Of the Rain

A small sketch composed in the aftermath of yesterday’s rainy day.

The raindrops kissed the earth fiercely, each choosing a different point at which to passionately disintegrate.  As millions of cold drops of water flung themselves from the sky, sent thence by their Creator, the raindrops’ collective end and resulting new life for their lovers created the loud pounding of a thousand hollow drums.  Each drop, committing moral, immortal suicide on pavement, dirt, grass, or sea, exulted with wild joy; each thus fulfilled one portion of their purpose, eternally carved for them in the moving Story of Creation.

New York, New York

I recently had the privilege of visiting New York City; while there, I was struck by the multiplicity of cultures, customs, ethnicities, and personalities that tangled and converged within the city boundaries.  I was delighted to experience a city defined by its heterogeneity.

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Beauty and Care

“Governments often decide to subsidize opera performances or sporting events, even though the money could otherwise save lives if spent on health care. Another example: ‘The French government knows that a few people die in accidents every year solely because of the avenues of trees lining the roads; yet we do not think it monstrous that they have decided not to sacrifice such beauty.'” – Jonathan Aldred, The Skeptical Economist, p. 160

Terrifying.  The above quote makes me terrified to think of the cost my living can have on others’ lives.  I’m becoming more conscious that my long, hot shower may be horrid when some people live without adequate drinking water.  Can I never again spend money on nice clothing?  Should I spend all of my time seeking to end world-wide suffering (or helping folks in my own “backyard”), acting in ways highly conscious of the cost my living has for others?

And yet, I’m conscious of the beauty of life – the joy of gazing at the vast, starry sky in the midst of a cold, crisp evening.  Is that moment of joy ill-spent because I didn’t use it researching human pain so that I can best make a case to policy-makers about how to alleviate said pain?

I think not.  Yahweh created that beauty and I’d be remiss to not enjoy it with his pleasure.  This topic holds plenty of weight and urgency; I’ll continue to think about it (and perhaps post about it).

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Life…

Life

“When I got depressed in Rwanda, which was often, I liked to go driving.  On the road, the country resolved itself in rugged glory, and you could imagine, as the scenes rushed past and the car filled with smells of earth and eucalyptus and charcoal, that the people and their landscape – the people in their landscape – were as they had always been, undisturbed.  In the fields people tilled, in the markets they marketed, in schoolyards the girls in bright blue dresses and boys in khaki shorts and safari shirts played and squabbled like children anywhere.  Across sweeping valleys, and through high mountain passes, the roadside presented the familiar African parade: brightly clad women with babies bound to their backs and enormous loads on their heads; strapping young men in jeans and Chicago Bulls T-shirts ambling along empty-handed – save, perhaps, for a small radio; elderly gents in suits weaving down red-dirt lanes on ancient bicycles; a girl chasing a chicken, a boy struggling to balance the bloody head of a goat on his shoulder; tiny tots in ragged smocks whacking cows out of your way with long sticks.

Life.” – We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch, pp. 178-9

On the Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention

As I listened and contributed to discussions in my Humanitarian Intervention class, my feverish mind produced more questions about the ethics of intervention than it answered.  I chronicle a few of my thoughts below.

1.  One of the pieces we read for class was titled, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” by Peter Singer.  In it, he gives an analogy of a man who sees a drowning child.  Most students in the class felt that the man was obligated to save the drowning child (or, if not obligated, at least the man should save the child).

Singer extends his analogy to include children who are drowning (or in poverty, without water and food, ill, etc.) across the globe.  Since we possess an obligation to save the child who drowns in the pond 3 feet away from us, we also possess an obligation to save the child who drowns 700,000 miles from our home.

I question his extension for the following reasons.

First, we cannot help every person, every child, in the world.  We have a limited amount of time and resources with which to help those who suffer.  We must choose which children and people to assist.  Thoughtful discrimination is vital.  On what basis, therefore, should we discriminate?

Surely we should not discriminate on the basis of race or citizenship.  Should we then discriminate based on the chance of patient recovery?  Such a criteria holds frightening consequences; from a health care perspective, older citizens would be ignored and the younger served.  The disabled would be neglected and the severely injured left to die.

Should we then discriminate based on the severity of suffering?  If we accept this method of discrimination, we must define suffering.  Is the suffering mental, spiritual, physical, material?  Which compels us most to action?  And if we discriminate based on the severity of suffering, will we leave the lesser suffering that occurs near us in order to prevent the greater suffering that happens far away?  Will we leave the child who broke his leg in order to help the child who chokes?  Admittedly (and bypassing the problem of how we measure severity of suffering), this scenario holds the greatest appeal.  After helping the second child, we can return to the first.

But what happens when we are faced with two children who choke simultaneously?  How do we then discriminate?  In the US, we call medical personnel to help both children.  Must we then rely upon institutions, requiring each institution to help a specific group of suffering people?

Here, perhaps we should include some economic analysis.  Each individual should help according to comparative advantage.  Examining society through an economic lens, we notice that each individual will help another at an opportunity cost.  If I help the drowning child, I might be late to my next, crucial appointment.  In this situation, the opportunity cost of helping the drowning child (missing my appointment) appears minimal in comparison to the opportunity cost of keeping my appointment (the child dies.)

But say person A must choose between two possibilities of moral validity: leaving America for Afghanistan to provide crucial medical aid or flying to Myanmar to help smuggle refugees out of the country and away from persecution.  How can we determine which choice person A should make?

