The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Beth Pyles. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt show.
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Jim: Today’s guest is Beth Pyles, a solo pastor for a small country Presbyterian Church in the western mountains of Virginia.
Beth: Hi, Jim. How are you doing?
Jim: I’m doing good. Great to have you on here, neighbor.
Beth: Good to be here.
Jim: Yeah. In addition to being a pastor, Beth has been a reservist with the Christian Peacemaker teams in Iraq serving short stints there every year from 2005 to 2010. Prior to becoming a pastor, Beth was a trial lawyer in West Virginia for 22 years before retiring to attend Princeton Theological Seminary where she graduated in 2005.
Jim: Beth is a mother and a grandmother and Beth says that she is passionate about and blessed by God’s gospel of peace and justice, beautiful days in the country and her family and friends. But don’t think she’s all good times on the beach kind of gal. She’s also a self-described curmudgeon, listener to of different drums, a girl, boys used to write poetry to, an angry woman.
Beth: Oh, yeah.
Jim: They are craver of peace, let’s not forget that.
Jim: And she’s a good friend of mine and my wife’s. Her church is in the town of McDowell in Highland County, Virginia. What do you think, McDowell has a population of 50, something like that?
Beth: I’m going to say, yeah, that’s probably a good guess, on a good day.
Jim: Yeah, that’s what we always guessed. It’s so small. It doesn’t even appear in the census records. Oh, well. My wife and I live five miles down the river and there may be 20 houses between us and Beth. That’s how amazingly low the population density there is in the county. So Beth, what’s that amazingly low population density mean to you and the work that you do?
Beth: Well, that’s a good question. I think that it’s the blessing of neighborliness, because there are so few of us. It’s not just that we know each other. It’s that we have to count on each other, because there isn’t anybody else. So I’m the Chaplain for the Fire Department for example, and we often talk there about they respond to whatever call. It doesn’t matter if your best friends or not because they go because you need them. And that’s really the credo I think in a sparsely populated place. It doesn’t matter what we think of each other, we’re always there to help because we have to.
Jim: Yeah, we certainly don’t have that standoffish suburban thing, right? If someone needs help, they’ll come and ask you, right? Then the expectation is you will help, right?
Beth: Well, absolutely.
Jim: And that’s the way community used to be and should be, at least in my opinion.
Beth: I’m with you there, my brother.
Jim: The other thing that we noticed after we moved there is that I think there’s something about the very low density population in Highland that allows people to be unique. The people are each one quite different from the other and we found that to be very interesting and also probably because they don’t interact with people as much as people do in more populated areas. Some of them at least are amazing talkers.
Jim: In fact, we still have our rule of thumb don’t talk to X unless you got 45 minutes and Y, 90 minutes and one of our dear friends now passed on, who very much kept to himself, he did enjoy company, but if you stopped in, you better have four and a half hours and I’m not kidding.
Beth: I could probably guess who you were talking about that I know exactly what you mean.
Jim: I just love that about Highland. Each person is different and they could tell you some stories now. Those stories are well-worth listening to. So, what obvious question to ask Beth is what kind of personal transformation led you from being I’m presuming, knowing you pretty well, a hard-ass trial lawyer becoming a pastor. That’s a big change.
Beth: It is. It’s a radical change. The long version of the short version is I was connected with someone in my life who was profoundly alcoholic, if you can be profound and alcoholic at the same time. And over time, in the course of my own journey, I ended up going to a 12-step program. And from there, basically I came to a faith in God and from that to church, and then from church to just becoming more and more active and feeling like I was supposed to go do this thing and I thought it was ridiculous. So I leased a sports car, because I thought it was a midlife crisis. It was great fun. I got to tell you. Everybody should have a sports car at some point in their life, especially a convertible. But the feeling didn’t go away and so I then talked to friends and trusted loved ones and nobody laughed. And I thought, “Okay, maybe this is a real thing. Maybe God really wants me to go be a preacher.” And so that’s what I did.
Jim: Very interesting. I mean, that’s a really interesting transformation.
Beth: It wasn’t what I was looking for.
Jim: That’s when the some of the most interesting journeys in our lives happen when we take the step that we weren’t expecting.
Beth: Boy, isn’t that the truth.
Jim: And that’s some of the best things, too, in particular. Another thing about our county is the place that’s getting older every year. I look in the mirror and say, “Shit, it’s happening to me, too. How could this be?” What challenges does that make for a church pastor?
Beth: Well, I think there’s certainly a lot of challenges with it because you have more deaths and more health issues and people are slower and less active because they’re in that stage of life. But there’s also some real blessings, I think, because I’ve got a church, not have parents or grandparents really, but of great grandparents. And so most of them are at the life stage where they don’t get too awful fussed about too much, because they’ve seen too much. It really is, I think, a life stage kind of a thing. And so if I were with a younger congregation, given some of my traits, they might be judging me pretty harshly, but these folks, they take it all in stride and that’s a real gift that I appreciate very much.
Jim: And I do think that is something that comes from an older population, the W word wisdom.
Beth: Absolutely. You’ve seen a thing and you know a thing and you’ve learned a thing.
Jim: Yep. And you know what things not to be worth getting too worked up about, but probably just as importantly, what things are worth getting worked up about?
Beth: Boy, that’s a good question, isn’t it? I’d say in these folks lives for the most part, really not much of anything. They pray about folks and they care about folks and they do what they can for their community, but they just don’t get too fussed about too much.
Jim: I haven’t reached that level of wisdom yet, but maybe as I keep turning the pages on the calendar, I will.
Beth: Me, neither.
Jim: I’ve heard you talk sometimes about affluenza, a term that might have been coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I couldn’t find any proof of that, but we could describe it as the plague of prosperity and spiritual malaise. Could you say some more about that?
Beth: Sure. I think that in our world in the United States, as we understand everything from this very Western point of view, it is shaped by wealth, really never seen before in the history of the world as I understand it, and I keep giving F. Scott Fitzgerald the credit, but I’m with you. I’m not sure that’s right, but certainly The Great Gatsby would be the Exhibit A of affluenza. That whole on we and “I’m so bored with myself, I can hardly stand it.”
Beth: But in seminary, one of the scripture passages that I remember jumping out at me came from Deuteronomy, when Moses is getting ready to lead the people into the promised land then it becomes clear, he’s not going to get to go with them. God’s just promised them it’s going to be a land of milk and honey and wealthy beyond your belief, there’s going to be natural resources like you couldn’t imagine, and you will not have done a thing to earn it. I will simply give it to you. And so it will be blessing upon blessing, but God doesn’t stop there. Then he says, “But here’s the deal, when you get there after a while, you’re going to forget me and you’re going to say I did this. The work of my hands got me all that I have and then you’re going forget me.” And then the Lord says one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard for a believer, “Woe to you on that day.”
Beth: Yeah, it strikes me that one of the things that happens when you have so much that it’s never enough. It’s like trying to fill the hole in the soul with stuff and it’s never enough. And it’s like trying to find meaning and purpose in our stuff and our acquisition and our measures of success and it’s never enough. And so the needs of the world haven’t changed probably from about the beginning of time. But right now we can somehow afford to act like they aren’t omnipresent because they aren’t omnipresent for us. And so we get bored, and we get, I don’t know, like a low level depression. And we stop looking for meaning and we stop thinking about service. And all the other things that we do are just empty calories. And so if I were to diagnose America, and I’m certainly no doctor of any kind, but if I were I think spiritual malaise would be right up there at the top of the list.
Jim: Yeah, and the way we get there something that some friends of mine and I, we often use the term hedonistic treadmill.
Jim: You like that one?
Beth: I do. I hadn’t heard that. I like that a lot.
Jim: Yeah, it’s a hedonistic treadmill and actually, there’s a fair amount of good cognitive neuroscience to back it up, which is that each hit of wonderfulness in our lives. “Oh, now I spent $1,200 for a dinner in New York City.” Well, guess what the second time it wasn’t that wonderful and the third time, we’ve been just as well going off to Hardy. So now you got to go to $1800 dollars to get that same hit of wonderfulness. And it’s actually built into our dopamine and serotonin systems.
Jim: And so we are all, if we let ourselves stay on it, on the hedonistic treadmill. And it strikes me that one of the key features of what our society has to do if we’re not going to drive our society off an ecological ledge here in the next 50 years is learn how to step away from the hedonistic treadmill and to find meaning in other things.
Beth: I think that sounds pretty wise and I love that phrase. It’s so descriptive, but as I was listening to you describe the actual science, it also sounds very much like addiction processes, doesn’t it? You need more and more and more.
Jim: It absolutely is.
Beth: Yeah. Wow.
