Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 5, 2014

Why Grief Can Exist Alongside Hope

Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

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Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

The fact of death isn’t new to me, of course; but the subject has necessarily become less abstract.

How each person processes such a thing is highly and properly personal. But what I did want to touch on is how a person of faith–in my case the Christian faith–tries to make sense of things.

When I was still sorting through my belief system, there was something about Christianity that drew me to it. It was (among other things) that Christianity made sense of pain, loss, and sorrow in ways that nothing else quite did, at least to me, and in ways that seemed to me most true. That is, it didn’t deny suffering happens; it didn’t promise that good and faithful people wouldn’t suffer; and it didn’t pretend that suffering and the death of those whom we love won’t be searing. Jesus never told us that those things should be minimized in any way. He wept, after all.

And yet even in the midst of valleys and heartache, we believe God is present. The notion that joy and peace can transcend circumstances, that there is a reality beyond our senses and that there are blessings to be found even in mourning, were things that had resonance with me. I came to believe that the Lord can redeem and restore all things, including areas of brokenness. I was captivated, even then, by the thought that our life here on earth is intensely real–we’re not talking about shadows on the walls of caves–but also, in the full scheme of things, momentary. That it’s part of a very meaningful and authentic story, but it’s not the full story, and it’s not the end of the story.

This past weekend I was in the company of someone I’ve written about before, Steve Hayner, who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and whose life on this earth is now likely to be counted in weeks or months. In struggling to find a way to express some of these sentiments, I found myself recalling the movie Shadowlands.

C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is shattered by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Near the end of the movie he’s told he must talk to Douglas, the young son (by another marriage) of Davidman. “I don’t know what to say to him,” Lewis admits.

The next scene is of Lewis and Douglas talking.

“I don’t know why she had to get sick,” a grief-stricken Douglas says.

“No, nor me,” Lewis replies. But you can’t hold on to things, he says; you have to let them go.

“Do you believe in heaven,” Douglas asks Lewis.

“Yes, I do,” Lewis replies. (By this time Lewis’s faith, which had buckled a bit in the aftermath of Joy’s death, has recovered.)

Douglas, who at that point says he doesn’t believe in heaven, tells Lewis, with tears in his eyes, “I sure would like to see her again.”

“Me, too,” Lewis replies. And he and Douglas embrace, weeping.

One can believe, as Lewis wrote in The Last Battle (the last book in his Chronicles of Narnia series), that our lives in this world are only the cover and the title page; that with death we begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Yet when cancer struck down the person Lewis most loved, he understood that future chapters are not present ones; that covers and title pages matter, too; and that grief, to paraphrase the essayist Chad Walsh, is the price of the knowledge–the knowledge of love and affection, of intimacy and friendship. Those who live in the glow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. That’s the nature of things in this broken world, and why grief can exist alongside hope.

One final thought struck me in reflecting on this past weekend. Now and again there is in my estimation some confusion within Christianity on the relationship between the eternal and the temporal. They are hardly synonymous; but neither are they inverse or antithetical, which is how they are sometimes cast. Nor is the demarcation between the two quite what we might think. This world is surely a vale of tears. But it can also pre-shadow the glories and joy that awaits us. It is also home to people like Steve and his wife Sharol who are, in the words of St. Paul, “imitators of God.” They offer intimations not of immortality but of divine grace and love.

Death is not the way things were meant to be. But it is, for now, the way things are. That doesn’t make accepting it any easier. But here’s what does: Finding individuals who, in the face of a terrible ordeal, choose to trust God and offer their fears to God; who are dignified and transparent in recounting their journey; and who, when facing the prospect of death, can still say (and mean) that “everyday has always been an opportunity for attentiveness, gratitude, and living into God’s call” and admit to having much less of a desire to “seize the day” and a greater desire to welcome it with all it’s twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and sorrow. To live joyfully and faithfully, come what may.

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National Defense Panel’s Bombshell Report

It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

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It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

Such a group might be expected to endorse the status quo as the lowest-common-denominator option. But that’s not what they did. Instead they issued a blistering denunciation of the impact that budget cuts–amounting to a trillion dollars over 10 years–are having on the armed forces. These cuts, they warned, “constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous.”

The panel identified “disturbing” and “dangerous” gaps between the “capabilities and capacities” called for under the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and the actual “budget resources made available to the [Defense] Department.” Specifically the panel determined that both the Navy and Air Force need to grow and the Army and Marine Corps should not shrink as much as currently envisioned.

The Navy, the panel noted, should have between 323 and 346 ships yet it is currently “on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less.”

The Air Force, the panel found, “now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history” and that situation is going to get much worse because it is going to lose half of its current inventory of bombers, fighter aircraft, and surveillance aircraft by 2019. The panel called for an increase in “the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and  long range strike in contested airspace.”

