Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Alone in the universe, redux

"New study casts doubt on rise of alien life in our galaxy."

The Milky Way may be vast, but some scientists suggest that we are the galaxy's only inhabitants.
If we own up to the true extent of these uncertainties and do the requisite math, the Oxford study finds that there’s at least a 53 percent chance that we’re alone in the Milky Way and at least a 40 percent chance that we’re alone in the visible universe. Homo sapiens could be the smartest thing going.

This result, they claim, melts the Fermi Paradox like butter on a hot griddle — maybe no one has colonized the galaxy because no one else inhabits it.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

How to get even the right way

Have you ever wanted to get even with someone? I mean, have you ever felt you were so wronged or betrayed that you actually imagined ways to turn the tables, to exact retribution, to shame the other and emerge victorious and triumphant?
I've been there. But I learned something through the years. It does not have to be that way and when I chose to set that kind of thinking and acting behind me I found a sense of peace and freedom that I will never surrender merely for a moment's satisfaction or self-justification. It's not worth it.
At one point in Romans 12, the apostle Paul quoted Proverbs passage as part of his instruction to Christian on how they should live morally according to the commandments of God. Proverbs says:
Proverbs 25.21-22
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; 22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.
It will be helpful, I think, to understand what the context was of the teaching and especially why Paul quoted it. If Paul was arguing for this moral conduct, then he was necessarily arguing against another. What was it?
Paul was writing to the single church in Rome, whose members were both Jewish expatriates and Roman former pagans. The morals Paul was teaching were Jewish morals, and so were the moral teachings of the other apostles – and in fact of Jesus himself. In fact, every one of Jesus' moral and ethical teachings are found in the Old Testament. Paul's instructions to church in Rome would have been familiar to its Jewish members, but not so much to the Roman members because the contrast between Roman ethics and Jewish ethics was stark.
Ancient Romans held that mercy, compassion and unmerited kindnesses to others were vices, not virtues. Roman parents beat their children for showing compassion or mercy to others, even their friends. To win, to prevail, to improve one’s standing even by trampling on others was admired and encouraged in the Roman world. When a Roman was wronged by another it was mandatory that he get even. Better yet, that he retaliated more harshly than he had been wronged.
The ancients’ social system was that of honor and shame. It is the oldest system of human behavior there is. An honor-shame system means that nothing is more important that where one believes he or she stands in society. One’s place on the totem pole is paramount because that social standing affects absolutely everything else. Honor-shame systems have been deeply embedded across the Middle East for thousands of years and still rule there, except in Israel.
An Iraqi explained what it meant this way:
Our sense of honor pervades everything we do. This isn’t the Western definition of honor, it’s more like Hispanic honor of machismo. Perception of manhood is vital and in fact it can be a matter of life and death. A man without honor gets no wife, often no work, and in Iraq he may be shunned or even killed by the own family depending on how grave the offense is. Defending honor is part of our cultural heritage. It is the focal point of everything we do and is jealously guarded. Honor means influence and power, our foremost concern. Less power means fewer contracts, less money, less food, angrier families. We must regain lost honor any way we can, even if it means violently attacking the ones who dishonored us.
This is the way that almost every society in the world was organized for thousands of years. Whether Japanese, Chinese, African, Norse, Southern European or Native American, honor – one’s standing in the order of human relationships – was of supreme importance.
Jesus preached consistently against honor codes and the sinful habits of pride they cause. Luke 14 tells of a day Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee leader to eat a meal on the Sabbath. He saw all the other guests jockeying to sit near the host, the place of honor. He told them that they were risking dishonor because someone really important might come in and kick them out.
