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.

Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time

child reading a BibleThe title of this post refers to a sermon I preached last December to the hospitable Evangelical congregation, but I was nervous in the pulpit because I knew it would not be the kind of Evangelical preaching that most Evangelicals would be accustomed to hearing on a Sunday morning. I would not be talking theology. Instead, I had felt compelled to share some biblical insights and personal experiences to indicate ways in which good citizens of all faiths, or no faith at all, have a responsibility to work toward ending “the logic of violence” in this country and replacing it with the peaceable wisdom of God.

As I say, I was nervous and misspoke a few times as a result, such as when I used the word “church” but meant “mosque,” though the congregation understood what was meant. I was also nervous because I was, in part, going to contrast the effect that two different kinds of preached messages can have on a crowd toward stirring up or defusing adversarial relations. The one message was from a Christian, the other from a Muslim. I wasn’t sure how this congregation would take to an illustration in which it was the Muslim who got the gold star. So it was a great relief when, right after my talk the pastor of the church took the mic and affirmed the message to his congregation.

This is the first time we’ve put a talk (by anyone) on this blog. It may be the only time! So this is something of an experiment. We don’t know if it will fly. We’ll leave that up to you.

I should also say that because I’m no great shakes as a preacher, I hemmed and hawed about whether to put this talk on the blog. The tipping point came in recent weeks, as I and countless others have with great sadness watched the already heated social and political climate of this country being kindled with inflammatory rhetoric that has now burst forth into physical violence at Trump rallies. My talk is not on that subject, but I think its message is directly related. If it helps even a few listeners just in that regard, it will have been a successful experiment.

To listen to the talk “Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time,” just click the little arrow and you’re away.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samantha Sophia, courtesy Unsplash

WHY DIPLOMACY?

Vietnam memorial wallTwo years ago a national poll conducted jointly by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Annenberg showed that 71 percent of Americans believed that the Iraq war was “not worth it.” That was up from 58 percent a year earlier, in an ABC News and Washington Post poll. Today, if the Republican presidential candidates are any indication, even the GOP, including establishment figure Jeb Bush, believe that invading Iraq was a mistake. Why do so many Americans regret that war, and what can be learned from that regret?

I see at least two reasons why an overwhelming number regret the war. One is the large number of Americans who have learned wisdom from the history of the past 13 years. They see the unrestrained blowback that began with the insurgency in 2003-2004 and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. They see that the ISIS horror show emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq and the historic humanitarian crisis that is a result. They see the unprecedented, multi-aspected costs, and much more besides. This group sees the bad fruit and now regrets the war.

But they still need the “why” answered. Why has so much gone so wrong? Well, that depends whom you’re asking. Generals? Foreign policy analysts? Presidential candidates? Economists? Journalists? Other experts? Each will propose good and sufficient reasons that must be included for a credible picture of what went wrong. But if this group must also ask “just war” theorists, those ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders who deal with the moral problem of war. In its most sophisticated Western development, just war theory is found in the writings of the theologian Thomas Aquinas.

This bring us to the second reason, the large number of Americans who did not first need to see recent history. In 2002 and early 2003, many and diverse ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders, their constituencies behind them, presciently argued that the George W. Bush administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq did not meet the requirements of just war, therefore it was immoral and unjust. Therefore, it was implied, the United States could expect all sorts of unpredictable things to go wrong in the Middle East if the war was launched. Unfortunately, little was made of this in the media at the time, despite the fact that so many Christian denominations and other religious bodies were stating it formally in letters to the Bush administration, including denominations to which the President, Dick Cheney, Carl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld belonged. An article by the theologian and political writer James W. Skillen, “Evaluating America’s Engagement in Iraq with Just-War Criteria,” shows very clearly why the U.S-led war about Iraq did not square with the five main principles of just war theory.

This big picture answers the question “why diplomacy?” This is the pressing political question of our time. Since President Obama took office in 2009, a very vocal, influential segment of American political commentators has been habitually critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. By and large, this is the same pack of pundits who supported launching the war about Iraq, and whose latent militarism today can be heard by anyone with ears to hear what their policy rhetoric about the Middle East implies.

Why diplomacy? Look at just the past two years, as Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, reminded Charlie Rose in a recent intervieKerry & Zarif shake handsw. It was American diplomatic leadership that mobilized the world to fight ebola, that brought 66 countries together to fight ISIS, that led negotiations to the nuclear agreement with Iran, that brought Cuba in from the cold, and that led to the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Afghanistan. Of course none of this, Blinken added, “has happened as well as it should [or] as effectively as it should.” But, “You take the United States out of any of these pictures [and] it doesn’t happen. We are the single country that has the ability to mobilize and move others more than any other country.”

