Monday, April 30, 2012

Another unjust war?

A preventive strike against Iran, to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, by either Israel or the United States would constitute an unjust war from both a Christian and a Jewish perspective.

Of course, this presumes that Iran would respond militarily to the strike, rather than passively accepting the damage, as did Syria in the wake of Israel’s preventive strike against Syria’s Osirak nuclear facility. If Iran did not respond militarily, the preventive strike would constitute a military action other than war

Iran seems much more likely than Syria to respond militarily. Iran is has more military might than does Syria, more wealth, and believes that it can control the Straits of Hormuz. Alternatively, Iran could respond short of war by stepping up its funding of anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorists.

A just war must meet all six criteria in the Christian Just War Theory tradition. First, the war must be to defend people or property. Although Iran has made threats, the threats have lacked follow-through. Possessing a weapon is not equivalent to using the weapon. Funding terrorists is not the same as declaring war, e.g., although the U.S. funded Afghan mujahidin fighting against the Soviets, both the Soviets and the U.S. recognized that the U.S. was not waging war on the U.S.S.R. In short, Iran having nuclear weapons does not constitute just cause.

Second, the war must be waged with right authority. Debate swirls as to whether right authority is national or international. In view of that debate, I’m willing to cede right authority.

Third, the war must be waged with right intent. The only right intent is progress toward peace. Starting an avoidable war is not progress toward peace.

Fourth, the war must have a reasonable chance of success. Strikes to destroy nuclear weapons’ development capacity are unlikely to succeed; the more likely outcome is to delay development rather than to preclude development of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the measure of success is progress toward peace, not military victory. Even if Israel or the United States could permanently terminate Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, the enmity between Iran and ourselves would increase rather than diminish; the odds of war would have increased rather than diminished. In other words, military success is unlikely; progress toward peace is even more unlikely.

Fifth, the war must be proportional, i.e., the casualties the war causes must be fewer than the casualties doing nothing would have caused. This seems unlikely, but again I’m willing to cede the point that a preventive strike might cause fewer casualties. The number of casualties includes the total injured and killed on all sides; God values all lives equally.

Sixth and finally, the war must be a last resort. As I’ve repeatedly argued in this blog, Iran possessing nuclear weapons is not the end of the world. Iran has the same national aspirations and values as other nations; Iran has no desire for oblivion or nuclear winter. Iran and Israel could learn to co-exist with a policy of mutual assured destruction similar to the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

In sum, from a Christian Just War Theory perspective, a preemptive attack on Iran to destroy Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons satisfies no more than four, and probably none, of the six jus ad bellum criteria for assessing whether a potential war is morally just.

From a Jewish perspective, the only moral war is a defensive war. The two other Jewish ethical categories of war (the commanded and the optional) are no longer options. The rabbinical tradition is clear: the criteria for both commanded and optional wars entail impossible requirements or institutions that do not exist (e.g., direct revelation from God, the monarchy, and the Sanhedrin).

A preemptive strike on Iran is not defensive. Iran has not attacked Israel. In spite of bellicose rhetoric, Iran may never attack Israel.

Remember Saddam Hussein? He intended his bellicosity to impress others, even though his threats were empty, as the absence of weapons of mass destruction in post-conquest Iraq proved. Remember Khrushchev? He promised to destroy the U.S., but the U.S.S.R. in spite of repeated threats never attacked and eventually collapsed.

Not all threats are empty. But nations wisely respond to actions rather than to words. Otherwise, the world would have far more wars than it does. Being just, seeking to live in a manner faithful to God, involves risk and trust. Peace requires living with the possibility of war because the only option to peace is war, which is certainly evil.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Episcopal Church finances - part 2

The first part of this post analyzed TEC’s financial plight arguing that the proposed 2012-2015 budget shows that TEC:

1.      Highly values ecclesial governance and structure

2.      Faces significant organizational problems

3.      Intends to continue business as usual

4.      Lacks a clear vision of, and focus on, TEC’s mission.

This post recommends a four-part strategy for charting and fixing TEC finances.

First, the story that TEC’s budget tells should be one of mission rather than Canonical, Corporate, and Program. The latter reflect nineteenth century concerns; today, those few Christians still committed to a denomination want to participate in mission. General Convention 2009 Resolution D027 actually called for moving in this direction, adopting the five Anglican Marks of Mission as TEC’s mission, and requiring budget priorities to reflect that mission.

The five Anglican Marks of Mission are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

With computerized accounting systems, reformatting the budget to tell the story of TEC engaged in mission is a relatively simple task (people familiar with accounting might describe this change as moving form an organizational to a product/service budget). For example, the percent of her time that the Presiding Bishop (PB) spends proclaiming the Good News is the percent of costs associated with her office attributable to the first mark. This form of cost accounting can quickly identify any activity unrelated to the five Marks of Mission. Expenses not directly attributable to one or more of the five Marks of Mission may be reasonable overhead (e.g., accounting, human resources management, or information systems); otherwise, TEC should probably eliminate the expense from the budget. If the five Marks of Mission are an incomplete or incorrect statement of TEC’s mission, then General Convention 2012 should revise the Mission Statement accordingly.

A TEC budget focused on mission provides leaders and opinion makers the material with which to excite the passions and stimulate the commitment of Episcopalians. Discussing funding for General Convention (GC) evokes yawns or worse; funding the five Marks of Mission can give people a reason to feel good about being part of the Episcopal Church and is a story that TEC should tell frequently, loudly, and proudly.

Second, TEC should aggressively minimize governance and other overhead costs. Few people put their money in the offering plate wanting to fund costly TEC governance or overhead. Since two consecutive GCs must approve canonical changes, TEC needs to move quickly and aggressively to reduce governance and overhead costs; each triennium budget appears certain to force progressively more painful program cuts.