“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Across all human societies, people protect their status one way or another. Social climbing, power grabbing and the jealous guarding of one’s privileges or position are often paramount.
Jesus said no to all that: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The one-upmanship games and mutual back-scratching or back-stabbing ways of the world have no place in relationships founded upon Jesus’ teachings. After all, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, spoke in public to prostitutes and other low-lifes, and died strung up between two thieves.
Jesus emphasized rejecting worldly standards by his conclusion of the teaching:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, so that they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Alan Culpepper wrote, “Those who live by kingdom standards and values now will not only bear witness to the kingdom but also will be rewarded in ‘the resurrection of the righteous.’ Righteousness, not social position or the esteem of others should be our goal.”
God is not interested in where we put our place tag on the tables of life. “Instead, God looks to see that we have practiced the generosity and inclusiveness of the kingdom in our daily social relationships.” The old order offers merely the temporary reward of social position. The new order brings the eternal reward of God’s favor.
So what does it mean to pour heaping coals upon the head of one’s enemy? For a long time I thought Paul meant that when I return kindness for another’s hostility, the other person couldn’t stand being treated kindly instead of meanly and would burn with resentment. But Paul can’t mean that because in Romans 12.9 he says, “Love must be sincere.” We cannot sincerely, lovingly gloat over causing others to seethe with indignation at us -- even if they are jerks!
Let’s take a look at Psalm 140[1], which begins,
Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from those who are violent,
2 who plan evil things in their minds
    and stir up wars continually.
Then in verses 9-10 we read this:
Those who surround me lift up their heads;
    let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
10 Let burning coals fall on them!
    Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!
Pretty rough stuff! The psalmist is using the image of burning coals falling upon his enemies to symbolize the judgment of God upon the wicked.
Now, here is Paul in Romans 12.
Dear ones, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The coals symbolize the judgment of God in both Proverbs and Romans. I think Paul is telling us that the commandments of God to treat one another with loving kindness do not depend on how others treat us. Everyone is liable to a judgment of God, so we must control our own passions first lest burning coals fall on us as well.
The teaching is a Jewish one, so I asked my friend and former co-author, Israeli Rabbi Daniel Jackson, for an interpretation. He sent back that we are not dealing merely with human enemies here. We are also set upon by temptation to sin. Daniel wrote, “The intention of Proverbs 25 is to direct our attention to ourselves to control our passions, to ensure that in allour ways, we are reminded that we are to be Holy in all our actions and relations.” He wrote:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Honor him; treat him with Holiness. … We are dealing with the Evil Inclination and its cravings. If your evil inclination is hungry and wants you to sate it with “sins”, then feed it the Bread of Torah [The Word of God, the Scriptures-DS]; if it is thirsty, sate it from the Eternal Spring of the Divine.
Then, you are putting coals on its head, which is to say, you have begun the refining process of separating out the dross from the silver.
"Submit yourselves to God," wrote the apostle James. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4.7). The most persistent and cleverest enemy we have is the temptations to abandon righteousness as a way of life and holiness as our goal. The way to resist and overcome is to choose godliness over ungodliness and feed the Bread of Life to our inclinations to evil and wrong-doing.
When our enemies are hungry and we feed them, when they are thirsty and we give them something to drink, we have done our duty to God and one another. The others might continue in ungodly hostility, but we have done all that we can do. Retribution, if any, is up to God, not us. Our calling to live as, and lead others to become, disciples of Jesus Christ, does not change.

