Friday, December 28, 2007

Turmoil in Pakistan

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The world scene can change in an instant. With the assassination of former, two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the geopolitical situation became more tense and uncertain thanit had been only seconds before her death. She was killed after the explosive force of an incendiary device strapped to a terrorist caused her to hit her head on a lever in the vehicle she was riding in. At least 28 others also died in the blast, and more than a hundred were injured. Nearly three dozen additional people have been killed in the ensuing unrest. Ironically, Bhutto was killed not far from where Pakistan's first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in October 1951 and where her own father, also a former Prime Minister, was hanged in 1979.

As the opposition leader in Pakistan, Bhutto had played an important role in challenging, balancing, and therefore moderating the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in 1999 via a military coup. In addition, her liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) provided an outlet for many Pakistanis who are unwilling to knuckle under to the rising tide of Muslim extremism sweeping that part of the world. The latest reports are that al Qaeda elements were behind the assassination, specifically Baitullah Mehsud, a wanted pro-Taliban militant leader based in the South Waziristan tribal region.

Obviously, Pakistan is geopolitically important for two primary reasons: 1) It shares a mountainous border with Afghanistan, where al Qaeda Prime (specifically, Osama bin Laden and his operations chief, Ayman al Zawahiri) is hiding; and 2) the Muslim country is part of the exclusive club of nations that possess nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall to radical elements—either the Taliban or its sympathizers in the military and/or the intelligence service—the Doomsday Clock would surely tick several minutes closer to midnight.

So far, Pakistan under Musharraf has remained a useful, though shaky ally of the U.S. throughout the War on Terror. While essentially a military dictator despite his recent resignation from the armed forces, Musharraf has been able to ride herd on the forces of religious extremism, military dominance, and secular liberalism that are the major ideologies of his fractured state. He has had to crack down on the most turbulent tribal areas, enforce loyalty from his own army, and negotiate with Bhutto and her faction. He is in the unenviable position of being everyone's enemy.

Pakistan is intrinsically unstable due to its hodge-podge nature: It is made up of at least five different major ethnic groups (Punjabis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Sindhis, and Balochis); a handful of separate Muslim ideologies; two major geographic regions (the mountain region and the Indus River Valley); and a strong secularist tendency, especially among the educated and urban populations. The army, which accepts enlistees from all of these groups, is for better or worse the prime instrument of stability, due to its power and discipline. With Bhutto's assassination releasing rioters into the streets, martial law and harsh military responses to flare-ups of fighting and looting are likely.

To further compound Pakistan's problems, the upcoming parliamentary elections may be postponed as well. One major party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by another former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has already indicated it will not participate in them if they take place as scheduled on January 8. Bhutto's PPP, by far the largest opposition party, is now without a clear leader—in fact, it has never been without a Bhutto family member as its chairman. It may take weeks or months before a new leader is chosen, and even so, it may fracture into several smaller parties if it fails to reach a consensus on a new chief. Realistically, the Pakistani political scene will probably become even more chaotic.

This may actually work to Musharraf's benefit. With so much turmoil among the various political parties, candidates, and activists, he may emerge as the nation's only viable leader. Love him or hate him, Pakistanis may realize that, even though his regime has angered them in so many ways, he provides a measure of stability that is far preferable to the ravages of civil war. In other words, the devil that you know is better than the devil you don't know.

The United States, in its position as the leader of Western interests, would prefer Musharraf to maintain control and bring swift stability to his country. It has worked successfully with him in the past and knows which levers to push to get results. President Bush and his advisors know that al Qaeda wants nothing more than turmoil and confusion in Pakistan because it works best in such an environment. Through the Taliban, it could offer a stabilizing influence of a sort, particularly in the mountainous western regions of the nation, while procuring Pakistan's nuclear weapons for use in its cause through its supporters in the military and intelligence service. The U.S., then, will probably offer and provide intelligence and clandestine military support to the Musharraf government to help quell the disquiet as soon and as noiselessly as possible.

In a better world, the people of Pakistan would use the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to band together and expulse Muslim extremism from its culture. However, this is a world whose god is Satan the Devil (II Corinthians 4:4), whose hateful, destructive influence has deceived all humanity (Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9). Thus, religious and political turmoil are part of the normal fabric of life—and will be until Jesus Christ returns to this earth to put an end to sectarianism and war by putting Satan away (Revelation 20:1-3) and ruling personally from Jerusalem (Revelation 20:4-6). Then, with Satan unable to broadcast his divisive attitudes, Christ will teach humanity His way of life that brings cooperation, peace, and unity (Isaiah 2:2-4). This glorious future of peace is why Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:10 to pray, "Your Kingdom come." Are we praying for it fervently enough?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Curse of Teen Pregnancy

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It is not uncommon today to hear news of some celebrity having a child out of wedlock. Jamie Lynn Spears at the 2007 Kids' Choice AwardsIn fact, illegitimacy seems to be the norm among the famous and infamous these days. The latest blockbuster story is that sixteen-year-old actress Jamie Lynn Spears, younger sister of Hollywood bad girl Britney Spears, is pregnant by her nineteen-year-old boyfriend. The younger Spears stars in Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, in which she plays a clean-cut, sensible character. In real life, she is at this writing twelve weeks pregnant and resolved to have the baby. These days, such a declaration of responsibility is about the best news we can hope for.

Perhaps public acceptance of celebrity promiscuity is at least partly to blame for the United States having the highest teen-pregnancy rate among developed nations. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that, in 2004, nearly 36 percent of live births in America were to unmarried mothers, affecting 1.47 million women. Almost a quarter of these unwed mothers were teenagers. Sadly, a recent national study reported that the birth rate for teens rose in 2006, the first increase since 1991.

The situation is far from improving. In 1970, 10.7 percent of U.S. births were to unwed mothers, meaning that in a little over three decades the illegitimate birth rate has jumped by about 335 percent. The nation has had an illegitimacy rate greater than one-third since 2000. What a shameful moral state we are in!

This is just one facet of the sexual revolution spawned in the 1950s and 60s. We could add high divorce rates, more tolerance for "shacking up," increased incidence of sexual diseases, longer welfare rolls, flagrant prostitution, "mature" television programs and movies, and a host of other social ills to the list of repercussions to the heavy drumbeat of sexual freedom. As with all of these societal problems, teen pregnancy is not liberating to the too-young mothers that it affects. In reality, teen pregnancy most often dooms a young woman to a lifetime of hardship.

For starters, she is now shackled to a baby who requires nearly continuous care. Though it may be cute and wonderful, the baby needs feeding, changing, comforting, bathing, and entertaining on an around-the-clock basis. Many young moms do their best to finish high school despite the constant demands of the child, and the most successful have devoted, extended families whose members pitch in to help when things get tough. Yet, such "ideal" situations are not usual. For most young mothers, life becomes a struggle.

