Friday, December 30, 2005

Craig Murray offers more on US Torture -- Mirrored to B.Chr. by Request

December 29, 2005

Damning documentary evidence unveiled. Dissident bloggers in coordinated exposé of UK government lies over torture.

Help us beat the British government's gagging order by mirroring this information on your own site or blog!

Constituent: "This question is for Mr Straw; Have you ever read any
documents where the intelligence has been procured through torturous means?"

Jack Straw: "Not to the best of my knowledge... let me make this clear... the British government does not support torture in any circumstances. Full stop. We do not support the obtaining of intelligence by torture, or its use." - Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, election hustings, Blackburn, April 2005

I was summoned to the UK for a meeting on 8 March 2003. Michael Wood gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture... On behalf of the intelligence services, Matthew Kydd said that they found some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood. - Ambassador Craig Murray, memo to the Foreign Office, July 2004

With Tony Blair and Jack Straw cornered on extraordinary rendition, the UK government is particularly anxious to suppress all evidence of our complicity in obtaining intelligence extracted by foreign torturers.

The British Foreign Office is now seeking to block publication of Craig Murray's forthcoming book, which documents his time as Ambassador to Uzbekistan. The Foreign Office has demanded that Craig Murray remove all references to two especially damning British government documents, indicating that our government was knowingly receiving information extracted by the Uzbeks through torture, and return every copy that he has in his possession.

Craig Murray is refusing to do this. Instead, the documents are today being published simultaneously on blogs all around the world.

The first document contains the text of several telegrams that Craig Murray sent back to London from 2002 to 2004, warning that the information being passed on by the Uzbek security services was torture-tainted, and challenging MI6 claims that the information was nonetheless "useful".

The second document is the text of a legal opinion from the Foreign Office's Michael Wood, arguing that the use by intelligence services of information extracted through torture does not constitute a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Craig Murray says:

In March 2003 I was summoned back to London from Tashkent specifically for a meeting at which I was told to stop protesting. I was told specifically that it was perfectly legal for us to obtain and to use intelligence from the Uzbek torture chambers.

After this meeting Sir Michael Wood, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's legal adviser, wrote to confirm this position. This minute from Michael Wood is perhaps the most important document that has become public about extraordinary rendition. It is irrefutable evidence of the government's use of torture material, and that I was attempting to stop it. It is no wonder that the government is trying to suppress this.

First document: Confidential letters from Uzbekistan

Letter #1
FM Tashkent
TO FCO, Cabinet Office, DFID, MODUK, OSCE Posts, Security Council Posts

16 September 02

SUBJECT: US/Uzbekistan: Promoting Terrorism

US plays down human rights situation in Uzbekistan. A dangerous policy: increasing repression combined with poverty will promote Islamic terrorism. Support to Karimov regime a bankrupt and cynical policy.


The Economist of 7 September states: "Uzbekistan, in particular, has jailed many thousands of moderate Islamists, an excellent way of converting their families and friends to extremism." The Economist also spoke of "the growing despotism of Mr Karimov" and judged that "the past year has seen a further deterioration of an already grim human rights record". I agree.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners are currently detained, many after trials before kangaroo courts with no representation. Terrible torture is commonplace: the EU is currently considering a demarche over the terrible case of two Muslims tortured to death in jail apparently with boiling water. Two leading dissidents, Elena Urlaeva and Larissa Vdovna, were two weeks ago committed to a lunatic asylum, where they are being drugged, for demonstrating on human rights. Opposition political parties remain banned. There is no doubt that September 11 gave the pretext to crack down still harder on dissent under the guise of counter-terrorism.
Yet on 8 September the US State Department certified that Uzbekistan was improving in both human rights and democracy, thus fulfilling a constitutional requirement and allowing the continuing disbursement of $140 million of US aid to Uzbekistan this year. Human Rights Watch immediately published a commendably sober and balanced rebuttal of the State Department claim.

