Continuing adventures in Judaism, fitness and evolving religious identity

I have had this blog post percolating for awhile in my head but today seems like a good day to write it. It will be long and meandering so it will probably only be of interest to close friends. That’s ok because this is my blog and I write it mostly for myself.

For those of you who know me, I’m a free-thinking Mennonite, drawn to the tradition’s emphasis on Jesus’ radical teachings on nonviolence and social justice. I’m also a seminary student and work part-time at my church in peace ministry.

But I also have lots of doubts about the Bible and orthodox Christianity, especially regarding the issue of atonement and hell. In fact, I should rephrase that. I don’t have doubts anymore, I just don’t believe that way. I do not think that God has an insatiable blood thirst to kill and torture sinners that is only quenched by a substitute human sacrifice of his own son.

I remain committed to my church and faith tradition because I believe in the power of community and Mennonite ethics (as I discussed in a previous blog post) but I have felt a longing for a spirituality that I have not found there (or in any other Christian tradition).

Explorations in Judaism

My wife and I have fallen in love with Jewish faith practice over the last couple of years (something she has written about on the website here and here). We love the tradition’s orientation of having most of the rituals and holidays centered on the family and home, but also we love the tradition’s embrace of free-thinking and even disagreement. We began our observance with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) two years ago, then we started celebrating shabbat (sabbath) with joyful Friday-night shabbat dinners and at least an attempt to maintain our restfulness into Saturday. Then we started doing other holidays – Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Haunakah, Passover, Purim, and Yom Kippur. We tried to be faithful to the traditions by reading heavily from a mix of Jewish authors, but also adapted some elements to our family’s context. And then we took it a bit further by adding a nightly singing of the Shema Yisrael to our bedtime routines. And I’m working on learning Hebrew.

We of course aren’t observant in every way. We haven’t made any attempt to do kashrut (kosher) and are taking a more liberal approach to some of the prayers. And we have adopted some services which are traditionally done in a synagogue for home observance. — But this is part of the tradition too. Many liberal Jews (especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions) pick and choose those mitzvot that are life-affirming and meaningful to keep, while not following those mitvot that are not life affirming. I like to think of this as being creatively observant.

It has been a joy doing these things. There of course are moments of tension — times when I wonder if our borrowing of another culture’s faith practices is a kind of cultural misappropriation or not, and times when I wonder if we are just attracted to the exotic and different (rather than the mundane aspects of the Christian traditions we grew up in). But most of the time I feel clarity that these faith practices are in fact transforming me and that God is at work in this.

Spiritual practice brings physical transformation

A recent example of this transformation is going on as we speak. It began shortly before Passover. I told my wife that I was wanting to get serious about getting in shape and losing weight (I am diabetic so this is always a struggle), so she suggested that I begin my diet during passover, by keeping the traditional rules which forbid the eating of chametz (fermented grain products like bread and beer) during the 8 day passover festival. So I decided to do this. I quickly ended up turning this practice into a low-carb diet, in which I ate lots of meat, veggies and dairy but no carbs except those in veggies and those in Matzah (unleavened bread). I also started working out most days of the week.

And then a miraculous (at least in my eyes) thing happened. My yo-yo-ing blood sugar levels evened out. My moods stabilized. I became much less irritable and generally was just happier. Certainly the better diet was a part of it, but I think part of it was also that I was really committing to life-giving spiritual practices, and that this was doing very good things to me.

When Passover ended last week, my wife made another suggestion. Traditionally Jews Count the Omer, a 49 day time of expectancy and waiting for the Torah to come. Many observant Jews refrain from certain actions during this season (not listening to music, attending weddings, etc.) as a way of making this time sacred and a time of mourning for great losses. So my wife said that I should maybe just continue my diet as my way of counting the Omer.

I decided to do this (except that I’m now just eating a limited number of carbs per day — I’m shooting for no more than 80 grams per day, rather than avoiding chametz). I’m also trying to do the daily prayer for the season and maintaining my exercise routine. I make mistakes along the way (I had one bad day when I was depressed and broke down and ate a donut) but I am resolved to keep trying. Obviously this is about my physical health, but I also do believe that our bodies and souls are intertwined and that this will do good in other ways as well.

