Thursday, September 21, 2017

Power that corrodes and corrupts

An understanding of power helpfully informs laments about economic inequality, including those on Ethical Musings (cf. Capitalism and inequality and Economic inequality). The nineteenth century British politician Lord Acton was perhaps the first to comment that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He aimed his comment at the abuse of power by politicians. His observation, however, applies equally to other arenas of life.
Power, according to Henry Kissinger, is the “ultimate aphrodisiac.” Even if power is not absolute, power or the lust for power may still corrode healthy relationships with self, others, creation, and God. Abraham Lincoln insightfully recognized the exercise of power as the true test of a person’s character: “Nearly all men [sic] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
Illustratively, absolute (or near absolute) economic power corrupts persons who hold that power. Late nineteenth century US business trusts such as Standard Oil, US Steel, and Hormel meatpackers exemplify the corruption of absolute or near absolute economic power. Working conditions tended to be exceptionally hazardous, products were often unsafe as well as overpriced, market positions were maintained by eliminating competition, and politicians were bought to prevent change. Businessmen, and they were all men, contended that the federal government existed not to promote the common good but to protect their property rights and to defend the nation against foreign enemies.
During the twentieth century, new laws enforced by new federal agencies ended many of those abuses, e.g., the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, anti-trust laws, Social Security, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Federal Election Commission. The federal and state governments began to actively promote the common good.
In the early twenty-first century, new forms of abuse by monopolies or near monopolies have emerged. The diminishing power of unions has allowed large corporations to exercise more power over their workforces, as reflected in the dramatically widening gap between CEO pay and the median compensation of a corporation’s workforce. Privacy has diminished with corporations collecting ever increasing amounts of information about individuals. A push for deregulation that began during the Reagan administration and accelerated under Trump has both shifted power from individuals to corporations and frequently sanctioned environmental harm. The large sums that corporations and the extremely wealthy contribute to increasingly expensive electoral campaigns represent a new form of purchasing politicians. The argument that political contributions purchase access and not influence today rings hollow. Most citizens lack direct access to their elected officials. Well-funded special interest groups publicize the voting records of elected officials, endorsing those who consistently vote in line with the wishes of the special interest and condemning officials who deviate from those wishes.
The former Archbishop of Scotland, the Most Rev. Richard Holloway, correctly observed that power always seeks to justify itself. Oft repeated justifications for unlimited government expansiveness are to protect the common good, safeguard the well-being of all, and to prevent every potential fraud, waste, or abuse of government power or resources. Consequently, the usually well-intentioned but continuously expanding reach of government into personal and business affairs in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has too often favored large corporations and government at the expense of diminishing individual rights and responsibility.
Typically, government tries to achieve zero-defects in most if not all of its laws, policies, and programs. Abuses of any type of government power frequently trigger a media feeding frenzy, reinforcing the commitment of politicians and government officials to zero-defect laws, policies, and programs. Occasionally, a zero-defect standard is important, e.g., in aviation safety. However, most efforts to achieve zero-defects are unnecessary and eventually alienated the majority of citizens and corporations who perceive these efforts as governmental overreach, excessively wasteful and complex, and unnecessarily intrusive.
For example, when I, as an active duty chaplain, wrote the Navy’s first instruction governing the use of and accounting for religious offerings, a frustratingly large number of stakeholders pushed for the instruction to eliminate all possible fraud, waste, or abuse with respect to funds. No number of safeguards can foresee much less prevent all future fraud, waste, and abuse. I insisted that the cost of safeguards should not exceed the cost of potential losses. Unsurprisingly, the first revision of the instruction, prepared after I had moved to a new assignment, incorporated additional safeguards, most of them not cost effective. In spite of good intentions, the complex procedures requiring the involvement of more people that supplanted the original easily implemented, standard accounting protocols failed to decrease the number of thefts or embezzlements.
More generally, well-intentioned but counterproductive government overreach results in needlessly repetitive layers of bureaucracy, excessively detailed procedures and rules, and widespread reluctance to accept responsibility for a decision. All of this is eerily reminiscent of the well-intentioned but ultimately discarded Pharisaical attempts to avoid violating the 613 commandments of the Torah by fencing the Torah with additional rules designed to keep an observant Jew from unintentionally violating the Torah. Similarly, the inherent weakness of any rule-based ethical system is that no set of rules, no matter how comprehensive, can foresee every situation that may arise.
Deceased rock star Jimi Hendrix articulated the basic remedy to the wrongful accumulation and misuse of power: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
In practical terms, distributing and using power to build healthy relationships and promote life abundant entails imposing limits on persons, organizations, and communities that in one or more arenas exercises absolute or near-absolute power. In personal relationships, breaking another’s power over one’s self begins by reclaiming one’s dignity and self-worth and may ultimately require ending the relationship. In the case of a monopoly, this may involve anti-trust cases and legislation. In the case of the US government, actions to limit power may include rebalancing the distribution of power between the three branches (Trump, from this perspective, may be good news if Congress and the Courts reclaim their Constitutional powers), changing laws, and working to elect and then to lobby politicians willing to accept an imperfect and limited government while holding steadfastly to sound values. Finally, each individual must audit their motives to ensure that s/he pursues the power of love instead of the love of power..