Attending college is beyond the abilities of most unmarried women with a child. Costs—both monetary and time—are too steep for them to handle. Were the young lady unburdened with a child, she could go to class and work a job or two to get by, but having a dependent to feed, clothe, and send to daycare makes it almost impossible. So college is ditched in favor of getting a full-time job. However, because she has only a high-school education at best, her career opportunities are often limited to starting out at minimum-wage jobs and hoping to receive promotions down the line somewhere through hard work and on-the-job training. Too often, she ends up in a low-wage, dead-end job and relying on government assistance to make up what she lacks.

Socially, she will likely never recover. Chances are, the father of her child will not marry her, and his support for either her or the child (or both) will be minimal, sporadic, and reluctant. Without the benefit of marriage, she can leverage no legal procedures to compel him to help her. Her chances of finding a husband are cut drastically, since few men relish the thought of becoming an instant father to someone else's child once he says, "I do." Many unwed mothers will at some point live unmarried with a man, and studies show that, while this situation can be economically better than living alone, it falls far short of providing the real benefits that marriage does (see "Unwed mothers' prospects for marrying well, or at all, are greatly diminished, Cornell study finds").

Finally, what about her mental and emotional state? A September 1999 report, "The Age of Unwed Mothers: Is Teen Pregnancy the Problem?" by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values points out a link between unmarried mothers and depression:

One nationally representative study finds that, among White 18 and 19 year olds, about 41 percent of unmarried, first-time mothers reported many symptoms of depression, compared to 28 percent of married, primiparous [first-time] mothers of that age [Source: "Young Maternal Age and Depressive Symptoms: Results from the 1988 National Maternal and Infant Health Survey," American Journal of Public Health 88, no. 2 (February 1998): 266ff]. Maternal depression is a significant risk factor for children, often leading to problems in adjustment that may linger for years after the mother's recovery.

From every angle, the unmarried mother's life is a battle against the odds. She pits her and her child's life and welfare against the cold, brutal forces of this world, and the hard reality is that this uncaring world grinds them down most of the time. Most unwed mothers do not have the resources Jamie Lynn Spears—or any promiscuous celebrity, for that matter—has to avert the hardships inherent in the curse of breaking God's law regarding premarital sex.

There is a great deal of love behind the words, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), a command that includes all forms of sexual immorality. God does not want to see any young woman have to suffer the adversities single-motherhood can bring crashing down on herself through sin. The best course to take is the old-fashioned, tried-and-true path of wisdom: to abstain from sexual relations until marriage. As many who have done so will testify, it significantly improves the quality of life!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Religion in Politics

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In the past few weeks, two significant events have transformed the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. First has been the surge in popularity of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee into the top tier of candidates. Various polls show him gaining substantially on the party's frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Huckabee now appears to have secured a strong second-place ranking in Iowa, where he must score big to have any chance in later primaries. Huckabee, it must be mentioned, is an ordained Baptist minister. He frankly admits that his faith influences his policy decisions.

The second event of consequence was the December 6 speech by Romney at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, in which he answered his critics on the subject of his Mormon beliefs. Essentially, he argued that, while confessing the Mormon creed, he is still a Christian, saying, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." However, should he be elected, he said, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. . . . I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt RomneyHe reminded his listeners of the fact that many of the Founders of this nation were religious men and that they enshrined religious principles into our founding documents. Despite their memberships in various denominations, they were patriots first, fighting for America's well-being. Romney promised that he would strive to follow their example: "A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States." The former Bay State governor cited the example of another politician from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who "explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President."

In an era of mounting secularism, it is intriguing that religion has become such an integral part of the election debate. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union and other anti-Christian groups—their hopes firmly placed in the more secular Democrat candidates—must be beside themselves in frustration at the resurgence of matters of faith into the national discourse. Should an ordained minister like Huckabee attain the Oval Office, their fears of a fanatical religious takeover of America will reach hysterical proportions: the atheistic version of "the end is near!"

Nevertheless, true Christians should not take this religious turn of events as a sign of American revival. Despite their claims of piety, these two Republican candidates are not knights on white horses to the rescue. Romney, for instance, is a Mitt-come-lately to the conservative cause, having made a number of reversals in his stances on homosexual rights, abortion, and stem-cell research and more recently, on gun-ownership and the environment. His position on illegal immigrants is also seen to be hypocritical, having hired undocumented workers as landscapers at the Governor's Mansion. He is at best a Northeastern moderate running as a conservative.

Arkansas Governor Mike HuckabeeHuckabee is no better. While he tends to agree with social conservatives on abortion and homosexuality, he is extremely soft on illegal immigration, having consistently supported giving benefits to illegals and their children, while opposing restrictions on them. He is also known as a tax-and-spend governor. The conservative Club for Growth writes of him: "His history includes numerous tax hikes, ballooning government spending, and increased regulation." In Arkansas, as Romney did in Massachusetts, he has governed as a moderate at best, though he talks about Jesus a great deal.

As this column has mentioned before, the Church of the Great God is apolitical, which means we do not become involved in the political process. We do not endorse political candidates or parties, nor do we lobby government on political issues. However, we often comment about politics from a biblical point of view because political trends eventually effect societal change. It is the church's job to be society's watchman and warn the people of coming destruction, whether internally or externally generated (Ezekiel 33:1-11). And while it may seem strange that we should caution people about this trend of including religion in politics, it is necessary.

We cannot for a minute discount the decades-long shift toward secularism in our culture, thinking that the tide has been stemmed and reversed at last. Nor can we forget that these men are vying for the nomination to the highest office in the land, the office with the most political power in the whole world—they would say or do anything to make themselves more electable. Finally, we should not diminish the fact that these men need the voting power of the Religious Right to catapult them to the nomination and the Presidency beyond.

Call me skeptical, but these men are playing the "religion card," which they believe may be their ace in the hole. It is an old ploy, using religion to gain temporal power. Our radar should beep like crazy when it appears on the horizon. What they are doing is not far removed from the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus' day, and He castigated them for their hypocrisy (see Matthew 23). The truth and the true prophets of God were in mortal danger when they held the reins of power (see Matthew 23:13, 15, 27-35). History proves that religion and politics do not often mix well, as one corrupts the other with delusions of power.

It is indeed true that "when the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan" (Proverbs 29:2). However, a religious person is not necessarily a righteous person, especially when so much is at stake. Americans would do well to discern the difference.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Have We Settled on Our Lees?

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Not too long ago, in doing some tidying up around the house, I came across a bottle of red wine that we had opened for a dinner party who knows when. Being moderate in such things, we had not finished the entire bottle, and I had re-corked it and put it aside, intending to finish it fairly soon. But "fairly soon" had never come. While pouring the soured wine down the drain, I noticed that an unexpectedly large amount of sediment had collected in it, coating the entire bottom of the bottle. Seeing it, I was glad I had decided not to sample it before emptying the bottle.

