Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Our imperiled democracy


Democracy in the United States, already endangered, took a step closer towards extinction when President Trump declared a national emergency to reprogram federal funds in order to build a border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.

Warning signs that U.S. democracy has been becoming endangered include presidents:

·       Issuing Executive Orders in lieu of obtaining Congressionally passed laws

·       Signing statements that identify portions of new laws that the president believes unconstitutional or which the President states the executive branch will ignore because of policy disagreements, attempting to exercise a line item veto when none exists

·       Refusing to spend authorized funds in another attempt to exercise a non-existent line item veto

·       Waging de facto wars without the Constitutionally required Congressional authorization

Over the second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Presidents have employed those devices – and others – to move government when Congress was either stalemated or the opposition party blocked Congressional action.

Concurrently, economic inequality has been rising sharply, returning to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.

Together, the political dysfunction and economic inequality eerily parallel conditions in ancient Rome prior to the end of its democracy. The poor were kept pacified through distribution of free food. Rome itself was governed by an elected Senate and two consuls. Senators largely came from a recognized wealthy elite. In the face of Senatorial stalemate, senators sympathetic to a consul would vote or figuratively stand aside to allow the consul to exercise greater authority. This increased the power of consuls. The Roman system also allowed appointment of a dictator in an emergency situation. Declared emergencies became more common; consuls acting as dictators gradually seized more power; democracy became increasingly imperiled.

Julius Caesar, returning from wars in Gaul, formed a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. The triumvirate used the combined military power of Pompey and Caesar along with Crassus’ wealth to end Roman democracy.

Although the percent of the population receiving various forms of welfare in the U.S. has remained relatively constant in the last few decades, the percent of people receiving all forms of government assistance (this includes welfare as well as the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, etc.) is rising. Collectively, welfare and other forms of assistance are analogous to first century bread distributions. Both are intended to quiet the poor in the face of staggering economic inequality.

As in Rome, the U.S. Congress is frequently stalemated, regardless of which party controls the House or the Senate.

Meanwhile, authority and power increasingly flow to the executive branch, headed by the President.

Democracy, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution realized, requires a set of checks and balances to prevent any one branch, and any one individual or group of individuals, from acquiring too much power. U.S. democracy is badly bent, heavily tilted in favor of the executive branch.

Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for creating the imbalance, with each successive president since Truman contributing to the imbalance.

Under President Trump, the slide towards tyranny has rapidly gained momentum.

President Trump publicly praises the media and reporters who support him; he castigates media and reporters who oppose him as “fake news,” implicitly redefining truth as what he says rather than as objectively verifiable facts. Indeed, Trump in his public statements and interviews displays little grasp of facts, repeatedly asserting false claims and sometimes contradicting himself. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall rests on several untruths that Trump repeatedly asserts. Contrary to Trump, (1) the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border is declining, not increasing; (2) illegal drugs primarily enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry, not illegal crossings; (3) few violent criminals and even fewer terrorists enter illegally.

Loyalty now trumps fact, pun intended. This is the behavior of a dictator, or would be dictator, not the behavior of a democratic president. Indeed, during the 2016 election Trump declared that he would not accept defeat at the polls. Will he accept defeat in 2020 or, if re-elected, step aside at the end of his second term?

The U.S. Constitution presumes that government will generally act incrementally rather than through the major changes possible in a parliamentary democracy. Incremental change necessitates compromise, something that legislators from both parties increasingly seem unwilling to do (the most recent appropriations that avoided another government shutdown are a noteworthy exception). In the absence of compromise, Congress usually becomes deadlocked. The executive branch then faces an almost irresistible urge to fill the resulting power vacuum, further contributing toward a slide away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

The Christian tradition has long identified pride as the principle human sin. Checks and balances in the federal system are intended to prevent members of any of the three co-equal branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) from becoming excessively arrogant, gather a disproportionate amount of power and thereby unbalancing equality among the branches.

Justice for all has greatly increased in the last seventy years due in significant measure to Christian efforts. Though justice remains imperfect, Christians now need to shift a major part of their focus to protecting democracy in order to preserve those improvements in justice, gains certain to be lost under a dictatorship. Defending democracy is a core, non-negotiable Christian ethic.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Learning to fish for people


Someone was bemoaning the lack of growth in their congregation. One listener responded sympathetically, remarking that "A lot of congregations struggle with that issue." To which the complainer replied, "Yeah, but how many churches do you know that have an unlisted phone number?"[1]

When I look at this congregation, I mostly see familiar faces. What is it that brings you back here to St. Clement’s, Sunday after Sunday?

