Lectionary Sermon for 25 February, 2018 Lent 2 Year B based on Mark 8: 31-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me“. Mark 8:34

Say what?… Oh so familiar words but what are we expected to make of that ….“Take up your cross and follow”?

In our setting I guess it is inevitable that the words are distorted in our minds by a fragmentary grasp of Church history. Crosses are not actually part of our thinking in the world we encounter today. For most of us I suspect, the only cross we now think of is Jesus’ cross, certainly not ours.

Many times until it became part of our thinking we have been told that for some hours on the cross Jesus suffered eventually died – then wasn’t there some magic and somehow everything was put right? The gospels, perhaps understandably, made such a feature of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ that it is hard to think ourselves back into the minds and experiences of those to whom Jesus’ words were addressed.

So what might those listeners have been thinking? Crucifixion was of course a barbarous punishment that the Romans had designed for trouble makers. What we tend to forget in thinking about Jesus’ death is that his was only one of very many. In 4 B.C. for example, (around the suggested time for the birth of Christ), a good number of nationalistic Jews used the death of Herod the Great as an excuse to rise in revolt against the Romans with the idea of driving them out for once and for all. The Romans predictably struck back with venom. When the thousands rebels fled into the country, the Roman general Varus hunted them down. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells it this way:

Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. (Antiquities 17.10.10)”

Two thousand of your fellow countrymen crucified at one time! Now that would provide a vivid set of memories. Remember too that the Romans used crucifixion as a means of quelling rebellion in advance and made a great show of the public humiliation and pre-crucifixion torture – it is only in religious art that those on the Cross were allowed the dignity of clothing. The crosses of potential or actual rebels would be placed alongside public roads where the naked bodies would continue to hang for some time as a visual warning.

Sometimes the number crucified was considerably more. Remember Mark was writing shortly after the total disaster of another failed rebellion. Something like 70 years after the first post-Herod rebellion, in Jerusalem and nearby Judea, thousands upon thousands rose in revolt against the occupying Romans. Initially with numbers on their side it looked as if the rebels would prevail. Rome sent an army, beat them back and then besieged Jerusalem. Hundreds attempted to escape and were shown no mercy. The historian Josephus claimed that 500 a day were first whipped then tortured in the most public fashion and finally crucified outside the walls of the city. The Roman general Titus, perhaps sickened by the systematic cruelty continuing day after day, at least expressed pity, yet clearly believing that only an extreme example would totally extinguish the rebellion, he allowed it to continue to its inevitable conclusion. (Jewish War 5.11.1)

Put yourself in the position of those to whom this was still a vivid memory and ask yourself what they might then have been thinking when asked to take your cross and follow. We should not pretend the metaphor would awaken the same feeling for us today. At times the Church has even taught a theology that says that since Jesus has suffered on our behalf all we have to do is to accept what he offers.

Because potential suffering is not part of the easy deal we can almost hear the echoes of what Peter was saying in today’s evangelism. Yet Jesus would not let Peter get away with the easy option.

I suspect many would have great empathy with Peter on his response to Jesus. I even wonder if many of us here are strongly tempted to shut our eyes to what a whole life response to Jesus might do to disturb a quiet life. Jesus’ earlier question to Peter had been very direct. “Who do you say I am?”

With the wisdom of all our Church teaching I wonder how many of us in reply to that question would like Peter have said something like: –“ Well Lord you are the Messiah…. we can see that”. But instead of wondering with the wisdom of hindsight why Peter couldn’t see the obvious, how then might we answer Jesus when he was in effect saying “Now I have to suffer – even die for what I teach”? I wonder how many of us would have been tempted like Peter to try to talk him out of that bit. Even today asking those who support him to be prepared to pick up their cross is at variance with what is all too often offered in the name of the Church – namely the easy realization of the dream of a better life.

Indeed at first glance it almost appears that the Church has watered down the part of the gospel to avoid credible challenges on issues of justice and morality and so downplayed the sacrifice attitude that what now passes for Sunday observance would scarcely raise an eyebrow from the authorities, still less raise fully fledged religious persecution.

Jesus insistence on taking up of the cross is probably the opposite of good marketing but it still represents a truth which has played out many times in the history of his followers.

What Jesus was calling for showed deep understanding of the human psyche. Surely what traditionally motivates all of us in a biological sense is regardless of our public exterior, we imply our right is to maintain a faith which allows us a relatively trouble free life. Jesus was in effect by his example, insisting that to follow him meant widening this circle, putting those seen as traditional rivals and even enemies as legitimate priority for our concern. Think about it. No wonder so many get angry when someone tries to change what people believe to be their right.