Now for something altogether different—though the two subjects will merge in due course.

Sometimes a modern translation of the Bible really helps to clarify a scripture or passage. The archaic King James English—the "thees" and "thous"—trips up some people, while others misunderstand how certain words were used back then. For instance, we use the word "tongue" in the sense of the physical organ in the mouth that helps us to form speech as well as to taste food, but back in the time of Shakespeare, it was the primary word for what we call "language." Such a simple error has spawned a major Protestant denomination—Pentecostalism, which elevates speaking in tongues far beyond God's intent (see I Corinthians 12:4-10, 28-31)—and has led thousands of people astray.

However, at other times, modern translations err in trying too hard to make the text understandable. Occasionally, the translators interpret a phrase rather than translate it literally, as occurs in Zephaniah 1:12: "And it shall come to pass at that time that I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and punish the men who are settled in complacency, who say in their heart, 'The LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil.'" What does this verse literally say? ". . . I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees. . . ." What does it mean to be "settled on one's lees"? Is it relevant to us? Could we be guilty of it?

Understanding this figure of speech requires an overview of Zephaniah. Some have called him "the prophet of the Day of the Lord," which is the subject and main theme of his entire book. First, he describes that time in detail, showing that it will affect everybody and everything—nothing will escape it completely. In chapter 2, he calls on us to repent "before the LORD'S fierce anger comes upon you" (verse 2), then describes God's judgment on surrounding nations. Chapter 3 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its atrocious sins, but God promises in verses 8-13 that a remnant of faithful people will see the coming of Christ and the Millennium.

Zephaniah, then, is a book about our near future. God includes it in His Word to provide a wake up call to His people who have fallen asleep. He wants to save us however He can, and if He has to scare us to death to do it, He will! He prefers that we remain awake, watchful, and diligent, but if we start to drowse, He will throw cold water in our faces! Zephaniah is mainly composed of denunciations and threats—God is not being gentle! One commentator, George Adam Smith, writes of Zephaniah, "No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament!" It is like the kick of a booted drill sergeant at dawn!

Yet, even in Zephaniah's name a sense of hope remains: It means "The LORD has hidden." In Zephaniah 2:3, God promises that He will make a way of escape for the godly remnant: "Seek the LORD all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger." In Zephaniah 2:1, He calls for His people to "gather together, O undesirable nation," and in Zephaniah 3:8, to "wait for Me . . . until the day I rise up for plunder." In other words, He advises us to fellowship with other faithful people and wait patiently for God to do His work.

Now that we have some background, what does "settled on their lees" mean? As one may have guessed, it is an expression derived from winemaking. Lees are what we call "dregs," particles of solid matter that fall to the bottom of the vat or jar or bottle during fermentation. Back in ancient Israel, they liked to leave their wine on the lees to make it stronger, but there was a time limit to how long they could leave it there. Good wine left on its lees becomes stronger and more flavorful, but if left too long, it can become thick and syrupy—to put it bluntly, it will be ruined. So, a diligent winemaker would periodically pour the wine from one vat to another, straining off the lees.

The illustration shows that a person settled on his lees was at least slothful, maybe even complacent, indifferent, and apathetic. Bad wine left on the lees becomes harsh and bitter. We can certainly understand the metaphor here. What happens to a person who lives with his sins? Does he not become worse? Sin's addictive quality causes him to plunge deeper and need more or worse sin to satisfy him. For example, a person who broods in smoldering anger over some supposed offense eventually becomes bitter and hateful.

Notice that those who are settled on their lees say, "The LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil" (Zephaniah 1:12). They believe in God's existence, but they limit His ability to participate in their lives. They think He is powerless to do anything, good or evil. This is similar to the thought expressed by the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:17: "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing." Neither one needs God, they think. This attitude produces slothfulness, complacency, indifference, spiritual carelessness, and destruction, as Zephaniah 1:13 shows.

When stretched too far, any metaphor breaks down, but generally, the lees symbolize a way of life. For a righteous person, his godly way of life will make him stronger, but he must take care not to become complacent even in this because he could turn thick and apathetic. The solution, then, is to drain off the wine, as it were, into a new vessel periodically. Biblically, this is called "putting on the new man." We must be evaluating ourselves often, replacing worldly values with godly ones (see Colossians 3:1-17). To use a modern expression, we cannot be "resting on our oars" spiritually; we should never become satisfied with our spiritual progress.

What do we have to show for our spiritual lives right now? Or, have we settled on our lees? The Master Winemaker is waiting to pour us into heavenly vessels of honor and glory, so let us not disappoint Him by producing an inferior vintage.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Divided We Fall

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After the 2000 U.S. presidential election—in which George Bush eked out a narrow victory over Al Gore after the Florida chad fiasco—it became oh-so-apparent that this nation was seriously divided. The commonly used illustration of this divide was the Red State-Blue State map, on which the electoral votes for each candidate by state were colored red for Bush and blue for Gore. From this was extrapolated the relative political and social bent of any region of the country: Red signified a conservative, religious, and traditional view, while blue represented a liberal, secular, and progressive outlook.

Soon, demographers began playing with the numbers, dividing the nation into red or blue counties and even into red or blue voting districts. The national map that the county-by-county tabulation produced appeared more purple than red or blue on the coastlines and along the Mississippi River, while "flyover country," the Plains and Mountain states remained predominantly red.

The district-by-district map showed even more purple. These maps inspired the coining of a new term, the "purple state." Politically, a purple state is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, of which Pennsylvania, for instance, is a prime example. Democratic political adviser James Carville wryly described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Without its two major, left-leaning cities, Pennsylvania would be a red state, since its heartland is composed of mostly rural, religious folk, many of which still hold the solid, traditional values of the Pennsylvania Dutch and other conservative ethnic groups.

The mainstream media has trumpeted the country's divisions, drawing attention to the differences to the point of exaggeration. Pundits on both sides have played into the stereotypes, often using sweeping generalizations to characterize those on the other side (and sometimes those on their own side). In the last few years, however, several scholarly articles have been published, decrying the red state-blue state "hysteria" and criticizing the media and politicians for ignoring the majority of Americans—some say as much as sixty percent of the population—who consider themselves moderates, the bulk of the so-called "silent majority" whose voices cannot be heard above the din of the extremists. These overlooked centrists evidently comprise Purple America.

Purple Americans are the swing-voters in elections. Too frequently, they hold "nuanced" (read "compromise") positions on the major issues, many of which are either impossible or mere semantics. For instance, they may support homosexual civil unions but oppose homosexual "marriage." On immigration, they may support "undocumented workers" but oppose "illegal aliens." On the Iraq War, they may support the troops but oppose the mission. On taxes, they may support soaking the rich and corporations but oppose tax hikes. On entitlements, they may support reform but oppose decreases in payouts and services. Whom they vote for in any election depends on which candidate covers their hot-button topic. In other words, many of them are rather lackadaisical about most matters, but a candidate's agreement with them on their pet issue will swing their votes his or her way.

