Monday, December 22, 2014

And a star led them

In the couple of weeks before Christmas, a number of events worth noting have occurred:

  • After an exchange of prisoners, facilitated by Pope Francis, President Obama decided to recognize the government of Cuba, changing a policy of non-recognition that dates back to the Cuban revolution. This move predictably angered conservatives, but recognizes that non-recognition has failed to advance US interests and to undermine the Castro regime.
  • In the aftermath of hackers accessing Sony's corporate files and emails, which led to an unsubstantiated threat of violence against persons who dared to attend the soon to be released film, "Interview," many major theater chains have declined to show the film. Their refusal to show the film represents an unabashed act of cowardice, caving to a threat that is tantamount to censorship. An essential antidote to terror threats is courageous resilience on the part of those threatened, demonstrated by bravely persevering with one's life. Conversely, by acquiescing to the threat, the theater chains cede victory to the terrorists and invite similar threats in the future.
  • The Episcopal Church has released a report on its proposed restructuring and the Church of England has nominated its first woman bishop (she will be consecrated January 26, 2015).

Now, you may be wondering, what do these events have to do with the gospel narratives of Jesus' birth?

First, the gospel narrative moves the story of God's loving acts on earth forward, adding a new chapter that emphasizes God's presence in humanity. A modern analogue of that emphasis is evident in two nation states, separated by only 90 miles of ocean, once again taking steps to cultivate a positive, healthy relationship.

Second, the gospel narrative is a story of an uncertain, hazardous existence in which the protagonists persevere. For example, Herod not only threatened to kill the baby Jesus but also actually attempted to do so, prompting Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to flee to Egypt.

Third, whatever the actual events of Jesus' birth, it almost certainly went unnoticed. The Episcopal Church needs to simplify its governance, investing more time and energy in mission and less in internal matters. The Church of England should have consecrated its first woman bishop decades (centuries?) ago. Yet few people, other than Anglicans, will care about either change. God's actions in our midst rarely if ever attract the global media spotlight.

This Christmas, when I see stars in the sky or as part of holiday decorations, I remember with thankfulness that God is at work in our uncertain, unsafe world, in ways that most often go unnoticed and pray that I, like the shepherds, may see and rejoice.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just Counterterrorism

Terror attacks and threats remain at frustratingly high levels even though governments continue to spend enormous sums on counterterrorism operations by the police, armed forces, and other agencies. The seemingly intractable problem of terrorism often leads people to believe that terrorism has no solution. The actual difficulty is that terrorism has no widely accepted definition. Government officials, scholars, the media, and the public all indiscriminately conflate the violence of non-state terror groups, insurgents, mass murderers, and harsh, non-democratic states into the single problem labeled terrorism.

Good problem solving begins by carefully defining the problem to be solved. My new book, Just Counterterrorism, defines terrorism as violence by non-state actors against innocent people for political purposes. This definition circumscribes a distinct problem for which solutions exist. Just Counterterrorism then analyzes what terrorists want, how terror groups end, and why law enforcement and warfighting models are both inadequate for shaping effective, ethical counterterrorism. These analyses explain the need for a new counterterrorism model that is comprehensive, effective, ethical, and flexible.

The proposed Just Counterterrorism Model's components—Justice for the Attacked, Justice for Terrorists, and Justice for Others—comprehensively address the problem of non-state terrorism. Each component includes a set of criteria for ethically assessing or shaping counterterrorism strategy and tactics regardless of a terror group's composition, ideology, or geography. John Rawls' concept of justice as fairness pervasively informs the Just Counterterrorism Model. Numerous examples, primarily from US and Israeli counterterrorism, mini case studies of extraordinary rendition and targeted killing, and a fuller case study of British counterterrorism in Northern Ireland, demonstrate the Model's potential for shaping effective counterterrorism.

Justice for the Attacked explores how communities when attacked or threatened by non-state terrorists can best respond to minimize terrorist gains in an attack's aftermath and to defend against future attacks. Justice for Terrorists outlines protocols for states to follow in apprehending terrorists where the rule of law prevails, interdicting them elsewhere, and adjudicating and punishing those arrested or captured. Justice for Others sketches the moves that states can implement to sever the vital connections between a terror group and the constituency or constituencies that enable the terror group to pose a viable threat.