We have the perfect example right now with ISIS. Yes of course we object violently to the belligerence of the ISIS followers beheading innocent kidnap victims. But reacting by cheering the West for destroying them along with innocent bystanders with all those bombing raids is not Christianity – particularly if we are not then prepared to go in and restore the towns whose bombing we supported. Is it surprising that few Churches are insisting we put ourselves out for the victims? It would not be popular.

Following conscience issues which interfere with entrenched views is seen as undermining existing authority and status. We seem pre-programmed to hold on to our nation’s hard won riches and not share them with the needy… why else would our churches be muted in their protest when our government gives such a small percentage of GDP to International Aid programs.

One risk is the personal danger we anticipate in protesting too loudly. Should this surprise us? What would happen to a modern day Martin Luther saying the Church is no longer following Christ in its actions – or a Bible scholar showing why current theological teaching no longer reflects the essentials of Christi’s teaching. True these criticisms may no longer result in public torture and burning – but that only because there are now more civilized ways of achieving the gagging of the cross carrier.

Think back to David Fredriech Strauss who in 1835 published a ground breaking book The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed. His discoveries about the Bible would seem commonplace today but because in his day he threatened tradition, he was simply removed from his university position and blocked from ever teaching again. Closer to our time this was very similar to the fate that awaited the Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson who explored some doubts in 1963 with a small book Honest to God. He clearly offended the established Church and was in effect publicly pilloried, blocked from promotion and given a very minor teaching post until his death in 1983 without even the status of University lecturer at his previous University of Cambridge.

Clearly there are few scholars whose work is significant enough to enrage the church but we all live in a world where privilege and discrimination are enshrined in policy – and where nations construct policy with personal advantage very much in mind. Speaking up or focusing on the needs of the disadvantaged is not a formula for personal advancement but it is hard to see how we can pretend that such a course of action has nothing to do with following Christ.

As long as we take what Bonheoffer used to call the cheap grace option where we leave it at a few token prayers for our enemies and the patronizing prayers for the less well off. At least that way we inflame no passions. But start insisting on genuine action – altering immigration policies to let more from other cultures and races in to share our advantages, raising overseas aid quotas to match UN recommendations, raising minimum wage packets, putting environmental concerns ahead of the wealth of multinational shareholders and then watch the anger levels rise. In the Church the cheap grace option is to put peace for our local congregation ahead of the need to get down and dirty where the real problems of the community confront our preferences.

Paul Tillich understood the heart of the problem when he said that when the Divine appears in its depth it cannot be endured…. It must be pushed away by the political powers, the religious authorities, and the bearers of cultural tradition. In the picture of the Crucified, perhaps we should also notice the rejection of the Divine by humanity.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer spelt out what he meant by cheap grace. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”(p 47)
And then real or costly grace

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”(P. 47)

The original meaning of the word Lent was that Northern hemisphere time between winter and spring when the thaw began. Its religious meaning suggests it is also a time of self examination … the 40 days of wilderness reflection when we prepare ourselves for Easter. It is true that we can avoid the pain of self examination but to do so is evading Christ’s challenge to shoulder our cross. It may just be that the analogy of melting that which is frozen also has something to teach us for this time of Lent.

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US Gun Violence, whose mental issue?

If there is  one thing that Mr Trump has got right, it is likely to be the conclusion that mental stability does have something to do with the appalling statistics of gun violence in the US. Unfortunately the President may not realise that even the mental stability of the policy makers may be a contributing factor.

Mass killings like the recent Florida school event are merely one dimension of a wider American crisis. The school deaths are minor when compared to all other forms of gun crime. Even Mr Trump should realize that other first world countries have much better systems for dealing with such a threat. A rational approach would be to identify and quantify the dangers and deal systematically with the most obvious first. Unfortunately it turns out when it comes to regulating arms, Mr Trump prefers a system of appeasement of interested parties, disguised by bluster and fine sounding but what all too often turn out to be empty promises.

A good part of the viewing segment of the world has already watched Mr Trump rise to promise to address the gun problem. He chose the stage at the Republican National convention in July 2016. What was it he said? “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” Then to underline his determination, when he took power there was his famous end to the “American carnage” promise in the acceptance speech which he assured his audience would be starting right then and there. Perhaps those among his audience new to his rhetoric should be forgiven for assuming he would not have made the promise unless he had some grasp of the reality of what would be needed to fix the problem.

