Sunday, July 31, 2011

Doing good can pay

Allan Sloan, a columnist for Fortune has concluded, “The U.S. Government’s often maligned $14 trillion intervention not only staved off global collapse – but is making money.” (“Surprise! The Big Bad Bailout is Paying Off,” Fortune, July 25, 2011, pp. 65-70)

The chart (below) summarizes his analysis. For full details, follow the link to his column or do the old-fashioned thing and read it in the magazine.

(“Surprise! The Big Bad Bailout is Paying Off,” Fortune, July 25, 2011, p. 67)

Properly regulated private enterprise generally produces better economic performance than do government owned businesses. However, the U.S. Treasury intervening to keep large financial firms from failing prevented another Depression of the magnitude, or perhaps even greater, of the 1930s Depression. The government seemed to decide arbitrarily which homeowners drowning in mortgage debt to help. The longevity of the automakers’ profitability remains in doubt. Yet taxpayers have made money and kept the economy afloat by doing the right thing.

It’s too bad that Congress and the Executive branch so often find it difficult if not impossible to repeat that performance!
For previous Ethical Musings posts on the bailout, cf. Musings about U.S. economic problems, Individual responsibility - part 3, and Stock market plunge.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sometimes the words in the Bible are wrong

Noted biblical scholar and Episcopalian Marcus Borg is featured in a post on the Episcopal Café, Sometimes the words in the Bible are wrong. The post is worth reading.
The Bible is a window through which God's light shines. The Bible is our primary source for learning about Jesus. But we are not to take the Bible literally or even as the inspired in every word or thought.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rating God

Public Policy Polling, located here in North Carolina, recently released a poll in which respondents rated God's job performance.

Pollsters asked, “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?”

Of the 928 respondents, 52% approved and 9% disapproved. Other questions showed that 56% approve of the way God handles the animal kingdom and 50% approve of God's handling of natural disasters. (For more information, cf. Only 52% of Americans Approve of God's Job Performance - National - The Atlantic Wire and the original press release from Public Policy Polling, Americans’ perception of Congress improves, but still poor.)

Does anyone really think that God cares whether people think God is performing well on the job? Who are we to presume to know what God's job is, let alone rate God's performance? On a positive note, God's performance beats that of Congress, which is really not saying much.

The poll, however, raises an interesting question: what do you expect from your relationship with God?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Musings on eligibility for the priesthood

The first Episcopal nun ordained a priest and the first woman to preach a sermon in Westminster Abbey, the Rev. Mary M. Simpson, died last week at age 85. The ordination of women in the Episcopal Church has infused the Church with new life by recognizing the important gifts for ministry that God has given to women. The welcome and exultation that greeted the election of the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006 testifies to the broad acceptance of, and even reliance upon, ordained women in the Episcopal Church.

In contrast, consider some stark statistics about the Roman Catholic Church:

·         Although the number of Roman Catholics in the U.S. has grown as a percentage of the U.S. population by 1 or 2 percent, the number of Roman Catholic parishes has declined by 7.1% since 2000.

·         The average Roman Catholic parish has 3277 parishioners, up 45% from 2000.

·         The number of Roman Catholic priests has declined by 11% over the last decade. Regardless of recruitment, the decline in the next decade will likely be steeper because of the age demographics of current priests.

·         The total number of priests, men and women religious and deacons in the United States was 117,080 in 2010, a decline of 41 percent from the 197,172 in those categories in 1980.

Officially, the Roman Catholic hierarchy refuses to countenance ordaining women or married men (unless the man was reared in and ordained by the Anglicans, in which case ordination in the Roman Catholic Church is possible).

The refusal to ordain married men is a matter of church discipline rather than theology. Historically, the Christian Church began with married clergy. One website offers this list of married popes:

·         St. Peter, Apostle

·         St. Felix III 483-492 (2 children)

·         St. Hormidas 514-523 (1 son)

·         St. Silverus (Antonia) 536-537

·         Hadrian II 867-872 (1 daughter)

·         Clement IV 1265-1268 (2 daughters)

·         Felix V 1439-1449 (1 son)

Furthermore, the Uniate liturgical rites within the Roman Catholic Church currently ordain married men. These men, however, are ineligible for subsequent ordination as a bishop.

Concurrently, Roman Catholic clergy in three countries are actively protesting the Vatican’s policies against ordaining women and married men. In the United States, one priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois is under investigation for participating in the ordination of a woman priest. One hundred fifty seven priests have signed a letter to the Vatican supporting his right to express his conscience. The woman is part of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group of renegade (in the eyes of the Vatican) Roman Catholics who actively support the ordination of women priests. Excommunication is the penalty for a woman being ordained. In Australia, the Pope removed a bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Morris, from the Diocese of Toowoomba after Bishop Morris wrote the Pope a letter urging the ordination of women and married priests. In Austria, more than 300 priests and deacons have signed a pledge to promote the ordination of women and married priests actively.

The ferment seems likely to have little effect on the Roman Catholic Church or its policies in spite of an acute shortage of priests. Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, seems to have adopted an entrenched position against ordaining women and married men.

Until those policies change, I predict that the Roman Catholic Church will continue to have significant problems with allegedly celibate males behaving inappropriately, even criminally. The Church still lacks the transparency necessary to establish a full and healthy accountability. Exacerbating this unfortunate proclivity is the increasing pressure the Church experiences to replace its diminishing cadre of priests. One priest formerly responsible for priest recruitment told me several years ago that he had requested reassignment when his order insisted on accepting any candidate for ordination, regardless of the candidate’s mental and emotional health. In other words, the Church’s lax standards mean that it is continuing to recruit priests who will become problems even as it seeks to weed out problem priests. Sadly, this immoral behavior shows how sick the Church is, a very different entity from the life-giving community God desires.

