The beauty and the beast

I took a walk at lunch today, and the weather was gorgeous. The cooler air is more appreciated after all the days of triple digit temperatures here in Texas.

While walking back from Baylor Medical Center, where I bought my lunch, the quiet beauty was interrupted by sirens. I suspected it announced the arrival of an ambulance at the hospital, but it seemed to be different. I immediately thought of the 9/11 terrorist attacks almost 10 years ago. I actually wondered if a new attack my be happening.

The sirens continued. I kept walking. Nothing seemed to be happening.

I suspect all of us have been changed by 9/11 when even a siren causes one to wonder.


Back to school … for me

It’s been about 15 years since I sat in a classroom as a student, but this past week I returned. I’m now a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at Logsdon Theological Seminary in Abilene, Texas, and it was a great initial experience.

When I began work on my doctorate back in the ’90s, my kids were younger and I tried to do it under the family radar. Generally, I did not begin work on the my readings or writings until the kids and usually my wife were in bed. This time, three of my kids are grown and two of them are close to being grown, and they have been so supportive, expressing gladness that I’m doing this. They know how important learning, growing and ministering are to me, and their encouragement is simply one of the greatest blessings in this venture.

Assuming I will graduate in three years, I’ll be 58 years old. My dad had retired at age 57, but in today’s world that is just not realistic. Of course, Dad has continued “working” and still works hard at age 84 as a rancher. At whatever age we begin to draw retirement income, there is a very real sense in which true retirement only comes with incapacity or death. So while I’ll graduate at an age at which I could retire, I have no intention of retiring. I just now feel like I’m getting rolling.

And to my family and all those who have encouraged me in this, I say a great big, “Thank you. You are part of my life, and my life would be immeasurably less without each of you.”

Trade, the great deterrent to war

Those who hate war should always be looking for ways to prevent it. Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, points to one supreme way. “Trade,” he says, ” is the great equalizer among people and nations; it does more than perhaps any other activity to prevent war.” (p.317)

This seems intuitively true. Just look at the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. If it was for the great oil trade, the U.S. most assuredly would have squashed the Saudi royal family by now because of its anti-western activities through the decades. But our need for oil keeps us from the battlefield there.

Of course, trade can also lead to war — look at Iraq. If not for oil, we almost certainly would not have invaded Iraq. Thinking back to World War II, it’s my understanding that the U.S. was a thorn in the side of Japan’s oil trade, and that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

So, is Kaplan right? I think it would be better said that good trade relations can mitigate against disagreements festering into war. Bad trade relations can actually make it more likely.

Kaplan’s book, of course, looks at one geographic region and the importance of trade. If the point I just made about the connection of good and bad trade relations to war is correct, then it’s important to understand this region as we move forward. The world doesn’t need a war between the U.S. and China and any other powerful nations, but bad trading relations can lead in that direction. Kaplan helps us in that understanding.

“The vicissitudes of extremism notwithstanding, a replica of the pre-Portuguese Muslim-Hindu trading cosmopolis is now being rebuilt, buttressed by Chinese investment.” (p.322)

“Indeed, the challenge to America, ultimately, is less the rise of China than communicating at a basic level with this emerging global civilization of Africans and Asians. As for China, I’ve already indicated that it is rising militarily in a responsible manner. It will have its own problems in expanding its maritime influence into the Indian Ocean. And in any case China is not necessarily America’s adversary. But unless America makes its peace with these billions symbolized by the Greater Indian Ocean map, many of whom are Muslim, American power will not be seen as wholly legitimate. And legitimacy, remember, is a primary feature of power in the first place. In an earlier chapter I said that strong American-Chinese bilateral relations going forward are not only plausible but might be the best-case scenario for the global system in the twenty-first century, allowing for true world governance to take shape. But that is true only so far as the bilateral world of nation-states is concerned. As the former third world forges a new kind of unity, driven by mass media like Al Jazeera that abets an underlying cultural synthesis, the Afro-Asian multitudes will increasingly be in a pivotal position to bestow prestige or condemnation on America, China, and other powerful states, depending upon the merits of each particular crisis. They, in addition to being participants, are the supreme audience for power politics in the twenty-first century.”