While reflecting on today’s gospel reading,[2] I identified four factors that collectively explain why I personally return to St. Clement’s Sunday after Sunday. They fit the mnemonic ABC and F, like the familiar grades, except that the goal is to journey from A, B, and Cs to F.

A stands for acceptance. Here, I feel welcomed as who I am, without a need for pretense. In our liturgy, acceptance connotes God’s affirming love and embrace. Over time, I’m becoming part of the parish community. I hope, and pray, that your experience at St. Clement’s is similar. Incidentally, new attendees participating in today’s newcomer’s brunch offers an opportunity to experience that acceptance, community, and affirmation.

Nobody screened the crowd that gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus. Not only was there no security screening, people were not excluded because of education, wealth, gender, ethnicity or religion. The gospels depict Jesus interacting with illiterate peasants and affluent lawyers, both women and men, Samaritans, Syrians, and others, Gentiles as well as Jews. We are called to follow Jesus’ example in genuinely welcoming all, even if we do it imperfectly.

B connotes beauty, pointing also to the joy, hope and sense of wonder that beauty evokes. The Sea of Galilee and the surrounding countryside, even today with the land browner, more barren and drier than in Jesus’ day, is beautiful. I cherish vivid memories of eating fresh, grilled St. Peter’s fish lakeside, watching boats on the lake and people fishing. At least some in the crowd who gathered to hear Jesus teach would have noticed the setting’s natural beauty.

The Episcopal Church generally values beauty, preferring to have beautiful buildings, liturgy, music, vestments, altar vessels, etc. I’ve conducted worship in unusual settings such as a WW2 Quonset hut, aboard a ship, and out in the field using a Humvee’s hood for an altar. But when I conduct worship in a magnificent Christopher Wren chapel, such as the one at Greenwich Royal Naval College in London – even with its elevated, rickety wooden pulpit, or here at St. Clement’s, the setting helps greatly. Our aesthetic sense is one dimension of the human spirit. Enhancing the beauty of the setting, the liturgy, the music, and so forth, helps to create a “thin place” where discerning God’s presence is easier.

C stands for compassion, broadly defined to include both mercy and justice. Jesus attracted people partially because he healed the sick, embraced the outcast, saw beauty in persons society regarded as ugly, and fed the physically and spiritually hungry. Vibrant, growing congregations consistently seek to respond to the needs of the people in their neighborhoods with the love that gives life, promotes justice, liberates, and heals.

Years ago, the captain of a Greenland whaling vessel had a strange experience. One evening, icebergs trapped his ship near the Arctic Circle, and he decided to cast anchor until morning. As the day dawned, he sighted another ship dimly visible through the morning mist. The captain and some of his men in a small boat rowed around icebergs to the mysterious vessel. Boarding, they discovered every crew member dead and frozen stiff. Some lay in their hammocks, others on the deck where they had fallen. The captain was sitting at a table as if writing in the logbook. The log’s last entry, on which the captain's lifeless finger rested, indicated that the ship had been drifting around the Arctic Ocean for 13 years.[3]

Although there are Episcopal churches frozen in time, with no meaningful effort to love anyone, thankfully this parish has numerous initiatives designed to love our neighbors locally and globally. These include programs to feed our hungry neighbors and actively campaigning for Palestinian rights, prison reform, and ecological justice.

Acceptance, beauty, and compassion can be found in the Lion’s Club, social groups, or even a political party. Those are good organizations, but insufficient. I return to St. Clement’s week after week because here I meet, converse, and journey with people on a faith journey toward that mystery we call God. British theologian and philosopher John Cottingham argues that what brings “people to God is not intellectual debates about the transcendent, but the immanent aspects of religion--the transformative power of religious ideas and practice in our human lives and experience."[4]

In the gospel reading, when Jesus finishes teaching, he directs the boatmen to put own to sea again and cast their nets one last time. In spite of unfavorable circumstances – no catch all night, too late in the morning for good fishing – the crews haul in nets full of fish. Astounded, they recognize God’s presence in that moment and in their morning experiences. Repeatedly experiencing God’s presence and activity in their midst attracted the disciples and the crowd to Jesus. Neither acceptance, beauty, nor compassion keeps me, and maybe you, returning to St. Clement’s Sunday after Sunday. Instead, its discerning, even if only occasionally, the light of God’s loving, transformative activity in our midst.

