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Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering

Last week before the movers arrived to pack and then to remove our household goods in the first phase of shipping things to Hawaii, I did some reminiscing. My partner and I, in almost forty-two years of life together, have made twenty-one moves. This will be our ninth transoceanic move. Our ten years in Raleigh were by far the longest that we have lived anywhere.

Yet in two respects, this move was easier than many of our prior moves. First, we have digitized most of the material items (photos, mementoes, etc.) that are important to us. The digital format allows multiple copies (e.g., one with the shipment, another with us) and thus reduces the risk that we will bereft of the items that help us remember who we are and from whence we have come.

Second, I find that I now place less value on things. Perhaps this is a function of age, recognizing that when I perish (as, ultimately, everything does), I will have little or no control over what happens to my former possessions. I can specify in a will who inherits what, but I cannot dictate what the inheritor does with her/his new possessions. Perhaps my increased detachment from things is a function of having watched most of the prior generation die and family members disposing of once cherished and now superfluous items. Perhaps my increased detachment reflects a deeper spirituality: people and relationships, not things are of real importance.

Philosophers often dislike multiple reasons, arguing that multiple reasons can result in over determining the cause of an event. Nevertheless, I like multiple reasons. I find life messy and think that people act for multiple, often overlapping if poorly aligned reasons.

Today is Memorial Day. We too quickly forget those who fought and died in the nation's armed forces. Sometimes we want to forget, recognizing that the war ended badly or was unjust, e.g., the Vietnam War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Other times, we forget because those who knew and loved the deceased have themselves died. This is true with respect to most WWI and WWII veterans, two wars that probably altered the course of history.

Most Americans value Memorial Day primarily because it provides a long, three-day weekend for vacations, social gatherings, and sporting events. The diminishing number of families from whom someone currently serves (or is still alive but once served) in the military seems likely to further sever any link between Memorial Day and honoring the sacrifice of those who died in service of their nation.

War is evil. Unfortunately, war is very occasionally an unavoidable evil to prevent the triumph of injustice. Stopping the spread of fascism and ending slavery exemplify the potential of war to stop a greater evil. But the horrendous toll of death, injury, and other sacrifices in WWII and the Civil War poignantly underscore war's horrific cost. Leaders who wish to commit the nation to fight too frequently minimize war's costs in lives and treasure.


So, on Memorial Day, let us remember those who fought and died. And let us renew our commitment to ensuring that nations never fight unless there is no viable alternative path to justice, and then to fight only when victory is possible. Unlike household possessions that can be digitized or replaced, each human is irreplaceable. Remembering is our best option for not repeating past mistakes caused by glorifying war or misperceiving war as the preferred, perhaps only, solution to problems that are actually intractable or not ours to solve.

Friday, May 15, 2015

My changing perspective

In prior Ethical Musings' posts, I have remarked that nothing remains constant. Everything changes, although sometimes the pace of change is so slow that the casual observer mistakenly believes that no change is occurring. For example, the rate at which most rocks change would lead one to believe that the rock was unchanging when in fact the forces of gravity, electro-magnetism, and perhaps wind and water are slowly altering the rock. Alternatively, other things change at an almost stupefying pace, e.g., some internet content and much of contemporary culture.

Ethical Musings is changing. I'm moving from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Honolulu, Hawaii. Next week, my partner and I vacate the house in which we have lived for the last decade. We will embark on almost four months of travels that will see us visiting family and friends in the southeastern U.S., spending time with friends in England, making our first sojourn in Vienna (Austria), enjoying a month in Florence (Italy), and then driving across Canada before flying from Los Angeles to Honolulu at the end of August. My blog posts will most likely become somewhat infrequent during those months.

If past travels are indicative, my travels will alter my views, at least subtly and perhaps substantially. Having spent three to four months of each year in the last decade traveling, I can confirm that travel broadens one's perspective (it can also broaden one's waistline in the absence of unrelenting personal discipline with respect to drink, food, and exercise!). Parochial attitudes and values reflect a small-mindedness incompatible with our rapidly globalizing world.

Community used to consist of the people who lived nearby. Community now consists of people whose lives intersect with our own, regardless of geographic location. Ethical Musings' readers form such a community with readers literally from around the planet. Common concerns bring us into community without homogenizing either our ideas or lives. I'm thankful that in relocating from the east coast of the U.S. to a Pacific island the Ethical Musings' community will come with me.

I'm moving because my partner and I believe that we will enjoy a more abundant life in Honolulu. The weather is great year-round. The island is truly multicultural, with no race or ethnic group comprising a majority of the population. Life in Hawaii is intimately connected to sea and land, but in Honolulu is also urban, i.e., capturing what we think is the best of both rural and urban life.

In beginning this new chapter of my life, I again experience a change. Even for the most sedentary and greatest lovers of routine, life invariably consists of chapters. The first chapter is being an infant; the second being a toddler … the last is one's death. In between, most of us are privileged to have several chapters. In this chapter, I have focused on reading, thinking, writing, and traveling. In my next chapter, I anticipate less traveling, less writing, and more active engagement, though I have no good idea of what that will look like.


What is the present chapter of your life? What would you like the next chapter to be like?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rioting for justice

People in Ferguson and then in Baltimore have rioted, outraged by perceived police wrongdoing. I've not followed either situation closely. However, I want to begin this Ethical Musings' post with several observations:
  1. People of color disproportionately suffer mistreatment and brutality by police across the US, something social science research and anecdotal evidence repeatedly confirms. A brief news report I watched on TV featured interviews with people who live in poor areas of Baltimore and people who live in affluent areas of Baltimore. The former consistently describe encounters with the police characterized (perhaps on both sides) by fear, mistrust, and suspicion. The latter consistently describe their attitude toward the police as one of trustingly expecting the police to help. These attitudes did not vary by the color of the person interviewed. What does vary by color is that the residents of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods are overwhelmingly people of color.
  2. The riots in Ferguson and Baltimore have analogues in white and other communities. Rioting for justice is not a function of race or ethnicity.
  3. Rioting for justice begins when moral outrage builds among a disempowered community, reaches a flash point, and a triggering event occurs to ignite the anger.
  4. Government, especially in the twenty-first century US, will almost invariably respond with excessive force, calling in military troops, to try to end the violence.

