Friday, December 30, 2011


Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote, “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”

Sadly, when I survey Christian teaching and preaching, I find a deficit of attention to answering Sartre’s question, how to live? I suspect that part of the popularity of the new evangelical megachurches is that they tend toward practical advice on how to live more fully and abundantly (i.e., wisdom), unlike many mainline churches. In the latter, an emphasis on social justice and struggle to understand the nature of God and God's relationship with creation tend to push aside what many view as the more mundane issues involved in learning how to live.

Too often, Christian efforts to teach wisdom fall short. Many times, the problem occurs because the Christian preacher or teacher pretends to derive ideas from the Bible when in fact the wisdom comes from elsewhere. The Bible is not the source of all wisdom (e.g., the Bible is not a science textbook). This problem is especially serious when the preacher or teacher substitutes pop-psychology for solid social science and theology. For example, I reject claims that Moses taught leadership principles (one may see leadership principles illustrated in the Moses’ narrative but that is very different than claiming that Moses taught leadership or discovering the principle by studying the scriptural text).

Yet wisdom – knowing how to live – has been an integral element of the Christian tradition, rooted firmly in the Old Testament wisdom literature (widely identified as the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Wisdom of Solomon). Some of Jesus’ teachings incorporate wisdom (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s) as do many of the New Testament epistles. The Christian tradition has identified prudential wisdom as one of the four cardinal virtues (the other three of these vital habits/characteristics are justice, courage, and temperance).

Wisdom is also foundational for ethics, as even a casual reader of this blog’s masthead can see.

Thus, this post is the first in an ongoing series of occasional posts that will focus on wisdom, specific suggestions for how we humans can live more fully and abundantly. These posts will draw upon a wide variety of sources, using an avowedly multi-disciplinary, multi-religious perspective to identity wisdom that may help one to live more fully and abundantly. At a minimum, the posts will seek to cohere to a Christian perspective on life. These posts on wisdom will complement continuing posts on social justice and theological questions. Religion at its best addresses the whole person in the context of community, creation, and creator.

My reading of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008)) was the catalyst that prompted me to begin reflecting on wisdom. Pausch taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon University until shortly before his premature death from liver cancer. He intended the book, an expanded version of his lecture in an ongoing Carnegie Mellon series, primarily as a legacy for his three young children (ages 1, 4, and 5 at the time). The book is a quick, delightful, and thought provoking read.

For example, Pausch recounts a football coach giving him a hard time as a teen. Pausch had failed to participate in the practice session as enthusiastically and energetically as the coach wanted. After the session, Pausch felt miserable and contemplated quitting. One of the coaching assistants took him aside and told him that chewing out, while unpleasant, meant that coach had not given up on him. He should not give up on himself.

Setting demanding goals and consistently striving with one’s whole self to reach those goals is a recurring theme in Pausch’s book.

In 2011, what were your goals? Did you achieve them easily, too easily? (I’m reminded of this anecdote: Matt: Mommy, I learned how to count! Listen--One, two, three! Mom: Good! Go on! Matt: You mean there's more?) Or, did you set your goals too high? Alternatively, did you too often waste your time on less important or even unproductive/unhealthy activities? Did you give less than your best effort, your best self?

What are your goals for 2012? New Year’s resolutions are an excellent time for some honest self-examination. Who is the person God created you to be? What will you do in 2012 to life more fully, more abundantly, into that identity?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is prayer?

Prayer denotes communication with God.

Communication is a process:

1.    The sender encodes a message.

2.    The sender transmits the encoded message.

3.    The receiver receives the encoded message.

4.    The receiver decodes the message.

Good communication adds a feedback loop to that process to ensure that the message, as received and decoded, was the message that the sender intended.

Of course, the process is more complex than the four steps appear at first glance. Every step is fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding or error. The sender may encode (words, facial expression, tone, etc.) the message inaccurately. Information may be lost in transmitting and receiving the message. And the receiver may inaccurately decode the message. Furthermore, each human assigns unique meanings and nuances to sensory input, shaped by her/his unique neural patterns. Consequently, communication, even when combined with continual feedback, is at best an imprecise art.

The one exception to that analysis is if God is the receiver; then, and only then, is communication clear and accurate. If God is the sender, communication problems remain. The intended receiver – a human – must discern the message and then accurately decode it. The feedback loop works well going to God; God sending a corrected copy to the person encounters the same problems as the original message.

These comments presume that God is omniscient with respect to the present and the past but not the future, communicates with people, and allows people some degree of limited autonomy.

Discussions of prayer generally construct a typology of prayer. In petitionary prayer, a person asks God for particular gifts, blessings, or favors. I think this type of prayer is generally meaningless. God knows what we need and want; God loves us and seeks to do what is best for us. Why do we think expressing wants or desires to God will change any of that?

Petitionary prayer’s effect on the person praying is the one exception to that generalization about meaninglessness of petitionary prayer. Talking to God (aloud or silently, directly or indirectly) may change the person who is praying by increasing the person’s openness to discerning communication from God or by helping the person to align him/herself more fully with God.

Both parts of that analysis also apply to intercessory prayer, prayer one person offers on behalf of another. However, intercession may function in another way as well. All matter seems interconnected on a quantum level. One person expressing concern or affection for a second person thus has the potential of exerting a beneficial effect on the person for whom the prayer is offered.

The other types of prayer – adoration (how wonderful God is; how much we love God), thanksgiving, praise (declaring God's greatness, especially for what God has done) – presumably do nothing for God. A God who needs our adoration, for example, would appear to be insecure, i.e., suffer from a weak ego.

However, those types of prayer are important because of their potential to help the person praying enter more deeply into the mystery of the light and love that we call God. Even as in human communication, when a person shares what has happened in his/her life with a loved one, needing to express feelings without seeking anything in return, so adoration, thanksgiving, and praise may fill a similar function in our communication with God.