Jesus instructs his disciples that from now on they are to cast their nets for people, not fish. We are the successors, the spiritual descendants, of those disciples. Yet, according to one study, the average Episcopalian invites somebody to church only once every 27 years.[5] We may as well have an unlisted phone number, given that nationally 75-80% of new church members begin attending because someone invited them.[6]

May whatever brings and keeps you returning here – whether the acceptance, beauty, compassion, and shared faith journey that drew me to St. Clement’s or other reasons – also become a catalyst used by the Holy Spirit to move us to reach out to the spiritually hungry, the broken, and victims of injustice who surround us. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019, in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] The Lutheran, Aug. 1993, p. 63.
[2] Luke 5:1-11.
[3] George E Knowles., A World to Love (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1990), p. 265.
[4] John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 112.
[5] The Rev. Christopher C. Moore, “10 Operating Principles of the Church,” The Living Church.
[6] David Kalvelage, “Pretty Nice Folks,” The Living Church, 12 March 2000, 11.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Some musings on moral responsibility


From the window behind the computer at which I write Ethical Musings, I can see the busy intersection at which a speeding driver last week killed three pedestrians and injured five other people. He was fleeing police who had sought to stop him for a prior traffic violation; police also think that the man was driving while intoxicated. Nine lives were inalterably changed, including that of the perpetrator who was seriously injured and now faces multiple manslaughter and other criminal charges.

From late December to early April, I occasionally see humpback whales apparently cavorting and spouting. When whales are spotted offshore, small boats and the two vessels that thrice daily take people out for an excursion and meal at sea congregate. Federal regulations mandate that boats stay a prescribed distance from whales and not otherwise interfere with the whales. Of course, the whales don’t know the federal rules and may violate those rules by approaching a stopped boat too closely. And, the truth is that nobody knows what a whale thinks. From a whale’s perspective, at what distance will a boat not interfere with a whale? Do whales sometimes enjoy humans?

A common thread – responsibility – links those two diverse views.

Determining the drunken driver’s individual responsibility requires ascertaining whether the driver is an alcoholic, a person addicted to alcohol who cannot control her or his drinking. If an alcoholic, then the driver suffers from a disease. One of the twelve steps toward recovery is to take responsibility for those the alcoholic has harmed, including himself. Yet castigating the driver, if he is an addict, for alleged immoral behavior (driving while drunk) may impede rather than aid the driver’s progress toward sobriety. Multiple convictions for driving under the influence is one indicator that points toward addiction. The addict, in any event, must take responsibility for his or her recovery. Being sick is not an excuse for refusing to get well. Alcoholism is a treatable disease.

If the driver is not an alcoholic, determining responsibility is simpler: the driver acted irresponsibly in drinking excessively and then driving while intoxicated. Clear evidence shows a substantial link between driving under the influence and harming others.

In both sets of circumstances, our criminal justice system appropriately holds the driver accountable for his actions. Too often, people regard accountability as the first step toward punishment. More helpfully, accountability is the first step toward treatment for the addict and prevention of further episodes of drunk driving by the addict and non-addict alike. Learning that actions have consequences is vital in either case.

Incidentally, imprisonment in Hawaii costs between fifty and sixty thousand dollars per year per inmate. The median income in Hawaii is about fifty thousand dollars per year. Imprisonment that serves no preventive or deterrent purpose is a costly error because no punitive sentence – imprisonment, execution, or anything else – can restore those killed to life or those injured to their pre-accident health. Tax dollars spent on punishment may help victims or their families to feel better, but have few if any benefits for the larger community. Tax dollars spent on restorative justice benefit the offender, victims and their families, and the larger community.

Determining human responsibility with respect to whales is much more difficult. Humans cannot speak to whales. Thus, knowing what a whale thinks or feels is impossible. However, scientific research is expanding our knowledge of actions, intentional or unintentional, that may harm whales and how to avoid those actions. Regulations directing vessels to maintain a theoretical safe distance from whales illustrates an effort to be ecologically responsible in spite of incomplete, sometimes inaccurate information.

Limited information and wisdom (knowledge of how to live well) similarly effects good faith efforts to make responsible decisions about many things, e.g., parenting and the potential harms/benefits of new products.

So, what is moral responsibility?

Moral responsibility requires some degree both of awareness that an act is wrong and of ability to avoid that action. In retrospect, I know that painting the exterior of houses with lead paint was environmentally hazardous. At the time, I had no such knowledge nor was that information commonly available. I could have refused to use lead-based paint, but that would have bewildered my customers and cost me at least some of the jobs I had sought. Alternatively, as a Navy chaplain on active duty, I believed at the time, and continue to believe, that some Navy policies were wrong. However, even though I raised my voice in protest, I had no power to change those policies. By staying in the Navy, I may be morally complicit in those policies (e.g., the Navy’s prior policy of discharging gays) but am not morally responsible for those policies.