Thus, what emerges from these demographics is a severely divided country, whether the scholars wish to admit it or not. The staunch conservatives and tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberals on either end of the spectrum are buffered by a large mass of indifferent, tuned-out citizens who can be led about by a demagogue from either extreme by pandering to their self-interests. These middle-of-the-roaders are like the "cows of Bashan" of Amos 4:1, people who are sated on the fruits of their prosperity yet indifferent to the vital problems afflicting the nation.

In His prediction of their doom in verse 2, God hints at their gullibility in being swayed by others: "Behold, the days shall come upon you when He will take you away with fishhooks," describing the Assyrian practice of inserting hooks in their captives noses by which to lead them away. Just as they weakly followed their Israelite leaders to their nation's downfall, so will they likewise follow their conquerors into slavery.

The divide between Right and Left in America is the battleground between two irreconcilable ways of thinking. In the end, one or the other must prevail; there is no chance of them co-existing for long. The difference can be distilled down to those who believe in truth and those who believe in relativism. The former hold that truth is objective, that it exists in its own right, and people can aspire to understand and follow it. The latter consider truth to be subjective, that it is what each person decides to believe, and people are free to forge their own paths toward enlightenment. Ultimately, the difference comes down to those who believe in Deity and those who do or will not.

It is not apparent how long the current hostile truce between these two factions will hold. Perhaps the upcoming presidential election will provide insight into the speed and direction of the national ethic. Yet, optimistic and hopeful as we might be, it is difficult to foresee national revival. The social indicators—things like abortion, illegitimacy, marriage, crime, church attendance, etc.—are not improving as a whole, and as each year goes by, behaviors that were once thought beyond the pale are accepted into the mainstream. These are not signs of a society on the upswing. The oft-remarked parallels with the declines of the great empires are legion.

Where does one turn in times like these? King David supplies the answer in Psalm 11:3-7:

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men. The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

The answer to our divided nation, then, is simple: Each individual must turn to God and work to be found among the righteous and upright whom He loves. Will we?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Jena Sixed

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The following USA Today article, published on September 6, 2007, is typical of the coverage on the now-infamous Jena 6 case:

For a year, Jena (pronounced JEEN-uh), a poor mining community of 3,000 people, has been embroiled in racial tensions pitting the black community against white school officials and a white prosecutor. It began last August when a black student asked at an assembly if black students could sit under a tree where white students usually sat. The next day, two nooses hung from the tree.

Black parents were outraged by the symbolism, recalling the mob lynchings of black men. They complained to school officials. District superintendent Roy Breithaupt and the school board gave three-day suspensions to the white students who hung the nooses, overruling the recommendation of then-principal Scott Windham that the students be expelled. . . .

In November, an unknown arsonist burned down part of the high school.

Over the next three days, fights erupted between black and white students on and off school grounds. Police arrested a white man for punching a black teen. He pleaded guilty to simple battery.

The skirmishes culminated with a fight in which the six black teens, star players on Jena's champion football team, were charged as adults with attempted murder. The white student they're accused of beating, Justin Barker, 17, was knocked unconscious and suffered cuts and bruises. He was treated at an emergency room but not hospitalized.

Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted in May of a reduced charge, aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Since then, charges against two youths have been reduced.

This seems like straightforward reporting of the facts. However, an October 24, 2007, Christian Science Monitor article by Craig Franklin, a longtime resident of Jena and assistant editor of The Jena Times, is throwing cold water on the media-induced racial firestorm spreading nationwide from the small Louisiana town. Franklin, who has covered the story since it broke in August, and his wife, who teaches at Jena High School, claim the mainstream media have distorted at least twelve vital facts surrounding the incident, fabricating and even inciting racial division where little or none existed. Franklin's twelve media myths range from the "whites only" tree (students of all races were free to sit under it) to the attack on the white students being linked to the nooses (none of the eyewitness testimony mentioned them).

How could professional journalists—if they can be called such—get so much wrong? Part of the answer follows Solomon's warning in Proverbs 18:17, "The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him." According to Franklin, "because local officials did not speak publicly early on about the true events of the past year, the media simply formed their stories based on one-side's statements—the Jena 6." Evidently, reporters took advocates for the assailants at their word and made little effort to fact-check their assertions. Franklin concludes, "[T]he media were downright lazy in their efforts to find the truth. Often, they simply reported what they'd read on blogs, which expressed only one side of the issue."

One might just relegate the media's mishandling of the facts to sloppy journalism except for a section of the USA Today article left out of the above quotation:

The events in Jena have caught the attention of national civil rights activists. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III have marched on Jena in protest.

"The case plays to the fears of many blacks," Sharpton says. "You hear the stories from your parents and grandparents, but you never thought it would happen in 2007. I think what resonates in the black community is that this is so mindful of pre-1960 America."

When civil-rights activists like Sharpton and Jackson become involved in a matter, such as the equally infamous Duke Lacrosse case, the word "agenda" should come immediately to mind. These two men in particular exist to stir up racial animosity because the maintenance of their personal wealth and reputation demands that they exploit every incident of interracial friction, whether or not racism played any part in it. They have been aided and abetted by a willing media, which shares many of their views. Like the Duke Lacrosse case, the Jena 6 incident fit the liberal "template" of racist America—a pattern that has been used successfully many times in the past to score political victories for the Left.

Information has surpassed oil as the commodity of control in this nation and indeed around the world. Spin is in; truth is out. Whoever controls the bias on the news controls the populace. One can see this in any number of areas: the Iraq War, the climate change hysteria, the homosexual-rights movement, the immigration issue, etc. Polls consistently show that the American people implicitly believe what the media tells them, even when the facts prove otherwise. For instance, a recent poll showed that most Americans thought that the troop surge in Iraq was increasing casualties there, but since the infusion of additional soldiers, casualties have decreased significantly. The public's impression of increased violence is an effect of media incessantly reporting on so-called atrocities (many of which are later shown to have been greatly exaggerated). So, despite an improved situation on the ground, the public outcry is still, "Bring the troops home!"

Isaiah prophesies of just this kind of departure from the truth: "Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. So truth fails, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey" (Isaiah 59:14-15). The prophet speaks of a whole society so removed from what is true and right that they are groping, stumbling blindly forward, realizing instinctively that their doom is not far off. This is just what is happening in America as the truth is becoming more difficult to find amidst the flood of available information. How vital it is for us to seek the truth (Proverbs 23:23) and hold on to it in these evil days (Revelation 3:11)!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Climate Change and World Peace

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All hail Al Gore, the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize!

