Wisdom and the Arts of Scripture

seamstress handsToday concludes this short 3-part series on wisdom in Scripture for the natural world, in education, and in the arts. Having looked at the first two subjects, we’ll reflect on various kinds of art in Scripture, beginning with overtly religious art.

When a “people” become a “nation” – or as we say today, an “independent state” – all sorts of conditions must be met. It’s not as easy as Frank Zappa is purported to have said: all they need is a bear and an airline! Sorry, Frank. There needs to be, among other things, a territory, a government, and the ability to conduct relations with other nations. When those are in play, a new nation today usually seeks to join the United Nations – that’s big, when the UN recognizes you.

Besides those essential features, another that plays a significant role is the symbolism of national identity, which may be overtly religious or not. The symbolism of the United States, for example, is not overtly religious. Its Declaration of Independence, the language of its constitution, its bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, the design of its flag, its national anthem (“The Star Spangled Banner”), and the Great Seal of the United States (E Pluribus Unum: “one from many”) do not promote allegiance to any religion. Nevertheless, all symbolically suggest values and ideas that helped forge and establish “American” national identity.

This is unlike national identity rooted in religious belief. To give one example, the nation of Iran took on an overt religious identity in 1979. The Emblem of Iran, for instance, with its four crescents and a sword in the shape of a tulip, are meant to stand for the word “Allah,” and its five parts are meant to represent the five main principles of Shia religion. And the language of its 1979 constitution clearly identifies the state as an Islamic Republic.

Whether it is religious or not, a nation’s founding symbolism relies on artistic skill, and in such art we can see the silhouette of a nation’s wisdom. The Bible itself underlines the importance of this in the fascinating narrative surrounding the many and varied symbols representing the religion of Yahwism, which were crafted by the ancient Hebrews during the period of the founding of the nation of Israel.

Gordian knotThis story occupies most of the second half of the book of Exodus. In particular, chapters 28, 31, 35, and 36 acknowledge the aesthetic wisdom of the artisans and craftspeople, both men and women, that created this religious art. In various places, the text explains that Yahweh had told Moses that he (Yahweh) had given the craftspeople wisdom “to make everything” according to the plans. Some of the leading artisans and craftspeople are named, and the specific tasks of all of the artists are carefully delineated according to the areas of expertise.

Some Bible translations use the English word “skill” for the Hebrew word for wisdom (hakam) in these texts, to indicate the top-notch talent. The text identifies many of these men and women: artisans, builders, craftspeople, gold or silver smiths, jewelers, seamstresses, and others. The text leaves no doubt as to the religious meaning of what is under construction. It was to represent a “sanctuary” for Yahweh and a place for the people to come to with their sacrifices and to worship.

Of course there are many kinds of art. And a lot of art, perhaps most art, at least in our day, is what we would call non-religious art. This is true even in Scripture, where we find various kinds of art sans overt religious meaning. I’ll close by noting just several genres briefly.

Drama. Drama is meant to evoke emotions in an audience, feelings of tensions, for instance, of anticipation, of what’s going to happen, how is this going to end? A scene, the way the characters act, the language they use, their moods, and much else besides all contribute to good drama. For me, the story of King David awaiting news about his son Absalom is a very moving mini-set piece that conveys an important dramatic point in David’s loving but deeply troubling relationship with this son.

Literature. The entire book of Ruth tells a story so well written that it has inspired artists down through the centuries. See, e.g., Keats “Ode to a Nightingale.” Goethe has called Ruth “the loveliest complete work on a small scale.”

The play. In the book of second Samuel, chapter fourteen, you will find a carefully scripted one-act play, right down to the costume and make-up of the actor. It’s a piece of fiction, performed with such great skill before King David that it changes the king’s mind about a very sensitive family matter. What I find remarkable is the name of the playwright. It was written and directed by Joab, King David’s top military general.

The fable. Fables tend to be dressed up in images of the astonishing, the fabulous, the fantastic. Think Aesop’s Fables, for instance. Today, fables are not the great literary device they once were. You won’t find many fables in Scripture, but the one found in Judges chapter nine, which is set in a political context, is rather daring, given that it quite publicly, deliberately, exposes a newly crowned king to ridicule. In this, it seems to be appealing to a large constituency’s suspicions of monarchies. (Second Kings chapter fourteen has another fable.)

The riddle. Riddles, like fables, popular in the ancient world, are not so common today, although you will usually find them in great literature, such as in Shakespeare or those between Gollum and Bilbo in Tolkien. Riddles are word-plays that have to be opened up, and they are usually about making guesses to get at a truth, which one person hides and the other must discern. In Scripture they are sometimes called “dark sayings” or “hard questions,” such as those that the Queen of Sheba put to King Solomon to test the superiority of his wisdom. And the Prologue to the book of Proverbs explains that part of the book is understanding the “sayings and riddles of the wise.”

Allegory. This art form works metaphorically. A word, image, or phrase about one person or object is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. The Pilgrims Progress may be the most well known modern example. Augustine, the famous fourth-fifth century North African scholar, expounded Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically. In Scripture, the dreams of Joseph, and Pharaoh’s dreams, later on in the Joseph narrative, work allegorically and need interpreting. There are a couple allegories in the book of Ezekiel, and the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is typically allegorical.

Poetry. Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not unlike poetry today, with its uses of imagery, language (not unlike allegory), and rhythms, all variously and deliberately chosen and arranged, in hopes of creating for the reader or listener specific kinds of responses. The Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not like much poetry today in that writers of the former offer what life is like in covenant relation with Yahweh.

Also, poets typically want you, the reader or listener, to get what you can from a poem, almost as an “each to his or her own” interpretation. This can disturb the literalists among us. The genius of the poetic ambiguity, however, is that a good poem with its universal imagery speaks beyond its time and to any culture. The Psalms of Scripture, for instance, written 2,500 years ago, still speak to people around the world today. Anyone who thinks Scripture is boring or dated would do well to find a good book that discusses Psalms as the poetry.

The proverb. We may not immediately think of proverbs as an art form, but just try to write a pithy saying, such as a maxim, epigram, or adage – intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable – and you’ll discover how difficult it is to do that.