Only when the Roman Catholic Church ordains based on God's gifts to an individual for ministry and not based on gender, marital status, gender orientation, or other irrelevant demographic characteristics will the Roman Catholic Church move toward greater organizational health.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sources of the deficit

This chart, published by the White House, summarizes the cause of the curren U.S. financial deficit, graphically illustrating many of the points that I've made in this blog:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Harry Potter Comes to Church

In this morning’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), Jesus asks his disciples if they understood his teaching. That prompted me to consider giving you a reading comprehension test on the gospel, or perhaps all three readings. If that makes you nervous, relax. I did not want to grade the exams nor embarrass any who scored poorly. Truth be told, I strongly suspect the disciples overstated their understanding as well.

On one level, most of us can easily understand the gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven is like an incredibly valuable treasure or pearl beyond price that, like yeast or a rapidly growing tree, spreads in an almost unstoppable manner.

On a deeper level, the gospel can easily seem more obtuse. Some of you will have noticed that I mixed metaphors in explaining how to understand the gospel easily. I conflated the two sets of metaphors that Jesus used to describe two different aspects of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both more precious than anything else is and highly contagious. This is the opposite of our normal expectations. Usually, scarcity drives prices up while contagion cheapens it or even signifies something bad like the flu or panic.

So, do you understand today’s gospel reading?

Before you reply with an answer that you may come to regret, remember that the gospel reading ends with Jesus commenting that people trained for the Kingdom of Heaven will bring what is old and what is new out of their treasure. That, to say the least, sounds difficult.

The old, quite simply, is to love God and our neighbor. Love is the only thing of which I am aware that is beyond price and yet which is unlimited in supply and amazingly contagious. The new, a task of great complexity, is figuring out what those two commands mean each day.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has attracted renewed attention the last couple of weeks with the release of the final movie in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” The movie set the record for the largest ticket sales on the opening weekend of any movie.

Sadly, Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, along with a host of other Christian voices, condemned Harry Potter as unchristian or worse. Less well known is that in October 2007 Rowling publicly stated that Christianity inspired the series and identified herself as a Christian, a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

To digress briefly, the Scottish Episcopal Church, like our Episcopal Church, is part of the Anglican Communion. The American Church owes a debt of gratitude to the Scottish Episcopal Church. Following the American Revolution, we had no bishops. Nobody could be confirmed nor could we ordain new clergy. For different reasons, the Scots were also on the outs with the Church of England and consequently were willing to assist us by ordaining our first three bishops.

The controversy over Harry Potter has two roots. First, some people think that watching fantasy can seduce a person into abandoning God for evil. People who feel that way should read more of the Bible. The Bible contains many of what sailors kindly call sea stories. These include Noah and the ark, Jonah and the fish, and the beast that would rule the world, stories that may have a moral, may have once had a historical basis, but that are now pure fiction. These critics should also pay close attention to this morning’s second lesson (Romans 8:26-39): Nothing – “not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” – can separate us from God. Rowling’s Potter series is the latest in a long line of popular Christian allegories and fantasies that includes C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Second, too often people, perhaps even some of us on occasion, take religious language literally rather than symbolically. That makes appreciating the extensive use of Christian symbolism and themes in Harry Potter difficult if not impossible. Consider a few examples:

·         Unicorns, white stags, and red lions – all featured in Harry Potter – are Christian symbols for the Christ.

·         The evil house at Hogwarts, the school for wizards, is Slytherin, an allusion to the ancient metaphor of the snake as the embodiment of evil.

·         Professor Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and protector, who like a phoenix rises from the dead, is another Christ figure.

·         Inclusivity, all are welcome, reaches a new level in the films as Potter always treats house-elves, werewolves, giants, and even Muggles with equal respect and dignity.

·         Harry Potter usually makes the right choice, consistently tends to act out of love, and eventually triumphs through the power of love. He repeatedly dies a near death only to “rise from the dead.” The scar on his forehead is evocative of our mark as Christians: Holy Baptism. In short, Potter is a Christ-figure, empowered by the blood of his mother.

Mircea Eliade, the highly respected scholar of myth and religion, suggested in his classic work, The Sacred and the Profane, that novels and other literary art forms fill a spiritual hunger in people. Novels provide us a vehicle for imagining the spiritual, a set of images for talking about the spiritual, and suggest that perhaps the spiritual is real. As champion athletes, great artists, top business executives, and other people who excel have discovered, imagining success significantly enhances a person’s ability to achieve success. In other words, watching or reading Harry Potter can help to form us as better Christians, inspiring us with confidence that love does prevail and that we can live lives that are more loving.

As Jesus asked his disciples, do you understand? Amen.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cosmic consequences

James Gleick in Chaos famously cites the “butterfly effect,” the potential for a butterfly moving its wings to alter weather patterns around the globe. Gleick convincingly demonstrates mathematically that small events can have large consequences.

While exercising last week, my wife stepped on a large bug. I commented that she might have altered the cosmos by killing that bug. She immediately replied in the affirmative, saying that she thought the cosmos was now a better place.

In fact, almost every action may have cosmic consequences. (Remember, not acting constitutes an action as well, e.g., had my wife not stepped on the bug that also might have had cosmic consequences – especially if the bug had bitten her!) Unfortunately, the actor rarely will know, or even be able to know, all of the future consequences of a particular action.