Questions of Religious Identity

I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of religious identity (see my previous blog post on my celebrating 10 years at Joy Mennonite Church). I feel very committed to my local congregation. It is faith community that is open to all and that has chosen to maintain its identity as being centered on a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus’ teachings. This is something that I can strongly affirm.

At the same time, I’m not sure that I’m a Christian, at least in the way it is often defined. Most people say that a Christian is someone who agrees with the historic creeds of the church and I don’t. I have too many issues with creeds, partly that I’m agnostic on the subjects of Jesus’ supposed virgin birth and resurrection, but also that the creeds pay no attention to the most important part of Jesus’ life: what he taught and how he lived. And most daming of all, I don’t believe that Jesus “died to save us from our sins.” Rather I believe Jesus allowed himself to be martyred (as others have in history) to show us how far one should go for one’s deepest beliefs.

In some ways I think would be more comfortable in the Jewish tradition (seeing Jesus as a great rabbi and teacher but not as a savior) but that leaves me with another problem. The Jewish conversion rituals are all very exclusivistic. So far every school of conversion that I’m aware of asks this question (with some variations in wording) of converts: “Do you renounce all beliefs you may once have held in any other religion?” (examples: here and here) This is not something I am comfortable with.

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to forget the ethical (and arguably Jewish) teachings of the historic Jesus?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to renounce my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on the way to end suffering?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to leave the spiritual community that has made my life so rich and full?

I don’t think so.

And so I will continue to feel more and more Jewish every day, and yet not really be Jewish. I’m praying that someday there might be a way possible for someone like me to find a universalist Jewish community of some kind to connect with. (or else that I am able to someday find that I have Jewish roots somewhere in my family tree) But I want to make this connection without severing the other God-given connections in my life.

Thank you for staying with me in this long and meandering read.

An amicable divorce for Mennonite Church USA?

The last few weeks have been tough in Mennonite Church USA. A lot of long-standing issues have reached a boiling point of contention, including the role of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bixsexual and transgendered) people in the church, biblical hermeneutics and the delicate balance of power between a national denomination, regional conferences, local congregations and individual consciences.

While some are calling for a way forward that keeps us all united (allowing space for the exercise of different understandings of conscience), there are other voices calling for division, by way of the exercise of power. Recent announcements by the leadership and members of some regional Mennonite conferences (Lancaster, Ohio, Franconia, Virginia, New York and others) seems to indicate that some of the regional conferences may leave the denomination unless changes are made to the polity, so that dissenting groups and individuals are thrown out.

I do think miracles are possible and that is not in vain to pray for a unity that right now seems impossible (one bit of encouraging news was the expressions of unity that arose a recent church-wide meeting). But I also think that we should be thoughtful in considering the issues at stake. Unity may be difficult if not impossible to achieve (absent of course divine intervention in the hearts of the women and men involved).

The big issue (or at least the one that is forcing all of the other issues) is that there are two camps of people who hold to strong convictions on the issue of LGBT inclusion. One camp believes that homosexuality is sinful and that the toleration of sin in the church is poisonous. For these folks the issue of inclusion is more than an issue of “life and death” but rather an issue with eternal consequences. This of course makes compromise nearly impossible.

The second camp (which I am, admittedly, a part of), believes that excluding our LGBT brothers and sisters from the church in sin, and that it is our call to prophetically speak out against this oppression, not only in society but also in the church. The issue is important because it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Selling out on this issue is unimaginable.

Speaking only for myself here (and not for all inclusion-minded folks) this is a tough spot to be in. While I want to find a way to promote unity in the church, I must say that I also do not want to be complicit in oppression. I don’t to be part of a church that actively promotes oppression (be it the exclusion of women from the pulpit, a teaching of the necessity of racial segregation, or the exclusion of LGBT folks from the full life of the church). The only way that I can imagine staying involved in such a church, would be if I were staying as part of a continued prophetic witness against that evil.

Considering both camps and our collective desire to both follow our consciences, there may only be three options left for us: (1) maintain the discomfort of the status quo (with both camps trying to persuade the other camp to change its position), (2) part disagreeably with lots of bitter conflict (something Anabaptists have a long history of doing), or (3) part amicably, seeking to find points of connection despite our institutional separation.