This is the near-unanimous cry of the mainstream media news hawkers this morning. Gore—former U.S. Vice President and darling of liberals, Hollywood, and tree-huggers everywhere—received the Peace Prize for preaching the gospel of manmade climate change around the world and urging radical measures to counteract the "imminent" threat. Supporters here in the U.S. are hoping that this honor will convince Gore to reconsider running for President in 2008.

Al Gore and IPCC chief, Rajendra PachauriGore shares the prestigious award with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the infamous IPCC. Gore lauds the IPCC as the "world's pre-eminent scientific body devoted to improving our understanding of the climate crisis." The vast majority of news reports on this story will ignore the fact that the IPCC's reports on climate change have been repeatedly shown to be U.N. policy statements hiding behind a tissue of dubious scientific research. A quick comparison of the last several reports by the panel reveals the IPCC backtracking on its estimates on the severity of global warming—to the point that its projections now fit comfortably into historical warming and cooling trends. After removing the hysteria caused by activists like Al Gore, the global warming "threat" turns out to be little more than a normal temperature fluctuation.

Gore himself, along with his so-called documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, has recently come under fire for false and misleading statements. London's Daily Mail reports that a British High Court judge ruled this week that the movie is "alarmist," "exaggerated," and "one-sided." Further, showing the film in schools disregards British education policies unless accompanied by guidance notes to balance its partisan stance. While opining that An Inconvenient Truth was "broadly accurate" on climate change, High Court Justice Burton listed nine scientific errors asserted as facts in the film. These included the estimated rise of sea levels (Gore claimed a catastrophic rise of twenty feet in the "near future"), the correlation between the increase in the CO2 level and temperature, and his declarations that global warming has caused or will cause the shut down of the Gulf Stream, the drying of Lake Chad, the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro, the evacuation of Pacific Ocean atolls, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the bleaching of coral reefs, and the drowning of polar bears. Although the film's supporters will never admit it, the judge's findings, which the Daily Mail dubs "inconvenient untruths," effectively gut the documentary of its most essential, emotional points.

In the months leading up to the bestowal of the prize on Gore and the IPCC, there was little doubt about who would win it. Several other candidates had been under consideration by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but Gore was the frontrunner from the beginning of the process. According to its press release, the Committee's reason for awarding the Peace Prize to Gore and the IPCC is "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change." In justifying its choice, the Committee attempts to link the prospect of "extensive climate changes [that] may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind" with the possibility that such change "may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. . . . There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, with and between states" (emphasis ours).

So, the most prestigious award in all the world is given because the Nobel Committee, determining from backpedaling IPCC reports that manmade climate change is real, foresees that it might cause groups to migrate, compete, and engage in conflict over resources. As the Committee also wrote, "Indications of changes in the earth's future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds." Such is the tenuous link between climate change and world peace. Rather than awarding the prize to someone or some group that is actually doing something now to foster peace between peoples, the Committee chose to laud Gore and the IPCC for perhaps reducing future conflicts by increasing awareness that climate change may disturb the present harmony among nations and ethnic groups over resources.

It appears that the members of the Nobel Committee live in a sealed environment cut off from the real world. There are many real conflicts raging right now over earth's precious resources. In fact, one can argue that the world's spotlighted conflict, the Iraq War and its aftermath, is a struggle over Middle East oil, the fuel of the world's economy. In addition, the migrations of workers from poor to rich countries—for example, Hispanics into America and Muslims into Europe—are related to a lack of resources in their homelands and an abundance of them in the developed nations, and they are creating conflict. Yet, none of these present-day confrontations have been set off by manmade climate change, today's cause célèbre, so the supposed prevention of hypothetical future conflicts becomes the reason for Gore's selection. What a peacemaker he might be!

What a mockery of peacemaking! The Nobel Peace Prize has degenerated into a political farce to legitimatize select globalist ideas and movements. The climate change mantra is not being used to bring peace but to assert control over human activity, to urge the ratification and enforcement of treaties, laws, and regulations that limit rights and progress, especially in industrialized, developed nations in the West. Peace is liberating, but the politics of green are ultimately to gain power over large segments of humanity in the name of environmental sustainability. Such control and power in human hands will not bring peace but more war.

God says, "The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace" (Isaiah 59:8). Human nature makes it impossible for mankind to make a lasting peace; men and women are always too willing to fight for their self-interests (see James 4:1-3). Peace will come to mankind only when Christ returns in power and, ironically, forces humanity to live His way of peace. As Zechariah 9:9-10 says of Him, "Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation. . . . [T]he battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be 'from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.'" This is the real, glorious peace prize we seek.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Are Biofuels the Answer?

As the price of oil rises toward the $100 per barrel mark—and American motorists see more of their income burned at the pump—finding alternative sources of energy has become a major issue. An increasing number of consumers, many of them of the "green" variety, have opted for hybrid cars like the popular Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic and Accord hybrids. American manufacturers have jumped into the market as well, producing such hybrid vehicles as the Saturn Aura and the Ford Escape.

Hybrids are just that, a synthesis of two separate technologies: the internal combustion engine and the electric motor. The modern hybrid uses an efficient gasoline engine as its primary power plant, with the electric motor providing extra power when needed, as well as being able to run the car exclusively—say, in slower city traffic—for even greater efficiency. The 2007 Prius, mid-range in price among hybrids, costs about $23,000.

However, because the modern, industrial economy runs on oil, many movers and shakers want to solve the problem at the source—not by making vehicles more efficient, but by making fuel that is more affordable and renewable. At the same time, they hope that this fuel will also be more environmentally friendly and decrease our dependence on foreign supply. To many, the answer is biofuel.

Biofuel, known as "agrofuel" to some, is any kind of fuel made from biomass—organic substances. The most common biomass crops are corn (maize), soybeans, and sugar cane, although such things as sorghum, hemp, cotton, various grasses, sunflowers, cassava, potatoes, rice husks, wheat, as well as animal fats, food waste, manure, and waste wood have or are being used to produce biofuels. To make ethanol, also called ethyl or grain alcohol, enzymes are used to release sugars from stored starches in the biomass. The extracted sugars are fermented and distilled to produce an alcohol, which is then "dried" or de-moistured, leaving a highly combustible liquid that can be used alone or mixed with gasoline in any ratio.

Most gasoline engines on the market today can use up to about 10 percent ethanol when blended with gasoline (called E10). Because ethanol corrodes components containing iron, any higher ethanol mixture requires modifications to the engine, which are found in the "flex-fuel" vehicles now being sold by several manufacturers. The Renewable Fuels Association reports that the United States produced 4.855 billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, while U.S. demand topped 5.37 billion gallons. (Current ethanol statistics can be found at

While ethanol would seem to be a sure bet, it is inherently less efficient than gasoline. Since pure ethanol (E100) contains about 34% less energy per unit than gasoline, its use will result in a 34% fewer miles per gallon (MPG). Even in E10, MPG is reduced by 3%. Lower fuel mileage means more frequent refueling and thus higher cost. According to National Geographic (July 2007), a motorist who drives a gasoline-powered car may pay $3.03/gallon, but the owner of a flex-fuel vehicle that uses E85 (85% ethanol), priced at $2.62/gallon at the pump, will actually end up paying $3.71/gallon for an equivalent MPG.

