Thursday, June 30, 2011

Some data about the war on drugs

A recent Ethical Musings post suggested ending the war on drugs. The Economist recently published this chart about cocaine usage and prices using data from a United Nations 2011 report:

The data is surprising. In spite of the war on drugs and embarrassingly high rates of incarceration, the United States ranks third when compared to European nations on the percentage of the population who use cocaine. Only Spain and Britain rank higher.

Similarly, the United States ranks third, in comparison to the European nations, for the cost of a gram of cocaine. It appears that the war on drugs drives up the cost of illegal drugs without effectively reducing consumption.

The United States could more advantageously spend money now spent on prosecuting the war on drugs and incarcerating convicted felons addressing the issues that lead people to choose to use illegal drugs: hopelessness, dislocation, lack of community, etc.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The biology of ethics

My posts at Ethical Musings have frequently connected biology, especially cognitive science, with ethics, theology, and spirituality (e.g., God and the brain, Solving the mind-body problem, and Moral choices and moral autonomy). A review article, “The Biology of Ethics,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 12, 2011) on philosopher Patricia Churchland makes some of those connections far more eloquently.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Time is short

Time is short. No, this is not a prediction about the end of the world. That event is far from imminent, unpredictable, and more likely better understood by astrophysicists than theologians.

Time is short in terms of each person’s longevity. Even for a newborn baby who will live 100 plus years, time is short. A person can dramatically shorten his or her life but cannot double or even increase by fifty percent her or his possible lifespan.

Awareness of life’s brevity seems to increase with age. Young adults, like many of those to whom I ministered as a military chaplain, often feel both invincible and as if they will live forever. Conversely, some of the very elderly to whom I have ministered have felt as if in a holding pattern, waiting to die.

Some data from the 2010 American Time Use Survey by the U.S. Labor Department prompted these reflections (Joe Light, “Leisure Tops Learning in Survey,” Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011). On average, Americans age 15 and older spent 3hours, 58 minutes working in 2010. That’s a decrease of six minutes from 2009 and twenty-six minutes from 2007. The decreases probably reflect both higher unemployment rates and an aging population.

What’s interesting is how people use their additional non-work time. Watching TV increased by five minutes, to 2 hours, 31 minutes per day. Sleep time also increased five minutes a day. Leisure time on a computer increased 13 minutes per day between 2007 and 2010.

The survey involved interviews with 13,200 people. Changes tend to be small. Interpreters deemed the amount of additional time spent watching TV, sleeping, and using the computer – 23 of the 26 minute decrease in work time between 2007 and 2010 – to indicate significant demographic trends.

The person who wishes to live abundantly, to live fully and well, would seem well advised to spend his or her time wisely. Each moment is lived only once. At the end of one’s life, will an extra 30.4 hours of television per year really have enriched one’s life? Will an extra 122 hours of computer time per year come with subsequent regrets?

The abundant life invites us to live intentionally, to choose those activities that seem most likely to bring happiness. Some TV and computer time are good things. Adequate sleep, especially for a harried and overworked person, can be a very good thing. What is the right balance to seek for each individual?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Expand Social Security?

The Social Security system provides an important, arguably essential, economic benefit for many elderly in the U.S. As is well known, Social Security appears set to run out of money in 2037. I’ve written about this topic several times (e.g., Ethical Musings: Privatizing Social Security and Ethical Musings: Musings about freedom and rules). Two recent items deserve attention.

First, the Wall Street Journal recently published an interactive website that allows the user to explore the implications of potential fixes for Social Security’s financial problems (click on the “Interactive Graphics” tab at Saving Social Security). Surprisingly, the calculator suggests that one fix for that problem is subjecting all earnings to the social security tax, not just the first $106,800, as is currently the case, while capping benefits to those higher earners at current levels. The cap on earnings subject to the tax has never made sense to me; now it makes even less sense. Only 6% of workers earn more than $106,800 per year.

Second, Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer, makes what I think is a persuasive case for raising rather than cutting Social Security benefits in a New York Times Op-Ed column (“Get Radical: Raise Social Security,” June 19, 2011). Among Geoghegan’s significant points:

·         Social Security now pays 39% of the current retiree’s pre-retirement earnings

·         A significant number of elderly people live on less than $10,000 per year

·         34% of Americans have nothing saved for retirement.