Like many clergy (cf. James Howell, Unsettling prayer), when honest, I find that I spend little time overtly praying. Yet much of my life is prayer: thinking about God, seeking to discern God's presence and message for me and for others, trying to align my life so that I more fully live in light and love. This last dimension is the most important form of prayer. At its most intent, this form of prayer becomes contemplation, meditation, or even the mystical encounter of the holy. More on that in another post.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Christmas message

My sermon, preached Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, is available online at Ethical Musings: Recent Sermons.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas hope

Ten years ago, a friend sent me this story, which someone had emailed to him:

The brand new pastor and his wife, newly assigned to their first ministry, to reopen a church in suburban Brooklyn, arrived in early October excited about their opportunities. When they saw their church, it was very dilapidated and needed much work. They aimed to have everything repaired and ready in time to have their first service on Christmas Eve. They worked hard, repairing pews, plastering walls, painting, etc., and on Dec. 18 were ahead of schedule and just about finished.

On Dec. 19, a terrible tempest - a driving rainstorm - hit the area and lasted for two days. On the 21st, the pastor went over to the church. His heart sank when he saw that the roof had leaked, causing a large area of plaster about 20 feet by 8 feet to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit, beginning about head high.

The pastor cleaned up the mess on the floor, and not knowing what else to do but postpone the Christmas Eve service, headed home. On the way, he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity so he stopped in. One of the items was a beautiful, handmade, ivory colored, crocheted tablecloth with exquisite work, fine colors, and a cross embroidered right in the center. It was just the right size to cover up the hole in the front wall. He bought it and headed back to the church.

By this time, it had started to snow. An older woman running from the opposite direction was trying to catch the bus. She missed it. The pastor invited her to wait in the warm church for the next bus, 45 minutes later. She sat in a pew and paid no attention to the pastor while he got a ladder, hangers, etc., to put up the tablecloth as a wall tapestry. The pastor could hardly believe how beautiful it looked and it covered up the entire problem area.

Then he noticed the woman walking down the center aisle. Her face was like a sheet. "Pastor," she asked, "where did you get that tablecloth?"

The pastor explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crocheted into it there. They were. These were the woman’s initials, and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before, in Austria. The woman could hardly believe it as the pastor recounted how he had just bought the tablecloth.

The woman explained that before the war she and her husband were well-to-do people in Austria. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week. She was captured, sent to prison and never saw her husband or her home again. The pastor wanted to give her the tablecloth; but she made the pastor keep it for the church.

The pastor insisted on driving her home, which was the least he could do. She lived on the other side of Staten Island and was only in Brooklyn for the day for a housecleaning job.

The Church had a wonderful service on Christmas Eve. The pews were almost full. The music and the spirit were great. At the end of the service, the pastor and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return.

One older man, whom the pastor recognized from the neighborhood, continued to sit in one of the pews and stare, and the pastor wondered why he wasn't leaving. The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall because it was identical to one that his wife had made years ago when they lived in Austria before the war and how could there be two tablecloths so much alike? He told the pastor how the Nazis had come, how he forced his wife to flee for her safety and he was supposed to follow her, but the Nazis arrested and imprisoned him. Thirty-five years had passed without him seeing his wife or his home again.

The pastor asked if he could take a little ride together. They drove to Staten Island, to the same house where the pastor had taken the woman three days earlier. He helped the man climb the three flights of stairs to the woman's apartment, knock on the door, and then saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could imagine.

Is this a true story or urban legend? In either case, the story resonates with many people (hence the story’s popularity on the internet) because we want to believe in the interconnectedness of life. This is one message of Christmas: time has not completely severed the connection between God the creator and humans the created.

When gift giving expresses a healthy love, then gift giving reenacts the first Christmas; in the connection between giver and recipient, we see the mysterious light that we call God.

May your Christmas be filled with light!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gift giving

Gift giving becomes a popular topic for articles and essays in the Christmas / Chanukah season. Authors examine the practice of gift giving through multiple lenses:

·         Economic – analyzing whether giving is irrational or givers receive more than they give, if not in financial terms at least in emotional benefits

·         Psychological – why people give, how they determine to whom give and how much to give, what they hope to gain by giving

·         Marketers – the appeal of certain gifts and ways to make giving a particular gift more attractive

·         Anthropologists – describing cultural variations in gift giving

Here are a few insights that I have gleaned from those essays this year:

·         Economic – Rational economic theory maintains that people should engage in behaviors only if the behaviors produce a gain that equals any cost involved, i.e., give gifts only in exchange for gifts received. The “gifts received” may include the quality of services provided through the year (by a mail carrier or doorman, e.g.), the psychic value the donor experiences in giving the gift (creating a sense of indebtedness or feeling good about self, e.g.), or the expectation of gifts to be received from the recipient). If the rational economists were correct, then the best gift is typically cash: the recipient will know exactly the size of his/her debt to the giver, instead of, as typically happens, underestimating or underappreciating the gift’s value. Yet, people continue to give non-monetary gifts. The gift exchange is more than a simple economic proposition; viewing humans exclusively through an economic lens minimizes human complexity and our multi-dimensional nature.

·         Psychological – people give gifts for a variety of reasons: to feel good, out of a sense of obligation; to help others; to appear generous; etc. Giving easily becomes a source of stress, sometimes as people over-extend financially and sometimes as people desperately search for the perfect gift. Research indicates that the perfect gift rarely exists, that people waste too much time and money trying to find that perfect gift, and that an expensive gift surprisingly often produce disproportionately little psychic benefit for the recipient. Instead, the most appreciated gifts tend to be the gifts that clearly communicate the giver’s affection toward, or appreciation for, the recipient.

·         Marketers – giving a gift encourages potential donors to non-profits give and potential buyers to make a purchase. In other words, caveat emptor – buyer beware!

·         Anthropologists – Catalonians (the residents of Catalonia, in Spain) exchange gifts on January 6, the feast of the three kings (also known as Epiphany). Santa Claus, reindeer, and candy canes are not part of their tradition. Instead, a Royal Mailman listens to children say what they want; then three kings arrive by sailing ship and distribute their gifts.