Why diplomacy? Diplomacy will not bring heaven on earth. Far from it. But diplomacy seeks solutions even to the most intractable international problems through means other than war. One of its indispensable purposes – dare I add, a purpose under God – is to prevent types of hell on earth such as the ISIS movement from materializing. Surely promoting the art of diplomacy is wiser than regretting the annals of war.

This editorial was first published in The Mountain Press, Sunday February 21, 2016.  Charles Strohmer writes frequently on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy 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 this blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

Mutuality: Recovering a Jewel for U.S. – Middle East Relations

PeacemakingIn January on this blog, beginning here, were four articles that detailed the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming the secular / religious chasm of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a follow-up article, we looked at many behind-the-scenes initiatives by the U.S. State Department and many NGOs that focus on overcoming this problem. Today, I want to close off this informal series by calling attention to vital role that the wisdom tradition is playing in these initiatives.

It’s quite a dilemma, the political tug of war between secularism and religion in U.S. – Mideast relations. After all, what fellowship does religious disbelief in God (in political decisions) have to do with religious belief in God (in political decisions)? I hold the view that trying to wrest one side into the other’s camp as the means of resolution is a futile exercise at best and at worst moves the two worlds closer to a clash of civilizations, for their core beliefs conflict.

So what is the alternative? As we saw in this article, both the U.S. State Department and many NGOs and foreign policy think tanks have found a worthy and respected alternative, by bringing the secularly oriented and the religiously oriented around the table to work together on their common ground interests toward common good.

It is just here the historic wisdom tradition, especially its norm of mutuality, comes front and center into the picture. Lady Wisdom, as she is known in the book of Proverbs, cries to be heard at the rough intersection of both worlds, the religious and the secular. And she cries there not of conflict and war but of the possibilities for cooperation. She stands alongside that intersection as a focal point that offers for both worlds a way to follow her lead into a new narrative together.

What is that new narrative? The wisdom norm of mutuality offers considerable potential for building and sustaining cooperative arrangements among peoples who are different, even as different as fundamentally different as religious and secular political outlooks. How is this possible?

The wisdom norm of mutuality stresses a fact of life that we often taken far too much for granted: the interests and concerns of daily life that are held in common by all peoples everywhere, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, or whether we consider ourselves secular or religious. To use a Christian expression, the wisdom norm of mutuality concentrates more on who people are, not on what by the grace of God they may become.

If this seems an alien notion to us today, it is partly attributable to an age, our age, in which rigid ideological divisiveness has divided us and conditioned us to accept sectarian solutions to relational problems as normative. This sectarian dynamic has especially pitted secularly oriented worlds and religiously oriented worlds against each other.

Since time immemorial, every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held the same basic interests, shared the common bond of what it means to be human. We all want to be able to provide for our families, to see our children raised properly and safely, to see our social environments improve, to find ways to ease the suffering of others, to increase possibilities for well-being in the world, to live peaceably with neighbors.

People everywhere have fundamental desires for such outcomes regardless of their core beliefs (provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). Believers and atheists alike are, for example, moved at the sight of starving children or families left homeless by a tragedy, and both will want to do what they can to alleviate the suffering. In fact, this is precisely where many religious groups, in particular, throughout history have excelled, in caring for people as they are, wherever they are, regardless of their beliefs.

wisdom traditionAs I understand it, the wisdom norm of mutuality does not require people to give up their core beliefs before they can start to build more cooperative and sustainable arrangements with each other (again, provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). The wisdom norm of mutuality does not require a religious or a secular party to ditch its core beliefs before cooperation between them becomes doable. What Lady wisdom does require of them is to turn their eyes to their shared human interests and concerns as human beings made in the image of God.

Our post-9/11 changed world has presented Washington and the capitals of the Middle East with landscapes of international sharp curves, turning points, and cul de sacs that diplomats, foreign ministers, policy analysts, and NGOs are trying to negotiate without misfortune. Here, wisdom is being brought in from the margins and applied with slow but increasing success. When this approach gets circulating more normatively in the DNA of U.S. – Mideast relations, a secularly organized system of international politics and a religiously oriented one will have a responsibly moral way for searching out peaceable ways ahead with each other.