Those relatively unfamiliar with Mr Trump’s past promises probably assumed he was intending to follow through with actions which would match his prior political statements. For example in the year 2000, as he considered running for president, he wrote in his book, “The America We Deserve,” that “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” He added, “With today’s internet technology we should be able to tell within 72 hours if a potential gun owner has a record.”

Again his audience might be excused for thinking he meant what he said and assumed that this would affect his intended legislation. In the event, Donald Trump, ever the cynical deal-maker, noted that the National Rifle Association offered $30 million to the Republican Presidential campaign. Last April he acknowledged the NRA support and said he would make sure they were remembered! What that meant in practice was that both Mr Trump and the GOP would resist any move to allow any substantive legislation limiting the sale of guns.

From what Donald Trump had previously said (and by implication had promised) it was presumed he would work on the principle that if some are too deranged to be allowed access to the purchase of dangerous weaponry one logical consequence would be in denying such people access to purchase. It turned out the POTUS was thinking rather more about the NRA support. What we actually saw was that when Trump came to power he actually reversed legislation President Obama had introduced to add the names of about 75, 000 people to the watch list of those deemed to be likely to be a risk to the community.

This would not matter if he had showed he had developed alternative legislation which made a visible difference to the grim statistics of gun violence. Each time there has been another mass killing the President and the GOP have assured the public that now is not the time to consider new legislation. Now they are doing it again. So when exactly will they act?

Unfortunately for the President, gun violence is rather easy to measure and if Mr Trump knew how to deal with the situation at the beginning of his Presidential term thus far there is absolutely no sign of it in the subsequent statistics. He says gun violence in schools is his number one priority. Well then, how come the once a week average school shooting has changed to 18 incidents in the first six weeks of 2018? Some 11,686 gun deaths were recorded in 2017, an increase of 12 per cent on Obama’s year in 2016, including 273 in mass shootings. Remember Mr Trump said at the beginning of 2016, the carnage stops right now. Putting it bluntly, it only got worse.

The US firearms homicide rate has continued to be far higher than elsewhere among the richer nations. For example the US has of the order of 16 times that of the rate recorded in Germany, and six times that of that in neighbouring Canada. It may be unwelcome news to Mr Trump and his supporters but the cold truth is that countries that ban or restrict access to guns, such as Australia, have many fewer gun fatalities.

I am guessing, or at least hoping, that the US has no serious lead in the proportion of dangerous and deranged potential perpetrators of gun violence. We can but hope that  the US now has rather more sensible lawmakers in the wings than those currently unprepared to challenge the President’s current erratic and thus far demonstrably ineffective notion of how best to deal with the US gun problem.

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Tax Rebate: Now you see it – now you don’t ?????

Apparently Donald Trump’s degree in real estate didn’t include a topic entitled “common sense in economics”.
1. Yes, we can see that some (especially the rich) can now look forward to a federal tax rebate.
2. Yes, we can see that, not withstanding the loss of some Federal income from tax, that Mr Trump has found lots more money in his proposed budget for things like better nuclear bombs.
3. And true, he has made savings by proposing less Federal money is spent on stuff like health care and Amtrak.
BUT…… Where will the money come from for all the basics?  Mr Trump says if we take Amtrak as an example that although under the new Trump budget, the Federal government will pay less for rail transport, the State budget will be asked to cough up the difference. And here is the tricky bit…….State tax destined for Amtrak will of course need to increase by the same amount saved by the Federal tax payers. And who will pay that tax? Goodness me, surely not the same tax payers who are getting rebate from Mr Trump, who can then say ….”nothing to do with me…. it is no longer a Federal tax”.  But….. – and here is the part I don’t get –   If the same people who get the rebate from Mr Trump have to pay it back via the State taxation, why are those same people so grateful for the federal tax relief?

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Lectionary Sermon for February 18 2018 on Mark 1: 9-15

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that the same Jesus, who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations. In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems in his own life – and for that matter, our attendance in worship wont count for much unless it has something to do with the way we face up to our real life problems and opportunities.

The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticised that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus facing the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer. In passing we note that some of Mark’s account of Jesus needing to spend time overcoming his temptations fit rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of the human.

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.

I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isnt just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations. The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge. In those early days violence would have removed the competition. We don’t have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition.

Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isn’t. As Auckland is starting to be organized in “ethno-burbs” where new immigrants cluster in their ethnic groups are our Churches congregations really responding to make their lives easier? Isn’t it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different? Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we don’t like seem to be gaining power or status.

At present there are serious hotspots in the Yemen, in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and many more besides. Now think why some are driven to join ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Muslims and the Jews or think how many in the community are resistant to the thought of offering hospitality to refugees and new immigrants. Not everyone, even in a Methodist congregation, would offer hospitality to a stranger.