Again we are back in the area of the US accepting sham reform [a reference to my previous telegram on the economy]. In August media censorship was abolished, and theoretically there are independent media outlets, but in practice there is absolutely no criticism of President Karimov or the central government in any Uzbek media. State Department call this self-censorship: I am not sure that is a fair way to describe an unwillingness to experience the brutal methods of the security services.

Similarly, following US pressure when Karimov visited Washington, a human rights NGO has been permitted to register. This is an advance, but they have little impact given that no media are prepared to cover any of their activities or carry any of their statements.
The final improvement State quote is that in one case of murder of a prisoner the police involved have been prosecuted. That is an improvement, but again related to the Karimov visit and does not appear to presage a general change of policy. On the latest cases of torture deaths the Uzbeks have given the OSCE an incredible explanation, given the nature of the injuries, that the victims died in a fight between prisoners.

But allowing a single NGO, a token prosecution of police officers and a fake press freedom cannot possibly outweigh the huge scale of detentions, the torture and the secret executions. President Karimov has admitted to 100 executions a year but human rights groups believe there are more. Added to this, all opposition parties remain banned (the President got a 98% vote) and the Internet is strictly controlled. All Internet providers must go through a single government server and access is barred to many sites including all dissident and opposition sites and much international media (including, ironically, This is in essence still a totalitarian state: there is far less freedom than still prevails, for example, in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. A Movement for Democratic Change or any judicial independence would be impossible here.

Karimov is a dictator who is committed to neither political nor economic reform. The purpose of his regime is not the development of his country but the diversion of economic rent to his oligarchic supporters through government controls. As a senior Uzbek academic told me privately, there is more repression here now than in Brezhnev's time. The US are trying to prop up Karimov economically and to justify this support they need to claim that a process of economic and political reform is underway. That they do so claim is either cynicism or self-delusion.

This policy is doomed to failure. Karimov is driving this resource-rich country towards economic ruin like an Abacha. And the policy of increasing repression aimed indiscriminately at pious Muslims, combined with a deepening poverty, is the most certain way to ensure continuing support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They have certainly been decimated and disorganised in Afghanistan, and Karimov's repression may keep the lid on for years – but pressure is building and could ultimately explode.

I quite understand the interest of the US in strategic airbases and why they back Karimov, but I believe US policy is misconceived. In the short term it may help fight terrorism but in the medium term it will promote it, as the Economist points out. And it can never be right to lower our standards on human rights. There is a complex situation in Central Asia and it is wrong to look at it only through a prism picked up on September 12. Worst of all is what appears to be the philosophy underlying the current US view of Uzbekistan: that September 11 divided the World into two camps in the "War against Terrorism" and that Karimov is on "our" side.

If Karimov is on "our" side, then this war cannot be simply between the forces of good and evil. It must be about more complex things, like securing the long-term US military presence in Uzbekistan. I silently wept at the 11 September commemoration here. The right words on New York have all been said. But last week was also another anniversary – the US-led overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. The subsequent dictatorship killed, dare I say it, rather more people than died on September 11. Should we not remember then also, and learn from that too? I fear that we are heading down the same path of US-sponsored dictatorship here. It is ironic that the beneficiary is perhaps the most unreformed of the World's old communist leaders.
We need to think much more deeply about Central Asia. It is easy to place Uzbekistan in the "too difficult" tray and let the US run with it, but I think they are running in the wrong direction. We should tell them of the dangers we see. Our policy is theoretically one of engagement, but in practice this has not meant much. Engagement makes sense, but it must mean grappling with the problems, not mute collaboration. We need to start actively to state a distinctive position on democracy and human rights, and press for a realistic view to be taken in the IMF. We should continue to resist pressures to start a bilateral DFID programme, unless channelled non-governmentally, and not restore ECGD cover despite the constant lobbying. We should not invite Karimov to the UK. We should step up our public diplomacy effort, stressing democratic values, including more resources from the British Council. We should increase support to human rights activists, and strive for contact with non-official Islamic groups.

