Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Congress should give the interim deal with Iran a chance

After a decades-long standoff, Iran and the West (plus China and Russia) have signed an interim agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. While some are calling it a historic breakthrough along the lines of Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. media has been mostly skeptical. And in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress is already looking for ways to derail the deal by passing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran and tie the President’s hands for future negotiations. Despite the fact that President Obama has successfully passed tougher sanctions on Iran than any previous administration, the U.S. media in lockstep with Congress continue to thumb their noses at anything that resembles diplomacy when it comes to Iran. And while other U.S. allies in the region—primarily the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia—have expressed their concerns over this deal, few Americans care about what the Saudis think. As representatives of the American people, what Congress really cares about is what Israel thinks.

That’s where things get dicey.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wasted no time in calling the deal a “historic mistake.” Consistent with his hard-line views on Iran, Netanyahu believes that Iran has bamboozled the world, and has ramped up the rhetoric for a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And because the Israeli Prime Minister gets to send his spokespeople to talk to the U.S. media, it would be very easy to conclude that the “Israeli perspective” is to prefer military action instead of diplomacy.

That conclusion is wrong.

The Israeli military establishment and intelligence community have long been at odds with Netanyahu on how to handle the stand off with Iran. Israeli intelligence has concluded that Iran has not yet made the decision on whether to build a bomb , and that a military strike on Iran would lead to further destabilization of the region, while (at best) delaying the nuclear program by a year or two. In essence: not only would a war with Iran tank the world economy and send oil prices skyrocketing. It wouldn’t even accomplish its objective. Israeli investors seem to agree with the military establishment. After news of the deal, the Israeli stock market went up, showing that Israeli investors see the deal as diminishing a risk of a military confrontation, rather than augmenting it.

Those opposed to the interim deal with Iran should consider what would have happened had there been no deal at all at the Geneva talks. According to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in 2003 Iran approached the United States with an offer to talk about its nuclear program, but the Bush administrated believed that Iran, having been battered by sanctions, would either capitulate or collapse if Washington stayed the course. The result was that Iran had 164 centrifuges operating in 2003. Today it has 19,000 centrifuges. Given that the interim deal is the first time in a decade that Iran has halted any aspect of its nuclear program, it appears that talking has a better success rate than not talking.

Does this mean that the U.S. and its allies should trust Iran? No. It doesn’t. And given that both parties in Congress are actively trying to derail this deal by unilaterally imposing harsher sanctions, Iran has good reasons for not trusting us either. But that’s why the interim deal, though far from perfect, is at least the start of something good. It opens up Iran to unprecedented levels of inspections, forces them to neutralize uranium enrichments beyond what is needed for electricity, and puts them in a position to where if they decided to cheat or renege on their end of the deal, they would have to do so openly in the eyes of the world. Up until now, Iran could claim that U.S. style diplomacy is do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strangle-you. At least now, if Iran balks, the U.S. and its allies can credibly say that they gave peace a chance.

Before Congress jumps the gun, it needs to take a deep breath… and let the diplomatic process continue.

Aaron Taylor is on the steering team of Evangelicals for Peace, a network of Evangelicals dedicated to the principles of just peacemaking. This article appeared on Sojourners.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is Climate Change to Blame for Super Typhoon Haiyan?

The super typhoon Haiyan that just touched down on the Philippines is the strongest storm in recorded history. While the death toll isn't known yet, estimates are that it could be up to 10,000 people, with millions displaced. Interesting timing in light of the UN sponsored climate talks happening in Warsaw right now. So interesting, in fact, that the Philippines ambassador to the talks has vowed to fast until some sort of consensus is reached.

Is Climate Change to blame?

Here are two insightful articles on the topic:

The consensus: It's difficult to attribute any one event to climate change, but it's remains true that climate change has already brought about an intensification of extreme weather, and will bring about more intense storms in the future.

Watch the ambassador's tearful speech here

This was originally posted on the website: We Know Not What We Do

Monday, November 04, 2013

The things we should be doing anyway

I wasn’t meditating on a mountaintop when the idea came to produce a documentary about climate change. I was at a Rudy’s Barbecue. My wife and I had just moved to the Albuquerque area. I had been traveling the world for years doing missionary work. While we enjoyed the life of ministry, it became clear that God was moving us on to something new. For no other reason than to have a little fun, I had started taking acting classes, but Rhiannon wasn’t so hot on the idea. She knew that whatever I threw myself into would have to have a sense of purpose, or I wouldn’t be happy. Her exact words to me on our lunch date were: “If you’re going to make films. Why not make films that matter?” That was all I needed. Within a few weeks, I hired a director and was off to the Appalachian mountain region filming a story about Christian college students doing community health surveys in towns impacted by mountain top removal.

