, following adjustments for inflation) and instead seek Congress for $52 billion for, say, fixing infrastructure problems? That seems a good way to address “critical priorities” here at home. Why offer the White House a $52 billion temptation to make it easier to reach for another military solution* to make the world a safer place?

Diplomatic initiatives do not sound as sexy as launching Tomahawk missiles, flying off aircraft carriers, or hearing about SEAL Team Six raids. But diplomacy and negotiations are fundamental to keeping good international relations going and to easing adversarial relations, preventing conflicts, and ending wars. The faceless employees of State Department – nearly 70,000 of them at home and overseas – are tasked with making our troubled world less troubling. Diplomats, negotiators, and their teams keep nations talking to one another. Without their tireless, out-of-the news efforts, foreign relations deteriorate. If you stop talking to your spouse or your business partner, that relationship will go south.

The State Department, in part, runs 300+ embassies, consulates, and foreign missions around the world. The work of these venues includes, among many other things: running consular programs; helping people displaced by war; providing economic aid to help stabilize countries; supporting international peacekeeping efforts, disaster relief, and health programs; participating in cultural, educational, and feeding programs; and raising the profile of religious-freedom, which has become a priority in recent years for the State Department.

Besides that broad diplomatic array are international negotiations, such as talks between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, and other capitals to end the Syrian war and find a political solution. Keeping tensions in the South China Sea from boiling over; trying to reach out to North Korea; managing differences between Israel and Arab states; working with UN peacekeeping operations. Such international negotiations are indispensable in our very troubled world, and State Department teams are engaged in all of them, and many more besides, in their efforts with their counterparts in other nations to find equitable solutions and peaceable ways ahead. (Negotiating with those whom I call the “submit or die ideologues” is of course not possible.)

Kerry & Zarif shake handsUnfortunately, diplomats often get a bad rap. But without diplomatic activities and international negotiations the world would be anarchic. Uninformed citizens, however, may get frustrated because negotiations seem to them to be “going nowhere,” or “going too slow,” or “getting us nothing,” or “hurting us,” or “pointless.” Yet it is the diplomats, especially in times of great international distress, not the generals, who can string along negotiations to allow tempers to cool. They can find ways to give facts on the ground opportunities to change for the better and so avoid a worsening of relations. They can open up space for creatively equitable agreements to be reached in order to avoid conflict or war. This was the wisdom of the arduous, P5+1 negotiations with Iran that took years but brought about the nuclear agreement in July, 2015.

The secret to successful diplomacy of this kind is what some call sweat equity. I once heard it put this way: I would rather engage in dialogue that produced 500 liters of sweat than spill one pint of blood. This must be the attitude among all negotiating parties who seek to ease their adversarial relations with each other. In order for that to occur, the parties must be honestly open with each other around the table, willing to set aside any comfortable myths they may hold about the other, and struggle for as long as it takes to reach an equitable agreement between their nations. Skilled diplomats, negotiators, and mediators get this. In our troubled days, more funding of State seems a wise way to increase more of this.

If Washington, the Trump administration, and the citizenry do not recognize anything else, they ought to understand that an underfunded State Department makes it that much harder to sustain U.S. security and promote U.S. values and interests. This was acknowledged by the 100+ generals, admirals, and other high-raking military officers who, on February 27, 2017, signed a letter and sent it to the four top Congressional leaders and cc’d it to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor. They began their letter by saying that they were united in the view that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development … are critical to keeping American safe.” Signatories included notable such as Generals Casey, Hayden, Petraeus, and Zinni.

By decreasing the number of U.S. diplomats and their teams, “America would be under-represented, facilities would be closed, and the facilities that remain open would be undermanned,” said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star general. Karl Eikenberry, also a retired three-star general, agrees that scaling back the State Department is unwise. It sends the wrong message, he said. Our friends around the world “want to see a strong America, but one that leads by example and diplomacy, not with bayonets.”

In an editorial for Time, Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, documents ways in which the State Department should be strengthened, and why. His reason? “I cannot think of a higher risk for the U.S. than to have widely perceived weakness emanating for the State Department…. an effective State Department is essential…. budget cuts to State must be avoided, even if the Department of Defense has to bear them.”

Of Chariots and Horses
Eisenhower experienced the horrors, evils, and desperate limitations of war. Perhaps this is why he regularly lobbied Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s budget during the two terms he served as President. He of course favored a strong U.S. military. Yet, of the military-industrial complex, he said in his historic speech that we “must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society…. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”

“In the councils of government,” he warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist… We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

The councils of government, however, have not guarded against the danger. The mythology of the military solution* appears to be winning the day and the decline of diplomacy is a result. It’s not that American diplomacy is a magic bullet. But that’s just the point. More bullets are not the answer. As General James Mattis quipped to a Congressional panel in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

It’s not even that American diplomacy is unbiased when its ambassadors sit across the table with their counterparts from other nations. But without diplomacy and negotiations the state system has no means for easing adversarial relations, preventing conflict, and ending wars. Or for ensuring the stability of existing peace.