Jim: I think it’s literally true. The other one it’s just on the annoyance side, a little saying I like is, if you’re not careful, once you become affluent, you end up as a janitor to your possessions.
Beth: Wow. I love that. Yeah. There’s a prayer in Proverbs. I couldn’t lay my hands on it, but it’s in the book of Proverbs in the Bible. And basically what it says is, “Lord, do not let me have too little that I may resent what I don’t have nor too much.” And we often hear that prayer in one form or another about not having too little, but you very seldom hear somebody praying not to have too much.
Jim: Yeah and it may actually be good. I will say I’m not the best in that department. I will say my wife is a lot better than I am and she’s a great one for, “Throw it out if you haven’t used it in the last year.” And I think that’s really important to not let oneself be inundated with all this shit of the world. In other words, you mentioned in passing, which again, is getting a lot of discussion in the circles that I hang out in is meaning. The M word. When you say meaning, what does that mean?
Beth: Are you being rhetorical or do you want to know?
Jim: I really would like to know.
Beth: I suspect that for us in our postmodern life, that it means whatever we want it to mean if we’re being quite literal, right? For me as a person of faith, meaning is simply about putting God at the center of my life because God is the capital M meaning. Of course, everybody has their own journey, right? And their own process in looking for meaning, but I think one of the things that gets thrown away when you have so much is you even cast aside the journey seeking meaning, and mistake all kinds of other nonsense for purpose.
Beth: And I think that whether we think of it in an evolutionary way or in a spiritual way, or in some other way I can’t even conceive of because my imagination is pretty limited, that we are beings created to explore and delve into purpose and finitude is just one piece of that, and I think it’s actually the least consequential piece, but that’s just me. But yeah, so meaning is the journey, right? If you get into the popular memes of the day, not the destination, and I think it’s interchangeable with purpose. Like I said for me, that that question got answered a long time ago, and it’s yeah, God’s right at the middle and then everything else revolves around that.
Jim: And you got there by faith, I presume. God didn’t come down and tap you on the shoulder, did He?
Beth: In my case, kind of. So no, I wasn’t looking for God. I think God was looking for me and I’m not sure why, but it’s been kind of a fun journey, but yeah. No, faith is certainly a big piece of that and thinking about what faith actually means because it means so many different things in different contexts, right?
Jim: Yeah. Because I’m not a believer in religion in any conventional sense, so I really don’t have a solid sense of this faith thing, but I’m interested in it. So I’d love to have you articulate it as much depth as you’d like, what faith is in your mind and why is it important or what is it good for either and.
Beth: What is faith good for? Well, fortunately, you give me a heads up on that one and I had a little time to reflect but none of it for me is actually really short and sweet. I can certainly and would be happy to elaborate, but I think faith is in religious terms and the way I understand it is simply the acknowledgement of reality. A reality that is both seen and unseen.
Beth: And so Paul writes in the New Testament, that faith is the evidence of things hoped for. So faith is acknowledging that there are things beyond the five senses, but that’s not particularly helpful because that’s true in every discipline, right? There’s all kinds of things we can’t see that we know are true, but even science takes certain things as an article of faith unless and until empirical proof has been established, right? With the language of what hypothesis? So maybe, maybe if I were going to speak in that language, I would say that faith essentially is the hypothesis of the experience of God.
Beth: What’s it good for? Well, it’s the center of everything, but the thing is for Christianity, which is the perspective from which I come, the important thing to remember is that faith isn’t about creeds and tenants and propositional statements nor is it actually about human beings. The point isn’t what I believe in. When we’re speaking of faith, the first and foremost thing is actually the faith of the Divine, that God is faithful. So, in those scriptures, historically, people aren’t talking about God or no God, which tends to be the discussion of our day. At that time, they’re all pretty much thinking, yes, God, what is that God are those Gods like, what is their nature or his nature or her nature? And so, the central kind of unifying piece for the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is that God is a being who is faithful. And so, from that, then everything else flows.
Beth: So, what is faith good for, for me? It is establishing the linkage by which I know the nature and identity and character of the Divine whom I worship and thus know what I am made for and how I am to be. Yeah. I’m not sure what it’s good for. It just is, whether it’s good for anything or not.
Jim: You framed it, which I thought was probably about right as the hypothesis of the existence of God. In the science world, typically we’ll start with a hypothesis and hypothesis are often not confirmed.
Jim: So we look for evidence to build the case for the hypothesis. What’s the evidence that you’ve accumulated in your journey with respect to the existence of God?
Beth: Experience. So the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of Judaism and Christianity for me, tell the story of God in a way that is helpful and interesting and fascinating, but that’s not how I came to God. So I know the identity and existence of God through encounter and experience, and I encounter God and have encountered God in my understanding, both directly and mediated through other people and events in my life, most often through other people. And so you or I may know people who have a certain quality. We might want to think of it as the quality of goodness, but that’s not it. People who just look like they are happy and whole unto themselves. Some people may describe them as having a light shining from them. People with that inner serenity and contentment.
Beth: And those folks that I’ve encountered in my life have been people of a great and constant and unwavering faith and they had something that I wanted. And they shared with me the best they could their own journey and experience. And then as I said, I’ve had my own encounters. And so my credo of faith, if you will, is pretty simple, because I came to faith as an adult I can say, I have lived my life with God and without God. With is better. That’s it, with is better. And when I say with is better, I don’t mean my life got better. The truth is after I came to faith in God, my life got so much worse, you can’t even imagine. But I got better and that’s the paradox. It wasn’t about the quality of my circumstances, it was about the quality of how I experienced my circumstances.
Beth: So I have that as very pedestrian feet on the ground kind of an experience and then I’ve had a few experiences that would be, what would the word be, I guess, transcendental. Where you feel like in the Scottish traditions, they’ll talk about thin places. Meaning geographies where the distance between you and the cosmos where the Divine resides is so thin, you could literally reach your hand out and touch the face of God. And so I’ve had a couple of encounters in thin places. And those have been, of course, very meaningful to me and transformational, but the irony is none of them came to me to help form my faith, they came after I was a person of faith. So they were just part of the encounter story and in one or two of them, I’m yelling and cussing at God pretty good, I got to say, but big shoulders, Divine took it, so.
Jim: I don’t want to push you on this. But would you be willing to talk a little bit about one or more, let’s take one, one of these may be called mystical experiences or near encounters with the numinous?
Beth: Sure. So one was the most recent one that I was thinking about when I said it was yelling at God. I was working with a group of Christians in another worshipping community, not my own, who were in conflict and trying to resolve the conflict very unsuccessfully, and they were quite angry and they were ultimately very angry with me. I was representing, the whole and so it was a very challenging time. And I’m a peacenik, right? And so I’m doing a lot of peace and reconciliation work and none of it is working and ultimately, none of it did work, at least in from my point of view about getting reconciliation.
Beth: And so for about three days at one point, I found myself weeping continuously, not like sobbing, crying, but just tears were running down my face. I’d wake up in the morning, tears. I go to bed at night, tears. They just didn’t stop and I actually started looking stuff up because medieval women did this. And I always thought it was kind of creepy, frankly and a little like the hysterical woman in quotes, right? But I just couldn’t stop it. And I was quite annoyed as you might imagine.
Beth: And I’m driving, you can imagine it down 250 right into McDowell, passing the Griffin house. And God is sitting in the car seat beside me. Not like a guy that you could see and physically described, but I just I don’t know how to explain it, but I know he’s there. And I said, and I quote, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” And there was a pause and then I heard a voice very distinctly say, “Love them.” That’s it, love them. And I said, “You have got to be kidding me.” Not another response. I look to the car seat because I’m talking to someone, who’s sitting there. And I said, “Really? You’re the God of the universe and that’s what you’ve got for me? Love them. Are you kidding me?” Not another word. And I said, “Really? Now you’re going to go radio silent.” And God stayed radio silent.
Beth: But what happened in that 60 seconds was that the tears it stopped. I didn’t will them come and I didn’t tell them to leave and they had just stopped. And so I saw it and I said out loud to God and myself, “Well, that’s what you told me to do before and I thought that’s what I was already doing, but fine, that’s what I’ll keep doing.” And I usually don’t like to tell it because the language actually was part of the conversation. And most people don’t like to hear that I cussed at God. I wasn’t cussing at God. I was expressing my own frustration if anybody needs that caveat.
Beth: But the feeling that I was left with was that I actually was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing and that it was painful and it was breaking God’s heart, but it was how it was going to be and I’m not the agent of change. If there was going to be changed, God would see to it and I was doing my part, simple as that.