Theologians and preachers oft hop on the bandwagon, writing about the religious meaning of gift giving (for an example of this genre, read my forthcoming Christmas Eve Ethical Musings post, “A Christmas hope”).

Yet the more I read and reflect on gift giving, the more I realize how little humans truly understand their motivation and the enormous amount of time and energy that many humans devote to that endeavor.

Has your gift giving become a source of stress or is it a source of joy?

Is your gift giving just one more expense or an expression of love?

What are some of the best gifts you have received? What makes those gifts special? What can you incorporate from those insights into your gift giving?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Improving schools

I’ve written about education (e.g., Ethical Musings: Teaching and accountability).

Two recent news items caught my attention.

First, the 87,000 children who attend Department of Defense system schools (DODS) consistently outscore their civilian counterparts on standardized tests. DODS is exempt from both the Bush “No Child Left Behind” law and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top.” Instead, the schools focus on teaching, using standardized tests for the purpose for which the tests were originally designed, i.e., a diagnostic aid to help a teacher know a child’s level of accomplishment. The schools are good, offering small class size comparable to elite private schools and largely having overcome racial problems. To learn more, read Michael Winerip, “Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students,” New York Times, December 11, 2011. Incidentally, the research is consist with my experience as a military chaplain, watching parents sometimes choose duty stations to enable their children to attend DODS schools rather than public schools.

Second, in Finland 2400 people competed for 120 openings in the master’s program at the University of Helsinki for schoolteachers, competition to get into school that is stiffer than Finns who wish to become lawyers or doctors face. That contrasts starkly with the U.S., where education is rather low on the list of preferred college majors, often chosen by people who have no realistic hope of admission to the more prestigious and highly rewarded fields of law, medicine, dentistry, and top-flight business schools. Why is there such a marked difference?

In Finland, about a quarter of college students want to become schoolteachers. The master’s program is heavily, sometimes completely, subsidized. Although starting teachers earn less than their American peers (about $29,000 in 2008 compared to $36,000 in the U.S.), they spend about four hours per day in the classroom and receive two paid hours per week of professional development time. In other words, teachers are well treated and not overworked, as are most American teachers who spend long days at school and then usually bring work home at night. More importantly, Finns value education: 95% of Finns go on to some form of post-secondary higher education or vocational training.

The Finnish model is not directly applicable to the U.S. Finland has a low poverty rate and a much more homogenous population. (Jenny Anderson, “From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model,” New York Times, December 13, 2011)

However, Finland’s pedagogical success is proof that schools do not have to fail. Rather than institutionalizing unproven solutions, the U.S. would benefit from preserving more local flexibility and promoting experimentation, devising approaches and methods that local schools demonstrate work.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Trinity Church

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is clashing with Trinity Church Wall Street over a request for OWS to use a vacant lot that Trinity owns. Trinity is a large, historic, and well-endowed Episcopal parish (most of its wealth is from a grant of 200 acres that Queen Anne presented to the Church while the parish was still part of the Church of England prior to the American Revolution).

In an unusual step, the Bishop of New York (the Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk), the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori) and the former Archbishop of South Africa (the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu) have all issued statements in support of Trinity’s refusal to grant OWS permission to use the land.

On the other hand, the former Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries (the Rt. Rev. George Packard) and several other Episcopal clergy were arrested for trespassing on the lot this weekend as part of an OWS move to occupy the lot.

Today, I read about a group of homeless families squatting in an abandoned Philadelphia cathedral in the 1990s whom the local diocese threatened with eviction when it decided to sell the property. The homeless hung a banner outside the cathedral with this message:

How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and evict him on Monday?

I have great respect for Bishops Sisk, Jefferts Schori, and Tutu. The issue of Trinity allowing OWS to occupy the vacant lot is probably far more complex than the media reports reveal. However, I keep coming back to the banner:

How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and evict him on Monday?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Zoning and healthy communities

The Wall Street Journal recently reported the city of San Juan Capistrano, CA, fining homeowners who host a Bible study group that fifty people attend for hosting a group attended by more than three unrelated adults ( The city has some legitimate concerns: zoning regulations protect property values (if you disagree, visit an area without zoning laws) and preventing traffic congestion and accidents caused by too many cars on residential streets.

But surely, a law restricting attendance to groups of three or fewer unrelated adults is too restrictive. That law effectively prohibits two tables of bridge players from routinely meeting in the same home as well as a wide variety of other activities. When the family protested the fine, the city of San Juan Capistrano agreed to reconsider.

So, how many cars on the street are too many? What activities properly belong in a residential area without zoning permission and what activities reasonably require a zoning variance?

I argue that no single specific answer exists to those questions. The best answer is to require the zoning board (or other government body) to use its good judgment. Instead of specifying the number of people who may attend, the law should outline principles the decision-makers will utilize in making a determination. This approach recognizes that no policy will fit all situations, honors the good will of one’s fellow citizens, and expects that the vast majority of the time reasonable people will reach reasonable accommodations.

Underlying this post are my concerns about two trends in American (and perhaps most western) society. First, goodwill toward and trust in one’s fellow citizens are rapidly diminishing. People prefer to rely upon rules rather than goodwill and trust. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing for anarchy. I support zoning. However, I don’t want to live in a society that is so completely regulated that no room exists for individuality or the exercise of personal judgment.

Second, regulations tend to spawn bureaucracies that write yet more regulations and promote surveillance to ensure compliance with the regulations. When I was in the Navy, I wrote the Navy’s first instruction governing the money collected in chapel services. A major dispute among stakeholders in the drafting process was how to prevent theft and fraud. Nobody liked my position, which, thankfully, ultimately prevailed. I contended that theft and fraud were impossible to prevent. Instead, the best approach was to take reasonable steps to prevent problems and then to take appropriate action against miscreants. When I moved on to a new duty station, encrustations to the instruction began to accumulate, primarily designed to prevent theft and fraud. However, theft and fraud continue to happen and no data exists to show that the extra costs associated with the additional precautions have paid for themselves in savings. The same phenomenon of increased surveillance in response to proliferating regulations is occurring more broadly across our society, unnecessarily intruding on privacy and limiting personal freedoms.

