Monday, November 30, 2015

The Drama of Los Alamos

Great Books KC is a group that meets monthly in the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. June and I sometimes attend those meetings, but we were in Arizona and missed the October gathering.
 Those present at that meeting discussed the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main Hindu Scriptures. That same week I was reading a book which told about the test explosion of the first atomic bomb, which was 70 years ago on July 16, 1945.
 The brilliant scientist who led in the creation of the first atomic bomb was Robert Oppenheimer. When he witnessed that first atomic explosion in the central New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer quoted these words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
 On the second day of our car trip to Arizona in late September, June and I visited Los Alamos, which is about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. It was a short, but interesting, visit.
 Following our visit to Los Alamos, I read Jennet Conant’s 2005 book 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Everyone going to Los Alamos in those critical years of 1943 to 1945 had to pass through the office located at 109 East Palace Avenue, about a half mile north of the Capitol building in Santa Fe.   
Dorothy McKibbin, a close friend and confidante of Oppenheimer, became indispensable as the “Gatekeeper” at 109 East Palace. Conant’s book is partly McKibbin’s story as well as Oppenheimer’s. It is also about the author’s grandfather, James H. Conant.
The dedication page of the book says, simply, “For Grandpa.”
President of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, Grandpa Conant was also a member of the important National Defense Research Committee in the early 1940s. As such, he was directly involved in the Manhattan Project, the official name for the research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs.
Beginning in the fall of 1942, the Manhattan Project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In October of that year, Groves selected Oppenheimer to be the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Commissioned to design and produce atomic bombs, it formally opened on April 15, 1943. Exactly one week later Oppenheimer celebrated his 40th birthday.
From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, there was considerable drama at Los Alamos because they knew that Germany was also working on atomic bomb. Much the drama was because of the strong perception that the side succeeding in developing the bomb first would win the war.
The production itself was very difficult, and the whole thing had to be done with complete secrecy. There was also considerable tension between the military men and the scientists at Los Alamos.
By the time the first bomb was ready, Germany had already surrendered. But many thought that all of the time and effort and expense shouldn’t go to waste, so plans were made to drop the two different types of bombs produced on Japan—and they were, of course.
Seventy years ago this month, in November 1945, Oppenheimer left Los Alamos, where he had been at the center of great drama for more than 30 months.
He left, though, with a troubled conscience because of the devastation caused by the atomic bombs, and he was determined to do what he could to keep them from ever being used again.
And, certainly, we can be most grateful that atomic weapons have not been used again in these 70 years since 1945.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Listening to Richard Rohr

The pun is intended, but the man who is now a Franciscan priest, prolific author, and wise teacher was named Richard when he was born in Kansas in 1943, the first son of Richard and Eleanore Rohr. The way he writes and speaks, though, is more like a reassuring purr than a roar.
 Although I don’t agree with some of his Catholic beliefs and don’t find some of what he writes particularly helpful, on the whole I have found in recent years that Rohr is, indeed, a wise teacher and someone worth listening to.

On our way to Tucson the last of September, June and I made a brief visit to the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque. That is a rather modest facility for the organization that Rohr founded in 1986, and it has been the hub of his activities for nearly 30 years now.
As expected, we didn’t get to meet Rohr. It was meaningful, though, to spend some time in the Visitor Center and to talk with the woman who worked there.
We also walked the Labyrinth of the Dancing Christ. CAC issues this invitation to their guests: “Walk the seven circuits slowly, circling inward to rest at the center in Presence. As you circle outward, carry with you the awareness of union with all in the Divine.”
 I don’t know if we got the full benefit, but we found it meaningful to slowly walk in and out of the labyrinth.
 A few days ago I finished reading Rohr’s 2009 book The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. It is a fine book that needs to be read slowly and thought about deeply. Throughout, Rohr calls for religious growth.
 Rohr states, “Transformation into love is the heart of religious conversion.” He also says that mature religion involves “letting ourselves be changed by a mysterious encounter with grace, mercy, and forgiveness” (pp. 87-88).
 He goes on to say, many of those who have negative views toward religion are “right in what they are suspicious of, which is usually the immature form of religion, a form that is largely dominant today” (p. 120).
 Now I am all set to start reading Rohr’s book Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent.
 Although I don’t remember anything ever being said about Advent at the Baptist church that I attended weekly as a boy, for many years now I have belonged to churches where Advent is observed.
 In recent years I have also often read daily devotions during the days of Advent. This year I will be listening to Richard Rohr each day from this coming Sunday, the beginning of Advent, until Christmas.
 To this point I have read only the Introduction in Rohr’s Advent book. He says there that Christmas is more than “the sweet coming of a baby” and that the Word of God “confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order. The suffering, injustice and devastation on this planet are too great now to settle for any infantile gospel or any infantile Jesus.”
 Noteworthy words!