Beth: But the transcendent piece of it was that all the sudden, God was riding in the car with me. And yeah, and it was very comforting. I wasn’t looking for comfort. I hadn’t even asked for comfort. I was mad and I was mad at God because it was just a very impossible situation. But so that’s a lot of words to say. That’s one small moment in a lifetime, but weird things were happening. Who cries for three days? You know me, not me. You could be my witness on that.
Jim: Yeah, Beth is tough as nails. Let me tell you.
Beth: That’s right. And I’m not pretending
Jim: Not at all. Thank you for that story. That is a very powerful and moving story. And I really appreciate you sharing that with us and our audience. Let’s go back to this earlier description of the experience from others you described people have great serenity or the goodness from inside that kind of glows to the outside.
Jim: In another part of the world of people that I deal with. These people call themselves spiritual but not religious and truthfully, I argue with them all the time. In fact, I famously referred to spirituality on this show as the S word. And I act in my car, that people would claim this stuff. And I’d say one way or the other people, either you believe in a spirit, why do you call it spirituality or you don’t. But most of them will say, no, they don’t believe in spirits, but they can through things like meditation, introspection, various bodily practices, even breathing, sometimes psychedelic drugs, some of them, I think really do seem to reach the sense of serenity and contentedness. And some of them, I will tell you actually do have this goodness glow inside to out. What’s your take on that?
Beth: Well, I’m going to sound like an obnoxious Christian, but I’m not sure God needs me to know He’s there for him to be there. So that’s probably where it begins and ends for me. But I was looking at some stuff thinking about this spirituality versus religion because I probably tend to be more like you.
Beth: But there was one place I don’t remember where it was online that I was looking where they defined it a little differently that helped me understand that take you were talking about, which was they defined the terms, religious to mean having a deity as its object, and spiritual to mean having self as its object. It’s not a distinction I particularly appreciate but if that’s the distinction you’re going to make between spiritual and religious then I think it makes a little more sense.
Beth: Most people around here that I encounter when they talk about spiritual but not religious, they actually mean the opposite of what your friends are talking about. They mean they believe in God, they just don’t go to church. What they literally mean is I do my worship by myself. That’s the thing I have very little patience for, because by its nature, and by humanity’s nature, we are communal. We’re communal beings. Do we know anything from birth? Maybe to be afraid of falling, right? We know how to suckle maybe from birth.
Jim: And very early, we learn to be afraid of snakes, also things headed for our head. There’s a few but not many.
Beth: But yet we have to be taught, right? And so, the notion that I appreciate that I have to be taught to read, I have to be taught how to go to the bathroom, I have to be taught how to use a fork, but when it comes to religion and faith, nobody else has anything to teach me, well, that sounds like the height of hubris to me, frankly.
Beth: We learn together and in my tradition, we worship together. We are different as a group than we are as a series of individuals, even a collective set of individuals. So really when we get to that spirituality versus religion thing, I don’t know, because they’ve done studies on people who meditate with God as the object. I don’t know if they’ve done studies on meditation of people who simply meditate.
Jim: Yes, I’ve done a lot of them. In fact, Dalai Lama has-
Beth: Well, but the Dalai Lama, whether we think of Buddhism as a philosophy or religion, it has a center that is other than self, right?
Jim: It’s pretty subtle. I mean, Buddhism can easily exist without any sense of the supernatural. And there are forms of Buddhism that do have the supernatural and there are forms of Buddhism that don’t. So Buddhist meditators could be of either sort, and both of them seem to have rather similar brain patterns in FMRI. Now it’s interesting. I’m not aware of any research that looked at say two different Buddhists. Traditions that use similar techniques, some of which were theistic and some of which were not.
Jim: I may have to go back and check and say, but if I were to hazard a guess, probably not because I will say that my own view on such things is what’s really happening in meditation is that we are through various techniques, pushing our brain rhythms and networks into places they usually aren’t. And then our internal confabulator, the thing in our brain that tells us stories to try to make sense of things even when things don’t make sense attempts to knit them together into a story.
Jim: And so I would expect them to be relatively similar whether they were theological or not.
Beth: That makes sense. Yeah, that may well be. I don’t know. The do a lot of studying of monastics in that regard, but of course, they obviously have God as the object. So I don’t know if there is necessarily an other or not. In the 12-step programs, they talk about needing a God and frequently, they don’t care what your God is, but it can’t be yourself. So I’m always suspicious out of that tradition of the extreme focus on self as the center of the personal universe, simply because what’s the saying? My best thinking is what got me there in the first place.
Jim: Indeed, and it may not be a good place sometimes. I guess that’s the point of the 12-step process for sure. As a scientific materialist realist, I actually put forth a third perspective.
Beth: Okay, which is, it’s the universe that’s real. God, spirits, all that stuff, not real. Stories we’ve invented for various purposes and they have actually worked for both people and groups and societies. And then this thing, self is a very curious new, relatively new, thing that has evolved in the universe in the last at most 200 million years, maybe less. And it’s way less substantial than we like to make it out to be and it’s much better to put the universe first and think of us as a kind of a program that runs on a little piece of the universe and runs around interacts with the universe.
Beth: Oh, we’re the Borg.
Jim: Oh, well, when we come together, we might be the Borg, but as individuals we run around individually. So I tend to, to the annoyance of my spiritual friends, say, “Hey, people. Frankly, all your spiritual delving internally for this truth or that truth, it’s just a bunch of hallucinations.” And I tell my religious friends, “It’s just a bunch of kids stories that get us over the fear of the dark, meaning death.” And then reality is we just have the universe out there and it’s our job to go out there and explore it and do something interesting with it. So I would say that mine is the third perspective, that’s neither spiritual nor religious.
Beth: But I don’t see any of those as mutually exclusive. So I don’t know that they really are either or propositions. They may be, but they could just as easily be both and proposition. That is both the universe could be the material whole of which we are a small part. We could yet be an integral part which touches on the notion of self, right? I don’t know. And there could be the existence of God in all of that. One doesn’t negate the other. I don’t think necessarily.
Jim: Not necessarily. Philosophically, trying to get at the nature of being is exceedingly difficult. I love to point out to people, it’s logically possible that the universe was created 30 seconds ago with all of our memories in place and all the objects in motion. You cannot disprove that. And so just because something is logically possible, to my mind at least, doesn’t buy much credibility in terms of figuring out what is relatively more likely to be true.
Jim: And I guess my grounding is because we don’t actually know and we can’t actually prove anything at least so I would argue, you may be able to refute me and I’m open to hear that, because we can’t really prove anything, it seems to me to make sense to take one’s faith commitment and make them as minimal as possible.
Jim: Because as we don’t know what we’re talking about, the less we say, the less errors we’re likely to have.
Beth: Ah, okay. Yeah.
Jim: And then also let’s use our experience and our perception and our measurements to try to rule out as much as we can. So, my minimal metaphysics and those people listening to this show know. “What right has metaphysics? I thought he always says when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol, which I do say.” Because usually when I hear someone talking about their metaphysics, this long convoluted, “What the hell? “Where the hell did you get that from?” And when you push them on, you say, “Well, they just made it up, right?” Or he found it in some book, somebody else made up.
Jim: And so I push for a minimal metaphysical commitment and my commitment is basically that the world that we think is out there is out there. The human sense of consciousness is a biological phenomenon, no different from digestion. In fact, sometimes I’ll add and often with the same final output, that when we finally understand consciousness, we’ll find it’s a lot less. You got it. A lot less mysterious than we think it is, that there are no spirits, because nobody’s ever been able to put one in a bottle and weigh it. And so I say, my minimal metaphysical commitment is just that.
Jim: But being of a scientific mind, I’m happy to be proven wrong. So the day somebody can show me there is more to that, I will add it to my metaphysical commitment. But until that day, I will keep my metaphysical commitments as small as possible.
Beth: So when and if God shows up, you’ll be like, “Ah.” I guess for me, I think we’re in much more agreement maybe than other might think. Everything’s provisional, isn’t it? And I could be wrong isn’t a bad credo by which to live. So, my certainties are few. People mistake that about me in my case. I don’t know about you and yours, but me in my case because I’m emphatic about everything, even when I’m emphatically wrong. But once I learned that I’m wrong, then I’m emphatically emphatic about the fact that I was wrong. So, I guess I, the way I look at it is I live in the material world, of course, I’m a material being, of course, I am the sum of my parts, of course, but I also seem to be in some odd way, something a little bit more and less at the same time of the sum of my parts.
Beth: And in the 1500s, Martin Luther of all people said and he knew nothing of quantum physics and I know little, actually said, “There is nothing so large that God is not larger than. There is nothing so small that God is not smaller than.” And to me, he’s just perfectly describing that quantum existence, right? That seems to have no sense relationship in many ways, at least in our narrative storytelling form, with the physical material world and yet, we are pretty sure that it’s real as in material or tangible, even if not measurable, but day to day we know paradox. Day-to-day we know and count on the existence of the intangible that we can never see or measure.