Above all we need to care about the 22 million Uzbek people, suffering from poverty and lack of freedom. They are not just pawns in the new Great Game.


Letter #2
Fm Tashkent

18 March 2003


1. As seen from Tashkent, US policy is not much focussed on democracy or freedom. It is about oil, gas and hegemony. In Uzbekistan the US pursues those ends through supporting a ruthless dictatorship. We must not close our eyes to uncomfortable truth.


2. Last year the US gave half a billion dollars in aid to Uzbekistan, about a quarter of it military aid. Bush and Powell repeatedly hail Karimov as a friend and ally. Yet this regime has at least seven thousand prisoners of conscience; it is a one party state without freedom of speech, without freedom of media, without freedom of movement, without freedom of assembly, without freedom of religion. It practices, systematically, the most hideous tortures on thousands. Most of the population live in conditions precisely analogous with medieval serfdom.

3. Uzbekistan's geo-strategic position is crucial. It has half the population of the whole of Central Asia. It alone borders all the other states in a region which is important to future Western oil and gas supplies. It is the regional military power. That is why the US is here, and here to stay. Contractors at the US military bases are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty five years.

4. Democracy and human rights are, despite their protestations to the contrary, in practice a long way down the US agenda here. Aid this year will be slightly less, but there is no intention to introduce any meaningful conditionality. Nobody can believe this level of aid – more than US aid to all of West Africa – is related to comparative developmental need as opposed to political support for Karimov. While the US makes token and low-level references to human rights to appease domestic opinion, they view Karimov's vicious regime as a bastion against fundamentalism. He – and they – are in fact creating fundamentalism. When the US gives this much support to a regime that tortures people to death for having a beard or praying five times a day, is it any surprise that Muslims come to hate the West?

5. I was stunned to hear that the US had pressured the EU to withdraw a motion on Human Rights in Uzbekistan which the EU was tabling at the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. I was most unhappy to find that we are helping the US in what I can only call this cover-up. I am saddened when the US constantly quote fake improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan, such as the abolition of censorship and Internet freedom, which quite simply have not happened (I see these are quoted in the draft EBRD strategy for Uzbekistan, again I understand at American urging).

6. From Tashkent it is difficult to agree that we and the US are activated by shared values. Here we have a brutal US sponsored dictatorship reminiscent of Central and South American policy under previous US Republican administrations. I watched George Bush talk today of Iraq and "dismantling the apparatus of terror… removing the torture chambers and the rape rooms". Yet when it comes to the Karimov regime, systematic torture and rape appear to be treated as peccadilloes, not to affect the relationship and to be downplayed in international fora. Double standards? Yes.

7. I hope that once the present crisis is over we will make plain to the US, at senior level, our serious concern over their policy in Uzbekistan.

Letter #3


OF 220939 JULY 04




1. We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.

2. I gather a recent London interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material. This is morally, legally and practically wrong. It exposes as hypocritical our post Abu Ghraib pronouncements and fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.

3. We should cease all co-operation with the Uzbek Security Services they are beyond the pale. We indeed need to establish an SIS presence here, but not as in a friendly state.


4. In the period December 2002 to March 2003 I raised several times the issue of intelligence material from the Uzbek security services which was obtained under torture and passed to us via the CIA. I queried the legality, efficacy and morality of the practice.

5. I was summoned to the UK for a meeting on 8 March 2003. Michael Wood gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture. He said the only legal limitation on its use was that it could not be used in legal proceedings, under Article 15 of the UN Convention on Torture.

6. On behalf of the intelligence services, Matthew Kydd said that they found some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood.

7. Sir Michael Jay's circular of 26 May stated that there was a reporting obligation on us to report torture by allies (and I have been instructed to refer to Uzbekistan as such in the context of the war on terror). You, Sir, have made a number of striking, and I believe heartfelt, condemnations of torture in the last few weeks. I had in the light of this decided to return to this question and to highlight an apparent contradiction in our policy. I had intimated as much to the Head of Eastern Department.

8. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear that without informing me of the meeting, or since informing me of the result of the meeting, a meeting was convened in the FCO at the level of Heads of Department and above, precisely to consider the question of the receipt of Uzbek intelligence material obtained under torture. As the office knew, I was in London at the time and perfectly able to attend the meeting. I still have only gleaned that it happened.

9. I understand that the meeting decided to continue to obtain the Uzbek torture material. I understand that the principal argument deployed was that the intelligence material disguises the precise source, ie it does not ordinarily reveal the name of the individual who is tortured. Indeed this is true – the material is marked with a euphemism such as "From detainee debriefing." The argument runs that if the individual is not named, we cannot prove that he was tortured.

10. I will not attempt to hide my utter contempt for such casuistry, nor my shame that I work in and organisation where colleagues would resort to it to justify torture. I have dealt with hundreds of individual cases of political or religious prisoners in Uzbekistan, and I have met with very few where torture, as defined in the UN convention, was not employed. When my then DHM raised the question with the CIA head of station 15 months ago, he readily acknowledged torture was deployed in obtaining intelligence. I do not think there is any doubt as to the fact

11. The torture record of the Uzbek security services could hardly be more widely known. Plainly there are, at the very least, reasonable grounds for believing the material is obtained under torture. There is helpful guidance at Article 3 of the UN Convention;
"The competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights." While this article forbids extradition or deportation to Uzbekistan, it is the right test for the present question also.

12. On the usefulness of the material obtained, this is irrelevant. Article 2 of the Convention, to which we are a party, could not be plainer:

"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

13. Nonetheless, I repeat that this material is useless – we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful. It is designed to give the message the Uzbeks want the West to hear. It exaggerates the role, size, organisation and activity of the IMU and its links with Al Qaida. The aim is to convince the West that the Uzbeks are a vital cog against a common foe, that they should keep the assistance, especially military assistance, coming, and that they should mute the international criticism on human rights and economic reform.

14. I was taken aback when Matthew Kydd said this stuff was valuable. Sixteen months ago it was difficult to argue with SIS in the area of intelligence assessment. But post Butler we know, not only that they can get it wrong on even the most vital and high profile issues, but that they have a particular yen for highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat. That is precisely what the Uzbeks give them. Furthermore MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me and certainly no expertise that can come close to my own in making this assessment.

15. At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family's links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services.

16. I have been considering Michael Wood's legal view, which he kindly gave in writing. I cannot understand why Michael concentrated only on Article 15 of the Convention. This certainly bans the use of material obtained under torture as evidence in proceedings, but it does not state that this is the sole exclusion of the use of such material.

17. The relevant article seems to me Article 4, which talks of complicity in torture. Knowingly to receive its results appears to be at least arguable as complicity. It does not appear that being in a different country to the actual torture would preclude complicity. I talked this over in a hypothetical sense with my old friend Prof Francois Hampson, I believe an acknowledged World authority on the Convention, who said that the complicity argument and the spirit of the Convention would be likely to be winning points. I should be grateful to hear Michael's views on this.

18. It seems to me that there are degrees of complicity and guilt, but being at one or two removes does not make us blameless. There are other factors. Plainly it was a breach of Article 3 of the Convention for the coalition to deport detainees back here from Baghram, but it has been done. That seems plainly complicit.

19. This is a difficult and dangerous part of the World. Dire and increasing poverty and harsh repression are undoubtedly turning young people here towards radical Islam. The Uzbek government are thus creating this threat, and perceived US support for Karimov strengthens anti-Western feeling. SIS ought to establish a presence here, but not as partners of the Uzbek Security Services, whose sheer brutality puts them beyond the pale.


Second Document - summary of legal opinion from Michael Wood arguing that it is legal to use information extracted under torture:

From: Michael Wood, Legal Advisor

Date: 13 March 2003

CC: PS/PUS; Matthew Kidd, WLD

Linda Duffield


1. Your record of our meeting with HMA Tashkent recorded that Craig had said that his understanding was that it was also an offence under the UN Convention on Torture to receive or possess information under torture. I said that I did not believe that this was the case, but undertook to re-read the Convention.