The parable. The same thing is true about parables – very difficult to invent. In Scripture it is clear that Jesus was a master story-teller, which is the basis of a good parable. And as are most other art forms, parables are also invitational. You’re being invited into an imaginary world, to see and experience what’s going on there. It’s a world where you can make what we might call cost-free decisions about what’s going on, because you’re not directly involved. And of course you can refuse the invitation.

stroytellingAs storytelling, a parable works by inviting the hearer into a hypothetical world where the outward appearances are different but the rules for making the decisions or judgments are the same as in the “real” world. So you are a Jewish religious leader listening to Jesus and you hear the story of a wounded man lying by the roadside, and only one person out of three bothers to look after him. You’re surprised at that, and you are drawn into the situation and begin to make relatively unbiased judgments about it because you are not the person directly involved. You don’t have to do anything about it in your own “real” world.

In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I write: “The storyteller [Jesus] has for a time set you free in your imagination, free not just to understand some abstract idea about life but to enter into a situation and make fearless, cost-free decisions in it, the sort you know you ought to make in ‘real life’ if your heart were not confused by other interests. As a Jew you find yourself admitting the previously unthinkable: a Samaritan can be a neighbor.”

I’ll close with this final thought. Art in Scripture is meant to initiate people into what experiences of life under God can be like. When it comes to Jesus, wisdom teacher par excellence, what separates his stories from run-of-the-mill is that they are about the counter-kingdom of the God’s in-coming kingdom and rule. Jesus means for there to be a dialogue going on about this between his audiences and his parables. It is a dialogue meant to disorient, dislocate, us in hopes of reorienting, relocating, us to the in-breaking kingdom and rule of God and its effects on and in our lives. That is what makes his listeners, then and now, balk.

Jesus radically challenges traditional, accepted, well-established ways thinking about life, decision making, and human relationships. And he employees all sorts for concrete and universal, everyday images to do this, such as business dealings, finances, treasures, seed time and harvest, family matters, and much more. He is using the things of everyday life deliberately, to show that nowhere along the spectrum of life will the in-breaking kingdom of God not effect radical changes in our thinking and doing.

To those “with ears to hear and eyes to see,” Jesus is revealing the kingdom of God’s normative ways of living. The more we let the art of the Bible speak to us like this, the more discerning we will become of gospel-shaped principles of taste and judgment in art, of whatever kind and wherever we find it. And the more that kind of seeing and hearing constitutes our spiritual DNA, the more intuitive it will become for us to immediately know to reject the countless invitations of art sent our way today to oppose and seek to invalidate God’s wisdom.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Seamstress hands, by Hernan Pinera. Knot, by crosslens. Storytelling, by Shashi Bellamonda.

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.

Applying the Wisdom of Sages in Education

Today we’ll move from the previous post’s examples of seeking wisdom from the natural world to look at three models of wisdom-based schools that were common during Bible times in the cultures of the old world Middle East. These educational models were the temple schools, the royal court schools, and what today we might call home schooling. The first two are broadly analogous to what today we would call religious training and college, respectively. (See the previous post’s introduction to this short 3-part series.)

Because the old-world sages were vital to the development of the wisdom tradition itself, and to their cultures’ education models, let’s begin with a word about what the sages were on about, for their callings were quite different than that of prophets and priests.

Writing about ancient Israel, the Hebrew scholar Leo Perdue makes this helpful distinction: “Unlike prophets who received the knowledge of God in revelatory states (e.g., standing in the council of Yahweh) or priests whose religious experiences included theophanies…, sages came to their understanding of God and the moral life through ways of knowing that included memory, sense perception, reason, experience, and reflection.” He continues: “[By] using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally, the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own.”

Wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, writing about wisdom and experiences that are common to humanity, put it this way when referencing ancient Israel: “The sages dealt with and drew deductions from the repeatable patterns and moral order of ordinary life, both human life and the life of the broader natural world. For the most part they were trying to explain how God’s people should live when God is not presently intervening and when there is no late and particular oracle from God to draw on.”

Noted Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad calls the sages’ kind of learned wisdom “experiential knowledge,” noting that every old-world culture “devoted itself to the care and literary cultivation of this experiential knowledge.” “No one,” he reminds us, “would be able to live even for a single day without incurring appreciable harm if he could not be guided by wide practical experience.” It teaches us to understand events in our surroundings, to foresee the reactions of others, to apply our own unique resources at the right point, “to distinguish the normal from the unique and much more besides.”

ancient wisdom schoolTo sum up, it was from their studied observations over time that the sages derived and built up a body of knowledge of learned lessons both from the created order of the world and from human behavior in the world. Insights applied from learned lessons are vital to gaining wisdom, and these became huge in the curricula of wisdom education. Over time, sages’ insights were collected and organized into forms of written instruction and used to educate the young about wise, practical decision-making in virtually every area of life in the old-world Middle East.

Previous to its organized and written forms, wisdom was transmitted orally down the generations, usually from father to son (occasionally from mothers), as instruction about life in the world. This kind of “home schooling” is partly what we see in written form in the book of Proverbs. Much of this kind of instruction was taught in a style called the “act-consequence connection.” Here are a few examples. For lack of guidance, a nation falls; do not love sleep or you will grow poor; do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom your words (Proverbs 11:14; 20:13; 23:9). A popular one today is: you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7).

Early forms of home schooling, whether oral or written, were designed to encourage the kind of responsible living that would put the young in harmonious agreement with the divine order that was assumed by old-world cultures to exist in the world. It usually contained proverbs and exhortations, and it emphasized concrete, practical instruction rather than hold up abstract ideals to follow. It emphasized right decision-making in everyday life. And, again, all of this was based on insights that sages had gained from their investigations into the orderly processes of nature and through their years of studied observation and experience of human behavior and interaction.

Over time, such insights were developed into instruction on a wide variety of topics, such as: gaining knowledge from the created order of things; cultivating moral conduct, prudent behavior, and virtue; recognizing principles for living well; understanding the outcomes of one’s choices; and recognizing contrasts, as between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad. The instruction, learned and applied, was meant to free the young person from making costly errors of judgment later on.

Insights about such matters in Proverbs is often artfully crafted in pithy sayings such as maxims, epigrams, adages, or proverbs, intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable, and every now and then delivering a graphic kick. E.g.: Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion; food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel (Proverbs 11:22; 20:17).