These three options are the same options that many struggling married couples find themselves in. After lots of bitter tears and attempts to make things work, couples can be left with the options of (1) “keeping up the front” of marriage to the outside world but growing further and further apart, (2) going through a bitter and ugly divorce, or (3) deciding to have an amicable divorce, with the intent of preserving some level of relationship for the sake of the children or another common purpose.

The third option is hard, but it can work. I have seen this option in action in the lives of my loved ones and friends, folks who were once married (and went through a lot of pain in their marriages), but now have decided to get along, to be kind to each other, and to work together to raise their kid as co-parents.

What would such a “divorce” look like for MCUSA? I would argue that we first have to ask “who are the children,” or to put it another way, what are the common causes that unite us and that transcend our differences? I think one obvious example is MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). Currently several denominations from across the Anabaptist perspectve (including the various branches of the Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren and Amish traditions) unite together to do the MCC relief sales and to do world relief work around the world. These groups disagree on many issues but they are united by their belief in the importance of feeding hungry people and caring for those on the margins.

There are other examples — Mennonite Disaster Services and Mennonite World Conference — both come to mind. The point is that we can work together in these areas without staying tied together as a single denomination.

Yet, by separating into separate denominations, both groups can maintain the integrity of their convictions. Each group can make their own collective decisions on issues like church polity, ordination and marriage.

I see merit with this approach but there would also be terrible costs. Existing institutions (colleges, seminaries, camps, denominational offices, mission efforts, etc.) would have to find ways to exist with possibly diminished funding or be shut down. Some congregations would be geographically isolated from other congregations of the same denomination. Arguably the witness to the world of Mennonites being a “people of peace” would be hindered by a split, a little over a decade after the two major Mennonite denominations merged. And most importantly, relationships would be hurt. Ideally individuals and congregations would find ways to stay connected but this won’t always happen. These costs are not ones to be paid lightly.

I don’t know if we are at the place of “no return” in the denominational marriage of MCUSA, and so I will keep praying for a way for us to stay united. But I also will now be praying for what might happen if we have to part ways, that we can find the heart and will to be loving in our parting, and to stay united in our “co-parenting” of the common causes of our churches, no matter what happens.

A New Year

I always get self-reflective at New Year’s (even more so now that NYE is my wedding anniversary – yesterday was our 2nd anniversary!), thinking about the previous year and years.

This year was a little different though, mostly because I had spent my last semester of seminary doing that through some of the writing assignments in my Human Development and Christian Formation class. I had to write my life story, but also discuss my personality, my faith development and my vocational understanding. And so I do have a wealth of understanding that I did not have a year ago.

What did I learn about myself? A lot more than I can tell (or want to tell) in a blog post. But probably the most helpful thing was this bit that I wrote in one of these assignments:

I also think part of my journey in the years to come is to learn the lesson of balance. I think God wants me to be a good minister, but I am also called to be a husband, a father, and just a human being. I need to learn not only how to be busy but also how to live. Right now I am doing better than I have in the past, but I am not doing well. I am often not happy, despite the circumstances of my life being pretty good. I have a wonderful wife who loves me. I have a son, who despite my novice status as a father, loves me very much. We have plenty to eat, and enough money in the bank, and a nice home to live in. We are reasonably healthy. All of these things should be enough to make me incredibly happy, but there is still a lot of stuff from the past that is bubbling up under the surface. I believe that dealing with these unresolved issues will be my most important work in the coming years.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a lot of thought to this question: why am I often unhappy?

A few possible answers come to mind:

1. Depression (which admittedly has a biological component)
2. Excessive busyness
3. Being spread too thin between too many different areas of responsibility
4. My continuing uneasiness with the legal profession
5. the normal strains of adjusting to life as a new husband and father
6. unresolved issues from the past (particularly with regards to secondary trauma from my 7 years of practicing law serving troubled active-duty servicemembers and veterans)
7. a feeling of disconnection between my daily life and the earth and the rest of humankind.