One implication of recognizing the potential cosmic consequences of every act is that we should seize every opportunity to be kind, to be loving, to do good, to care for others and the world. Any one of those actions may have enormous cosmic consequences. Betting on positive consequences emerging from positive acts seems a more reasonable bet to me than does the converse: doing something bad in the expectation that the cosmos will consequently become a better place.

At various times in a person’s life, most people doubt whether their individual life has counted for much or made much of a difference. A second implication of the potential cosmic consequences of small acts is that nobody, even the least amongst us, can confidently assert that his/her life has not made the cosmos a better place. The interconnectedness of all life means that even the most isolated person still acts or refrains from acting in ways that potentially alter the future of the cosmos. Each human life is significant because of it incarnates the possibility of dramatically altering the cosmos.

A third implication of small actions changing the cosmos is that God does not need to act in large ways to change a life or even the cosmos. Small acts by God like small acts by any actor can have outsize consequences. Instead of seeking to see God at work in dramatic ways, perhaps people of faith more profitably look to see God at work in ordinary things, making what appears to be a small difference but that has the potential to become something significant.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Experiencing light

Light is an apt metaphor for God, a metaphor central to the thinking of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Physicists do not understand light, which has properties associated with both particles and waves. Theologians (and everybody else!) do not understand God.

Light enables human life, infusing our world with beauty, enabling visual perception, warming and fueling human existence. God does the same.

Carolina has distinctive deep blue skies. Giverny, France, where Monet painted, has an opaque light, equally distinctive not only in Impressionist painting but also when experienced in person. Hong Kong (and many other places) often has a gray light, full of pollutants. I understand how humans can alter light, both for the bad and for the good (the shutters I have installed on my home windows create a light evocative of that in Giverny).

Humans experience God in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the experience of God seems to have more to do with human causes than with God, e.g., in a loving community. Sometimes human actions can obscure God, e.g., the Holocaust. Yet human experience seems to have an intrinsic element of mystery, of something that is greater than finite humans are, even as Carolina skies and Giverny mornings can evoke a similar awareness.

In what ordinary moments do you experience that which transcends the finite, that which is the holy, the ultimate?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Crises can make for bad decisions – part 2

One of the ways that humans deal constructively with crises is to break the problem into manageable parts. U.S. economic woes will benefit from this approach.

One piece is Social Security. A moral fix is relatively simple (cf. Ethical Musings: Expand Social Security?).

A second piece is the federal budget, excluding Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Again, a morally sound fix is relatively simple. First, reduce defense spending for wars that the U.S. will never fight. No nation currently has the ability to challenge U.S. global military superiority. Spending upwards of $50 billion on a new fleet of hyper-bombers is an immoral waste of resources. Second, invest in education. Education helps lift people out of poverty, whether the person is in Africa or the U.S. Many education initiatives have proven ineffective. Eliminate those programs. Adopt new initiatives; don’t reduce education spending (cf. Ethical Musings: Musings about higher education - part 2). Third, eliminate tax loopholes that benefit special interests at the cost of the public good.

The hard pieces are fixing Medicare and Medicaid. As I have repeatedly argued, the U.S. healthcare system is dysfunctional (cf. Ethical Musings: Healthcare coverage for all and Ethical Musings: Free markets and healthcare). Part of the answer consists in more intentionally rationing healthcare (the U.S. now rations healthcare based on ability to pay). David Brooks sketches the problem with poignancy in his column, “Death and Budgets” (New York Times, July 14, 2011). By 2050, the cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients alone is projected at $1 trillion annually. Promises of a cure for cancer have proven elusive in spite of the billions expended. When is palliative care rather than treatment morally justified? Who, with what medical conditions and under what circumstances, should have access to the latest proposed but unproven treatments? How will we as a nation fund healthcare for people (should the economically advantaged pay for their own care, the poor fend for themselves, and the middle-class rely on insurance or does a better approach exist)?

Ayn Rand’s most popular book, Atlas Shrugged, remains popular. In that novel:

One memorable moment in "Atlas" occurs near the very end, when the economy has been rendered comatose by all the great economic minds in Washington. Finally, and out of desperation, the politicians come to the heroic businessman John Galt (who has resisted their assault on capitalism) and beg him to help them get the economy back on track. The discussion sounds much like what would happen today:

Galt: "You want me to be Economic Dictator?"

Mr. Thompson: "Yes!"

"And you'll obey any order I give?"


"Then start by abolishing all income taxes."

"Oh no!" screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. "We couldn't do that . . . How would we pay government employees?"

"Fire your government employees."

"Oh, no!"

Stephen Moore, in the Wall Street Journal column from which I excerpted the above quotation (“'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,” January 9, 2009), appends this paragraph immediately after the excerpt:

Abolishing the income tax. Now that really would be a genuine economic stimulus. But Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Washington want to do the opposite: to raise the income tax "for purposes of fairness" as Barack Obama puts it.

Moore’s sarcasm hides three vital points. First, he presumes that everybody wants as much income as possible. That presumption is patently false. Most people are satisficers, more interested in sufficiency than maximizing income. Eliminating the income tax will cause few of these people to work more; some may, to the detriment of society, work less to earn less. Why would people want less income? Because they value time with family or friends or the freedom to pursue other interests more than they value money.

Second, Moore ignores the essential services that government provides. People who want to live in a nation without reliable government services should relocate from a developed nation to a third world country that lacks a reliable transport infrastructure, well-regulated (i.e., reliable, truthful, and safe) businesses, adequate national defense, etc. The U.S. government for all of its multitudinous faults provides a remarkable set of services for a bargain basement price when compared to other developed nations.