The royal court schools provided instruction at various educative levels, including what today we would call higher education. The broad purpose of royal court schools, wisdom scholar William McKane concluded, was to prepare recruits “for the learned professions in general and notably for the higher offices of state.” Recruits typically came from the top layers of society, such as children from the royal courts, from courtiers’ families, from the homes of royal officials or temple personnel, from the wealthier families, and suchlike. Only the elite need apply.

door keyIn Babylon, for instance, two types of such schools existed. One was called “the table house,” where reading and writing were taught. Today, this of course falls into universal elementary education, but 3,000 years ago it was a privileged education, in which young men were trained with the two essential skills needed for entering royal court service. The graduates were often known as scribes, and those who served as diplomats and ambassadors would also have been trained in the language and culture of important surrounding nations. Ezra the priest, as he is typically know by Christians, was also trained as a scribe. We know from the biblical book that bears his name that he served the Babylonian king Artaxerxes as a shuttle diplomat between the Babylonian capital and Jerusalem.

The other Babylonian school of higher education, according to McKane, offered sons of the elite studies in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, magic arts, theology, and all the varied branches of “‘the learning and tongues of the Chaldeans’ (Daniel 1:4).” The royal courts had their pick of young men from elite families who showed aptitude and potential to serve as public officials. It seems to have been normative for the chosen ones to learn wisdom through tutoring or apprenticeships. The Hebrew young man Daniel and his three friends were among the elite classes of ancient Israel who were taken prisoner in exile to Babylonia, where they were tutored in the studies just described as a prerequisite to entering service as political advisors and officials in the Babylonian royal court.

In ancient Egypt, a long section on Egyptian wisdom “Instruction” details the normative apprenticeship requirements of that nation’s public officials. McKane writes that this Instruction is “an educational manual for one who is to hold high public office…” He concludes that this corpus of teaching “establishes the conditions of effective and successful statesmanship in Egypt. If an official is to succeed in affairs and become a weighty statesman, these are the conditions to which he must attend and give respect.” (The story of the Hebrew slave Joseph rising to high political office in Egypt may hold insight for us about this.)

Careful readers of Proverbs will have seen many proverbs and sections in that book that detail qualities requisite in officials serving in the royal court, including admonishments to Israel’s kings (as rulers) about their behavior and decision making. Von Rad writes that these particular passages “presuppose conditions at court.” They indicate “the royal court as a place where wisdom was traditionally nurtured. This would correspond exactly to what we know of the courts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

Scholarship about the temple schools of the old-world Middle East has also shed light about the wisdom-based education of the time. The temple schools, as the name indicates, were attached to a nation’s temples and therefore had a particular religious identity, depending on the nation. Formal religious training for a nation’s priesthood took place in such schools. In ancient Israel, the religious identity would have been monotheistic, centered on Yahweh. In other nations, it would have been polytheistic, centered on a nation’s most prominent gods.

McKane, however, from his extensive research, concluded that we should not think that temple schools dealt only in instruction related to the religious cultus of the nation. In the Egyptian temple schools, for instance, there seems to have been a amalgam of learning. He somewhat compares them to schools founded by cathedrals in the Middle Ages, which were grammar schools and not formal seminaries. There “is no reason to suspect,” McKane writes, “that the temple schools of the ancient Near East were less devoted to the basic elements of academic discipline…”

This may help to explain a basic feature of the old-world Middle East. Quite unlike in the West today, but not unlike some Middle East countries today, religion, social life, and politics were all consciously a whole piece of cloth. One clear illustration is worth noting: in the court systems and the royal courts of both Egypt and Israel, jurists and rulers were to exercise impartial justice when deciding cases and in law-making.

In Israel, this derived from the religious teaching based on the fear of Yahweh (see, e.g., Proverbs 1:1-3; 2:1-9; 8:15; 24:23; 28:21). In Egypt, it derived from the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. McKane writes that an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a suprised lookpassion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection.”

To sum up, wisdom, as theologian David Ford points out, was taken for granted as “the crown of education,” as what was “most desired in a parent, a leader, a counselor, a teacher.” And it was the sages who made this possible.

I do wonder, now that I am at the end of this article, what our country would be like today if the practice of moral conduct; if the cultivation of virtue and prudent behavior; if instruction in principles for living well and for understanding the consequences of one’s choices; and if many other features of wisdom-based old-world education were part of the curricula of our public schools.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Pencils, by Mark Bonica. Sages, by anon. Skeleton key, by Aphrodite.  Surprised look, by George Thomas.

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.

Seeking Wisdom from the Natural World

SunsetWisdom is both a divine gift and a divinely ordained human task. And let’s fess up. We would all prefer the receiving of a gift over exerting ourselves to work toward a goal. After all, work is, well, work. So I suspect that most of us would rather have wisdom handed to us than work at seeking it. Besides, don’t we have too much going on in our lives already? How can we possibly add to that load the work of seeking wisdom?

Since seeking wisdom takes persistent dedication, we can get a bit slack at it. So I thought it might be inspiring to take a timeout from the complicated things that we sometimes talk about on this blog and instead remind ourselves of the importance that Scripture places on seeking and applying wisdom. Of the countless ways we could do this, let’s spend a few minutes remembering just three of the many areas of life in which Scripture itself places a premium on having wisdom and applying it – the natural world, education, and the arts. Today we’ll look at the natural world. Education and the arts will be covered in future posts.

The Natural World
Throughout history, theologians and philosophers have attempted to explain the agency through which the material world exists and holds together. This is not the place to review the diverse answers that have been supplied. What I want to highlight is an answer that is typically overlooked by religious communities, including Christian ones.

To a basic question such as: “How did the material world get here and why does it keep going?”, Christians, as well as Jewish and Muslim believers, would reply with some version of: “God created it and sustains it.”

To stick within my own faith, Christianity, it you pressed Christians to be more specific, most likely you would hear: “God spoke it into existence by his word,” or “God created through Jesus Christ.” Or some such thing. But what you won’t hear is the indisputable role that wisdom played. And this is an unfortunate omission. Over many decades of hearing Christians talk about how the natural world was created and is sustained, I can’t recall anyone underlining the biblical truth that wisdom itself is an essential agency to the founding and running the world. And yet it is clearly evident in Scripture (e.g., Job 28:12-19; Psalm 104:24; Proverbs 3:19; 8:22-31; Isaiah 28:23-29; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15).