As I talk to people about the urgency of climate change, a consistent response I get is that nobody really knows what to do about it, which isn’t true at all, but I think that too often climate change communicators with Ph.D’s speak above the average person.


So let me put it plainly.

In order to mitigate the worse effects of climate change, the world has to come together and do two things:

1. Stop burning oil, gas, and coal.

2. Plant lots of trees.

No more blowing up mountains for six inches of coal. No new pipelines. Don’t even think about drilling in ANWR or expanding offshore drilling. Immediately transition to clean, renewable energy like wind, solar, geothermal, hydro -power, and bio-fuels…..And plant lots of trees.

As controversial as some of these things are, the fascinating discovery I’ve made in the process of making this film is that everything we need to do to combat climate change are things that we need to do anyway for reasons unrelated to climate change. So, if you’re a person who believes that global warming is a U.N. inspired socialist conspiracy designed to steal your freedoms and implement a one -world government, sorry to break the news to you, but it doesn’t really matter. The things that the 97% of the world’s climate scientists who are allegedly in on the conspiracy say we have to do—well, we still have to do them.

For one thing, fossil fuels are finite. We will run out of them. Virtually every aspect of modern society—from transportation to electricity to plastics, cosmetics, and food production—depends heavily on fossil fuels that will eventually be gone. Once we run out of fossil fuels, if the world hasn’t made the transition to 100% renewable energy, then down goes civilization as we know it. It’s that simple. Transitioning away from finite energy to renewable energy is something the Bible would call prudence, and something others would call common sense.

Then there are the health and water issues.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the pollution from coal plants is literally making us sick . This is especially true in areas impacted by mountain top removal, where communities in the Appalachian region have seen increases in cancer, heart attacks and asthma. Coal plants also spew toxins, particulates, and mercury, which seep into our air and our water, causing all kinds of health problems, which also raise health care costs. Coal plants also require billions of gallons of water to cool them. So if you believe that everyone should have a right to clean air and clean water, and that water should be conserved as much as possible, then you’re halfway there. Not only do coal plant pollution, and—to a lesser extent— natural gas fracking, use insane amounts of water, they also poison our air and our water, which in turn makes our children sicker.

Let’s talk about trees.

According to , deforestation contributes 20% of the CO2 emissions that are warming the planet and placing human survival in danger, but even if you think that’s 100% malarkey, it’s still a good idea to plant trees. Deforestation increases contaminants from soil erosion. It also causes less rain to fall, which in turn affects food production. A simple way to clean up pollution, bring more rain to drought-stricken areas, increase food production, and restore a healthy ecosystem is to reforest the earth, whether by planting trees or by allowing trees to grow back naturally.

In all of my studies into climate change solutions, I haven’t found a single solution that doesn’t have an additional positive benefit unrelated to climate change. Changing light bulbs, insulating your home, and installing solar panels are all good for the environment, but they happen to be good for your pocketbook too. Riding your bike to work is good for the environment. It also happens to be good for your health.

Lastly, with apologies to Rudy’s Barbecue, methane is the gas that cows produce when they fart. It’s also a greenhouse gas that traps heat 22 times more powerfully than CO2 (though it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long), so in addition to planting trees and burning fewer fossil fuels, we should all be eating less red meat. Isn’t it strange that one of the primary things your doctor says you should do to reduce your cholesterol is to eat less red meat? Why not chicken or fish?

It’s as if God, or if you prefer—the universe—is telling us something.

Aaron Taylor is the producer of We Know Not What We Do.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What I dread telling my black son

By Aaron Taylor

It’s nearly 11 P.M. I’m sitting upstairs in my recliner typing away on my laptop, trying to figure out which words will follow the next. What I really want to be doing is holding my 4-year old son. I want to rest his head against my shoulders and cling to his innocence before it slips away. I used to believe that by providing a middle class suburban life for my son, complete with the best public schools and services that my state has to offer, that somehow I could keep him safe. Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the gunning down of Trayvon Martin, that illusion is now gone.

My son is black and I am white.

This is what I dread telling him when he becomes a teenager.