Third, fairness is important. People begin life unfairly. Nobody chooses his or her family of origin; nobody chooses her or his genes. In other words, the two primary determinants of human existence – genetics and nurture – are utterly beyond an individual’s control. By virtue of genetics and nurture, some people are good at producing wealth and others are not. By virtue of genetics and nurture, people are individually unique and collectively able to achieve far more than is possible as any single individual. Rand’s philosophy of individualism is profoundly flawed because she ignores that reality. Government plays an essential role in helping to level the playing field (i.e., improving fairness). Equal access to free public education is integral to this leveling. Income transfers to the elderly, the ill, and in support of children are also ways in which government levels the playing field. Taxing the wealthy more than the poor (progressive tax rates) are fundamental to fairness.

Moore and Rand are both wrong. In times of crisis, including the current economic struggles, pulling together as a single community of communities will produce better and greater results than devolving to individualism.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Crises can make for bad decisions

Economists deeply divide over whether the best solution to the United States’ fiscal woes is to cut spending, raise taxes, or a combination of both. This lack of theoretical consensus has complicated the political debate and already begun to lead to poor decisions.

For example, Congress recently cut the budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) by more than $200 million. What appears a potential sensible budget reduction is in fact just the opposite. The SEC funds its budget by imposing fees on financial firms. Reducing the SEC budget is at best fiscally neutral for the U.S. Treasury. However, the SEC annually contributes hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury in the form of penalties and fines collected. Reducing the SEC budget will curtail enforcement and almost certainly reduce Treasury revenues.

Who benefits from the reduction? The financial firms that the SEC monitors and regulates do because they will pay lower fees (by law, the SEC cannot charge more than it spends). How did the U.S. get into its current quagmire? In large measure, the problem stems to an under regulation of large mortgage firms.

Meanwhile, the driver of the U.S. economy, consumer spending, remains significantly depressed. The auto industry seems likely to sell 28% fewer vehicles this year than in 2001. Home sales are about the same as at the low point in the crisis. More and more consumers face a cash crunch at the end of each month, unable to ease their situation with debt.

Some government spending eases the plight of the consumers, e.g., reducing the payroll tax. Other government spending, though well intentioned, has proven ineffectual, e.g., the tax credit for first time home buyers resulted in increased sales prices for some homes but failed to reduce the backlog of houses on the market.

Dramatic reductions in government spending to balance the budget will most likely see a repetition of what happened when Herbert Hoover was president: the Great Depression. Consumers don’t have money to spend. Business is spending cautiously, waiting for increased demand to justify additional hiring and capital expenditures. That leaves only government to help the economy emerge from its current travail.

Two fundamental principles, both with strong ethical dimensions, which should shape U.S. government responses to current problems, are sustaining the economy in the short-run with spending and balancing the budget in the longer-run to ensure fiscal stability. Government spending in the short-run appropriately expresses communal concern for the most vulnerable (children, the elderly, the ill, etc.). Balanced budgets in the longer-term expresses a commitment that this generation not prosper by imposing a diminished prosperity on the next.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The duty of elected officials

Incivility has reached a new, disturbing low. The city Council in the small Arkansas town of Gould has passed an ordinance forbidding the formation of any group in town without the Council’s permission and a second ordinance forbidding the mayor to meet with anyone without the Council’s permission. Both ordinances are patently unconstitutional, violating the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of free right of assembly.

The intransigence of political ideologues in Washington makes me wonder about our future as a nation.

The Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has proposed a new approach to resolving the developing crisis over the federal debt ceiling. He suggests Congress passing legislation authorizing the President to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress acts to disapprove the move. If Congressional action triggers a Presidential veto, Congress would have to disapprove the increase in the debt ceiling by a two-thirds majority to block the increase. This proposal inverts the normal legislative process, shifting responsibility from the legislative to the executive branch and pushing the U.S. further along a slippery slope toward dictatorship. McConnell’s move is politically inspired; he wants to avoid the need for Republicans to vote to increase the debt ceiling.

Election to political office confers prestige, power, and income. Election to political office also confers responsibility to act in the best interest of the electorate. Federal office holders explicitly affirm that obligation when they take their oath of office, swearing to uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. An elected leader in the U.S. has a primary duty to uphold the Constitution, a duty that outweighs potentially conflicting duties to self, family, electorate, etc.

Clearly, the members of the Gould city Council have failed to fulfill that duty. The members of the U.S. Congress seem bent on emulating that bad example.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Discerning a basis for human rights and dignity

In her Opinion column, “The Sacred and the Humane,” Anat Bletzki argues that human rights are properly the domain of philosophical rather than theological ethics (New York Times, July 17, 2011). Tellingly, she defines religion as “a system of myth and ritual; it is a communal system of propositional attitudes — beliefs, hopes, fears, desires — that are related to superhuman agents.” That definition precludes much modern theology that has abandoned the idea of superhuman agents as untenable.

Bletzki’s argument rejecting religious ethics as a basis for human rights hinges upon her belief that religious ethics is a system of command ethics: people do what God commands. In addition to excluding major religions such as Theravadan Buddhism, her argument has three major flaws.

First, God is internally consistent, an assessment apparent by observing that God's handiwork appears internally consistent, for example in both morality and natural processes. God who authored life and imbued it with value does not contradict that by directing Abraham to kill his son. Child abuse, in all of its forms and instances, is inconsistent with respect the value of life. If God had told Abraham to kill Isaac, the morally correct action for Abraham would have been to kill his son. Biblical stories that portray God as inconsistent reflect human rather than divine authorship.