My purpose here is not to unpack the riches of such passages. I only want to note that they include at least these three salient ideas: a) that wisdom was present in the beginning when God created; b) that God sustains the created order by wisdom; c) that human collaboration with God’s wisdom helps sustain the world.

Wisdom, we may say, then, is in some sort of God-ordained way essential to the creation, order, and stability of the natural world, which doesn’t exist like a cat and dog fighting or like a jar of nitroglycerin. Rather, there is a consistency old booksand a reliability to the natural world. The same rules and laws govern this earth as govern the farther reaches of the galaxy. Seasons come and go with persistent regularity. You can count on that, and farmers and meteorologists do.

From this we may conclude that wisdom is not some abstract entity, nor has it been left to gather dust on blueprints in heaven, any more than Michelangelo’s art or Bach’s music was left ignored in their heads. As their gift to us, their art is with us in the world. We can see it and hear it. And those who work to become skilled enough in those kinds of artistic wisdom can have a go at painting it or playing it.

What used to be called the “natural sciences” is the large and varied field where wisdom is sought, discovered, and applied to the multifarious facets and complex intricacies of natural world. First Kings 4:29-34 hints at this about Solomon, albeit in a rudimentary way.

The passage in First Kings celebrates Solomon’s international reputation for wisdom. His prodigious output of proverbs and songs are noted; his practical wisdom and his keen judicial wisdom are commended. And Solomon’s wide breadth of wisdom in natural science is also noted. He is said to have “described” the plant life of the region, from the largest trees (cedars of Lebanon) to the smallest shrubs (hyssop). He “taught about” beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish (the four principle classes whereby the Israelites understood the animal kingdom). To acknowledge that this was all rudimentary is not to say that it was wrong or even that it has become out-dated. After all, even the most advanced physicist began with basic math.

It may be difficult to appreciate the Nobel-like acclaim Solomon received for his accumulated wisdom until we recognize that he lived during a time when the sages of Egypt and of the East were renowned for their wisdom. Everyone knew that. Even so, Solomon is said to have had more wisdom and insight than the sages of the East and of Egypt. And, evidently, he also stood head and shoulders above the sages even of his homeland (Ecclesiastes 1:16).

It might surprise some workers in the natural sciences today to learn that when they discover something more about the created order of things – even today – they are discovering more of God’s wisdom for the way the natural world works. The big question, however, and it has become acute in our day, is how to apply a discovery. What kind of uses should it be put to? Is nothing taboo? Does anything go? Ultimately, this faces us with the question of what should be the proper management, stewardship, of God’s good creation.

Assessing ahead of time the long-term implications and ramifications of any new discovery is not possible because analyzable facts are not yet in evidence by which to base accurate projections. Further, in this world, where by our sin we distort God’s good creational wisdom after we discover it, we will wish in vain that the use of any discovery will have only upsides. British theologian and philosopher John Peck calls this the ICT Factor: the inherent cussedness of things. Uses made of discoveries in the medical and the nuclear sciences are only recent cases in point.

jigsaw big pictureCultivating a humble attitude in the face of new discoveries and their applications is probably the best we can do. I learned something about this years ago while reading how the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) approached new discoveries. I don’t romanticize Bacon. The man wasn’t a saint. But in The New Atlantis, his work of fiction, he named his ideal college “Solomon’s House,” which was, he wrote, “the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the face of the earth…, dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.” And in his essay “Of wisdom for a man’s self,” he wrote that wisdom used for selfish interests “is a depraved thing.”

W can also learn from his thoughts about his method of induction, for which he has been celebrated. In brief, Bacon – he entered Trinity College at age 12(!) – strongly objected to the highly abstract forms of knowledge (Aristotelianism and Scholasticism) that influenced the Medieval period. His method of induction was meant to help Europeans produce an alternative to that. He sought a more personal and comprehensive relation to nature via a systematic hands-on approach in which knowledge would be derived and built up from the multitude of people’s practical, studied experiences of the natural world. From these experiences, general laws of nature would be developed and employed. “Nature can only be commanded by being obeyed,” was Bacon’s way of putting it.

Evidently this was not, in his mind at least, to be an exercise in selfish ambition or mercenary exploitation. Significantly, when a law of nature was discovered, it was to be employed in what Bacon called “a holy manner” as the science was developed. By this he meant that the natural world must be approached in a humility of not knowing and then proceed from there by studying from the creation what God has actually wrought in it.

Further, our science, he said, should produce works motivated by charity. Knowledge gained ought to be used to serve others, to alleviate human suffering, increase human well-being. Such an attitude aptly describes the way of investigation and cultivation of the earth that the Book of Genesis (2:15) insists should be the motivating principle of and for human work in the world – good stewardship, or management.

Wisdom, then, is imminent in the natural world and may be found by those who seek it there, for it is a world that “speaks” to all peoples everywhere about itself and its Artist (Genesis 1; Psalm 19). Of course, most of us don’t have careers in the natural sciences. But we may grow our own vegetables, or run an urban agricultural initiative, or even serve our community as a Master Gardner.

Like a city under siege and deprived of food, God’s wisdom is so vital to the proper running of the natural world that to not humbly seek that wisdom and apply it wisely is to contribute to its decay. In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I tried to capture something of this when we wrote: “When you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character.”

Best we be good stewards of that.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Top image courtesy of Creative Commons. Old Books, by M. Peterka. Jigsaw, by NASA.

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. Click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, 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.

Iran Is the New Iraq: Why That’s Big

History is about to rhyme. Here’s how. And why you don’t want it to.

During 2002 and into early 2003, the American public, U.S. allies, and the rest of the world were treated to more than a year of strongly worded statements cherry-picked from U.S. intelligence communities by the George W. Bush administration and sophisticatedly spun together into a policy for acting to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying chemical and biological weapons and to prevent him from starting a nuclear program. That policy led to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Today, in 2017, fifteen years later, the cherry picking and policy spin begins again. This time with Iran. This time, about pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet the consequences this time may be no less severe than those that have materialized since the “Mission Accomplished” banner hung above the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the nuclear agreement with Iran, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As President he has been asking his advisors for a way to get the U.S. out of the deal. Since none have as yet been forthcoming, at least not to Trump’s satisfaction, he has twice this year recertified Iran’s compliance with the agreement, most recently on July 18. (In May, 2015, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Review Act, by which Congress receives ongoing reports about Iran’s behavior regarding nuclear agreement compliance; the Act also requires recertification by the President every 90 days.)