However imperfectly this would be realized where these two worlds meet, it would nevertheless place vital international relationships on more cooperative footing – for the good of our publics and for a more hopeful future down the generations than current seems likely.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

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

Pope Francis and Political Vision

Pope Francis speaking to CongressSo, Pope Francis has come and gone from America and his visit left me with a question. Why did our politicians want to be seen hobnobbing with the pontiff? The cynic in me says they only wanted to bask in his reflected glory. After all, Celebrity draws a crowd, and the pope’s celebrity shines brightly these days.

Which of us wouldn’t want to show off a selfie with the pope to our friends? I imagine the temptation being even stronger among our elected officials, many of whom can now boast to their constituencies about their selfies with the pope.

Not saying anything’s wrong with a selfie. Just asking myself why. Why the warm handshakes with Pope Francis on the steps of St. Partick’s Cathedral offered by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio? And what was all that schmoozing about? And earlier the same day, why were our representatives in Congress reaching out to touch Someone as he entered that historic political arena and ambled to the podium to speak, where for more than an hour he was flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner?

That all four of these politicians are Roman Catholic, although DeBlasio admits to being non-practicing, is beside the point. Behind my question is the hope that our politicians have taken to heart the moral challenges Pope Francis has gently preached on our shores. I hope they took the challenges personally, as individuals, and politically, as values and truths to influence policies and law-making. I hope that is what they were saying to the pope during all their schmoozing with him during his visit.

Yet here’s where I need to beat back the cynic. Pope Francis’s moral challenges were so softly put, but with conviction, that I wonder if anyone even heard him, as used as we are to our nation’s constant polemical clamor.

Central to Pope Francis’s message to us, not to mention his personal witness, was his  pastoral challenge that we build together on common ground. This pope is a Jesuit, but no matter what you think about the Jesuit principle of tolerance, taking up this challenge is key for mending the divided America of our time. This pope gets that.

Congress schmoozong Pope FrancisSpeaking directly to the 535 member of Congress, Pope Francis explained that “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good . . . is the chief aim of all politics.” A political society endures when it seeks “to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”

Mind you, this is not about some wimpish togetherness, nor does it mean loss of individuality amid a sea of collectivism via a dictated uniformity. Working together on common ground for common good entails being responsible citizen-stewards of a human mutuality derived from being made as individuals in the image of God. It is a vision that avoids the obstructionism of rigid ideological interests and instead aids and abets a unity in our diversity. Admitting difference, it respectfully pulls together for mutual good. This pope gets that.

Is this too much vision to ask of our politicians? To quote Ringo, you know it don’t come easy. To quote the pope, “Politics” is an expression of “our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”

That is what I hope our politicians had ears to hear. America will not get better if our elected officials stay on their current course of bitter polemics and obstructionist politics.

But let’s not point the finger. America cannot get better only from the top down. America also needs change for the better from the bottom up, with me and with you, in how we treat each other in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. That will then spread into our state capitals and across the land to Washington. Without that vision, all we will have left is our selfies. This pope gets that, too.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

This editorial was first published in The Mountain Press, Sunday Oct. 11, 2015.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

Top image from CNN. Lower image from USA Today.

 

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

Life Spun Out of Control

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]It’s invigorating, at least it is to me, when different things unexpectedly hit you inspirationally in a short space of time. But it can also be sobering. Recently Chris Seiple tweeted that Oskar Schindler spent all his money saving people of a faith not his own. Are we still capable, Chris mused, of such sacrificial love?

As I was challenging myself with that, aware that Chris was alluding to the severe need faced by countless refugee families in the Middle East, I happened to read a clever take on a summer blockbuster film, Fantastic Four. Written for Sojourners by Lindsay Kuntz, the article turns on the question of leadership. Here is my takeaway: we Americans can end our wistful hunger for Fantastic Four leadership against evil by becoming leaders fighting evil ourselves.

“Many American Christians say they are hungry for leadership,” Lindsay writes, “but what are we actually doing beyond indulging in fictional stories of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and The Thing battling evil, or the barely less fictional ‘leadership’ on display in contemporary politics?

“We need to do more than complain from the comfort of our air-conditioned family rooms. The stakes could hardly be higher for Christians and other religious minorities in the greater Middle East – they are at risk of extinction or permanent exile. The international community has essentially given up, as it has little funding and even less vision and resolve. Hence there is a vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled. We need to identify practical ways of bringing people and resources together to combat evil – indeed to transform it with good. For American Christians one of the best places to start is with proactive engagement of the refugee crisis.”

refugee men and boys shelteed in a community centerI also happened to read Carmen Andres, who was blogging about news stories in the Telegraph and the Guardian, which reported on how 10,000 Icelanders responded to a Facebook campaign by author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir to urge the government to take in more Syrian refugees. “The striking aspect of this story,” Carmen wrote, “is not only the number of Icelanders expressing their support but that they are also volunteering to personally help the refugees by donating services, time, clothes, money, furniture, children’s toys and even their homes.

