Friday, September 16, 2016

Patriotism: Symbolism vs. Substance

The recent row in professional football about saluting during the national anthem or kneeling in protest has sparked a national debate about what it means to be patriotic.  What does it mean to be a patriotic, loyal, freedom-loving American?

I submit that we are talking about the wrong things.  Our national debate is focused on a symbol.  We are ignoring substance. The slogans and memes abound, and for the most part they are meaningless.

Except for this meme, which is meaningful.

When we say "Blue Lives Matter" and "We support our law enforcement officers" is that really true?  Does saying those words constitute support, or is it just an effortless way to signal our empty patriotism to everyone around?

If you want to support police officers, how about buying a life-saving first aid kit for each officer?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to save that officer's life.  When an officer is bleeding from a beating, stab, or bullet wound, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not stop the flow of blood.

Thanks for the thousands of likes,
that made it all better.

If you want to support homeless veterans, how about picking up a hammer and building a home for a needy veteran?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to give that veteran a home.  When that paralyzed veteran can't run his wheelchair down the stairs, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not get him to the bathroom.

On a national level, "supporting the troops" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore.  It should mean funding the VA well enough that they can all access the health care and benefits they are due.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will fund the VA.  It should mean decent pay for our troops.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises.  It should mean being extremely reluctant to send our troops on missions where they will be wounded and killed.  That means we agree to pay less taxes for wars, and vote for people who will make fewer wars.

What could explain the recent upsurge in concern
for the plight of homeless veterans?

On a national level, "supporting our law enforcement" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore. It should mean decent pay for our officers.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises. It should mean funding academy training to provide more than a meager 8 hours of conflict resolution training, compared to the more than 100 hours of combat training. It should mean body cams for all officers, because in most cases body cams provide evidence that protects officers from wrongful accusation. It means we agree to pay more taxes for those ideas, and to vote for people who will enact them.

When people wave the flag, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be attention-starved.  When people salute for the anthem, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be jingoistic.  When people recite the pledge, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be conformists.

Which of these men is a patriot?
Hint: Not the one with the flag.

People are patriots when they are doing something to make the United States of America a better place for all Americans.  They are patriots when they serve, work, and sacrifice for their fellow countrymen. They are patriots when they show the best of America to the world, both in affirmation and constructive protest.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

A War to Define Islam

Islam encompasses a wide range of beliefs about how one should live and interact with the world.  It is a mistake to think that one can simply declare what Islam teaches, or what Muslims believe.  An examination of the whole spectrum of belief of those who call themselves “Muslim’ is beyond the scope of an article, or perhaps even a single book.  This article will briefly outline three major belief systems within Islam that are very relevant to the conflicts in the Middle East that are impacting the world today.

Shia Procession in Tyre

About 10-15% of Muslims worldwide identify as Shia.  They are located primarily in the region between Iran and Lebanon.  The center of Shia power is Iran, but they also are the largest religious group in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan, and close to half the population of Yemen. They have centralized structures of religious authority, and their own school (Jafari) of Islamic law. The original divide between the Shia and the Sunni majority was political, but 1300 years of division have led to some significant theological differences and religious practices. 

While extremism is not unknown among the Shia, they are not influenced by the current wave of Wahabi extremism plaguing the Muslim world. They are doing more than perhaps any other group to combat the Islamic State, since that group has declared them all apostates. My own experience living among the Shia of southern Lebanon has been very positive; they are generally a kind, tolerant, and gracious people.

Sunni Civil Observance in Sidon

About 85% of Muslims identify as Sunni, and can be found around the globe. The foremost institution of Sunni theology is Al-Azhar University in Egypt, but there is no central authority to give rulings on Islamic Law for Sunnis.  Religious rulings have no more authority than the reputation of the scholar or institution making the ruling. In some nations, there are legal codes which officially adopt or reject religious rulings and a council normally determines those codes. There are four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi, Malaki) which have their own interpretations of Islamic Law and tend to be prevalent in a different region. They differ on what rules or precedents are used to determine law.

Of particular interest is the Hanbali school, which is prevalent in the Gulf region.  This school tends to rely more on textual sources from the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, the life example of Mohammad, and well-published scholars.  Because of their reliance on fixed, immutable texts this school is the least flexible in adapting Islamic law to the modern world.  This is why Saudi Arabia still chops off heads and publicly flogs women.  It is why women cannot drive cars, or travel with permission of a male authority. My personal experience living among the Sunni of Lebanon has also been largely positive.  They are generally kind, but less tolerant than the Shia.