Geoghegan argues for raising social security payments to 50% of a worker’s pre-retirement income, a level that he contends is affordable, would not cost the nation jobs (he operates his own small business as a lawyer), and would move the U.S. from the cellar to the middle of the pack in terms of how industrialized nations care for the elderly.

Morally, care for the elderly is a basic tenet in most religions (some will speak in terms of respect, but verbally honoring the elderly while watching them subsist on incomes that force choices between food, shelter, and healthcare is not respect). Selfishly, we all hope to join the ranks of the elderly someday – the alternative is an early death, which most of us find rather unattractive.

Taking care of the elderly is an example of reciprocal altruism: my taxes today provide for today’s elderly in the expectation that future generations will provide for me in my dotage.

Some other adjustments to Social Security certainly lack any Christian moral objection, e.g., increasing the full retirement age at which a person can collect full Social Security benefits. As people live longer, healthier lives, increasing the full retirement age can make sense. Idleness too often promotes unconstructive or even destructive behavior. The author of I Timothy warns against youthful widows attempting to “game” the church’s welfare system.

However, Christians should also remember a second basic moral premise: God's preferential concern for the disadvantaged among us. Admittedly, people should exercise some initiative and responsibility in planning for retirement. However, penalizing those who have failed to do so by forcing them to choose between food, shelter, and essential healthcare because they live on less than $10,000 per year is wrong.

Furthermore, not everybody is capable of holding a high paying job nor do sufficient high paying jobs exist for everyone who wants one to have one. Farmworkers, for example, average $10-12 per hour, or $20,000-$24,000 per year, presuming the person works 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year. Farmworkers provide an essential service (I, for one, like to eat) and have little realistic expectation of ever earning more than that much money. After paying taxes, buying food, providing clothing and shelter, and paying other essential expenses, expecting a farmworker to save a substantial sum for retirement is ridiculous.

In Geoghegan’s words, “Who are we for?” I, for one, am for God's people – all of them. The Social Security system and its associated taxes are a relatively painless way of providing a minimal standard of living for our elderly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thinking about religious knowledge

A friend sent me a link to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times about Harold Camping’s claim about the date of the Rapture, a claim now proven false (cf. Gary Gutting, “Epistemology and the End of the World,” June 16, 2011). For readers not versed in Christian theology, some fundamentalist Christians believe that God will take all Christians alive at some particular moment in time and transport them to heaven, an event known as the Rapture. I’ve written about Harold Camping’s claims before (cf. Ethical Musings: When democracy becomes tyranny).

Religious claims depend upon knowledge claims for which no objective evidence exists, i.e., revealed knowledge accessed through either scripture or personal experience. That said, philosophy encounters the same difficulty since pure reason (as postulated by Immanuel Kant, for example) does not exist (cognitive science offers expanding evidence that human thoughts and inextricably intertwined with emotions and experience).

So the question, in my estimation, is to determine for oneself the experiences and sources are sufficiently trustworthy as a basis for constructing one’s life. I find the lives of people who have lived good lives writ large (aka saints and moral exemplars), honored traditions including scripture, and consistency (e.g., all of the world’s major religions teaching the Golden Rule) helpful. If people gave more thought to the question of the veracity of religious claims, I suspect the world would have fewer Harold Campings and each of them would have fewer followers (also cf. Ethical Musings: Thinking about truth).

Many scriptures including the Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita claim to contain the truth. One does not have to read these works very carefully to realize that a literal reading of one conflicts with a literal reading of the others. How is a person to know which to trust?

If God exists, there is only one ultimate reality. If God is loving, then that loving ultimate reality wants a relationship with everyone, not just a narrow ideologically or geographically defined group. The points of agreement – consensus – within the various scriptures that are discovered by approaching the scriptures as windows through which God's light shines or as metaphors through which God's word is heard provide a more substantial basis for constructing the good life than does a literal reading. This is why a towering Christian saint such as Martin Luther King, Jr., found inspiration not only in the Bible but also by studying lives as varied as those of Mahatma Gandhi and Francis of Assisi.

Real differences exist in religious traditions. Some of those differences result from the inability to speak in human language of the divine. Many of the differences are cultural or historical. Yet other differences result from varied emphases: Judaism, for example, emphasizes social justice and Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the inner journey. At their best, each religious tradition contributes valuable insights. Pilgrims are well advised to choose a path but to look left and right, not just straight ahead, to learn from fellow pilgrims on different paths.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Equal rights for Saudi women

Women want the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Prohibiting women from driving motor vehicles by law has no basis in the Koran or Islam. Instead, the ban has its roots in traditional Arab misogyny. Depriving women of the right to drive is part of the effort to control women, whom Arab conservatives view as objects to possess and therefore of temptation rather than as human beings.

