2007 In Review

A little retrospective humor for New Year's Eve...

Click here if you don't see the video embedded above.

Happy New Year!!

(video via Fr. Erik)

Democratic Humor

From Andy Borowitz:

Edwards Blasts Obama for Criticizing Hillary’s Claim That Obama Criticized Edwards

Iowans Confused By Charges, Countercharges, Counter-countercharges

An already perplexing Iowa race became even more impenetrable today as former Sen. John Edwards blasted Sen. Barack Obama for criticizing Sen. Hillary Clinton’s claim that Sen. Obama had criticized Sen. Edwards.

At a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, the former North Carolina senator said that the Illinois senator’s criticism of the New York senator for claiming that the Illinois senator had criticized the North Carolina senator was “an attempt to confuse the voters.”

Mr. Edwards’ comments set off a new round of charges, countercharges, and counter-countercharges between the three Democratic rivals, with Sen. Obama lashing out at Sen. Clinton for supporting Mr. Edwards’ criticism of Sen. Obama’s criticism of Sen. Clinton.

Read the rest

Happiness vs. Peace

Jen at Et Tu? has an insightful post about our attempts to find happiness. She is reacting to one of those don't-worry-be-happy sayings people pass around in e-mail:

Our culture takes it for granted that the pursuit of happiness is a worthy and important goal. I always believed that too. But having observed the fruits of that worldview in my parents' generation, and having lived most of my life that way myself, I've come to believe that it ultimately leads to misery.

That last line, "never regret anything that made you smile," brings to mind so many examples of just where this worldview leads us astray. Sure, I smiled when I held my newborn baby or when I got married. But I also smiled that time I told a joke at another person's expense that got big laughs; I smiled when a dangerously unhealthy diet plan allowed me to be considered attractive by society's standards but left me at a weight that was clinically anorexic; I smiled when I heard that something bad happened to someone I really disliked. All of these things made me happy. None of them brought me peace.

I've come to believe that when we chase happiness, what we really want is peace.

Click here to read the rest. Jen's post matches something I've only recently started to figure out for myself. We all pursue things we think will make us happy - money, power, sex, drugs, sports, whatever. Maybe they do make us happy - but then we learn happiness isn't enough. We still don't have peace. Moreover, happiness for ourselves can often mean unhappiness for others.

How do you find peace? I can't claim to have the complete answer. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with discerning God's will and then accepting it. A lot of times this will lead us away from our own desires and toward helping others. There we often find peace and true happiness.

Is this easy? No, far from it. That's why there are so many unhappy people. Our propensity to sin discourages us from doing the things that will bring true peace. Yet we all have within us the ability to find peace. Take the first step, and God will lead you the rest of the way.

Pakistan After Bhutto

People want to know what I think about the Bhutto assassination in Pakistan. Here are a few quick points and some links for you to follow.

First, we cannot forget that the human tragedy of the last few days. Not only Ms. Bhutto but dozens of other people lost their lives, in a place where violence seems to be the most common way of settling differences. Here in the U.S. we have our share of problems, but not like they do in Pakistan. We should be grateful for this, and pray for the souls of those lost and for their families to find peace.

Second, I'm not sure the removal of Ms. Bhutto from the equation will make a lot of difference in the long run. People can debate her character, but even if she was the political hero that her supporters claim, I'm still dubious she would have been able to stabilize Pakistan. In fact, one could argue that Pakistan is inherently unstable because it is an artificial entity pieced together by colonial powers. It is, in many respects, a case study in Islamic Dis-unity. Military strongmen have held this conglomeration together by brute force, but for a variety of reasons that is ceasing to be a viable option. The global trend is toward de-centralization, so the breakup of Pakistan into its constituent parts is a real possibility.

Third, if the current crisis leads to a radical Islamist regime taking control of Pakistan, the Global War On Terror will take a dramatic turn for the worse. An Iran-Pakistan alliance would be a formidable foe even without nuclear weapons. Hopefully the Bush Administration would at that point finally decide to stop kicking hornet nests and leave well enough alone. The alternatives would be very bad indeed.

Fourth, I'm not terribly concerned about Pakistan's nukes falling into the wrong hands. They are no doubt well-hidden and well-guarded. Some reports suggest U.S. special forces know the location of these weapons and have contingency plans to seize or destroy them. Even if radical elements capture them, then what? Exploding a nuke is not like pushing the button on your garage door opener. They have multiple safeguards and interlocks to prevent unauthorized use. Furthermore, transporting such weapons from Pakistan to a worthy target without being detected would not be easy. The bigger risk is that someone would disassemble the warheads and use the nuclear material to build a radioactive "dirty bomb." That would be bad, but not nearly as destructive as a nuclear detonation in a major city.

Fifth, the timing of all this in interesting in relation to U.S. domestic politics, with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary only days away. To the degree the electorate in those places is paying attention, it probably helps the strong-leadership candidates like McCain and hurts those whose appeal is primarily domestic, like Huckabee. But I really think the impact will be minimal. Larison has some interesting thoughts.