Beth: We might measure the scientific impact of love or the way chemically love shows up on a brain scan or in our bloodstream, but to define it or to measure it, or to explain it, that becomes the work of the poet’s most of the time and there’s always an indefinable quality. And then biologists will tell us that, that human beings like any other critter will only act out of its self-interest and yet there are times when we act not only not in our own self-interest, but even against the interest of our tribe or our kind; however, we define that. So maybe the exceptions prove the rule, or maybe the exceptions prove that there is something there that I can’t see or touch or quantify yet and the yet is also an important piece of it.
Beth: I love science fiction. I don’t read it as much as I can, frankly, because I’m too illiterate in science to understand a lot of it these days, but, I’m a Star Trek girl, but that’s about as deep is I get. But isn’t it amazing that we can imagine worlds that exist in parallel or in tandem or in conflict with our own that we’re not aware of as a scientific phenomenon, but bulk at it being a spiritual phenomenon, because we think those two are mutually exclusive. And I think maybe that’s more about my lack of understanding or my lack of knowledge so far. So, I don’t know about you, Jim, but I’m kind of bummed out that I’m 65 or going on 65 only because there’s some amazing things there’re going to be happening in the next 100 years and I’m just not going to live long enough to get to see some of them.
Jim: I just turned 66. So I’m even older, God damn it. There will be some things I love to find out, which I just won’t, but I go, “Oh, well, that’s life.”
Beth: There you go. That’s right.
Jim: Quite literally. And I will say, in the last five or six years, I’ve been taking a pretty deep dive into cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience and the more I learn there, the more I’ve come to see that these spiritual type things seem to be programmed in and when I look at the anthropology and history of how faith communities have worked to establish group cohesion, I can see a perfectly reasonable story of how those could have become evolutionarily fixed. You know that groups shared a belief system. Live together more strongly, fought together more strongly, fought with each other last and reproduced more.
Beth: Let me ask you then. So does the biological truth of something or its sensibility negate its spiritual reality? One just doesn’t seem to have any impact on the other to me.
Jim: Yeah, I would say they don’t.
Jim: And in fact, my general refutation is, well, if religion makes us good, it must be true. Then I say, “Well, does that mean that because Santa Claus makes four-year-olds good, Santa Claus is true?”
Jim: All right, the trial lawyer comes back.
Beth: And the child who loves Santa Claus and Christmas.
Jim: Yeah, but if I use that as my standard reputation for that line of argument, which is just because it makes us good or even that it works or is biologically good for us, doesn’t mean it’s true in objective sets.
Beth: But it doesn’t mean it’s not. It doesn’t mean it’s not. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. It doesn’t mean that I just like I cannot prove the universe wasn’t created 30 seconds ago. And I will say that I think you and I are very similar in this regard. The way I described my views is strongly stated but lightly held.
Beth: I like that.
Jim: Sometimes sound pretty ferocious about things, but I have on several occasions turned coat and gone to the other side if I see the evidence, and so I hope they’ll remain that way to the end. I hope I don’t become a crotchety old curmudgeon who will never change their mind, but sometimes I do bark a lot more than I bite and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that really. I was also glad that you said you were a Star Trek girl because that means we’re the same tribe. One of my big divisions of the world is between Star Trek people and Star Wars people.
Beth: Oh, there’s no contest.
Jim: Yeah, none at all. How could anybody be a Star Wars person, but they’re out there by the bazillions, right?
Beth: Absolutely. No, that’s maybe a generational thing, but yeah, I like to think it’s a thoughtfulness thing, but that’s just me being obnoxious.
Jim: Did you know there’s a new Star Trek thing out? The new Picard series that takes-
Jim: The next generation storyline up to a new level?
Beth: I’ve been watching. Yeah. It’s fabulous.
Jim: We haven’t started it yet. We got a couple other streaming shows that we’re watching, but it’s on our list. I’m glad to hear that it’s good. I figured it probably would. Let’s take another little different turn here. And you know, maybe a little surprising from the previous line of comments of mine, at least is into theology. One of the things you mentioned is that within your religious tradition, it happens as a group, I will confess having been raised a Catholic, which I rejected after having an epiphany when I was 11, that the whole damn show was something made up by humans that control other humans. Our view was that the Protestants claimed that religion was a personal thing and not a corporate thing. Could you unpack that? I mean, when I was 11 years old last time I heard any Catholicism, so I probably misinterpreted it, but how would you compare that Catholic view on Protestantism versus your claim that you see your kind of religion as community based or collective?
Beth: Well, I think there’s a fair critique from the Catholic Church towards Protestantism and my Methodist friends are going to call and complain, but I’m going to blame John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for the notion of individuality and religious experience. So out of his own spiritual journey, John Wesley comes up with a couple of things that are, I would say, from my point of view, good in it of themselves, but get taken to a place never intended to be taken, particularly with the American experiment that is our Republic, so it’s a confluence of events.
Beth: Pietism is the first thing. Personal piety, an emphasis on good behavior. So in Methodism, which is not my tradition, the path of salvation is the perfect ability of the human being, that we are capable of perfection and that our journey is one ever toward that and our practices of personal piety are what get us there. And so that really does emphasize individual, not necessarily experience, but individual behavior, you see?
Beth: And so then couple that then with Methodism growing in the Americas, and particularly in North America, and particularly in the United States, and what you have is with the enlightenment and post enlightenment, creation of the Republic and recognition of the individual citizen up to a point, right? This odd combination, so we start talking about separation of church and state to mean one thing, and then by the time we come along, it ends up meaning, what I think about my God is nobody’s business but mine. And that’s a direction that John Wesley never intended. And I believe it’s not what the founding fathers were thinking about, without getting into whole political discourse.
Beth: So you have these strains where that critique from Catholicism is actually quite fair. And so you see, particularly in the ’50s, I think in the ’60s, the good Protestant is the one who’s going to church on Sunday, and then cutting whatever business deal he or she wishes to on Monday. And being a good person to their family, being a good Christian becoming defined as how you treat your family, as opposed to how you treat your world. So we lose that sense of what you were talking about earlier, that universality, right? And that was never part of the deal.
Beth: So within historical Protestantism, and certainly as I understand it, as a Presbyterian, there is an emphasis on individual, the state of the individual soul. So in Presbyterianism, which gets into predestination, which is a whole other debate or argument, but the emphasis there is on you don’t need to worry about the state of your soul. It’s the counter critique of Catholicism that you must be continuously worried about whether you’re going to hell and continuously doing all these deeds that are prescribed, or else you’re going to slip into hell, even accidentally, it seems.
Beth: And so John Calvin is trying to give everybody a pastoral word of comfort to say, “There is only one soul you need to worry about and lucky for you, it’s the one you know something about and it is your own, but once you know that you are in relationship with God, it’s all good because God will never let you go. You don’t need to worry about Timmy’s soul. Timmy’s soul is between Timmy and God and you have no say about that. But you can have comfort about the state of your own soul because God has chosen you and grabbed a hold of you and under no circumstances will let you go.”
Beth: Like all good things. Of course, it gets taken and twisted around, too, but the individuality of that pastoral reassurance, “You’re good quit worrying about it,” was meant to say, so now you can go out and serve the Lord in freedom and gratitude without worrying about heaven or hell. That’s already taken care of, but you still are part of a community. Hence, Presbyterians, for example and we’re just one example of many are the gifters, and I know people will argue with that today, too, but the gifters of the notion of public education and of the notion of hospitals in their modern form. Because that’s the main mission you’ll see from Presbyterians all over the world, even today, is the idea that it is our duty to share whatever we have with other people and it is our privilege to share whatever we have with other people. So it’s not just that it’s a rule by which we’re supposed to live. It’s also something that we get to do out of gratitude, because God has been so gracious to us, both individually and collectively.
Beth: So it’s not accidental that for every Christian tradition that participates in the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or Communion, that it’s called the Thanksgiving, the Communion. Communion means together. So, again, in a literal sense, you can’t have a communion meal alone. It is by definition, a shared meal and the shared meal has Jesus as its object and it’s subject, but it’s not me and Jesus, my only boyfriend hanging out somewhere together. It is me and Jesus and the community. So in community, I hear the voice of God. It is a check on my individual tendency to go off into my own la-la land and think, “Oh, well, God’s telling me to blow up the planet.” Because no, it’s not the voice of God if my community of faith isn’t hearing it, too. It’s just me indulging in something that’s about me and not about God. So the community is a literal check on my excesses or my tendencies to worship myself by mistake and call that God. The community is where I celebrate and experience God, most seriously.