The 2012 campaign season offers Christians and other people of faith (or no faith) an excellent opportunity to emphasize that trust, goodwill, and civility are essential foundational elements of healthy communities. Viewing the incident in San Juan Capistrano as evidence of a culture war against Christianity or religion misses more fundamental and important issues.

Friday, December 16, 2011

End of the Iraq war?

On December 15, 2011, the United States declared an end to its war in Iraq.

After nine years, at a cost of 4,500 plus U.S. and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and $1 trillion U.S., was the war worthwhile?

Iraq has most probably suffered more casualties than if Saddam Hussein had remained in power, internal violence remains endemic, and centrifugal forces work at pulling apart not only the appearance of democracy but the nation’s very fabric. Although many Iraqis nominally enjoy more freedom than they did while Saddam ruled, the quality of life for the average Iraqi is arguably no better and perhaps worse today than ten years ago, before the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Because of the war, U.S. taxpayers are $1 trillion deeper in debt. Congress paid for the war through special appropriations, all funded with deficit financing. Extensive, post-conquest searches found no weapons of mass destruction or links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda. However, the nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq proved fertile ground for terrorist attacks on U.S. forces there, giving birth to al Qaeda Iraq and proving a valuable source of recruiting rhetoric and motivation for Islamic terrorists in many countries.

In sum, the Iraq war appears to have produced few winners (perhaps only a handful of Islamic terrorist organizations) and few possible winners (perhaps Iran if the unified nation of Iraq collapses and large Iraq’s Shiite population seeks protection through an alliance with Iran). Everybody else lost because of the Iraq war.

Declarations that the Iraq war has ended seem premature, similar to Bush’s ill-fated comment that major combat operations had ended shortly after the conquest of Baghdad. U.S. advisers (mostly civilian, but with a small military contingent) remain in Iraq. Heavy-handed U.S. policies seem likely to call for continued interventions in Iraq and financial aid will continue to flow to a corrupt and often ineffective Iraqi government.

For example, some U.S. politicians are already calling for the U.S. to provide advanced fighter jets to Iraq, contending that a nation cannot adequately defend itself without a strong air force. These politicians conveniently ignore the question of against whom the Iraqis need to defend themselves. Iraq is much too weak, disorganized, and internally conflicted to wage a successful defense against Iran, with or without the fighters. No other serious threat against Iraq exists.

Iraq is a failed state; the U.S. obviously does not know how to fix that failure, or would have done so in the last nine years. Perhaps the best gift that the U.S. can give to its citizens, Iraqis, and the rest of the world is to truly end its disastrous intervention in Iraq, confessing that the war was an act of hubris and unjust.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More musings about seminaries

The Duke Chronicle recently featured this article about seminary education. The opinions in the Duke Chronicle article were nothing new. Students expressed those same opinions thirty years ago.

Several larger issues concern me:

1.    The ministry no longer attracts the “best and brightest.” Although definitions of “best” vary widely, I know of nobody who thinks that very many of the most talented hear and answer calls to the ministry. I doubt God prefers second best. Consequently, this is a recruitment problem compounded by inadequate compensation (an ordinand’s family should not have to live in poverty because of low stipends). For the most part, these issues are not the responsibility of seminaries.

2.    Seminaries, even the most academic rigorous, are not as academically challenging as other schools (e.g., compare Duke’s law, medical, or business school admission criteria and academic standards to those of Duke Divinity). No vocation needs clear, logical thinking combined with good verbal skills more than the ordained clergy does. After all, the word that became flesh is the word that Christian clergy seek to communicate to their parishioners.

3.    Concurrently, parish expectations of clergy have multiplied. Clergy, in addition to excellent written and oral communication skills, need competence in administration, leadership, education, counseling, liturgics, and several other skill areas in addition to content competency in biblical studies, theology, ethics, liturgics, spirituality, etc. This is too much for a three-year program. Perhaps the Church should adopt a twelve-month curacy as its norm, allowing new clergy to learn and develop the practical skills of ministry that will complement the knowledge and formation acquired during the three years of seminary.

4.    Clergy, in addition to content, spirituality, and professional skills, also need to relate to other people in a healthy, positive manner. More clergy lose their jobs because of an inability to “play well” with others than because of any other reason. Clinical pastoral education is a step toward achieving this. Better screening of candidates for ordination by Church bodies is an essential element of this, something best not entrusted to seminaries. Surprisingly, the Episcopal Church is one of the few denominations to require psychological screening of all potential ordinands. Churches should also complete thorough background checks on all ordinands, attempting to avoid ordaining known sex offenders.

5.    Few denominations directly operate seminaries (the Roman Catholics are the major exception to this). Consequently, seminary faculty members earn their professional standing and rewards from being academics (e.g., publishing or perishing) rather than from forming the best possible next generation of leaders for the Church. This, in conjunction with most seminaries’ operational independence from any sponsoring denomination, gives seminaries the wrong focus. This is not an argument for reducing academic rigor (more, not less rigor would be beneficial) but for reconnecting seminaries and their mission to the life of the Church such that seminaries (many for the first time, sadly) and their faculties derive their mission, rewards, etc., from the primary task of forming the next generation of Church leaders. Indicative of the strong feelings (animosity!) that reconnecting seminaries with the Church will arouse is the anger that erupted when the Southern Baptists took control of their seminaries in the late twentieth century. The reform forced out moderate faculty members, replacing them with appropriately conservative individuals. Protests about violations of academic freedom and the demise of quality Southern Baptist theological education notwithstanding, the reform reconnected the schools with their denomination. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptists, having got that move, are wrong about almost everything else.

6.    No agreement exists regarding the definition of “spirituality.” Thus, people often conflate two debates into one: (1) a three-way tension between academics, spiritual formation, and field education and (2) competing definitions of spirituality with their associated differences in expectations about practices, spiritual maturity, etc. Not until the Church becomes clear about its definition of spirituality can the Church specify design standards for substantive, qualitative spiritual formation programs. Current programs are more a smorgasbord of methods and approaches that appeal to local designers/leaders.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Let them eat cookies

No, this post is not about the internet packets of information known as cookies, sometimes used to track web usage.

