The plight of evangelical ministers

“Half of pastors would leave the ministry tomorrow if they could. Seventy percent are fighting depression and 90 percent can’t cope with the challenge of ministry… 1,500 pastors walk away from ministry every month because of moral failure, burnout, conflict, discouragement or depression… 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within their first five years.”

Who is saying this? Not some atheist gloating over the demise of religion. These were the figures quoted by Jonathan Falwell, who took over the ministry of his well-known evangelical father Jerry Falwell.

Ken Pulliam, a former fundamentalist preacher, provides additional statistics on the rampant dissatisfaction of evangelical preachers with their lives:

  • 89% considered leaving the ministry at one time.
  • 57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work
  • 71% stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

Pulliam makes the point that these statistics are telling all by themselves and that it is not relevant to compare them with other professions to see if they are better or worse. Evangelical pastors consist of people who are supposedly sure that they are doing god’s work and thus should be immune from the usual problems that the rest of us suffer from. What this data suggest is that many of these preachers think they are living a lie, that the beliefs they share with their flock is not true

While the media focus on a few high profile mega-church pastors to suggest that evangelical Christianity is flourishing, the reality is different. No thinking person today can believe that the Bible is literally true the way that these people say it is. Modernity cannot be shut out and it is taking its toll on many of them. It is really very sad.

The near term outlook for the Middle East

As the Israel lobby uses its power over the US government to keep stalling while the Israeli government and its settlers encroach on Palestinian land, we should try and see where this process might lead. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, says that Israel’s lack of interest in arriving at a two-state solution is obvious:

In many respects, Obama’s speech, aside from the soaring rhetoric, might have been crafted in Tel Aviv rather than the White House. It is a tribute to Israel’s extraordinary influence upon the US media that has been able to shift the focus of assessment to the supposed Israeli anger about affirming Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. It is hardly a secret that the Netanyahu leadership, aside from its shrewd propaganda, is opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state, whether symbolic or substantive.

This was much was confirmed by the release of the Palestine Papers that showed that, behind closed doors – even when the Palestinian Authority made concession after concession in response to Israeli demands – the Israeli negotiating partners seemed totally unresponsive, and appeared disinterested in negotiating a genuine solution to the conflict.

Obama’s speech in which he spoke of negotiations for a Palestinian state “based on 1967 borders with mutually-agreed swaps’, rather that being a sell-out of Israel is actually a huge concession to them and encourages even further Israel in the expansion of its illegal settlements policies in the West Bank and means that Israel can demand even more land from the Palestinians in return for removal of some settlements. As Falk says, “If anything this is a step back from the 1967 canonical and unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that looked unconditionally toward “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict””

Falk adds that once you take away his rhetorical skills, Obama’s failures on the Middle East become transparent.

With these considerations in mind, it is not at all surprising that Obama’s approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict remains one-sided, deeply flawed, and a barrier rather than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace. The underlying pressures that produce the distortion is the one-sided allegiance to Israel, saying: “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums.”

This leads to the totally unwarranted assessment that failure to achieve peace in recent years is equally attributable to Israelis and the Palestinians, thereby equating what is certainly not equivalent. Consider Obama’s words of comparison: “Israeli settlement activity continues, Palestinians have walked away from the talks.” How many times is it necessary to point out that Israeli settlement activity is unlawful, and used to be viewed as such – even by the United States government – and that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate comes while their promised homeland is being despoiled not only by settlement expansion and settler violence, but by the continued construction of an unlawful barrier wall well beyond the 1967 borders. Obama never finds it appropriate to mention Israel’s reliance on excessive and lethal force, most recently in its response to the Nakba demonstrations along its borders, or its blatant disregard of international law, whether by continuing to blockade the entrapped 1.5 million Palestinians locked inside Gaza or by violently attacking the Freedom Flotilla a year ago in international waters – while it was carrying much needed humanitarian aid to the Gazans – or by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

Falk suggests that the events of the so-called Arab spring might have the effect of bypassing the weak and ineffectual Obama government in favor of more direct action.