Who gets to define Islam?

From the Hanbali school is derived a sub-school of Islamic jurisprudence known as Wahabism.  It is historically confined to the Arabian Peninsula, but enjoys the support of perhaps 20% of the population. It is the product of an 18th century Hanbali scholar named Mohammad Abdul-Wahab. He decried the moderation of Islam found in the four prevalent Sunni schools of Islamic law, and called for a return to the early forms of Islamic thought as found in the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, and life example of Mohammad. Abdul-Wahab also argued that the early rulers of the Muslim people who had been Companions of Mohammad were also good exemplars of Muslim faith.  He formed an alliance with the house of Saud, a powerful Arabian clan, and together they conquered much of the Arabian peninsula (from the Ottomans) and established an Islamic State.  Ideologically it was much like the one being formed today in Syria and Iraq.  The Turks eventually sent Egyptian troops to crush the alliance and reclaim their lands for the Ottoman Empire.

The ideological foundations of Wahabism lay dormant in the deserts of Arabia for many decades.  In the period following World War I the discovery of oil and the colonial aspirations of Europe brought new power to the house of Saud.  As they amassed vast fortunes, the Saudi princes spent billions building Mosques around the Muslim world, and eventually in the West, where they installed Wahabi preachers to spread their belief system far and wide. It was also a convenient way to export troublesome preachers who showed increasing skepticism of the western-influenced Saudi billionaires.

It is this belief system which gave rise ideologically to Al-Qaeida, and eventually to the Islamic State.  Both groups see themselves as heirs of the banner of Mohammad, but a banner bereft of the centuries of moderation and theological scholarship.  Their Mohammad is the original tribal warlord, a conqueror unashamed to wade in the blood of his enemies.  In their online magazine “Dabiq,” the Islamic State carefully lays out a scholarly basis for their teachings and beliefs as being “authentic” Islam. 

Their Mohammad and their Islam is different than that which is taught and preached by the five schools of modern jurisprudence. The differences are so great, in fact, that the Islamic State has declared that all Muslims who do not follow their teachings and pledge allegiance to them are apostate. By declaring all other Muslims apostate (takfir), the Islamic State can then justify killing them in a war to purge Islam of the impure teachings of the modern schools.

A war that may redefine Islam

These three groups are locked in a violent regional war which is raging from Yemen to Lebanon, and spilling over into the rest of the Muslim world, and even into the West.  The Sunni-Shia divide is an ancient one, and unlikely to be settled any time soon.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for regional dominance, and using that divide as part of their struggle. The Islamic State is fighting both sides as they work to purify Islam and bring about the apocalypse which will usher in world-wide Islamic rule.

Only Sunni Muslims can eradicate the Wahabi extremism that spawned the Islamic State and is infecting Islam around the world. This is something that the US cannot change. It cannot be bombed out of existence. It must be preached out of existence, and the institutions that produce extremist preachers must be brought down. The alternative to this stifling level of control is to offer complete freedom of religion, but that concept is not to be found in any of the five modern schools of Islamic law.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why You Don't Get to Blame the Police.

It’s time to stop blaming the police for a problem that is not their fault.  It's time for the people to own the problem.

Is the problem of police involved shootings of black men real?  Yes.  Unarmed black men are killed in police involved shootings at a much higher rate than other groups.  Who is to blame for this?

We can’t blame unarmed black men for being shot. That’s the moral equivalent of blaming women for being raped.  Even if an unarmed man is not fully cooperative with the police (which he should do) that does not call for the death penalty.

If the unarmed black men are not to blame, should we blame the police?  This may come as a shock to some people, but there’s not an annual national meeting of police officers to decide how many black men they will shoot in the upcoming year. There are plenty of communities around our nation where this is not a problem.  In many cities, police are protecting and affirming the rights of Black Lives Matter and other protest groups.  In many cities the protest groups are showing respect for the police.  

In many cases, we force police officers to choose from several bad options, and then condemn them for choosing a bad option.