“It makes me wonder what it might look like if churches, communities and cities around the U.S. started to talk about pooling our resources and offering to support groups of refugees in our own country. Perhaps some members could offer one of their rental homes for free for a year. Maybe others could offer jobs. Doctor offices could offer a list of pro-bono services. Churches and mosques could offer furniture, clothing and food. Teachers could offer language training. Local social agencies and organizations could link together and coordinate to provide services. The possibilities of ways we could come together to embrace refugees into our communities is endless.”

Chris, Lindsay, and Carmen are all friends of mine, but that’s not why I’m blogging about them here. They are engaged in remarkably worthy initiatives that bring urgent aid and relief to the increasing number of families in the Middle East who have fled from the murderous paths of ISIS and the vicious war in Syria. Their heartfelt cries, challenging to many of us, came together in my mind the other day.

They reminded me of just how crucial and vital “outside intervention” is toward people whose lives are suddenly out of control; people whose lives, even when they begin to get back under control, are best described as “life on hold.” There’s little, if anything, they can do end the chaos or get life moving again. As another friend aptly put it: “There is a sense of being frozen in time.” You’re wishing, praying, someone would intervene to make it all go away, or at least make marking time a little easier for you and your family.

3 refugee boys in Lebanon [Carmen Andres] It is difficult for many people to image what life is like for these families. But if your own life has ever suddenly spun out of control (I mean really out of control), or if it has ever shuddered trembling to a halt and got stuck on hold (you didn’t know for how long), then you may have a share in what it is like for these Middle East families (numbering in the millions), who wish for, long for, pray for intervention. And when that leadership arrives, no words can express one’s gratitude. Chris and Lindsay serve the Cradle of Christianity Fund, which I have previously blogged about. Carmen has been engaged in advocacy work for many years and raises awareness for Heart for Lebanon. Both are remarkable initiatives. Exercise some leadership. The Fantastic Four are never going to arrive. The possibilities for reaching out to the families is increasingly clear, limited only by the imagination of individuals, churches, and communities.

To find out more about the Cradle Fund, go here. To support it, go here. To read some short but informative articles of mine about the CF, go here. To read about the Cradle Fund’s three-fold strategy (rescue, restore, return), see this article in CT by Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement:

To find out more about Heart for Lebanon or support it, go here. To read Carmen’s moving blog posts, see For Such a Time Is Now.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image, Klaus Reisinger, via Creative Commons. Middle Image, courtesy of the Institute for Global Engagement. Bottom image, courtesy of Carmen Andres.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

Wisdom for the Unborn

mother and babyA new law in the state of Tennessee now requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait 48 hours after receiving in-person counseling from a doctor before she can return for the procedure. With that new law, Tennessee joins more than two dozen states that require similar waiting periods, ranging from 24-72 hours. Only 28 percent of Tennesseans opposed this new law, and with more than half the country now onboard, momentum is building in several other states for similar legislation. Public pushback to these waiting periods is usually framed around “this is another encroachment on a woman’s right to abortion.”

This got me thinking about the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit murder,” in the context of abortion legislation, and I’d like to share a thought about this.

Many Evangelical and Catholic Christians rely on the Sixth Commandment as the moral base supporting their pro-life activities to protect the unborn. For these believers themselves, the connection is straightforward. Since they believe in the authority of Scripture, there is no unreasonableness to the connection. Vexed questions arise, however, when Evangelicals and Catholics take this connection out of their own circles and into the public square to argue for the protection of the unborn.

It is the age-old problem of how do Christian address issues in America, a society in which a large percentage of the population does not believe in the authority of the Bible. But they want the best for their society, and they want to find ways of convincing society about how it can be run for everyone’s best interests. So the questions is, how should they engage convincingly in legislative processes alongside people who support abortion?

Many Christians have recognized the weakness of trying to impose the Sixth Commandment on the conscience of abortion supporters as a means of protecting the unborn. So they have appealed to other arguments. But weaknesses exist there too. One of those is the appeal to the “sacredness of human life.”