Ethanol is also touted as a more energy-efficient fuel on the production side than petroleum. For instance, proponents say that for every unit of energy used to produce ethanol, there is a gain of 1.34 units of usable energy. By contrast, they claim, petroleum's "energy balance" is a dismal 0.805 units, a net loss of energy. However, if that were so, it would be unprofitable for oil companies to bring petroleum fuels to market.

It turns out that these two figures are apples and oranges, as they are calculated on different bases. Using input versus output BTUs (a unit of heat energy), the energy return on energy invested for gasoline is about four times better than for ethanol (5:1 vs. 1.27:1). Crude oil as a whole (which includes many other fuels besides gasoline) has a total energy return of roughly 10:1.

While ethanol promoters use "reduced dependence on foreign oil" as a major selling point, the underlying motivation is environmental. Ethanol is indeed produced and burns cleaner than gasoline, and it is made from renewable substances. Despite these commendable factors, ethanol comes with two major downsides: 1) It is terribly expensive to convert a fossil-fuel-based economy to ethanol; and 2) it requires that vast swathes of fertile land be switched from growing food to producing biomass.

Put differently, its advocates are more concerned about being environmentally friendly and sustainable than about either the nation's economy or, more importantly, feeding its citizens inexpensively. Too high fuel and pollution standards could stall America's economic engine, and diverting food supplies to make biofuels will certainly inflate food costs. One-fifth of the U.S. corn crop is already being diverted to fuel production, leading to a doubling of the price of corn. As a staple crop, corn prices affect a wide variety of food industries, such as beef, pork, and poultry producers; cereal and snack food makers; and vegetable oil manufacturers, among others. At the end of the line, the consumer takes the biggest hit.

Are biofuels the answer? Not yet—and they may never be. Like solar and wind power, they are certainly not silver bullets for our energy woes. Oil is still the king of fuels, and world events will continue to churn around those nations that have it and those that do not. Today's—and tomorrow's—superpowers will run on Black Gold, and oil fields and oil production centers will remain major prizes in the run-up to the return of Jesus Christ.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Real Solution to Baggy Pants

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A few months ago, as my wife and I were bustling through a local Wal-Mart on our weekly shopping "date," we came across a trio of young men slouching their way down a main aisle. They were walking three abreast at turtle-time, attempting to look hip and tough, bored with the world but too cool to care. Beyond their attitude, what was attracting attention was that all three of them—in order to walk at all—had to have a firm grip with one or both hands on their pants! They were sporting oversized jeans-shorts, but they might as well have been long pants for as low as these three were wearing them. Yes, it was a baggy-pants sighting. We were lucky—if that is the word—that we were not witnesses to any indecent exposure.

Similar baggy-pants sightings have been happening for some time throughout America. It is primarily an "urban" fashion statement, supposedly an exaggeration of belt-less prison pants endorsed by hip-hop and rap artists, a rebellious sneer at societal conventions. Baggy pants are the latest in a long line of avant-garde clothing styles among young people breaking from the mores and standards of their parents and trying to carve out their own identity. They are modern versions of grunge, punk, mod, hippie, beat, and other youth clothing trends over the past fifty years, as it seems that every new crop of teens feels it must test the culture's boundaries. Remember bell-bottoms and halter-tops?

Let me go on record as saying that the baggy-pants phenomenon is ridiculous. It not only looks stupid, but it may also pose a safety hazard should any baggy-pants wearing youth need to move faster than a slow crawl. One slip from the grip, and a face-plant on the sidewalk is a real possibility. Of course, there is also the problem of indecent exposure.

To combat this trend, several communities—from Atlanta to Charlotte to Dallas to Trenton—have enacted or proposed bans on baggy or saggy pants. These saggy-baggy laws usually mandate a modest fine, but on the extreme end, the Delcambre, Louisiana, "bare-your-britches" law comes with a fine of $500 or six months in jail for the public exposure of underwear. The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting these local ordinances, saying that they are racially discriminatory, targeting only young black males. CNN reports one hip-hop clothing shop owner asking, "Are they going to go after construction workers and plumbers, because their pants sag too? They're stereotyping us."

One problem with this argument is that these laws are primarily proposed and endorsed by black lawmakers, preachers, and community groups concerned about both the public image of African-Americans and the trajectory of a generation of black men. The Trenton, New Jersey, law still being drafted not only assesses a fine, but the offender must also undergo evaluation and counseling regarding the direction of his life. Turning the racial bias argument on its head, some proponents argue that the wearing of baggy pants automatically stereotypes a young man as a shiftless rebel, causing employers not to hire him, and thus aggravating the problem. In addition, the fad has crossed over into general youth culture, so it is not a single-race issue.

Even so, the baggy-pants problem is most critical in the black community. Obviously, politicians and community leaders want to provide a solution to the dilemma—or at least to be seen trying to do something. What is frustrating—and oh-so-typical these days—is that their first spasmodic reaction is to propose, draft, and enact a law to cover the specific infraction that they do not like. Every community in America, however, has at least two ordinances on their books to deal with baggy-pants offenders: indecent exposure and disorderly conduct. These laws are usually vague enough to be used to deal with most situations of nudity or partial nudity and the public reaction to it. They just need to be enforced.

When problems like this arise, we are often quick to cry, "Where are the parents?" Truly, parents are a society's first line of defense in shaping a productive and moral next generation of citizens. It is unfortunate that, in this case, too many urban black families are single-parent households, and the only parent is almost always the mother. By the time her young son reaches his mid-teens, unless she has made extraordinary efforts, he is more likely to conform to his peers than to his mom's advice and desires for his success. It is a terribly sad state of affairs. (See Kay S. Hymowitz, "The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies," City Journal, Summer 2005.)

In this parental near-vacuum, other members of the black community have tried to pick up the slack. Mostly, it has been left-leaning black activist groups that have led the charge, advocating well-known socialist policies like Affirmative Action. Yet, after two generations of political agitation to level the playing field for minorities, family conditions, the root of the problem, have worsened. Churches and their pastors have entered the fray as well, but overall, their impact has been limited. It is a tragic, seemingly hopeless situation.