For ongoing commentary I recommend you visit Born at the Crest of the Empire, where Mike is posting a wealth of links and interesting thoughts.

Remember the Holy Innocents

The joy of Christmas did not come without a price. This is why the Church recognizes December 28 as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. Hence he was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few.

Matthew 2:1-18 tells this story: Herod was “greatly troubled” when astrologers from the east came asking the whereabouts of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen. They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” They found Jesus, offered him their gifts and, warned by an angel, avoided Herod on their way home. Jesus escaped to Egypt.

Herod became furious and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah,/sobbing and loud lamentation;/Rachel weeping for her children...” (Matthew 2:18). Rachel was the wife of Jacob/Israel. She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity.

We do not know how many young boys were killed by Herod's soldiers as they searched for the Baby Jesus. Bethlehem was not a major city at the time, so it may have been a fairly small number. Nonetheless, the parents whose children were put to the sword paid a heavy price.

Why does a loving God let these things happen? We can only speculate. It is undeniable, though, that the slaughter of the innocents continues to this day. Here is the West we routinely deliver "unwanted" babies into the arms of Moloch. In China, women who attempt to bear more than the one child allowed by population-control laws find themselves harassed, pursued and sometimes forced into abortion.

The Herod mentioned in the Gospels died long ago. Others of his kind are still with us. Will the soldiers one day come for your children, too?

So Much For "Peace On Earth"

Seven people were injured on Thursday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Following the Christmas celebrations, Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church, which is built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.

But the ladders encroached on space controlled by Armenian priests, according to photographers who said angry words ensued and blows quickly followed.

For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.

A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but two of them were also injured in the unholy melee. [more]

This is certainly a turnaround: Muslims stepping in to quell violence between Christians in the very place where peace should reign. Apparently no one stopped to ask "What Would Jesus Do?"

When Did God Become Man?

I had a new (for me, at least) thought about Christmas this year. We hear all the time that Christmas marks the day when God became man through the birth of Jesus. Is this correct? Actually it's a little more complicated.

We who are pro-life believe that human life begins not at birth, but at conception. That's when a unique human being comes into existence, and when a new eternal soul is created. To be consistent, then, we should really say that Christ became man not on Christmas, but nine months earlier when the Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive the baby Jesus. We are told of this in Luke 1: 26-38, just before the more familiar Christmas story.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

This is called the Annunciation and was an important date in the Christian calendar beginning in the fifth century, at least. To this day it is celebrated by the Catholic, Orthodox and some mainstream Protestant churches on or about March 25 - nine months before Christmas. This is also about the same time as Easter, depending on how the moon phases fall in any given year. Indeed, many early Christians believed Christ died on the anniversary of His conception, which they also thought to be the same day the world was created. This genealogy lives on today in the Proclamation of Christmas, which is sung at the beginning of Midnight Mass.

The two holy days, Annunciation and Nativity, are each important in their own ways. Christmas has obviously grown to be a bigger occasion. Maybe this is because it marks the day Christ became visible in human form to His mother as well as the shepherds, Magi and the entire world. Yet He had been fully human for nine months at that point. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but one that matters.

Fall on your knees...

Click here if you don't see the video above.

Merry Christmas!

Wisdom of the Saints XXVII

Invisible in His own nature, He became visible in ours.

Beyond our grasp, He chose to come within our grasp.

Existing before time began, He began to exist at a moment in time.

Incapable of suffering as God, He did not refuse to be a man capable of suffering.

Immortal, He chose to be subject to the laws of death.

St. Leo the Great

Obscenity at Barnes & Noble

So this weekend I went shopping at the new Barnes & Noble in my area. Mrs. D.O.T.S. and I were pleased when it opened because there were no other bookstores nearby.

At the front of the store near the checkout counters is a table featuring 2008 box calendars, the kind where you tear off a page each day. There are all manner of such calendars: dogs, cats, cartoons, happy thoughts, etc. I took a picture of it for you. Which one grabs your attention? Keep in mind this is only a few steps away from the children's section of the store.

I dare say most eyes will be drawn straight to the bright red "Sex Every Day In Every Way 2008 Daily Calendar." (Click here for a better look on the B&N web site.) This is just what America needs because, as you know, we just don't think about sex often enough in this country. Having such a daily reminder will be good for everyone.

If people want to buy this thing, so be it, but is it really a good idea to display them out in the open, alongside products that will draw the eyes of small children? There are more than words, too. The box has illustrations that graphically depict people engaged in a variety of (ahem...) acrobatic maneuvers. I don't want to show them on my blog, but you can click here for a small sample.