Although it is not heard much these days, the appeal to the sacredness, or sanctity, of human life stems from the biblical truth about human beings as having been made in the image of God, and this gives the Sixth Commandment its reasonableness. In other words, and in the context of the present discussion, to be a human being means to have an eternal dimension in which only God may correct our failures (when and how God sees fit). So don’t take the law into your own hands and commit murder.

diplomacyAnd yet when it comes to our earthly life, there is another biblical truth. Apparently, our earthly life is only “sacred” insofar as God endorses it. So when God says a murderer should be put to death, God seems to regard the murderer’s earthly life as no longer inviolable, or sacred. Or, to put it in terms most familiar today, the person (the murderer) no longer has a right to life. It is not an individual, however, but a court of law that makes that decision, which the state then may execute, and if it does, it is not considered murder but justice.

Now this is where the appeal in public to the sanctity of human life gets complicated, and often weakened as a result. The “sanctity of life” argument in the abortion debate hasn’t gotten much traction with abortion supporters because it means talking about the murder of a baby in the womb to people, lobbies, and legislators who do not believe that’s a baby in the womb. So then you’ve got to try to overcome that obstacle. To try to do that, Christians have found themselves stuck into arguments with ethicists, philosophers, and scientists involving an elaborate casuistry about “when the fetus becomes a person,” or sufficiently human to have a “right to life.”

Must the fetus be treated as a person as early as conception, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, and as many believe? Or does personhood occur at some later stage in the womb, or even outside the womb? Long story short, there has been no agreement on this among ethicists, scientists, legislators, theologians, or philosophers, never mind among abortion activists. Nevertheless, personhood in the womb has been a key implication in drafting many abortion laws around the world.

A wiser way of arguing the case against abortion, and a biblical way at that, would, I think, be an argument from duty. This fundamentally different approach may help us to make a coherent, well-reasoned, and believable case that others can follow. The arguement, for instance, about when a fetus becomes a person has often been debated in categories of “the rights of the fetus” against “the mother’s right to choose.” The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is not the way the Bible thinks about ethics. The primary concern in the Bible is duties, not rights. Duties toward things. And rights, in so far as they are spoken of at all in Scripture (there is no special word for them), are defined by duties.

The problem with the appeal to “rights” as a core for ethical treatment of the unborn is that it makes duty a self-centered affair. So the mother’s right to choose trumps the unborn’s right to life. In fact, if the fetus isn’t a person, then the issue is moot. And when has anyone ever heard of the father of the unborn getting his say in this? But the appeal to duty, which is biblical, opens up a fundamentally new approach to the abortion debate. For one thing, it takes the pressure off relying on the “sanctity of life” argument or on having to know when a fetus becomes a “person with an inalienable right to life.” This is significant because even if we cannot know when or if the fetus becomes a person, we know that we have a duty to the fetus, whatever it is at whatever stage of its development.

And there is this benefit. If someday the ground were shot out from under the “rights” argument – if it were someday shown by biologists that the fetus was not a person (thus not having a right in terms of the Constitution) – it would not mean that we therefore could disrespect the fetus. We still could not do with it as we liked, for we would still have a duty to it, whether it is a person or not.

helping handYou see, if it isn’t a person, then we can’t argue rights. And if it is a person, we’re currently stalled by an elaborate casuistry surrounding when the fetus becomes a person. But if we start talking about duties, then the question becomes: What is the mother’s duty to the fetus? What is the father’s duty to it? What is the doctor’s duty, the community’s duty, the government’s duty? My duty? Your duty? This biblical principle can be highlighted by taking the whole business back a step; that is, every young man before he is married has a duty even regarding his sperm.

Placing stress on “duty” would give us a solid way to argue for the baby’s birth in a mixed, a pluralist, society like ours. And it would not need to bang people over the head with: “This is in the Bible,” or some such thing. Duties, or call them responsibilities, are moral obligations that everyone understands need to be fulfilled if their lives are not going to end up in disaster. No one needs the Bible to tell them that. So they can’t blow off the argument from duty, as they do overt arguments from the Bible, such as when the Sixth Commandment is brought into the debate. (They may not like being challenged by a case based on duty, but that is a different story.)

Whether a fetus is a person or not, the duty we have to it can save the life of the unborn. This may not completely by-pass questions about rights and personhood, but at least it means that we can take an ethical argument about protection for the unborn to a point where rational people will listen and cannot just disengage themselves at the get-go.

If our moral and ethical thinking works the way the Bible’s does, it never lets us off the hook in the abortion debate just because we cannot say for certain when the fetus is a person or because the mother can say “I’ve a right to an abortion.” We’re never in a place where we can say, “I can’t do anything about it.” All of us have duties to the unborn. Legislation headed in this direction would liberate the love of those already born to protect the life of those as yet unborn.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Parts of this article were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing Word, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 8 “Weaknesses in the Evangelical Attitude to Social Problems.”

Bottom image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.