Let’s put the blame where it belongs -voters.  Us.  We elect the politicians who set up our city law enforcement structures and appoint leaders who determine the tone and conduct of those police.  Ferguson, Missouri is an example of this problem.  A Department of Justice investigation revealed that Ferguson generated about 20% of city revenues through a Byzantine system of traffic fines, court fees, and charges in a system rigged to prey upon the poor. In Ferguson that mostly means blacks.  At the same time Ferguson voters enjoyed some of the lowest property tax rates in the St Louis County area.  Now that the fines and fees scheme has been exposed, voters are facing unpopular tax increase proposals.

Voters ultimately determine the practices and policies of law enforcement in their cities.  There is not a better example of this than Bull Connor, the infamous former Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. This bigot led Birmingham police in some of the most brutal and repressive violations of human rights in the modern era of American law enforcement.  Beatings, shootings, and torture were all carried out in the name of preserving segregation.  Bull Connor ordered fire hoses to be used on black children.  He ordered attack dogs to be unleashed on black children.  Yet Bull Connor remained in his office, and directed Birmingham law enforcement, because voters loved his policies.  Deep down in their racist hearts, they wanted him to hurt those children, to do whatever it took to keep Birmingham “safe.”

Stop blaming the police, voters. Stop pretending that they are somehow doing this apart from the public will.  If your city is killing black men, then your city is the problem.  The problem is not police. The problem was Selma.  The problem was Birmingham.  The problem today is Baton Rogue.  The problem is Ferguson -a city that is 2/3 black but with a majority white mayor/council government paying the city expenses on the backs of poor blacks.

Vote for leaders who will respect the roles of law enforcement officers and stop using them as a source of revenue generation.  Elect people who will establish realistic guidelines for their police officers to engage the public in ways that de-escalate confrontational situations.  Start addressing the problem in your home town.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Heretics Hall of Shame III

It has been a while since I have inducted anyone into the "Heretics Hall of Shame."  It's not for lack of (un)worthy candidates (Creflo Dollar) but a lack of the required combination of sufficient moral outrage and sufficient time.  When it comes to calling for murder in the name of Jesus, though, that definitely gets an induction.

Joshua Feuerstein is a shameless heretic. The linked video provides the proof.

Do not follow this heretic and drink in his lies.

It was about people like you that Jesus said:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

You are a terrorist, and there is nothing of Jesus in your teaching.

Ted Sessoms, Heretic

"At the risk of being an outcast or considered a narrow-minded bigot,
Well, Ted, when you say stuff like "Perhaps our leaders should study the Old Testament when God gave specific instructions to destroy these people (even their women, children and animals)" that's not really a risk.  That's a guarantee that people will think you're a narrow-minded bigot.  It's not because they are uninformed about the Old Testament, it's because you are a narrow-minded bigot.

It is not a matter of loving your neighbor. My neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.

Ted, that's a much different answer than Jesus gave to the question "Who is my neighbor?"  You remember Jesus, right?  Wore sandals, died on the cross? 

"We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make good decisions for their future in America.

No, you owe it to your children and grandchildren to get your head out of politics.  You owe it to them to quit looking for Old Testament instructions to Israel to justify your fear and bigotry.  You owe it to them to teach and model obedience to Jesus Christ.  Anything less makes you what you are, a false teacher.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The truth will set you free

Truer words were never spoken than when Jesus said "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." It is important for everyone to guard the truth. As a follower of Jesus, I believe it is crucial for his followers to go the extra mile in operating in the truth.

Facebook is wasteland of lies. Somewhere out there in that wasteland is a sinister lie machine, turning out vast quantities of false memes. Why do so many of them get posted on Facebook? Intellectual laziness, partly, but also because most people don't think they need to verify the truth of something if they already think it is true.

There is no truth here, just a wasteland of lies.

We naturally believe things that agree with our views. We look for things to confirm what we believe. Confirmation bias is at the root of how Facebook works. It is designed to show you more of what you want to read.  Just as in the final days preachers will tell people "what their itching ears want to hear" now Facebook shows us what our itching eyes want to see.

So in the wasteland of lies, how do you know whether to post that awesome-looking meme?  You could do what most people do and post it without caring about the truth, or you could verify it.

Here are two good and easy methods:

1-Google Reverse Image Search.  Instead of searching for an image, you search with an image.  Click on the photo and select "search google for this image. You can see for yourself where it came from. This might require sorting through a lot of links and re-posts.

2-Consult a fact checker. and are both widely used and reputable sites. If you don't like one, then use the other.

You could also simply pull a keyword or two out and research it.

