Monday, February 14, 2011

The Nightmare of Democracy?

    The founding fathers of the United States often referred to it as an experiment in democracy.  These men knew that democracies often self-destruct and as I noted last week, at least one of these men (John Adams) felt that democracy required for the people to be both moral and religious in order to be successful.  In that light, I have been wondering about the current upheaval in Egypt.  Much of the world and many of my friends are rejoicing at the victory of the people in Egypt but I find many reasons to be cautious.  
    First, I suppose is simply that often times the devil we know is less frightening than the devil we don’t know.  Mr. Mubarak has recently been denigrated as a ‘tyrant’ but not that long ago he was a ‘valuable ally.’  I don’t keep up to date on the current events in many nations around the world so I admit that I may have missed something, but I am left noticing that there seems to be some revisionist history going on.  It is also important to remember that Egypt has technically been a democratic nation and that Mr. Mubarak was a democratically elected leader despite his recently publicized tyranny.

    Second, it is important to recall that democracy does not always end well.  Historically, there are a number of notable democratic elections that resulted in governments that were far worse than the ones they replaced.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were democratically elected and used the constitution of the Weimar Republic to seize even more power.  In our lifetime we saw that the current theocratic government of Iran was democratically elected (sort of) during the Iranian Revolution but is, in many ways, worse than the monarchy that it replaced.

    Finally, we should be reminded that Americans tend to see the world as Americans who live overseas.  By that I mean that we tend to think that people on the other side of the ocean a) like us and b) want to be like us.  Those of us who have traveled abroad or who have even met people from abroad will have no difficulty in saying that in many cases, neither of these is true.  When it comes to democracy, what works for us may not work for everyone.  What we want is not what the people of Egypt want.  As a result, the government that Egypt ultimately ends up with is not likely to look anything at all like ours, democratically elected or not.

    So what do the people of Egypt want?  The Pew Research Center conducted a major survey of adults in Egypt last year and the results were summarized in Investor’s Weekly

84% favor the death penalty for person leaving the Muslim faith.

82% favor the death penalty for adultery

54% believe that women and men should be segregated in the workplace.

54% believe that suicide bombings that kill civilians can be justified.

Half support the terrorist group Hamas.  

82% dislike the United States.

95% prefer that religion play a “large role” in politics.

    If these are the prevailing opinions of adult Egyptians, then despite any claims to the contrary any democratically elected government is likely to mirror those opinions.  As a result, that government will likely not be all that we, as Americans and as Christians, might hope for.  To me, it seems that any democratically elected government that represented a people that held these values might eventually desire the following structures and policies:

-          Is likely to be highly influenced by the religion of Islam and may incorporate Sharia law.
-          It may not value the personal liberties and equal rights that we assume to be normative.  Women, minorities, and non-Muslims are likely to suffer from discrimination and perhaps even outright persecution.  Under Mubarak, Egypt has not done well in protecting the religious liberties of native Coptic Christians who represent 10% of the population.  A government that openly favors Islam cannot be expected to do better.

-          May well lend government support and financial aid to organizations that we see as terrorist groups.

-          Will almost certainly not be friendly to the interests of the United States.

-          Will likely be hostile to the nation of Israel.

    It is not a foregone conclusion that these things will happen and, in fact, I hope they do not but I realize that what I want is not nearly the same as what the average Egyptian wants.

    Today the Egyptian military officially suspended Egypt’s constitution and dissolved the parliament.  With that, what we have (so far) in Egypt is no less than a military coup.  Our founding fathers knew that democracies often self-destruct.  Democracy was (and is) a dangerous thing.  There are a thousand ways that a democratic government can go horribly wrong and history is full of examples.  Read any newspaper and you can see that it is something that we worry over constantly ourselves.

    I hope that a new government will bring the people of Egypt everything that they hope for.  My fear is that whatever form it takes may not be good news for us, for Israel, and for many Egyptians.

    Please pray for Egypt.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? (Part 4 of 4)

    There remains one aspect of this issue that is often passed over or ignored entirely and yet, in my mind is perhaps most important of all.  Earlier I said, “Most of our laws are prohibitions against actions or behavior that we commonly agree is not compatible with the maintenance of an orderly society or which or society generally agrees is immoral.”  Although many in our modern culture would like to forget it, our nation was founded on principles that were heavily influenced by the writings of the Bible and much of our legal system stems from the legal foundations of Christianity with notable contributions from other religions as well.

    The legal precepts of the Bible are largely prohibitions against actions and behaviors, not the ownership of things.  It is people who are immoral and not objects.  John Adams (second President of the United States) once said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  If we are to be truly effective in our efforts to reduce violence and to create a safer society we cannot ignore the contributions of culture and religion on morality.   As much handwringing as we do about violence and gun control, we ought to be equally concerned about declines in culture and morality.  My suspicion is that many of the very people who publicly rant in favor of gun control would be appalled by the idea of content controls on movies, television and musical artists.  I am not advocating censorship, but to me it seems that any perceived increase in criminal activity can be blamed on declining culture, politeness and morality just as easily as it can on guns and gun owners.
    As I said, there are no easy answers but if John Adams was right, teaching morals to our children, getting people back to church and developing a better relationship with their God will do far more than any laws that we can pass.  These are things that each of us can do and I believe that this is where we have the greatest opportunity for success. 