On the same table was another calendar, shown in the second photo. If you can't read it, the headline reads "The Dictionary of Corporate B------t." This is slightly less offensive than the sex calendar but still not appropriate for public view, in my opinion. Movies that use this word get a PG-13 rating, so parents at least know what to expect. Barnes & Noble doesn't give you the courtesy of a warning.

I took one of the sex calendars to a female store employee and asked her if she thought it was appropriate to display where children would almost certainly see them. She took one look and called the manager.

He offered no regrets whatsoever. All he could say was "People have different tastes" and he would pass on my concern to their corporate office. I again asked, what kind of person could even remotely think that it is appropriate to let children see this product? He would not answer the question. So I wished him a Merry Christmas and left without buying anything.

If B&N is like most large retailers, the store manager is given detailed directions from above on how products are to be displayed. He probably doesn't have authority to move them. This means B&N has made a corporate decision that it doesn't care if young children are exposed to sexually explicit images. Their first priority is to make money however they can. That is their right, of course. It is also my right to not shop at their store. I urge everyone else to do likewise.

One more indication of the priorities at Barnes & Noble: there is a large display of Phillip Pullman's atheism-promoting Golden Compass line of children's books and related merchandise. If they can't corrupt your kids one way, they'll find another way to get the job done. Their persistence is admirable.

You can express your concern to B&N management by using the contact form at the bottom of this page.

UPDATE: Moms go after CVS; Is Barnes & Noble Next?

Blogger Prayer Request

Leticia of Causa Nostrae Laetitiae is asking prayers for her daughter, Christina, who I believe is about five years old and has Down's Syndrome. Christina now has pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital last week. The treatment is apparently not going well. Please remember Christina, Leticia, and all their family in your prayers.

Here and here are stories from Leticia that I've posted in the past.

Huckabee's Cross

Mike Huckabee's Christmas commercial (video) outraged both secularists and some Christians. I don't have a problem with politicians wishing the public a Merry Christmas or, as Huckabee did, talking about how Christ is too often missing from the season. Huckabee is a preacher and it's fine for him to let people know what is important to him.

However there comes a point when the religious imagery goes too far. The bookshelf/Cross that appears behind Huckabee in the ad may have been coincidental. The way the camera pans across the room makes me wonder, though. Peggy Noonan says these things don't happen by accident.

In 1989 there was an uproar about this "artistic" photograph of a Crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, at taxpayer expense no less. It was a blasphemous outrage. I'm not sure that dropping the Cross into a political campaign, however subtly, is a great deal more appropriate.

Be that as it may, Noonan's column mentions something else that I thought was interesting.

In an interview this week with David Brody of CBN, Huckabee said people everywhere were coming to him and saying, "We are claiming Isaiah 54 for you, that the weapons formed against you will not prosper."

This language calls to mind the "Name it and Claim it" theology of certain fundamentalists like Kenneth Copeland. Sometimes it is called the "Positive Confession" or "Word of Faith" movement. These people believe that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy and successful. In their view, if we simply pray hard and show our faith God will give us what we ask for. Those who are poor and sick obviously don't have enough faith.

Needless to say, I don't accept this view. Does Huckabee? I don't know, but he's the one who brought it up. At the very least it's an odd choice of words. It's also an odd interpretation of Isaiah 54, in which the prophet describes "New Zion," the restored and glorified Israel. If, in fact, some of Huckabee's supporters are "claiming" this chapter for him, they seem to be equating their candidate with God's Chosen People. Maybe they don't mean it that way, but the implication is inescapable.

They might want to read the whole chapter, too. The line about weapons is in verse 17. Back up a little to verse 4, where we read "You will forget the shame of your youth." This is not politically helpful. What part of Huckabee's youth was shameful, and why did he forget it? Inquiring minds want to know.

While I still support Ron Paul, I was initially open to Huckabee. Some bloggers I greatly respect like The Catholic Knight are pushing for him. He may be the best available option, all things considered. Yet as I learn more, I still can't muster much enthusiasm for Huckabee. The most I can say is that he seems sincere in his faith and is on the right side of the life and social issues.

In other words, Huckabee is essentially George W. Bush without the pedigree: a big-government conservative who wants to save the world. If you liked Bush, you'll love Huckabee.

Think I'm wrong? Leave a comment and tell me why.

The Joy of Waterboarding

Think for a moment: on September 10, 2001, would the thought have ever crossed your mind that six years later presidential candidates would be arguing about whether the United States should or should not torture people? No, the mere thought was preposterous. Times have changed.

It now seems clear that the U.S. has, at the very least, used a technique called waterboarding on at least two captured terrorists. Depending who you listen to, the information thus elicited either saved lives or was totally useless.

Be that as it may, there has been much discussion on whether waterboarding does or does not qualify as "torture." The Bush Administration is no help in this regard. They tell us a) the U.S. does not torture while b) simultaneously refusing to define what they consider to be acts of torture.