Beth: Jesus literally says, and this is how church is established or the notion of church, “Wherever two or more of you are gathered, there I am.” And so He doesn’t call people one by one, he calls people to follow him in all these groups, and he gathers groups around him all the time. And so, we come from the Middle East, and I guess we don’t appreciate that as postmodern Westerners, but the Middle Eastern culture almost doesn’t even have a conception of I as opposed to we. And so that can play itself out in some ways that are particularly attractive, too. But there is very much a sense that identity is communal, even existence is communal, because in a desert, you can’t survive by yourself. You just can’t. And so there was a practical understanding of that that also played it out itself out in the spiritual realm.
Beth: The tragedy of the Holocaust, particularly for the Jews, is not just what we think of as the enormity of numbers. It is that for my family, you might wipe out my family if you kill me. You kill the Jewish family by killing the Jews because it is that understanding of communal identity and descendants, right? And continuity of line, both spiritually as well as physically. So we come from a tradition, that is, if we want to say tribal but definitely communal in nature. God refers to God self in the Hebrew Bible more than once as we. So is that multiple gods or is that the royal we or is that an understanding, like a Christian might say, of a Trinitarian understanding of a unity of selves that make up the whole. But yeah, so that’s a whole bunch of jumping around, but to simply say that there just is no possibility of being a Christian without being in a community.
Jim: I think that was very well said. And I think a very important thing, because we are communal, right? Even with all of our more advanced world. If you were to put a one-year-old by themselves in the woods, you know what’s going to happen. They’re going to die, right?
Jim: Even if you put an adult in the woods by themselves, most likely they’re going to die unless they’re the most amazingly trained SEAL team six-person around or something and even then it’s more likely they’re going to die. We are a communal species. There is no I without us.
Beth: Exactly. I mean, solitary confinement is considered to be cruel and unusual, because it is.
Jim: Because it is. You hopped over something which you and I have talked about a little bit in the past and this is another 11-year-old Catholic kids caricature Presbyterianism. I used to say, “Oh, those goofy Presbyterians. Yeah, they believe only 144,000 people are going to be saved in the whole history of the universe and once you’re saved, you can go out and rob banks, horse, do heroin, whatever you want doesn’t matter, you’re saved. Predestination.” We actually believe that shit when we were 11 years old, that’s what the priests and the nuns were telling us. I imagine there’s another side to the story, so tell us about predestination.
Beth: There always is, isn’t there? Okay. I want to give you two things, not necessarily from Presbyterians. One is I don’t know what Francis Thompson’s faith tradition was, but the poem, The Hound of Heaven. “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.” And it goes on for quite a way but it’s the image of God as the hound of heaven, who pursues us unrelentingly out of great love. Rabi’a is a woman Sufi mystic from the area of what is now modern day Southern Iraq, and Seventh Century, if memory serves me, and she said that true love of God does not love God out of either fear of hell or desire of heaven, but for God’s own sake.
Beth: Predestination. John Calvin is again trying to comfort people who have been raised in the Catholic Church to believe from his point of view, that you are in eternal danger of being burned into hell forever and ever, amen, every second of every minute of every day, and he wants them to understand they can stop fearing that, okay? The second thing to remember is John Calvin is a lawyer. That’s important to the story because of the nature of lawyers. Lawyers are not speculative by nature. So, when you come in to see a doctor, you come in for your foot, and your doctor may say, “You look a little yellow in the eyes.” A lawyer never does that. You come in for a will, a lawyer is not going to say, “Oh, do you need to adopt a kid while you’re here? Did you have a car wreck? Should we be suing somebody?” No, “You came for in for a will, we’ll deal with the will. See you later, bye.” They deal with what’s in front of them.
Beth: That is who John Calvin is very much. He’s not a theologian. He’s a pastor who writes a lot about what he thinks, but he is not a theologian. He does not develop a coherent systemic school of thought. He deals with the problems that were before him and the problem that was before him is that people were frightened out of their minds. Literally, people would not take communion because they were afraid to take it because they take it wrong, they go to hell. This is the world in which he is living, right? And so his point is, grace is what saves us and grace is God’s gift to us. That is it’s out of God’s goodness that our unity with God is possible, right?
Beth: And so from that he reasons, and it mostly is reasoning, that you have this notion that God chooses. And so what he’s saying is “Okay, Beth. You believe in God, you believe Jesus Christ?” “Yes, yes.” “Well, that’s because God planted that in your heart. And what God plants in your heart is never going to be uprooted, so quit worrying about it. It’s not going to go away. It’s all good. You can relax and do what God wants you to.” And so we do what God wants us to not out of fear of hell and nor out of desire for heaven, but because God wants us to do it. And so when folks talk about.” Well, it’s just license to sin.
Beth: I would say to you that when I was 12, 15, maybe even 20, I didn’t murder somebody or steal because I didn’t want to go to jail. I’m 65. I don’t murder people because I don’t want to murder people. I don’t steal because I don’t want to steal and a part of the reason I don’t want to steal is because I understand it to be hurtful to my community and thus, wrong in God’s world because anything that does harm is wrong, broadly speaking. I don’t need a great big rulebook all the time in front of me because I have some wisdom. I say it comes from God, maybe it just comes from age, I don’t know, but only a child or someone who stays as a child obeys rules out of fear of consequences. Adults obey rules, because the rules make sense and they choose to disobey them when they don’t.
Beth: So then to come back to predestination, it’s not that anybody’s running toward heaven or running from hell, it’s just to relax into the existence that you have and know that because God has chosen you and you didn’t choose God then you can’t unchoose God. So if you flash forward, because then problems develop with that because then some later Presbyterian will say, “Oh, that means that God chose some people to go to hell.” That’s not what Calvin was talking about.
Beth: But then you flash forward to the 20th Century and German theologian named Karl Barth, B-A-R-T-H, says, “I think Calvin got it right about God’s choosing.” Election is what that means in the theological words. But he said, “I think he got it wrong, who and what God was choosing.” And this is where it makes the most sense to me. Karl Barth says, “God chooses, yes, and God is a choosing God by nature. God chooses A and does not B.” But when it got to the point in Calvinism, that it’s saying well A and not B is Beth and not Jim. No. What God chose was God’s own self that is Jesus Christ on the cross. So the election or the choice that God’s makes is, “I will die for all of you that you might live.” So the election or the choosing, that is predestined for salvation, that is unification with God, is the choice that I will make the sacrifice so you don’t have to, because you can’t, but I can and thus I will.
Beth: And so at some place, it’s refuted to be said, I can’t find it, so I can’t verify it to you that Barth then said, “I’m not a Universalist, but I’m pretty sure God is.” And so that actually makes sense to me that if God is choosing then it is not Cindy and not Susie. No, that’s so arbitrary. That doesn’t even make sense. But it is God is choosing all of humanity, this beautiful creation that God made for who knows what reason, in some ineffable way to be in God’s image and his chosen that we will be redeemed because God has decided we are worth redeeming. We may not be worth redeeming in any empirical, measurable sense, but if God is God, and God’s decided then that’s the end of the conversation, so to speak.
Beth: So, that’s predestination is getting at the idea of stop worrying about whether you’re “saved” and stop listening to everybody ask you the right litmus test questions and see if you pass the test because I have stories about that, too, that are horrific and just start relaxing into the enormity of God’s love for you and live it. How hard is that?
Jim: There’s a story I like. That’s a good story. Does that mean Presbyterians believe nobody goes to hell?
Beth: Some. This Presbyterian believes there is no hell. That if there ever was one that Jesus redeemed it and it’s over that. But if there was a battle, it was a cosmic battle and it was fought on the cross and Jesus won it. And when you win it, that kind of a battle, it’s once and for all time. Satan and God, so there’s no fight left to be fought. There’s just the after effects, like aftershocks and an earthquake.
Jim: So Satan is still sort of hanging around causing trouble?
Beth: I don’t know. I don’t believe in the devil in the sense of a figure that people described as almost co-equal with God. I think that’s nonsense. But if you read the book of Job, ironically one of my favorite books in all of the Bible, it’s one of the most difficult ones. It begins with Satan as the figure of an advocate, ironically, a lawyer. He’s the one who roams the earth, and comes back as kind of God’s emissary and gives him the reports.
Beth: And so as the play in Job goes, right? God says to Satan one day, “Have you considered my servant Job?” And Satan says, “Yeah, he’s a good guy, but he only loves you because you give him stuff.” And God’s like, “That’s not true.” And Satan’s like, “Yeah, take it away from him and then see what happens.” And of course, then you have the whole story of Job and the real ending of Job because there’s an add on later which disappoints me, but the real ending of Job is Job demands God come down and give an account of God’s self and God does. And can’t you imagine it?