2. I have done so. There is nothing in the Convention to this effect. The nearest thing is article 15 which provides:

"Each State Party shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made."

3. This does not create any offence. I would expect that under UK law any statement established to have been made as a result of torture would not be admissible as evidence.


M C Wood
Legal Adviser

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Smell that Limbaughger Cheese? Rush on Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq

Ya know, when I want intelligent commentary from the Right, I go to Rush Limbaugh. Certainly, a man with this fella's sterling record of truth-telling should be trusted.

To prove the above, I merely point out what he recently said regarding the Christian Peacemaker Team members kidnapped in Iraq. (I should point out that today is the day they may be murdered by their captors, who promised to do so if "Iraqi prisoners" were not set free.)

Rush said "part of me likes this." Huh? "Well, here's why I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality. [...] [A]ny time a bunch of people that walk around with the[ir] head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds if necessary, and have things sized up."

Uh, yep. I did love the rather confused image of someone walking around while their head was in the sand. I also loved the unique and never before used phrase "leftist feel-good hand-wringers." As far as being shown reality, there's little danger Limbaugh will ever encounter such a thing, thanks to his listeners' support that keeps him in money and on the air.

CPT is an incredible ministry, and I can only hope and pray the folks that are holding the four CPT hostages let them go. And if any evangelical Christian dares suggest that Rush Limbaugh's version of reality has anything to do with Scripture, Jesus, or loving one's neighbor, just don't dare say it around me unless you want both your ears pinned back and on fire.

As far as Rush goes, any press is good press, I guess. Open mouth, say outrageous and vacuuous things, and garner dollars. Hey, it is the American way. Praiz gawd!!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Social Glue vs. Is It True? Neo-cons Prostitute Christianity

Indulge me for a moment as I tell a little story about my testosterone-charged -- and God-charged -- teen years. It really does tie into the title of this bit.

In the summer of 1974, I went to Montana Boys State as a delegate from Fort Benton High School. Only one year earlier, I had become a Jesus follower after an existential and externally unverifiable set of events not worth hashing over at this time.

At Boys State, we were treated to Montana's Lieutenant Governor -- at least, that is who I recall it being -- speaking to us on the issue of morality in the public sector. Things were going along fine until he made the following statement, or something awfully close to it:

"As Americans, we need a moral glue to hold our social fabric together. Christianity serves as that moral agent." And he went on to explain why religion was important precisely because it was a sort of moral restraint and shaper of society.

After a bit of this, I'd had enough. Remember, I was only a teenager, and hormonally imbalanced. I lept to my feet and yelled, "BUT IS IT TRUE?!" at the top of my lungs.

You see, in my simplistic and young mind, I actually thought it mattered whether or not Christianity was based on history, particularly that history regarding Jesus Christ's existence, birth, life, death, and resurrection. To the speaker, whatever his personal thoughts, it didn't seem important enough to even mention.

At that moment, I now believe, I began the journey away from not only conservativism, but nationalism. I realized -- since I actually think I had a good handle on essentials back then -- that it was Christianity that governed all other questions of human meaning rather than societal considerations, or individual considerations for that matter, being the answer. As Jesus went, so I went. If he was a crock, then so was I, and I wasn't going to sit around playing house with dead moral codes written by deluded people thousands of years ago.

Neither would I pledge allegiance to the flag of twentieth-century religions whether fascist or marxist; they, too, were only worth confronting if in fact the God question had an affirmative answer. If the God question had no answer, or more appropriately, if the Jesus question had no affirmative answer, then there were no more questions really worth asking. Instead, I'd be a good little hedonist, breeding wildly or ingesting illicit substances until I was tired of either, and then perhaps blowing my brains out.