Isaac, when you were 18 months old, you left your native country of Ethiopia and you became our son. Your mother and I love you. Your grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends: we all love you and want the best for you. But Isaac, you’re not the cute little boy anymore that looks like he can be on the Disney Channel. Now that you’re a teenager, there are some in our society who will make assumptions about you based solely on how you look. And if you’re ever in a situation where you feel threatened by someone who has made assumptions about you, even if you’re walking home unarmed in the dark of night and some creepy guy is following you, you don’t have the right to defend yourself. Because mark my words son, if there’s a confrontation, society will not side with the guy who looks like you, they’ll side with the guy who looks like me.

I know that when you were a little boy you used to look up to police officers. When you saw a police officer, you used to tell them that you wanted to be a police officer too when you grow up. And the police officers adored you right back. But now that you’re older, if you’re ever confronted by a police officer and you do the wrong thing, I’m not going to be there to protect you. So, please, respect their authority and know that they’re there to help you and protect you. But if they ever stop you for any reason and you run—they just might shoot you. So, please, don’t run!

I imagine there are some who might be shocked at the prospect of me telling my son to be cautious with police officers, lest he be shot. But let me tell you about millions of people who wouldn’t be shocked. Black people.

Growing up I was never taught to be cautious or afraid of police officers because police officers were the good guys that could protect me from the bad guys. Racial profiling wasn’t real because nobody that I knew had ever experienced it. Part of me wishes that I could still live with that worldview, the one that says that racism is a thing of the past, that anyone who says otherwise is simply trying to further an agenda to fatten their pockets, that racial profiling is something that black people made up so that they can keep prejudice alive and our nation divided. As wrongheaded as it is, it can be very comforting when you reflexively attribute morality to people who look like you and menace to people who look like them. Now that I’m a white father with a black son, I don’t have the luxury of that kind of delusion anymore.

So to my fellow white adoptive parents with minority children, when the white establishment tries to deflect the subject away from civil rights for black men by talking about “black on black crime” (as if the vast majority of white people aren’t killed by other white people), we can’t let the establishment get away with it. They can change the subject. We can’t.

When a black male teenager is shot and killed and the white establishment goes on a smear campaign against that teenager, digging into his school records and sniffing for drugs, let’s remind the establishment how many troubled white teenagers smoke pot and yet we assume that they simply need more love and nurture, not that they deserved to die because they wore the wrong piece of clothing on a dark, rainy night.

Let’s remind them.

Because at the end of the day, these are our sons that they’re talking about.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Glenn Beck's Confusing World of Saudi Conspiracy Theories

While Glenn Beck often accuses anyone that disagrees with him of being a  "relativist" or "subjectivist", the irony is that in Glenn Beck's confusing world of conspiracy theories, facts don't seem to matter.  The Boston Marathon bombers were Chechen nationals, not Saudi, but even after the identity of the bombers was discovered, that didn't stop Glenn Beck from pinning the bombing on a Saudi national.

The Saudi national, Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, was himself a victim of the bombing, which makes the accusation even more pernicious. Glenn Beck has never apologized to Alharbi for falsely accusing him of being a terrorist, despite the debunking of his theory.

Now, in an effort to trash the Obama administration, Glenn Beck is claiming that the Saudi government tried to warn the U.S. about the Tsarnaev brothers, the actual bombers, even though his own website has reported that the Saudis have denied the claim.

First, the Saudis were behind the attacks. Now, the Saudis tried to stop it.

If that's not "relativism" or "subjectivism", I don't know what is.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why (American) Evangelicals are Resistant to Climate Change

By Aaron Taylor

First, a disclaimer. Not all evangelicals are resistant to climate change. The root word of "evangelical" is "evangel", which means "good news." Roughly speaking, an evangelical is anyone who believes that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and that sharing this good news should be a normative part of what it means to live out a Biblically-informed faith. There are about 600 million evangelicals worldwide, and they (we) are found in every major Christian denomination. And while most evangelicals aren't American, the majority of American evangelicals are unique in that they, unlike their counterparts around the world, tend to intertwine Biblical faith with right-wing politics, and in extreme cases, might actually believe that they're one and the same. Even here we have to be careful though, because American evangelicals are not a monolith (there is, in fact, an American evangelical left), and even the National Association of Evangelicals, though socially conservative, has spoken definitively on the need to address climate change.

Disclaimers and stereotypes aside, I'd like to address what comes to mind when the average American evangelical—your next-door neighbor, your boss, your friend or co-worker, the couple that puts gospel tracts in your kids' Halloween buckets—is thinking when they hear the words "environment", "environmental", or "environmentalist."

This is what they're thinking.