Let us, then, ask God for wisdom to make “our very troubled world” less troubled. And while we’re doing that, let us consider that in the wisdom of the Book “chariots and horses” is an image representing military power and also, often, the human arrogance that trusts in military might (Psalm 20:7-8).

The greatest challenge facing the United States today is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of its foreign policy. We need a foreign policy repentance in that direction.

Postscript
If you have read this far, thank you. This serious topic has been a difficult one for me to write about. Although it’s longer than most one-off articles on this blog, and although I did as much due diligence as I could before writing it, it’s not nearly long enough to escape facing appropriate questions and criticisms by military professionals. Several years ago I had a enlightening give-and-take with one such person, who disabused me of a lot of silliness about the thesis but who generally agreed with it. And while writing this article over the past few weeks, I sent a draft to two military pros, who provided challenging feedback, for which I am most grateful. Nevertheless, much remains to be said by people who are a lot smarter than me. I have merely tried to introduce a way of thinking about the U.S. military-industrial-legislative complex and diplomacy and negotiations that does not appear on the radar of most Americas but should.

If you are a military person or if this issue is new to you, at the very least I hope you will take to heart this dead honest reply to me from one of the recent military persons who read a draft of the article: “This is truly very very far from where I live intellectually and that is such a limiting factor that I tried to do some background, then re-read and re-read the article. Even from my hawkish viewpoint (experience, background, cultural, and other excuses/reasons) the piece resonates with me. Why? Because I want it to work without military intervention.”

* I’m using “military solutions” ironically, to mean – quite contrary to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is politics by other means” – that they do not end or resolve the underlying social, economic, and political injustices that lead to wars.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images: The Pentagon, David B. Gleason; The White House, Glyn Lowe; USS Theodore Roosevelt; all permissions via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Difference Between Eve and Jesus

choicesWell, okay, of course there’s an obvious difference, and a bunch of others we could also consider, but here I just want to underline the different attitude that Jesus and Eve had toward the devil’s temptations.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5).

Many sermons can be, and have been, preached from that passage. Many sermons can be, and have been, preached from another passage about the devil’s temptation:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:1-10)

It often goes unnoticed in these two narratives that Eve tries set the devil straight, correct his theology. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus rebukes the devil with God’s word. It’s a radical difference with different outcomes we ought to take to heart.

Jesus had been given the perfect opportunity to be lured into a theological tête-a-tête with the devil. After all, the devil had left himself wide open, for he had taken Psalm 91:11-12 out of context. To his temptation: Jump, Jesus, Jump! For God will command his angels to keep you from dying, Jesus could have replied, following Eve’s example, by saying something like: “You’ve taken that out of context, for in Psalm 91:13, God also says, ‘You will trample the serpent.’ So take that, devil!”

But Jesus, our example, never goes there. Nor should we if the devil approaches. The different end result of each biblical narrative reveals why. In the one, the Lord God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; they are driven out (Genesis 3:23-24). In the other narrative, the devil leaves Jesus and angels come to attend to him (Matthew 4:11). The path to defeat or the path to victory.

Eve often gets a bad rap in the story but, all things considered, I think she must have been an utterly amazing woman. The thing is, she was never cut out to dialogue with the devil. Perhaps, as we tend to do, she was relying on her own understanding. I don’t know. But that dialogue ended with her acting on a rationalization that it was okay to ignore God’s word. Jesus, however, whom I assume would have won any debate with the devil, nevertheless refused to debate with the devil and instead relied on God’s word.

One person wanted to straighten out the devil’s theology and lost; the other person rebuked the devil’s approach with God’s word and won. In the words of the inimitable Steve Brown: “You think about that.”

“God is faithful … when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out …” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by William Ward via Creative Commons permission.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Prophetic Postman

I just pulled my 1985 copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death off my shelf and read there words:

“Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell [in 1984] warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision [Brave New World], no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

That is from the Foreword. This is from the last chapter::

“There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first – the Orwellian – culture becomes a prison. In the second – the Huxleyan – culture becomes a burlesque….

“What Huxley teaches is that in an age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch hm, by our choice. There is no need for wardens or gates or ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversations become a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, that nation finds itself at risk.”

Now, with ears to hear, re-read slowly.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
1984, George Orwell

From Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the top right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

In the Way of the Wise How

joys of homeworkI have been thinking lately about “goals,” probably due to the sense of accomplishment I recently felt with the publication of a new book – one that had been a goal of mine for forty years!