I think the truth is a mix of all of these things. And so I do all of the things that I should do to try deal with these issues. I go see my counselor. I take an antidepressant. I continue to sort through my vocational issues (mostly through the context of my seminary classes). I take downtime to focus on my family (and to disconnect from other, less important responsibilities). I continue to practice the art of saying “no” more often when good causes call for my attention. I do all of these things imperfectly, but I just have to keep trying.

But there is one component of unhappiness that is still screaming out at me, and it is the last one on my list. I have tried to alleviate this sense of disconnection (mostly through bike riding and failed attempts at gardening) but I can’t deny that much of my life feels very disconnected. Our food occasionally comes from the farmer’s market but more often comes from far away corporations. I don’t know my neighbors here in suburbia and the only real sense of community outside of family that I feel is on Sundays at church and online. And when I think about the values I want to impart to my son, I can’t help but feel like I’m failing. He is in a wonderful holistic school (that combines technology, nature and creativity in amazing ways), but much of this time away from school is immersed in consumer culture.

These thoughts have been bouncing around in my head over the last few weeks, but yesterday I gained a new place of clarity thanks to our city council here in Oklahoma City which voted 7-2 to NOT allow residents to raise chickens in their backyard.

In the aftermath of this vote, I read this words on Ed Shadid’s (OKC City council member and candidate for mayor) campaign facebook page:

7-2 vote on urban hens was a blow to private property rights, public health and efforts to promote self-sufficiency among OKC’s large population living in poverty. The OKC Council is showing not just indifference to the poor but hostility. Making those who take Greyhound now be dropped off at Reno/MLK where they must pay for a taxi because there is no connecting transit service, the steadfast refusal to protect the thousands of daily transit riders with adequate bus shelters, the lack of nighttime and Sunday bus service, spending $150,000 out of a $1billion budget on social programs and now telling the thousands of families suffering from hunger and poor nutrition that they cannot have six hens which would produce six eggs/day healthier than anything they could buy in a grocery store if there was one within miles of them are examples of our indifference. Today, we lost this round, but this is not the end of the effort.

Ed is right. This is an issue of basic social justice, but it is more. It is about the corporate powers of our city (and state and nation) who want to keep us enslaved to the money economy, who want to ensure that we can’t dare to not buy our eggs from them (to say nothing all of the other things we need to live). And it is about the corporate powers who want us to be forbidden by law from having the power to raise and grow our own food and provide our energy, either by ourselves or in cooperation with others. (outlawing chickens is only one part of this equation)

My first impulse is to think about the electoral system (either running for city council or finding others to run for city council), but I don’t really think that is the answer. Or maybe it is just little piece of the answer (certainly I will be voting for Ed in March and doing my part to let others know that there is an alternative to a corporate-controlled puppet mayor (Mick Cornett) in the upcoming election), but the bigger answer is direct action. Instead of lobbying our government to do the right thing, we need to focus most of our energy in doing the right thing, right now, whether the government officially “allows” us to do so or not.

The problem is that I often don’t know what to do or how to do it. I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’ve planted many gardens over the years. I’ve tried to bicycle commute at times. But most of the time the “real life” keeps me from it, or else my lack of energy after trying to do all of the other things in life that need to be done (which is why my gardens normally are overgrown with weeds by August). Certainly there are areas where I am more successful (my eating has been much better since getting married, thanks to my wife’s love of home cooking and healthy living) but I am still frustrated by the many areas of improved sustainability that are left undone.

I think the problem is that my efforts have not actually been rooted in praxis. – Praxis, is a word that I’ve learned from Bob Waldrop’s Ipermie book that means “Action coupled with contemplation and reflection and observance of feedback.” I have at times taken action (sometimes with thought beforehand), but I haven’t spent much time observing the outcome or reflecting on it.

So, this will be my new resolution for the year, to learn how to do praxis when it comes to our family’s way of living. I’m going to start by studying Bob’s book ipermie! How to permaculture your urban lifestyle., but then seek to bring others into the conversation and then to start taking some action on what I’m reading.

I don’t know if this will answer everything but it might at least be a start. Maybe I will write some about the process on this blog?