But this President is not one to be deterred from a stated goal. Although Iran has not been in material breach of the agreement, game plans are being presented for the President to act on to pull the U.S. out of the deal even if the Islamic republic is not in material breach.

According to foreign policy analyst and Iranian expert Trita Parsi, one of those game plans entails decertifying the deal if Trump can justify a claim that Iran is not implementing it. That certainly would be fair enough if Iran were caught in material breach of the deal. But as of this summer, Iran has not been in material breach, as Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, affirmed on July 26. In an interview with David Ignatius, Corker, who remains adamantly opposed to the deal, pointed out that there are technical breaches and material breaches. “[It’s the] material breaches that matter. Well, right now, they’ve had some technical non-compliance but they get back into compliance from time-to-time.” In other words, the President needs Iran to get caught in a material breach in order to argue with a straight face that Iran is not implementing the deal. Then he can legitimately decertify.

The obstacle for Trump has been that Iran has been implementing the deal but he wants to tear it up. So what to do? Find a way to claim justification for decertifying the deal anyway. Parsi learned of one rationale which would do just that. It would involve using “the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal … to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks … Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting blame to Iran.” And Iran will balk, because “the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities.” In other words, the agreement does not allow for fishing expeditions.

This would be a “charade,” Parsi writes, “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….” Trump is not interested in “determining whether Iran is in compliance or not. The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts – just as George W. Bush did with Iraq.”

“Shifting blame to Iran” is essential to any game plan for end-running the deal if the United States hopes to get its allies behind America’s exiting of the deal. This is what Corker himself wants. You “wait until you have your allies aligned with you.” Then you ask “to get into various facilities in Iran. If they don’t let us in, boom. [W]hat you want is you want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States because we want our allies with us.”

John Bolton, another high-level foreign policy advisor, absolutely does not want the deal to continue. In a telling article in National Review titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” the former U. S. Ambassador to the UN recently laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear from the White House and the media in the following weeks and months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did.” It’s a strategy, Bolton states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.” Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has also served at high levels in various presidential administrations since the 1980s, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.

Under four subheadings – Background; Campaign Plan Components; Execution Concepts and Tactics; Conclusion – Bolton’s argument through all four sections may be summed up as: here’s how to pull out all the stops in a domestic and global campaign to get as many influential agencies, allies, and media as possible on board to support “a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA.” His ways and means include, but are not limited to:

■ developing momentum in Congress for pulling out,
■ diplomatic and public education initiatives,
■ early and quiet consultation with key players,
■ explaining why the deal is harmful to U.S. national security interests,
■ a full court press by U.S. embassies worldwide,
■ coordinating with all relevant Federal agencies,
■ the timing of announcements,
■ having unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran ready to be implemented,
■ encourage public debate that goes further than abrogating the deal,
■ announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,
■ expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs,
■ and actively organize opposition to Iranian political objectives in the UN.

Bolton expands on the “how” of those and other strategies throughout his article. “This effort,” he concludes, “should be the Administration’s highest diplomatic priority, commanding all necessary time, attention, and resources.”

If Iran continues to implement the deal but Trump remains firm about tearing it up, we should be prepared to face a deluge of what the distinguished foreign policy thinker John Mearsheimer calls, in his insightful little book Why Leaders Lie, “a deception campaign.” This, he argues, is based on fearmongering, which “occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.”

“History may not repeat itself,” Mark Twain has been noted to have said, “but it sure does rhyme.” If we draw from the deception campaign of 2002, it’s not hard to divine what kind of rhyming statements, i.e., sound bites, are going to be hawked by the White House and Congress in the coming weeks and months. Here are some likely ones:

■ Of all of Obama’s wrongheaded policies, none is more dangerous to the US that the Iran deal. This has left the President with confronting a terrible threat in the Persian Gulf…
■ Obama, Kerry, and others in that administration were naive to think that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons…
■ The time has come to pull out of the deal…
■ We have clear evidence that Iran is not abiding by the nuclear deal…
■ Congressional leaders are united in their view that Iran will…
■ The only way to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons is to pull out of the deal and place very tough US sanctions on Iran…
■ The Iran deal has not deterred it from pursuing paths to have nuclear weapons….
■ We support the President to pull out of the deal…
■ We are confident that Iran is seeking means to build a nuclear weapon…
■ If we do not pull out of the Iran deal and enact very strict sanction immediately…
■ Iran had no intention of honoring the agreement….

It is foolish to try to predict what the next fifteen years will look like should such sound bites about Iran succeed, but if they succeed it is equally foolish to assume that consequences at home and in the Middle East will be less severe than they have been during the past fifteen years. Even if the American public only wants ponder its future on the basis of its collective self-interest, it may want to consider what would occur in the oil markets if Iran, in retaliation, not only disrupted the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf but attacked the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. And here we find another lesson from fifteen years ago.

Despite the Bush administration’s unprecedented, multi-aspected spinning throughout 2002 to try to assure everyone of the wisdom of invading Iraq, the President still had many significant doubters, at home and overseas. To try to convince them to have faith, Bush would occasionally trot out what he called the success of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan. After all, he would say, al Qaeda had been routed, the Taliban government had been ousted, and Hamid Karzai, the new President of Afghanistan, was cooperating with the West.

Well, now. The war in Afghanistan is in its sixteenth year, there is no end in sight, suicide bombings are common, the Afghans are fed up with burying their dead, the Taliban have regained strong holds in many places, the government only rules about 60% of the country, and more U.S. troops are being deployed there.

Some may say: well, that’s hindsight; we want to look forward. Sure, let’s look forward. But you won’t move forward wisely apart from applying wisdom learned from past mistakes. The decision not to finish the job with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but to instead go to war in Iraq is at least partly implicated in the terrible, ongoing suffering of countless millions of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians. And the decision has also cost the U.S. dearly in many ways, both domestically and internationally. The American public knows this. What they may not know in the coming weeks and months is that they may be being played again.

