Conversion by the Sword

Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?

‘Tis The Season Part 2

Part 2:  My War Against Santa

One might think it strange for me to title this section “My War Against Santa”, after all, who could be against Santa?  Doesn’t he bring joy and hope to millions of children?  Or perhaps you would compare this feud to Dan Quayle’s against the fictitious Murphy Brown?  In any event, my great complaint against Santa is that he is lie.  The developed mythology of Santa (complete with reindeer, elves, and a base on the North Pole) as well as his miraculous omniscience and near omnipresence on Christmas Eve is a complete fabrication.  There is not, nor has never been a person like Santa and yet so many Americans readily spread the falsehood of the Santa story.  I find it deplorable that parents willing indoctrinate their children with this drivel.  Now don’t think I hate everything fiction.  It serves as a wonderful tool to entertain and inspire and allows for massive amounts of creativity.  The problem arises when one attempts to portray fiction as historical or present reality.  Although relatively minor, how many children think Pocahontas married John Smith (as opposed to John Rolfe) due to the efforts of Disney?  Why is it socially acceptable to lie to children at such a massive level as is done with Santa Claus?

Growing up, like most people these days, I was told the Santa lie.  When I discovered the truth, I suppose I was more disappointed that anything else.  Some folks have had a similar response, for example, I draw your attention to the writings of one Christian Scientist.  I would expect that this reaction was not merely an isolated incident and that others have felt similarly betrayed.  However, unlike that author, I have no real interest in “playing the Santa game”.  Most people that I know believe that the myth of Santa Claus is harmless and is all in good fun, but I disagree.  After all, if you can’t trust your parents and your close relatives to tell you the truth, whom can you trust?  Aren’t children generally trusting by nature?  Should we reward such trust with deception, even if this deception has a pleasing face?  I say no.

Another great problem with the Santa issue is assigning credit where it is not due.  For example, why would some people choose to give gifts but claim that they are from Santa instead?  I assure you that when I spend my time and funds to purchase a present, I’ll typically (for there are a few exceptions) let the recipient know from whom the gift came.  Should your children be grateful to a made-up man from the frozen north or their supportive parents?  To me, this rhetorical question is so obvious that any argument to the contrary seems ludicrous.  Another point to consider is the many miracles Santa has supposedly performed.  After all, short of a miracle, how could one man visit so many households in such a small amount of time armed with limitless knowledge and funding?  Normally, of course, he could not.  Therefore, if we expand our thoughts to theology, he must possess god-like powers that either he himself makes manifest or is granted to him by a deity.  Both options present troubling conclusions as they both, by their very nature, lead to worship and adoration of Santa.  Although seemingly innocent, how many children send letters to Santa and visit him at the mall?  Now, how many offer him secret or not so secret bedtime prayers for material salvation?  Has he not become a god with whom they can interact in a very tangible sense? After all, they can see him, touch him, talk to him, and get gifts from him.  Is making Santa a god the kind of morality we wish to infuse in our youth?

To those who consider themselves moral in the audience, let me offer a few thoughts from my own theology.   As Jesus said, “…If your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead?  Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake?  Of course not!”  (Matthew 7:9-10) NLT.  As children depend upon their parents for sustenance, don’t they look to them for their morality and truth as well?  Should you want your faith from your children falter once they discover your lies of Santa?  And what about your faith in your god?  If you son or daughter finds you lying about one miraculous being (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc.), how can he or she trust your words about the other?  I don’t care how socially acceptable or not the Santa myth is.  Truth is truth and truth must be dutifully protected.  How can you, like an adulterous woman, spread the lie of Santa and then, “…shrug her shoulders, and then say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”  (Proverbs 30:20)  NLT.  Do you not see the hypocrisy of these acts?

Although I am quite aware that the deeply entrenched fable of Santa will continue to ensnare the hopes and imaginations of children and those who support this fabrication will continue to do so without regret or remorse, I urge you to think differently.  Certainly I will not run through the streets shouting, “There is no Santa” even though we both know that I am right, for it is not my place to usurp the function of the parent…but, on the other hand, I will not simply go along and agree with the lie simply for the sake of social harmony.  I am well aware that such a stance can strain relations, at it has done in my own extended family, but, at the end of the day, at least I try, in this way, to avoid deceiving the most trusting souls among us.  Doesn’t your own morality demand likewise?