The Apostle Paul praised the Bereans because they did not just take him at his word.  They tested his words against the scriptures to see if they were true. 

Truth matters. The truth will set you free.

Below is a graveyard of false memes drawn from the wasteland of lies, along with a simple way of disproving them.

Google his name, he has a Wiki.
Nidal Hassan is actually a natural-born US citizen born in Arlington, Virginia.  This one takes ten seconds.  He is infamous, and has a Wiki.  Google his name and read the Wiki.

Google Reverse Image Search
This one has no key words, and no famous people in it.  While it might otherwise be impossible to bust this lie, Google Reverse Image Search makes this one a snap.  Liars usually steal their photos, it turns out. In this case these photos were taken years ago in Australia.

Keywords for a fact checker
This false meme has enough key words in it for an easy search on a fact checker. A quick search on with the keywords "ISIS flag Germany" reveals that the photo is from 2012, before there was an ISIS.  Black flags are common in the Muslim world, and have different messages written on them.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Are refugees an invading army of terrorists?

"This is my country now," said Abu Abdullah. "No one can say I am Iraqi. I am an American. If I need to defend my country, even to attack Iraq, I am ready to do that."

A Muslim father buries his son with honor at Arlington

On a recent visit to Nashville, Tennessee, I visited newly arrived refugees from the Middle East.  I was reminded how important it is that Americans understand this situation clearly so that our nation can respond in a way that reflects our national values. There's so much false information being hyped by merchants of fear and politicians desperate for votes.

Rest in Peace, Humayun Khan, American Hero
Najib is a recent immigrant from the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan. "I'm tired, I've been working ten hours every day, six days every week," he said. "But freedom takes work. If you want the freedom you have to go out there and work for it." He is excited that his children are in school and learning English. He's hoping to bring over many of his brothers and sisters who still live in the war-torn region.

These immigrants are hoping for their children to fit into the new culture. "We want the children to learn English," said Mohammad, who arrived from Baghdad less than a month ago. "It's the language of the world. Arabic is limited." He described the situation in his area of Baghdad as being so bad that one could not safely leave the house.

This facebook meme sums up the anti-Muslim arguments.
"I am looking for work. I am ready to work, I just need help to get my social security card." Ahmad has been in the US less than two months. He is hoping to get work and establish himself so that he can bring over his family. It is normal for the young men to come first, and brings wives, sisters, and parents later.

There are many political pundits decrying the dangers of accepting these Muslim refugees. There are supposed plots to infiltrate America and Europe with terrorist cells who will impose Sharia Law on unsuspecting westerners.

This is the question before us. Are they coming to kill us and then take over? Is this a cloaked Islamic invasion?

Myth#1 They are coming here to Islamize the West.

I spend a lot of time in the homes of Syrian refugees, talking to them about their despair and hopelessness, and also their hopes and dreams.  They hate radical Islam.  They are fleeing from it. One family that I know well fled specifically to keep their children from being radicalized in school. One father described to me his desire to live in any area that is not under the rule of Islam. Instead of flooding to the Islamic State, Muslims are fleeing it by the millions, and their rejection of the Islamic State is a major embarrassment and challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic State.

The reasons that they are fleeing to the West are not surprising.  UNHCR lists many of the major reasons, including poverty and loss of hope. My Syrian friends often express that they no longer see a future in Syria even if the war ends soon. Whole cities are laid waste.  Families are broken apart by death and division.  Many people are injured both physically and psychologically from the war.

Myth #2 The Islamic State is sending a "secret army" to infiltrate the West

Traveling to join the Islamic State is the example of Abraham
People are spreading this because they are ignorant of the beliefs and practices of the Islamic State. The Islamic State preaches "Hijrah" which is the call of all Muslims to come and live in the Islamic State. It is preached as a religious duty for men and women to move to and live in the Islamic State, just as the early Muslims all flocked to Medina to join the first Islamic State in the days of Mohammad. They devoted an entire edition of their online magazine to describing how important it is to come and live in the Islamic State.  They want the refugees more than the West wants them, but the refugees don't want to live under their oppressive rule. The Islamic State wants you to fear and reject refugees so that they will be forced to return to the domain of the Islamic State. Don't let them manipulate your fear and use you for their evil purpose.