Remember there is a catch to hard wired responses. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are not only ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. It may be biology, but when a pupil from a well known high school lashes out and king-hits a bus driver (the Herald said his eye socket was fractured) you can see why it doesn’t always do to follow instinct.

Yet many do. At this time of the year next month we are about to read about out of control drunken students behaving badly in our University cities. We see blind rage unleashed in football and race riots.

In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences. I also understand that in the USA social scientists have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds. Humans are a violent species.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers. Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldn’t tell you what temptations impact on your lives. That’s the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves. I would simply suggest as a species many simply don’t bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”.

When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers – and public beheaders, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course considered to be righteous!! Could you imagine a situation whereby a town is shelled and bombed to kill off a few terrorists – victory is declared and the families destroyed in the cross fire are denied help when they seek shelter in nearby countries.

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians who had been caught up in the war and whose suffering was infinitely worse.

Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour in ourselves. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.

One very common temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.

In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.

Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that “Oh so basic” hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. By way of example the current public disgust directed to the deputy Prime minister of Australia and his current fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)

Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment, to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr…… He said and I quote:

There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but because Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.

This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor is reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.

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The Alligator in Chief

So Donald Trump has finally realized that allegations can ruin people’s lives. Surely he knows that many of his allegations have turned out to be both false and hurtful. So what will we make of Mr Trump the alligator now …. a handbag perhaps??

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Abortion as Murder??

The reason why I abandoned my previous evangelical Christian stance and moved into what some would dismiss as a progressive or liberal view of issues like abortion is that, as an evangelical, I had often found myself among those who had limited understanding of ethical principles, shaky Bible scholarship and what to me seemed an unthinking judgemental attitude which appeared to be short on empathy and common-sense. Like it or not science has widened our understanding (for those who bother to read with an open mind) and the “beggar thy neighbour” attitudes of the Conservative right truly worry me.

Let’s just go back a little. Thou shalt not kill. Yes I accept that, particularly if it means avoiding visiting unnecessary suffering on the living. But many conservatives, apparently obsessed with abortion, have taken it to mean: forget the suffering, look at the rules. Don’t kill any cells if they might eventually be used to create a functioning human being? Well the science says clapping (eg applauding a State of the Nation address) most certainly kills off some cells which contain the complete genetic information for making a fully functional human being. It is called cloning. Next time don’t clap!!

We see another dimension of this in attitudes to society passed off as judicial killing. For example many of the religious righteous right who are opposed to what they term unnecessary termination of a foetus are happy to condone Donald Trump instructing his soldiers to lay waste to Middle Eastern towns, terming the end result from wiping out the few terrorists by smashing nearby houses and hospitals as “unfortunate collateral damage”– then walking away from the mess, including the bombed, killed and maimed civilians. More seriously they turn a blind eye to Trump’s government actually closing off a good proportion of the funding for the refugee camps and approve him signing off laws to stop the fleeing refugees from settling in his country. And the fundamentalists applaud him for so doing!  Why is the concern for the unborn critical when the living are seen as disposable pawns.

I checked up on the UN figures for one month and discovered that the US coalition had actually killed more civilians for that month (last March) than ISIS had in Syria. While as a cash equation I can see the US arms dealers make lots of money not to mention being responsible for what the president calls “jobs, jobs, jobs” please allow me as a liberal to be horrified at what the Saudis are doing with the weapons in Yemen.

The anti-abortion lobby claim abortion is murder, yet they are very selective in which cells they will mourn. The untold natural abortions (miscarriages) sometimes after only a few days whereby the accumulating cells in the developing embryo for a whole variety of reasons, die by the thousands they ignore, and in practice the mother is often even unaware it has happened.  Surely no-one, not even a nutter, would call this Murder by God!

The conservative right place great store on stem cells which abound in aborted foetuses and as a consequence oppose them being used to develop vaccines or cell repair interventions to save the lives of fully functioning humans. Don’t forget the various centres for disease control claim that more than 200 thousand die each year from the Human papillomavirus (HPV) and that this virus now affects something like half the population of the US and is calculated to cause 5000 or so women to die of cervical cancer each year. There is a safe vaccine for HPV. It was tested on 6000 women and was one hundred per-cent effective. And what happened. The evangelicals agitated to get a law passed to prevent the use of the vaccine saying that the cancer risk is a useful impediment to pre-marital sex.

