Free Love & Nickel Beer


These are troubling times in which we live.  Americans are confronted with many problems, ranging from dire to catastrophic. Perhaps the most immediately compelling problem is the paralysis of our financial markets. If not properly addressed and handled, this may result in a worldwide depression of grievous and unprecedented magnitude.  The second most pressing problem is that there is no one readily perceived by the American public sufficiently trustworthy to resolve the first. When the financial stakes could not be higher than they are, the United States Congress is in a reactive mode, on the verge of adopting a policy for which neither it nor anyone else can genuinely vouch.  Indeed, one brilliant and well respected financial analyst, whose pronouncements I have recently been following, thinks that the proposed $700 billion bailout is "too little, too late" and will overwhelm the United States bond market (where the funds will need to be raised). While many analysts agree that the bailout proposal may not work, they still support it as a last-ditch effort by which to clear channels of credit and to restore consumer confidence in the faltering financial markets. Whether one is for or against the bailout, there are most certainly question marks all over it. We freedom-touting Americans may soon be singing a classic Kris Kristofferson lyric, that "freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose." 

Our financial problems are so draconian that it is natural for us to become oblivious to other problems which are likewise confronting us. The situation reminds me of the day my optician was attempting to fit me with contact lenses.  After he placed a lens in one of my eyes, I complained that I was in discomfort and would never be able to adjust to wearing contacts. Then, as quick as a flash, he placed a lens in my other eye, and asked "How does this feel?"  I replied, "Now, the second eye hurts, but the first one doesn't."  He wryly remarked, "And if you had a third eye, I could also make you forget the second!" The meltdown of our economy is like that lens in my second eye; it is diverting attention from pain elsewhere.

In case anyone has forgotten, this country is waging a war in Iraq. We have poured blood and treasure into this effort, which began as a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein, bolstered by the sources of intelligence available to us, which emphasized that his government possessed weapons of mass destruction.  A regime change ensued in Iraq. The United States is, of course, presently defending the new regime against those, like Islamic fundamentalists and specifically the government of Iran, who look with contempt upon democracy.

The Iraq War is just as dangerous and unsettling to Americans as our country's shaky financial future. Iran seems well positioned to develop nuclear weapons.  What a breathtakingly scary prospect in view of the fact that its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has emphasized that he does not believe Israel has a right to exist and, further, insinuates that Israelis should be annihilated.

On both the foreign and domestic fronts, America has a plate filled with problems.  How do we remedy them?  Where is a leader who is wise and can unify the nation and place it on a constructive course?  Is the cultural divide among us so gaping and deep that addressing these problems, fully and reasonably, is out of the question?  I am not sure that anyone knows.

I describe myself as a Christian realist.  Love is, and always has been, the antidote of ill will and hatred.  Yet we are usually not faced with black and white choices.  The world in which we live is not one given to absolute certainty. The options before us almost invariably embody elements of evil. Thoughtful Christians have learned through the centuries that a manichaean approach to good versus evil is not in accord with human experience.

This is why Christian organizations, such as the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers, Religions for Peace, and American Friends Service Committee, who are sponsoring a dinner on Thursday, September 25, 2008, honoring Ahmadinejad, are unwittingly inflicting harm upon others. The dinner will break the Ramadan fast, and is being billed as an "international dialogue among religious leaders and political figures" in a conversation "about the role of religions in tackling global challenges and building peaceful societies."  This outpouring of fellowship in the name of the virtues of peace, love, and mutual understanding is uncritical and serves to fortify the stature of a vile international terrorist and to provide an air of credibility to the policies he supports. Such gestures, however well-meaning, put people's lives and liberties at risk and are, as such, evil.  Rather than honoring Ahmadinejad, why not honor those whom he has murdered?  Why not blow the trumpet for those he is now oppressing?  Why not honor American troops who have been killed and maimed by policies of this terrorist?

The Christian groups hosting this dinner demonstrate no appreciation of the fact that moral decision-making constitutes a balancing act.  To cling to an ideal, while not bothering to weigh its applications to real-life situations, takes on a utopian character.  If and when the moral precepts of Christianity become otherworldly, they should be roundly rejected.  George Washington, in a letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers, once stated the following:  "Your principles and conduct are well known to me; and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens." Washington was correct:  there has been a naïve tendency in the Quaker community, as well as in others, to understand the virtues of love and peace in a manner to encourage oppression and to invite war.  This is every bit as morally misguided as the pro-life advocate who bombs abortion clinics and sacrifices human life in order to protect it.

A safe rule of thumb in policy-making, whether on the domestic or foreign front, is to stress absolute ideals – yes – but to be mindful of their ambiguous application in the concrete events of our lives.  We live in a tangled and imperfect world.  Love is never free; one price or another must always be paid for it; and, the last time I checked, beer was priced at well over a nickel.  We must face cold realities, like it or not, and that often means choosing the lesser of two evils.

September 25, 2008