As David Gushee, one of the authors of the Evangelical Climate Initiative puts it, for most (American) evangelicals, when they hear anything that smacks of environmentalism, to them it's "Pocahontas talking to spirits in the trees" and "flower-power." Think Betty White in The Proposal dressed in fig leaves and dancing to the universe. Or Steve Martin in Out of Towners hugging a tree while singing Age of Aquarius.

In American evangelical parlance, an environmentalist is an eccentric tree-hugging fruit loop who worships the earth...and is probably a socialist.

To be sure, crass stereotyping isn't the only reason why so many American evangelicals are resistant to the idea of climate change. It may not even be the primary reason. But it is a reason. And as I begin this series for New Mexico Inter-Faith Power and Light on addressing evangelicals and climate change, I think it's helpful to start with the issue of stereotypes, because if we want to reverse the Koch brothers-financed climate denial trend in American evangelicalism, nothing will hinder the cause more than failing to address the issue of stereotypes. We all do it. We all think we're right when we do it. And we all deny that we do it...even while we're doing it.

The problem with stereotyping is that when we engage in it, we fail to see people as individuals. We view them primarily through the prism of what we think they believe because we "know" what people "like" them believe. Stereotyping can also blind us from the reality that giftings, personalities, and interests can lead people to transcend their socio-religious-political backgrounds.

Take my wife Rhiannon for example. My wife's parents (both now deceased) were hard-core Republicans (not that being a Republican necessarily means anti-climate change, but in this case, it did). My father-in-law, Eliot O'Brien, was a zealous student of end-times prophecy, so he was highly susceptible to conspiracy theories suggesting that the U.N. is an anti-Christ organization using an environmental agenda as a ruse for imposing a one-world socialist dictatorship. And, based on my conversations with Eliot, he was 100% pro-fossil fuels. Eliot felt that any attempt to reign in the fossil fuel industry was "job-killing regulations." Based on my wife's background, and the fact that she attends a fairly standard run-of-the-mill evangelical church today, anyone outside the evangelical fold could easily peg her as a climate doubter based on what they "know" about evangelicals.

And they wouldn't be more wrong.

Despite her upbringing, when my wife was a little girl, she was wearing "Save the Rainforest" T-shirts. My wife has always been interested in animals, recycling, saving the rainforest, nature, and conservation. When Rhiannon was growing up, her dream was to be either a veterinarian or a wildlife photographer. She got stuck with me instead.

The lesson: People are individuals with various gifts, talents, interests, and personalities, so don't write people off based on what you think you "know" about "them."

Besides, most American Evangelicals feel that they're a persecuted minority fighting against a culture that barely tolerates them, much less understands them. So even if an evangelical largely resembles a certain stereotype, they still don't like to be called out on it for the simple reason that nobody likes to be reduced to a stereotype. All stereotypes do is reinforce the "us" verses "them" way of worldly thinking, which leads to further stereotyping on both sides of the "us" verses "them" divide.

To illustrate this, I leave you with a video of Jon Stewart's Daily Show correspondents at the 2012 Democratic convention. Stewart's correspondents discovered that many people at the convention prided themselves about being non-prejudiced against everyone but....well, you can probably guess.

If you want to reach evangelicals for the cause of climate change, then—for the love of polar bears—don’t be like the people in this video!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: Muslim, Christian and Jew

Review by Aaron D. Taylor

On the cover of Dr. David Liepert’s book, Muslim, Christian and Jew, renowned religion scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “An honest and wholehearted attempt to fulfill a task that is incumbent upon us all….make our traditions speak with compassion and respect to our dangerously polarized world.”

Throughout the pages of Muslim, Christian, and Jew, Dr. David Liepert attempts to do just that. As the subtitle of the book suggests, “finding a path to peace our faiths can share”, Liepert spares no rhetoric in declaring his ambitions. Liepert wants nothing less than to put an end to the centuries-old tradition of Muslims, Christians, and Jews killing each other in the name of God, and the manner in which Liepert attempts to achieve that in this book, is as unique and nuanced as the author himself.

As an adult convert to Islam who grew up in evangelical Christianity, Liepert could have taken the path that many Anglo-Saxon converts to Islam from Christianity seem to take—embracing a radical form of Islam that hates Christianity and all things Western. That Liepert chose to adopt a moderate to liberal form of Islam—which Liepert  would probably say is the true Islam—makes him an interesting person, which in turn, makes Liepert's book interesting to read, especially for Western Christians who are used to the image of radical converts to Islam joining the Taliban or decrying the evils of democracy. Liepert is not a long shot.