The first inclination of many Americans is along the lines of "whatever it takes to keep us safe" without giving much thought to the details. A few actually relish the idea of bringing pain to our enemies and want to get even tougher. We have been told by people up to and including Vice President Cheney that waterboarding is no worse than a dip in the backyard pool. They point out that our own military forces use waterboarding as a training tool. Therefore it must not be torture, they say, curiously forgetting that our military trains people to face it precisely because it is torture. Mark Shea explains:

Here's the deal: have you ever had an experience of being dunked when you weren't ready for it as a teenager? Ever wrestle as a kid and have somebody cut off your wind for half a second? Remember the panic when you needed to breathe and couldn't?

Now: You are strapped to a board spread-eagle. You already can't breath too deeply in this position. The board is tipped back into a dunk tank and you are head down in the water. The water runs into your sinuses unless you breathe out through your nose. But breathing out means you can't hold your breathe for long. You feel the urge to breathe but you mustn't. Your whole body begins to flex in panic and terror. Your knotted fists bang ineffectually on the board. But the people doing this are not trainers. They are Professionals. They aren't waiting for you to say, "Okay guys, I get the idea of what it's like, You can take me out now!"

They are waiting for your lungs to feel as though they will burst, for the moment *past* the moment of supreme horror when your autonomic system kicks in and you inhale--and gag on--a lungful of water, when you would scream if there were any air in your lungs, when you start to black out.

Then, they pull you from the water, pound on your chest, and bring you too, coughing and retching and more terrified than you have ever been in your life. You have five seconds to start talking--even if you have nothing to say.

And then it all starts again.

And people in these comfy comboxes and elsewhere in cyberspace and on the Rubbber Hose Right (not to mention in the office of the Vice President) have the *gall* to say "That does not rise to the level of torture."

A second and a half of not being able to reach the surface of the lake when I was a kid is still the stuff of nightmares decades later. Those who pretend waterboarding is not torture are either so out of touch with reality that they should not be allowed to operate heavy machinery or they are moral imbeciles.

The group of those who think waterboarding is just fine includes Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Tom Tancredo, all of whom want to be Your President and all of whom promise not to torture anyone as long as they get to decide what constitutes "torture." They also promise to do whatever is only to really bad guys. If one of them makes it to the Oval Office look for the definition of "really bad" to expand greatly. It may even include you.

These definitional games are a distraction from the real issue: if the only way we can defeat the enemy is to become the enemy, we have already lost the war. The U.S. somehow managed to win World War II without torturing German or Japanese prisoners. Even today the professional interrogators say torture is useless and even counterproductive in getting information from prisoners. If there really is a "ticking bomb" someplace, there is no reason to think that torturing a prisoner (assuming you have one, and assuming your prisoner has knowledge that will help before it's too late) will prevent the bomb from going off. More likely it will send the authorities off on tangents while the real bomb ticks down to zero.

Yet whether waterboarding or any other technique yields tangible results is morally irrelevant. An intrinsically evil act does not become good merely by virtue of positive consequences. Torture supporters who claim to be Christians also have to deal with some decidedly inconvenient scriptures:

Matthew 5: 43-45 You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

Luke 6:35-36 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Romans 12: 19-21 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Admittedly, these are hard teachings to accept when you are dealing with evil people who want to harm you and your loved ones. They are, nonetheless, what the Lord demands of us.

Now it is true that Christ did not explicitly tell us "don't torture people." This is probably because it is patently obvious, to everyone except Dick Cheney, that that we cannot reconcile things like waterboarding with the command to love our enemies and overcome evil with good.

As noted above, most people haven't thought through this very deeply and their initial response is that anything goes if it will protect us from "those animals." But we aren't torturing animals. We're doing it to people, human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Calling them animals is simply a way to avoid admitting this inconvenient truth, just as Jews in Nazi Germany were designated as "subhuman" and babies in the womb are, right now, called "fetuses" by those who wish to "terminate" them. It's not killing, you see, if there is no person involved.

Do you really want your country to start down this road? I don't. I also want to be safe from those who would like to attack us. Even more, though, I want to live in a nation that stands for something; a nation that is worth defending; a land of the free and a home of the brave.

Torture does not require bravery. It is, in fact, a cowardly and evil act that brings nothing but pain on both sides. For the prisoner, the pain is immediate. For the torturer and his enablers, it comes later. But it will come.

The Arms of Moloch

People of religious faith are sometimes accused by secularists of wanting to "turn back the clock" to some kind of pre-modern ideal society. In fact, orthodox Christianity favors the advancement of civilization through technology. It is the modern-day pagans who wish to revive certain unpleasant practices that disappeared long ago.

In the Old Testament we read about various idols that were worshiped in the nations surrounding Israel, and at times by the Israelites themselves. Non-Biblical sources mention them as well. Moloch was one of these. Moloch appears to have been a sun-god, represented as a man with the head of a bull.