Read Just Counterterrorism and discover that effective counterterrorism must be ethical (e.g., torture only makes the problem of terrorism worse), depends upon those attacked responding virtuously, and addresses the underlying problems.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Out of step or marching to a different drummer?

The 12 days of Christmas
Which of these metaphors – out of step or marching to a different drummer – best describes the Church?

Personally, I want the Church to march to a different drummer. The drumbeat that we hopefully seek to hear is the drumbeat of God's Spirit calling us to embody a radically Christian ethic. In particular, the Church follows in Jesus' footsteps by incarnating an ethic of love and care for creation, i.e., practicing a radical hospitality that welcomes all equally and simpler living.

Marching to a different drummer does not connote Christian superiority or exclusivity. Instead, the metaphor connotes Christian uniqueness, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, yet affirming of others who march to their own drummers, following other paths to God, perhaps sometimes intersecting or even sharing the Jesus path.

Marching to a different drummer also does not connote a militant understanding of the gospel. I chose the metaphor in spite of that unfortunate association because the metaphor resonates with my lengthy military service and because of our cultural familiarity with it.

However, I'm afraid that too often we equate the metaphor of being out of step with that of marching to a different drummer. On the one hand, I want the Church to be out of step with our social context because we hear a different drummer (i.e., God's Spirit) and live in ways that constructively differentiate us from others. Unfortunately, statistical evidence relevant to that claim is decidedly mixed. For example, Christians live longer but may have a higher divorce rate.

On the other hand, I don't want the Church to be out of step with our social context because we have become fixated on adiaphora, indifferent things of no ultimate value. Each year, Christmas decorations, music, and advertising appear earlier than they did the previous year. Each year, I hear Christian lamentations about rushing the Christmas season, skipping Advent, and ignoring Thanksgiving. This year, I suddenly realized that these laments are all about adiaphora.

Giving thanks is good, but the holiday of Thanksgiving, regardless of its origin, is really a civic rather than religious feast. I use the word feast intentionally: the average American consumes 4500 calories at Thanksgiving dinner. Interest in sporting events and shopping dwarfs interest in thanking God for one's blessings. Surveys show that fewer than half of all Americans who eat Thanksgiving dinner take time to express their gratitude to God or one another.

The Bible is silent about Advent. The Church created Advent as a season of preparation for its celebration of Jesus' birth. Why have four weeks of Advent? Why not have eight weeks? Maybe the season of Christmas should begin the Sunday after All Saints Day and culminate on December 25. We could then celebrate Epiphany the following Sunday. After all, the early Church took a pagan feast and baptized it, transforming it into the feast of Jesus' nativity. Those early Christians recognized that marching to a different drummer does not always require being out of step with society.

Changing the ecclesiastical year, especially in a Church like ours, would require overcoming significant inertia and major administrative hurdles. The Church, by getting in step with when its neighbors start talking about Christmas, might seem more relevant to people who have no religious preference or who identify as spiritual but not religious.

Alternatively, fiddling with the ecclesiastical year might waste too much time and energy. The change, for better or worse, would further distinguish Episcopalians from Roman Catholics and other Western Christians who observe the liturgical year. In any event, the date of Christmas, as well as the length of Advent and Christmas, is unimportant.

The Church too often focuses on adiaphora. I don't care when Advent starts or how long it lasts. Neither being in nor out of step on those issues communicates clearly and loudly the rhythm of the different drummer to whose beat God calls us to march. So I am very happy to have others, whether ecclesiastical or civic authorities, decide those issues.

Instead, I want to focus on the important stuff, the stuff that really matters to people who are trying to follow the drumbeat of God's Spirit. I think Pope Francis gets this and that is why so many Roman Catholics experience Francis' leadership as a breath of fresh air. I sharply disagree with Roman Catholic teachings on many theological and ethical issues; I doubt that Francis will change these teachings. However, he recognizes that in marching to the drumbeat of God's Spirit the Roman Catholic Church must embody a Christ-like love. His predecessor's emphasis on rigidly and incessantly proclaiming more contentious Roman Catholic teachings frequently put the Roman Church needlessly and unhelpfully out of step with society. We should try to stay in step with culture unless getting out of step is an unavoidable consequence of marching to the different drumbeat of God's Spirit.

