Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Omniscience God's work, not The government's

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"You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely."

No, that's not a description of how the U.S. government is conducting surveillance on people in that country and around the world. As many Christians and Jews know, it's the opening verses of Psalm 139 -- a Psalm of wonder at the omniscience, or all-knowingness, of God.

Last month we learned about a more earthly kind of all-knowingness when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the size and scope of U.S. intelligence gathering operations in this post-9/11 world. The revelations showed that the America's National Security Agency has been using a secret program to collect information on all calls and text messages placed to or from the U.S.

Since then, there's been a wide range of reaction from politicians, human rights activists and civil libertarians. But what about the religious community--is anyone offering a critique?

So far, there haven't been many serious responses. One person who offered a thoughtful reaction is Daniel Schultz in the Christian Century. In it he noted one of the main justification offered by the U.S. government for the spying was to keep people safe from terrorists.

People of faith should be wary when governments use this argument to justify spying, he says. "Only God can provide ultimate security," he says, adding believing anything else can keep us safe is to trust an idol.

Plus, he adds, God's omniscience doesn't promise to keep people safe from all harm but rather to provide a "transformative support and presence amid our vulnerability... we do ourselves a disservice when we give in to the temptation to make ourselves as safe as possible at the expense of freedom."

We also err, he says, "when we concede that surveillance is the province of a government seeking to identify the bad people and isolate them before they can do harm."

People of God "know that that real safety and real freedom work the other way around, starting with the tiniest, most particular information about people and building from it a responsive and responsible community. It's a community that exists not to prevent bad but to do good."

Another person who responded was Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.

Writing in the journal First Things, George says people of faith "should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself, but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity."

Citing Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, George says real dignity requires that human beings "should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty."

Such spying also violates human rights, he says, citing Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights--an article that states everyone has the right to freedom to practice religion "either alone or in community with others in public or private."

This may not seem like a big deal in Canada -- who cares if the government knows if you go to church or other place of worship? But it is a big deal if you happen to be a Christian in Egypt, a Baha'i in Iran, a Falun Gong in China, or a Muslim in Myanmar. Then you definitely don't want governments knowing how you practice your faith.

I don't know about you, but I'm OK knowing that God knows everything about me. The government? Not so much. As George puts it: "Only God is omniscient. To God alone are we to be a completely open book . . . and that is why all persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the hegemonic assumptions of the surveillance state."

After all, he says, for people of faith the goal should be to create a society where people "only want to look up, not over shoulders."

Jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 D15

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