Sadly, the current budget dramatically understates the true cost of governance. For example, the proposed GC budget shows a net cost of $10.5 million. That sum does not include the PB’s time and travel, time and travel of other TEC staffers, the time and travel of all other attendees, and costs associated with all of the preliminary meetings related to GC. The true cost of GC is probably closer to $20 if not $50 million. Other national governance costs include audits, legal advice and representation, Executive Council costs, etc. Framed differently, I suspect that national governance costs each of the 2 million Episcopalians $25 per year from diocesan and national funds. Given the choice, I wonder how many Episcopalians would spend their $25 on governance or one of the five Marks of Mission.

TEC benefits from democratic governance but current structures and procedures are not the only or perhaps even the preferred democratic option. For example, technology can help to reduce governance costs. I’ve previously suggested conducting GC and other meetings using a virtual format (Rethinking Episcopal Church structure - part 1 and Rethinking Episcopal Church structure - part 2).

Selling TEC’s New York headquarters might cut operating costs, reduce staffing costs, and result in a net gain for the endowment after purchase of a new headquarters. With the internet and other forms of electronic communication, relocation need not disrupt ecumenical/interfaith relations, diminish TEC’s public profile, or make travel more difficult (indeed, TEC might find relocating cuts travel costs). TEC moving some of its offices out of New York is a first step in this direction.

Virtual meetings and relocating TEC offices may not be the best tactics for reducing governance and overhead costs. However, TEC failing to adopt a strategy that substantially cuts governance and overhead costs will be one bell chiming TEC’s death knell. If not virtual meetings and relocation, what tactics will TEC choose?

Third, the subsidiarity principle provides TEC a heuristic for evaluating all TEC activities and programs. Which programs/activities could congregations, dioceses, or provinces operate more effectively and perhaps less expensively than TEC does? Reformatting TEC’s budget to include overhead in program line items is an essential preliminary step for answering that question. By excluding overhead, the current budget understates TEC program. Furthermore, shifting programming to provinces, dioceses, and congregations will generally broaden opportunity for involvement and can increase the sense of ownership that Episcopalians feel toward various programs and activities. Congregational development, for example, seems basic to the work of dioceses rather than to TEC.

Fourth, TEC should assess the effectiveness of its activities and programs, terminating those endeavors deemed unlikely to produce results proportionate to costs. For example, although I have strong personal sympathies with the work of the Office of Government Relations (OGR), in an era of billion dollar presidential campaigns, funding this office with a paltry $2.6 million may not produce significant results. Focusing the OGR on anti-poverty instead of its current shotgun approach (i.e., shoot at every legitimate target) may produce greater results. TEC could apply any savings to reducing fiscal shortfalls, asking for a smaller percentage of diocesan budgets, or expanding efforts that are more effective.

The $0.5 million included in the proposed budget for funding a Churchwide Consultation is a step (probably too small) in the right direction. However, that step fails to express the urgency with which TEC must act and the magnitude of the problems. Speed can kill. However, speed can also liberate, allowing TEC to discard outmoded processes, refocus on mission, and generate fresh enthusiasm. For such a time as this, God will bring us together in Indianapolis.

Friday, April 27, 2012

NC Amendment One

The proposed Amendment One to the North Carolina state constitution represents an offensive attempt to enshrine in law a conservative version of Christianity’s definition of marriage. The proposed amendment seeks to define marriage as consisting only of one man and one woman; the proposed amendment also would deny the benefits of marriage to any couple not legally married, e.g., same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples.
The Bible is not anti-homosexual. Gender orientation did not exist as a concept in the first century. Furthermore, the homosexual behaviors condemned in the Bible are exploitative, unjust relationships; the Bible makes no blanket statement about the morality of homosexual behavior.
The Bible is not a sourcebook of theological or moral propositions but a window through which God's light illumines the Jesus path. Christian marriage has three purposes: the mutual joy and support of the partners; the procreation and nurture of children – when it is God's will; a sign of God's love for God's people. None of those purposes is dependent upon the couples’ gender. Even the procreation of children can occur in several ways in the twenty-first century, an unimaginable possibility for biblical authors. Fostering or adopting children permits the nurture of children by couples who are unable or who choose not to have children (not all heterosexual couples feel called by God to be parents). In short, Christian marriage, rightly understood, consists of two people who commit to a loving, monogamous, and faithful relationship with one another.
For twenty-four years, I proudly served on active duty in the U.S. Navy, defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Never did I imagine that the state to which I retired would subsequently attempt to undermine the Constitution by covertly establishing a narrow, bigoted, and unbiblical version of Christianity as the law of the land. If passed, Amendment One would harm numerous children, seniors, and others in our state (for more on this cf. Protect NC Families). If passed, Amendment One would reduce anyone who held a different understanding of marriage to second-class status.
Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackman wrote in the majority opinion for West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, principles that would become lodestars in the American creed: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.” Tragically, the proposed Amendment One seeks to violate those principles.

I have long objected to clergy serving as de facto government officials by officiating at weddings. I, for one, am no longer willing to do this. My ordination authorizes me to officiate at religious ceremonies and rites in the Episcopal Church. I am not an official of the North Carolina state government, or of any other state government. Solemnizing weddings when I served as a Church of England priest in the United Kingdom made sense to me. I was an official of the established church. That is not the case in the United States. The Constitution explicitly forbids establishing religion. Clergy in this country have no business officiating at weddings on behalf of the government.
That inappropriate role points to the dual nature of marriage and to why North Carolinians find themselves in this regrettable situation. Marriage is both a religious/spiritual covenant and a legal contract. I’m happy to bless a couple’s covenant to form a committed, loving, monogamous, and faithful partnership. Blessing is the work of the church and a proper task for the ordained.
The legal dimension of a marriage is the contract that binds two people together. The marriage contract stipulates property ownership, legal responsibility for one another’s healthcare, legal access to government benefits provided to a spouse, etc. The conflation of the marriage covenant and contract dates back to the time when women were chattel that passed from the woman’s father to the woman’s husband. Thankfully, those days are past; women are persons who theoretically possess the same legal rights as men (sadly, this ideal is not fully realized). As a citizen, I have opinions about what rights and responsibilities a marriage contract should provide. But there is no sound legal reason why the law should not extend equal protection to all couples, regardless of the partners’ gender.
Indeed, arguing that legalizing same sex marriage will undermine heterosexual marriage is foolish. Just the opposite is true. Promoting marriage – regardless of the partners’ gender – encourages people to honor their commitment to live in a loving, monogamous, and faithful contract. Additionally, research repeatedly has shown that having two parents in an intact relationship benefits the children.
I encourage you, if you are a North Carolina voter, to vote against Amendment One (cf. Pastors against Amendment One).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Episcopal Church finances - part 1