The next decade seems likely to be critical for The Episcopal Church's future. We have journeyed through challenging times defined by our increasing commitment to social justice and the full inclusivity of all God's people within the Church. The move has been costly and Episcopalians increasingly live on society's margin. Will we slowly fade into oblivion, out of step but not really marching to a different drummer? Alternatively, will we, hearing the drumbeat of God's Spirit ever more clearly and loudly, move confidently into a new era in which our congregations are centers of life abundant life, radiating God's light and love, transforming their neighbors and the surrounding communities?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Our problem with authority

We Episcopalians frequently have problems with ecclesiastical authority. Here's some anecdotal evidence:

  • Clergy and laity do not want bishops (or, for that matter, any other person or group such as a Canon to the Ordinary or Executive Council) providing authoritative guidance. At every General Convention, diocesan convention, or clergy gathering that I attend, I detect an undercurrent of suspicion directed toward our bishops. Admittedly, a few bishops are inappropriately authoritarian. The suspicion, however, extends to all bishops.
  • When I mention to a clergyperson or layperson that I think we have a problem with authority, the person invariably agrees.
  • The recent brouhaha at General Seminary was at least partially a conflict over authority.
  • Debates about denominational restructuring are frequently couched in the language of power and authority.

More troubling, we Episcopalians often have a problem with biblical authority. We're sure (or at least the vast majority of us are sure) that we reject biblical literalism and idolatry. However, we're often unsure in what sense the Bible is authoritative or how to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Our denominational disputes over questions such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage reflect this uncertainty and unease with the Bible's authority.

Some of the roots of our discomfort with authority are readily apparent. Stories of clergy abused by a bishop are legion. Seminarians are trained to approach both the Bible and life with a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking, in part, who is exercising power and who stands to benefit from that exercise of power. This emulates important aspects of Jesus' ministry in which he challenged the destructive economic, political, and religious power structures of first century Palestine. Yet this also can breed distrust within the Church. Although we are a connectional Church, congregationalism dominates the American religion scene and increasingly taints The Episcopal Church (TEC). Post-moderns increasingly distrust authority, associating it with a proclivity to corrupt, oppress, and exploit.

Let's be honest. Authority is a form of power. And, like it or not, authority has a place in the Church.

In the absence of authority, we would cease to be both connectional and a Church. In the Navy, I met many Christians (and a fair number of chaplains) who had no understanding of what it means to have a connectional polity. They regard the Church as a gathering of independent, local congregations that have only a nominal (or no) direct relationship with one another. The most extreme version of this idea that I encountered was a chaplain who refused to conduct Communion services with anyone in the military because he believed the only permissible setting for Holy Communion was the local congregation of which he was a member.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, congregationalism becomes individualism: each person is the ultimate arbiter of right thinking, behavior, and relationships. In one respect, individualism is unavoidable because no organization or person can dictate what another person thinks or does. In another respect, however, radical individualism displaces Jesus from the very center of Christian life. This type of radical individualism is anarchistic and therefore anti-communal. Any commitment to be together requires a common ordering of communal life incompatible with radical individualism.

John's image of Jesus as the vine and his people as the vine's branches and Paul's image of Christians as the constituent parts of Christ's body are both inherently connectional. In both images, life flows through Jesus to us. It changes and invigorates us, i.e., the flow has a transformative, authoritative power because it is a metaphor for God at work in us.

One option for ordering our common life as the body of Christ is to make decisions based upon mutual consent. The Quakers have traditionally opted for this approach. Much can be said in favor of consensus, but two key disadvantages are that consensus generally requires a great deal of time to achieve and the larger the group, the longer time required. The largely dysfunctional US Senate, with its rules on filibustering and cloture, reflects problems intrinsic to requiring consensus. In some ecclesial situations, I value consensus; as a rule, I find consensus keeps Church groups from taking timely and effective action.

Another option for ordering our common life as Christ's body is to entrust decisions to an authoritative hierarchy. Few Anglicans, regardless of how much they admire aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, want to be part of a branch of Christianity that has such an authoritative (even authoritarian!) hierarchy.