Like most idols, Moloch demanded sacrifice - human sacrifice. Human children, in particular. At a place called Tophet, just outside Jerusalem, a large iron statue of Moloch was left hollow so that a fire could be built inside. The metal would grow hotter and hotter until it glowed. Children were then placed in the hands of the red-hot Moloch to be burned alive. A 12th-century rabbi named Rashi described it this way.

... they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.

Other sources tell us that "... people gathered before the Moloch were dancing on the sounds of flutes and tambourines to drown out the screams of the victims." There are stories of similar customs at Carthage in North Africa. Moloch-worship, in various forms, seems to have been fairly common in the ancient world.

Now fast-forward to the 21st century. We do not - so far at least - burn children alive in the arms of iron statues. We do, however, use sharp tools to rip them apart, suck their brains out and crush their skulls. By doing all this while they are still in the womb and unable to scream, we remove the need for drums and tambourines.

The harsh truth is that child sacrifice is still very common in our culture. The Israelites gave their children in hopes of acquiring material wealth and other favors from the gods. We do it so that we can live the good life, pursuing pleasure without the burden of little ones who might get in the way.

Moloch is not a god and has no power, but the idea of Moloch is very powerful indeed. Today's pagans, and more than a few people who call themselves Christian, bow down before this idol asking for wealth, power and pleasure. Are we really so different now? Is there any need to turn back the clock? Is Tophet so different from L.A., or Houston, or Atlanta?

The fire still burns. The drums still beat. The glowing arms of Moloch demand more, and more, and more. We cover our ears and pretend not to hear the children scream. We laugh and sing and dance, confident that our sacrifice will gain favors for us.

What we do not want to face is that another god, the true God, is watching all this, and He is not pleased. In due course He will silence the drums. The slaughter of the innocents will end; the suffering of the guilty has not yet begun.

His mercy endures forever. Now is an excellent time to beg for it.

Thoughts on Life and Death

Last Sunday’s church shootings in Colorado were tragic and disturbing. We are, as always, confronted with the question of why a loving God permits such things to happen. The answer cannot be known this side of the Final Judgment. Some say it is because without pain we are unable to appreciate joy. Likewise if we never experience sin, we cannot understand forgiveness. These are good thoughts but I think there's more.

This will sound a little strange at first: death is not nearly as bad as we think. That is not to say that death is a good thing. It wasn’t part of the original plan of Creation, after all. After the Fall of Adam the world became disordered in many ways, including this thing we call death. Death is not natural; it is a consequence of the presence of evil in this world. Christ proved that death can be defeated. Ultimately it will be destroyed. Meanwhile death is a transition we will all face, sooner or later.

What is on the other side of death? For the atheist, the answer is - nothing. We simply stop thinking and cease to exist. Christians have faith that our souls survive the death of our bodies and we will receive an appropriate reward. Yet we still don’t know exactly what lies on the other side of the door. No one has been there and returned to tell us about it. God often gives people the grace to face the moment of death without fear. Nonetheless, in our weakness we still fear this unknown place.

Now try to consider it from God’s perspective. He knows exactly what is waiting for us on the Other Side. He knows how good it is and how much we will like it once we are there. We humans are not capable of understanding this, but God puts us through the experience anyway because He knows it is best for us.

Consider an example. Suppose your dog, whom you love very much, is sick. His illness is easily cured by a trip to the veterinarian and a shot of medicine. Your dog knows from past experience and from watching other dogs that going to the animal clinic is not fun. He therefore resists when you try to take him.

Because you, as a human, are superior to your dog and possess knowledge that he cannot comprehend, you know that you are really doing him a favor. So you drag him to the vet and save him. Will he be grateful? Probably not. He doesn’t understand that he was sick and needed the shot.

We humans are like that dog; we are often incapable of understanding what God is doing to us, and why. In fact, this example understates the difference; the distance between man and God is infinitely greater than the distance between man and dog.

So one way to look at death is that we’re being taken to the vet. The dog struggles, he resists, he is afraid, but ultimately he goes - because he has no choice. Then he is cured. His life is renewed. It was a painful but necessary process.

Were you, as the dog owner, being cruel and heartless to put your dog through this experience? Not at all. You were actually loving and merciful. On some level your dog understands this. He doesn’t know the details; he can’t know, because he is a dog. What he knows is that you love him. For that reason he trusts you.

In this way we should also trust God when we, or those we love, find ourselves facing death. The evidence that God loves us is everywhere. He who created all things, knows all things, and controls all things, loves us all. He knows us as individuals. From His existence outside the constraints of time and space, there are no mysteries. He does not fear death. We need not fear death because we know He gives us Life everlasting.

Now, the fact that we shouldn't fear death does not mean we welcome it. Our humanity, our physical bodies and existence, are gifts from God. Because life is a gift, gratitude demands that we guard it and preserve it until God wishes it to end. We live, quite literally, on borrowed time. In cherishing life, we prepare ourselves for death - and for the different life that lies beyond.