Budgets – plans to obtain and to spend money – express values and tell stories. Good budgets tell good stories. Unfortunately, The Episcopal Church (TEC) proposed 2013-2015 budget suggests that TEC:

1.      Highly values ecclesial governance and structure

2.      Faces significant organizational problems

3.      Intends to continue business as usual

4.      Lacks a clear vision of, and focus on, TEC’s mission.

First, the budget’s three major expense categories are Canonical, Corporate, and Program. Compliance with the Canons – which is commendable – is not the Church’s mission. The Canons exist to support the Church in its mission by establishing internal order, i.e., the Canons are a means to an end. Similarly, the Church’s corporate structure is important to the extent that it facilitates the Church living into its mission. Otherwise, preserving the structure becomes an end in itself, a form of idolatry. Approximately half of TEC’s proposed budget supports those two categories, leaving only half for Program.

Second, projected revenues are down about 5% from the previous triennium. Diocesan commitments reflect a 9% decrease and investment income an 8% decrease. Withdrawing $3.8 million from the endowment funds a Development Office. Leasing three and a half floors of TEC’s New York headquarters to other organizations substantially increases rental income ($1.2 million). Together, these moves balance the budget. Any inflation during the triennium will further erode the budget’s actual purchasing power.

After factoring out the $3.8 million draw on the endowment, the proposed budget shows a projected decline of 7.7% in revenue compared to the previous budget. This presumes that future efficiencies will partially offset future income decreases, as occurred with the 2012-2015 rental income increase, and avoids positing a worst-case scenario.

Presuming a constant and continuing 7.7% rate of decline, revenue projections for the next four budget cycles are $93, 85.6, 78.7, and 72.4 million. In other words, by 2025, TEC’s projected revenue is two-thirds of its 2010-2012 revenue. Even with imposing the most stringent cost controls, TEC appears likely to have few funds in 2025 available for programs after paying Canonical and Corporate expenses, most of which are not discretionary items. Any inflation, which these calculations ignore, will worsen the financial difficulties; any exceptional investment returns will improve the outlook. Realistically, TEC faces significant challenges to sustain its current organization and level of programming.

Third, the proposed budget largely represents continuing business as usual. Adjustments to the Canonical and Corporate portions of the budget ($1.5 million of $53.6 million) total just a 3.6% decrease. The changes in the Program half of the budget are more substantial. Critically, these changes are largely irrelevant except as a warning of what lies ahead. No amount of realigning program elements will substantially increase income. TEC has two primary revenue sources: endowment income and diocesan commitments. The revenue shortfalls appear likely to be so substantial that TEC must reverse the declines, find new sources of revenue (seems improbable), or radically reinvent itself.

Pressure to reduce the 19% commitment currently requested from dioceses is growing. Dioceses are experiencing their own financial struggles. A diminishing minority of Episcopalians feels a close connection with the national church; the growing majority perceives little value or benefit from monies that flow from congregations to dioceses and TEC. Any reduction in requested diocesan commitments will only exacerbate TEC financial woes. Conversely, proposing to increase the 19% is a non-starter. In part, dioceses and congregations, like TEC, struggle financially because of a continuing numerical decline in attendance and membership (cf. my earlier post, Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?).

Reversing the decline in endowment income appears unlikely to offer a quick fix. Forecasts for investment returns over the next decade are mediocre rather than stellar. Establishing a Development Office to increase the size of the endowment feels like a last chance, desperate Hail Mary pass. Perhaps some wealthy Episcopalians are ready, if and when asked, to give TEC substantial sum (tens or hundreds of millions of dollars). Lesser amounts will not solve the problem (endowment income is only 5% of the gift, e.g., a $100,000 gift yields only $5,000 per year, less than 0.1% of the revenue decrease).

National trends of growing disaffection with organized religion suggest that few, if any, such individuals are in our pews or on our membership rosters. Indeed, unless the persons responsible for preparing the budget have reasonable expectations of substantial gifts from particular donors, funding the Development Office with monies drawn from the endowment seems more likely to worsen rather than to ease future financial shortfalls. If budget drafters have reasonable expectations of substantial gifts from particular donors, why does TEC need an expanded Development Office? Why not solicit the gifts today?

Fourth, the budget proposal lacks a clear vision of, and focus on, mission. Given TEC’s numerical and financial declines, this lack of clarity and focus is an existential issue that threatens TEC’s future. Although each issue considered at General Convention (GC) is somebody’s passion and each TEC program office linked to one more interest groups in the Church, the larger reality is that the majority of Episcopalians cares little about these matters. The diocese evokes somewhat more interest and slightly stronger feelings. However, most Episcopalians care only about what happens (or does not happen) in their local congregation.

A minority of us (including me) greatly appreciates the importance of being a connectional church. A larger number pay lip service to the importance of being a connectional church, actually recognize a few of its benefits, and support the status quo primarily out of inertia. An even larger number of us (probably a majority) tolerate our connectional system but increasingly voice doubts about its utility and the value of giving the diocese/national church such a large percent of local income. In short, Episcopalians have lost confidence in TEC, its structures, and programming. If this were not true, then Episcopalians would enthusiastically fund dioceses and TEC. Episcopalians – like most Christians – give willingly and generously when passionately committed to a cause.