Update: After writing this piece, I wondered if I should have compared the concept of Santa to the nanny state, as both will supposedly give you whatever you desire in exchange for strict obedience.  This morning, I see that Tatsuya Ishida over at Sinfest did just that.  Of course, we discover that his character draws this comparison not so much for ideological reasons, but as a result of disappointing Christmas gifts.  Hilarious.  Though I hope you don’t think I’m just mad about getting a pair of socks too…

‘Tis The Season Part I

Good afternoon, readers.  I’ve been thinking about what to write lately, as the political season is a bit slow this time of year.  Of course, in Virginia there is no off year as we have state elections on odd years and national elections on even years.  Nevertheless, other than the recent auto bailout and the possible corruption of the Illinois governor, there is not too much to discuss.  Therefore, I have decided to provide my commentary on this current holiday season in a multi-part series.  Lucky you.

Yes, it is true that I have developed quite a dislike for the Christmas season.  Now I didn’t always feel this way for when I was growing up I eagerly looked forward to Christmas Day as well as everything it embodied.  But as the years progress and I take time to consider truly the full meaning and ramifications of the holiday, I have come up with a multitude of reasons why I have an aversion to the season.  Some people call me a Grinch out of sheer instinct, after all, who else could be against Christmas, but before you rush to such conclusions, I encourage you to consider my arguments.  Well, enough with the introduction, I present to you the first reason.

Part 1:  Materialism and Compulsory Gift Giving

Unfortunately our culture seems to be dominated with the desire for material accumulation fueled by rampant commercialism.  The Christmas season serves as the focal point of this rabid obsession.  I’m sure you’ve witnessed in Walmarts and Targets children screaming to their parents for the latest toys.  Don’t get me wrong, I love capitalism as much or more than the average person, but I fervently believe that materialism for its own sake is destructive.  What did you get me?  What are you going give me?  Do these questions sound familiar?  I want to know, how much stuff is enough?  Isn’t the spirit of Christmas supposed to be something other than the accumulation of more and more goods?  (More on this topic on a later section.)

Tied into materialism is the concept of compulsory gift giving.  For some reason, we measure feelings of love, affection, and personal worth based upon the quantity and quality of gifts that we give.  After all, as the logic goes, if you really love me, wouldn’t you spend as much as you could afford, or worst, far too often, even more than you can afford, going into debt?  I can personally recall the Christmas sibling rivalry growing up.  If my sister got either more gifts or a higher value of gifts does that mean that I should use the packages under the Christmas tree to base my merit?  Here is where I would ask if we are really that shallow, but…unfortunately we are.  Now if someone gives you a gift, what is the socially acceptable response?  Why, you give them a gift too.  I have found that when one gives a gift, at least a part of you expects some sort of reciprocation.  Remember, you held that person in high enough regard to expend some of your time and wealth selecting a gift and therefore feel owed.  On the other side, should someone surprise you with an unexpected gift, what is the first or second thought going through your mind?  Isn’t it feelings of guilt or frustration?  After all, you didn’t get that person a gift and now aren’t you socially obligated to do so?

What about merit?  In an ideal world, shouldn’t gift giving, like so much else, be tied to merit?  At Christmastime we are urged to give regardless of merit and therefore we give to spoiled and disobedient children or to acquaintances or family members we don’t really know or like.  Don’t misunderstand my thinking here.  I do enjoy giving gifts, but I don’t think we should be compelled to give gifts just because of a certain date.  If I give you a gift it should be because I think you deserve it, not because it is expected or demanded or it is “that time of year”?  Although it may sound counterintuitive, Christmas cheapens gift giving because it splits the correlation between merit and reward.

We must break this spinning cycle of materialism and compulsory gift giving tied to Christmas.  Will this post be overwhelmed with comments of vitriolic disgust?  I know it sounds cruel, but I honestly believe that this holiday only serves to encourage over-spending, guilt, and bad behavior.  I say, lets forget shopping and give Christmas a better and nobler purpose.