The solution is not more laws, not more activism, not more money for social programs. The answer is a commitment to marriage. Noted economists Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell and others regularly preach that the secret to staying out of poverty in America is three-fold: 1) Graduate from high school; 2) get a job and keep it; and 3) get married and stay married. The last point not only provides personal stability, but it also ensures that the next generation grows up in a stable and hopefully loving environment. Statistics consistently show that the two-parent family makes the best platform for continued and increasing success of children of all ethnicities (see "The Mysterious Marriage Advantage," The Family in America, March 2007). The solution really is that simple, though it does take time and effort.

It is for reasons like this that the first institution that God created for humanity was marriage, even before creating the Sabbath (He ordained marriage on the sixth day, the Sabbath on the seventh; compare Genesis 1:27; 2:2-3, 18-24). As God said in the Garden of Eden, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Genesis 2:18). Human beings were made to live in committed, divinely joined pairs, not just for reproductive reasons, but also for deep relational and social reasons. When the institution of marriage breaks down, the whole society begins to crack and crumble.

Baggy pants are just a sign of this breakdown. So, the secret to hitching up our youths' pants is—pardon the pun—getting hitched.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Lost Perspective

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We are just days away from the sixth anniversary of the attacks on Manhattan's World Trade Center Towers by Muslim extremists. As everyone recalls, the dual 737 crashes into the buildings caused massive damage, and within just a few hours, both towers and a few of the surrounding buildings lay in rubble on the plaza below. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost that day, in the related disasters in New York City, Washington, and rural Pennsylvania. The finger of blame quickly pointed at Islamic terrorists, specifically Osama bin Laden and his organization, al Qaeda.

The U.S. response was swift. President George W. Bush and his administration concocted the War on Terror, and American Army and Marine troops, supported by the Air Force and Navy, made quick work of the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing what has become known as al Qaeda Prime deep into the rugged mountain fastnesses of the northern border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along with his chief lieutenants, bin Laden went to ground, and though al Qaeda has released several tapes of his pep talks to his jihadist followers, we have seen little more than a few digital images of him since.

In the spring of 2003, U.S. troops, along with those of its staunchest allies, invaded Iraq, and in a wink, Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the Baathist regime were on the run. Saddam's statue fell in Baghdad, and Saddam himself was soon pulled from a rat hole to stand trial and ultimately to die justly for his many atrocities. The Iraqis, when they were not killing each other, tried and only partially succeeded in forming a new government.

And there coalition forces have remained, mostly Americans but complemented by small contingents from other nations. It soon became known as an occupying force, accused of imperialism, torture, sexual assault, murder, and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors. The press began to use such ridiculous terms as "bogged down" and "quagmire" (can an army be bogged down or mired in a desert?), "insurgency" (can international terrorists be called "insurgents"?), and "exit strategy" (like the exit strategies from the Philippines, Cuba, Korea, Germany, and Japan, where American troops are still stationed after similar invasions?). In the eyes of many Americans—and frankly, many around the world, too—"mission accomplished" morphed into "more Middle East mess."

Almost before the dust had settled in Manhattan, the ugly head of political self-interest took over the country's perception of the War on Terror. Hawks debated doves. Patriots battled with globalists. Pragmatists fought idealists. Spenders disputed budgeters. The religious sparred with the secular. Of course, Republicans wrangled with Democrats, conservatives with liberals, and strict constructionists with revisionists. Everyone took sides for or against the government's actions. By the time the 2006 mid-term elections rolled around, the War on Terror and the Iraq War in particular had become the determining issue in many contested races.

Now we are in the midst of the Iraq "surge," an infusion of thousands of extra troops to quell hot spots and to give the fledgling Iraqi government a chance to get its footing. A successful surge would also set the stage for a draw-down of troops to more acceptable levels. Every pundit's breath is bated, it seems, awaiting the report on the surge by Commanding General David Patraeus on Monday, September 10, 2007. Will he give the surge a "thumbs up" and recommend troop withdrawals? More people are asking, "Will his report help the Commander-in-Chief or his detractors?"

In many ways, however, we have lost our perspective since those moments of clarity in the weeks following September 11, 2001. America, whether it wants it or not, is at war. Its enemies are clearly radical Muslims who have chosen to use terrorism against Western interests in the United States and around the world. These jihadists, most of whom claim some sort of connection to al Qaeda, are willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of their religious fanaticism, to conquer the world for Islam. They will take any means necessary—including using nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, should they get their hands on some and figure out how to deliver them—to crush the Crusaders, as they call Westerners, and enforce the worship of Allah upon all humanity.

Under these terms, the squabbling over the War on Terror and the Iraq War seem trite and childish. In addition, these arguments often ignore what has been accomplished. Al Qaeda Prime, trapped like a mouse in a corner, can only screech out feeble threats and warnings from its wilderness cave. Mainland America has not suffered another terrorist incident since the World Trade Center disaster, while several plots have been foiled. Citizens may scream about lax border security, lax port security, and pointless, politically correct airport screening, but the fact remains that Americans have not suffered terrorism at home since September 2001. Finally, in terms of the Axis of Evil, Saddam Hussein and his bloodthirsty regime no longer exist; Iran, despite all its bluster, has turned down the wick on its nuclear program and is "negotiating" with the U.S.; and North Korea, though still ruled by the certifiable Kim Jong Il, is for now meekly knuckling under the demands made of it in the Six-Party Talks.

Sure, not all is peaches and cream in America. This nation has its problems, problems that it desperately needs to face and fix. Nevertheless, these concerns should not make us so jaundiced that we cannot appreciate the few glimpses of silver lining that appear every now and again. These little bits of hope for ultimate success should encourage and motivate Americans to press on with the fight in the can-do spirit our forefathers showed as they carved out a nation for themselves on this continent.

And for Christians, let it be a lesson that we can apply in our own spiritual battles. Though things seem to be spiraling downward around us, we can use our little victories as motivation to put more effort into overcoming and growing, turning seeming defeat into victory (I Corinthians 15:57-58).

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Threat in Central Asia

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When foreigners come to this country and comment on American news coverage, it is usually to opine that our reporting is, frankly, self-interested. The talking heads tell their audiences about American politics, American tragedies, American foreign policy, American military activity, and American human-interest stories. If something happens in which U.S. interests are not involved, well, it gets a momentary mention or none at all. The American public, it seems, only needs to know about events that hit close to home.

This is probably why only a handful of Americans—and most of them are foreign policy watchers and news junkies—have any idea what the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is or that it even exists. To enlighten the rest of us, the SCO was organized in June 2001 as an intergovernmental security group composed of six nations: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Before that, since 1996, the first five of these six nations had been similarly organized as the Shanghai Five under the "Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions," which was signed in Shanghai, thus the memorable name.