Monday, September 18, 2017

When a new rector arrives

I preached this sermon at the Parish of St Clements prior to the arrival of their new rector. Although set within a particular context, the message is broadly applicable to the arrival of a new rector, pastor, or senior minister.
Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, once claimed that Adam had turned to Eve, as they left the Garden of Eden, and said, “Darling, we live in an age of change.”
St Clements is in a season of change. Liz Zivanov retired as rector at the end of 2015 and Canon Kate began her ministry as interim rector in March 2016. Next Sunday is her last; the Rev. Heather Hill begins her ministry as St Clements’ new rector on October 1.
Despite its inevitability, change, or even the prospect of change, can easily evoke feelings of uncertainty or anxiety
Biblical scholars and church historians believe that the Greek word ecclesia, translated as church, did not enter the Christian vocabulary until decades after Jesus’ death. Furthermore, no evidence exists to show that Jesus formally organized his followers. Hence, the conversation between Jesus and Peter in this morning’s gospel reading[1] post-dates Jesus’ crucifixion.
The conversation reveals Jesus’ disciples’ anxiety about their new community. Dissent, motivated at least partially by the fear of change, appeared as Jesus’ followers developed differing opinions about what being a disciple meant. Being human, Jesus’ followers also said and did things that other of Jesus’ followers rightly or wrongly perceived as harmful or sinful. And so the question arose, how many times should one forgive a sinful brother or sister? The answer was not seven times, but seventy-seven times, i.e., more than one could conveniently track, meaning forgiveness without limits.
Difficulties in coping with changes in their journey as becoming Christians troubled not only Jerusalem’s Jewish-Christian community but also the recipients of Paul’s epistles. His epistles include lots of advice on how nascent Christian communities should deal with conflict and change. In particular, today’s epistle lesson[2] offers four specifics helpful to St Clements as it lives into the next chapter of its life as a gathered community of Christ’s body.
First, welcome persons of little or no faith. Paul actually instructs the Romans to welcome those of “weak faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling.” In this post-religious age, in contrast to Paul’s era of pervasive religious belief, we rightly interpret “weak faith” metaphorically and envision St Clements as a home for spiritual seekers. In some ways, this is already true. St Clements supports twelve step groups, participates in ecumenical and interfaith ventures, and tries to be a warm and accepting community
However, no community ever perfectly embodies the spirit of aloha. Welcoming Heather, Doug, and their twins affords us an opportunity to practice aloha intentionally and then to try to maintain that practice so that nobody ever feels like a stranger in our midst.
Second, non-judgmentally celebrate one another’s faith journeys. Paul’s example of this is anachronistic. None of the meat sold on Oahu is sacrificed to an idol during the slaughtering process. However, individual passions about particular ministries, missions, and parish structures vary. Thankfully, God calls each of us to a unique faith journey. Illustratively, some persons deepen their faith through the four-year Education for Ministry program. Others find a deeper faith by attending Sunday adult forums or Bible workshops. Similarly, some persons find preparing feeding the homeless, working with children and youth, aiding Family Promise of Hawaii, or supporting another mission integral to their faith journey. Together, our separate efforts, like the parts of a body, comprise a whole.
In London about 200 years ago, when the umbrella first appeared on streets, religious groups were irate. They tried to have the new contraption banned. Their argument was simple: "Man is interfering with heavenly design by not getting wet."[3] Living for two years in London taught me the value of a good umbrella.
Jesus never prescribed certain ministries, missions, or structures. Over time, the need for, interest in, and support of various ministries, missions, and structures changes. A new rector’s arrival, with her unique personality, gifts, and priorities, is a good time to assess existing efforts and programs, pruning those whose sale by date has expired and adding new ones to rejuvenate and energize our faith.
Third, embrace liturgical changes and maybe gain a fresh appreciation for our worship. Paul wrote about Christians who worship on different days, either the Jewish Sabbath or the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. A new priest inevitably brings her or his own liturgical emphases and style.
A tourist visited the home of a world-renowned Rabbi. The visitor expected to see an impressive home filled with valuable treasures. Instead, the visitor saw a humble, almost empty home. The shocked tourist asked, “Where are your possessions?” The Rabbi responded, “Where are yours?” “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “So am I,” the Rabbi replied.
When we possess the liturgy, the liturgy becomes an idol. Instead, regard inevitable if still unknown liturgical changes and spiritual emphases as an opportunity for the liturgy to possess you and for the Spirit to move in your life in new and unexpected ways. As industrialist and inventor Charles Kettering said, "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress."
Fourth and finally, agree to disagree and forgive real or perceived slights. Paul exhorted the Romans to not pass judgment on one another. The gospel emphasizes our duty to forgive one another without limit. St Clements’ new rector, with your help and God’s, will continue to build on the foundation and achievements of St Clements under the leadership of Kate, Liz, and prior rectors.
When Navy CDR Alan Shepherd, the first American to enter space, was getting for his first space flight, a reporter asked him, "What are you depending on in this flight?"  He replied, "I'm depending on the fact that God's laws will not change."
Be assured that God is and will remain at the heart of St Clements. God will continue to feed and sustain you through the sacrament of Holy Communion; God’s spirit will give you the strength, courage, wisdom, and love to move into the next chapter of St Clements’ existence, drawing you and your new rector, Heather, the parish of St Clements, and those to whom you minister ever deeper into God’s love and the abundant life that is ours in Christ.