Second, Bletzki, opting for biblical literalism, minimizes the difficulty in discerning God's will. Searching for inconsistencies within a religious tradition is a great way to discover human bias. Searching across religions for consistent themes, such as the worth of all humans, is a much better way to discern ethical guidance from the one ultimate reality.

Third, Bletzki ignores the possibility that the variety of philosophical justifications of human rights reflect truth incorporated into the very design of creation by God. Thus, one would expect philosophy and religion to converge on human rights, often finding common ground. Religious ethics that insist on the particularities of their tradition being God's dictates are as biased as philosophers who insist on the particularities of their philosophy being right against all others. The dichotomy that David Hume proposed between the natural and ethical may in fact be false given the growing accumulation of biological data about the physical basis for reciprocal altruism. (For more, cf.

What is the basis of your ethic?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The al Qaeda threat

The new U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has declared that strategic destruction of al Qaeda is “within reach.” Does Panetta mean to infer an end to terrorist threats is achievable? Does this mean that the government will stand down the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and return airport and transport security to pre-9/11 levels?

Even as the United States largely created Osama bin Laden by demonizing him, the U.S. also greatly magnified the threat al Qaeda posed at its apogee. All terrorist groups eventually go away: some wither from lack of support; some die in defeat; others fade away after the death of charismatic leadership; a few even achieve sufficient success that the group moves from the shadows to the mainstream. In the case of al Qaeda, several factors were significant: the death of its charismatic leader, repeated defeats, increased opposition to its tactics from the larger Muslim community.

However, al Qaeda’s 9/11 victory, mostly a result of over-reaction by the United States, will continue to exact a costly toll in the U.S. and elsewhere. I predict that the TSA will not go away – at least for decades. The TSA has become an expensive make-work program that panders to fear. Research repeatedly shows that the screening of luggage and passengers is ineffective.

The U.S. should have held up the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 not only as heroes but as the ideal paradigm for responding to a mid-flight terrorist attacks. Courageous and decisive intervention, as occurred on Flight 93, would have quickly ended additional terrorist efforts to use passenger flights in attacks. The TSA provides an expensive pretense of security; true security is possible only when people accept both the inherent vulnerability of life and responsibility for actively shaping communal life, e.g., intervening in an attempted hijacking.

This post is not an argument for allowing airline passengers – or people in general – to carry weapons. The passengers on Flight 93 did not need guns to stop the hijackers. Guns on planes will make passengers less rather than more safe, just like guns in a home make the residents less rather than more safe (cf. my posts, Ethical Musings: Gun control, National Parks, and the Second Amendment and Ethical Musings: Handguns in church),

Of course, the real answer to terrorism lies in establishing justice for all, eliminating the motive for terrorism that allows terrorist groups to gain traction with a constituency. Once the world lives in a fuller approximation of justice (an approximation of an ideal unlikely to be attained in my lifetime), violence will be the exclusive province of the pathological, a problem appropriately and relatively easily dealt with by the medical community with an assist from the police.

The end of al Qaeda will be a good event for which I will give thanks. However, that event, whenever it comes, will not signal the end, nor perhaps even a diminution, of the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorists.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Some interesting items

This weekend I read about a new IHOP: the International House of Prayer. Staff members must spend at least 25 hours per week in the prayer room engaging in an activity that at best promotes an emotional high. (Erick Eckholm, “Where Worship Never Pauses,” New York Times, July 9, 2011) Why would anyone donate money to this activity, funding emotional exuberance for others while doing nothing for anyone else? Real prayer often has more to do with loving others than anything else.

Charlotte Bacon has an essay in the New York Times, Lessons From a Year in Bali (July 6, 2011), that describes what she learned from spending a year living in Bali while opening a new school there. One important lesson was, in the words of an old adage, “to grab the gusto.” Rather than settle for the mundane and pedestrian, occasionally reaching beyond one’s comfort zone for new and varied experiences infuses life with fresh perspective and zest. Another important lesson was that living in a foreign culture threw fresh light on much that she had taken for granted; what had seemed to be major problems she now perceived as being far less important.

Thoughts are powerful. Directed meditation, according to a recent research study, can reduce pain to the same degree as morphine (“Thinking Away Pain,” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011). When serving with the Marines, I repeatedly heard junior Marine leaders encourage, cajole, and inspire their Marines with the idea that the Marines could think away the discomforts caused by heat, cold, and excessive physical exertion. Obviously, this method has some limitations. But the mind is more powerful that most people recognize. Focusing thoughts on the positive and the possible (echoes of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller) can enable most of us to lead happier, more productive lives with less dependence on drugs.

Unbeknownst to me, some evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants advocate natural family planning (NFP), the only birth control method acceptable in the Roman Catholic Church (Mark Oppenheimer, An Evolving View of Natural Family Planning,” New York Times, July 8, 2011). Briefly, NFP entails having sex only for procreation or, according to the stage of the woman’s menstrual cycle, she is not fertile. NFP is notoriously unreliable (few women have an invariant cycle and desire often trumps restraint). No sound reason exists for practicing NFP. God made humans sexual beings and declared that good. Sexual activity is an important form of communication and bonding for couples. The primary purposes of marriage are mutual love and care, not propagating the species. The biblical injunction, allegedly from God, to be fruitful and multiply is the only commandment in the Bible that humans have enthusiastically fulfilled.