Okie Solidarity: Reflections on the sentencing of Bradley Manning


Okie Solidarity
Reflections on the sentencing of Bradley Manning

by James M. Branum
Legal Director of the Oklahoma Center for Conscience

Earlier today, PFC Bradley Manning was given a sentence of 35 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge for a variety of “crimes” related to his leaking of classified information. A military judge handed out the sentence but in reality the judge was simply a cog in the system, a system designed to crush the spirits of radical truthtellers, so that others won’t dare to tell the truth about the sins of the American Empire.

This case is personal for me in many ways. Like Brad I grew up as a misfit in a small town in Oklahoma. He of course went through trials I never went through, but I did taste of the experience of small town life to know that it takes incredible courage to be your own person in that kind of environment.


But there’s another place of connection I feel with Brad, and that is the burden of knowledge of horrible things done in our nation’s name.

In a couple of weeks I will be celebrating my 7th anniversary of becoming an attorney. This time has been spent almost entirely in the area of military/GI rights law, with many of my clients being combat veterans who have been to hell and back and are now stuck trying to rebuild their lives. These clients have told me stories that I can’t forget (even if I wanted to). Some of the stories are just the usual horrors of war (IED explosions, taking fire from the enemy but not knowing who the enemy is, being attacked by mortars, etc.), others are about mind-numbing boredom and frustration, and some about command incompetence and idiocy. Those stories are bad enough but there are other stories: stories of civilians being killed (sometimes by accident, sometimes not), stories of dead children on the side of the road, stories of dogs being shot just for the hell of it, stories of rape, stories of missions that had no purpose at all except for the harassment of the civilian populations, stories of 14 year old civilian boys being thrown into a truck and snatched from their family because they are 14 years old (this is especially haunting to me as two of my little brothers just turned 14), stories of prisoners being abused in every way possible – psychologically, physically and sexually.

With few exceptions, I don’t judge those who tell me these stories. Most were only witnesses to terrible events, but others actively participated in the events. But they all were stuck in a terrible system, a system designed to take away their individual autonomy and their ability to act upon their own moral bearings and conscience. Some of course find ways to push back against what they came to see as evil, most just tried to survive. Again, unless you were there you can’t judge, and I wasn’t there.

I do know that these stories are real. There are of course phony braggarts out there who make up crazy stories (but you can spot them from a mile away because those who have been hell don’t brag about it and must be coaxed to get them to tell you their stories), but the stories I’m talking about are the ones that were told to me by clients who have the proverbial “thousand yard stare” and who still have the hyper-vigilance of those who have been to combat, even when they are only dealing with a crowded Wal-Mart.

Bradley Manning saw far more than I have heard. He saw the terrible “Collateral Murder” video. He read the situation reports of stupid, pointless, hurtful missions. He saw with his own eyes what terrible crimes were being done in our names as Americans. And he had proof, not just stories. But unlike countless others who had access to this information, Bradley took action to try to right the wrongs.

We can of course debate whether he went about the leaks in the right way (an issue that Brad himself addressed in the sentencing phase of trial). I would argue, that like all sevicemembers, he made the best decision he could under terrible circumstances.

But that’s not really the point here. The point is that Brad told the truth! And in the end that is the best antidote to the terrible situation our nation is in. The American people are largely ignorant of what the American wars and occupations in the Middle East have been about. And the American people are particularly ignorant about the heinous ways that these wars have been conducted and the terrible positions we have put our servicemembers in. Thanks to Bradley Manning, we have at least some of the truth.

So that is why I will continue the struggle to seek freedom for Bradley Manning. And it is why many other Oklahomans are standing with him as well.

Today a few of us drove up to Brad’s hometown of Crescent, a town of about 1,200 people to hold athi small candlelight vigil. We were joined by a few local folks who knew Brad growing up. Admittedly it was a futile gesture, but for me the reason I went to Crescent is because this personal. I wanted to go to the town he grew up in to show him support.

It is time to make this personal. It is time to do all that we can do to secure Brad’s freedom. I hope you’ll find your own way to do this. But please don’t be silent. And please don’t forget Brad.

See also: Statement on the sentencing of Bradley Manning by the Oklahoma Center for Conscience

Additional Photos from tonight’s vigil in Crescent, OK:

(The photos on this post are free for use by the media. Please attribute to





Religion… (Part 3): A little bit about what I do believe (and don't believe) about God

Updated April 3, 2012: Fixed some grammar typos.