So, we Episcopalians and TEC, as good Anglicans, seek a middle way. We do not want anarchy, nor consensus (we may pay the ideal lip service, but our actions indicate that we think the cost of always reaching consensus far too high), nor an authoritative hierarchy.

To find and then walk a middle way, we can beneficially:

  • Cherish our theological diversity. In the Anglican tradition, our unity depends upon common prayer and not uniformity of belief. Thankfully, we have mostly abandoned prior generations' efforts to enforce doctrinal conformity.
  • Invest time in developing strong connections. Being a connectional church is costly. The cost that receives the most attention is the money that flows from local congregations to the diocese and from dioceses to the national church. However, the more important cost, all too frequently ignored, is the time required to develop and sustain real connections across congregational and diocesan boundaries. If I spend no time with Episcopalians who are not part of my congregation, then my sense of connection is strictly notional rather than actual. Dioceses typically have a companion diocese in another province of the Anglican Communion. Dioceses could also have companion dioceses within TEC. Similarly, our congregations could engage in real mission partnerships with adjoining TEC congregations. I am willing to bet that currently less than one percent of Episcopalians have any direct involvement or knowledge of either their diocese or the national church. When was the last time that your congregation or diocese initiated a joint meal (aka the Eucharist) with another congregation or diocese? Having failed to spend (invest) the time required to become a connectional Church, we are now reaping a harvest of discontent and disinterest.
  • Stop sweating the small stuff (and it's all, or mostly all, small stuff). Ultimately, TEC, its clergy, and its congregations have little real power. Our unity is more valuable than our differences. We cannot prevent God from acting; we cannot start a war (I'd like to think that we could stop a war, but doubt that we have that much power); we're not going to solve any of the world's major problems in the next triennium (or even three millennia). Therefore, let's value our unity and color our inevitable conflicts with the warm hues of love and mutual respect.
  • Trust those with whom we pray to make good decisions. In healthy, functional couples, each partner makes some of the couple's decisions unilaterally, usually based upon expertise and interest; the couple makes a minority of their decisions jointly. Some couples intentionally choose who will make which decision; other couples establish the pattern of their decision-making more informally. Over time, as circumstances change, the pattern of decision-making will also change. A similar pattern should exist within a healthy, functional community: not every member has an interest in every decision; involving everyone in every decision is too costly and cumbersome; the pattern of decision-making needs to change as circumstances change. My sense is both that TEC's pattern of decision-making has remained stagnant too long and now is out of sync with circumstances and that too few Episcopalians trust one another to make good decisions about our common life. Furthermore, most of our contentious denominational issues, viewed from the broad perspective of God's creation, is small stuff. Generally, the fight is over resources. That battle masks the real problem, our weak commitment to the mission of Christ, our dioceses, and our national church that manifests itself in terms of a low level of proportional giving.
  • Retain only the minimum levels of ecclesial authority compatible with being a connectional Church. What ministries and missions are only possible when we work together? What ministries and missions are best achieved cooperatively? What organizational structures, invested with what authority, will most effectively and efficiently accomplish those ministries and missions? For example, common prayer requires an authoritative set of practices (words and action), i.e., a set of practices actually required and used. This set can encompass a healthy, broad diversity but imposes some limits, e.g., our scriptures are the Bible and not the Koran or the Teachings of the Buddha. Setting these limits does not exalt our practices or demean those of others; instead, boundaries create our identity. The Book of Common Prayer's liturgies are too confining; alternatively, allowing bishops, priests, or congregations to develop their own liturgies would quickly erode both our common prayer and connections. We should keep the Book of Common Prayer and supplement it with a large, fluid collection of resources.
  • Adopt an annual Advent discipline of self-examination to discern your personal level of comfort (or discomfort) with authority. The gospel narrative is ultimately a story about authority and power. Genuine dialogue requires participants try to understand their own issues and motivations. To what extent does the authority of Scripture—however understood—grate? Do you read the Bible in the hope that God will illuminate your life and path? When, for this is something we all do, do you read the Bible seeking to find confirmation of what you believe and how you live? When and why do you resent ecclesial authority?