Beth: Imagine Star Trek, and imagine the cue shows up for the first time, right? Holy Other than anything you’ve ever encountered and what’s your reaction? Silence. Utter amazement. Total bafflement. Words that don’t make any sense. And that’s exactly what Job does. Basically he says he falls down in the dust and basically says, “My Lord and my God.” Every question he had disappears, because God simply showed up. What wouldn’t it?
Beth: I have all these questions. Well, how does it work like this? Why did this happen? Why do these children die? Why? And all the sudden this Holy Other being that I can’t even imagine let alone comprehend is just standing there and saying, “Hello.” The questions become immaterial is the takeaway I have from that.
Beth: So the Satan figure is there ultimately, to provoke the conversation. He is a device a literary device, and whether there’s an actual being like I don’t know. Most of the time, I think we do that to try to personify external to ourselves, the badness that resides within us. There’s a story in the Bible and it always troubles me, too. And Jesus says, at a certain point in time will say, i’s Judgment Day, you’re all going to show up in front of me and the sheep are going to go to the left and the goats are going to go to the right. Sheep to heaven goats to hell is the clear implication, right? And so you’re like, “Oh, my word.”
Beth: So the story goes that there’s a group of nuns who are at a seminar with this priest and this passage is really worrying them because they’re dedicating their lives to try to do everything, right, right? But who’s the sheep, who’s the goat? And so the priest says, “Okay, everybody stand up.” They do. And he says, “All right. If you’ve ever done anything kind for another human being, go stand on the right.” Well, they’re nuns. They all go stand on the right. And he’s like, Okay, “How many of you have ever been thoughtless or unkind or cruel to another human being?” Well, they’re nuns, so they’re honest, so they all go stand on the left. And he says, “Now do you get it? We are, all of us, all sheep and goats at the same time.” It changes everything.
Beth: If you understand that the winnowing is not Beth from Jim, but what is within Beth from Beth. The winnowing of if we want to be simplistic, the bad from the good, the wheat from the chaff. That which is of God versus that which is not of God, because I carry both within me all the time. So is there a real Satan walking around with real demons tempting me? Maybe. I’m not in charge of the universe and I don’t know. Is it smart to act as if there is? Probably. But at the same time do I get to use that to get me off the hook? Not ever, not ever. And because God has predestined me to live within God’s grace, I am thrilled to be able to do anything I can to live out God’s will the best I can and ask God’s forgiveness when I don’t do it the best I can, which is pretty much every day.
Jim: Yeah. I kind of like that. That’s much less horrifying that a lot of what gets passed off as Christianity with the hellfire and brimstone.
Beth: Well, people have talked to me about that. I’m like, “There might be hell. I don’t know.” I’m telling you, I don’t think so, but remember what we said earlier, I could be wrong. Here’s the thing I do know, because I was in a whole lot of churches as a child. I was raised by an atheist, right? So my faith journey is from the opposite spectrum going toward faith rather than away, but a whole lot of people talked to me for a whole long time about different faith issues and anybody who tried to scare me into Jesus, it never worked.
Beth: Now maybe there are some people who need to be scared to Jesus. I’m not one of them. The more you try to scare me, the more I’m not interested, because life’s scary. Why do I want to sign on for more scary if I have a choice in or say in the matter. So that just never made sense to me. People have tried to threaten me in all kinds of behavior. It never works. As soon as you’re threatening me, I’m digging in those West Virginia Hills and saying, “Make me.” Maybe some people need to be scared to heaven with threats of hell. I’ve never met them yet.
Jim: That’s a very hopeful way to be. If you’re going to be a Christian, I like your form of Christianity more than I like many of the other ones I’ve heard of. Let’s change topics a little bit here. One of the other things that you have done in your life, in your later life, besides being a pastor of a small little church in very rural Highland County, Virginia, is that you’ve been a participant in the Christian Peacemaker teams in Iraq. Tell us about that and tell us about your commitment to peace and whether or not you’re a pacifist and what you have done to live out whatever beliefs you have about peace and peacemaking.
Beth: Yes, I am a pacifist, that’s the short one. I’ve been a pacifist, I think ever since I can remember, so while it is in accord with my faith, it’s given birth before I knew about faith and it was probably because of the Vietnam War, right? We grew up with that, with the evening news and the body bags and all of that. And so that was pretty formative to me and the notion that we were lied and the war became really evident at a really young age and so I’m sure that’s where a lot of that comes from for me.
Beth: So to flash forward in time when I was in seminary, I started seminary in the summer of 2001. And we were on a break between summer and fall semesters and on September 10, 2001, I went with a couple of friends to New York City. We saw a Broadway play. Nobody ever reports this in the news, but there was a deluge that was biblical. We got so wet. We literally had to run into a sporting goods store and buy new clothes to wear to go to this play. Earlier in the day, in the late afternoon, we’d gone up atop the World Trade Center towers and so we were some of the last people to do that go up and down and come out alive.
Beth: On September 11th, I’m sitting at my desk doing some work. I’d sent my son an email saying I was kind of homesick. And he called me and said, “Are you all right?” I’m like, “Yeah. I’m just a little homesick.” And he said, “Turn on the TV.” And so of course, then on September 11th, I saw what everybody saw. And I remember my immediate response was, “We’re going to go kill a bunch of brown people.” And I was in conversation with a lot of seminary friends and even in the seminary and I admit I was naive enough to think that people studying to be preachers would probably be more moral than the general public, not true.
Beth: And so one fellow who was Egyptian had people telling him, a Christian telling him Muslim jokes. One fellow who was from India had his car scratched and defaced with all kinds of Muslim things. A couple of guys wouldn’t serve you French Fries until you started calling them Freedom Fries, small potatoes, but nasty in a sick Christian kind of a way. So this whole insanity that was happening where people where I was knew people who had died, right? People were going and helping we were sending food and clothing and volunteering. Of course, it turned out they didn’t need it for blood. And so just one step removed in Princeton, New Jersey and realizing I’d been in that building one day before or less than a day before, made it very real.
Beth: So a group of us got together and formed Princeton Seminarians for Peace and in one of our meetings, I said, because then very quickly, of course, attention from the country turned toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein. And so I said to this group while we were at one of our meetings, “If we really believe this, we’d be there,” meaning in Iraq. We would be the human shields, and a friend of mine said, “It’s funny you say that there’s a group that’s there right now. One of my friends emails me every day.”
Beth: And so my friend gave me, forwarded me Scott’s emails from Iraq, where Christian Peacemaker teams was and with the presence on the eve of war there in 2003, and I just kept following them and paying attention and learning more about them. It was a group that was born out of the Mennonite tradition. And in the ’80s, a Mennonite had given a speech because of course Mennonites are pacifists and peace churches. And he was challenging them to get away from the idea of letting the state protect you and just sitting back on your laurels and saying, “If we really are pacifists and believe in peace as a way of being we need to be where the violence is.” And that spoke to me like probably nothing I think I’ve ever heard.
Beth: And so that was the foundation of this group. And so they were in Israel, Palestine, and still are. They were in Iraq and still are and some other places. So I applied with them and went to Columbia, South America for a two-week stint where they kind of watch you and evaluate whether they think you’d be suitable. And then I went through their month long training in Chicago in the summer of 2005. And I went on my first trip to Baghdad, the team was in Baghdad at the time, living in what American soldiers called the red zone, which meant everywhere in Iraq except the green zone. And we went unarmed and we worked with Muslim peace groups in Iraq and others, human rights groups and so forth.
Beth: One of the things they did that I think it’s pretty amazing before I was ever there was if you’ll remember Seymour Hersh wrote about Abu Ghraib and what was going on there. My group was pretty much the last Western group to be there because of the kidnappings that started happening. And we are a violence reduction group and usually we accompany people in violent places in nonviolent ways. So we’re not a human rights group. We’re not amnesty. International, so they didn’t have any of those skill sets.
Beth: But they had accompanied folks looking for their boys because boys would disappear. To be a boy in a Muslim country when the Americans are there is to be a suspect of being a terrorist, just to be young and male. And so whenever they’d be out on the streets, our soldiers would arrest them. And so there were thousands and thousands being detained. Once they got out, their family started bringing them to our folks, simply because there was no one else to take them to. And they started telling them their stories about what had happened to them. So these young kids, mostly on the teen at that time, just looked up on the internet about how to take a witness statement and started compiling all these testimonies and turn them over to Seymour Hersh.