What can TEC do? The second part of this post answers that question.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Good news

Palestine had no social safety net. Apparently, the man born lame about whom we heard in the first lesson (Acts 3:12-19) came from a family that had to work to live. So daily, this man’s friends placed him at the entrance to the temple to beg for alms. When the lame man saw Peter and John approaching, he looked intently at them, hoping for a gift.

Unfortunately, this scene has become all too common. A man or woman with a cardboard sign and perhaps a plastic container in which to receive money sits outside a busy doorway or stands at a busy intersection, eyeing passersby with a hungry, hopeful look. Occasionally, I’ve seen a cheerful beggar. More typically, the person looks unkempt, dirty, and projects an image of need, suffering, and vulnerability. Regardless of whether I give the person money, the encounter leaves me wondering whether I did the right thing, that is, could I have done something more loving, something that would have given life.

Peter surprised the beggar. He took the man by the right hand; said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And the unbelieving man discovered he was no longer lame.

In the sermon that is this morning’s first reading, Peter interprets what happened to the crowd that had gathered. He tries to direct attention away from himself and to God.

In our interpretations of the text, we must tread very carefully. Our best biblical scholars recognize that Pilate offering a Jerusalem crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas is almost assuredly fictional. Imperious imperial rulers don’t pander to crowds. For example, try to imagine dictators in Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Egypt doing this. Furthermore, no historical evidence suggests that Pilate or the Roman ruler of any province ever gave people such a choice. The author included the incident trying to make Christianity more acceptable to the dominant culture by minimizing or deflecting Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death. One unintended consequence was to inflame centuries of virulent anti-Semitism against the people who had allegedly killed Jesus.

Another complication is that the Greek word faith is a verb, not a noun. Faith is an action, not a belief. Incidentally, Diana Butler Bass comments on this in her excellent book, Christianity after Religion; Episcopalians across the diocese, including at Nativity, are studying that book this Easter season, innovatively combining books, videoconferencing, computers, and local small groups.[1] We understand faith in his name and faith that is through Jesus better as trust in Jesus or trust in walking the Jesus path. Faith is not a matter of belief but the trajectory of one’s life.

This insight is vitally important for two reasons. First, the Bible is not a sourcebook of propositional truths but a window through which God's light illuminates the path of life abundant.

Early voting has begun on a proposed amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that would (a) define marriage as exclusively being between a man and a woman and (b) prohibit extending the benefits of marriage to anyone else. If you read the Bible as a sourcebook of propositional truths, then the verses that prohibit sex between two people of the same gender constitute a prima facie argument in support of the amendment. However, if the Bible is a window through which God's light illuminates the Jesus path, then you understand that the three purposes of marriage articulated in the Book of Common Prayer – mutual comfort and joy, procreation and nurture of children when it is God's will, and being a sign of Christ's love for the Church – are not gender specific. The love about which we heard in the second lesson and the mysterious power of God to transform death into life (the mystery of the resurrection) is what we see in all healthy marriages, regardless of composition. This week, the three North Carolina Episcopal diocesan bishops – the Rt. Revs. Michael Curry, Clifton Daniels, and Porter Taylor – sent their clergy a letter opposing the amendment because of the harm to children and families that passage would cause.

The second reason why understanding that faith is a verb and not a noun is important is that people hunger for a relationship with God. The beggars – not only people who need money but also all who have lost hope for a better, more meaningful life, more satisfying relationships, or mental health – surround us. What they really want is not a handout but a relationship with Jesus.

The gospel portrays the disciples as terrified when Jesus appears (Luke 24:36-48). They think he’s ghost, that is, surreal. He invites them to touch his body to prove he is real; for the same reason he eats some fish. In other words, the gospel depicts Jesus paradoxically: he’s ephemeral, like a ghost but he’s also a physical being, whom they can touch and who can eat. I find this completely baffling and am leery of anyone who claims to understand it. God is infinite and irreducible to the finite or human. This baffling paradox, when we let it, calls our attention to the mysterious, transformative, life-giving power of God at work in the world.

Thanks be to God, we do not have to comprehend, analyze, or describe God's presence in the world. Faith is not a matter of belief. Faith is the direction of our lives. When we live in the direction of justice and of love, we encounter God. In the loving, faithful, committed relationship of two adults, I see this presence. In the gift of concern for a lame person – or a beggar of any kind – I see this presence. In this community gathered around the altar to share in the paschal feast I see this presence. For it is in the doing and not the believing that we experience God as we follow the Jesus path. Amen.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), p. 118.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Minimalist and maximalist views of scripture

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how the Church regards and uses Scripture (e.g., cf. Ethical Musings: Read the Bible? Maybe not and Ethical Musings: When we encourage Bible reading).

Those reflections prompted me to take a fresh look at what Episcopal clergy say they believe with respect to Scripture in their ordination vows.

Candidates for ordination as Bishops, Priests, and Deacons vow:

I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, Ordination: Bishop, p. 514; Priest, p. 526; Deacon, p. 538)

Bishops promise:

·         Bishop Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the study of Holy Scripture, that you may have the mind of Christ?

·         Answer I will, for he is my help. (Book of Common Prayer, Ordination: Bishop, p. 517)

Priests and Deacons make a slightly different promise:

·         Bishop Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more able minister of Christ?

·         Answer I will. (Book of Common Prayer, Priest, p. 532; Deacon, p. 544)

One approach, consistent with those vows and promises, regards Scripture from a minimalist perspective, i.e., containing everything necessary for salvation because the Bible is a window through which God's light shines.

A second approach, also consistent with those vows and promises, regards Scripture from a maximalist perspective, i.e., every word in the Bible is from God and is therefore, in some way and at least at certain times, revelatory. Of course, an even more radically maximalist perspective is to view each word of the text (if only we had the original!) as the verbatim word of God. Although some Christian fundamentalists adhere to this view, in general the view is more congruent with Islam than Christianity.

Between those two approaches is a spectrum of variants that differ in degree between the minimalist and maximalist approaches.

I find this perspective intriguing. First, minimalist, and maximalist language removes the inherent value judgments that sometimes impedes communication between people with different theological views.