Legal Child Pornography

Those on the right who promote capital punishment and other harsh penalties for child pornographers are being stymied in Syracuse, New York. In that state it is perfectly legal, according to news reports, to take provocative naked pictures of 11-year-old girls and distribute them far and wide, even to males who will almost certainly use them for prurient purposes.

How can this be? There is one little complication. The models, photographers, distributors, and consumers of these photos are all themselves minors. Under New York law kids who do this are breaking no laws, and students of at least one Syracuse middle school enthusiastically took advantage of this loophole. About a dozen girls, aged 11-14, took naked pictures of each other with cell phone cameras and sent them to their boyfriends. Some of the boys copied the pictures onto discs and began selling them at school. Amazingly, this was not a crime as long as both parties were minors.

It became a crime for one young man, Michael Wixson, when at the age of 17 he provided some of these photos to a 15-year-old girl. A-ha! Now we have an "adult" giving "porn" to a "child." The police swooped in, arresting Wixson and charging him with various crimes. Bill O'Reilly reported the story on Fox News. [video]

You might expect that the adults whose children were involved in this would be a little disturbed. Some were. Many were not, according to the local prosecutor.

“Some of them were furious. A good percentage of them were, ‘stuff happens, what are you going to do?’ and don't want to cooperate and don't want to be interviewed, which, to me, is mind-boggling.”

The girls involved were equally nonplussed.

What people in the schools are struggling with now is making it clear to students that, what they think is silly behavior, can be permanently damaging and criminal.

“I think the parents should realize that this kind of behavior is not as shocking to the kids as it is to them,” says Resource Officer Scott Smith. He is one of two officers who keeps track of whats happening in the halls of the high school.

Smith watched as C-NS students reacted to, first, a naked picture CD, and now a felony charge for sharing those pictures. Smith says he was shocked by kids thinking neither was a big deal. “They weren't phased by it; some were a little more concerned than others but overall it wasn't the reaction I expected from a group of girls just learning that they were on it.”

Could it be that the girls see no problem with this behavior because their own parents see no problem with it? Having been raised with free access to MTV, HBO, gangsta rap, Britney Spears, and other such influences, why should we be surprised that they don't mind exposing themselves to all the world? Britney does and everyone loves her. Quite a few Moms want their daughters to be sexy. They're getting their wish.

Some adults will say that kids do these things, and we all sowed our own wild oats. Really? Not like this. Digital cameras only became common in the late 1990s. Before then, making your own porn was a lot harder. Unless you had your own darkroom you had to take the film somewhere to be developed. Ditto to make copies. And there was no Internet to speed them to anonymous eyes around the world in seconds. Kids today face temptations that prior generations never imagined.

Once a photo goes on the Internet it is out of your control. It will be copied, stored, and reproduced a million times over. You can't get it back, ever. These girls will be porn stars in all corners of the globe for the rest of their lives. That's a big decision to make at the age of 11.

The real failure lies with the adults. As in this case, if your daughter reaches high school and still doesn't understand why it might be a bad idea to have naked pictures of herself floating around the hallways, she probably missed some lessons much earlier in life. Now she will have to learn them the hard way.

All this adds up to a most disturbing picture. We have constructed a culture that glorifies images of raw sexuality, even for children. We have equipped those children with the technology to easily produce and distribute their own pornography. We have failed to provide them with a moral framework that explains why doing so is harmful. And now, it seems we have a legal system that allows minors to carry out this activity without interference by the authorities.

My guess is that the school in Syracuse isn't the only place where such things happen. If it's not already in your community, it will be soon. What's the answer? The only one I have is to get out - and don't look back.

Intelligence and Hope for Iraq

Lots of buzz this week about the revelation that US intelligence agencies now believe Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This is jarringly inconsistent with Bush Administration efforts to convince us that Iran poses an imminent threat to world peace. Only a few weeks ago the president himself talked about a possible World War III if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.

Partisans on both ends of the spectrum quickly formulated their own explanations how the National Intelligence Estimate (or "NIE" as the cool people call it) could have such a surprising conclusion. War hawks and neoconservatives say it can't possibly be true since Iran is so obviously trying to acquire nukes. They suspect anti-Bush forces in the CIA and State Department are spinning the information to discredit the president's policy. Liberals and Democrats say the opposite: the NIE proves that the Bush Administration was once again trying to lie its way into war and this time got caught with its hand in the cookie jar.

As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between. We need to keep several things in mind in order to evaluate this story properly. First, we are all operating in a vacuum. Most of the NIE is classified and pundits on both side haven't seen the whole thing. Some reports suggest there is "new information" that caused analysts to reassess their previous conclusions. What they new information is, and whether it even exists, is something none of us know for sure.

Second, this NIE comes from the same intelligence community that thought it was a "slam dunk" that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear, biological and chemical weapons program in Iraq. For the last few years they've consistently said the same about Iran, until now. I would like to think they couldn't possibly be so spectacularly wrong twice in a row, but stranger things have happened.