Incredibly, at least 44 cereals contain more sugar than do several popular brands of cookies (Sugar in Children's Cereals published by the Environmental Working Group and featured in a New York Times’ column by Mark Bittman, The Problem with Breakfast for Children, December 8, 2011).

Nutritionists and other health advisers emphasize that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. So, feeding children breakfast cereals full of addictive high fructose corn syrup may make parents feel good but directly feeds the nation’s growing waistlines that are spreading to our children while providing future job security for healthcare workers who will treat the multiple problems most obese people develop.

Bittman highlights the powerful role that advertising plays in cultivating demand among children for products with high sugar content. This is simply one more reason to turn off (or even to disconnect) the TV, encouraging physical activity among children. (In some states, parents without TVs have faced child abuse charges, but, to the best of my knowledge, no state has acted against parents who have a TV permanently turned off.)

Offering children cookies in lieu of breakfast cereal (a variation on Marie Antoinette’s infamous declaration, Let them eat cake) may prove an effective, low-confrontation tactic for decreasing sugar consumption. After all, what self-respecting but ill-informed child would refuse cookies instead of cereal?

On a more serious note, children, each a gift from God, are a family’s and nation’s most precious resource for the future. The current obesity crisis graphically underscores the importance of quality child rearing, an activity that requires investing time even more than money (not that raising a child is ever inexpensive!). Western societies generally devalue stay-at-home parents, yet the contribution and work that such parents do is truly a priceless gift. I wonder what Jesus might have been like had both of his parents worked 60 hours per week to buy him the latest and greatest of everything?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Seeking economic wisdom

Recently, I read two contradictory opinion pieces in the same edition of a newspaper. One called for Britain to continue its current austerity policies, confident that following in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is the best policy to re-establish fiscal soundness and prosperity; the other advocated just the opposite, claiming that austerity is a failed policy.

The articles caught my attention for two reasons. First, newspapers and other modern media infrequently feature meaningful debate about important issues.

Second, the sharply divergent assessment of economic policies underscored that economics is as much an art as a science when it comes to prescribing which set of policies will lead to a desired outcome. If economics could provide specific policy guidance, surely nations would more consistently adopt policies consonant with that guidance to reduce unemployment, balance budgets, eliminate balance of payment deficits, and cure other economic ills. However, economists (like their cousins, investment advisers) are much better at analyzing past performance than at predicting future outcomes.

I read those articles a couple of days after reading Gov. Perry’s commentary on President Obama’s economic policies. Perry believes that the New Testament mandates capitalism with little or no role for government regulation of economic forces or resources (businesses, unions, environment, etc.).

The New Testament, indeed the Bible as a whole, is no more of an economics textbook than it is a science textbook. Neither subject attracted the attention of any of Scripture’s authors. Instead, the Bible offers principles by which we should shape economic policy.

The goals of a biblically rooted economic policy are clear: to promote abundant flourishing for all life. This requires both the fullness of peace (freedom, justice, and prosperity for all) and lifestyles congruent ensuring that life is sustainable.

The means of attaining those goals are less evident. For example, the Old Testament bans charging interest on loans. Christians for centuries adhered to that proscription, hypocritically borrowing money from Jews who would loan money to non-Jews at interest when no Christian (quite reasonably) would loan money with zero interest. From an economics perspective, interest is simply the cost of “renting” somebody else’s money. Today, I know of no Christian group that objects to loaning money at interest. However, the charging of excessive interest, known as usury, is illegal in most jurisdictions. The underlying moral principle is that exploiting people in a time of financial need is wrong.

What are other biblical principles that shape morally sound economic policy and activity?

2.    Limiting the amount of economic inequality transferred from one generation to the next. This motive underlies the Old Testament concept of a Jubilee year in which Israel was to return land to its original owner every fifty years. Then, as now, concentrating wealth across generations accelerates and magnifies the gap between rich and poor. Instead of a Jubilee year, practices such as heavy inheritance taxes and free public education for all are contemporary efforts to sustain a level playing field across generations.

3.    Rewarding individual effort and initiative as a means to generate income. The New Testament Book of Acts records a disastrous early attempt at socialism; one of the Pastoral Epistles warns that young widows should remarry or work rather than rely indefinitely upon the community’s generosity.

4.    Caring for the poor is a theme in both Testaments. Many people are poor for reasons beyond their control, whether natural disaster (often a famine in the Bible) or having been victimized by unjust proprietors or rulers (a constant theme in the prophetic literature). Consequently, providing a trustworthy social welfare safety net that guarantees a minimum standard of living, sometimes described as a preferential option for the poor, is a foundational premise of any economic system shaped by biblical values and principles.

5.    All wealth and property belong to God; people are merely God's stewards or tenants. This understanding denies that people have an absolute right to do what they will with their wealth or property (that right may serve useful legal purposes but is theological nonsense). Instead, being God's stewards or tenants emphasizes care for the earth (God's good creation) and for all living creatures (also parts of God's good creation), but especially humans (whom God created in God's good image).

These principles and values (which may not be an exhaustive delineation of relevant Christian ethics) give wide scope in shaping an economic system. By this standard, the United States’ capitalist system, like that found in most other countries, falls woefully short of the mark (i.e., is sinful).

Radical change seems improbable. But incremental change is possible. In deciding for which candidate to vote, in weighing policy alternatives, and in making personal financial decisions these five principles provide practical guidance that, if consistently followed, will establish a more just and therefore more perfect economic system.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Internet advertising, bibliolatry, and Advent

Once every week or two, I receive an email soliciting the right to use the Ethical Musings blog site to advertise a product. The most recent email came from Logos Bible Software wanting me to publicize a book they have published, Jerry Gramckow’s Search of the Silver Lining: Where Is God in the Midst of Life's Storms?