Since 2001, four additional countries—Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, and India—have all been officially accepted as observer nations in the group, and all of these desire to become full members. Significantly, the United States applied for observer status in 2005 and was summarily rejected as not having a stake in the region. Several other Central Asian nations, such as Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, have shown interest in joining the group.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the SCO is security in the Central Asian region, with the focus on separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Although SCO officials have said that it is not the Organization's purpose to form a military bloc, they have held several joint military exercises—in fact, they met in summit and held joint exercises just this week in the southern Ural Mountains. Member nations' foreign affairs and defense ministers hold regular meetings, and they encourage contact and cooperation among their various law enforcement agencies. Its interests have also expanded into economics, trade, investments, energy, transportation, legal cooperation, illegal drug interdiction, humanitarian assistance, and environmental concerns.

In an August 17, 2007, release, the Associated Press reports:

The summit concluded with a communiqué that sounded like a thinly veiled warning to the United States to stay away from the strategically placed, resource-rich region.

"Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations," the statement said.

India-born Dilip Hiro, writing in The Guardian on June 16, 2006, comments: "The rising importance and coherence of the SCO worries Washington—as well as its closest Asian ally, Japan. 'The SCO is becoming a rival block to the U.S. alliance,' said a senior Japanese official recently. 'It does not share our values. We are watching it very closely.'" The concern is that the SCO is becoming a challenger to NATO.

The nation that has the most to gain by using the SCO for its purposes abroad is Russia. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian bear is reviving internationally, once again making "great power" statements on foreign affairs and flexing military muscles that were even recently thought to be atrophied (for instance, Russian TU-95 bombers buzzed U.S. Navy assets near Guam on August 9). Due to its huge energy resources, particularly oil and natural gas, the Russian economy is stable, and the fossil fuel demands of nearby nations, specifically European nations, give Moscow a stout cudgel to use to persuade them to see things its way. Thus, it is thought that Russia, as well as the other oil-rich Central Asian nations, may try to use the SCO as a club to expand its energy dominance. In this guise, the SCO would be a new OPEC with teeth.

From a biblical point of view, the formation of this relatively new group may have interesting ramifications. Ezekiel 38 contains the famous and somewhat controversial "Gog and Magog" prophecy. The controversy revolves primarily around the prophecy's timing. Some—and a majority of Protestant prophecy watchers would fit in this camp—believe that this great army will come out of the East to destroy the State of Israel during the lead-up to the return of Christ. The other side figures that the placement of Ezekiel 38 and many of its internal details argue for it being a parallel prophecy to the attack of Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:7-9, that is, late in the Millennial period.

However, the intriguing aspect of the SCO concerns the peoples, the nations, that are involved. To a great extent, they line up well with those mentioned in Ezekiel 38:2-6. Gog, Magog, Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal all have links with Russia. Persia is modern Iran. Ethiopia and Libya are "Cush" and "Put" in the Hebrew, both of which had Eastern branches that settled in the areas of the "Stans" (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, etc.) and India. Gomer probably refers to the Chinese, and Togarmah most likely indicates Mongolia and some of the Siberian tribes. These identifications are admittedly speculative, though they are based on sound biblical, historical, and linguistic evidence.

Nevertheless, an Eastern bloc led by a resurgent Russia, comprised of nations that contain half the world's population in aggregate, having four nuclear club members and huge, modern, well-equipped armies, and with black gold to back it, is a force to be reckoned with. We would be wise to keep an eye on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization over the next few years.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The 'Exceptional' 2007 Drought

The American Southeast should not look as it does. Rows of cypress trees lining the streets are dead and brown. Lawns, which should be a brilliant green, are dry and withered. Streams, ponds, and lakes are all down several feet from their normal water levels. The clear, blue sky, once so beautiful in forecasting a bright, sunny day, has become unwelcome all across the parched South, from Alabama and Tennessee, through Georgia, to North and South Carolina. Parts of all five of these states are experiencing what the U.S. Drought Monitor calls a D4 or "exceptional" drought.

The Drought Monitor's producers—a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, the National Climatic Data Center, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln—describe D4 drought conditions as "exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies." It is the most intense category of drought—expected only once every one hundred years—and obviously the most difficult from which to recover. A "normal" amount of rainfall in subsequent years will not refill reservoirs and water tables to pre-drought levels.

Northern Georgia lies in the center of the exceptional drought area. In late August, 70 of the state's 159 counties were under the exceptional condition, and with continued hot and dry weather, additional counties are expected to be added to the list. According to the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences:

Soil moisture is near the 1st percentile across most of west and north Georgia. At this level, we would expect the soil to be moister in 99 of 100 years. Most streams across west and north Georgia are at or near record low flows for late August. The Chattooga River in the northeast mountains is approaching an all-time record low flow. The stream gage data for the Chattooga goes back 67 years.

In the next few months, "the best hope"—the University's term—for relief from the dire drought is from tropical weather systems, that is, tropical storms or hurricanes. Absent such an event or two, the outlook for the fall and winter is grim. In addition, long-range forecasts predict a drier, warmer winter for the U.S. Southeast.

Lake Lanier, the main reservoir for the city of Atlanta and its five million area residents, has received national media attention, both for its record low levels and the fact that it also supplies water to northern Florida, where certain endangered mussel species and sturgeon face a heightened threat due to the water scarcity. By law, Georgia must release 3.2 billion gallons of water per day downstream to fill Florida's hydroelectric needs as well as to preserve its wildlife.

Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue argues that, since water supplies have slipped under the three-month threshold, water outflows from Georgia need to be reduced, and Florida counties should place businesses and residents under water restrictions. The well-being of people, he declares, should take precedence over endangered fish. His point becomes even weightier, if, as it is expected, the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Carol Couch, recommends tightened water restrictions for the Atlanta area, which may include mandatory cutbacks on commercial and industrial users. If they are implemented, these water restrictions would be the most severe in the history of U.S. metropolitan areas.

Biblically, drought has long been seen as a sign of God's displeasure with His people. Both of the "blessing and cursing" chapters (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) include drought among the curses for disobedience. For example, God says in Leviticus 26:18-20:

And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. . . . I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (See Deuteronomy 28:23-24.)

Amos 4:6-8 illustrates God's use of drought—and the resulting famine—as a prod to induce repentance, a method of persuasion that Israel rarely heeded:

"Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places; yet you have not returned to Me," says the Lord. "I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. I made it rain on one city, I withheld rain from another city. One part was rained upon, and where it did not rain the part withered . . . yet you have not returned to Me," says the Lord.

In this modern, scientific age, we tend to consider droughts like the current one to be merely extremes of the meteorological cycle. Yet, God is sovereign over His creation, and He is still at work among the descendants of His people Israel. With its extensive exposure to Christian principles, the modern nations of Israel should know what God expects of them in their conduct, but America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the other Israelite countries have increasingly ignored God and His way. As a result, their cultures have become secular, greedy, and self-indulgent.

It should be no wonder, then, that such a broad swath of the United States is experiencing this exceptional drought. Will the citizens of America's Bible Belt return to God? If not, what worse disasters can be expected in the future?