I’ve also been thinking that we live in a time when the setting of goals has become a big thing. A career change. A post-grad degree. A wife. A husband. Two children. An adoption. A new car. Acquire three new clients. Start my own business. Publish an article or a book. Lose forty pounds. Create a website. Run for public office. Make that Olympic team (well, maybe just the college team). You get the picture. Any list of things to get or places to be would run as long and as varied as the people asked.

Leaving aside a discussion of whether a goal is dubious, or whether such and such a person ought to have set such and such a goal, I’m going to assume, here, that the goal is a good one, and doable, for the person in question. Even so, the question of how to reach the goal then becomes is crucial for anyone, especially for Christians, who serve a God who is certainly interested in the end result!

The ways we travel
The God of the end, however, is also the God of the way. God is keen not only about the omegas we seek but also with the ways we travel to get there. This is a huge theme of the book of Proverbs, especially in 3:17, which speaks of the “ways” and “paths” of wisdom. The decisive use of the plural must not be missed. Wisdom, here, is being presented not just as one way but as having many ways (paths). This use of the plural may seem counterintuitive because we Christians follow “the way” (John 14:6), Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Doesn’t Proverbs 3:17 contradict that? How can there be many paths of wisdom?

the better angels of our natureUnlike John 14:6, Proverbs 3:17 is not a soteriological passage. To put it another way, whereas John 14:6 is about God’s way of salvation, Proverbs 3:17 is about God’s ways for directing our travels through life’s daily grinds, which are many and varied. For different goals in this world are, and must be, reached via different methods. When three people have three different goals, or even if one person has several goals, they are reached via different methods. You don’t hunt for a house to rent, or to buy, in the same way you plant your garden or run for an elected office. You don’t use the same method to get your post-grad degree as you would to court your future spouse (I hope not!).

The book of Proverbs admonishes us to come under the discipline of the yoke of the wise how, to let wise ways, not foolish ways, direct our steps.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for instance, may be summarized as a test of wills between those who will choose to follow the wise ways of Lady Wisdom, which lead to life (Proverbs 3:18), or the foolish ways of Lady Folly, which lead to death: “Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths…. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:25-27).

So that is the first thing: choosing and then traveling a way, a path, of godly wisdom for reaching a particular goal we have set. The question then becomes: What is a way, a path, of godly wisdom toward a particular goal? How do we come under the discipline of the wise how?

I pose this question because a huge industry, populated with self-help gurus and ultra-achievers, among others,  has arisen devoted to offering many and varied methods for reaching goals.

When following a method, how do we discern if anything is biblically unacceptable in its ideas, values, means, strategies, and steps to fulfilment?

The answer will depend on how much time, effort, and resources we put into thinking biblically about how we will get to a goal and what is taking place along the way. Admittedly, discrimination of this kind – between the biblical and the unbiblical – can be a tricky business for any Christian. After all, how does one think biblically about choosing a PhD program or running for election or buying a new car? If the teaching arm of our church has not given us the tools for learning to think biblically about the importance of our methodologies, well then…. Non-biblical ideas, attitudes, and values will fill the vacuum.

I want to draw attention to what I call two inconspicuous essentials of God’s wisdom, which can help us recognize if our travels toward a goal has the feel of a wise how.

Peaceableness
One of these essentials is peaceableness. To return to Proverbs 3:17: The ways of wisdom are pleasant and her paths are paths of peace. The word “ways,” here, is about the means taken or the procedures followed to an end. In short, it is about method. The word “peace” is the venerable Hebrew word shalom (well-being; flourishing). And in the New Testament, the epistle of James (also at 3:17) indicates that the wisdom that comes from above is peace-loving, as well as considerate, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. That kind of wisdom is contrasted to the kind that is bitter, envious, and filled with selfish ambition, strife, and disorder (3:14-16).

I think the message, here, is that if God’s peace is setting the spirit and tone of whatever method we are applying to reach a goal, then patience, sympathy, mercy, good fruit, even-handedness, and sincerity are traveling with us along the way.

It would be a good practical exercise, then, to spend time answering questions about whether those qualities, or the ones James calls envy, selfish ambition, and strife, are refereeing a particular method we are relying on. It’s not that we will be perfectly consistent epistles of the qualities of a godly wisdom, but surely we ought to be making progress with them. Is their influence pretty strongly felt as we work toward fulfilling a goal?

It’s a personal thing
The other inconspicuous essential of God’s wisdom is its personal-relational quality. In Proverbs 8:25-31, wisdom is described as having some sort of personal, or personal-like, relationship with God, with the creation, and with human beings. Note also that this triune relationship is described as one of delight, of rejoicing, and of pulling together:

“I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind” (Proverbs 8:25-31).