Perhaps here the market arrives – person A can better determine the opportunity cost of his decision than I can.  His heart might ache more for Burmese refugees; thus, his opportunity cost would be greater if he flew to Afghanistan.  Or, he might have a deep conviction that he can bless another human being most through medical care.  In that case, helping refugees flee a country would ignore his deep convictions.

Additionally, if we mandate (through a national or international government) that persons must provide humanitarian aid (non-military), we fail to allow citizens to help whole-heartedly.  We’ve made them angry prisoners bound to obey our moral code and have denied them the pleasure of freely sacrificing for a greater cause.  And yet, what of those who suffer?  We already force individuals to comply with standards of legal justice – not murdering, stealing, etc.  Can we force them to not only avoid moral bads, but also pursue moral goods?  I’m inclined to respond negatively, but have yet to flesh out my reasons.

Secondly, when one utilizes military humanitarian intervention, how should one weigh the costs and benefits?  Take, for example, the possibility that aerial bombers are covering a territory in which human rights abuses are occurring; they drop bombs in an attempt to damage the corrupt armed forces, but hit civilians in their blind drops.  Here, “collateral damage” is a rampant cost of this type of military intervention.

But say the military intervention determines to use helicopters instead of aerial bombers.  The pilots can be much more accurate as they hunt their targets.  Now the pilots are exposed to a Black Hawk Down.

Should we prefer the latter situation because the soldiers have chosen to place themselves at risk by virtue of their profession?  The armed forces rely heavily upon the chain of command; many are likely there, not from humanitarian purposes, but because they were ordered there.  Can we justify the increased possibility of their death without their consent?  How can we weigh the deadly costs of these two opportunities?

3.  Again on the military subject: If a state condones military intervention for humanitarian purposes, that state may not possess the ability to legitimately recall its troops if it hasn’t achieved its humanitarian objective.  From this perspective, the response to Black Hawk Down couldn’t have been legitimately justified.

But if the combatant death toll is too high, doesn’t the commander-in-chief rightly possess the ability to determine that the previous goal has passed the limit of acceptable cost to attain it?  And in a state like the U.S., democracy overrides any of the rhetoric utilized to declare actions; if the people determine that the troops must be recalled, the troops will be recalled.  Here, a discussion on the benefits of democracy would be relevant, but too lengthy in scope.

Finally, with regard to the drowning child example, most students agreed that a passer-by has the obligation to save the child.  Conversely, does the child possess the right to be saved?

The Last Goodbye

For my last assignment as an Exodus January intern, I delivered a bag of warm clothes to a newly arrived family from the Congo.  They had been in the States for three days.

I stepped into their apartment at 5 o’clock and was met by a warm greeting and smile.  The father limped to the door, aided by one of those medical contraptions that grips your leg in its vice while you hold it like a cane.

The mother sat on the couch next to their small daughter.  The daughter looked about six and had brightly colored beads wrapped into her bouncy pigtails.

I delivered the clothes with a smile and then made to leave.  The father stopped me.  He said that their caseworker hadn’t yet been to visit them, but had promised to come today.

He thought I was their caseworker.

He thought I had come to visit.

I tried to help fix their phone line and teach them how to use a rice cooker (at which I failed miserably).  But what they really wanted was a friend.

In broken English (actually, it was pretty good, but he called it bad), the father told me that he came to the U.S. to learn English and have neighbors.  He was lonely.  His family was lonely.

I was desperate.  This family needed friends.  I called the caseworkers at Exodus, but they were with other clients.  The demand for help is so great and the staff so thinly spread.  Sometimes what seem like true necessities (clothing, electricity) obscure other necessities from view – necessities like fellowship.

No one could come to see this family tonight.  Neither could I; I was expected at home and, when I called my mom to explain the situation, she asked me to come home quickly because the sky was darkening and the roads were icing up in our neighborhood.  She wanted me safe.

I told the Congolese family that I couldn’t stay and was very sorry.  They let me go with a, “God bless you.”  The father walked me to the door and raised his hand when I turned around at my car.

I said goodbye and walked away from my winter with these refugees.

I felt sorrow.

I want to come back.

One Name on a Piece of Plain, White Paper

Files.  Piles of folders.  Stacks of dividers.  Reams of forms.

On them were names.  Birthplaces.  Medical information.  Family ties.  Alien numbers.

Each piece of paper bore the same uninteresting resemblance to the one that preceded it.  Every sheet had plain, black type spaced evening across its surface.

Uninteresting in appearance.

Weighty in significance.

Yesterday, I entered information into newly-created case files for soon-arriving refugees.  These people hail from Myanmar, from Thailand, from Iraq, from Somalia.  One even comes from Rwanda.

Their information is boringly presented and skeletal in nature.  It doesn’t convey the essence of their person.  And, from time to time as I processed their information, I forgot to pray for them and wonder about their character.  I just entered their information.

Then I saw one of the Exodus caseworkers listed as the U.S. tie (relative) for a hopeful refugee from Myanmar.  I double-checked the U.S. tie’s name.  Yes, it was the caseworker, one of my good friends at Exodus.  He sat in the chair next to mine.

I paused.

Then, I turned to my friend and said, “[Lian], I’m processing your brother.”

“Really?!  How do you know?”

Lian’s face was full of laughter and happiness.

I showed him his name on his brother’s sheet.

He laughed delightedly and asked when his brother would arrive in the U.S.  I said I didn’t know.

Lian referred to the funny occurrence 15 minutes later.  “You processed my brother?  Hah!  How wonderful.”

I made sure to enter his brother’s plainly-typed information with extra care.