A friend of mine once told me that he dreamed of standing before Jesus after Christ had come again in glory. He said he was prepared to recite the creeds, offer personal confessions of faith, confess his sins and prostrate himself before the Lord.
But it didn’t go like that. Instead, Jesus sat down next to him and said, “People live their lives as if they think I will ask them these questions on judgment day:
“Did you get everything in life that you thought you thought you were entitled to?
“Did you get even with the people who did you wrong?
“Were you worried about what other people thought of you?
“Did you hold on to grudges and imagine ways to hit back?
“Did you treat other people based on what they could do for you later?
“Tell, me, is that how you lived your life?”
My friend said that in his dream he had no reply but was filled with remorse. Then Jesus said, “Here is what I really want to know:
“Did my light shine through you in the way you lived?
“Did you forgive the people who did you wrong, even seventy times seven times?
“Were you worried about what I thought of you more than what other people thought of you?
“Did you pray for your enemies and do good to those who did you wrong?
“Did you treat other people on the basis that my love for them was as great as my love for you?
“Tell me, is that how you lived your life?”
I think that’s a pretty tough final exam, but one we need to make sure we pass.
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; 22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.
Which is to say, offer them the bread of life and the living water of God. Offer them Christ. It really is so simple as that.

[1] https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/8406/what-is-the-meaning-of-heap-burning-coals-on-his-head

Monday, July 2, 2018

Little Round Top, Gettysburg - did it really matter?

One hundred fifty-five years ago today was fought the Battle of Little Round Top, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, named after the nearby town in Pennsylvania. Here is an essay I wrote a few years ago the upends some of the popular mythology of the battle.

Monument to the 20th Maine near the summit of Little Round Top.
The LRT fight is one of the most heralded combat actions in US Army history. Volunteers of the 20th Maine Regiment defended the hill against the determined attacks of the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. Other CSA regiments attacked elsewhere along the Union line. LRT was key terrain because it sat just south of the end of the Union line, entrenched along Cemetery Ridge, running northward from LRT to the small town of Gettysburg. "Key terrain" in military parlance is that terrain which, when occupied by a military force, affords a distinct advantage to the force possessing it. In this case, LRT afforded a comprehensive observation point over most of the battlefield, especially of Union positions, and a location from which enfilading fire could be placed upon much of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. "Enfilading" fire is when the long axis of the beaten zone (where the rounds fall) corresponds to the long axis of the target, as opposed to defilade, when most or all of the target is outside the beaten zone.

Statue of Maj Gen. Warren atop Little Round Top. The general was called the "Savior of the Union" by the northern press for recognizing the hazard if CSA troops had gained possession of the hill.
On the second day of the battle, Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, went to the peak of LRT to observe the battlefield and was shocked to discover that the hill was unoccupied. Spotting CSA formations maneuvering to occupy it, Warren sent an urgent notice to Col. Vincent Strong of the 1st Division, V Corps, who promptly sent a brigade to the area. The 20th Maine infantry deployed to the summit of LRT, arriving only 15-20 minutes before the Confederate regiments, who promptly attacked. The Maine troops were commanded by one of the most remarkable military figures America has ever produced. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the 20th Maine's commander, had no military experience or training before the war, spending his life in the bookish realm of Bowdoin College, where he taught classical studies.

Maj. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain
The battle of Little Round Top began his reputation but there was much more to come in the war for him. By war's end, he had been wounded six times.  He was the only man in the Union army promoted to a higher rank (brigadier general) while a battle literally raged around him, this by Gen. Ulysses Grant at Petersburg. President Lincoln later brevetted Chamberlain to major general. At Appomattox, Grant appointed Chamberlain to command the Union troops receiving the surrender of arms and colors from the various Confederate formations, probably the highest honor Grant could have conferred on any officer.

Chamberlain went on to serve as governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College. He was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his command at LRT. Chamberlain died in 1914 at age 85 and is considered today to be the last Civil War soldier to have died of wounds, as he never really recovered from his grievous battle injuries, especially those of Petersburg.

On July 2, 1863, Col. Chamberlain took 386 soldiers to the top of LRT. Within about an hour, 29 were dead, 91 wounded, and 5 missing, losses of one-third of their strength. The two CSA regiments had been repulsed with heavy losses themselves. The 20th Maine held the hill through the next day, although by then the center of the battle had shifted to the center of the Union line, where three divisions of CSA infantry attacked and were repulsed with very heavy loss.

Since that day, the 20th Maine has been credited with, minimally, preventing the Union line from being turned by the Confederate troops which, it has been said for 150 years, would have meant the rout of the Union army at Gettysburg. None of the events of July 3 would have then transpired, meaning that the heavy losses the Army of Northern Virginia suffered on that day would not have occurred. The way instead would have been free for Gen. Robert E. Lee to advance the army toward Washington, D.C., with the battered Army of the Potomac offering only ineffectual resistance. Hence, the popular imagination holds that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine actually saved the Union itself from defeat.

Sorry, no.

In fact, a strong case can be made that the battle for Little Round Top, for all its incredible bravery and lethality, was nothing more than a local action with little actual effect upon the battle of Gettysburg as a whole, much less upon the fate of the entire Union.