Talking to Iran is what’s needed. This, too, is another lesson to be learned from the Bush era. Well-known among the foreign policy establishments of the West and the Middle East, but virtually unreported by the news media, the Iranian government sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration in May, 2003, seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

Parsi helpfully included a copy of the letter as an Appendix in his illuminating book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. The Iranians, he writes, had prepared a comprehensive proposal. It had been drafted and known only to a closed circle of decision-makers in Tehran and approved by the highest levels of clerical and political authorities, including Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

Apart from Khamanei’s imprimatur, the proposal would not be taken seriously by the Bush White House. Most significantly, then, the proposal was authoritative. Thus the Americans, Parsi writes, were stunned by it. The proposal called for a dialogue of “mutual respect” and listed major points of contention that Iran was willing to discuss with the U.S. In the letter, Iran declared itself willing to:

■ talk about its nuclear program;
■ increase its cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda;
■ help stabilize Iraq;
■ lean on Hezbollah “to become a mere political organization within Lebanon”;
■ accept the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution.
■ end Iranian “material support to Palestinian opposition groups” (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et al.) and pressure them “to stop violent action against civilians.”

Of course bilateral negotiations are a two-way street, so the proposal also spelled out what Iran would like to see on the table in return from the U.S.:

■ the removal of Iran from the “axis of evil”;
■ an end of sanctions and impediments to international trade;
■ “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”;
■ recognition of “Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region”;
■ U.S. help against anti-Iranian terrorists.

The letter closed by suggesting mutual next steps, including public statements, establishing parallel working groups, and hammering out a timetable for implementation. Since Washington and Tehran had had no embassy-level bilateral relations for a quarter of a century, the offer was unprecedented. How would the Bush administration respond?

Stop and think about this for a minute. As with all initial steps toward diplomacy, this one was but a starting point. Both sides would know that the proposal was not set in stone. It was merely the potential beginning of the international game of give-and-take of getting to Yes. But first the waters needed to be tested by both parties. If they liked the temperature, then some next steps might include discussing some of the items. If that process continued, long story short, items and issues in the original proposal would probably hit the cutting room floor, with the potential remaining that some items might be taken to an agreement, even if that took months or years to hammer out.

Given the unprecedented nature of the proposal, it would be an exceptionally irrational move if the recipient did not engage with the sender to at least test the waters. Not only did the Bush White House choose not to do that. It immediately and rudely snubbed the reachout. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Parsi concluded. Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, believed the mistake was huge. According to BBC News security correspondent Gordon Corera, Wilkerson afterward said, “In my mind, it was one of those things” about which you say “I can’t believe we did this,” especially at a time when Iranian vulnerability was at its greatest and Washington at its most triumphalist. That snub looms large in how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical fundamentalist politician, became Iran’s president in 2005, and also why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program.

President Trump’s willingness to tear up the Iran nuclear deal seems to stem from his anger at the Islamic republic’s ongoing support of Hezbollah, its attitude toward Israel, and its ballistic missile program. But the way to seek changes in Iran’s behavior that would benefit the United States is through diplomatic initiatives that seek to talk with Iran about areas of concern to both countries. A huge obstacle to that today, however, is that, as in 2002, we have a White House that doesn’t want to talk but to dictate to Iran.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing done by humans in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. It would be unwise in the extreme, however, 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. The JCPOA can be a springboard for that. It gives the P5+1 nations a verifiable framework for monitoring Iranian compliance. It give the U.S. many years to talk with Iran about other matters. And it comes at a time when Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

For Trump, Corker, Bolton, and many other influentials, the strategy seems to be: tear up the deal and enact very tough sanctions, which will force Iran to negotiate a better deal. I don’t believe that pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement will, as Bolton wrote, create “a new reality” that will “enhance international peace and security.” I don’t believe America’s allies – possibly there will be a few exceptions – will buy that either. Pulling out would certainly create a new reality. I would be very surprised if it did not rhyme with the reality that emerged during the last decade and a half. If it does emerge, it will be yet another case of wisdom lost.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom and President Trump should give them carte blanche to start reaching out to Iran. As one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after he saw peace ensue from an unlikely diplomatic mission, “wisdom is better than weapons of war.”

We can learn wisdom from history or remain foolish decision makers. If the Trump White House refuses to get wisdom from the mistakes made by the Bush White House, God help us.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images permissions from Creative Commons: Geo. W. Bush (BBC News); Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images); John Bolton (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty); Afghanistan war scene (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty); President Rhouani (STR/AFP/Getty);

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Strangers As Good Neighbors

A word about the following essay
The succor and largesse being given to those whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey turned my thoughts to five remarkable days when I was unexpectedly on the receiving end of it, with thousands of others. I share the following essay with you at this time in the hope that it inspires some good thoughts about what it means to be humans beings bearing witness to the image of God in us.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops, or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), the only bother aboard the plane so far could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. My eyes adjusting to the blinding light, I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at that way for too long and I turned away. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. Still no movies. People fidgeted. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Your nightmare sprang from wherever you had stowed it before boarding. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down. Afterward, it seemed to me that a holy moment spread throughout the cabin.

It also seemed much longer than the actually millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? No, a nuclear bomb. Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of that made any sense to me. The important question was: why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to find out. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Daylight Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? That became an even more important question. What had happened, anyway?! And where? And who had been effected? Was I even going to get home? Someone must know.

inside delta planeAhh. Walking down the aisle toward me was the hostess whom I had befriended on the plane. I was traveling alone and no passengers were seated near me. I decided to try to take advantage of that privacy. From my aisle seat our eyes met and I motioned inconspicuously to flag her down, hoping she would stop. She did, and she crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand at the back of the plane. It was something, a least. A kindness. The first of many that was to come.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the long, asphalt service road jammed with cars, vans, and pick-ups filled with on-lookers. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing warehouse fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Later I realized it was more than that. It wasn’t just the stunning sight of landing dozens of huge commercial jets one after another after another that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny afternoon. They knew what had happened. We were still in the dark.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we slowly eased along past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Captain Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had been given of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. Hopefully we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We asked a thousand questions of the crew, but the only information they had was what Captain Williams had been given, and those details were sketchy. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions aboard. Later I realized that during the first couple of hours on the plane in Halifax we were living way behind the historic news curve. The pilots had tuned to an AM radio in the cockpit, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. “Another attack may be imminent.” “A plane may have crashed in Pennsylvania.” “Who had launched the attack?” It would be nearly 24 hours before our own imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayTwo long and perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side along the tarmac. None would be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. Ten thousand stranded passengers – a small town, and all the problems that come with it – had suddenly arrived – a scene repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities.