Beth: And that was, if not the beginning part of the beginning of the breaking of the Abu Ghraib story, simply because they happened to be there. So this group, we would walk with people, like the school boy bus patrol, think about it that way, but unarmed and so we would walk people to the green zone. The irony for us was that there was no danger to me to go into the green zone. It’s American soldiers. They’re not going to hurt me. But it was very dangerous for the Iraqis to go there. Again, male, young, right? They’re going to get disappeared into custody. So we would accompany them to try to seek redress or find help or find loved ones who’d been misplaced, lost or killed.
Beth: We accompanied Palestinian Iraqis who were trying to leave the country. We did a lot of more documentation work. Ultimately, we had our own kidnapping and one of our colleagues was murdered. It was a criminal kidnapping, not a religious or a political one, for money, and we don’t pay ransoms. So one of our number was killed, so we had to leave Baghdad. We would have stayed but our working partners understandably, felt like they couldn’t safely work with us anymore because we were too high profile.
Beth: So we went to the Kurdish North of Iraq and the team is still there. I haven’t been back. I’m still in touch with folks and I’ve done some other work for them here stateside, but I haven’t been back since 2010. But the same thing is happening in the Kurdish North Iraq now that was happening back then and our fingerprints are all over it. So remember that Turkey is to the North of Iraq, and Turkey is our NATO ally. Remember that Syria is to the west and northwest of Iraq, and it has Kurds, and right now it’s in a civil war and has been an upheaval for a good long time. Iran is to the north east, for the Kurdish part of Iraq. and Iran is and has been for a very long time, essentially our undeclared or declared enemy, and we call them a terrorist state.
Beth: So Turkey, hates its Kurds and calls them terrorists. The Kurds of Iraq are our allies, both in the war against Iraq and we’re in the war with Syria. The Iranian Kurds, we consider freedom fighters because they’re trying to overturn the Iranian central government. So we arm the Iranian Kurds. We, meaning the United States of America foreign policy, your tax dollars and mine at work. We arm the Iranian Kurds as freedom fighters. We named the PKK, the Turkish Kurds, a terrorist organization. We call the Iraqi Kurds and ally and promised them all kinds of constitutional rights and don’t deliver. And we are the ones, remember, who gave them the no fly zone, except whenever Turkey wants to bomb them, because they say their Kurds will run into Iraq. And when that happens, we pull back our air support, allow Turkey to come in and bomb and then put our airport support back in place. This is what we do to our allies. It’s hard to figure out whether you’d rather be an ally or an enemy.
Jim: This as I understand it has been going on since 2004 or there about, right? So it’s across Republican and Democratic administrations.
Beth: Yes. Nobody gets to point the finger at anybody else here. This is all of us. Every one of us, citizens, taxpayers, every one of us politicians, we are all in it together and we have all done it together and we’ve done it eyes wide shut and we don’t care. And bless the Kurds heart, they keep believing, hope against hope that if we the people only knew what our government was doing, we do something about it. When we know, the truth is we don’t care because we don’t have to because it’s not in our backyard.
Beth: That’s the best explanation I’ve got for the indifference that just murders people because it can. So the work with peacemaking in that part of the world is wonderful and wrenching and horrible and sometimes it can feel hopeless. And yet the people themselves who live there and do the work and can’t get away because they don’t have a passport like I do are some of the most hope filled human beings I’ve ever met and it’s been a real privilege.
Beth: So, peacemaking, from my point of view is a calling. I went to Iraq, because God made me. I didn’t want to go and the feeling just would not leave me and would not leave me alone. And I felt like I had to and I felt like I had to come home and tell and I spent a lot of time doing that. It still feels like a big part of it, but for me, it felt that my calling was to be here among my own kind, so to speak, and to be speaking peace into these contexts, because the change is going to happen in the world as it is today from places like this if it’s going to happen at all because we’re the ones who are profiting from ammunitions sales.
Beth: So here’s one more story about that, that I just love to death. Remember Iran and Turkey, right? Iran, the freedom fighters, the Turkish Kurds, the terrorists. So if you go visit these guys in the mountains because they’re all together PKK and PJAK. PKK is Turkey, PJAK is Iran. If you visit them in the mountains, PJAK, the Iranian guys will have guns in their hands with made in the U.S. of A. stamped on them. Words in English written on them. And if you come as a Westerner and they see you coming, suddenly the PKK guys will be handing their guns back to the Iranian guys because they too, although they are terrorists, they have the American guns because PJAK is sharing them with them, but they’re not allowed to have them because they’re terrorists. It’s ridiculous.
Jim: It’s just a crazy game and I’ve met some Kurds over the years. You may not know this, but there’s a great Kurdish restaurant in Harrisonburg.
Beth: Yes, there is. Xenia, right?
Jim: Yeah, Xenia. Call out to Xenia, people are great and every Kurd I’ve ever met just seems to be amazingly upbeat person considering the shit that the Kurdish people have been going through for the last, I don’t know how long, at least 100 years since the end of World War I.
Jim: Probably longer than that.
Beth: Yep. When the British promised them their own country.
Jim: They are the largest ethnic group without its own country in the world. At least so I’ve heard.
Beth: That’s right.
Jim: 30 or 40 million people, and yet they seem to be so optimistic and full of loving life. You have an insight into where that comes from?
Beth: Hope, perseverance. Necessity. Isn’t necessity, even the author of hope? People don’t have hope unless they need hope. Hopeful people are the ones who are in despair. So that’s where I think it comes from.
Jim: Yeah. It sounds like you’ve had some real adventures up there and you kind of played it down, but you’ve been in some pretty tight situations up there, as I understand it.
Beth: Well, yes and no. I mean, when you’re in a war zone, I think the most interesting thing to me looking back on it from a distance is that how ordinary life is and how ordinary life just goes on because it has to. You go to the store because you got to have food, right? And then right behind you, maybe a bomb goes off and that’s just the way it is and Inshallah, it didn’t hit you today. Inshallah meaning God willing. It’s amazing how quickly human beings acclimate to any situation. It’s not that it doesn’t have a price because it does.
Beth: Kurds and Arabs are not friends because of the Saddam years and there was a group that got a grant from Europe for Kurdish teenagers, they gave him video cameras. It’s been about 10 years ago, to go into the refugee camps for the Arab Iraqis who had come from the south to escape the violence there and interview them to try to establish some rapport between the two groups. So the Kurdish kids are asking the Arab kids, “What do you do for fun?” And the Arab kids said, and I quote, “What is fun?” And then they said, “Well, do you have hobbies?” And they said, “What is a hobby?” So it’s not that you can’t be a child in a war zone, but boy, you sure lose a lot and you don’t even know you’ve lost it and that’s the same for the adults.
Beth: At least the appearance of normal life goes on, but there’s a there’s an enormous, enormous cost of the day-to-day grind of that and these people have been at war not largely of their own making for decades. Not always. I wish all my American friends would stop saying, “We can’t do anything. The Middle East has been at war forever.” No, it hasn’t. It actually was in a fairly solid state of peaceful co-existence for a very long time and then the West couldn’t keep their hands off of resources, and went in and made countries and picked sides and armed everybody on all sides, and the logical consequence is war. So, there we have it.
Jim: You’ve also talked a little bit about the new modern ways of war with things like drones, where people sit in a trailer in Nevada and blow up a bunch of tents in Syria by remote control. That’s only going to get more powerful as we start even getting autonomous warfighting vehicles. What do you think of the moral challenges of these new kinds of killing at a distance?
Beth: I would say that I think that all it does is delay the impact on the one doing the killing. That is, you may not feel the impact in the moment, but you will feel the impact. So if I understand correctly, after World War II, they did some studies and found out that this huge percentage, well over 75% of soldiers in World War II that most just war in our history we know about, did not fire their weapons at all or fired high. Well, the military said, quite rightly being an instrument of killing and war, “This won’t do.” And so as the story goes, they were one of the inventors of not the inventor of what we think of as the modern video game as a way by repetition and simulation to train people to kill, to overcome their resistance to the idea of killing, and they got very successful at it.
Beth: The second thing I would point out is that in 1900, 90% of the people who died in war were soldiers or combatants. In 2000, 90% of the people who died in war were civilians, usually women and children. Modern technology has made it so that the soldier survives, but without any worry or concern to what we now call, because we don’t want to call them people, collateral damage. So we didn’t reduce the numbers who die, we simply shifted them and that was pretty intentional because, of course, you invest a lot of money, time and effort in a soldier, you can’t have them die, even though they’re the ones assuming the risk.