Monday, November 23, 2015

“Jesus was a Refugee”: An Irrelevant Argument

The massive right-wing opposition to the U.S. receiving Syrian refugees is deplorable, and those speaking out in favor of showing compassion for such refugees are to be commended. It is also praiseworthy that many of the latter are Christians, even though there are plenty of conservative Christians on the other side.
 However, the use of “Jesus was a refugee” memes is of dubious value in promoting acceptance of Syrian refugees. Jesus and his parents were not from a country that posed a terrorist threat to Egypt, nor were they among tens of thousands who were seeking refuge in Egypt.
 There are plenty of Christian motives for helping the Syrian refugees, though, the primary one being neighbor-love. Reaching out in compassion to those needing help is to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus. Shouldn’t it be far more effective to stress that teaching rather than talking about Jesus being a refugee?

The fears of the conservatives need to be taken seriously, and making fun of their xenophobia will have little positive value. The terrorist activity of ISIS and Al-Qaeda has been atrocious, and we certainly don’t want people associated with them or other similarly heinous groups to enter our country.
 But rather than trying to shame people wanting to reject Syrian refugees by pointing out that Jesus was a refugee, it would surely be more effective to help people understand how difficult and time consuming it is for refugees, especially those from Syria and other Near Eastern countries, to get permission to reside in this country.
 It would be far easier, and much quicker, for terrorists to enter the country on a tourist visa (perhaps with a counterfeit passport) than to locate here as a refugee. Here is how a recent article puts it:
Non-refugees have carried out all terrorist attacks over the past 35 years. That means they used other means to arrive in the U.S. All of the 9/11 hijackers used student or tourist visas. These visas are much easier and faster to obtain than refugee status, which takes up to two years and requires a multi-stage vetting process and U.N. referral. Refugee status is the single most difficult way to come to the U.S. It makes no sense for a terrorist to try to use the resettlement process for an attack.
The article cited is titled “Six Reasons to Welcome Syrian Refugees After Paris,” and it is worth reading in its entirety. (It surprising that this is on the website of the libertarian Niskanen Center, named after William (Bill) Niskanen, who served from 1985 to 2008 as chairman of the Cato Institute founded by Charles Koch.)
 One can’t help but think that much of the anti-refugee rhetoric and action is primarily because of anti-Obama sentiment. Still, the statements by Republican governors, and other GOP leaders, tend to have considerable influence upon conservative Christians, especially in the South.
 But, thankfully, some conservative Christians have spoken up in favor of compassionate acceptance of refugees. Among them are Russell Moore (in this 11/19 Washington Post article), with whom I have disagreed in previous blog articles. (For example, see this link.)
 Yes, there are plenty of reasons why we in the U.S. should be compassion toward, and accepting of, Syrian refugees. Pointing out that Jesus was a refugee is not one of them.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Observing TDoR

So, are you observing TDoR today?
Oh, maybe you don’t know what TDoR is. Well, neither did I until quite recently. But it seems to be something worth knowing about and thinking about.
TDoR stands for Transgender Day of Remembrance. It has been an annual observance on November 20 for several years now.
TDoR was begun in November 1999 as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a 34-year-old trans woman who was mysteriously found murdered inside her first floor apartment outside of Boston on Nov. 28, 1998.
The vigil commemorated all the transgender people lost to violence that year—and that has been the same for each year since. So far this year, there have been at least 21 transgender people murdered in the U.S. (Check out this article from the Human Rights Campaign.)
There will be TDoR events today all over the U.S.—and in a few other countries as well. I plan to attend the one being held this evening on the campus of the University of Arizona.
In addition to the numerous murders, there is also an extremely high rate of suicide, or attempted suicide, of trans people.
According to an August article in USA Today, “Suicide attempts are alarmingly common among transgender individuals . . . 41% try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared with 4.6% of the general public.”
So TDoR should be a time of remembrance not only for those who were murdered but also for those who committed suicide because of being bullied, teased, ridiculed, and/or rejected—and many are rejected even by their own parents.
According to National Center for Transgender Equality (see this link), “one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.”
In this article, a trans man, talking about the suicide of a high school trans person last December, acknowledges “his own childhood experiences of rejection by parents, church community, and religious leaders.”
So I come back to the book I mentioned in my previous blog article, “Al Mohler’s We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong.
Mohler is not only against same-sex marriage but very negative toward acceptance of transgender people also. His fifth chapter is titled “The Transgender Revolution,” which he opposes, of course.
In that chapter, Mohler cites Denny Burk, a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), who co-authored the resolution “On Transgender Identity” that the Southern Baptist Convention passed in June of last year.
That resolution, which passed with little discussion, expresses opposition to any form of physical gender transition, as well as any governmental or cultural validations of transgender identities.
It seems to me that what Mohler and Southern Baptists as well as many other conservative evangelicals write and say about transgender people just exacerbates the mistreatment of such people.
But the U.S. House of Representatives is speaking up. On Tuesday of this week they launched a task force dedicated to issues of transgender equality. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) will chair the new group. That afternoon they also held the first-ever forum on transgender issues.
According to this article, “The violence against the transgender community is a national crisis,” Honda said. “Far too often, they face harassment, discrimination or violence for simply being who they are. . . . After 21 deaths of transgender individuals because of violence this year alone, Congress must take notice and act.”
Today, TDoR, is a good time to affirm and support trans people.