Directly supporting the Saudi women who in recent weeks have flaunted the ban on their driving is difficult, generally impossible, for people in non-Arab countries. However, people of faith can keep Saudi women in our prayers, discourage our governments from uncritically supporting the Saudi regime, and encourage views of Arabs and Islam that consider factors other than oil.

Supporters of the full civil rights for Saudi women (the ban on driving is but one aspect of a complex legal code designed to keep women subjugated to men) can also act by reducing their dependence on petroleum. Western oil imports literally fuel the Saudi economy. The Saudi king is spending $150 billion in an attempt to buy peace in that dessert land, trying to prevent the “Arab spring” from spreading to his kingdom. The United States, for example, imports 13% of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Effecting energy independence from oil would undermine the short-term stability of the Saudi regime; in the long-term, growing demand for oil by China and India will more than compensate for any reduction in western imports.

Reducing Saudi oil revenues not only reduces the income of the Saudi royal family but also reduces funding to the Wahhabi sect of Islam with which the royal family has close ties and which teaches the subjugation of women as part of its understanding of Islam. That teaching reflects a dramatic revision in what Mohammed taught. His aim was to elevate women to be the equal of men. He himself worked for a woman, Khadija, whom he subsequently married. He also taught that women have the right to own property, to inherit property, and to divorce – all precepts the Wahhabis reject.

Advocating full civil rights for Saudi women can also be a constructive catalyst for western men and women to reconsider their behavior and attitude toward women:

·         Do both partners share equally in housework? Survey data consistently show that in mixed gender households in which both partners are employed, the woman shoulders a disproportionate share of the housework.

·         Are tasks in a mixed gender household or work situation shared/assigned based on gender stereotypes or individual interests/abilities?

·         Do comments and thoughts treat members of the gender to which one is attracted as objects or persons? Sex sells. The media is full of images that presume the consumer/viewer will respond affirmatively to messages that treat attractive people as sex objects.

·         If religious, does the religious organization to which you belong treat women as second-class people? Reasons for such policies variously include tradition, incorrect interpretation of scripture, and male dominance. Religious communities should set the standard for welcoming and incorporating all people, regardless of gender, as equally worthy of dignity and respect, equally worthy of filling all roles within the community.

Jesus warned that those who would judge should look for the mote within their own eye before judging another. Dehumanization of anyone is wrong. But as we campaign to end egregious treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, we do well to examine our treatment of women to eradicate any remaining vestiges of bias and prejudice.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Discerning God's presence in a secular society

A month ago, I attended Evensong on a Wednesday at Winchester Cathedral. The Cathedral has a daily schedule of services that features Holy Eucharist and morning and evening prayer. About 60 people were present that evening, in addition to six vested clergy, twenty-two paid choristers, two vergers, and the organist. The size and apparently youthful (anybody without gray hair!) congregation impressed me. The service was beautiful and well-conducted in a place in which Christians have prayed daily for over 1000 years.

The second reading was Jesus’ parable of flood waters washing away a house built without a foundations while a house built on stone stood strong against the ravages of weather (Luke 6:47-49). Sitting in a choir stall that monks had once occupied, aware of the plunge in housing prices that had devastated many in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the warning not to construct one’s life on sand had special poignancy. Gazing at the magnificent stone work that still stood strong, with exposed beams high overhead evocative of a ship’s framing (perhaps because I’m a former naval chaplain and like the image of the church as the ark of our salvation), the injunction to build on stone also had a special emotional power.

Then the officiant announced that the chaplain and several students from a local college were present with family members, this being their graduation week. So much for hoping that a revitalized Christianity had established a toehold in Winchester! I did give thanks that the chaplaincy had sufficiently engaged at least a large handful of students such that those students would attend Evensong with their families. In the States, it is easy to forget how secular Europe has become and how marginalized the Church of England is.

Two weeks later, I wrote this on the 61st anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, site of Allied invasions that, after a hard fought campaign, liberated Western Europe from the Nazis, brought a much belated end to the Holocaust, and culminated in Hitler’s suicide.

Tourism is an economic force here in Normandy. It feels impossible to escape from other tourists speaking English in a variety of accents, the occasional Chinese, Scandinavian or Italian, and, to my surprise, a considerable number of Germans. In fact, there are enough German tourists that some signs and brochures actually use French, English, and German.