Beth: So you have in modern warfare, the general doesn’t lead or the king or the president from the front. They lead from the rear. Most soldiers including, I would say, generals actually don’t like war and want to avoid it, but civilian leadership in our model is more and more removed from the realities of it and so it’s easy, isn’t it? For my liberal friends, Barack Obama is the one who started killing civilians with drones and using drone warfare to save the lives of soldiers at the cost of every civilian in the area. Always at the cost part is what we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves.
Beth: So we have this shift and then this notion that you don’t think about it. When we went to war against Iraq, I can remember. Remember how CNN with that first Gulf War became famous because they were showing the green streaming lights of the missiles.
Jim: The anti-aircraft, yeah.
Beth: And the missiles into Baghdad, right?
Jim: Yeah, the shock and awe, I think they called it. Yeah.
Beth: Flash forward into the second Iraq War, the one in the 2000s and before we’re going some commentators on a naval ship with a young kid, I bet he was 18, who was showing her, his console and how he would push a button and that would lead to a missile that would lead to an attack on Kirkuk or Baghdad or Najaf or wherever. The interviewer asked him, how he felt about the fact that he would hit a button and that would kill people. And he said, “I’m not killing people. I’m just hitting a button.”
Beth: And I never forgot that, but then when I was talking to someone, an old, old, old retired CIA soldier guy, and I’m like, “So are they really that detached from it?” And he said, “No,” he said, “All that means is you don’t think about it until you get home.” And so with the suicide rates we’re seeing among veterans and the homelessness. The homelessness can’t just be about not having enough money. It also, I’m suspect, has to do with addiction issues, and your life just falling apart.
Beth: We figured out really well how to train people how to kill. We have never figured out how to help them live with it. We’ve trained people how to leave dead children on the battlefield at that time, but we’ve never figured out how to help them live with it and the sin and the blood and the guilt is ours collectively. So every death in Iraq, I’ve done so, pacifist or not, I’m a taxpayer. I’m the one who’s killed these people as much if not more than anyone else. And so until we can reckon with the idea of collective national guilt, and Americans hate that, as soon as you start talking about anything where we’ve done something wrong as a nation, we go into defensive mode and start yelling and covering our ears and doing that childish version of la-la-la, and don’t want to hear it.
Beth: But until we can figure out like what the folks in South Africa have worked on figuring out and the folks in Rwanda worked on figuring out and all over the world with truth and reconciliation, which begins with acknowledgement of guilt, and responsibility, I believe we will be stuck with the same patterns where in your lifetime and mine, Brother Jim, I’d be hard pressed to name you a day we weren’t at war somewhere in the world. Undeclared, therefore, in my view, illegal and unconstitutional, but war on in the same and what on earth is wrong with us? Who does that?
Beth: I had an Iraqi man once asked me a question and I guess maybe that’s a good place to leave that when we think about the costs of modern warfare. He looked at me and he said, “Who does that? What kind of people are you?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Who sends their children here to die? What kind of a man would do that?” I still don’t have an answer for that.
Jim: Our world is in a very strange place right now. And I think this will be our exit question. We’re coming up on our time and we’ve had a great conversation. We have a changing world that’s changing so rapidly that we really have a hard time getting our hands around and even people like you and me, who spent a fair amount of time trying to think about it and frankly, a lot of our citizens don’t spend that much time trying to think about it. At one level, we’re racing towards the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth. In fact, there’s a good argument that says we’re already past it.
Jim: Population in the earth is going to rise to 10 or 11 billion before it tops out around the 21st century. Autonomous we’re fighting is coming where we won’t even need to press a button to send the missile. The robot will run around and it will decide where it wants to send the missile, so even greater distance will be coming. And we have social media with all of its effects. We have artificial intelligence that looks some of its overhyped, but there will be a lot of job displacement over the next 30 years. Many, many crises. But there also is probably opportunities here to develop a new way to live.
Jim: How do you see this world of ours that seems to be in crisis and what might the opportunities be on the other side of that?
Beth: Wow, I wish I knew the answer to that. As a woman of faith, I don’t despair too much, because I remember that none of these things are my God, but I also live in the real world and the God I worship never promised me an easy life nor life without pain or tribulation, even of my own making. So I think about change, and I wish I knew more science. So, this is where you and I are good conversation partners. And I wonder how we change the paradigm that we have now that the paradigm seems to be that if we can do something, we will do something without even stopping to take a breath really, most of the time to ask ourselves, should we do this? Can we forego something even though we can do it because it’s not good for us.
Beth: And I don’t know how we encourage that kind of space to allow for that kind of time because the argument always seems to be. “Well, if I don’t do it, someone else will.” Well, maybe, maybe not because there is a lot of collective groupthink and herd behavior in human beings, right? So I wonder if we can start thinking about ethical models, where we give ourselves space for ethical reflection on what we should do versus what we can do. It’s not good enough to say, “Well, the only people who don’t use drones are the ones that don’t have them.” Wouldn’t it be nice to be the people who don’t use them because we’ve decided, “These just aren’t good and so we’re not going to do it.” But how to create space to have those reflective conversations and come to if not consensus, at least, common understanding or the ability to give ourselves time.
Beth: That’s the second piece of it is the experience of time. Because change and innovation seem to be happening so much more quickly, our experience of time compresses so that it feels as if we have to do everything now. So literally, I drive everybody in my social circle and my family circle crazy because I do not have a cell phone. I’ve had cell phones before, but as you know, I live in an area that without a fair amount of effort, and quite a bit of cash, I might point out, I can’t have one easily and it’s not really usable all that much to me here nor necessary, I’ve got a landline and I’ve got a computer so what. But the fact that I am not available for instant communication really bothers some people. But then I laugh and I say, “Well, if I call you, you don’t answer you screen calls.” So you don’t get instant communication anyway. You get the feeling of instant communication.
Beth: But this notion of time, speeding up when time hasn’t really changed to the extent time is a thing at all, as opposed to a construct, but our experience of it has radically changed. So how do we give ourselves permission to slow down when everything about us and everything about our world seems to be insisting that we speed up.
Beth: The third thing I guess is thoughtfulness and mindfulness. I’ll never forget back in the ’90s, Ross Perot, wasn’t he running as an independent for President?
Beth: And he was talking about the economy and I forget what his plans were, but he had some plans for an economy in trouble, but then he said, something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “You know what? The truth is we don’t have to do anything about this. It will fix itself even if we do nothing. We won’t like it, but it will fix itself.”
Beth: And so mindfulness ever since I’ve heard that has reminded me that a lot of systems within the earth if not all of them, are self-healing. It’s usually pretty violent in the process. So maybe we don’t have to do a thing about climate change. I’m pretty sure old Mother Earth will take care of it, whether we do or not, but it won’t be good for human beings when she does. But how do we be mindful to have a long-term way of thinking.
Beth: You know the Asian culture very much has built into it a long term way of thinking. Our culture doesn’t. We are very short-term thinkers. And there are things to recommend both. I think you need both and so that I guess is the other piece is how we move from competition to cooperation and understanding that I don’t have to see the other as a threat to my existence, that you actually bring something to the table that I need that without you I wouldn’t have. And I think that’s true in every political debate we’re having right now and in every cultural debate we’re having.
Beth: It’s not my way or your way it’s it really does need to be our way and I’m not talking about compromise. I’m just talking about, this goes back to that notion of communion, that if you’re not at the table, I don’t have Jim’s voice and Jim brings things to the table that Beth doesn’t have. And why was I allowed to forget that, and how do we reclaim that? So I know the questions to ask I’m not sure how to get to the answers.
Jim: I think the questions is a good place to start. And it is a difficult, difficult problem because we have been locked in a game theory competition, as you said, “Well, if I don’t do it, the other guy will, right? And then I’ll be left behind.” And our capitalist economy reinforces that in spades. Companies live or die by small margins. If I can produce a smartphone for $20 less than you can, you’re going to go out of business, so you have to use child labor to or you won’t be able to compete. So, we have some horrible dynamics built into our system.
Jim: So, I suspect to answer those questions and I think you did a wonderful job of summarizing the questions. We’re going to have and may have to make some very serious changes in how we organize our society, exactly what they are, as you say, are a little unknown, but we have some challenges ahead of us all.
Jim: And I think I’ll wrap up on the fact that, you again teed it up perfectly, Mother Nature bats last right. Yeah, we don’t have to do anything about climate change if we don’t want to, but she’s going to hit us upside the head and she’s going to hit us upside the head hard I can tell you that.
Beth: That’s right.
Jim: So, wise up people. Don’t believe this crap all about there being no climate problem. People who say that or I presumed not intentionally, likely consigning tens or hundreds of millions of people to ugly deaths, so let’s get straight on this and let’s get to work.
Beth: Amen to that.
Jim: Thank you very much. It was a great conversation.
Beth: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Production Services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.