The panel also found that currently contemplated reductions in Army end-strength go too far. “We believe the Army and the Marine Corps should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 end strengths–490,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army and 182,000 active Marines,” the panel concluded. Yet on the current trajectory the army is likely to wind up with 420,000 soldiers and the Corps with 175,000 marines.

The defense panel rightly warned that “sustaining these significant cuts to our defense budgets will not solve our fiscal woes, but will increasingly jeopardize our international defense posture and ultimately damage our security, prospects for economic growth, and other interests.”

But no one in Washington, on either side of the aisle, seems to care. All Republicans seem to care about anymore is avoiding tax hikes. All that Democrats seem to care about anymore is avoiding cuts in entitlement programs. Whatever happened to the parties of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy? They seem to be as gone as those presidents. And America is going to pay the price unless we see some leadership on defense issues at the top of our political system on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Bibi and Barack After Gaza

As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

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As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

What’s puzzling is not President Obama’s desire for peace. It is always admirable to want wars to go on for no longer than they must. But in this case, once Israel discovered the terror tunnels, the state had to act in its own defense. The New York Times has a story today on the administration’s frustration with its lack of control over another sovereign state’s actions, but the entire piece can be boiled down to the following paragraph, appearing early on in the story:

With public opinion in both Israel and the United States solidly behind the Israeli military’s campaign against Hamas, no outcry from Israel’s Arab neighbors, and unstinting support for Israel on Capitol Hill, President Obama has had few obvious levers to force Mr. Netanyahu to stop pounding targets in Gaza until he was ready to do it.

Well that pretty much explains it, doesn’t it? Not only did Israel have public support in the U.S., but its actions were backed by its Arab neighbors and the U.S. Congress. Obama was the odd man out–or one of the few, anyway. There was a rare consensus in Israel’s part of the Middle East that included Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Everyone was on the same page both with Israel and the U.S. for once. It was an easy diplomatic call for Obama, but he still made the wrong one.

Additionally, the efficacy of American pressure on Israel depends to a large extent on the Israeli public. In this particular case, Hamas had constructed an underground city with tunnels that led into Israeli territory. Of course the Israeli public wanted those tunnels gone. And the threat from the rockets flying from Gaza, often derided by the world as glorified firecrackers, had increased as well. The rockets practically shut down Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel’s gateway to the outside world, which had the effect of temporarily isolating a Jewish polity that, for clear and rational reasons, is a bit sensitive to their enemies’ attempts to ghettoize them.

As Ruthie Blum writes today in Israel Hayom:

One could argue that the reason public support for Operation Protective Edge reached a ‎whopping 95 percent was the utter justice of its cause; that the incessant rocket-‎fire from Gaza, now hitting the center of country, was too much even for the peace ‎utopians to bear. ‎

One could assume that no matter what an Israeli’s personal political leanings, he would ‎see the virtue in defeating an enemy that glorifies death; uses children as canon fodder; ‎abuses women; tortures homosexuals and the disabled; and vows to annihilate the world’s ‎Jews while converting or slaughtering its Christians. ‎

Nevertheless, it is usually impossible to get even those Israelis with similar outlooks to ‎agree on anything, including where to hang a communal clothesline, for more than five ‎minutes. Hence the quip, “Two Jews, three opinions.”‎

Blum also mentions the surprising fact that this unity occurred under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose essential pragmatism tends to leave Israelis wary of his intentions. Netanyahu doesn’t really have a political base in the traditional sense, since the right wing doesn’t trust him. Yet in this current conflict, virtually the entire country was his base.

Such unity of spirit and support for Israel in the Arab world should have been inspiring. To Obama, it was a source of aggravation. As the Times notes:

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

Obama has always been more receptive to the angst of the Democratic Party’s base than other elected Democrats who didn’t, after all, become the most powerful person in the world by riding a wave of feverish antiwar anger. And the Democratic Party’s base is the one sector of American politics whose open hostility to Israel is not only growing stronger by the day but also seeping into the rest of the party from the margins.

Obama has often left commentators perplexed by the battles he chooses and the fights he picks, since they’re so often with steadfast allies. And it should be noted that he hasn’t abandoned Israel in the military realm–far from it. But the diplomatic aggression toward Israel is far from meaningless. The Times explains that “a senior American official predicted that the tough State Department statement would ‘box [Israel] in internationally.’”

Despite having the Arab world on their side in this fight, not to mention the U.S. Congress and the public they represent, the Obama administration is trying to rally international–European, presumably–opinion against Israel. It’s strategically foolish and diplomatically illogical. Perhaps the end of Operation Protective Edge, then–if indeed this is the end–will serve to protect the Obama administration from itself by preventing further self-inflicted wounds, or at least remove Gaza as their source.

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