[1] Matthew 18:21-35.
[2] Romans 14:1-12.
[3] Neil Eskelin, Yes Yes Living in a No No World (New Jersey: Logos International, 1980), p. 18.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The myth of the American gunslinger culture

Christopher Knowlton in his book, Cattle Kingdom (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) wrote:
In fact, most cowboys did not carry weapons at all. If they did own an expensive six-shooter, it was likely the Colt Single-Action Army, introduced in 1873 and known as 'the Peacemaker.' Its price -- a hundred dollars per pair -- would have been a huge amount of money for a cowboy. The cowboy who did own a revolver usually kept it in his bedroll because a loaded six-shooter worn around the waist was both cumbersome and heavy when riding or walking. And most cowboys knew that wearing a six-shooter in a cattle town was an invitation to gunplay; most preferred to avoid altercations. Cowboys tended to settle a dispute with a fistfight. A revolver was best used to kill snakes, put wounded animals out of their misery, or signal for help. As Leon Clare Metz wrote in The Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters, 'The image of the ordinary Western cowboy as a fast and accurate gun-fighter has practically no validity.'
Knowlton’s research reveals that far fewer people were killed than is commonly imagined:
Even in Dodge City's worst year, 1878, only five men died in gunfights. The historian Robert Dykstra counted only forty-five homicides in all of the Kansas cattle towns during the cattle era, an annual average of 1.5 homicides. Thirty-nine were from shotguns, and only six from handguns.
Knowlton even observes that some cowboys disliked guns.
Popular contemporary images of the West as a dangerous place in which almost every man was armed have their roots in late nineteenth “dime novels” written by Ned Buntline and others than in actual fact.
Sadly, those false myths about some of the cowboy origins of the US gun culture currently play out in harmful ways. Contrary to popular thinking, widespread gun ownership results in high, easily preventable rates of accidental gunshot wounds (especially by and to children) and deaths (especially in domestic violence incidents).

Jesus was a pacifist who exhorted his disciples to turn the other cheek. In exceptional circumstances, the Christian tradition justifies minimum use of lethal violence to defend others, not one’s self, e.g., to end the Holocaust. Given the more accurate picture of the Old West provided by Knowlton, now is a good time for Christian citizens to rid themselves of handguns and other weapons not used for hunting.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Christians refuse to discriminate against LGBQT persons

A group of religious-right activists just released a new theological statement condemning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and purporting to excommunicate Christians who affirm them.
The so-called "Nashville Statement" not only claims that "it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism" - it says that "such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness."
This statement is making headlines and causing deep pain for LGBT people, so it's time to stand up and show how many Christians repudiate this hateful theology.
As the Episcopal Cafe's Managing Editor, Jon M. White, has noted:
There is no need to counter their statement point by point. It is rooted, in its entirety, in a view of God that denies God’s creative action, that denies the blessedness of all creation, and that ignores Jesus’ own command to love God with our whole selves and likewise to love our neighbors. As well, their beliefs and statements deny God’s own statement that judgment is God’s alone. I do not believe we will be reproved for loving too much, for being too merciful, or for working strenuously to widen the circle of God’s people.

The Nashville Statement was released with 244 signers, but as of right now a whopping 26,000 plus Christians have signed on to reject it. Follow this link to add your name to those who object.