Oh, we'd ask them anyway, being the sad, lonesome creatures we would be without a Maker, Father, or Savior. We couldn't help but keep asking them. But they would never be answered. And some few of us might even have the guts to stop asking them. If I didn't believe I'd had a real encounter with God -- you know, that encounter I'm not going to offer as evidence since it wouldn't hold up as verifiable to the non-participant -- then I would have to believe, and act upon the belief, that no meaning at all exists in the universe.

Good grief, Trott, get to your point.

Okay then. Now it is 2005. James Wolcott's comments regarding conservative commentator Irving Kristol's apparently quite elitist viewpoint on God -- one which bears remarkable resemblance to that Boys' State speaker in 1974 -- bring up a nearly identical reaction in me. Now being fair, those comments (originally appearing on John Derbyshire's blog), stirred up a mini-controversy, and perhaps mis-represented Kristol as not believing in God when in fact he really might just think that whether or not he believes in God, religion is a social glue and worthwhile for that reason.

Either way (Kristol believing or non-believing), the idea of religion as social glue is one for those too timid to face the abyss. And he favors such social glue, since (like his mentor Leo Strauss), he fears what the results would be should religion's mitigating influence be removed from society:

"If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."

The above quote from Kristol is cited by Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey, in discussing Kristol's views on Darwinian evolution. That topic, like my salvation story, is not easily verified, and I'll leave it alone here. But Bailey, along with Derbyshire and Wolcott, seems baffled by that line of reasoning. As am I.

Either Jesus really did rise from the dead -- and the evidence of lives radically changed by him is one reality hard to argue with -- or he did not. Don't offer me your crapulous social glue theory of Christianity. Such arguments are an abuse of my faith in order to prop up your nationalist agendas, your political and financial power base. They may fool people, but they will not do so indefinitely. And in the end, this whole hypocritical, snot-nosed edifice is going to come down on the heads of evangelicals and other Christians who supported and abetted it.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

One final note on the idea of being afraid to debunk religion because it might undermine social order... I don't think most people can or will let go of the idea which transparently suggests itself to any conscious being capable of rudimentary thought. "What a wonderful, perplexing place! Someone must have made it!" Whether you believe or not, I don't think you have to fear that the mass of people on this planet will cease believing in God, at least as an Object.

Whether they believe in Jesus, and enough to follow his teachings and example, well...

That is another topic.

Christmas and Consumption

Living in an intentional community, Chicago's Jesus People USA, and living in the inner city does help this soul to see American materialism as the blight it is. But that doesn't mean I'm not a participant in that blight. To what degree? is the real question. I fear I'm far more enmeshed than I will ever know.

By American standards, I live well below the poverty line. Last time I checked, that meant an income somewhere around $6,000 a year or so. I don't own a car, or my own house. I don't have a "nest egg" set aside for my old age. So praise me praise me? Mother Teresa, save a seat...?

Not quite. In fact, not even close.

I own four computers. Yes, two of 'em are really old. One I purchased for just 2 bucks at a yard sale and then took home, upgraded a little bit with cannibalized parts from other ancient boxes, and turned into an open-source SuSE Linux machine I use as a server/backup at work. Pretty thrifty, eh? And at home, I have another equally ancient Linux box I use as a second backup and just so I can play around with SuSE when I feel like it.

My laptop is very nice, though a little dated. And my main work machine is loaded. Those machines are worth far more than 2 bucks, probably around $2000 together. But why four? I guess just because I could, and because I enjoy putting old junk together and making it work.

I am surrounded by books. For a one room apartment, we have an incredible number of book shelves. And that's not all. Books are stacked on the floor both at home and at work, many of them books I meant to read, or mean to read, or half-read but never can quite finish. And then there's clothes... I have way, way too many T-shirts; I think they multiply whenever I open and close the drawers.

Now truth be told, I get many of my books and my clothes second-hand. It is a sort of Jesus People gospel, materially-speaking, that there is glory in getting a great deal at a local second-hand store called "Unique Thrift." And my wife and I haunt yard sales in the summertime; my entire stereo system cost me around 30 bucks, and includes a turntable, cassette deck, CD-player, modest home threatre amp/tuner, Stereo VCR ($5 from a friend; I fixed it up). Four speakers, two givent to me and two others costing me $10...