Second, different understandings of the authority of Scripture often explain why people can read the same book, even the same passage, and derive radically different messages. The debates about the ordination of women and the morality of gay sex illustrate this.

Third, and most importantly, few Christians really hold anything approaching a maximalist understanding of the Bible’s authority, regardless of what they think or claim they believe. If more Christians really believed in the maximalist position, then these Christians would devote time daily to studying the Bible and adhere to more of its teachings (not just popular ones but unpopular ones, e.g., stoning blasphemers and exiling menstruating women to the community’s fringe). Radical Christian communities, such as Sojourner’s in Washington, DC, would be the norm and not the exception.

Actions speak louder than words. I strongly believe that most Christians, regardless of avowed theological persuasion, are in fact much closer to a minimalist view of Scripture than to a maximalist view.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The war over evolution continues

The state of Tennessee recently enacted a law that encourages teachers to present to their students “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” The law cites “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as controversial theories warranting a critique.

Incidentally, Tennessee’s governor objected to the law, refused to sign it, but lacked the moral courage to veto it. Politicians who lack the courage to do what is right bode ill for the country; politicians who pander to the ignorant cast a pall over the future.

Here’s my critique:

·         The theory of biological evolution has no know scientific weaknesses and an extensive catalogue of data that supports it.

·         The chemical origins of life are obvious: how else would life have originated? Humans, after all, are chemical-biological entities.

·         Tennessee is not the first jurisdiction to become entangled with the problem of global warming. A couple of years ago, Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister believed that God, not humans, has caused global warming (cf. Ethical Musings: Global warming

Sadly, I know that a scientific critique is not what Tennessee intended. But if God is true, then God is not a deceiver. Indeed, the Bible identifies the devil – the personification of evil – as the deceiver. Christians, like people of all genuine faith and no faith at all, need not fear the truth. Ultimately, humans can do nothing to alter historical fact. Consequently, we do well to search for facts, to organize those facts in ways that make sense of them (theories), and then to test the predictive ability of the theory.

Scientific progress is uncertain. For centuries, the best minds subscribed to a Newtonian physics. Today, the best minds recognize that quantum physics more accurately describes what exists. No amount of theological posturing can change that. Theological posturing, however, can retard scientific progress and handicap children educated in ignorance rather than the pursuit of truth.

This recent law is simply one more reason that I am thankful that I do not live in Tennessee and one more reason why I am less than sanguine about the future competitiveness of the U.S. in a “flat world.”

Tennessee’s law also has the perhaps intended consequence of discriminating against all of the people in that state who hold a different religious view (i.e., a non-Christian view or a liberal Christian view) of how the world or life came into existence. I wonder whether the law will withstand an almost certain constitutional challenge that the law attempts to establish religion.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moral risk taking

How risk averse are you? Investment advisors routinely query clients about this. A direct correlation often exists between risk and return: the greater the risk, the greater the potential return (or loss). People have different risk tolerances, varying from an extreme of craving, perhaps even needing, risk to the opposite extreme of wanting, perhaps needing, to avoid risk. Entrepreneurs and gamblers tend to have a high tolerance for risk; people who choose a career because it offers good job security tend to have a low tolerance for risk.

After 9/11, political leaders in the U.S. decided that the American public, as a whole, had a low tolerance for risk when flying. They therefore established the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and shaped its operations to create the illusion that flying was risk free. Anyone with a fear of flying knows that air travel is never risk free.

The TSA has certainly not made flying risk free. Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the TSA, recently identified five fixes for what he believes is a broken agency:

1.    No more banned items

2.    Allow all liquids

3.    Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable

4.    Eliminate baggage fees

5.    Randomize security

Hawley’s basic premise is that eliminating risk is impossible. Instead, the TSA should be in the risk management business, emphasizing avoiding catastrophic incidents. He makes a point that I have made previously: passengers and flight crews today would prevent another World Trade Center type incident by taking action, as happened on Flight 93. (Ethical Musings: The al Qaeda threat; Kip Hawley, Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How to Fix It -, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012)

Life is inherently risky.

Humans wisely avoid some risks, especially risks in which reasonably expected costs far exceeds reasonably expected gains. In the city where I live, a spate of pedestrians has died jaywalking across a major, eleven-lane thoroughfare. The most recent fatality was a young man unwilling to walk an extra forty feet to an intersection who stepped out into oncoming traffic. The police did not even cite the unfortunate driver who hit the man, finding the driver had no culpability for the accident. The driver will have to live with the memories of what happened.

With equal sagacity, humans ignore some risks, especially risks in which reasonably expected gains dwarf reasonably expected costs. I do not worry about the roof of my house collapsing, a wiring short causing an electrical fire, or my car exploding when I turn it on. These are all possibilities, but so unlikely that spending time thinking about them would be utterly pointless.

Similarly, there are risks I can do little or nothing to mitigate. Beyond adopting a healthy lifestyle (which is important), I can do little to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. Investing additional thought, effort, or energy in attempting to mitigate my cancer risk is futile. The cause of many cancers is unknown; my genes are mine, i.e., I can do nothing to get rid of any bad genes that I have.

A rationale approach to risk, therefore, consists of identifying risks with potentially significant costs/rewards and factors that I can manage to better shit the odds of a favorable outcome in my favor. Adopting a healthy lifestyle to reduce the chances of getting cancer exemplifies this approach. Many cancers entail high emotional and treatment costs; some cancers have a high fatality rate. A good diet, not using tobacco, consuming alcohol in moderation, having recommended physical screenings, maintaining a reasonable weight, etc. – all the components of a healthy lifestyle – improve the odds against my getting cancer (health and life are high value rewards in my estimation) and therefore constitute sensible risk management.