Republican Networking

Although most of you have no doubt heard of the Republican Party of Virginia’s new site, it seems that still some of you out there have not.  Simply put, it is a social networking site for Republicans and Republican-leaning folks in the state of Virginia.  I suppose that you can compare it to a kind of political Facebook (though without many of the bells and whistles that have been tacked on over the years).  Ultimately will this site be successful?  Frankly, I have no idea, but, nevertheless, I think it is the right step for the RPV to reach out to the larger community.  After all, if the RPV wishes to grow, it must be much more than a bunch of people gathered at an office in Richmond.  Kudos to Chairman Frederick.

Well, enough of my talk.  Here’s the link.  Go check it out for yourself.

Comic Diversion

Ok, I admit it.  When I was growing up every time I got hold of the paper, I’d go straight for the comics’ section. I can’t say exactly why, though I suspect it was out of a simple desire for entertainment.  One of my early favorites was Jim Davis’ Garfield.  I still own a sizable collection of the strips even though my interest is gone.  Ok, ok, we get it.  The cat wants more food; Jon’s life is terrible, etc.  Couple this narrow and repetitive focus with grotesque amounts of merchandizing and you’ll know why I’ve moved on.  On the other hand, one comic that remains consistently funny to this day is Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.  Although the comic ceased production over a decade ago, it offered an interesting take on growing up, philosophy, personal relations, and even politics.  Today when I read his work again, his strips are amusing and insightful, but they hold an even greater depth than I realized back in the late 80’s.  I also enjoy poignant political and editorial cartoons and have a stack of books of them spanning more than a decade.

Where might I be going with this article?  Well, if you haven’t noticed, a little while ago I included a link on this blog to a handful of comic strips.  Although a few of you have gone to visit these sites, a vast number of you al have not and so I thought it might be helpful to give you a bit of information as to their contents and underlying themes.

The first of the other three is Steve Notley’s Bob the Angry Flower.  While still at William and Mary, a friend of mine suggested checking out this comic.  Written by a Canadian, the main character is a highly egotistical and power hungry anthropomorphic flower who routinely manipulates both his “friends” and strangers in order to achieve his goals.  Although certainly an oddity (though I suppose no more so than a talking dog or cat), through this work and his accompanying writings, Notley offers his observations and criticisms of American life, culture, politics, religion, and morality. While I often find myself disagreeing with Steve Notley’s suggestions and conclusions, nevertheless he offers a strangely entertaining strip.  As a side note, he too lauded the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul.

The second is Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man.   Initially the series focused on the exploits of the title character, a man wearing an oversized coffee cup on his head who enjoyed the beverage far too much.  For some unexplained reason, the character of Too Much Coffee Man has almost entirely disappeared from the work and, with the exception of a few brief story arcs, there are no reoccurring plots or characters.  Much of the strip serves as a critique of modern existence running the gambit of social ills and personal issues like addictions, materialism, unrequited love, and fear.

The third (and newest) is Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest.  This strip offers the most continuity among the three as most of the story focuses on the exploits of Slick, a sex obsessed character that bears a physical resemblance to Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes and Monique, his liberal activist fixation.  Other reoccurring characters include a pig that acts like a stereotypical frat guy, a bookworm, an ardent Christian fundamentalist, God, the Devil, and a cat and a dog.  During the election cycle Ishida often devoted his comics to the real world offering caricatures of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.  Not only is the comic drawn in a fantastic style, it’s pages laments the prevalence of consumerism, the decay of civil rights, and schizophrenic U.S. foreign and domestic policies.

A word of warning…although I would not call any of the above comics conservative in nature, sometimes instead being downright liberal and yes, they frequently contain “colorful” dialogue, I would still recommend perusing the strips.  Even if you disagree with a number of their premises as I do quite regularly, they still can offer thought provoking commentary and entertainment.  After all, as Bill Watterson proved time and time again, aren’t those the twin purposes of a good comic?

Have any other good comic suggestions?  Feel free to comment here.