Finally, David Dow has an excellent Op-Ed column in the New York Times, “Death Penalty, Still Racist and Arbitrary” (July 8, 2011). Dow cites persuasive data to show that blacks who kill whites are far more likely to receive the death penalty than whites who murder whites or blacks, or blacks who murder blacks. The occasion for his essay was Texas executing Lee Taylor on June 16, 2011, a white man who, while serving a life sentence for murdering two whites, joined the Aryan Brotherhood (a white supremacist group) and killed a black inmate. It was for this crime that Texas executed Taylor, making him the first person in Texas’ history executed for murdering a black person.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Musings about military chaplaincy - part 2

This was my reply:

I had dinner with an Episcopal Navy chaplain and his wife two nights ago, in DC. The chaplain was outraged over how the chaplaincy has become dominated by narrow minded sectarians. He mainly spoke about Southern Baptists who wanted to "save" everybody, e.g., a unit had suffered several casualties in Iraq and a Southern Baptist chaplain told the CO that if the CO were a Christian, God would not have "judged" the unit. I have no idea of whether the ELCA permits lay presidency at the Eucharist, but you could find that on the internet I suspect; the Episcopal Church does not permit it.

To which he answered:

That Navy chaplain is right, [the evangelical sectarians] are out there. I don't understand them or know what to do with them.  Your comments remind me that the only sermon I have ever walked out in the middle of is after a chaplain at F.E. Warren AFB stated that he believed that "...God has punished the wicked people of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina."

I checked with my Pastor back in Denver. He tells me that the ECLA allows laymen to serve communion only in extraordinary circumstances -- which this is clearly not. Thus that is not the option I thought it might be for our congregation.

I must admit my own weakness, that the issue at hand is offending me to a degree that it should not (i.e. "why would we/I want to be serviced by a minister who doesn't think highly enough of us/me to share holy communion?"). The positive part of this is that it has caused me to do some reading about the philosophy of the MS and think about the underlying issue here. This all boils down on some level to Biblical Literalism -- something which I simply cannot abide. Biblical Literalism not only makes very intelligent people say and do very stupid things, but say and do some very cruel things. It creates an "us against them mentality," and zero sum game, not just in the Christian community but in other religious traditions. It is a very negative force in our own country, particularly politically, but also in the world.

The conversation ended with this email from me:

I agree: Biblical literalism is the root of the problem. I'd like to use a "sanitized" version of this series of email in my blog, keeping the references to ELCA and MS, but omitting names, etc., if it is okay with you.

Problems in the military chaplaincies seem likely to grow in magnitude:

1.    Recruitment of non-evangelicals (e.g., Episcopal, ELCA, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish) continues to lag. Clergy from these faith groups find military service financially, personally, and spiritually unrewarding. Many of these clergy oppose the wars the U.S. is now fighting.

2.    Repeated deployments have taken a toll on chaplains. As for all military personnel, repeated and extended separations from loved ones is difficult. The deployments also exhaust spiritual resources. My guess, based on observation, is that evangelical chaplains sometimes have thinner spiritual resources than do chaplains from other faith traditions. Biblical literalism provides definite answers to life’s questions and problems; when confronted with situations that the answers do not fit, some evangelicals find that their faith fractures, perhaps even shatters. For a good account of the toll that the wars have taken on military chaplains, see Samuel G. Freedman, “Ministering to Soldiers, and Facing Their Struggles,” New York Times, July 1, 2011.

3.    The leadership of the various chaplaincies has failed to rise to the present challenges. Two Navy Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains were forced to retire rather than promoted to Chief for what can perhaps most charitably be described as lapses in judgment. The Army and Air Force chaplaincies are moving closer to establishing a de facto “state church” in which the senior chaplain at an installation or unit determines the “flavor” of the ministry at that command.

Any solution begins by returning to the Constitutional basis for chaplaincy: to provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel. This requires chaplains to minister according to the dictates and policies of the chaplain’s faith group and to facilitate ministry for those of other faith groups on an equal basis. A chaplain can preach/teach according to the dictates of conscience but must ensure that those who disagree have an equal opportunity to attend worship of their own choosing (or none).

Controversies over praying in Jesus’ name offer a second window on this problem. Chaplains often offer a prayer at events that military personnel have to attend. Some chaplains in good conscience can pray in the name of God, without being more specific. Other chaplains invite attendees to pray or think during the time that the chaplain offers a prayer. Both approaches reflect genuine pluralism, recognizing diversity of belief (and of no belief) among military personnel.

But some chaplains insist on praying in Jesus’ name without verbally acknowledging that not everybody will or can offer that prayer. These chaplains frequently believe that God only responds to prayers in Jesus’ name; all other forms of prayer are at best a waste of breath and at worst sin. This type of prayer is inappropriate in a public ceremony military personnel are ordered to attend. To read a powerful, first person account of this type of problem, read Bishop Jay Magness’ essay at the Huffington Post. Unless chaplains develop and practice alternatives, I wonder whether the Supreme Court will someday rule on a challenge to the constitutionality of chaplaincy, finding against the chaplaincy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Musings on military chaplaincy - part 1

A friend, who is a senior active duty Air Force officer, and I have exchanged several emails regarding military chaplaincy. The conversation reveals some of the problems that the shift toward a more evangelical Christianity in the United States as a whole and the military in particular poses for non-evangelical Christians in the military. I have sanitized the conversation to avoid any complications for active duty personnel and use it with my friend’s consent. I have also added some additional reflections to this two-part post.

My friend wrote:

We have a small on-post Lutheran Chapel Service here in [an overseas] community which has become our temporary Church home. While we have always had an assigned unit chaplain (last one was a Mormon), most of our weekly ministers have been rotating English speaking [host country] ministers from the local community up till now. The congregation is mixed but predominately ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with whom the Episcopal Church has intercommunion with), obviously open communion, tolerant, etc. -- we have really enjoyed it!