In America, we need to grasp the truth of Kaplan’s statement, “China is not necessarily America’s adversary.” China has, in many cases, different values from the West, but this giant of nations is changing, becoming more western economically and in other ways. For one thing, seeing China only as a potential adversary may blind us to some of the other issues Kaplan talked about in that last paragraph. And we need to remember, American debt and consumer buying are what have made China strong.

More from Kaplan:

“Great-power politics will go on as they always have, with the American and Chinese navies quietly competing and jockeying for position in the First Island Chain, and India and China competing for sea routes and influence. But these activities will be framed more and more by a global civilization, the product of a new bourgeoisie that in and of itself constitutes a moral force with which to be reckoned.

“Hundreds of millions of Muslims and others, quietly elevated into the middle classes, are seeking to live peaceful, productive lives, even as they confer legitimacy on the great power or powers whose actions help them in what my Persian friend and the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah both say man is ultimately on earth to do–’to trade.’ Trade is what Zheng He did, and while the Chinese navy celebrates his Indian Ocean exploits, America, too, could learn much from this Ming Dynasty explorer, who saw military activity as an expression not only of hard but of soft power as well: to help protect the global commons and a trading system for the benefit of all. Only by seeking at every opportunity to identify its struggles with those of the larger Indian Ocean world can American power finally be preserved.” (pp.322-323)

Looking to the Indian Ocean

My view of the world has centered upon the West — Europe joined to North America by the Atlantic Ocean. World War II and the importance of Japan and China brought the Pacific Ocean more into the American consciousness. Make room now for the Indian Ocean.

Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, opens our eyes to a part of the world that has long been important in world affairs but rather unfamiliar to many in North America. Kaplan writes the following:

“The map of Europe defined the twentieth century. … “It is my contention that the Greater Indian Ocean … may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.” (p.xi)

“Recently, messy land wars have obscured for us the importance of seas and coastlines, across which most trade is conducted and along which most of humanity lives, and where, consequently, future military and economic activity is likely to take place as in the past.” (p.xii)

The key word in those quotes is “trade.” The Indian Ocean is the scene of a massive exchange of goods between nations and civilizations. The ocean that stretches from East Africa to the islands of Southeast Asia has a long history of trade, then five hundred years ago the West came in the guise of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English traders and navies.

“[Vasco] Da Gama’s arrival in India initiated the rise of the West in Asia. … [I]t is possible that the five-hundred-year chapter of Western preponderance is slowly beginning to close.” (p.xii)

While trade is what ties the region together, religion plays a big part, as well. But while Islam is the dominant faith, it shares space with Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Islam of Southeast Asia is different from that in the Middle East.

“The Indian Ocean region is more than just a stimulating geography. It is an idea because it provides an insightful visual impression of Islam, and combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the importance of world navies, in order to show us a multi-layered, multi-polar world above and beyond the headlines. …” (p.xiii)

There is a familiar expression associated with the pioneering times in American history–“Go west, young man.” Now, we probably should say, “Look east, young men and women.”

Of war and beauty and nationalism

Rabindranath Tagore

People from other cultures sometimes help us see the world more clearly, or at least differently. Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, shares some of the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.

“Herein is the essential Tagore,” Kaplan writes. “War may be necessary but it is so pitiful that no monuments should be built to it. War, military glory, and the like are worse than wrong; they are, like nationalism, ‘unaesthetic.’ Beauty, that is to say, is moral and universal. And anything that is not moral and universal cannot be beautiful.”

Now that’s not normally how we talk about war in America–speaking of it in contrast to beauty. Here we tend to say war is a terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs but at times it is the right thing to do. And when one is fought for American interests then we honor the soldiers who are willing, if not always required, to offer up their lives in the cause. And we surely erect momuments to remember wars and the sacrifices made.

I’m not sure I agree with or disagree with Tagore. The beauty connection is just strange to my western way of thinking. I will say that I think we Americans too often take the position of “America right or wrong.” I’m not prepared to shelve my judgment at the altar of politicians in Washington. I definitely believe the war in Iraq was an unjust war in traditional Christian terms; as a result, I believe America was wrong to fight it. While saying that, I do commend and honor the soldiers who carried out their responsibility and served our nation. They did a noble and honorable thing in doing their duty.