Abundant living entails pausing to reflect on ordinary and extraordinary occurrences.

·       For what actions am I clearly morally responsible? In those situations, what can I do to act more morally?

·       For what actions am I morally complicit but not personally morally responsible? What, if any, steps can I take to become less complicit or to change the situation such that it results in more moral outcomes?

·       For what actions do I lack moral autonomy? What steps can I take to become more autonomous and then choose a more moral path? (One immense difficulty is that humans generally lack sufficient self-awareness to know when one has autonomy and when one’s choice is determined by genetics, nurture, and other factors entirely beyond one’s control.)

·       For what actions do I have incomplete or perhaps inaccurate information, causing me to make poor or even immoral choices? How can I, if it is possible, obtain better, more complete information? (Humans generally cannot foretell the future to know with certainty the future consequences of an action taken in the present.)

Always, I remember Jesus’ words: Go and sin no more. I wish life were as simple as that exhortation seems to suggest!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

And the walls came tumbling down


The title of this post is adapted from a children’s song about the battle to capture the city of Jericho during the invasion of the promised land by the Israelites under Joshua’s leaderships. According to the story recorded in the sixth chapter of Joshua, priests, at the Lord’s command, blew their trumpets after the people had circumambulated the city and then its wall collapsed.

Whatever else one may garner from that story, the story poignantly reminds us in the twenty-first century that for three thousand plus years, people have known that walls cannot guarantee their security.

Nevertheless, President Trump continues to push aggressively for building a wall on the southern U.S. border, a wall that will, in his words, “stretch from sea to shining sea.” Trump used “Build the wall!” as a highly effective campaign slogan, repeatedly promising to force Mexico to pay for the wall.

Trump, inadvertently, was correct. Mexico is paying for the wall. That is, Mexico is footing the bill for hosting several thousand putative asylum seekers from Latin America who have converged on the border hoping to obtain asylum in the U.S. Contrary to prior practices, these asylum seekers are now refused entry into the U.S.; they register with U.S. border authorities and then await adjudication of their claim to asylum in Mexico. Concurrently, the number of asylum seekers at the border who claim to have fled their country of origin in fearing for their lives grows almost daily.

Trump, however, repeatedly errs in his comments about the need for the wall. The preponderance of illegal drugs passes through secure ports of entry, not through unprotected parts of the border. Very few of the asylum seekers at the border are violent criminals or members of gangs. No crisis exists at the border. Indeed, the numbers of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. is dropping.

Facts matter. What might have happened had the priests blown their trumpets before the people circumambulated Jericho the stipulated number of times? Rational people, sharing common values, may differ about proposed policy ukases. Nonetheless, agreement about facts provides the essential foundation for the civil discourse without which democracy becomes impossible. Constructively ending the debate about how to secure the southern border of the U.S. will require Congress ignoring the President’s incendiary bombast and instead focusing on actual facts and widely shared values.

Trump shutting down the government (he has repeatedly accepted ownership of the shutdown) in an attempt to coerce Congress into funding a border wall was not only ineffectual but also immoral.

First, the shutdown de facto punished the government employees who were not paid on time, many of whom had to work in dangerous jobs, and the contractors who lost business. Inflicting harm on a third party to achieve one’s goals is always immoral.

Second, the shutdown punished the people who benefit from the services that the shutdown interrupted. This includes most citizens. Again, inflicting harm on a third party to achieve one’s goals is always immoral.

Third, the shutdown reflected Trump’s anti-government sentiments. He demeans those who pay taxes, what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “the price of civilization.” Essential government functions include not only national defense and enforcement of the laws, but also ensuring that food is safe to eat, medicines are safe to use, reliable weather forecasts are provided, a safety net to ensure the survival of the most vulnerable, etc.

Probably no one would argue that every dollar the government spends is well spent. Yet examples of government waste are almost always in the six or seven figures, i.e., less than ten million dollars. Even if government waste totals one billion dollars annually, that is less than one tenth of one percent of all federal spending. That’s a pretty good testimony to the fiscal stewardship of government employees, especially when one recognizes that a substantial portion of the waste is attributable to Congressional mandates, i.e., pet projects of individual members of Congress. Additionally, some government “waste” is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., citizens rightly differ on what is or is not worthwhile.

The best hope for positive outcomes from the recent government shutdown are (1) current efforts in Congress to enact legislation designed to avoid future shutdowns and (2) the start of bipartisan conversations about border security policy and funding that is not mired in sloganeering and “alternative facts.”

If those positive outcomes materialize, we can rejoice that some walls have actually come tumbling down!