It’s not that Liepert doesn’t have his beefs with evangelical Christianity. He does. And he makes them very clear in this book. But because Liepert spends so much of the book decrying extremism in his own tradition—Islam—when Liepert singles out the issues that lead to extremism in other traditions, like evangelical Christianity and some forms of modern-day Judaism, he has a built-in credibility that makes him worth listening to. Liepert is not a selective critic that sees flaws in every other faith tradition but his own.

Having said that, the effectiveness of Liepert’s arguments depends more on the reader and his or her background than on the author’s persuasiveness. For example, as a Christian from an evangelical background, I found Liepert’s use of the Bible to disprove the deity of Christ unconvincing.  And while I was delighted that Liepert gave a credible basis for accepting the crucifixion of Jesus as a Muslim, I found it odd that he then relegated the crucifixion to a minor issue of passing interest , as if the issue could go either way and it wouldn’t really matter (Christians find this reasoning bizarre. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever on the crucifixion in the New Testament, so when Christians hear Muslims say, “We accept previous revelations, including the gospels”, but then deny the crucifixion—or relegate it to a passing interest —the claim that “we accept your revelation” appears shallow and suspect).  And while Liepert gives with one hand by accepting the crucifixion, he takes away with the other by denying it’s cosmic saving significance. This puts Liepert in the awkward position of using the New Testament—even the epistles—to bolster his arguments, while having to backtrack by writing off the entire Book of Hebrews.  As a New Testament believer from an evangelical background reading this section of the book, I was preoccupied with the nagging question: If Liepert can accept the crucifixion as a Muslim, then why not mine the New Testament to explore it’s cosmic significance? One doesn’t have to accept the doctrine of penal substitution—a non-starter for Muslims—to do this.

The point I wish to make with this criticism is not to reignite a doctrinal debate, rather it’s to address what I think is the primary structural problem with the book. Because Liepert attempts to chart the historical and doctrinal path of each of the three religions, and to show how each of them have gone astray, he often goes off on unnecessary rabbit trails that could alienate him from the very audience he’s trying to reach, whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews.  For example, if a Muslim doesn’t agree with Liepert’s analysis of where and when Islam went astray (according to Liepert, it has something to do with the Ummah not accepting the authority of the Caliph), then he or she might not be willing to accept the central thesis of Liepert’s book. And that would be a shame, because Liepert’s central thesis is really worth listening to.

The central thesis of Muslim, Christian, and Jew is that when religions become overly obsessed with right doctrine at the expense of right practice, it leads to extremism, and the reason why Liepert is able to make this point so well, is because he is an equal opportunity offender.

On page 10, chapter 2, Liepert writes:

“When Western editorials and commentators call for moderate Muslims to condemn Muslim terrorists, the vast majority of us agree. But we would be able to respect your advice more if you hadn’t killed almost fifty times more of us than we have of you.”

I thought this was the most brilliant line in the book, and the reason why the statement has so much force is because Liepert goes on to criticize Muslims for killing each other. Liepert makes an interesting broad historical point that, percentage-wise, the body count perpetrated by members of Christianity and Islam are the same, but the difference is that Christians tend to kill members of the opposite faith, while Muslims tend to kill members of their own faith.

Liepert’s target audience is members of all three Abrahamic faiths, and while his criticisms of each faith might be off-putting to some of his target audience, Liepert also points out the best in each of the Abrahamic traditions, and because of that, when Liepert does criticize, it feels fair and even-handed.

And on this note, I feel that there are two things that Liepert does extraordinarily well in this book:

1.     Criticizes the obsessive focus on doctrine in Christianity.

2.     Defends Islam from accusations of promoting violence and anti-Semitism.

Liepert’s criticism of Christianity (especially evangelical Christianity) as obsessively focused on doctrine at the expense of right practice deserves some serious thought and reflection. I would even go as far as to say that a symposium on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is in order. There are too many passages in the New Testament that link salvation to loving thy neighbor and feeding and clothing the hungry and the naked for evangelicals to go on as if the only way to witness to the faith is to ask the question, “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going to go?”  and then—buzz, wrong answer!—when the response has a hint of “works.” At some point, evangelicals are going to have to ask the question of whether reducing salvation to passing multiple choice test questions needs to be reexamined.

Lastly, I think that the most persuasive part of the book is the section where Liepert lays to rest the notion that the Qur’an promotes anti-Semitism.  In my opinion, chapters 20, 21, and 22—the ones that expound an Islamic theology towards Jews, Judaism, and the Holy Land—are the best chapters in the book.  For these chapters alone, Muslim, Christian and Jew is well worth the read.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.