Why would Germans choose to visit Normandy? Some almost certainly have family members who during WWII fought, were wounded, or perhaps died in Normandy. Others may want to learn more about German history. And some may simply want to vacation at a scenic seashore with great food. But for whatever reasons, they are present in surprising numbers and I have seen no signs of anti-German sentiments.

Another shooting war between the United Kingdom, France, and Germany seems highly improbable, perhaps even impossible. These nations and peoples that fought as bitter enemies for centuries are now bound together in the European Union (EU) by common political, legal, economic, and social ties.

Does the EU rest on solid foundations, like the house built on stone in Jesus’ parable? Conversations with European friends, acquaintances, and strangers give me hope that it might – in spite of the economic stresses placed on the Euro by the economically weaker members of the European Union. Europeans remain aware of the death toll and pervasive destruction of WWI and WWII. European nations recognize that they have passed the apogee of their individual power and glory; future success depends more on mutual cooperation than nationalism. Today, no European nation has the military capacity to wage a European, let alone global, war.

So what does this have to do with the Church proclaiming the gospel? If a secularized Europe is on the cusp of a more perfect union in which they beat most of their swords into plows, what message does the Church have to proclaim?

A media circus surrounded Harold Camping’s latest prediction of the Rapture. Thankfully, most Episcopalians do not subscribe to any eschatological theory involving the Rapture, with or without a timeline supplied by Harold Camping. What then do we believe? That in Jesus God’s love broke into the world, precipitating the arrival of God’s kingdom that even now moves toward fulfillment?

I have visited WWII military cemeteries with the graves of thousands upon thousands of war dead. I have seen memorials to the war dead in French and British cities and towns in which the WWI dead far outnumber those who died in WWII. I have visited Nazi death camps and know that the numbers killed in those camps dwarf the WWI death toll. I have seen photos and read stories of the millions killed by dictators, famine, plague, and other disasters. And I understand why Christians are wary of naïve triumphalism and often very reluctant to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world.

Yet, is that not our hope? Do we believe only in some deferred, post-death form of justice or do we believe that Jesus’ message of love and justice will someday prevail on earth?

The Jewish prophets were not foretellers but discerners of God at work in the world. If Christianity is to be credible in the twenty-first century, then we too need prophets, not foretellers (i.e., Harold Camping and others who think that they can tell the future need not apply).

Moves in Europe away from nationalism and toward pan-Europeanism are one sign that God is at work in the world. Moves in the United States and elsewhere toward full civil rights for all – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion – are other signs that God is at work. Although secular forces contributed to all of those moves, I believe that those moves have their roots in Christianity’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of all and Christianity’s demand for justice on earth; I believe that the impetus for those moves is from God.

The way that leads to the fullness of God’s kingdom is neither flat nor easy. Numerous unforeseen and unnecessary detours lie ahead, replete with tragedy, perhaps of greater magnitude than any humans have yet experienced. Yet let us boldly declare: God is at work; progress toward the fullness of God’s kingdom is not only possible but also visible. We build on a foundation of solid rock, one able to withstand the strongest tempest. Christianity that offers no bold hope for tomorrow is indeed an unattractive gospel.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ending the war on drugs

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has called for decriminalizing possession of marijuana (which he first did in 1977 while President) and ending the U.S. war on drugs. Briefly, the war on drugs has cost billions of dollars, imprisoned thousands of people (mostly minorities), and proven ineffectual.

More than three of every 100 adult Americans is in prison or on parole, seven times the rate in Europe. Are Americans that much more prone to break the law than in Europe? Are American law enforcement efforts that much better than European efforts? Or, has the war on drugs produced unanticipated adverse consequences?

Meanwhile, global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008.

President Carter, an evangelical Christian, is not endorsing the use of mind-altering drugs but calling for public policies that make sense (and cents!). Incarcerating a person for one year costs between $25,000 and $50,000. Decriminalizing marijuana would allow the government to tax marijuana sales, creating another revenue stream for cash strapped state and local governments.

My wife and I spend several weeks a year in Europe, often renting an apartment. Pick pockets can be a problem in isolated areas, e.g., public squares and train stations in Rome. We walk miles in London, Paris, and other cities, visiting tourist sites and other, less commonly visited areas. Unlike during our visits to major U.S. cities, we have yet to feel a threat to our personal safety when abroad.

