Thursday, April 17, 2014

Campaign contributions, the unemployed, and voting


The affluent use their campaign contributions to buy political influence in two ways legally. First, campaign contributions may buy access to a politician. The politician may invite large donors to special events at which the donor will have an opportunity to express his/her views to the politician. Individuals may also initiate a request to meet personally or through a paid lobbyist with a politician, a request much more likely to receive a favorable response if the requester is a major campaign contributor.

Second, large donors may seek out candidates to support based upon the candidate's position on issues of interest to the donor. Tory Newmyer, in his lengthy article, "Why Mitch McConnell Really Matters" (Fortune, April 7, 2014, pp. 92-100) describes this approach as "investing" in an election (p. 98). Only if a donor expects, or at least hope, to influence an election's outcome in a way that will lead to greater profits can one accurately describe a political contribution as an "investment."

As a Christian ethicist, I think that reducing political contributions and involvement to questions of personal interest is morally deficient. Politics should be about communal rather than personal well-being. This, at a minimum, is one clear message in Jesus' last meal with the disciples and his death on the cross.

Self-abnegation is not necessary. Every person is worthy of self-respect and the community should value all of its members equally.

However, a political system that allows excessively large political contributions (e.g., $4 million spread across numerous candidates and organizations) is a system that values the wealthy more than it values persons of average or below-average wealth.

For example, Jana Kasperkevic ("The ghosts of America's long-term unemployed," The Guardian, March 27, 2014) identifies an often unseen group of people, most of whom have significant economic problems. These are the 3.8 million people out of work for more than six months. Research by the Brookings Institute indicates that about a third will permanently leave the workforce; another third, after more than fifteen months of unemployment, are still looking for work; and only 10% have returned to full-time employment. Long-term unemployment will potentially create an underclass, impose significant economic costs on the larger society, and greatly diminish the self-esteem and happiness of the unemployed. What political access or influence do the long-term unemployed have? What assurance do we have that our political system will work for their benefit?

The North Carolina 2014 election cycle begins with primary voting on May 6. The 2014 primaries will occur on other dates in various states. The primaries are a prelude to the general election on November 4, 2014.

Voter turnout in years in which there is not a presidential election (i.e., years such as 2014) is generally very low. This presents a good opportunity to influence the election's outcome. Perpetuating gridlock in Washington may be strongly preferable to a US Senate and House both controlled by a single party, with incumbents in whom the wealthy have large and disproportionate "investments." Your vote is a low-cost opportunity (only your time and travel to your polling place) to help the wealthy earn a negative return on their "investments."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Singing the Lord's Song: Justice and the Church


Owen Thomas was first a physicist and then a theologian in the Anglican tradition. He is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Additionally, he has taught at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as president of the American Theological Society.

His credentials caused me to pause when I read the following in an article he authored:

The presence of the reign of God is a matter primarily of outward signs and actions rather than the progress and perfection of the inner life. The focus of the reign of God is primarily on public, communal, political, economic, and historical life rather than on private interior life. The traditional emphasis in Christian ascetical theology on interiority has led the Church in its mission to focus primarily on private, emotional, and family life to the exclusion of public, work, and political life. ("Interiority and Christian Spirituality," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan 2000), 59)

Lest one succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the primacy of the external over the interior for Christian spirituality with an ad hominem attack (e.g., what else should one expect from a physicist?), Thomas' justification for his conclusion is worth considering. He argues that Christians splitting the spirit from the body and assigning priority to the former is odds at with the totality of our tradition. Jewish spirituality emphasized the unity of body and spirit. The Gospel of John echoed that message by prominently declaring that the Word became flesh. Thomas stands in good company. Contemporary historians of Christian spirituality like Urban Holmes share Thomas' assessment that Christian spirituality rightly emphasizes the external over the interior.

Lent is an especially appropriate season in which to revisit this insight. In Lent many of us pay extra attention to our spiritual journeys (this is good). However, we tend to interiorize this focus seeking to identify the breaks in our relationship with God and to become more attuned to God's presence through more time in prayer and study. We may choose a spiritual discipline designed to help us in that achieving those goals, even using nominally outward oriented disciplines such as fasting or helping others to improve our interior life. Inadvertently, perhaps unintentionally, we further divorce the spirit from the body, as the spiritual slowly becomes ever more synonymous with the interior life (this is not so good).