Receiving one of these solicitations invariably prompts several thoughts. First, I doubt that the sender has taken the time to read my blog. If so, perhaps they find Ethical Musings unintelligible. Otherwise, why are they soliciting my assistance in promoting their product? Gramckow’s book, like all of the other products that people and firms have wanted me to advertise, represents an approach to Christianity that is not only foreign to me but one that I think is nonsensical and ridiculous. Whatever good points he may make do not outweigh his approach to Scripture that is little more than bibliolatry.

Then, I wonder whether I am missing a good opportunity to earn some additional income by selling ads for Ethical Musings. However, I am weary of incessant commercialism and derive sufficient satisfaction from reader responses and comments to make writing these posts worthwhile. I also find that writing the posts is a spiritual exercise for me, an opportunity to think about a subject in a more organized disciplined fashion than I would do if I did not put my thoughts into words.

Finally, the email solicitations prompt me to wonder about the future of the internet, communication, and human community. Those questions (at least the last two!) point toward the meaning of this season in the Church year, Advent:

·         How does God communicate with people?

·         What did God intend to communicate via Jesus?

·         How can I better share that message with others through my Christmas celebration? Through the remainder of the year?

·         People seem designed to live in community. What is the shape and what are the characteristics of the community in which God intends us to live?

Generally, I ignore emails soliciting permission to place ads on Ethical Musings, hopeful that as much as I disdain these products somebody else will find some modicum of assistance in them. Trying to respect everyone, including ill-informed diversity that wrongly substitutes idolizing the Bible for the mysterious yet life-giving light, is a basic expression of the love for others and of the worth conferred on humans by God's creative act. Similarly, rejecting pervasive seasonal and social commercialism is consonant with my belief that life has a deep, mysterious core from which abundant life springs.

Together, those dynamics highlight the meaning of Advent: a time to examine my relationships with others and with the world, seeking to move more deeply into the mystery at the center of life in order to live more abundantly.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Musing about prison

I recently read Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a classic historical analysis of punishment and prisons by the prominent twentieth century French philosopher. Foucault’s primary context is France, yet his observations ring true with respect to the United States’ penal system:

1.    “Prisons do not diminish the crime rate; they can be extended, multiplied or transformed, the quantity of crime and criminals remains stable or, worse, increases.” (p. 265) The U.S. penal system has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (1 in 100 Americans) and some of the highest crime rates (

2.    “Detention causes recidivism; those leaving prison have more chance than before of going back to it; convicts are, in a very high proportion, former inmates…” (p. 265) Foucault’s analysis highlights ways in which prison contributes to recidivism, e.g., the social stigma attached to a prison record limits employment opportunities for released convicts and the impoverishment of their families becomes a catalyst for committing additional crimes. The federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that recidivism in the U.S. exceeds 50% of state and federal prisoners returning to prison within three years of release (

Foucault incisively argues that the criminal justice system has become a means of identifying, typing, and controlling a segment of the population that, in turn, creates employment (police, judges, lawyers, jailers, bail bondsmen), institutions (courts, prisons, probation/parole offices), and lifestyles dependent upon perpetuating the system rather than changing behavior.

Clearly, society needs protection from individuals who represent a threat to the well-being of others by their propensity for committing violent crimes. Until the mental health profession develops the knowledge and techniques to help such individuals effectively control their anti-social behavior, their confinement is an unfortunate necessity. Imprisonment costs approximately $50,000 per year per prisoner in the United States. Imprisonment is a high cost option in terms of its financial cost to taxpayers as well as its harmful effects on many prisoners (i.e., the likelihood of their committing new crimes when released).

In this era of huge federal deficits and significant fiscal struggles by most state and municipal governments, reducing the number of people in prison becomes a win for all concerned. Imprisonment of non-violent offenders does nothing to repay whatever harm or injury a criminal may have caused. Concurrently, imprisonment increases the probability of the prisoner committing additional crimes in the future. And, society bears a heavy financial burden to produce these negative results.

What alternatives exist?

First, decriminalize as many behaviors as possible. Decriminalizing most, if not all, drug offenses would dramatically reduce the number of people in prison, create a new tax revenues (i.e., by taxing drug sales and drug dealers’ incomes), reduce the number of crimes drug users commit to buy drugs by lowering the price of drugs, and free criminal justice authorities to focus on violent crime. (Cf. Ethical Musings: Ending the war on drugs and Ethical Musings: Some data about the war on drugs) Other behaviors, now often criminalized, might also be legalized, e.g., attempted suicide. Legalization implies neither moral nor social approval but recognizes the reality that criminalization represents a costly failure to achieve society’s goals.

Second, explore alternatives to imprisonment, e.g., electronically monitored home confinement at the confinee’s expense and involuntary military enlistment for men and women of an eligible age (the military can cope with a relatively small number of such individuals and more often produces a positive outcome than does imprisonment).

In the 18th century, bankrupt individuals unable to pay their debts went to debtors’ prison until they paid their debts. That approach to irresponsible spending never made sense to me. How can a person in prison earn money to pay his/her debts? More often than proving a solution, debtors’ prison created a welfare case (the debtor’s family) and imposed a cost on the government (keeping the debtor in prison). Bankruptcy, rather that debtor’s prison, has proven widely beneficial by eliminating those costs. Bankruptcy proceedings that wipe out debts have not incentivized overspending; indeed, the stigma attached to bankruptcy generally deters people from overspending, unless lenders collude in it, as happened with mortgage companies granting mortgages to people who had no realistic hope of repaying the debt.

Instead of being a growth industry, governments should reduce spending on prisons, using scarce tax dollars in more beneficial ways (e.g., reducing the deficit, feeding the hungry, helping the cold buy heat, etc.).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Religion and politics: Was Jesus a politician?

In one obvious sense, Jesus was not a politician. That is, Jesus neither held nor sought public office. By that narrow definition, Jesus was not a politician.

Did Jesus seek to influence the political process?

Jesus did not die because he had committed blasphemy. Had Jesus blasphemed God, the Jews would have stoned him to death (killed him by throwing stones at him until he was dead), which the New Testament Book of Acts reports had to Stephen, the first Christian deacon.