Third, it's hard to believe the White House was surprised about this. An NIE is published only after months of dialogue between the CIA, DIA, NSA, State Department, Pentagon, and assorted other agencies. It's not something that sneaks up on you. The president's staff had to know this was coming weeks ago. If they really were blindsided, it suggests that Bush has utterly failed to get control of the intelligence bureaucracy after seven years in office. I'm not sure that even this Administration could be that incompetent.

Fourth, it is exceedingly unusual for an intelligence report to underestimate a threat to the United States. The normal practice is to err on the side of caution and overstate the potential danger. That's what happened all through the Cold War, when we were told that the Soviet Army was a highly-trained, well-equipped disciplined fighting force that could pour across the Fulda Gap and overwhelm NATO anytime it wished. None of this was true, we later learned. Having been there myself, I can assure you the U.S. was extremely worried about it at the time. There must be a serious reason that this NIE breaks the pattern.

So what's going on? I agree with George Friedman at Stratfor.com that the NIE is most likely correct; Iran probably does not have a nuclear weapons program, and never did. There is no doubt they have a nuclear energy program, but that's not surprising. They know as well as we do that the oil won't last forever. Meanwhile nuclear energy for their domestic needs means they can sell more oil for export.

The mullahs who control Iran are many things but they are not stupid. They know that there is little to gain from having nukes except the certainty of complete destruction if they ever used on on Israel or anyone else. There is, however, a lot they can gain from having the world think they are pursuing nuclear weapons. It worked for Saddam, at least until he pushed a little too far. They think they can be The Mouse That Roared.

Friedman points out that the release of the NIE at this particular juncture, intentional or not, solves a thorny geopolitical problem for both the United States and Iran. That problem is Iraq. The U.S. cannot sustain current force levels for much longer. Iran, for its part, cannot allow Iraq to become an American outpost on its border. Some compromise needs to be reached, but that cannot happen as long as the world thinks Iran has nuclear ambitions.

By removing this factor from the equation, the NIE sets the stage for serious discussions between the U.S. and Iran about the Iraq question. In fact, in an odd way the NIE could be very helpful to the U.S. in such discussions. As Friedman says, if Iran has no nuclear program then the U.S. need not make any concessions to get rid of it. We just called their bluff, in other words.

If this thesis is correct, then there may be light at the end of the tunnel for American involvement in Iraq. The Bush Administration would like nothing more than an opportunity to declare victory and leave. Iran has the power to grant that wish, but won't do so without extracting some favors from the U.S. I suspect some sort of grand bargain is being designed behind the scenes.

It's funny how hope seems to come when you least expect it - and from the places you least expect it. If the U.S. and Iran can work out their differences there is hope for a broader stability in the Middle East. Time magazine recently reported that Iran would like to have the Vatican - which has diplomatic relations on both sides - mediate in talks with the United States. Given that Pope Benedict XVI just released a new encyclical about hope called Spe Salvi, there may be a chance for a happy ending here. We should all pray for it.

What is Karl Rove Smoking?

Karl Rove, "architect" of the Bush electoral machine, appeared on Fox News Sunday this weekend to analyze the 2008 campaigns. It was an enlightening discussion. (Transcript)

Conventional wisdom is that Rove is a brilliant political tactician. In fact, his success boils down to one very effective tactic: get your base to the polls in large numbers and ignore everyone else. This happened more or less automatically in 2000 when Republicans were desperate to cleanse the Oval Office from eight years of Clinton antics. Bush lost the popular vote but with Rove's engineering in swing states plus a little good luck in Florida, Bush made it into the White House.

2004 brought a somewhat greater challenge. Rove convinced several key states to place referendums to ban gay marriage on the ballot, knowing this would draw conservative voters who would coincidentally vote for Bush at the same time. It worked, again with not much room to spare.

With this record, I'm not convinced Rove is the Machiavellian genius so many people think he is. He may just be extraordinarily lucky. His instincts were revealed quickly in the Fox News interview. After Rove said that both parties need to present a positive, optimistic agenda in 2008 came this exchange:

WALLACE: And what from the Republican point of view would be the positive optimistic agenda?

ROVE: Well, first of all, taxes and spending, because this current Congress has got a lousy record on both.

The Republicans, though, also have to begin to deal in a very visible and vocal and powerful way with issues that people care about and talk about around the kitchen table like, "What about the cost of my health care? How can my kid go to college? What do we do to create more jobs and energy in America?"

And I'm confident, seeing our candidates around the country and seeing our presidential candidates, that there's a willingness to engage in these issues which heretofore Republicans have got good ideas about but have not been willing to talk about.