This is part of multi-part series of blog posts on the nature of faith and religion. (you can read the previous installments by following these links: Part 1 (June 2010) and Part 2 (October 2010)). 

I have long intended to continue my previous discussion on what it is that I believe about God and about faith itself, but life got in the way of that. And it has been an interesting trip over the 18 months… I ended up reconnecting with a long-lost friend, and ended up marrying her. I also became a father (to a  really cool step-son). My church situation changed in some interesting ways (my situation at my Mennonite church improved, while due to life circumstances I haven’t been as involved that much these days with the local Quaker Meeting) and finally my career has been turned upside down.

So obviously this has all factored into how I’ve come to work through issues of faith.

In many ways I have fresh new reasons to believe in a kind of God who is present and active in the world (or at least in my own life), and yet I’ve also come to see 18 more months of evidence to the contrary. The world has continued to become more brutal and cuthroat all around us. War, starvation, disease, these are things continue to ravage the world. For me, I can’t wrap my head around that. There is simply no way that the traditional Christian understanding is true, that God is truly all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, all at the same time. It just doesn’t make sense to me. A recent example was of the school shootings in France. One report told how the gunman approached a young elementary school aged girl, pointed a gun at her head and then fired. The girl was only a few years older than my son. Surely her parents loved her just as much as my son is loved by his parents? Yet, God let this happen.

So, to me we are left with a few possibilities…

Possibility #1 –  God is all-powerful and all-knowing. God sometimes steps into human history and changes things (i.e. miraculous events), but often does not.  My response – So this makes God an arbitary monster, who uses humans for amusement. (the book of Job would seem to back this idea for what its worth).

Possibility #2 – God is not all-powerful and all-knowing, and does not step into human history at all. God might have created the world, but we humans are pretty much left to our own devises now. My response – Again, it seems like God is only using us for his/her amusement. We were created for some purpose but then are left on our our own to figure it out.

Possibility #3 – God does not exist. The world is random and meaningless. Humans created the idea of “God” or “Gods” to satisfy our deep longing for meaning. My response – There are days that this theory is compelling, but that there are other days that something in my heart tells me that this theory is not the truth, that there is something of the divine that is real, even if the ideas we often hold about the divine are hogwash.

Possibility #4 – Humans intuit that God exists, because God is present. But God is not a “man in the sky” but rather is force, a presence, that is all around us and in us. God doesn’t interfere with the laws of nature, but God does speak to the hearts and consciences of human beings. Good happens all around us, because God is present. Incredible good happens when human beings act in solidarity with each other and that of God at work inside them. There have been many prophets and enlightened people throughout human history, but they are simply men and women who have best connected with the divinity that is in us all. My response: Today the fourth possibility seems to be the most accurate way of understanding God, and yet, it seems incomplete too.

It feels cold and incomplete. It lacks the power of the story of the Christian scriptures, in which we see God evolve alongside the children of Israel (and later the early Christian community) to be more loving, more just and more inclusive, as time goes by. And this fourth possibility seems to demote Jesus from being God incarnate (Emanuel) to being simply, at best, another enlightened person who has connected with “that of God” in us all. Maybe this is ok, but as someone who has spent much of his life connecting with the life and story of Jesus, this somehow feels inadequate.
So that is why most days I say I have a something of a Quaker theology (or more precisely a liberal/universalist Quaker theology) but something of a Mennonite faith practice. The Quakers teach me how to connect to God and how to see God at work in the world, but the Mennonites teach me how to live like Jesus taught and lived. Neither tradition has the whole truth (at least as I understand it), but I do feel like I can encounter a lot of the truth by engaging with both traditions.

Well that is enough for tonight. There is a lot more I want to talk about but it is bed time…

Opinion: Who is really on trial, Bradley Manning or America itself?

This is cross-posted from the website of The Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild

By James M. Branum
Chair of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild

February 22, 2012

Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, one of my greatest influences was the Boy Scouts. I learned some of my first lessons in civics through the Boy Scout Handbook. The Handbook told me that the United States was a different kind of nation, a nation composed of people with roots from around the world, but united by certain shared ideals — democracy and due process of law. I took that message to heart because I thought it was proven by the history I learned in school.