Morally, risk factors also exist. Known moral risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption, illegal drug use, too much stress, lack of sleep, isolation, and the wrong type of peer influence. In 2011, the U.S. Navy relieved twenty-two commanding officers (COs). In 2012, the U.S. Navy has already relieved six COs, ranging in rank from Lieutenant Commander to Rear Admiral. The Navy carefully screens COs, who must successfully complete training and a series of preliminary assignments before assuming command. Relief for cause occurs in the preponderance of cases because the individual succumbed to moral temptation, e.g., abusing subordinates or personal misconduct. Being a CO is a high stress, lonely position that entails unrelenting responsibility and frequent long hours in an organization with widespread alcohol abuse. The CO relieved for cause is not a bad person but a person who succumbed to moral temptation.

I draw several lessons from this. First, moral risk is pervasive. Past success is no guarantee of future success. Anyone can succumb to temptation and fail.

Second, I want to be part of a community that shares my values and encourages accountability for living those values. This provides positive peer pressure and reduces the moral risk factors. Regrettably, few religious congregations provide this type of community. Small groups within a healthy religious congregation or formal/informal peer groups are the most likely sources of this accountability. A group that I disdain and whose values I reject, Promise Keepers, did recognize the importance of accountability, saw that most men lack accountability, and encouraged men to form small peer-accountability groups.

Third, building fences can help keep one from falling off cliffs. The Jews of Jesus’ era had built fences around the law to keep them from violating God's teachings. Among legalistic Jews, living within the fences became onerous, even impossible, for ordinary people. Sometimes it’s necessary to cross a fence. But staying within fences as a general practice can keep one out of trouble most of the time. In the language of the New Testament, people who are faithful in small things will be faithful in large things.

Fourth, the goal is not to create a set of rules by which to live but to form one’s character such that doing the right thing is a matter of habit rather than a matter of deliberation. I open the door for people, regardless of their gender or age, because in doing so I symbolically place their well-being ahead of my own.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Laurent Murawiec in The Mind of Jihad describes two types of revolution. One archetype is the French Revolution, which sought an equality of outcomes. The other archetype is the Anglo-Saxon (England’s Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution), which sought an equality of opportunity (pp. 257-258).

Both types of equality are important and have Christian roots. Emphases on caring for the poor and the most vulnerable underscore equality of outcomes; emphases on the dignity of all humans, individual initiative, contribution, and effort underscore equality of opportunity.

The challenge is to strike the best balance between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. Tilting exclusively in one direction or the other creates an unhealthy society. Overemphasizing equality of outcomes undercuts the incentive for achievement. Nations that have forced collectivization of enterprises have consistently experienced declines in productivity and generally reverted to greater private ownership of farms, factories, and other means of production. Overemphasizing equality of opportunity allows the exceptional individual to flourish. Government regulation in the U.S. developed as a response to the exploitative and abusive behavior of the robber barons who often profited at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Constructive debates about equality will carefully nuance their arguments and support a balance of equality of outcomes and opportunity.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tax burden

In most years, individual U.S. federal income tax returns are due today. However, because today is Sunday and tomorrow is a holiday in Washington, D.C., taxes and returns are not due until the 17th.

However, since axes have featured prominently in some Ethical Musings’ posts (e.g., Ethical Musings: Thinking about the income tax 2011, Ethical Musings: Thinking about the income tax 2010, and Ethical Musings: Fair taxation), a post today on taxes seemed especially appropriate.

This chart, from the Wall Street Journal (Andrea Coobes, “Taxes – Who really is paying up,” April 15, 2012), graphically depicts the unfairness of the U.S. tax system:

The tax burden, as I have previously contended, should increase with income such that the higher one’s income, the larger share of the tax burden paid. Instead, that principle only holds true for the bottom 80% of taxpayers. The wealthiest 20% pay disproportionately little in taxes, sometimes close to what the middle 20% pay.

Making the tax system fair is relatively easy: treat all income the same; eliminate all deductions; establish a progressive tax rate structure. This won’t happen. Too many individuals and groups want to use the tax system for multiple purposes, not just funding the government; too many individuals and groups/businesses want to privilege themselves at somebody else’s expense.

However, fairness demands improvement. The top 20% (and that includes me) should pay more in taxes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reader comments

I invite readers to comment, engage me in dialogue, and suggest topics for future posts.

On a recent day, I received an email thanking me for one of my posts (which the reader had kindly shared with two colleagues at work) and an anonymous letter, addressed in handwritten, block print, which contained a scrap of paper with two scripture references. I appreciated the email.

From the references, I inferred that the letter’s sender thought I was ignorant of scripture and that the Bible unambiguously teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong. If the letter’s sender reads Ethical Musings, let me assure that person I have read the Bible in its entirety many times and continue to regularly read the Bible. Furthermore, I do not think that scripture is at all unambiguous about homosexuality. This feeble attempt at proof texting added conviction to my belief that when people read the Bible, they should do so through the lens of the historical-critical method (cf. Ethical Musings: When we encourage Bible reading).

The anonymous letter also reminded me of my dialogue, via comments on various posts, with a reader who preferred to remain anonymous (cf. Ethical Musings: Reversing the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church comments). As a longtime priest, I’m sensitive to people who wish to speak anonymously about issues of great personal importance. However, I’m unaccustomed to people who use anonymity as an opportunity to express ad hominem attacks or who lack the courage of their convictions. Opposing full civil rights for gays and the full inclusion of gays in the life of the Church is nothing new. A letter without a name suggests that the sender wishes to convey a sense of threat or suffers from a lack of moral courage. In either case, I feel sorry for the person.

With the exception of comments that want to advertise something or another blog, vituperative comments, comments that are personally insulting or use inappropriate language, I publish all comments received. I do not hesitate to publish views with which I disagree. Ideas should stand or fall on their merits, not on my personal biases (cf. Ethical Musings: Further thoughts on civility and Community demands civility).

In due season, I write a post on most of the topics proposed by readers, always reserving the prerogative of writing about what is of interest to me at the time. I often write posts a week or two in advance, which allows me to take advantage of windows of opportunity in my schedule, topics that incite my interest, and to accommodate my travel schedule.

