Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, September 24, 2012

The original sin of the information industry

Do you ever worry about a possible worldwide meltdown? I have always had tendencies in that direction, but especially since reading Cormac McCarthy’s small masterpiece The Road. Our lives in the United States are so extraordinarily comfortable and we take so much for granted. Sometimes when I am cooking with my various pots and pans I think about refugees in various trouble spots who consider themselves lucky to have any pot at all. I wonder how elderly, sick, and disabled people can possibly function in refugee camps or in disaster zones.

These thoughts came as I read the major front page story by James Glanz in The New York Times on Sunday, September 23. It took a year to research, and it is a blockbuster. Its title is “Power, Pollution, and the Internet.” The jist of it is that data centers use—and waste—an almost unbelievable amount of energy, and even people in the information industry are blind to this, or just aren’t telling. “This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior executive who asked not to be identified. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”

Most of us live according to Internet mythology, whereby everything is “virtual” and in the “cloud” so that there isn’t any need for actual physical infrastructure. But storing something in the “cloud” doesn’t mean that we don’t need disc drives. It just means that the disc drives are somewhere else, using up staggering amounts of energy.
Theologically and ethically, there are implications here. The article even tells of the industry’s “original sin” (that’s an actual quotation), namely, the decision to run the systems all the time, even as consumers were being encouraged to turn their computers off. That’s a classic example of the principalities and powers at work.

Consumers today—that’s you and me—fully expect the companies to keep on doing this. “That’s what’s driving that massive growth [in the use of power]—the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said a managing vice president of Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Is religion the source of the world's ills?

Two freedom-loving celebrities have been at the forefront of the news in recent days. "The Lady" of Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi) is quoted in The New York Times to this effect: it is not the love of power itself that causes people and nations to strike out against others;  "it is fear of losing power" (italics original). This extraordinarily wise insight was indirectly ratified by Salman Rushdie, who was asked about the causes of the fatwa issued against himself--which required him to live in hiding for nine years in order not to be murdered. Rushdie answered with this:  "It was not about religion. It was not then and it is not now." In the case of the fatwa, Rushdie believes that the Ayatollah Khomenei felt himself losing power.

The point of mentioning these two statements is that Christians are frequently confronted and intimidated by the widely held belief among the intelligentsia that religion is the problem. The problem is not religion. (Neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Pol Pot, nor the Rwandan genocidaires acted from a religious base.) The problem is Sin (capital S), which arises out of the universal fear of losing power. It is only as Christians voluntarily, and from a position of strength rather than weakness, give up power for the sake of the common good that we can ever be Christlike.

I spend much of my time with friends and acquaintances who are either generically "spiritual," or  agnostic, or actively and sometimes aggressively atheistic--in all cases, anti-Christian. More and more, it is clear to me that the form of Christian faith that I try (poorly, God help me) to live by is going to be under constant attack and threat both from the right and from the left. What is the right word for this face of our faith? Biblical, catholic, Reformed, postliberal, left-wing evangelical? I struggle for the right term. Don't call us conservative! In any case, it's going to be more and more difficult to maintain a strong witness. I am committed to such a witness for the rest of the time on this earth that the Lord gives me, but it is really hard to find any Christians on the world scene today who command universal respect. That's one reason for the popularity of the recent best-selling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who can be embraced by almost everyone. Unfortunately, as has been widely noted, the book errs in making Bonhoeffer sound like an American conservative evangelical. Unfortunately also, there is no American Christian who can equal Bonhoeffer in wide appeal except Martin Luther King, Jr., and there is a widespread tendency to edit out his Christian  my previous Rumination on the civil rights movement). Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who died defending a black teenager (Ruby Sales) during the movement, has a strong claim, but he was so young that he left no writings, speeches, or other material on which to build a picture of deliberate, intentional, lifelong servanthood and relinquishing of power. (See, however, the very impressive Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Daniels). 

It seems clear that, today, much of the Christian right is motivated by fear of losing power in our culture. I know this, because I feel this fear myself. I long for the days 50 years ago when Christianity was the American lingua franca. I wish for my grandchildren to know the Lord in the way that so many people around me seemed to when I was growing up in small-town Virginia. But then, half of those people were black and could not vote or attend white schools. So the Southern white church had to undergo humiliation and judgment. So today we will have to accept our marginalization, trusting in the power of the One who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4), which includes everybody, and believing that when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor 12). Only let us not fail to make our witness as God gives us the opportunity.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

One of the greatest stories ever told

When I listened to Congressman John Lewis' speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, his reminiscences about what it took to gain the vote for black people brought the nobility and grandeur of the civil rights movement back into focus. We are in danger of forgetting this era altogether. Lewis is almost the only one of the old warriors left. The obituary sections record the passing of these extraordinary people, one by one. Older black people lament that the young do not remember or care about the suffering and the courage that was required to win dignity and the vote.

It is especially urgent that the roots of the movement in Christianity be taught, understood, and celebrated. All too often, when the movement is remembered, its character is vaguely identified as "religious" if, indeed, this factor is mentioned at all. Martin Luther King's debt to Mahatma Gandhi is recalled far more often than his more formative devotion to Jesus Christ. It is very difficult to find a study of King, or the history of the movement, that does justice to this central driving motive, because the books that do, like Richard Lischer's The Preacher King, are read only by Christians. The books that don't, like Taylor Branch's otherwise superb trilogy, are the ones that get the big prizes and the wide readership. I have read Branch's books with intense absorption, but he is tone deaf to the theological underpinnings. Right now I am reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Race Beat, a thoroughly gripping story of the way that the newspaper business at first ignored and then became a player in the movement. The book is inspiring, and I highly recommend it, but Christianity scarcely appears.  Even John Lewis' own compelling memoir, Walking With the Wind, downplays its author's own faith, a stance I suspect was urged on him by the publishers. Andrew Young's memoir, An Easy Burden, is more obviously Christian, and in that regard is more useful as a guide to the way in which biblical faith undergirded the movement. The black church, its preachers and its ardent members, was the heart and soul of the non-violence that electrified the world.

If insight into the Christian foundations of the movement is sought, a good book to read is Charles Marsh's God's Long Summer. I call it a theological thriller. He particularly celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer, an almost illiterate woman with an extraordinary biblical mind, who was largely ignored and neglected during her all-too-short life but is now becoming better known. Another fine book, My Soul Is Rested by Howell Raines, gives us a taste of the movement's Christian character because it quotes so many participants--even though Raines himself is clueless (he refers to King as a "fundamentalist" when he means, simply, devout and committed).

I have been reading, off and on, about the movement for about twenty years. Such reading is inexhaustibly inspiring, almost beyond belief. It would be a fine thing if every Christian made a point of learning more about it. Classes on it should be taught in churches. Today's younger people have little or no knowledge of the movement beyond a few stock references (Rosa Parks' feet hurt [an almost farcical caricature of her actual motives], "I have a dream," hoses and dogs in Birmingham]. They need to know that the almost unbelievable courage and long-suffering-ness of the movement's leaders and foot soldiers are among the most profound testimonies to the reality and power of Jesus Christ that the world has ever seen.