Afterthoughts

I spent a good part of my afternoon becoming increasingly unhinged about U.S. foreign policy.  Publicly.  On Facebook and Twitter both.

I could write a lot here about unmanned drones and war in general and the painfulness of underwriting Empire.  But I’ve already written enough soundbites about that today.  And I could write more about how violence isn’t so much an American thing as a human thing, and about how the world as a whole is an unfriendly place in which to try to commit oneself to non-violence.  But I have already written and re-tweeted the same.  And I could spiral down into self-recriminations about my complicity in violence and my own selfishness, but my depression this evening is evidence that that too is old ground, already covered.  As I said, I was busy on the internets today.

I have an inner voice that condemns myself for not doing more, an inner voice that insists that I am deceiving myself that I am doing all that I can – that I already push myself to the limits of what I can take without unspooling to the point of utter uselessness.  It is a demon in the guise of an angel – because this voice would make it my job to save the world.  This voice overwhelms me until I am paralyzed, eyes drawing me forward into an abyss from which my own voice would reach no ears.

Tonight, as my family sat in the living room singing hymns, it occurred to me that I had neglected the two things I am most bound to do as a Christian:  I had not prayed for Barack Obama.  And I had not written to him, my brother in Christ, to share with him my concern about his foreign policy decisions*.  Both of these actions are commanded by Jesus.  Both of these ought to have been first steps, not afterthoughts.

My prayer for Barack Obama this evening

(For more on this kind of prayer, see my earlier post on Praying in Color.)

Lord, forgive me for how easily I forget that those who are in power are as much your beloved children as those vulnerable ones who suffer from the decisions of the powerful.  Remind me always to pray for those who would prioritize some lives over others.  And deliver me from my own self-righteous tweeting, that I might more clearly reflect your love in the world.  Amen.

* To be clear, I am no more enamored of Romney when it comes to foreign policy – I cannot imagine he would be any better.  But for the next few months – and perhaps for the next few years, it is Obama who is actually making those decisions, and hence who is accountable for them.

Droning on about Einstein

In my early twenties, when a high school friend and I would e-mail each other, I did not yet realize that being a grad student in the sciences these days almost necessarily involves being an unpaid military contractor.  It is where all the funding for these departments comes from.  (To his credit, he tried to tell me this.  I tried to tell him to bail in that case.)  When pressuring him about what the possible applications for a project he was working on might be, he admitted that there were only military applications – but that he hoped they might use the technology for dodging torpedoes, rather than for better aiming them.  I replied that after dodging the torpedo, it would be foolish to hope that they would not then lob one back.  Poor guy – he just wanted to learn about acoustics, and this is what his studies had come to.  I am amazed he still talks to me after all of my moralizing speeches.  Anyway, he works in the acoustics field now, but his money doesn’t come from the “defense” industry killing business –  it comes from musicians and concert halls – he can finally do what he had intended to do all along.

Likewise another friend found himself pitching a project from his graduate school computer lab to a government killing agency.  He suggested it might be used to redirect their missile to swerve away from their target if they changed their mind at the last minute.  I do not imagine the colonels were much amused.  He is still working with computers, but ditched a job he liked a few years back because he was fed up with the company only pitching the product to the military.

My husband and I were talking earlier today about the drone controversy that has been in the news of late.  He said that it was hard to get worked into a lather over it, because if it weren’t that, it would be something else – some other technology invading our privacy.  And I have to agree that by the time this sort of thing becomes public, there is already something new in the pipeline that we are similarly unprepared for.  And isn’t it grand that illegal government actions (such as violations of the 4th amendment, say for instance) usually go on for years before a case makes its way to the Supreme Court, where they can tell us what the rest of us already know.