The blanket opposition to abortion should not be used to equate to a genuine concern for the lives of the young.   One of the more self-righteous evangelical members of the CDC’s ( Reginald Finger) even tried to get the HIV vaccine banned apparently wanting to condemn millions (particularly in Africa) to die unnecessarily each year. I think of those babies born with HIV and seriously wonder about what really drives such judgemental zeal.

Actually we should not assume the scripture is the final authority in this situation.   As it happens, the Bible doesn’t condemn abortion. The Jewish custom was to not consider the baby fully alive until it was half way through the birth canal. Certainly I would be very cautious about full term abortion but that is rarely considered and early termination is the standard practice.

Blanket condemnation of all abortion to my mind is barmy.   What about incest, or rape, or when the mother knows with certainty that the foetus has damage of the sort that precludes being born as a fully functioning child?   Neither should insisting that a mother be sacrificed to preserve the possibility of life in the baby be an automatic option, and the reality is that some pregnancies are entirely unintentional and sometimes distinctly harmful to a family situation.

Yes I agree that abortion is in danger of being trivialized, but cant we at least have the debate without the finger pointing and name calling?

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What Do US Citizens think of Devin Nunes?

I think I need a lesson in how US political justice is supposed to work. Would some US legal expert tell me what I am missing in the story on the Nunes’ FISA memorandum?

The first surprise is that Mr Trump in his State of the Nation address called for unity, yet on the way out of the auditorium the President told a lawmaker he would be supporting the release of the Nunes memo. It is hard to believe Mr Trump was unaware that the Democrats had already signalled they could not condone the release of the Nunes memo on the grounds that it appeared to deliberately leave out key details that would distort its conclusions.

But there were some other puzzles.

In this instance I thought the memorandum purports to be authorised by the chair of a Republican Intelligence committee who as far as I can see has a clear interest in the outcome of the committee’s investigation. According to my sources Nunes was a member of the Trump transition team, and for some reason accepted the position of having oversight of the committee which was intended to check on whether the Trump team had developed inappropriate ties to Russia during the run-up to the US election. Either Nunes had been a member of the transition team, in which case he should have recused himself from an investigation into the conduct of the team, or he was not. Well? Was he?

The memo claimed that the FBI had no right to ask for surveillance on Carter Page and only did so as a consequence of the 2016 Clinton campaign. Surely as is relatively well known, (and well before the Nunes memo was released) the story of how Carter Page and the Russia connections came to the attention of the FBI going back well before 2016. For example a few years back, according to a recent Time report, Page had significant and in some cases suspicious Russian contacts.

Page, at least according to Time, even bragged in a 2013 letter that he acted as an adviser to the Kremlin. The letter, sent by Page to an academic press (letter dated Aug. 25, 2013) to support an unpublished manuscript he had submitted for publication. According to the editor who was corresponding with Page a quote lifted from the letter states “Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda,”

The same year, Page had admitted a relationship with Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged with working as a Russian intelligence agent under diplomatic cover. In response to reports about Podobnyy’s activities Page defended the alleged Russian spy and criticized President Obama for prosecuting him. I would have thought that if someone is defending an apparent spy there is justified sufficient reason for having him further investigated without waiting for a politician to give further instruction.

After all, as soon became apparent, Page had argued for sympathy towards Podobnyy, the spy— whom he described as a “junior Russian diplomat.” In an email to the Guardian, Page complained that Obama had persecuted Podobnyy… and him “in accordance with Cold War traditions.”

In short, the FBI surveillance of Page began, on and off, in 2013 — long before the Steele dossier and the 2016 presidential campaign.

The main thrust of the Nunes memo is that the only way one could justify surveillance of Page is through partisan manipulation. Sorry, but since the FBI already knew about at least some of the connections between Russia and Page, which were supported by Page himself there is no reason to insist that unjustified accusations were levelled again Page by the Clinton team when this had been well before the Clinton team had been assembled.

A further puzzle to me was why the Steele information should have been disregarded because Steele had claimed to know enough to disqualify Mr Trump from becoming a candidate. Surely if someone claims that they know enough to believe a candidate should be totally inappropriate in their bid to become a President, the claim is sufficiently dramatic to require evidence to be made available to authorities (FBI?)for independent assessment.

The immediate apparent parallel is with the President Nixon impeachment. Surely there the challenge was to establish if the charges were valid – and if the evidence supported the charge. I cannot believe that the US system requires that any assessor or key critic had to be identified as a supporter of the President before becoming involved in an assessment of the honesty of the President’s team regarding their involvement with a foreign power. To ask a key player which way they voted implying this was a prerequisite before allowing him to continue would be totally wrong in my nation’s system which prizes the secret ballot. My question is: should such a public declaration of voting be made public according to the US political expectations?

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