Oh, the DVD player was a gift from my wife last Christmas and cost $75.

The TV cost $225 around five or eight years ago, and is quite outdated these days. But speaking of TV, we're thinking of (ominous drum roll) getting DirectTV. Oh, great... now corporate America can beam into our home on a gazillion different channels instead of just Chicago's normal handful of broadcast channels. Is that a good idea?

Well, I hope so. Pretty tepid, but there it is. I think more in TV's case, despite the many witticisms that come to mind, really may be better. There is such a thing as quality television, as PBS is often able to prove (or sometimes disprove, but usually not as flamboyantly as its commercial competition). My wife and I in the evening often are quite tired, and like watching something vacuuous.

Yet isn't city life itself already making war on the contemplative? Do I really need more TV? Do I need more books? More stereo equipment? More computers? More clothes?

I guess I'm still sorting it all out. The real trouble is, of course, that I already am embedded into American materialistic culture like one of those reporters was embedded in Iraq when we invaded. My story is no more trustworthy than theirs, is it? The spin is pre-determined by the cultural blinders I am wearing.

All I can say is this: I'm trying, however feebly, to live a life that at least in some ways is not about consumption but rather is about Christ, the antithesis to consumption. That is the great irony of Christmas, that a holiday all about the Universe's Greatest Gift -- and Giver -- has become a generic "holiday" mostly about getting. Yet let me not be totally reductionist here. Even the buying is, on a vulnerable human level, also about wanting to bless with a gift, a shadow of the great Gift in that manger.

I consume, yes. But at least can I try to stay awake? Can I try not to be swept under by the relentless adverts blasting away from the soon-to-be more multichanneled than ever TV in my room? Can I keep yelling back?

I do in my tiny way want to keep living the life I am; living simply compared to many Americans, if more richly than 90% of the rest of the underdeveloped world. By sharing many of the material things of American life -- the building I live in, the cars I drive, the money I live on, the food I eat -- with others in intentional community, I do I hope and pray make a little difference.

These things are no hardship to me. I don't want a car, a house, a mortgage. By living as I do, I have been freed from some of that. And by enjoying "trailing edge technology" stereos and computers (i-pods are cool, esp. because I run a lot, but I don't think I'll get one until a newer "thing" comes along and makes them cheap), I'm able to avoid massive spending.

But there is the heart. And inside my heart, I cannot claim purity regarding lust for material objects. When I see my neighbor's new furniture, or brand new flat screen TV, I feel the tug of greed and covetousness. I bite on the lure, and the line of this materialistic culture begins to reel me in. Maybe has reeled me in!

All I can do is repent, try to live moderately, try not to be focused on material things but rather on relationships (both horizontal and vertical). After all, there is a simple rule I learned long ago about the inanimate world vs. the animate world. The more stuff I own, the less relationships I'll have. The stuff requires my attention. It breaks. It malfunctions. It needs updating. But so do my relationships. The stuff will burn one day, to put it into fundie terms. But the relationships, good or bad, have eternal consequences and eternal value.

Christmas. Where does it play into all this? Look, God is into material stuff himself. He came to earth, after all, in a body. That is an affirmation of "stuff" as being really cool, really wonderful. But more it is an affirmation of all humanity being wonderful.

If stuff is getting in the way of God, I'd better watch it. And if stuff is getting in the way of me loving my neighbor, I'd really better watch it. If stuff is instead helping bond me to my neighbor and to my Lord, then I will handle it with pleasure and even reverence as a gift. Yet it is a shadow-gift. Just as I choose not to drink alcohol for the sake of the many addicts I know, I choose to draw a line in my consumption. It may be a pathetic, half-baked line, one that many others who've drawn a harder line would laugh at.

It is Christmas. And this is a time to celebrate, give gifts, recieve gifts, and most of all receive one another.