Rove is correct that the current Congress has a lousy record on taxes and spending. He failed to mention that from January 2001 through January 2007, his party controlled both Congress and the White House and domestic spending ballooned as never before. The president whom he served so loyally could not be bothered to veto a single spending bill, no matter how bloated and wasteful. None, zero, not one, until two months ago when Bush decided that the best place to draw the line would be children's health care. Now he wants to blame the Democrats? What nonsense.

Certainly the Democrats would be no better (and maybe a little worse) if they were in charge, but for Karl Rove to pretend like his party is the paragon of smaller government is laughable. The GOP had its big chance and they blew it. More specifically, George W. Bush blew it - with the help of Karl Rove.

Where this leaves us in 2008, I'm not sure. None of the GOP candidates (except Ron Paul) has given the slightest hint that he will do anything but continue what Bush did. Rove is wrong: there is no "willingness to engage" the really important questions. He tried to paint an optimistic picture for Republicans, but with the economy weakening and no end in sight to U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Democrats are a good bet to win back the White House and pad their margins in Congress. What they will do with their time remains to be seen. It's not likely to be good.

McCain's Desperation Move

The GOP presidential race finally started to get more interesting with the CNN/YouTube debate this week. Of particular interest to me was John McCain's attack on Ron Paul (video, transcript) over Dr. Paul's alleged isolationism.

Before examining the exchange itself, the first thing we have to consider is why McCain chose to initiate this bit of verbal aggression. Ron Paul is widely regarded as a "minor" candidate who has no chance of winning the nomination. He barely registers in national polls. Since he is not a threat to the so-called "leading" candidates, it would seem smarter to just ignore him. After all, no one went on the attack against Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter. From a strictly political perspective, what was McCain trying to accomplish?

We should also note that this was clearly part of McCain's plan for the debate. He had been prepped to look for a chance to go after Ron Paul. His chance came, oddly enough, in response to a question about whether a national sales tax would be a good idea. Rather than give the questioner the courtesy of a full response, McCain changed the subject and launched his well-rehearsed line at Ron Paul. Again, why?

The answer is simple: McCain is losing. He needed to do something dramatic to revive his campaign. The tirade against Ron Paul played to McCain's strength, i.e. his heroic military career and strong-leader image. Appearing on the Laura Ingraham radio show the next day, McCain again went out of his way to strike at Ron Paul. In fact he used almost the very same words; I'll bet he did so in other interviews as well. It was pre-fabricated "outrage."

Whether this tactic will have any impact in the polls remains to be seen. I'm dubious. Anyway, the main message I got from McCain's performance is that he must have had horrible grades in history. What he said was completely wrong. Here it is:

I just want to also say that Congressman Paul, I've heard him now in many debates talk about bringing our troops home, and about the war in Iraq and how it's failed.... And I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II.... We allowed -- we allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.

It is unusual, to say the least, when someone who routinely attacks liberal because they "blame America first" decides to himself blame the U.S. for nothing less than the rise of Hitler. In fact, anytime any politician says the word "Hitler" it is a good bet they are up to no good.

The truth is that the U.S. had absolutely nothing to do with Hitler's rise. Here are the facts: Hitler came to power in January 1933 when President Hindenburg of Germany appointed him as Chancellor in a perfectly legal manner. After Hindenburg's death in August 1934, the German cabinet decided to leave the presidency vacant and make Hitler the nation's supreme leader, or Fuhrer. This was validated two weeks later in an election that Hitler won with 84.6% of the vote. One could argue that voters were intimidated or ballot boxes rigged, but there is no doubt that Hitler was very popular at the time and would have won anyway.

What exactly is it that McCain thinks the U.S. should have done about Hitler? Tell Hindenburg who he was supposed to appoint as Chancellor? Force the German people to vote for someone else was more to our liking? Invade the Rhineland? Please. You don't have to be an isolationist to recognize how crazy this is.

Yes, Hitler turned out to be a bad guy and in hindsight it might have saved a lot of lives to remove him earlier. No one knew that at the time. If McCain wants U.S. policy to be that we do whatever it takes to keep every country in the world from installing as its leader anyone who might someday somehow become a threat to the U.S., then he's going to keep the Pentagon mighty busy.

It's not "isolationist" to say that "we don't attack nations that haven't attacked us." It's common sense. The United States is not an empire. We defend ourselves when threatened, but in 1933-34 Hitler wasn't threatening us. Right up until Pearl Harbor he actually tried very hard not to provoke the U.S. while he dealt with his European enemies. In December 1941 both Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. We responded and the rest is history.

This episode leaves us with two possible lessons about John McCain. Either he is ignorant about the facts of the greatest war this nation has ever fought - which ought to disqualify him from being a wartime president - or he is willing to re-write history in order to manipulate the public for his own political gain. Neither alternative makes him look very good.

Having said all that, I commend McCain for what he said about torture. This is a subject on which he has tremendous moral authority, and it's sad that so few of his Republican colleagues are willing to listen to him when he says things like waterboarding is torture.