When I was finishing my military career in the 1990s, I worked for Maj. Gen. Peter Berry, a Maine native and devoted Chamberlain fan. He even had a bust of Chamberlain in his office and owned some of Chamberlain's original papers. Maj. Gen. Berry was also a close friend of a brigadier general, whose last name was Nelson, who was the chief of military history for the whole Army. (He was a real historian, too, with a Ph.D. in the field from Princeton and published books and monographs.) So the two generals got all us staff officers on an Army green bus one day (we were stationed in Washington) and off we went to tour the Gettysburg battlefield, conducted at every point by the US Army's chief of military history, which would seem to me to be as about an authoritative docent as you could get.

Brig. Gen. Nelson explained early on that as a Nebraska native, he had no apologist position for either side. As we stood near the Warren statue at Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Nelson explained the course of the action and then why it didn't matter much in the outcome of the battle.

The terrain at the time was  wooded. The summit of the hill was mostly cleared, but there was no road up the hill and the ground was still timbered in many places and generally very rough. Nelson pointed out that although LRT enfiladed the southern half of the Union line, small arms fire against the Union lines would have been wholly ineffective because of the engagement distances. Had the Confederates taken LRT, Nelson said, they would have had excellent observation of the disposition of Union formations, which would have been a real advantage. But the Union commander, Gen. George Meade, would have adjusted his tactics and lines accordingly and almost certainly would have sent troops to attack LRT.

A larger hill nearby, called Round Top (later, Big Round Top) was already in Union hands (though fighting for its possession continued until the next day). Artillery atop that hill could have effectively bombarded CSA troops on LRT, also. No, said Nelson, the only way LRT could have afforded the CSA a location from which to inflict actual damage upon Union forces was artillery fire upon the Union line. But that would have required the Confederates to clear perhaps hundreds of yards of wooded terrain, irregular and rough, all uphill, then drag the cannon and ammunition up. This would have been no easy task as an exercise, but in actual combat, under fire or attack, probably could not have been accomplished at all and would have taken well into July 3 to get done at in any event. And Lee could not have afforded to wait on it.

Bottom Line: the battle of LRT has remained in the public imagination as a decisive action of the whole war. But in fact, its outcome more likely than not did not affect even the outcome of the battle. Here is an interactive, chronological map of the Gettysburg battle. A clip from the movie, "Gettysburg," which shows the 20th Maine's final, desperate and successful attempt to stave off defeat.

And finally, speaking of things Civil War, there is the fabled "rebel yell." The largest Civil War veterans reunion ever held was at Gettysburg on the battle's 50th anniversary in 1913. More than 50,000 Civil War veterans of both armies attended, though not all had fought at Gettysburg, of course.

One story of the 1913 reunion I read said that when thousands of the Southern veterans lined up before Cemetery Ridge and together wailed out the rebel yell, a loud moan of despair arose from the Union veterans on the ridge. PTSD?

The elderly Confederate line advanced at a walk while the Union veterans crouched behind the stone wall of The Angle and other places along the old defensive line. No one else made a sound. When the two formations were only a dozen feet apart, suddenly all semblance of old military discipline was broken and the former enemies embraced and shook hands and slapped each others' backs.

There is a recording, purportedly of an elderly Confederate veteran giving the rebel yell. His name was Thomas Alexander of the 35th North Carolina Regiment, who made the recording in 1935 for a radio station at a regimental reunion. Here is the recording, followed by a contemporary digital special-effects manipulation of Alexander's yell to emulate that of a whole infantry company.

Update: The Battle of Gettysburg ended July 3, and is almost universally regarded as the pivotal engagement of the whole war, although no one knew it at the time. Here is the photo today of the home page of Bing.com.

[The] photo shows the statue erected to honor the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, a volunteer regiment that joined up with the Army of the Potomac, which was led by Union General George Meade. July 3 marked the last day of vicious combat here, 155 years ago. The following day Confederate forces would begin their retreat to Virginia. With total casualties on both sides of roughly 50,000 lives, the Battle of Gettysburg remains the most costly conflict in US history in terms of lives lost.
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