Here are more of Kaplan’s words about the poet:

“Tagore was truly a visionary in the sense that his lifetime (1861-1941) corresponded with the age of nationalism, even as he went beyond it and saw a larger solidarity group above the state, that of humanity. He was not opposed to nationalism or patriotism, only to nationalism or patriotism as the highest good.”

Well said, if I may be so bold as to pass judgment on a Nobel laureate. Of course, it moves us to the important question: What is the highest good? Jesus said it is to love God and love others, and I’m confident he meant for us to love the people beyond our national borders, even those we adamently disagree with or who threaten us.

More from Kaplan:

“Tagore was the ultimate syncretist, a constant blender of cultures and peoples in his work and thoughts. There is no beautiful Bengali landscape in his view, only the glorious ‘Earth.’ As such, he was an inveterate traveler and pilgrim. …

“… There were no borders in Tagore’s worldview, only transition zones. …

“Nevertheless, Tagore was not a globalist, if that means giving up one’s national or ethnic identity. He grasped intuitively that to appreciate other cultures one had to be strongly rooted in one’s own. He understood that the ‘universal’ could be implanted only in many rich and vibrant localisms.”

I love that. It’s an elegant way of saying what I sometimes think when I see a “God Bless America” bumper sticker. I do share that prayer; I pray for God to bless America. But I also pray for God to bless all the peoples of the world. I’ve met too many of them not to love them and want God’s blessings for them, as well.

So here’s a tip of the hat to someone long dead of whom I had never heard before reading Kaplan’s book. Thank you, Rabindranath Tagore.

(Note all quotes above are from pp. 188-189 in Kaplan’s book.)

World Baptists come out for peace

The Baptist World Alliance is encouraging its member conventions and unions, churches and Baptist individuals to learn the “ten practices of ‘just peacemaking'” and “to incorporate them … in our congregations and institutions.”

It seems strange that Christians today often ignore the importance of pursuing peace. I’m thankful the largest and most important world Baptist body is seeking to change that situation. You can see details on the 10 practices of just peacemaking on the initiative’s website.

Here’s some of the news release from BWA:

“In a resolution passed during its Annual Gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 4-9, the BWA also urged governments to pursue the ten practices ‘in their leadership, policies and actions.’

“The ‘just peacemaking’ formula was developed by scholars led by Glen Stassen, a Baptist and professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. The peace plan includes support for nonviolent action; cooperative conflict resolution; the promotion of human rights, religious liberty and democracy; economic development that is just and sustainable; a reduction in offensive weapons and weapons trade; the support of grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations; and the strengthening of the United Nations and other international organizations.

“The BWA recalled Jesus’ cry over Jerusalem in Luke 19:42, when he bewailed ignorance of ‘those things that make for peace.’ We, the BWA said, “envision Jesus weeping over many cities and nations of our world because we do not know those things that make for peace.”

A strange reaction

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and you cannot seek to convert a Muslim to Christianity. Also, tipping is not generally practiced. So, today, I left a tip for the hotel maid and left my Bible laying on a table. There are subtle ways to share one’s faith.

I have found myself having a strange reaction to the religious situation here. As I see Muslims on the street and in the hotel, I find myself feeling sorry for them. I have never  felt that way before about Muslims. I surely respect their faith, though I do not agree with them. I felt sorry for them because they live in a society that feels it has protect itself from other beliefs.

That is contrary to how I approach Christian. I read widely, including stuff that is not Christian. I don’t feel constrained by my government to be a Christian; I feel constrained by God to seek His truth.

The Muslims in Malaysia receive special economic and professional advantages as well, so it’s not just a matter of religion. That seems like it will really hurt the nation, because that means 40 percent of the population is limited in how it can contribute to the national well-being. This apparently came out of fear of the ethic Chinese population and their long-time economic success when Malaysia was a British colony.

Now let me bring this back home to America. There are some who want to do for Christianity in the U.S. what has been done for Islam in Malaysia. My response: We don’t need that. We don’t want that. We do need the U.S. government to give special favor to Christians or Christianity. We need freedom of religion because Christians and Christianity have all the strength and protection they need — the God of the Bible as revealed in Christ.