That the extreme and unprecedented workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers across America went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax. But there were stories in this cockpit. I decided to put on my journalist’s hat, informally however. I listened closely as flight attendants came to the cockpit with reports from the cabin and as the two pilots and their navigator talked. And I chatted them up when they were free to do so. Personally for me, it was a akin to therapy to have the freedom to do this, and I think the pilots seemed glad to talk.

“Why did you make that kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams during a break in the activity. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking.’ So we talked for a long time about the wisest language to use to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

As the hours passed, snacks and water ran low, it was getting stuffy in the cabin, a couple infants needed baby formula, the crew reported, and some passengers wanted a smoke. The main theme was the need for fresh air. Passengers were being deplaned and taken to stay overnight in Halifax in the order of their arrival. It would be many hours, we learned, before those of at the end of the queue would be breathing in fresh air.

Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem as it arose wisely resolve it. The Halifax ground crew was notified about our need snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.”

The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. And then left open. Such gestures, including access to the pilots, made a world of difference in the social microcosm that had begun forming, and that would gain in largess, for the passengers of Flight 59. These seemingly small grace gifts defused the building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that passengers on some of the other carriers had fared as favorably.

gobsmackedThe matter of reaching my wife was pressing in on me, so I surrendered my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But getting as signal was still nearly impossible. Those with phones had been wearing down their fingerprints since landing, punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Few won during those first hours. When the hostess I had befriended told me the battery in her phone had died, I stopped asking anyone for a try and instead struck up a conversation – not about phoning – with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I was explaining that I’d been traveling in England on a book tour, we heard the mic suddenly cue – everyone had become acutely attuned to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for a day or two,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection with the outside world. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, he handed me the phone and I gave her my wife’s name and number. An hour or two later she beat the odds again, to say that she had got hold of Linda and explained where I was and that I was okay.

Blessedly, our flight was only half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Around midnight I copped three empty side-by-side seats at the rear of the cabin and stretched out as best I could and entered a fitful sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, and sped through customs. Outside the terminal we were immediately escorted through the street-lamp atmosphere to a yellow school bus where, after we had boarded, a local politician jumped in and, standing in the doorway, gave us a warm Canadian welcome to “our friends from the south.” He then announced that we were being taken to Shearwater Air Force Base in Dartmouth, ten miles away, where, “You will be well looked after as guests of Canada,” he concluded, promising with many promises. The persistent question of how long we would be there was met with, “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now awaited repopulation on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, news coverage, and hourly conversations in every Halifax and Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment rose to about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one Air Tours group from Scotland filled with partying vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand strandeds, we discovered, had been housed across the area in houses, school gyms, and in what remained available of hotel rooms (it was the area’s busy tourist season). Some families who had queued in their cars and vans along the access road had not been there just to gawk but to receive us into their homes. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

I awoke at 7am amid dim lighting and much snoring. My back ached from the stiff cot after only three hours of (broken) sleep. I slipped out from under the blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, bent over to touch my toes, stood to loosen other muscles, and then took in the unfamiliar surroundings of the massive gymnasium. From the cot I had procured near a hallway door, before me from wall-to-wall stretched the serried ranks of two hundred others curled up on cots or mattresses in various stages of sleep. A few military personnel and Canadian Red Cross workers were in the hallway, where I also saw two of the stranded carrying large white bath towels, evidently returning from the showers.

Where would I eat? How long would I be here? What would I do for clothes, underwear, a tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, a hair brush, my Norelco electric shaver? We had only been permitted to bring our carry-on bags to the Base. My contained a couple books, a yellow pad, pens, folders with the paperwork for my three-week UK itinerary, my phone book, and suchlike.

I grabbed a large white towel and asked directions to the showers. In the long hallway I heard a television blaring in the distance and remembered my wife cautioning me, when we were finally able to connect by phone, about the images I’d be seeing. “You’re going to be shocked.” I was. It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned.

What do strangers stuck in crisis do? Although the choice is a simple one, the effect differs as markedly as day from night. They can make their situation worse or they can try to improve it. Somehow we went for the latter. Later I realized, to use a Christian image, that we gave grace to onhelping hande another. It began aboard the 777 with the gestures of the pilots and crew and it spread exponentially at Shearwater. Military personnel had worked for hours to set up the cots, mattresses, and bedding. There were the hot showers, and even earplugs! We were given free roam of the huge Base and use of it televisions, recreational facilities, and movie hall. They fed us three superb meals a day from a large buffet-style restaurant. On our second day there some kind officer opened the officers’ mess to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken outside in a terraced courtyard.

Not to be outdone by the military, the Red Cross workers, teachers, and schoolchildren and their parents from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth joined forces. Throughout the night and into the morning of September 12 – in what I was sure was a combined effort to blow our minds – they had been arriving at the Base carrying many dozens of very large cardboard boxes, which were now arranged on long table in a huge lobby. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors. You name it. “Take what you need. It’s our gift to you.” This neighborly grace to strangers really got to me. I was going to write that it made life more normal. But it wasn’t that. Something else was taking place. Life in this world was enjoying a taste heaven.

Navy personnel, brought in just to open up more of the Base and help run it during our stay, gave lifts into town when they went off-duty to those stranded who wanted it. I copped a ride to WalMart to buy some tennis shoes when my feet began aching terribly from meandering around the large Base for hours a day. Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of a couple hours one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures helped keep our spirits up. I remember someone joking that “the service” here was so good that, if we were now offered a hotel room, we’d decline it and stay put.

We may have been strangers, but we were also good neighbors. Kathy _____from Salt Lake City told me: “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time described in the Book of Acts, when communal Christian living was one of “great grace” because everything was shared and so no one lacked any needed thing. And Jesus’ Good Samaritan no longer seemed a mere story to me.