Historically, the consumption of opiates soared in the U.S. following the Civil War. Wounded veterans relied on morphine, which is highly addictive, to ease their pain. Veterans with less visible wounds (like the then unknown problem of post-traumatic stress disorder) and other people developed drug dependencies. Coke derived its name and gained much of its popularity because its original formula included a small amount of cocaine. Other factors (time, changing the formula for coke, persons not wanting to become like the addicts they observed) ameliorated the situation then and will work now.

Clearly, consuming mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs does not lead to the good life for healthy people. A person in great pain from incurable cancer exemplifies a reasonable exception to that generalization. However, waging a war on drugs has not proven an effective aid in dissuading people from using illegal drugs and has imposed great financial and even greater social costs on the U.S.

Few short cuts exist for human transformation. The path to eudemonia, socially and individually, is often fraught with danger and temptation. Effectively encouraging people to refuse to use illegal drugs requires that people have realistic expectations of being able to attain a better life, healthy relationships, and healthy self-respect.

Sadly, in some American cities young black men have few positive opportunities for legitimate success. Good jobs simply do not exist in our urban ghettos. Consequently, a disproportionate number of young military enlistees are black males from these cities. They routinely and without drama would tell me that they had enlisted because their odds for survival in the military were better than their odds for survival at home. Failing to address these growing social problems sets the stage for future violence and social disruption.

In a recent series of comments on a Wall Street Journal article, AARP Pivots on Social Security Benefit Cut (click on the comments tab), I argued that morality is both social and individual. Social morality encompasses our responsibility to provide a minimum standard of living for the elderly as well as to afford a realistic opportunity for earning a decent standard of life to every resident.

The problems of healthy relationships and self-respect are issues that public policy can address but also issues that the Church must tackle. Salvation in the world’s major religions is best understood as transformation for a better life today rather than as an amorphous future hope. The crisis in family life today is not the advent of same sex marriages (which is a good thing) but in the number of single parent households and the number of children who grow up without the father’s active involvement and support. Religious groups must stop chasing shibboleths and start engaging the real issues.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Some events and thoughts worth pondering

Several items worthy of note have attracted my attention, though I find no common theme linking them:

1.    Medicare saves the taxpayer money. Economist Paul Krugman calculates that Medicare expenditures rose 400% between 1969 and 2009. In that same 40 year period, Krugman calculates that private healthcare insurance costs rose a whopping 750%. (Paul Krugman, “Medicare Saves Money,” New York Times, June 12, 2011) The 350% gap in cost increases represents a huge potential savings. Apparently, government run health insurance programs do some have some significant financial advantages.

2.    Debate is now raging within the Obama administration over proposed timetables for withdrawing from Afghanistan. How quickly can the U.S. withdraw its troops without destabilizing Pakistan or ceding gains to the Taliban? For one discussion of this issue, see David Ignatius, “Testing the Afghan exit ramps,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2011. From my perspective, the sooner and more rapid the withdrawal, the better it will be. Afghanistan has a corrupt government; a variety of local powers exercise the real authority in most of Afghanistan; the U.S. extending its stay another day, week, year, or decade will achieve little.

3.    Columnist Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times characterized the U.S. military as liberal (“Our Lefty Military,” June 15, 2011). Kristof rightly notes that the military has been at the forefront of social change: racial integration, gender equality, support for families (e.g., low cost childcare), etc. Forecasts of gloom and doom over full inclusion of gays in the military fail to appreciate this history. That said, the military remains an inherently conservative institution with respect to patriotism and national defense.

4.    An item in ScienceNews describes (tongue in cheek, I hope!) war as good:

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing except cooperation. Violent conflict makes it more likely that people on the same side will sacrifice to punish uncooperative comrades and reward accommodating ones, say marketing professor Ayelet Gneezy of the University of California, San Diego and anthropologist Daniel Fessler of the University of California, Los Angeles. Israeli volunteers played two-person cooperation games for potential cash payoffs before, during and after Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. Wartime players frequently surrendered money in order to deny payments to noncooperators and gave money to cooperators, the researchers report online June 8 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (Bruce Bower, News In Brief: Humans,” June 13, 2011)