Einstein had a number of things to say about the intersection (or lack thereof) of morality and science – perhaps the most personally cynical (or repentant, perhaps) of which was, “If I had known, I would have been a locksmith.”  But what struck me more when I was in high school, and continues to concern me now is this quote:  “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”

I went to a magnet school in Northern Virginia called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.  We imagined ourselves to be nationally famous, as we were the only high school in the country at the time to have our own super-computer. (Remember super-computers? Oh, never mind.)  It may be that many of my friends were there for the same reason I was – not because they intended to become scientists, but because they were seeking a place where they would not be bullied for their unrepentant brainy-ness.  But it does seem interesting that, of the friends I am still in touch with who went there, only one of them is still in science – the concert hall guy.  One of them left the field of Venusian volcanology to become a jewelry designer.  Another is a lawyer, another is a writer, another is an English professor…

It also seems interesting how many TJ alums are in the Christian ministry: 3 from my graduating class alone, and 2 more that I personally know of – there must be more.  Makes me wonder if I was not the only one who received an admonition from a science teacher (in my case on my first day of school, and in front of the whole biology class) that I would find that I would “have to choose between science and religion.”*  It was humiliating and confusing at the time, but I came to see it as a call to arms.  When paired with the earlier two Einstein quotes (bemoaning that he did not become a locksmith, and warning about the inevitable evil uses to which our technological advances will be put), the following one sounds like decisive advice against going into a technological field at all if one wishes to remain a moral person:

Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

While recovering, The Eyre Affair was recommended to me as some light reading.  While the front cover likens it to Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Monty Python, in my opinion it did not nearly live up to any of these.  But kudos for the not original, but then again not totally overused theme of a scientist thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if I could…?,” then making that thing, having someone unscrupulous get their hands on it, and having to destroy the invention in order to save countless lives.  But as the inventor in the story goes on with his work, I can’t imagine he will stay out of mischief.  It might have been more effective to have killed the inventor within.

“Power always attracts men of low morality,” Einstein wrote.  Perhaps he meant those persons of the sort who would possess an atom bomb, but there is a “will to power”, too, in many of those who do research – a desire to be master over a field, to know more, to see further.  Desiring to be the one who discovers the origins of the universe is a desire for a sort of power.

And, indeed, this desire for power infects more than a few in the parish ministry – there is dangerously alluring power in the pulpit, in the clerical collar, in being the resident interpreter of The Book, in the administration of the sacraments.  That power has attracted many men and women of low morality, and tempted others whose moral fiber was less strong than they had reckoned on.  One of my constant questions, both before going into the parish and when leaving it was “how much do I want this because of the power / insider status it gives me?”  I felt at the time that it required vigilance of the kind that I am discovering coming off prescription pain meds requires.

The danger, I think, of unmanned paparazzi drones, of atomic bombs, of toxic pastors… is that the power-hungry will always be with us.  The snake invites Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, telling her it will make her like God.  A baby cries because unless he is the center of his parents’ universe, he will not survive, and so he comes to learn that he is the center of the universe – the parents make an idol of the child, and the child learns then to make an idol of himself.  Whether you embrace the doctrine of original sin, or take a Niebuhrian view that sin is learned**,  it seems impossible to deny that a desire to be the god of one’s own universe is a universally human sin – and a pernicious weed to uproot.

Thankfully, I cannot follow Einstein in thinking that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”  If so, I would have no choice but to despair – humanity has demonstrated no tendency to universally adopt substantially new manners of thinking.  Or, as an older saying goes, “One rotten apple will ruin the whole barrel.”  And it seems increasingly clear to me that we are all at least a little rotten.  If the Constitution is to be our salvation, or if world peace is to be our salvation – if the end to all homicide is to be our salvation, or regard for human life is to be our salvation – then we are damned before we have begun.

It is true that it is up to each of us – it is up to me! – to not silently go about my business in the face of evil.  It is up to you and to me to stand up and say no to the forces of death and hate, and yes to life and love.  When my daughter was baptized, I promised to “accept the freedom and the power God gives [me] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves[.]” – and I must repent daily of my less than thorough-going approach to this call to be a Resurrection sign.

The win does not go to Team Humanity.  We will not be the ones to save ourselves.  Thanks be to God – for I have seen no evidence that we ourselves are capable of it.

* I would like to note that this teacher’s actions were in flagrant violation of the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though I only came to realize this later.

** Nature v. nurture – the field of psychology is beginning to consider this a fool’s debate – will theology follow?