Out of the blue, we were just assigned a Missouri Synod Lutheran (MS) minister. Nice guy – young – in his late 20s -- he suggests we keep the [host country] ministers coming but he preaches half the time. As I suspect you are well aware, the ELCA and MS "cooperate" in the military chaplaincy program from way back when the denominations were a "bit closer." While that agreement stands, the denominations have "moved apart" over the years. They are not in communion. As a simple congregant, none of this is a problem for me. I am happy to be challenged. I don't consider the chaplain less Christian than I.

What bothers me is that he has stated to our chapel council (I'm the current Treasurer) that he is unable in good conscience commune with us. In the only service he has attended, he and his wife would not "come to our table." He has stated that he is "reluctant" to hold communion on Sunday's when he is preaching, and suggests we curtail our weekly communion on those Sunday's to resolve this problem. He has tenderly stated that he doesn't believe that women are appropriate for the pulpit, and perhaps won't be able to attend Sundays when females are preaching. I think you get the general drift here! I understand that military chaplaincies don't get to "call" a minister as at our home church, but I wonder why would he or the Chief of Chaplains (a Baptist, I think) believe this is a good fit.

I replied to my friend as follows:

Sadly, the situation you describe is pretty common. The number of Missouri Synod military chaplains was increasing at the time of my retirement five years ago and, I suspect, has continued to do so. Obviously, these individuals must be assigned some place.

In parallel with their increasing numbers, the Missouri Synod chaplains seem to have become more inflexible. I worked for a MS chaplain while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains in the late 1980s/early 1990s (he a CAPT, I a LCDR). He and I shared in an Ash Wednesday service, which was radical for his faith group even though we did not have communion as part of the service. The MS does not have pulpit and altar fellowship (their term) with any group except the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (ironically, the Wisconsin Lutherans do not reciprocate, meaning that the MS in fact has pulpit and altar fellowship with nobody).

What changed the chaplain for whom I worked was his serving in Vietnam with a Marine regiment. He realized one day that if he did not offer all of them Holy Communion, then some might die without having had an opportunity to receive because he was the only Protestant chaplain available. Apparently, service in Afghanistan and Iraq has not had a similar, liberalizing effect on current MS chaplains.

My thoughts move in the direction of making the best of the situation that you can. From your description, the chaplain sounds more flexible than some MS chaplains whom I have known, e.g., wanting you to continue with the civilian clergy and being present when not conducting the service. An ELCA chaplain and I shared in an Episcopal-Lutheran service in the early 90s; one of us would preach, the other celebrate communion, reversing roles every week. When an MS chaplain reported for duty, he refused to attend when the ELCA chaplain and I were officiating and begrudgingly granted us permission to attend when he officiated, but only if we did so as lay people. The service was the responsibility of the MS chaplain; the ELCA chaplain and I had been covering until this pastor reported. The ELCA chaplain and I ended our participation, feeling unwelcome; most of the congregation then quit attending. Because this was at Pearl Harbor, people had more options than in a foreign country.

I'm lunching with the Episcopal Bishop for the Armed Forces today. His EA is a retired ELCA Navy chaplain. I know they both want to establish closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies because they think that far greater commonality exists than between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod.

My friend responded:

Many thanks for your thoughts. I assumed that it might be an issue you have "lived" in the past.

I agree that closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies (and perhaps the Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) is long overdue.  In fact, I would go so far to say that traditional denominational brand loyalties are no longer helpful inside or outside the military. Seen as negatives by some, they may actually be dividing us and hampering our efforts to spread the true gospel. And I am more than willing to embrace a diversity of views as we work to come together, although but there ought to be a few areas of norms and acceptance -- LIKE OPEN COMMUNION!!!

On the issue at hand, my proposal may be that we consider having lay communion during the service so we can continue to offer open communion on a weekly basis. My memory is that this is acceptable in ELCA tradition if there isn't a pastor available to administer it -- that is effectively the position we appear to have been placed in. 

Thanks again for doing the blog. I am enriched by your thoughts and perspectives on a multitude or issues.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thinking about a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq

Several recent articles have appeared in the U.S. news media observing that the Iraqi special forces would like the United States military to have a continuing presence (e.g., Tim Arango, “Taking Lead, Iraqis Hope U.S. Special Operations Commandos Stay,” New York Times, July 2, 2011). If nothing else, the articles testify to the quality of our Special Forces and the remarkable results they produce.

What I don't understand, and what the article remained frustratingly vague about, was exactly what the Americans need to contribute after training the Iraqis for 8 years. As in acquiring any skill or learning any subject, at some point the student simply has to go solo. I wonder to what extent the request is in fact a plea for the Americans to stay because the Iraqi special forces recognize that an insufficient number of Iraqis lack a commitment to having a single a nation and that in the absence of Americans centripetal forces (about which I have written before, e.g., sectarian and tribal) will pull Iraq apart.

Similarly, people flock to the United States as the land of opportunity. The Tea Party and others oppose laws and programs that require citizens to support the nation in tangible ways. Is American patriotism, rhetoric and flag-waving aside, ebbing as fewer people are willing to sacrifice self or wealth to preserve the land of the free?

Historically, many Christians have found satisfaction in government service, in or out of the military, because they believed they were contributing, at personal cost, to an important and valuable cause greater than self. The personal cost might entail going into harm’s way; it more frequently entailed accepting a below-market income for hard, often under-appreciated work. (Who has not made fun of a government bureaucrat but who would want to eliminate the panoply of benefits that government programs produce, including highways, coinage, mail delivery, and social security?)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaching and accountability

The teaching profession, especially in the public schools, had as changed significantly in the last thirty years. Certainly, the content taught has changed some, but the content change is irrelevant to the major change in the profession.