The Romans executed Jesus because they believed he posed a threat to their political power. Pilate, like most Roman rulers of Judea, avoided Jewish religious debates, leaving the resolution of those to the Jewish civic and religious leaders. The Romans, for example, took no legal actions against the Jews who participated in stoning Stephen for blasphemy. The New Testament text notwithstanding, Pilate would never have ceded his authority to authorize capital punishment to mob rule. Jesus died because the Romans feared that he was organizing, or would organize, a revolt against their political power. In that sense, Jesus was a politician, i.e., a person who exercised political power (not political authority) by influencing others.

From the death of Jesus until sometime in the mid to late fourth century when Rome recognized Christianity as the Empire’s official religion, Christianity largely existed apart from formal political structures. Often, Christians, members of what was then a pacifist religion, sought to remain anonymous for their own safety. Yet persecution was frequent and typically brutal. The Romans recognized that the Christian demand for loyalty to the one living God alone and insistence on creating a community of justice and love among believers implicitly threatened the Empire’s very existence. What Pilate had seen in Jesus, other Roman leaders recognized in the early Christians. Christianity, if fully adopted, incarnated a set of ethics inimical to politics as usual.

Liberation theologians have articulated a hermeneutic of suspicion, that is, calling Christians to question the faithfulness to Jesus of ethics and policies endorsed by rulers. Jesus lived an ethic that favored the sinful, the sick, the outcast, and the hungry. The one person in the gospels who appears to turn away from Jesus is the rich young man to whom Jesus had told, in response to the man’s question about life abundant and subsequent declaration that he had kept the commandments, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Jesus socialized with the rich and powerful; some of the rich and powerful, changed by that experience, made reparations to people they had defrauded and gave large sums to the needy. But the focus of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been with the most vulnerable and neediest in society.

A genuine Christian perspective on politics mirrors Jesus’ focus. The Christian’s political engagement is distinctive because Christians seek the well-being of all creation rather than narrowly focus on benefits to self, family, or nation. The Christian’s goal is not the increase of his/her wealth, but equal prosperity for all. The Christian’s goal is not ensuring adequate food, water, shelter, and healthcare for self and family, but ensuring that all people have fair access to those necessities. The Christian when injured does not seek an eye for an eye, but rather seeks to restore the alienated to the community, to heal the broken, to comfort the dying, etc.

The radicalness of the Christian gospel is the expectation and attempt to live Jesus’ ethic in the present. Jesus’ ethic challenges those who seek to live for self (or family, clan, tribe, or nation), implicitly threatening to erode the hierarchies, the lopsided distributions of power and wealth, and the values (greed, self, etc.) that perpetuate the status quo. This is why the Romans executed Jesus. This is why the Romans often persecuted Jesus’ early followers. And this is why many people today, both in and outside the Church, would prefer to deny the political implications of Christianity.

Christians agreeing among themselves on broad principles and basic moral values is far easier than their agreeing about specific programs and policies. Holding similar values is no barrier to reaching divergent conclusions about the same (and often different) information, information processed by brain patterns shaped by different sets of genes and experiences. This is why the Church bears a plural witness, sometimes with members advocating radically opposing positions (e.g., although all Christians agree about respecting life, the dignity and worth of all people, and the importance of individual freedoms and rights, the Christian community sharply divides about the morality of abortion and gay sex). A secular democracy that welcomes religious views as part of public discourse but does not seek to establish legislatively a particular set of those views best coheres with the underlying Christian emphases on respect for the rights and freedoms of persons, justice, and other core values.

Even as Jesus was a politician – a person whose beliefs had significant political ramifications – so Christians in seeking to emulate Jesus inevitably become politicians. Like Jesus, each must decide whether to try to increase her/his political power and how to use her/his political power in support of which causes. Ultimately, the Church best uses its authority to provoke, stimulate, and engage people in political discourse without having the hubris to presume that it can speak authoritatively and without error for God. Religious organizations that claim to speak authoritatively for God, whether on the right or the left, inevitably miss the mark (one of the definitions of sin) and proclaim a message other than the gospel of Jesus.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Religion and politics - part 7

This post, part 7 in my series on Religion and Politics, addresses the importance of a candidate’s character from a Christian perspective.

Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s founders, remarked, “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men.” Questions about the character of politicians range from sexual morality (Kennedy, Clinton) to public integrity (Nixon).

In other words, the issue of character is not easily reducible to the narrow issue of a candidate’s personal religion. Roman Catholicism functioned as a barrier to election as president of the United States until 1960 when Kennedy defeated Nixon. The religious barrier will continue to crumble, perhaps with the election of the first Mormon president and probably someday with the election of a Jewish or atheist president.

A president’s theological commitments seem irrelevant to me. The United States is, thankfully, a secular democracy with the free exercise of religion. Whether a president believes in God and most of what the president believes about God have little bearing on how that person will fulfill the duties of the office.

However, a president’s ethical commitments – reflected in his/her rhetoric and measured by his/her behavior – is of critical importance. A president who does not tell the truth or seek to keep promises is both untrustworthy and unworthy of election. (Whether deceit has a role in foreign affairs is a separate topic, not directly related to the general principles of truth telling and promise keeping. Relying on deceit (e.g., a military feint or spying) can save lives as warfighting and peacekeeping tactics.)

The five constellations of values identified in my last post (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) provide a helpful paradigm for assessing candidates for political office. Although I illustrate this utility by considering a hypothetical candidate for federal office, the paradigm also is useful for assessing the character of state and local candidates.

1.    Does the candidate’s past performance reflect a pervasive commitment to harm/care (nonmaleficence and beneficence) for all creation?

2.    Does the candidate’s past performance exhibit a consistent support for fairness/reciprocity (i.e., justice in its commutative, distributive, and legal aspects)?

3.    Based on prior votes and behavior, to who is the candidate loyal? Does the candidate equally support the well-being of all people regardless of externalities such as gender, race, gender orientation, nationality, religion, wealth, political contributions, etc.?

