Monday, August 31, 2009

Pardon Alan Turing

Alan Turing was one of the fathers of computer science and a homosexual. Because of his sexual orientation, he was hounded to suicide. The article below describes how many in Britain want this injustice recognized and amends made. David Leavitt's biography of Turing, "The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer," is a good place to start learning about his life and work.

BBC NEWS: Published August 31, 2009

Thousands call for Turing apology

Thousands of people have signed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous government apology to World War II code breaker Alan Turing. Writer Ian McEwan has just backed the campaign, which already has the support of scientist Richard Dawkins. In 1952 Turing was prosecuted under the gross indecency act after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself.
The petition was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming. He is seeking an apology for the way the young mathematician was treated after his conviction. He has also written to the Queen to ask for a posthumous knighthood to be awarded to the British mathematician.
Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
"This added insult and humiliation ultimately drove him to suicide," said gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who also backs the campaign. "With Turing's death, Britain and the world lost one of its finest intellectual minds. A government apology and posthumous pardon are long overdue.”

National legacy

Alan Turing is most famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. However he also made significant contributions to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and computing. In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called "On Computable Numbers", whilst in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test.
After the war he worked at many institutions including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. There is a memorial statue of him in Manchester's Sackville Gardens which was unveiled in 2001.
"I kept reading about potential funding cuts at Bletchley Park and I suddenly felt really mad about it," said Mr Graham-Cumming. "I felt Turing was getting overlooked as being a British genius and that there was a blindspot in the public eye about an important man."
He has so far collected more than 5,500 signatures. He admits that an official apology to Alan Turing is "unlikely", as Mr. Turing has no known surviving family, but he says that the real aim of the petition is symbolic. "The most important thing to me is that people hear about Alan Turing and realise his incredible impact on the modern world, and how terrible the impact of prejudice was on him," he said.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently voted to allow gays in "life-long, monogamous" relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church. Although this is good news, it still imposes a “work” on clergy, and by implication on all church members, to be monogamous or in a committed relationship. The only other choice is to be not sexually active or chaste. As John Shuck writes in his blog “Shuck and Jive”
“The inherited (and largely unexamined) ethic (in the church) is that all sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and sinful. This is hardly an ethic. It is simply a rule. It says nothing of the quality of sexual activity within marriage including issues of power and consent, and it says nothing to the millions of people who are not married but (believe it or not) have sex. There is no guidance for them from the church except be celibate or be silent. The church can and should do better.”
He goes on:
“We need to have discussions about what is good, ethical, just, and life-affirming. As Rev. (Debra) Haffner (director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing []), points out…:
“The Religious Institute has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional "celibacy until marriage, chastity after." This new ethic is free of double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender or marital status. It calls for sexual relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable and protected, whether inside or outside of a covenanted relationship. It insists that intimate relationships be grounded in communication and shared values. And it applies to all adults -- even those of us who are called to ministry.”
So the battle for enlightened sexual ethics and responsible sexual freedom is far from over. I pray that the ELCA will hear the call for these next steps and help us on the road to good sex. Will you join me in my prayers?

Afghanistan and the Drug War

America’s war in Afghanistan is getting bloodier. In August, so far, 45 Americans have died in that war, more than in June or July. So far, as editorialized in today’s “New York Times,” over 8 years of war more than 5000 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have spent more than $900 billions to achieve “victory” in those countries. Indeed, although our leaders tell us we will win the Afghan war, the chance of victory and our reasons for being there at all are murky. The English and the Russians before us tried and failed to impose their will on this country, but our government sees no reason why we shouldn’t succeed where they failed. How will our success be measured? In large part, we believe we’ll be successful if we engineer a “democratic” government there not enmeshed in the drug trade, which is Afghanistan’s main source of income.
Why is the drug trade so lucrative? Primarily, because opium-based drugs are illegal, and when drugs are illegal, a great deal of money can be made on the street. The U.N.’s drug czar, in the July 31, 2009 “Newsweek,” says about $52 billion of street drugs were sold retail worldwide last year. Of the $3 billion wholesale value, he estimates that the Taliban is raking off about 10% and is actively involved in the drug trade itself, as part of its terrorist activities. He also says that the Afghan government eradicated only about 3% of the poppy fields last year at the cost of 70 Afghan military deaths and at least two hundred million dollars. Three percent is hardly enough to deter growers.
This also is an example of the failures of the U.S. drug war, which continues unabated, wreaking havoc everywhere. From comes the news that so far in 2009 alone, we’ve spent over $33.6 billion on state and federal anti-drug efforts, while arresting more than 1.2 million people for drug offences. Many of those arrested will end up in prisons, which are breaking down under the load. This is all in the name of prohibiting drug sales. However, many addicts recruit others to finance their habit, so the number of addicts grows and sales increase. So, like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of drugs is a failure, but prohibition is a moral crusade for the U.S. government because drugs, it is said, are bad. Perhaps a better way of thinking about drugs is that addiction is a medical problem that should be treated, rather than a crime that should be punished. If addicts could receive the drugs they crave from a clinic, rather from street sellers, they would have no cause to commit crimes to support their habit.
As long as drugs are prohibited in a moral war on drugs, the worse the drug problem will be. Our war in Afghanistan will not eradicate drug sales, only decriminalizing drug sales will do that. Does the U.S. have the moral courage to stop our crusade against drugs? Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Angry White Men lose one