Over the last few decades, I have listened as numerous Episcopalians – as well as persons from other Christian traditions – criticized the Episcopal Church's seeming preoccupation with social justice and human rights to the exclusion of evangelism, prayer, etc. Perhaps one source of this criticism has been that we have failed to express our concern for social justice and human rights effectively and consistently in Christian language. Assuredly, a second source of this criticism has been the widespread preoccupation with interiority that Thomas noted.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has made enormous strides towards more fully incarnating God's justice. Although far from perfect, we more clearly stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation. We seek to welcome all, regardless of income, political affiliation, or theological/liturgical distinctions. With each step we have taken in these directions, others and I have discerned God's presence and activity in our midst.

Now, I hear God calling us to sing another stanza in the Lord's song. This stanza has us:

  • Bringing good news to the poor (e.g., working to create a strong social safety net and to ensure all have quality, affordable healthcare while questioning the justice of an economic system that allows one corporation to buy another for $2 billion when the latter has no marketable product, let alone made a profit),
  • Proclaiming release to the captives (e.g., campaigning to free hundreds of thousands from among the millions incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons),
  • Helping the blind recover their sight (e.g., teaching people to see as God sees),
  • And liberating the oppressed (e.g., aiding the victims of addiction, wounded warriors returning home with unrecognized psychic and moral injuries, and opposing tyranny, slavery, and exploitation everywhere).

Such is the year of the Lord's favor.

This is not a ministry of ashes on the street, which is sadly more often theater than a ministry of enduring substance. Singing the Lord's song is a ministry of transformation, of awkwardly, perhaps even uncertainly, living into a new reality, the Kingdom of God on earth. In singing the Lord's song, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus, doing as they did, not foretelling the future, but discerning God at work in the world establishing justice, embracing with love, and empowering for life.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Simplicity AND Complexity


Writers about the spiritual life often advocate simplicity. Richard Foster's book, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World, brings together many of those thoughts and is worth reading.

This anecdote highlights one reason simplicity is important:

A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures. However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions,” he asks in astonishment. The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?”; “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “I am too,” the Rabbi replied.

And simplicity can invite us, lead us, toward the divine:

Too often it is we who won’t let life be simple. Why must we squeeze it and bite it and slam it against what we’ve convinced ourselves are our great powers of reason? We violate the innocence of things in the name of rationality so we can wander about, uninterrupted, in our search for passion and sentiment. Let the inexplicable sit sacred. (Marlena De Blasi, A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance, Kindle Loc. 402-5)

However, complexity is also valuable and essential. Philosophers as diverse as John Rawls and Aristotle have recognized that complexity can add texture, richness, and enjoyment to life.

Theologian Mark C. Taylor recommends embracing complexity as the first component of a post-absolutist theological ethic. The other three elements are promoting cooperation as much as competition, accepting volatility, and cultivating uncertainty. (Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 356-358)

Perhaps most importantly and surprisingly, complexity rather than simplicity brings stability to the cosmos and may thus (like simplicity) reveal the presence of the divine. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich has written:

… we have both observational and theoretical reasons to believe that the general principle holds: complexity is an important factor in producing stability. Complex communities, such as the deciduous forests that cover much of the eastern United States, persist year after year if man does not interfere with them … A cornfield, which is a man-made stand of a single kind of grass, has little natural stability and is subject to almost instant ruin if it is not constantly managed by man. (P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich, Population, resources, and environment (San Francisco: Freeman, 1970), p. 159)

Discerning the path of life – an excellent Lenten discipline – consists in some considerable measure of knowing when to choose simplicity and when to choose complexity.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Are zombies for real?


Zombies – corpses that are theoretically dead but still act as if partially alive – are popular today, featured in the TV series, The Walking Dead. In my sermon on John 11, I suggest that Jesus taught that most of us are zombies but that restoration to the fullness of life is possible. To read more, follow this link.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Noah


The biblical story of Noah is told in Genesis 6-10. The story is a complex narrative, consisting of multiple strands woven together that embody multiple layers of meaning.

In other words, the story is exactly what I expect from one of the oldest portions of the Bible. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, consists of materials from at least four different streams of tradition. Each tradition had a lengthy period of oral transmission that preceded the written version. The written versions were redacted, edited, and combined over several hundred years.