5.    Unfolding events in Pakistan are concerning. Pakistan has apparently arrested the Pakistani citizens who informed the CIA of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The Pakistani Army’s Chief of Staff is under internal pressure to resign for not having prevented U.S. intrusions into Pakistan. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, has an ongoing conflict with India (another nuclear power) over Kashmir, lacks a stable civilian government, and elements of its military has close ties with radical Islamist elements in tribal areas that the central government has never controlled. In short, Pakistan is a likely candidate to become either the second nation to use nuclear weapons or the nation that by losing control of its nuclear weapons enables radical Islamists to obtain nuclear weapons. Continued disrespect for Pakistan by the U.S. and other western nations who expect Pakistan to act in their best interest will only exacerbate the problem. Occasional interdictions, such as the one that killed bin Laden, are, I believe, morally justifiable and probably politically tolerable within Pakistan. Frequent interdictions (e.g., numerous missile strikes launched from unmanned drones) and highly vocal political criticism and attempts to pressure Pakistan (e.g., what happened at recent Congressional hearings) will backfire.

6.    American cowardice disappoints me. Kentucky politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and both parties’ candidates for governor, have objected to the U.S. Department of Justice planning to try two alleged foreign terrorists in Kentucky. The suspects were arrested in Kentucky and planned to carry out some of the crimes with which they are charged in Kentucky. The Justice Department is treating this case like any other and Kentucky is the most appropriate venue for the trial. The politicians and their allies want to send the suspects to Gitmo and have them tried before military tribunals. Thankfully, a group of retired military lawyers has spoken out against this move, arguing that the military does not have jurisdiction and that the military mission is national defense, not administration of justice. The politicians’ rationale for insisting on a change in venue? They are afraid that the terrorists might escape and retaliate against the people of Kentucky. Freedom is not free. The Constitution defines basic rights for all people in the U.S., including these two alleged terrorists. Choosing to apply the law and Constitution selectively turns freedom into tyranny because somebody must decide, apart from the rule of law, when the law applies and when it does not. One cost of freedom is accepting the vulnerability that is an inescapable consequence of living in a free society. Freedom, in other words, demands courage. Political leaders instead of pandering to base instincts such as cowardice should inspire us to live courageously.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Anglican Covenant and the "Dominant Melody"

The proposed Anglican Covenant is un-American. More precisely, the proposed Covenant conflicts with the ethos of The Episcopal Church (TEC), an ethos defined not by sexuality but issues of authority, ecclesiastical culture, and scripture.

TEC tends to be skittish with respect to episcopal authority. On the one hand, we recognize the importance of bishops. The history of Scottish nonjuror Bishops ordaining the first American bishops and the belated recognition of those bishops by Canterbury is well known because of the centrality of bishops to our polity. Similarly, most TEC diocesan bishops are cherished as icons of unity and our connection to the larger church even when their leadership and authority are questioned.

On the other hand, TEC is consistently wary of episcopal authority. Our bicameral General Convention, diocesan standing committees and annual conventions, elected bishops, and many other aspects of TEC polity intentionally limit episcopal authority. Indeed, emotionally charged concerns about episcopal authority still occasionally surprise me, e.g., comments about selecting a bishop instead of a lay person or priest as TEC chief operating officer, comments focused not on the individual selected but a general wariness about enlarging episcopal authority.

Our mixed feelings about episcopal authority emerge out of our ecclesiastical culture. For better and worse, that cultural ethos is individualistic and egalitarian, attributes reflective of our national culture. Both attributes are also arguably biblical – but only when held in tension with the communal. Jesus instructed his followers to love one another. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches; Paul’s epistles describe Jesus as the head and Christians as parts of a body. These metaphors intimately connect Christians in community with one another and with Jesus.

Historically, Episcopalians have struggled to balance connectivity and individual autonomy. Embracing full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) exemplifies a high point in this balancing act. TEC recognized that Christian unity was of greater value than was consistently maintaining our understanding of ecclesial authority. Our bold acceptance of the ordination of existing ELCA clergy as valid enabled TEC and ELCA to chart a mutual path of present communion and future convergence.

Similarly, TEC clergy and laity generally hear the message of scripture colored by a dominant melody that affirms the dignity and worth of all people. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is made in God’s image. Consequently, people within TEC hear a scriptural mandate to ordain people based on calling and gifts, not marital history, gender, or sexual orientation. Increasing numbers of non-TEC Anglicans hear the same dominant melody.