In a profound sense, whatever Obama says at this point is just adding more words which are beside the point. He has neither the will nor the capacity to exert any material leverage on Israel that might make it more amenable to respecting Palestinian rights under international law, or to strike a genuine compromise based on mutuality of claims. Palestinians should not look to sovereign states, or even the United Nations, and certainly not the United States, in their long and tormented journey to realise a just and sustainable destiny for themselves.

Their future will depend on the outcome of their struggle, abetted and supported by people of good will around the world, and increasingly assuming the character of a nonviolent legitimacy war that mobilises moral and political pressures that assert Palestinian rights from below. In this regard, it remains politically significant to make use of the UN and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right. It is Palestinian populism, not great power diplomacy, that offers the best current hope of achieving a sustainable and just peace on behalf of the Palestinian people.

There are moves for the Palestinians to request the UN General Assembly that meets in September to vote on Palestinian statehood, most likely based on the 1967 borders. Israel is fiercely opposed to this move and its lobby in the US will make sure that the US does all it can to thwart it. But unlike the Security Council, there is no veto power in the General Assembly so the US will have to strong-arm as many countries as it can to try and reject the move.

But this is not going to be easy. Most of the rest of the world has seen through the US-Israeli ‘peace process’ charade a long time ago and realize that Israel has no intention of voluntarily allowing a Palestinian state and has to be forced into accepting one. Only those countries that desperately need the US for whatever reason will oppose this move.

Dog getting communion

An Anglican church in Canada welcomed pets to attend their services and Donald Keith, a new parishioner, took his dog Trapper with him. Since he was a newcomer, the vicar singled Keith out and invited him up in person to receive what is known as Holy Communion where you receive and wafer (and sometimes some wine or other beverage) to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus. (Catholics are told that the wafer and the wine actually become transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, but I am not getting into that here.)

When Keith went up, Trapper naturally followed him and the interim vicar said a small prayer and gave communion to Trapper too.

I thought that this was a nice story about a spontaneous friendly gesture on the vicar’s part. When you are handing out what seems like treats to everyone and there is a dog waiting expectantly in line, it is hard to say no. Apparently almost every member of the congregation found the gesture to be heartwarming. But one person took umbrage and went straight to the archbishop and as a result Trapper has been banned from receiving communion. And of course, the Jesus lovers are incensed. Former Watergate felon and now crazy-for-Jesus evangelical Chuck Colson says that this is the result of the dangerous trend of thinking that humans are not special in the eyes of his god.

If I believed in heaven, my guess would be that Trapper is more worthy of going there than the parishioner who complained about him.

Annoying public piety

Today is Memorial Day in the US, which is meant to commemorate those killed in wars while serving in some military capacity, though over time people also use it to commemorate the deaths of any loved ones. While there are official events such a parades and flag flying and laying of wreaths at war memorials and in cemeteries, the day coincides with the onset of summer-like weather, and thus is seen as the beginning of the season for summertime activities. Since 1971, when the date was shifted from the fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May, people in the wintry regions of the country have seen this three-day weekend as the date to signal the emergence from their winter cocoons and organize barbecues and picnics and go to amusement parks and the like to take advantage of the warm weather.

This does not sit well with some people and without fail you can expect to see opinion pieces and editorials and letters to the editor of your local newspaper complaining that Memorial Day is not being treated with the solemnity it deserves.

I don’t understand these scolds who want to be able to dictate what other people should do and feel. If you want to treat the day solemnly and think deep thoughts about life and death, go ahead, knock yourself out. But if others want to use a holiday to enjoy themselves, let them be. As long as the fun-seekers don’t get in the face of the solemn ones and vice versa, there really should be no problem.

I remember as an adolescent feeling bored one Good Friday (which is a government holiday in Sri Lanka) after going to our church in the morning for the traditional three-hour service. I asked my mother whether I could go and see a film. Since I was a religious boy, I felt that I was asking for something not quite appropriate since it did not seem right to go and enjoy myself on the day that we were supposed to commemorate Jesus dying for our sins, which is a pretty big deal. So I fully expected her to say no but she cheerfully agreed. I think she had the healthy attitude that no one was genuinely grieving about an event that (supposedly) happened 2,000 years ago and that one should not overdo the piety. Having me mope around the house was not benefiting anyone.