This letter is not the first anonymous letter that I have received, nor will it probably be the last. Anonymous letters do provide some measure of encouragement: at least what I am writing has sufficiently stimulated some reader to take action, even if it is a minimally constructive action.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Treasure in earthen vessels

Is the church an organization or people?

Answering that question is critical for identifying the focus of ordained ministry. If the church is primarily an organization, then the ministry of the clergy is to tend the organization, develop its resources, and aide in deploying its asset in mission. If the church is primarily people, then the ministry of the clergy is to cultivate people’s spirituality, viewing any formal organization only as an optional means to an end.

The Apostle Paul in his second letter to Corinth describes the Corinthian Christians as the evidence of his ministry (2:17-3:3). The context makes it clear that Paul refers to the people not to any formal, or even informal, organization. The institutional church developed to preserve and to communicate God's love, not as a goal in itself.

Established churches can easily confuse the relative importance of organization and people. In the U.S., denominations often confuse the relative importance of organization and people.

The sociological evidence on the impending death of denominations, perhaps even of organized churches (by this term I mean local congregations, formally incorporated, with their buildings, budgets, and governance structures), and the parallel growth of people interested in spirituality is clear. The data suggest that Christianity, if it is to survive, must relearn the distinction the between vessel and content, develop a fresh language for talking about the content, and again focus on people and not or organization.

The organized church is an earthen vessel, a means to an end, and not the treasure, not an end in itself. God has no ultimate need for denominations, local church structures, or the other appurtenances of organization which humans sometimes find so helpful, sometimes even worship.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


The word Easter comes from the name of a Teutonic goddess of spring, worshipped at the vernal equinox, which coincides with Passover, which precipitates all the events of Holy Week. In Old English, the name is eastre; the word’s Sanskrit root, usra, means dawn, i.e., where the sun rises, thus our word east.

Jesus’ death disheartened, devastated, and almost destroyed the group of disciples who had committed to following Jesus. On the day following the Sabbath (i.e., our Sunday), the gospels portray the disciples as preparing to return to their individual homes, presumably to attempt to pick up the threads of lives tattered by their years of travelling around Palestine with Jesus.

Somehow, in a way that I do not pretend to understand, the presence of God, which they had experienced so strongly in and through Jesus, again became real to them. This happened in a manner that they associated with Jesus, causing them to declare, He lives! (For anyone interested in a discussion of the absurdity of physical resurrection, cf. Ethical Musings: Holy Week thoughts on crucifixion and resurrection and Resurrection.)

One Christian tradition has it that Mary Magdalene visited the Emperor Tiberias (14-37 AD) in Rome and proclaimed Christ's resurrection to him. According to tradition, she took him an egg as a symbol of the resurrection, a symbol of new life with the words: "Christ is risen!" She told Tiberias that, in his Province of Judea, Jesus the Galilean, a holy man, a maker of miracles, powerful before God and all humanity, was executed on the instigation of the Jewish High-Priests and the sentence affirmed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.

Tiberias responded that no one could rise from the dead, any more than the egg she had brought could turn red. The egg turned red immediately, as testimony to what Mary was preaching.

Although romantics may like hearing the story of Mary’s visit to Tiberias and parents may use the story to teach young children the reason for Easter egg hunts, the tradition is obviously a fabrication, e.g., eggs do not turn color as evidence of the truth of the resurrection (or any other proposition!).

Yet, for almost two thousand years, people have continued to experience the presence of the ultimately real in the Christian myth and community. If Jesus manifesting God's great love were simply another fabricated story, then the story would lack power, people would not experience transformation as they heard, died to self, and lived into a reality greater than self.

Sadly, those Christians who insist on understanding the gospels as factual accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection unintentionally eviscerate the myth of its power for many in the twenty-first century. The power of the myth is the power of art, or metaphor, to point to a reality beyond itself. We experience the power of the myth when we allow the story to become a window through which we can stand in the light of God's love, a light that illuminates, heals, and gives life abundant to us.

The sun has risen; the light shines; Happy Easter!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

The Rt. Rev. Frank Weston (1871-1924), when Bishop of Zanzibar, declared his diocese to be out of communion with the diocese of Hereford in England in 1912. The appointment of Professor B.H. Streeter as a canon of Hereford Cathedral prompted Weston’s declaration. Weston was outraged, because Streeter had the temerity to deny the historicity of Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection.

Today, Streeter’s claims are more likely to evoke a yawn than outrage in most Christian circles (apart from fundamentalists!). The truth of Christianity is not contingent upon historical facts but upon an ultimate reality that transforms the metaphorically dead into the genuinely alive.

Sadly, a goodly number of Christians still link that transformation to the necessity of Jesus’ death on Good Friday. The only reason that Jesus had to die was that he was a human. Humans die. All of us.

For the first several hundred, Christians generally believed that sin put humans into the devil’s grasp. Thus, Christians interpreted the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of freeing sinners from the devil’s grasp. Explanations of how Jesus achieved that liberation all proved unsatisfactory, especially once the Church began to teach the divinity of Jesus (how and why would God need to ransom or otherwise free anyone from the devil?).

Then Christians began to interpret the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of satisfying the demands of a just God. For example, Anselm taught that sin was an offense against God's honor; Jesus’ death satisfied that debt of honor.

In time, that feudal understanding of salvation yielded to various theories of expiation and substitution. None of these theories is coherent. Why does God create a system of justice such that injustice requires the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb? Surely God could devise an alternative system, of God is less than omnipotent, i.e., the concept of justice did not originate with God. Traditional conceptions of the atonement make God into a masochist or child abuser, depending upon how one understands the relationship between the first two persons of the Trinity. Furthermore, any human-divine intercourse dependent upon a sacrificial theory of the atonement substitutes a just exchange for the God's free gift of grace.