Furthermore, the ancient story of a flood that destroys the known earth is common to a great many people, e.g., the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh bears striking parallels to the biblical story of Noah.

Some Christians naively attempt to harmonize the existence of these various flood stories, pointing to them as evidence for the truth of the Bible's historical record. Unfortunately, no archaeological or geological evidence of a global flood exists. In other words, the story lacks the essential corroborating evidence that one would expect to find if the flood had been an actual historical event.

Alternatively, Christians more constructively join most Jews in regarding the story of Noah as a myth, i.e., a story that reveals insights into life or God rather than reporting factual history. This approach interprets the story's details in light of information about the story's historical origins, its transmission, and its literary form. This approach then sets that interpretation in the wider context of the interpreter's faith tradition to discern what meaning the story might have for people today.

In other words, the story of Noah (like all Scripture) is a window through which we seek to perceive God's light. In this way, the story is a work of art, similar to a painting, poem, sculpture – or movie.

The outrage that some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have expressed over the new film "Noah" which stars Russell Crowe has achieved only one thing: free publicity for the film. This is similar to the outcry over Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, evoked because the book hypothesized that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife.

I don't read a novel expecting to find a faithful, insightful, and straightforward exegesis of the Bible. I don't go to the movies for any of those, either. I read novels and watch movies because in the artistic license of their creators, I sometimes experience the story from a fresh perspective and gain new insights about our world, humans, and – occasionally – about God. I never fault creative spirits for taking liberties with a story when they, by virtue of their medium, implicitly identify their word as art, i.e., fiction that may let the light shine through.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Government employment


A few weeks ago, a subscriber to Ethical Musings raised some interesting questions about government employment:

  • Government salaries/wages too high? Pensions too generous?
  • Are government jobs sinecures?
  • What's wrong with the government bureaucracy? What can we do to fix it?

Those questions prompted these musings.

First, civil service systems (e.g., in the United States and United Kingdom) emerged as a way to insulate government employees from the worst vagaries of political influence and to improve the quality of services provided to the public. A civil service in which an elected government can replace all of the employees will tend to attract ideologues and incompetents. Competent, career-minded potential employees will generally choose to avoid the uncertain, temporary nature of a job in which tenure depends upon an uncertain political outcome.

Second, many government functions require a reasonable level of competence, knowledge, and perhaps experience. Obvious examples include positions involved in testing new drugs, formulating regulations pertaining to public safety, law enforcement, and financial management. In other words, the preponderance of government positions require more from incumbents than the type of skills, knowledge, and competence associated with most low wage, manual labor jobs. Increased reliance on computers is substantially reducing the number of clerical employees, which results in a diminishing number of low wage, low skill government jobs.

Third, growing numbers of people regard government employment unfavorably, a change especially noticeable in the United Kingdom. This diminishes the status of government employees, making it more difficult to attract highly qualified individuals and thus making compensation more important in an individual's decision to accept (or reject) a government job. Ironically, the civil service systems created to insulate employees from inappropriate political influence have now made it difficult for elected leaders to exert appropriate guidance (e.g., civil servants may simply engage in delaying tactics until a new incumbent arrives) and for the exceptionally competent to rise speedily within the organization.

Fourth, most government programs and offices have external constituencies with some measure of political influence. These external constituencies, widely known as special interest groups, seek to use the government program or office to achieve the group's agenda. Consequently, eliminating redundant, anachronistic, inefficient, or undesirable programs, policies, etc., is exceptionally difficult. In the U.S., political gridlock exacerbates these problems. Bureaucratic inertia contributes to these problems everywhere.

Fifth, political pressures, potential media interest, and external interest groups all create an environment for government unlike anything found in the private sector. Not only is there generally zero tolerance for fraud, waste, or abuse but the outward appearance of any of those is not tolerated. Businesses, for example, will generally weigh the cost of reducing fraud, waste, and abuse against the cost of prevention. Thus, a business will not spend $10 to avoid the risk of losing $1. Governments do.

Sixth, job security, intended to insulate personnel from inappropriate political pressures, has had the unintended consequence of deemphasizing job performance. This can sap employee morale and make terminating employment of the occasional misfit or incompetent so costly that management may avoid taking those steps even in the most egregious situations.

What can we do to improve government?