I have grown increasingly impatient with these public grievings over past events by people who have no connection to the events or the people being commemorated. It seems to me to have become mainly occasions for hypocritical sanctimony by elected officials who try to outdo each other in public piety. We can expect to see an orgy of this on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

Inattentional deafness

I have long been intrigued by the fact that when I am absorbed in reading, I completely miss what people have said, even if they have been speaking directly to me. This can be embarrassing but in my case people tend to indulgently excuse it because of the stereotype of the ‘absent minded professor’. Being a theoretical physicist also helps since we are considered to be a little weird anyway.
[Read more…]

The death of the two-state solution

In the US you will hear a lot of talk about the so-called peace process for the Middle East that never seems to go anywhere. You will also hear a lot about the two-state solution. But you rarely hear about the situation on the ground while this is going on. Take a look at this BBC map that shows how Israel has steadily encroached on the West Bank over the decades. (While Israel has relinquished formal control of Gaza, the harsh blockade they and Egypt imposed on that land means that they still dominate life there. Fortunately it looks like the new Egyptian authorities are going to lift the blockade.)


If you strip out the portions of land in the West Bank that are under Israeli control, this is what you are left with (via Balloon-Juice).


The areas in which the Palestinians are confined look like an archipelago, similar to the islands that comprise the Maldives or the Philippines. But it is much worse. At least in those other countries, people can freely go from one island to another, with only water as a barrier to travel. As a result of settlements and roads and walls that have been illegally built by Israel, the Palestinians are subjected to having to go around high barriers and pass through humiliating checkpoints as they go from one reservation to another. The splintering of land is even worse than the Bantustans for black people created by the white South African government during the worst days of apartheid.

It should be obvious why such maps are rarely published in the US media because it becomes immediately obvious that the so-called peace process has been a farce, meant to stall for time while successive Israeli governments steadily encroach on the West Bank while they and the US pretend that they want to strike a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli governments have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state. Indeed it was in looking at these maps, that I came to the realization that the two-state option is already dead. The settlers who have encroached on Palestinian lands are the most extreme religious zealots who think they are fulfilling some divine mandate to occupy all the land and they want still more.

Those who try and argue that the periodic tiffs between the Israeli and US governments (like the dressing down that Netanyahu just gave Obama) is some kind of kabuki prior to advancing the peace process simply cannot see that Israel has been negotiating in bad faith and the US has enabled it. The US has long ago ceased to be the so-called ‘honest broker’ in the process.

As far as I can see, the goal of the Israeli government is to seek to either make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they will leave or at some point forcibly expel them from the occupied territories or keep them as a second-class people indefinitely. But such a strategy runs the serious risk of boomeranging. Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the Israeli government, by making a Palestinian state impossible, is actually creating the conditions to destroy itself as a Jewish state because time and demographics are on the Palestinian side. He says that the current policies will “hopelessly, ineradicably, entangle the two peoples wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.” That will leave Israel with the following options:

Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state. The latter option is untenable, of course: Many Jewish Israelis would be repulsed by this thought; other nations that already consider Israel a pariah would now have just cause; and Israel would lose its last remaining friend, the U.S., because no American — including and especially young American Jews — would identify with a country reminiscent of pre-Mandela South Africa.

In my opinion, the two-state solution is rapidly ceasing to be viable. The question is what will happen as more and more people realize this.

Israel’s prime minister dictates America’s Middle East policies

It is no secret that the Israel lobby exerts enormous power over US policy in the Middle East. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt described the structure of the lobby, how it operates, and the results of its actions in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy and you can read my three part review here and here and here. The power of the lobby is such that even the publication of such a book by two establishment scholars (Mearsheimer is at the University of Chicago and Walt is at Harvard University) caused controversy and their long article on this topic that was a precursor to the book was rejected by American publications that led to it eventually being published in England in the London Review of Books.

But despite this awareness of the dominance that the Israel lobby exerts over American foreign policy, there are occasions when the level of US obsequiousness to Israel surprises even seasoned observers. Last week President Obama made a speech on the Middle East in which, among other things, he called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue based on the 1967 borders plus mutually agreed swaps of land.