Rioting for justice is invariably counterproductive:
  1. The outraged community may achieve some catharsis and attract national attention to its problems, but inevitably suffers disproportionate destruction of businesses and property, disruption of community services, and deepens the pre-existing feelings of alienation.
  2. National attention is short-lived. The media, politicians, and celebrities will soon move on to a new crisis. Any increase in resources that flow to the effected community will be insufficient to rebuild and repair, let alone to improve pre-riot conditions.
  3. The rioting will also attract criminal elements who see an opportunity for looting and other lawless activity. This drains resources from the larger community as well as the morally outraged community.
In short, everyone loses.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adamantly insisted that the civil rights protests he led remain non-violent. Civil disobedience called attention to the problem. Massive numbers of protesters ensured that the criminal justice system could not cope with the protest by persisting in business as usual. Police violence against protesters (recall the police dog attacking a little girl and fire hoses used on marchers) turned public opinion and eventually legal discrimination. The transformation is ongoing.

Nevertheless, a person who had lived his/her life in Birmingham, AL, and died in 1950 and who then returned to life in the same city in 2015 would, I am confident, be shocked at the change. People of all races utilize the same public services, white people now work for people of color, intermarriage is increasingly common, and mixed race friendships are unsurprising.

Injustice should generate moral outrage. The lack of widespread moral outrage about policing that tends to disadvantage or brutalize people of color should itself ignite moral outrage in everyone.

However, we need to use that moral outrage to organize campaigns for justice instead of channeling that moral outrage in destructive ways.

For example, the problems with policing in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere are not new. Where were the clergy and politicians willing to organize and lead a campaign for justice a decade ago?

Answering that question exposes the relative disempowerment of poor people, especially poor people of color. The residents of a city's poorest neighborhood do not comprise the critical constituency for mayoral or gubernatorial candidates. Nor are they the critical constituency for ambitious clerics, prosperous businesspeople, or any other powerful individual.


Communal change requires hope and leadership. Riots for justice occur in the absence of both. If the Church (and politicians, businesses, and others) prioritized empowering the least among us heeding Scripture's clarion call, we would live in a much more peaceful land. (NB: The word peace, in both Hebrew and Greek, denotes justice, prosperity, and well-being for the entire community, not simply the absence of violence.)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ecclesial courage

An Ethical Musings reader wondered how courage might help the Episcopal Church. The reader noted, "There is too much handwringing in despair over attendance, income, demographics, etc., and not enough courage to be faithful and optimistic disciples in, or despite, the new reality." The reader is correct: courage could transform the Episcopal Church as well as other denominations. Here are three thoughts.

First, our spiritual exemplar, Jesus, modeled courage:
For Jesus, “Be not afraid” was not a magic refrain, a cheap exhortation akin to whistling past a graveyard. The precondition of the fearlessness he preached was the terrifyingly brutal circumstance of Rome’s lethal capriciousness, and he knew about fear from his own experience—dating back to the Roman legions’ rampages through the territory in which he was raised, climaxing in the cruel fate of his mentor John the Baptist. And there’s the point. “Be not afraid” was corollary, for Jesus, to “You are my beloved Son”—the transcendent affirmation that came to him in John’s presence. Having been spared from fear himself, Jesus understood what that release was like. (James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, p. 181)
Furthermore, walking the Jesus path demands courage because emulating Jesus frequently puts one at odds with a skeptical world that belittles spiritual realities, tends to think pessimistically instead of optimistically about the future, and accepts Christianity's demise as a given.

Second, tough times can engender courage:
Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all. Do you see the catastrophic error that the Germans made? They bombed London because they thought that the trauma associated with the Blitz would destroy the courage of the British people. In fact, it did the opposite. It created a city of remote misses, who were more courageous than they had ever been before. The Germans would have been better off not bombing London at all. (Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (), p. 149)
Churches can learn much from the Nazi bombing of London. Courage grows well in a culture of resilience and perseverance. Resilience and perseverance characterize the culture of most small congregations, as it did London's culture. Good leaders make a difference. Whether lay or ordained, good church leaders convey an ecclesial version of the dauntless courage and optimism with which Winston Churchill stiffened Londoners' resolve to prevail against the blitz. Survival, although essential, is not equivalent to victory. Great churches – whatever their size – engage in meaningful mission, bringing life abundant to hurting, broken, and dying people and neighborhoods.

United Church of Christ pastor and consultant Anthony B. Robinson in his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, describes attending a congregational meeting of a small church that was debating whether to close after enduring a losing, multi-year survival struggle:
The discussion went back and forth for some time. Some said that the wise thing to do was give the church a decent burial; others proposed new ways of going about the church's life and ministry. As a child, Joshua was not invited to speak, until there was a lull in the discussion, and no one knew what to say or do next. Someone in the group turned to Joshua and said, 'What do you think, Joshua?' The boy thought for a moment and then said, 'You're going to need the Bible. And you're going to have to be the brave.' It became clear that the Holy Spirit had chosen to speak to that church through a child. (p. 97)
Transformative churches listen for God and then dare to step boldly and confidently into an uncertain future of service, jettisoning what is unessential, and trusting that their limited resources are sufficient for the task ahead.