  1. Rationalize management. For example, let's accept fraud, waste, and abuse when the cost of prevention exceeds potential benefits. The real cost of our current approach to prevention is to make government more costly and less responsive.
  2. Raise the status of civil servants. Serving the public interest is highly honorable, something as true for civil servants as military personnel. Most civil servants I have known, in both the US and the UK, wanted to perform well in serving the public good.
  3. Improve the civil service system to make hiring, firing, and promoting individuals easier. Yesterday's ills are not today's problems.
  4. Give managers more latitude to determine optimal methods for achieving the goals and outcomes set by elected or appointed political leadership.

Collectively, these changes will improve the conditions of government employment and make that employment more satisfying, attracting a higher caliber employee.

Government salaries, pensions, and other benefits have historically helped to raise employment compensation standards. Today, government compensation – for senior managers – is far below what comparable civilian posts pay. Raising this compensation to competitive levels will attract some of a nation's best and brightest, improving the quality of government.

Conversely, government compensation for many other workers offers a pension plan that is unaffordable and unrealistic because the plan is premised on both a shorter working life and total lifespan than people have in the twenty-first century. Fixing the pension plan without concurrently addressing the other issues will simply compound existing problems.

Grand pronouncements about cutting government waste or size are not the answer. Citizens rightly value the vast majority of the services that government provides. The challenge is to improve quality, enhance efficiency, and cut costs – all of which are possible.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bring this terrorist to the U.S. - NOW!

A military review board on March 5, 2014 decided that Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi should remain indefinitely in U.S. custody in the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Al Rahabi, a Yemeni citizen, was one of the first detainees incarcerated at Guantánamo, arriving there in 2002.

The review board decided that if returned to Yemen, al Rahabi, who served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and who has ties with the current al Qaeda leaders, would pose a threat to U.S. safety. I'm willing to accept that conclusion as a realistic assessment. In my experience, most of our military and national security personnel are dedicated professionals who attempt to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

So why bring al Rahabi to the United States?

We owe it to ourselves to give him his day in court. I believe in our judicial system. Our courts have tried and convicted over 200 terrorists since 9/11. I believe in our law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, etc.). They can reliably ensure that al Rahabi remains securely in federal custody. I believe in the American people. Most of us do not panic at the mere mention of terrorism; most of us share my confidence in our judiciary and law enforcement. A terrorist incarcerated in a federal maximum security prison poses no more threat to any of us than the same prisoner incarcerated at Guantánamo poses. If you doubt that, then let's create new federal prisons aboard military bases especially for accused and convicted terrorists.

When we refuse to give someone like al Rahabi his day in court, we communicate in no uncertain terms that not only do we not trust our judiciary and law enforcement agencies, we also do not believe in our Constitution and the legal system that it establishes. One of the reasons that the colonists rebelled against Great Britain was that the colonists believed nobody should be arrested without knowing why, without a right to a speedy trial by jury, and without rights that included access to an attorney and not having to incriminate one's self.

I, for one, still want to live in a country that prizes those rights. We have a sad legacy of prisoners held at Guantánamo who did not receive those rights. We as a nation hold them at Guantánamo precisely because we do not want to give them their rights. National security authorities believe that probably a quarter of the persons held at Guantánamo are innocent of any major crime, wrongly caught up in the war on terror launched in the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere.

For prisoners against whom the government can make a reasonable case, let's bring them to the U.S. and try them in our courts. We have the best justice system in the world. Keeping a prisoner at Guantánamo costs the taxpayer $800,000 per year, a number that will only increase, e.g., the prison there now needs expensive, major renovations.

Next, let's set our mistakes right. The world is a dangerous place. Yielding to fear does not make the world any safer. In the short-run, releasing prisoners at Guantánamo believed innocent of major crimes and prisoners the U.S. probably cannot convict in a federal court because the evidence against those prisoners was obtained illegally will make the world a slightly more dangerous place. In the long-term, releasing those prisoners will demonstrate to the world that the U.S. really is a country of laws that respect human rights, a move that will do immeasurably more to bolster U.S. national interests abroad and reduce the terror threat.

Finally, al Rahabi may be a terrorist who wants me dead. However, I am a Christian and therefore am committed to treating him as a human being who should have the same rights that I enjoy. Let's give him justice; it's the right thing to do.