On Wednesday, I remembered that I had the phone number for Leslie McCurdy, a pastor in Halifax whom I had met a year earlier in Romania. I wondered if he was in town. He was. He asked if I needed anything. Are you kidding, I said, this place is like a four star hotel. The next day we met at the Base. He brought his Norelco electric shaver. Bless you, brother.

Afterward I had to admit that there had been a givingness among us that seemed so normal that it judged the way I did “normal” life back home. The community of Halifx-Dartmouth had expressed to us strandeds something durable of the image of God in human beings: the ability to give grace to defeat the deeds even of great evil. Well, we strandeds did our small bit as well. It may have only been to run some errand or carry some message, but we helped each other as we were able. And we struck up friendships with the officers. You may think I’m lying when I add that during our days on the Base, only one of the strandeds raised a stink. He did it so often, and for what most of us considered superficial reasons, that he failed to be taken seriously.

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportI also noticed that we seemed to have entered a curious new relationship to time. I’m tempted to say that time had stopped for us, but that’s too clichéd, besides being inaccurate. Time had not stopped but had somehow been altered. Yesterday, we were busy westerners on tight schedules. Deadlines to meet. Places to be. Lives to lead. Today we had time. Humanly speaking we could thank the FAA for part of this, as the days of our departure kept getting pushed into the future – each new day we were informed that “they” (the FAA) would not be flying us out “today,” or if we would fly “tomorrow.” There was no future beyond the present. There was just today. And within that novel existential period time seemed quite remarkable.

Here’s a for-instance. When people’s paths would cross on the Base, as repeatedly they did, we had time for one another. And you never knew who you were going to run into again, or when, or where. It might be in or outside the gym, in the mess hall or at a barbeque, in a lounge or by a shower locker, or on a path to and from the barracks. Wherever and whenever it occurred, there was time to stop and say with smile,“Oh, hello, again,” and then pick up a previous conversation as if we had all the time in the world. After all, what else was there to do but to get to know each other?

In this new relationship that we had been given with time, narrative abounded, often between the unlikeliest of persons. A shy 19-year old student from Oxford kneels beside the cot of a lonely 40-year old Kenyan woman, befriending her. A 25-year-old designer from Germany gets into an animated discussion with a 60-year-old CEO from England in the lunch queue. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twentysomething from France and learns what it’s like to be an au pair. Reverend Matthews and his wife comfort young newlyweds from England whose honeymoon had been interrupted. A knot of strangers from different nations and races share their histories with one another while seated on uncomfortable gray plastic chairs in the sun outside the gym. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food, but he’s been late to the queue and can’t spot an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and invite him over. Far beyond any powers of the FAA, however, was the power of heaven, which, I later concluded, must have been the giver of the new relationship with time that I had experienced.

Full disclosure: I noticed a mental habit that was at first hostile to the new time. It revealed itself this way. I would find myself pleasantly absorbed into someone a stranger-turned-neighbor narrative when I would suddenly think I’ve got to go now. But then it would hit me. I don’t have anyplace to go, nowhere to be, I’ve got time. Here was time to get to know the other. Where are you from? Where were you headed? How are you getting on here? Need anything? No? Okay. At the very least, heaven must be like this, as much time as you want to get to know all sorts of people. “Oh, there you are again. Remember when we were talking about….”

At Shearwater, selfish interest, disappointment, and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, mutual support, and common good among the different. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we were capable of expressing. It kicked out fear and renewed our faith in the better angels of our nature. When heaven broke in, walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities and human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.

There was no more stunning awareness of the transformation than the one that occurred when the FAA finally green-lighted Flight 59 to fly to Atlanta on September 15. During our three-hour flight that Saturday morning, the dark blue curtains that separate the economy seats from business and first class were never pulled. They remained opened for the entire flight.

Twin Towers smokingThe no-longer-strandeds had boarded to their previously assigned seats, but once the Fasten Seat Belt signs were clicked off, the neighborliness that had matured on the ground between people of all classes effortlessly continued in the air. People rose and moved about the plane. Without hint of reproof regarding status or class, people from economy walked into first class and picked up conversations that had been left hanging in the hustle from the Base to the airport. I watched the suits and the blue-jeaned exchanging phone numbers. I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve never seen the ritual “pulling of the veils” suspended before. I really believe that it just never occurred to anyone to revive the old barriers.

And so there I. Having slipped from economy to first class to talk to someone, I eventually sat down by myself and stared out a porthole. It was another gorgeous morning, bright and clear. Captain Williams took us down the Atlantic Coast. Time slowed to a crawl as we flew over New York City and saw, even five days on, plumes of smoke spiraling up toward us from the huge gray crater. Ground Zero; nee: the World Trade Center. I snapped a photo and then stared until I could no longer see the ascending trails of tears. So, it really had happened.

(Shorter versions of this essay were published for the first anniversary of 9/11 in Third Way, September, 2002, and in Crosspoint, Fall 2002, 9/11.)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images in order of appearance: Getty Images. Creative Commons. N/C. CBC News. Magdalena Roeseler. Creative Commons. 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.

I’ll be brief

Have we Americans fallen into a condition in which it is now going to take catastrophic domestic events to bring us together? I don’t know. I hope not. What we can all see, however, is that the country pulled itself together to rush to rescue and aid tens of thousands who have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

I’m not talking only about government agencies but especially about the countless numbers of volunteers and groups, both those already in the region and those who came from around the country. People of all political persuasions and of all sizes, shapes, and colors are continuing to pitch in to help people of all political persuasions and all sizes, shapes, and colors. Apparently, the massive rescue and relief efforts have seemed so profound that even national news organizations that remain traumatized by the election of Donald Trump are putting out stories about “the greatness of America.”

But the succor and largesse we are witnessing in Texas and Louisiana, and that will continue, is not an exclusively American thing. It’s a human thing. It is a feature inherent in all of us as persons made in the image of God. It takes place around the world all the time, daily, and usually apart from tragedies and disasters.

Despite the bad and the ugly, the good in us is also on tap, and people everywhere listen to the better angels of their nature in acts of self-denial to serve others every day in ways large and small. We need to hear those stories all the time, whether they emerge from tragedies or from ordinary daily life.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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.