However, loud voices from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion hear a radically different melody in scripture, sometimes claiming that it is scripture’s one true melody, which everyone must sing to be faithful to Jesus. This melody has prompted calls, often amplified in the media, for TEC to adopt a more authoritarian episcopate, to disenfranchise laity in episcopal elections, and to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual ethics. Diminishing numbers of TEC voices echo this melody; most who want to sing this melody have decamped for what they hope are more congenial choirs. The latest high profile defection was St. Luke’s parish in Bladensburg, MD, leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.

Christian unity is necessarily, though sadly, more mystical than organic. If this were not true, then only one branch would be the true branch of the vine and the other branches among whom organic unity does not exist – the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and various Protestant denominations – would all be heretics. Thankfully, most of the Church formally abandoned such thinking in the last century. For example, ELCA and TEC were both fully part of the body of Christ even before anyone dreamt of organic intercommunion. Similarly, TEC, the various North American splinter groups, and Anglican provinces distressed by TEC actions remain mystically united as branches of the vine that is Christ, regardless of what they (or we!) say.

Authoritarian ecclesial structures almost inevitably lead to further schism and division. There is no reason to think that the proposed Anglican Covenant with its implicit effort to define orthodox belief and explicit centralized authority structure (i.e., the disciplinary process) would be an exception to that generalization.

In fact, some provinces in the Anglican Communion have already decided de facto to exit. A global consortium of dissident provinces and voices (the Global Anglican Futures Conference – GAFCON) has initiated steps to establish alternative instruments of communion and unity among themselves that exclude TEC and like-minded Anglican provinces. Those moves seem to have an irreversible momentum. A unified Anglican Communion now exists only in appearance and not substance, a disparity whose roots probably predate the current conflicts over gender and sexual orientation.

As two recent and thoughtful Daily Episcopalian essays emphasized (Gay Jennings, We are ignoring the covenant we've already got; Winnie Varghese, The covenant before us is not the covenant we need), TEC agreeing to the proposed Anglican Covenant would be a mistake. We must heed God’s voice as we discern it, honoring our individual autonomy and equal dignity as a branch of the vine. The Covenant, quite simply, is un-American.

Nevertheless, TEC remains one branch of the larger vine that is Christ and has many branches. If the Anglican Communion adopts the proposed Covenant and subsequently relegates TEC to second-class status, so be it. This possibility feels sort of like historical déjà vu, a repeat of what happened following the American Revolution. Those events did not cripple the nascent TEC nor permanently impair the Anglican Communion.

Indeed, the mystical unity of the Church transcends every division, challenging us to demonstrate the visible unity of the Church in spite of its organic fractures. Do we, for example, invite TEC dissidents or schismatics to tea or to an ecumenical prayer service as often as we do others with whom we have equally strong basic disagreements (the Roman Catholics, the fundamentalist Baptist, the Latter Day Saints, etc.)? Do we show more love to members of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, etc.) than to those of our own tradition with whom we disagree?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Learning to live

While in London, I attended a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. The play was the basis for the more famous musical, My Fair Lady. Both play and musical tell the story of Liza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl in London whom the great professor of diction, Henry Higgins, adopts as a project to prove his pedagogical prowess. As one might expect, the musical has a happier ending than does the play, yet in both Higgins succeeds as a catalyst for the transformation of the flower girl into a proper English lady.

Also unsurprisingly, characters in the play have greater depth than they do in the musical, because the play does not interrupt the plot or character development for music. In the play, the transformed Liza recognizes Henry for the selfish, manipulative, and unfeeling brute that he is. She poignantly admires and prefers her treatment by Higgins’ colleague, Colonel Pickering, who treated her from the beginning as a lady, to Higgins’ rudeness in spite of her attraction to Higgins.

Watching Pygmalion prompted me to wonder how many well-intentioned efforts to transform people – organized programs by government, schools, and churches as well as personal endeavors – suffer because of arrogant presumptions of superiority on the part of the would be transformers. Liza Doolittle’s encounter with Henry Higgins does transform her from a flower girl into a lady. Much more importantly, Liza also experiences and recognizes a second transformation from a self-centered person into a person who selflessly cares about and for other people.

Is that not one of the real goals of organized religion?

I do not know if Shaw conceived Pygmalion as a critique of religion, but the play is a moving social commentary on the Victorian Church that sought to perpetuate what Shaw called “middle-class morality.” This is a morality of form over substance, a morality that does not promote human flourishing.