In the last two or three centuries, a fresh consensus has begun to emerge among theologians who recognize the pitfalls of traditional atonement theology (for a fuller exposition of these, cf. John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, pp. 112-126). Hick writes, “The real meaning of Jesus’ death was not that is blood was shed – indeed crucifixion did not involve a great deal of bloodshed – but that he gave himself utterly to God in faith and trust. His cross was thus a powerful manifestation of and continuing symbol of the divine kingdom in this present world, as a way of life in which one turns the other cheek, forgives one’s enemies ‘unto seven times seven’, trusts God even in the darkness of pain, horror, and tragedy, and is continually raised again to the new life of faith.” (p. 132)

In Jesus, God convincingly and clearly manifested God's love for humanity. The father of the prodigal welcomes the prodigal’s return, embracing the prodigal and never demanding a repayment of a wasted inheritance or life. God is this parent who rushes to embrace those who seek the one who is ultimately real.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lessons from Cantuar

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ announcement that he would step down from his post at the end of 2012 pleased me and heightened my respect for him.

Archbishop Williams, in spite of commendable effort, has ineffectually led both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Unfortunately, results not efforts count. Notably, his attempt to preserve the Anglican Communion through creating an “Anglican Covenant” as a fifth instrument of unity has failed and the Church of England has rejected his proposal for ordaining women as bishops.

Some Anglicans, most of whom oppose ordaining non-celibate gays and blessing same-sex relationships, believe that the proposed Covenant will exert insufficient restraint on proponents of those practices. Other Anglicans, generally supportive of ordaining non-celibate gays and blessing same-sex relationships, believe that the proposed Covenant radically breaks with the Anglican Communion’s historic emphases of unity centered on communion with Canterbury and provincial independence. Reconciliation between those divergent views has proved impossible. Archbishop Williams probably finds the Church of England’s almost certain rejection of the Covenant especially painful.

Similarly, the Church of England has rejected the proposal put forward by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that, while authorizing consecration of women as bishops, would have made generous provision for alternative episcopal oversight of dissenters, i.e., provision for male bishops for congregations and male clergy who object. A solid majority within the Church of England believe that the time has come to move forward with respect to authorizing the consecration of a woman as a bishop and that further accommodation of male prejudice against women clergy is unacceptable.

Leadership in the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, like in the Episcopal Church, is not primarily a function of a leader’s formal authority. The Archbishop of Canterbury has very little ecclesial authority over the Anglican Communion. He decides which bishops to invite to the Lambeth Conference. He chairs some meetings and makes a handful of appointments. Most dramatically, he could terminate the communion that exists between himself and a province, a step that is virtually unimaginable. Canonically and legally, the Archbishop has more authority within the Church of England, but even there civil law, canon law, General Synod, and a host of other factors circumscribe the Archbishop’s authority.

Instead, leadership in both the Anglican Communion and the Church of England is primarily a matter of persuading people to voluntarily follow the Archbishop’s lead. To lead, the Archbishop must rely on his personal charisma, recognized expertise to which others willingly defer, moral or spiritual stature that others find compelling, or ability to connect people and organizations creatively and effectively.

The Anglican Communion and the Church of England are at crucial junctures. The Communion’s deep and irreconcilable divisions will inevitably change its size, composition, and perhaps even structure, probably within the next decade. The real question is not if but when the Church of England will consecrate its first female bishop. In addition to quarreling over the ordination of women, the Church of England has steadily declining attendance at worship, significant financial problems, and, from within and without the Church, intermittent calls for disestablishment.

In sum, both the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, at a time such as this, need an Archbishop whose vision, charisma, and leadership can bring unity in the midst of diversity and a renewed, reenergized focus on mission. Archbishop Williams, by all accounts a wise and deeply spiritual Christian, recognizes that he is not that leader. His insight and courageous decision to step aside have increased my respect for him.

Archbishop Williams’ decision prompted some self-examination. His choice is the latest and highest profile example of clergy stepping aside from leadership posts within the Church. Bishops Tom Wright (formerly of Durham) and Neil Alexander (Atlanta) have both chosen to return to academia. Many more bishops and priests have chosen to retire early rather than to continue serving. Calling a leader, especially within the Episcopal Church, is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. What is it about us, as Anglicans, that causes our leaders to exit?

First, we value our individuality and independence more than we value communion and mutual interdependence. Communion does not connote approval or even agreement. I feel strongly about fully including everyone in the life of the Church regardless of gender or gender orientation. However, these issues are not litmus tests of Christian identity. Nor is someone who disagrees with me on these issues less of a Christian than I am (how does one even measure such a thing?).

Second, like our polarized politicians, we define ourselves by our positions and conflicts rather than by our mutual love and respect. Growth is impossible without change; change always entails conflict. The grain of sand irritates the oyster, initiating the process that can transform the grain into a pearl. Yet a grain of a toxic substance or effluents in the water can kill the oyster. Tragically, our conflict too often has become toxic rather than transforming us into pearls of great value.

Third, too many Anglicans confuse authority and leadership. Episcopalians rightly resist ceding too much authority to bishops, especially bishops not accountable to the Church. Yet without good leadership, the Church flounders and people perish.

No wonder, in a gentle and tacit indictment of many Anglicans, Archbishop Williams warns that the next Archbishop of Canterbury must have “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”

We Episcopalians can profit from that warning. Like the Church of England, our worship attendance and financial resources are declining. These declines – though exacerbated by our individualism, animosity in conflict, and wariness of leaders – more fundamentally reflect the Church’s struggles with modernism, secularism, and other external forces.

Thankfully, our Presiding Bishop, Bishops, and rectors/vicars have “bully pulpits” from which to guide and to mobilize the Church. Our Church desperately needs godly and effective leadership. Our polity means that we have no reason to fear strong leaders. Participation is voluntary. If people do not want to follow, they can vote with their feet, their purses, or through the Church’s formal decision-making processes. Those of us who choose to remain will do well to emphasize unity in the midst of diversity, practice mutual love and respect in conflict, and applaud good leadership. Otherwise, good leaders will continue to abandon their posts prematurely for other ministries and the Church’s problems will only worsen.