4.    Does the candidate’s past performance indicate unflagging respect for all and consistent reliance on ethical norms broadly accepted as authoritative?

5.    Does the candidate seek to model those values, recognizing that all candidates are people and therefore tainted with sin?

Unlike the stock market, past performance is an indicator of future performance in the case of politicians (and all humans, for that matter). Character forms early in a person’s life. Transformation is possible, but most character change is incremental. Yesterday’s person probably greatly resembles the character of today and of tomorrow.

My phrasing of the five value sets emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbor not having boundaries. Stanford research fellow and political scientist Tod Lindberg believes:

The political teaching of Jesus is a fully realized account of universal freedom. This freedom is constituted by each person’s acceptance of the equal freedom of everyone else. Acceptance takes on the practical, everyday form of treating others the way you would like to be treated. (The Political Teachings of Jesus, 233)

Not all ethical commitments are of equal importance for politicians. Bill Clinton’s philandering set a poor example of fidelity in a committed relationship and injured his wife and daughter. His lying about his philandering became a legitimate national issue. Lying erodes the trust that is essential for a healthy, functional society. Defending himself against the allegations of malfeasance that resulted from his lying became a major preoccupation of the Clinton administration that adversely affected its ability to focus on important issues and its ability to muster power in support of its views and proposed policies regarding those issues. As that example emphasizes, drawing a tidy distinction between what some term private and public morality is impossible. Ethical issues that influence the public’s well-being are directly relevant for political discourse.

This extended series of posts on Religion and Politics began by defining politics and state (part 1), examining the reasons for the dissatisfaction with the current political process manifested in the Occupy and Tea Party movements (part 2), and then examining the theological (part 3) and ethical principles (part 4) important for articulating a Christian perspective on politics. Part 5 discussed various models of church-state relationships, emphasizing the intertwined nature of politics and religion. Part 6 explored the moral gulf that separates liberals and conservatives in much contemporary public discourse and this installment assessing the character of candidates for political office. The final post will answer the question, Was Jesus a politician?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religion and politics - part 6

This post, part 6 in my post on Religion and Politics, examines the moral gulf that separates liberals and conservatives.

Some research by prominent University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt (known for his research on happiness) and colleagues about liberals and conservatives surprised me. (Cf. Thomas B. Edsall, “The Gulf of Morality,” New York Times, November 13, 2011 at

Their research showed that liberals:

      Say it feels wrong to fire an employee who needs a job

      Is wrong for rich kids to inherit a lot of money and poor children nothing

      Have tender, concerned feelings for the less fortunate

      Believe peace is extremely important

      Have understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature

      Want to rehabilitate offenders

Conservatives, in contrast:

      Want to pay employees based on contribution to firm’s success

      Feel that social status and prestige, control or dominance, count for more than people and resources

      Believe that war is sometimes best way to resolve conflict

      Think nothing is wrong in getting back at someone who hurts you

      Emphasize an “eye for an eye”

      Believe all children need to learn respect for authority

Haidt and his colleagues then analyzed those differences using five sets of values. Liberals focus on just two of the five sets: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Conservatives emphasize all five: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. If the research is correct, then much of the political discourse in the U.S. unsurprisingly generates more heat than light because participants speak from radically different perspectives.

In the abstract, I can identify a Christian basis for the five sets of values. The importance of protecting from harm and exercising care incorporates the values of beneficence and nonmaleficence (cf. part 4 in this series of posts). Fairness and reciprocity have their roots in the concept of justice as fairness. In-group/loyalty is the most problematic of the five sets of values because Christianity emphasizes that our loyalty to God should transcend all boundaries and that love for neighbor knows no bounds, encompassing even love for one’s enemies. Respect and authority have roots in human dignity and freedom, although the latter imposes constraints on authority. Christians rightly debate the appropriate balance between freedoms and authority. Purity and sanctity are similarly basic Christian values, but people will vehemently disagree about the proper balance between individual and social responsibility for purity and sanctity.

The continuing controversy over humanitarian foreign aid illustrates the divide separating liberals and conservatives. Humanitarian foreign aid totals $3 billion per year, approximately 0.5% of the federal government’s budget. Christian organizations, including the National Council of Churches, Catholic Relief Services, and Bread for the World, support continuing this aid.

However, 56% of evangelical Christians oppose this aid, maintaining that it is not the federal government’s responsibility to provide overseas humanitarian aid. My guess is that evangelical conservatives oppose humanitarian foreign aid, at least in part, because the aid breaks in-group boundaries to aid non-members (i.e., foreigners). At least three factors undercut their opposition. First, providing humanitarian aid supports U.S. foreign policy goals, e.g., building support for the U.S. and its policies among foreign constituencies. Second, private aid seems unlikely to meet the extensive, often life-threatening need. The largest Protestant organization providing overseas aid spends a paltry $308 million per year on missionaries and assistance combined. Third and most importantly, Jesus taught and practiced an inclusive love in which love for neighbor transcended ethnic and national boundaries. The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, former Dean of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral (Episcopal), echoing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, has commented, “Our real situation is that the human race is one community living in one home” (Soul’s Journey, 63).

Haidt’s research is regrettably incomplete. For example, most conservatives value fiscal prudence and equal opportunity. As the analysis of wealth, incomes, and federal spending in part 1 of this series demonstrated, the U.S. is in trouble both because of the growing disparity between rich and poor and the federal government’s excessive spending. Conservatives (e.g., in the Tea Party) rightly call our attention as citizens and Christians to those problems. George Packer in his article, “The Broken Contract” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2011, 30-31), wrote

The persistence of this trend toward greater inequality over the past 30 years suggests a kind of feedback loop that cannot be broken by the usual political means. The more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the well-connected rich acquire, which makes it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price. That, in turn, frees them up to amass more money, until cause and effect become impossible to distinguish.

He concludes, “Inequality undermines democracy” (31).

My next post in this series on Religion and Politics will address the issue of whether an individual candidate’s character is important in politics.