Later, I learned that the Handbook and History class didn’t tell the whole story. America’s history wasn’t always so noble. We as a nation have not always been on the side of “liberty and justice,” and sometimes our noble words have really been “bounced checks on the Bank of Justice” (to paraphrase Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech). But I believe that our collective failure to always live up to those ideals does not negate their value to the soul of our Union, always striving to be “more perfect.”

These ideas have been pressing on my mind lately as I think of the case of accused Wikileaks whistleblower PFC Bradley Manning.

After almost two years of delay, PFC Manning will likely be tried this summer before a US Army court-martial. While the world watches how this case unfolds, I think it will become clear that our nation is on trial too. There are two charges pending : (1) through its gross overreaction to real security threats, the US has forsaken any semblance of democracy, and (2) The US government does not respect due process of law.

If we are a democracy, which requires informed citizens, why has critical information about the wars in the Middle East been kept from us? It should not have been necessary for a private first class in the Army to allegedly leak this information in the first place. If anything, we as a nation should be thanking PFC Manning for performing this important national service.

And are we really a nation that protects due process of law, when PFC Manning’s treatment has included:

  1. Solitary confinement for 10 of the 19 months he has been in confinement thus far,
  2. Cruel and humiliating treatment during much of his confinement, including periods when his clothing was taken away by prison officials,
  3. A preliminary (Article 32) hearing that was conducted by a biased hearing officer, who was chosen by the same officials that chose to bring charges against PFC Manning,
  4. The denial of almost all of his request witnesses at that same Article 32 hearing, and finally
  5. A trial whose outcome will be determined by a jury panel composed solely of high ranking members, who have been handpicked by the same officials who are PFC Manning’s accusers.

It is not too late for the US to undo this injustice, by dismissing all charges against Bradley Manning.

I urge all people of conscience to join the campaign to free Bradley Manning.


James M. Branum (center) participates in a demonstration marking the start of Bradley Manning's Article 32 hearing.

A confession… I am a philatelist

Few of my regular readers know this, but one of my hobbies/obsessions is philately (aka stamp collecting).

I’ve collected off and on since childhood (mostly thanks to my paternal grandpa, who got me hooked by giving me duplicate stamps from his collection). My collecting interests are pretty varied, but I do focus on used stamps. I collect used partly because they are free/cheap to obtain, but also because I like the idea of knowing that my stamps have traveled long distances before I got them.

My collection is organized by country. My largest country collections are: United States, Canada (my Canadian stamps are displayed in an a really cool album I bought from stamp shop in Toronto a few years ago), Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and Cuba, but I have a fair assortment from around the world (with the highest number coming from Europe and Latin America).

I’ll be writing more in future about philatelic subjects, so consider yourself warned.

Also here’s a hint on what I’ll be writing about soon… Hobbyist’s Local Posts (from Wikipedia)

Revived once again

I’ve decided to revive this blog yet again. More details coming soon, but I will likely be focusing on longer-length op-ed style pieces.


A retrospective — Looking at my 9-11 posts at from 10 years ago (Part 1)

The 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks happened yesterday. It was a day with a lot of sad thoughts and memories.

I decided to go back and look at what I said on my blog from that era. It was rather interesting to say the least. I decided to link to some of the more interesting posts from that day and the days that followed…

  • September 11, 2001, 10:10 a.m. — Initial thoughts, posted after the planes crashed into NYC and the Pentagon but before the 4th plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Worried about two friends who were living in NYC who I hadn’t heard from
  • September, 11, 2001, 2:10 p.m. – Expressing shock, seeing places I had visited the previous summer on TV that were devasted. Upset by the innane remarks of the college radio station.
  • September 11, 2001, 2:30 p.m. – very upset, expressing anger at God, worried about friends in NYC
  • 7:27 p.m. – heart from my friend Sonia, still worried about my friend Aimee
  • September 11, 2001, 10:00 p.m. – George Bush is now talking about nuclear weapons and how that no options are “off the table.” I reprinted a column I wrote that afternoon for the campus newspaper about the folly of vengeance