Thirty years ago, society presumed that teachers knew their students, cared about their students, and appropriately tailored the content to the abilities of each student within systemic constraints. Systemic constraints include time available, the number of students in the class, etc. A teacher would devise a lesson plan for the entire class. Then, in teaching the material and interacting with the students, would presumably seek to tailor instruction within systemic constraints to reach as many students as possible. As I retroactively reflect on my first thirteen years of schooling, I can identify ways in which most of my teachers did this. One or two of my teachers were probably incompetent, e.g., my physics teacher loved Newtonian physics and had no inkling of quantum physics.

Today, the presumption has changed. Teachers must document an individual education plan (IEP) for each student in writing to demonstrate that the teacher has tailored each lesson to meet individual abilities and learning styles. This has imposed a tremendous paperwork burden (an ironic term when so much of the material is electronic rather than on paper) on teachers. The massive quantities of documentation required ensure that teachers will use a great deal of boilerplate in drafting IEPs (or whatever a local school district may term the requirement). The massive quantities of documentation also divert teachers from focusing on their primary task: teaching.

This paradigm shift – from presuming that teachers will, as professionals, use prudential judgment in adapting their teaching to each student in so far as possible to presuming that teachers must prove that they perform in that manner through bureaucratic documentation – has numerous parallels in other aspects of our society, e.g., reports required in business, healthcare, and the military.

Not only does the documentation diminish the amount of time and energy available for the real task (such as teaching), requirements for extensive documentation invite gamesmanship that unintentionally encourages unethical behavior, wastes valuable resources on largely non-productive activities, and, perhaps most critically, erodes vital social capital. The gamesmanship emerges when people, not surprisingly, seek to minimize the hardships reporting requirements create, e.g., a teacher using boilerplate to produce IEPs rather than giving in-depth thought to how to best teach student. Complying with these bureaucratic requirements is largely non-productive because most of the people who must satisfy the requirements act (like humans in general) from habit or without conscious thought, e.g., the great teacher who almost instinctively interacts with each student as an individual but cannot explain the why or how of that process.

The erosion of social capital occurs because the imposition of paperwork requirements inherently presumes a lack of trust in the persons/institutions on whom the requirements are imposed. Systemic requirements will never eliminate a relative handful of individuals who either fail to perform adequately or who want to abuse the system, e.g., an individual like my high school history teacher who was an alcoholic. Dealing with such individuals demands managerial and leadership competence for which no amount of written reporting can substitute.

When requiring IEPs failed to produce quality schools, society then demanded tests to measure success in the schools. When a class failed to progress on a projected schedule, the teacher was failing; if too many classes in a school failed to progress, the school failed. Teachers now spend inordinate amounts of time testing students, e.g., a kindergarten teacher testing each of 20 students for 15 minutes in each of 3 subjects 4 times a year is testing rather than teaching 60 hours per year (this is an actual case).

Here is a radical alternative: Trust school administrators to evaluate teachers and learning using subjective assessments; trust school system administrators to evaluate schools and their administrators using subjective assessments; eliminate the requirement for written IEPs and at least 90% of all standardized testing.

Two obvious advantages of this alternative are the dramatic reduction in teacher workloads (no formal, written IEPs to prepare and many fewer tests to administer) and the refocusing of schools on education rather than testing. Basic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic) are important. However, school children also need to learn social skills (things like good manners that are too often not taught/learned at home), resilience, perseverance, honesty, and other important character traits.

The potential disadvantage of the proposed alternative is the reliance on subjective assessments. One hallmark of a professional is a person who has developed prudential wisdom in a particular field, e.g., pedagogy. Although subjective assessments inherently allow for personal bias, good professionals seek an awareness of their biases and work to overcome them. Furthermore, some important skills and results are not quantifiable, i.e., objective measurement is impossible. Today’s best standardized tests for measuring student learning ignore a host of important variables (e.g., student readiness to learn) and results (e.g., social skills).

Emphasizing results in education is the right approach. Defining results too narrowly ignores critical pieces of what happens in schools, regardless of whether taxpayers, parents, or school personnel believe that those pieces should happen in school. These important pieces include socialization of children into society. Measuring results too narrowly reinforces the emphasis on essential skills to the detriment of other, equally if not more essential, aspects of what children learn at school.

Here are suggestions for improving schools:

1.    Reduce central office district, state, and federal staffs by 75%. States, for example, can specify curriculum – why should each district pay for its own curriculum experts? Stabilizing curricula (apart from knowledge updates in science and history, for example) will reduce overhead costs, diminish the need to replace books, and cut teacher prep time.

2.    Minimize funds spent on building construction and renovation costs to free money for teacher salaries. Teachers, not buildings, are the key factor in providing a quality education.

3.    Start teacher salaries at $50,000 per annum and increase them proportionately thereafter. The social standing and prestige of the teaching profession will immediately jump, as will the quality and quantity of people earning teaching degrees. When teaching becomes a competitive profession children and society will win.

4.    Focus educational efforts and resources on obtaining the right results: good citizens. Anything that does not directly and proportionately contribute to achieving those results represents mismanagement and poor stewardship of tax dollars.

Free and compulsory public school education for all children was instrumental to the United States’ economic prosperity and democratic flourishing. Today, many public schools achieve disappointing results in spite of substantial funding. Large numbers of people despair over the ability of government to improve the schools, turning to misguided options such as charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Every citizen who gives up on the public schools makes a fix that much more difficult. More than any other factor, the nation’s depends upon the future of the public schools, a value consonant with the emphasis that the biblical book of Proverb places on education.