Myth #3 The US will be overrun by chaos like Europe

Europe is not being overrun by chaos, but even if that were the case, it will not happen in the US.  When people use what is happening in Europe to predict what will happen here, they forget something very important: The Atlantic Ocean.  Europe is working to control an immigration situation that is building at their borders.  Refugees who come to the US will do so on an airplane, as part of a tightly controlled process. The Muslim population in the US is less than 1%, and taking on an additional 200,000 refugees will raise it to -still less than 1%.  Muslims are dispersed throughout the US population and have shown very little tendency to form enclaves.

These men are not imposing Judaism on anyone
Myth #4 They will establish Sharia Law

The Constitution does not allow any religious law to be imposed on people.  If Muslim immigrants want to live under Sharia court ruling, they can do what numbers of Jewish and Catholic citizens already do -voluntary arbitration.  It's not legally binding unless both parties agree for it to be so.  Are there any areas in the US where citizens are forced to live under Jewish of Catholic law? Again, most of them have no desire to live under Sharia Law anyway, and the ones who do cannot ever force it on anyone else.

Myth #5 They will stay on welfare

Muslim Americans are middle class and main stream. They are well educated, well integrated into society, and at least as affluent as the national average.  This is especially true of immigrant Muslims.  Poor Muslims are often converts from the spread of Islam among poor, black Americans in prison populations.

Myth #6 We should send them back

This is an evil idea. Sending refugees back into a war zone is wicked.  We look back now in horror at the stories of Jewish refugees who were turned away.  We recoil at the idea that ships had to return Jews to their deaths because no one wanted them, or trusted them.  The voices of fear and bigotry caused our nation, and others, to commit an evil act.  We must not listen to those voices again.  We must rebuke them.  For the people fleeing the Islamic State, ad the butchery of the Assad regime, this is life and death.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Veterans vs. Refugees: A False Dichotomy

In the debate over whether the US should welcome Syrian refugees, a meme has emerged on Facebook pitting veterans against refugees.  The argument made is some version of "We should take care of our veterans before taking care of refugees." While that statement taken as written may be true, it presents a false dichotomy.

Do we really have to choose between them?
What is a false dichotomy?  It is when someone tries to convince you that there are only two choices, when there are actually more than two.  It is a false ethical dilemma. People who post memes like the one above may not know that they are creating a false ethical argument, and hopefully this post can help them see that.  Plus, I've replied to it so often that I am tired of typing it out every time.  Now I can just link this blog post.  So can you!

First, I am a veteran, and the son of a veteran. My wife and I are both from families with traditions of military service.  If anyone calls me anti-veteran for this post, I will call that person an idiot. Publicly. I am very pro-veteran and it annoys me to see veterans exploited as a tool of argument by people who are anti-refugee or anti-immigrant.  People who exploit veterans in that way are the ones being anti-veteran.

What are our other, and hopefully better choices?  I'm glad you asked. There are plenty, but I especially like this one:

How about we start here?

The US gives out corporate welfare to the tune of  $100 billion a year. Some estimates are much higher, depending on what is considered welfare.  These figures should outrage conservatives. How can we claim free enterprise when the government is feeding corporations?  That's not the free market.  I have many friends who are small business owners and the government is not lining up to subsidize their luxury jet, or even just their fishing boat.

I will use this conservative estimate because there might be some cases where building a road to a plant is a good idea.  In fact, just to be safe, let's cut it down to half and just eliminate 50 billion in corporate welfare.  What can we do with 50 billion?

Current expenditures on veterans=@ $27 billion
We could take just 27 billion dollars of that and double our expenditures on veterans.  That's right! If we eliminated subsidies for luxury corporate jets, we could help homeless veterans find somewhere to live. Instead of handouts to Royal Dutch Shell Corporation, we could provide better medical care for wounded or disabled veterans.  Instead of a $13 Billion subsidy for Boeing we could provide a higher pension for our retired service members.

So let's take just half of the $100 billion in corporate welfare (leaving half of the welfare for the super-rich) and spend $27 billion to double our payouts for veterans.  Double!  That thought ought to make every patriotic American stand up and salute while eating apple pie.

Why aren't we already doing this?  Why has there not been an outcry that homeless veterans should come before corporations and billionaires?

Because this meme is not at all about veterans.  It just uses veterans.  It exploits them to play on patriotism to pit them against refugees.

There's plenty of money to do whatever we need for our veterans, and to help refugees in need.  Are we will to take our corporations and billionaires off of the government dole?  If not, why do you favor giving money to rich corporations instead of helping our veterans and refugees?