At the very least, that is where I intend to spend my time.   

How about you?

    (Go back to Part 3)              (Go to Part 2)             (Go back to the beginning in Part 1)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? (Part 3 of 4)

    In any discussion involving firearms or the 2nd Amendment we are almost certain to hear the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  This may be a true statement but it isn’t very helpful.  Yes, guns require that there be a person to pull the trigger.  The difficulty with placing the blame on the user is that, however mentally deranged or socially deviant the person at the trigger, guns make killing shockingly easy.  Every year people go to prison because the gun they were holding fired either accidentally or because it fired far more easily than they expected.  While many things can be used to harm others, few other weapons suffer from this trio of horrors, a) ease of use, b) devastating damage, and c) the potential for accidents. 

    On the other hand, there remains a human being who is in control, who makes a conscious decision to load, carry, and point a firearm.  Once that is done, the “accidental” nature of a discharge, intentional or not is practically irrelevant next to the intent already demonstrated and the chain of poor choices that has already been made.  The truth is that social misfits, deranged persons, and anyone who intends to do harm to another will not be deterred by a lack of access to a firearm.  Congresswoman Giffords was meeting people in a supermarket parking lot.  Without a gun, her assault could just as effectively been carried out in an automobile and the harm to innocent bystanders would have been equally great or worse. 
Congresswoman Giffords’ assailant was not unintelligent.  Without access to a firearm, it would not been difficult for him to construct an improvised explosive device (IED).  Fifty years ago construction of such a device might have taken a fair amount of research but today the Internet makes it all too easy.  Curiously, the man who disarmed the gunman credits his courage to the handgun he himself was carrying and wonders what might have happened had he not stopped for cigarettes and arrived a few moments earlier.

    If it seems that I am taking both sides in this discussion it is because I am.  Once again we are engaged in a public discussion where both sides have legitimate concerns.  There are no easy answers.  Every potential solution has potentially serious and harmful consequences, including that of doing nothing and allowing things to continue as they are.  As we move toward a solution, we must continue to have an open discussion that reveals all of our concerns because what we are ultimately choosing are those consequences with which we are most willing to live.

    It is difficult to say whether we are on the right road or the wrong one.  The statistics that are available present us with a mixed bag.  FBI statistics reveal that violent crime (in fact crime of all kinds) in the US has been falling steadily since  the early 1990’s and currently is about half the level it was in 1991.

    According to statistics from the United Nations, the United States ranks 24th  in murders per capita (behind Columbia, South Africa, Mexico and Russia but ahead of most other developed nations) but 8th in murders with a firearm (again behind Columbia, South Africa, and Mexico).  We are also 8th in total crimes per capita but this time behind nations like New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.  Finally, according to an EU  study cited in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper,the per capita violent crime rate in the US is less than that of ten European nations of the EU and Canada (but more than Australia).  

    What I see in this data is that while we (in the US) seem to stand out in our capacity to murder, American society is less prone to violent crime overall.  For years it was assumed that violent crime was linked to population density and this was used to explain why cities appeared to have more violent crime.  Recent studies seem to refute this and show that per capita, cities are no more violent or prone to crime than other less populated areas.  How guns play into this remains unclear, at least to me.  It would be interesting to compare the rates of violent crime, murder and gun crimes in cities where strong gun controls have been enacted with cities that have none.  I favor a ‘go slow’ approach that allows local and state governments to try a variety of solutions and see what works (and what does not) before launching a nationwide initiative based on untested theories and hunches particularly when each potential solution has a consequence of its own.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? (Part 2 of 4)

So what is it that bugs me about gun laws?

    As I considered my own discomfort I might have landed on an idea.  I’ve now confused several discussions in my mind, but in one such discussion, (and of course now I can’t find it) Terry (or someone) asked, “If gun laws are irrelevant because people will break the law anyway, then why bother making laws regarding murder or rape or anything else?”  Why indeed?  What is the difference between laws against murder and laws banning guns?  This is not an easy question, at least it hasn’t been for me, but as I thought about it (and I still don’t have everything figured out) a few things began to come together.
Most of our laws are prohibitions against actions or behavior that we commonly agree is not compatible with the maintenance of an orderly society or which our society generally agrees is immoral.  Murder and rape fall into these categories.  John Adams said that in the United States we are a “government of laws and not of men.”  So what are laws?  Saint Thomas Aquinas said this… “Law: An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community.”  As I see it, our laws are outlines which we use to describe for ourselves what constitutes acceptable behavior.  Laws are external, they do not (and indeed cannot) cause a change in that behavior.  Behavior is internal and is shaped by our character and morality.   I’m not the first person to feel this way. 
“You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people.”                                                                                          - Will Rogers 

 “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”            - Plato

 The difficulty is that gun laws would ban, not unacceptable behaviors or actions or even morality, but things… objects. 