Due to its ontological difficulties, this may be the most debated passage by scholars in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going to enter that debate here. I just want to underline the fact that wisdom is being presented here as having some sort of personal relational presence with God, with creation, and with human beings. (This is assumed repeatedly throughout the biblical wisdom literature in a wealth of images and contexts.)

skill in wisdomIn other words, wisdom is not presented in Scripture as any sort of abstract edifice of thought, such as an ideology or an -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714.)

Since our relationships with others give us a big clue as to whether the peace of God is present in them, the relationships we have with those who are assisting us toward our goals can help us discern if we are in the path of a wise how.

If the triune relationship that Lady Wisdom has with God, creation, and human beings is enjoyable, delightful, and pleasant, are those qualities present within biblical boundaries in our pursuit of a goal?

This is not to suggest that struggles, disappointments, setbacks, failures, and suchlike will not befall us. It is to suggest being conscious of what kind of fruit we are bearing through our relationships with those with whom we are traveling to reach a goal.

If your children are suffering due to your training schedule for running the marathon; if your marriage is falling apart because of the way you are pursuing that PhD; if your bull-in-a-china-shop method for getting a promotion is making enemies of fellow employees; if you’re running out of patience with your guitar instructor; if you have become chronically unhappy with your fiancé … You get the picture. Is it time to hit Pause and admit that a course correction is necessary?

This short article on a complicated topic probably evoked more questions than solutions. But maybe it’s a start.

When we mis-prioritize “goal” as being the main thing, it is easy to de-prioritze the essentiality of learning and applying a godly wisdom for getting there.

It is a governing theme of Scripture that God is particularly concerned with wisdom, and wisdom is to a large degree about method, about how we get somewhere. For the follower of Jesus – the supreme example of the peaceable, the personal, and relational – the way of wise how must be recognized and prioritized when traveling to get somewhere or something.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

When Our Wisdom Amounts to Nothing

human eyeA long time ago through the prophet Jeremiah, God gave a word to the people of Jerusalem about the condition of their social life. Even though that word was the result of a divine finding, it didn’t sit well for a people who had concluded that their social life was pretty darn good. But in the eyes of Yahweh, according to the prophet, the people’s social life had become generationally organized around deceit, dishonesty, and greed; from the top down they were a shameless, wayward community, a false witness to the law of the Lord:

“Why is this people–Jerusalem–rebellious
With a persistent rebellion?
They cling to deceit.
They refuse to return.
I have listened and heard;
They do not speak honestly.
No one regrets his wickedness
And says, ‘What have I done!’
They all persist in their wayward course
Like a steed dashing forward in the fray….
My people pay no heed
To the law of the Lord….
From the smallest to the greatest,
They are all greedy for gain;
Priest and prophet alike,
They all act falsely.”
(Jer. 8:4-10; JSB, Tanakh translation)

From the top down, the people had created and followed huge edifices of religious and political thought that justified sins that were not only tearing their social fabric apart but also making them so delirious that they could not see that they were about to face the death of their culture. The human capacity for self-deception being without limit, the people are not conscious of their movement toward the cliff. Instead, relying on edifices of thought based on distortions of the law of the Lord, they have a different way of seeing their social life. They believe all is well. But Yahweh sees things quite another way. And you would have to be pretty numb indeed not to hear the breaking heart of God for the people in a very intimate moment Yahweh has with Jeremiah:

“They dress the wound of my people
As though it were not serious.
‘Shalom, shalom,’ they say, where there is no shalom.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
They will be brought down when they are punished.”
(Jeremiah 8:11-12, NIV)

As one season of the year surely follows another, the word “wisdom” in Scripture is meant to put us in mind of the strong influence that our ideas and beliefs exert over our behaviors and our actions. In other words, “wisdom” in Scripture, among other things, denotes a way of seeing life and living in it. And of course St. Paul and St. James remind us that there are different kinds of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:9; James 3:13-18). Jeremiah is saying that at the heart of a culture’s social sins lies a bogus way of seeing life and living in it, a bankrupt wisdom. It becomes a way of life for the people, and it has been spread by both the writings and the speeches of religious authorities and political leaders in particular, as the following words of Jeremiah indicate.

In an age when our social life is so often associated with deceit, dishonesty, greed, and a lack of shame, from leadership right the way through the citizenry, maybe we ought to take to heart these words of Jeremiah about wisdom, that God may have mercy on us, that our social policies may be those of a godly wisdom, that we may be spared the death of our culture:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise,’
And we possess Instruction from the Lord?’
Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored,
For naught the scribes!
The wise shall be put to shame,
Shall be dismayed and caught;
See, they reject the word of the Lord,
So their wisdom amounts to nothing.”
(Jeremiah 8:8-9, JSB, Tanakh translation)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Cesar R, permission via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.