The speech caused Israeli Prime Minister Netanayhu to throw a major hissy fit and publicly rebuke Obama, and outline what he ‘expected’ him to say when the two met a few days later. And in the joint press conference following that meeting, Netanyahu proceeded to publicly lecture Obama on the Middle East, even though, as Mearsheimer points out, it is the Palestinians who had some justification in being disappointed by Obama’s speech.

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, an American journalist who writes for The Atlantic and is one who is extremely sympathetic to Israel and has even served in the Israeli army, thinks that Netanyahu went too far.

For whatever reason, I tend to react strongly when a foreign leader disrespects the United States, and its President. I didn’t like it when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela insulted President Bush; I don’t like listening to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan lecture the U.S. on its sins, and I’m not happy when certain Pakistani leaders gin-up righteous indignation about American behavior when it was their country that served as a refuge for the greatest mass murderer in American history.

And so I was similarly taken aback when I read a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.”

So Netanyahu “expects” to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn’t walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?

As a result of his comments, Goldberg says he received a ton of hate mail with the usual insults, that he was a Nazi and so forth, that are hurled at anyone who dares to criticize Israel.

What we saw in this episode was the spectacle of a leader of a country that is the single largest recipient of US aid (both in absolute and per capita terms) and is entirely dependent on US aid and military support, having the temerity to humiliate the head of its benefactor country and spell out what he expects him to say. What makes this even more astounding is that just last November, Netanyahu had met with Hillary Clinton and the joint statement issued after the meeting had the identical phrasing that Obama used. (via Andrew Sullivan.)

If any other foreign leader, especially of a country that receives so much money from the US, had criticized the US president, political leaders and the media here would have been outraged and demand that aid be cut off immediately. But not when it comes to Israel. What Israel and its US lobby have come to expect is total acceptance of their agenda. This Onion item titled “Government Official Who Makes Perfectly Valid, Well-Reasoned Point Against Israel Forced To Resign” is meant to be a parody but is uncomfortably close to reality, since the head of AIPAC, the most powerful component of the Israel lobby actually warned Obama that he should not be even-handed when dealing with Israel and the Palestinians.

Look at how members of the US congress were falling over themselves to assure the head of a foreign government that they stood with him against their own president. Netanyahu was invited to speak to the joint session of Congress (a rare honor) and he received a reception that can only be described as adulatory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a rapturous reception worthy of a rock star from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill on Tuesday – a stark contrast to last week’s tense White House visit.

His speech to a joint session of Congress was repeatedly punctuated by sustained applause, laughter and more than two dozen standing ovations. It also received some high praise from bipartisan admirers.

Harry Reid, the leader in Congress of the same party as the president that Netanyahu insulted, fawned over Netanyahu. Can you imagine this happening with any country other than Israel? As James Wolcott describes it:

So I turn on the TV and there’s Bibi Netanyahu addressing Congress–he had taken advantage of Obama’s absence to have himself sworn in as president of the United States!

And there was that traitor, vice president Joe Biden, sitting in the back with benign acceptance of that unprecedented coup d’tat!

I didn’t quite fathom the details of the speech but every time Netanyahu mentioned Israel, the assembled rose to their feet and fingersnapped approval like beatniks at a bistro.

What a sickening display of obeisance for a foreign leader crowning himself president-for-a-day while Obama is in Ireland drinking Guinness and flying to England to ask the royal newlyweds how things are going.

I will let Glenn Greenwald provide the final word: “In sum, the same faction that spent the last decade demanding fealty to the Commander-in-Chief in a Time of War upon pain of being accused of a lack of patriotism (or worse) now openly sides with a foreign leader over their own President. The U.S. Congress humiliates itself by expressing greater admiration for and loyalty to this foreign leader than their own country’s. And because this is all about Israel, few will find this spectacle strange, or at least will be willing to say so.” He ends, “In any event, please remember that you must not speak of the immense power of the Israel Lobby lest you reveal yourself to be a conspiratorial hatemonger. I hope that’s clear.”