    Somehow when we move from using behavior, actions and morality as defining characteristics of who we are as a society to determining what we may or may not own we are making an important shift.  I suppose in many respects we already do this.  We already restrict the ownership of high powered lasers and many explosives, but even then, if you really want them, there are local, state and federal permits for which you can apply that will allow you to own them (if you meet all of the necessary requirements).  Many drugs and poisons are also restricted.  Few, if any, of us would argue that individuals should be able to own nuclear materials or intercontinental ballistic missiles (although private individuals may launch really large rockets if they can afford it and if they meet stringent permitting requirements) but where do we draw the line?  

    In the discussion of gun ownership, I have heard others scoff at the idea of gun collecting, but why?  Frankly, the idea of gun collecting holds no interest for me, but then again, all sorts of people collect all sorts of things that I find to me far more ridiculous than guns.  People collect glassware, playing cards, stamps, beer cans, pop tabs, lunch boxes, Avon perfume bottles, decorative whiskey bottles and a million other things that others find to be useless or worse.  We all have dramatically differing tastes in what we find interesting and one of the strengths of our nation has been the freedom to pursue whatever interests us, regardless of what others think.  Just because gun collecting doesn’t interest me, in no way reflects on whether or not I think it ought to be legal.

    In a nation where the ownership of private property has always been an important value, how willing are we to criminalize the ownership of firearms or anything else?  How far are we willing to go?  More to the point, if our laws help us to define who we are as a people and as a nation, at what point would these changes fundamentally rewrite our understanding of our identity and how we understand our freedom itself?

    (Go to Part 3)                       (Back to Part 1)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Laws of Man and God - Are guns evil? (Part 1 of 4)

 (Author's Note: I started writing this two or three weeks ago, it got bigger than I expected and it just kept growing.  Because of it's size, I am breaking this up and will post one part each day for four days.  I don't intend for this to be a purely political forum but my hope is to discuss political events and find where they intersect biblical teaching.  That element does appear in this discussion but it doesn't show up until Part 4 so please be patient.)

    After the horrifying shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the news was full of talking heads from every political persuasion arguing over the cause and how such a tragedy might be prevented in the future.  I have grown so tired of such talk that I mostly ignored it.  What made me stop and think was a conversation that I had on Facebook with my friend, Terry Fairfax.  Terry and I met in our high school band.  Today he is a lawyer (and remains a huge musical talent).  Terry and I are sometimes, at least politically, worlds apart but I enjoy chatting with him because we respect one another and we are both willing to consider the merits of logical arguments, even when we disagree. 

    As we often do, we came at this tragedy from different perspectives and drew from experiences of different lives.  As such tragedies often do, the discussion of Rep. Gifford’s shooting caused us to consider the need for individuals to own firearms and then, obviously, our constitutional rights to “keep and bear arms.”  Terry made me think.  His knowledge of the law and history made me dig deeper and get past a lot of the sound bites thrown out by conservatives in the media.  Eventually we agreed on some things and disagreed on others while remaining friends.  

    As I continue to reflect on our discussion, something has been bothering me.  I found myself wondering why the ideas of gun control and the passing of gun laws bothers me.  Understand that I am not (nor have I ever been) a huge proponent of gun ownership.  I have served in the military.  I have trained on and have carried an M-16 rifle for many days and for many miles.  I am comfortable around firearms but at the same time, I can see that there is a logical problem with permitting ordinary citizens to own weapons of moderate destruction.  Things like rocket launchers, tanks, hand grenades and land mines, in the interests of everyone’s safety, should belong to the military.  So what is it that bugs me about the idea of gun laws? 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. Shea!

This week, George Beverly Shea celebrates his 102nd birthday. For many of you this may not mean a lot, but it should. Mr. Shea started out singing on the radio in Chicago for the Moody Bible Institute but eventually was asked by Rev. Billy Graham to lead the singing during his worldwide crusades. For untold numbers of us, Billy Graham’s preaching is forever connected with Mr. Shea’s singing and some of the great hymns of the faith just “belong” to him. For me, there are several of these great old songs that, when I hear them in my head, it is George Beverly Shea’ voice that I hear.

George Beverly Shea has been under contract to RCA records for 26 years and was signed to his first recording contract by the same guy that signed Elvis. Mr. Shea holds the record for the Guinness Book of World Records mark for singing in front of the most people ever, a combined audience of 220 million. He's recorded more than 500 vocal solos, more than 70 albums and performed on radio, TV and in film. He's been nominated for a Grammy award ten times won one in 1965. This week, Mr. Shea will also travel to Los Angeles where he will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy (in other words, a Grammy Award). Although Mr. Shea has never been as popular as Elvis or even any of the current crop of recording artists, his longevity goes far beyond almost any other recording artist. Generations of Christians have been captivated by his singing and generations of Christian musicians have been inspired by him.

So, happy birthday Mr. Shea and congratulations. I suspect that you have no idea just how many people whose lives you have changed. We won’t ever meet on earth, but when the time comes, I’m sure that many of us will stop by your place in heaven to say thank you.

For more, here is a great article where I found most of my facts.

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