Now gay Lutheran ministers can acknowledge their same-sex spouses in church. This is obviously the end of the world (as we know it), and God must be rolling over in his grave as a result.
So the angry white men are not getting their way in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a white male organization if there ever was one. Gun-toting, Fox-News watching white men have been very successful in other areas like derailing health care reform, so how did they drop the ball with the Lutherans? I attribute it to the first Lutheran commandment: “Be Nice.” For Lutherans being nice is more important (most times) than justice or truth. We only have to cast our minds back to the Lutherans’ role in Nazi Germany to remember that not making waves and looking the other way were more compelling actions for them than standing up for the Jews. By the way, German Lutherans didn’t stand up for homosexuals, either, and many perished in the camps also.
So, 68% of this year’s church wide assembly voted to allow congregations to call clergy in same-sex relationships. Although, not to be cynical, I’m sure many voted for this because it’s right, I’m also convinced many voted for it so it would go away and we wouldn’t have to talk about sex anymore. Talking about sex really isn’t nice; no Lutheran does it unless pushed to the wall. After all, Lutherans’ greatest theologian, St. Paul, told us how nasty sex is. Why would nice people want to talk about it, much less do it?
So now at least for a while we don’t have to talk about sex. The angry white men will plot and maybe eventually leave the ELCA, but for now, no more sex talk. Who’s bringing what to the next potluck supper in the church hall?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Comment on "Brueggemann's swing and a miss”

I have left the comment below on the August 5, 2009, post, “Brueggemann's swing and a miss,” on the blog, “Cyber Spirit Café”

Walter Brueggemann is the most respected Old Testament scholar active today, so his comments carry great weight, but his ambivalent crusade against historical criticism of the Bible gives the appearance of floundering: He writes that historical criticism undermines the church’s “textual memory.” However, it’s not going away, even if we bury our heads in the sand. The question is how should the church deal with historical criticism?
The presence of historical criticism in the life of the church has long been a preoccupation of Brueggemann’s. I was particularly struck by this in an otherwise magisterial review of Jon D. Levenson’s, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” in the February 6, 2007, issue of “Christian Century.” In the review, Brueggemann writes that Levenson makes three main points. The first is “…faith in resurrection, when we have the courage to overcome the intrusiveness of Enlightenment rationality, is vigorous and central to both Jews and Christians.” I was so struck by this idea of overcoming the Enlightenment that I wrote a letter (unpublished) to the “Christian Century” about it. In it I ask, “How do we overcome the intrusive Enlightenment?” I go on to assert that, “Surely, we won’t by going down the dead-end road of fundamentalism.” I then offer a method by which moderns can embrace the frankly supernatural resurrection without abandoning rationality. This is the idea suggested by Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutic circle” in “The Symbolism of Evil.” He suggests that we moderns have lost our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.”
Another idea may amplify this. Don Cupitt, the English theologian, has written in “Radicals and the Future of the Church” that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” In the theater we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief, and have religious feelings and experiences. In fact, following Schleiermacher, it is via our feelings aroused by worship that the Holy Spirit comes to us and guides our actions. This is in keeping with the classic Christian idea that Word and Sacraments are objective. We have the promise that if we attend to them, God is present to us through them. So, those worshipping should be intentional about entering the realm in which the Spirit is promised to be available to us. In worship we should seek the Spirit’s presence to strengthen us in our lives. So the questions to ask about the Biblical narratives are not about their historicity, albeit these questions are fascinating, but rather about whether these narratives are vehicles for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and enable good works in our lives. Of course, the Holy Spirit is Other. When we enter into worship, we are following the Spirit’s lead; we cannot control what happens. It is this very lack of human control that permits us to glimpse fleetingly and incompletely something of God. Thus we trust the promise of God’s resurrection knowing full well that it cannot be accommodated within rational thought. Like everything important in life, we trust the promise often with only the dimmest comprehension or certainty.