Too often, religion has sought to create “cardboard characters,” one-dimensional people who exhibit a certain set of characteristics (diction, dress, and manners – that is, the type of transformation Higgins anticipated for Liza). I’ve witnessed the legacy of this type of missionary activity in Hawaii; examples abound in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Religion becomes an excuse to export culture and to justify exploitation rather than a means of transformation from selfishness to unselfishness, from individual into community, and from less to more aware of the ultimate.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What is church?

What is church? A recent column in the New York Times started me thinking about that question (Mark Oppenheimer, “The Church That Oprah Winfrey Built,” May 27, 2011).

The column infers that Oprah through her show created a “church,” a community of people whose spiritual needs are met through her program and associated products, especially the books that she features.

As Islam expands in the United States, and to a lesser degree in other western countries, imams face new expectations. People look to the imam for pastoral guidance, for community leadership, and for organizing social, welfare, and educational programs at the mosque. In other words, the mosque instead of being simply a place of prayer becomes the focal point of a community who look to the mosque and its leader to meet their spiritual needs. Western culture transforms a distinctive Muslim institution into a hybrid of Islam and Christianity.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), the authors describe a Jewish synagogue, Beth Emet, which is located in a Chicago suburb. Setting that description in the context of American religion, Putnam and Campbell remark about the “Protestantization” of Judaism, the process by which Judaism has responded in a similar fashion to the same type of expectations that Islam has more lately encountered.

More and more people find themselves disenchanted with organized religion but continue to describe themselves as spiritual. In surveys, these people criticize organized religion as hypocritical and unhelpful. Too many congregations focus on the “what” without thinking about the “why.” Consequently, programs exist for the sake of the program and not as a means to the important end of nurturing and celebrating spirituality. Although I strongly disagree with Rick Warren about the purpose of the church, I think he has hit the nail on the head, as his bestseller indicates, by focusing on the purpose driven church (this came out before his better known book, The Purpose Driven Life).

Organized religion needs to rediscover that its real purpose is nurturing and celebrating spirituality. Anything that does not support that mission diverts and distracts.

Christians chart their spiritual path according to the teachings of Jesus. To truly be a Christian church a congregation must be a community of people who seek to walk the Jesus path together. This requires that people know what constitutes spirituality and how to nurture that spirituality in a manner consonant with what Jesus taught.

My guess is that many congregations fall woefully short of that standard. Some small congregations simply focus on keeping the doors open (and the vast majority of Christian congregations are small). Larger, more vibrant congregations may succeed as a community that nurtures and celebrates spirituality more by accident than design, often unable to define with any real measure of clarity what “spirituality” connotes.

The human spirit has six key aspects: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, limited autonomy, creativity, and the capacity to love and be loved. A healthy church will intentionally create a community that emphasizes all six aspects.

For example, an Episcopal congregation at worship will gather in a place where the aesthetics invite attention to the beautiful and that which is greater than the self. The words of the prayers, scripture readings, and sermon will engage the linguistic capacity and invite the gathered to become more of themselves, of one another, and of that which is greater than self, i.e., God. The music will similarly engage the aesthetic sense, linguistic capacity, self-awareness, and – at its best – be a catalyst for creative engagement with the community, the world, and God. Holy Communion will invite people to exercise their limited autonomy to make a choice (whether or not to receive, with the commitment that implies) while continuing the reflection (prayer) begun earlier in worship. Finally, the thrust of the worship in total will be to help people to experience the community’s love for them as an expression of God’s unconditional love, love that impels them at the end of worship to love self, others, and creation more fully.

Of course, no one pattern of community life will fit everybody. Do you participate in a community that nurtures and celebrates your spirituality?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New directions for two wars

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may finally be taking new directions, the former for the worse and the latter for the better.

In Iraq, the U.S. troop withdrawal appears to be progressing on schedule and will hopefully finish this summer. But that will not be the end of the U.S. presence. The State Department has announced plans to spend $3 billion annually employing 5100 armed contractors to protect departmental employees. This commercialization of military force substitutes the profit motive for national service, will probably cost more in the long run than using military personnel, and exacerbates danger to democracy from established private armies. (History has several examples of private armies enabling a tyrant to supplant democratic government, e.g., in Rome.)

Congressional and other calls for expediting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan have grown since the death of Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Afghan government remains corrupt, controls little of that deeply fragmented land, and affords little realistic basis for hoping for significant improvements. The U.S. should declare victory and exit, as Richard Nixon did in Vietnam.

Almost 10,500 American personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The overall death toll is much greater. Now is the time to end the carnage.