Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nero fiddled and Rome burned: Part 2

Late in the twentieth century, Episcopal concern over the numerical decline of TEC and Christianity coalesced in a designated decade of evangelism. That initiative fizzled badly. Concurrently and more recently, some Episcopalians (and others) have advocated the emergent church movement, Dina Butler Bass’ ideas about Christianity after religion, and other revitalization efforts as the answer. In my diocese, our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, recognizing the need and energized by those efforts, has focused on encouraging his clergy and congregations to carry the gospel to Galilee, i.e., to meet people in the world where the people are. The report of the Standing Commission on Ministry and Evangelism in the 2012 General Convention Blue Book is yet another effort to address numerical decline.

I commend all of these efforts. However, reversing the numerical decline is not one task among many. TEC’s numerical decline poses the only immediate existential threat to the denomination. Unless we reverse the decline within the next twenty years, the denomination will implode. Administrative requirements will immobilize any attempt at forward movement; administration costs will consume all available funds and rapidly deplete the endowment (cf. Part 1: The story the budget tells and Part 2: The story the budget tells).

The issue is not whether TEC should have a virtual governance process, a unicameral structure, or preserve the status quo. Unless we reverse the numerical decline, TEC’s governance structures and processes will become progressively more irrelevant and meaningless. Across TEC, only a relative handful of people are genuinely invested in denominational governance; the vast majority of those individuals serves as deputies, delegates, or fills other formal roles in diocesan, provincial, and national bodies. In other words, reforming the structures and processes entails people voluntarily surrendering roles they perceive as positions of power, but roles that perform tasks few others value.

What if General Convention (or a diocesan convention) devoted just sixty minutes to all of the canonically required business and spent the rest of its time addressing one question: what can we do to reverse the numerical decline of Christianity and TEC? Attendees would commit to produce a series of specific action steps, fully funded, with the individual or group responsible for taking the action identified, deadlines established, and accountability reports due at the next General Convention (or diocesan convention). The product would not be just another denominational program but a re-visioning and re-directing of the organization that promoted multiple responses (nobody has a definitive, single answer) by mobilizing the entire organization.

What’s the cost of doing this? We would cancel many good programs and many meetings that generate few tangible results. We would set aside many important items, e.g., whether to revise the hymnal, changes to the liturgical calendar, ecumenical conversations, and proposed canonical changes. Staff would find their jobs realigned.

What’s the potential benefit? TEC might move to the cutting edge of spiritual and religious life, reverse its numerical decline, and more fully incarnate the body of Christ. Repositioned and revitalized, TEC could once again become a positive force for change.

Reading the 2012 General Convention Blue Book does not make me optimistic about the probability of genuine renewal. Overcoming institutional inertia is incredibly difficult. Congregations more frequently die rather than reinvent themselves. In the next few decades, denominations, probably including TEC, will die, refusing to reinvent themselves.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned.

Christendom is no more. Yet the Church continues to act as if Christianity were the official religion in the United States. For example, clergy retain a vestigial role as state functionaries by officiating at weddings. I did not fully appreciate the irony of this in a nation that prides itself on not having an established religion until I, a U.S. naval officer and citizen, while serving on exchange with the Royal Navy in London officiated at the wedding of two British citizens on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. I could do this because the Archbishop of Canterbury had licensed me as a Church of England priest and authorized me to serve as a Royal Navy chaplain.

If the Church was fully secure in its identity as the Body of Christ and had the integrity and courage to recognize that Christendom was no more, then many of the complexities surrounding the blessing of same-sex relationships would disappear. The Church could bless all permanent, monogamous relationships using a single liturgy; the state, not the Church, would solemnize legal contracts pertaining to domestic relationships.

Contemporary debates about marriage and same-sex relationships generally conflate into the legal contract (this is what the state cares about), the sacramental relationship (this is the Church’s proper concern), and an interpersonal relationship (out of which emerges the legal and sacramental) between two people into a single issue. Ending the pretense that the U.S. remains part of Christendom would free the Church to focus on its mission of becoming God's people.

With the de facto as well as de jure end of Christendom, other past practices are unsustainable in a secular democracy, perhaps even counterproductive for Christians to try to sustain. Among these ill-advised cultural legacies are bookending public events with an invocation and benediction, displaying Christian imagery on public property, and the legislated observance of Christian holy days. In this same vein, formal denominational efforts to influence national and international policies and legislation have achieved proportionately few results for the resources invested. Single-issue ecumenical organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, have enlisted greater support, received larger resources, and produced greater results.

Successfully re-visioning and re-creating TEC will produce an organization focused on its strength (building local communities of God's people who join in worship, caring for one another, and offer hospitality to strangers) that networks with other Christian organizations to achieve other aspects of the gospel mandate. The end of Christendom suggests that a strategy loosely linked multiple organizations may be more effective than the monolithic church of the past. The Church’s unity will be seen in relationships rather than structures.

Similarly, efforts to impose a greater degree of structural unity and conformity on the provinces of the Anglican Communion will fail. Globalization and the internet promote diversity and autonomy rather than conformity. Debating the proposed Anglican covenant wastes time and resources. Building bridges to other parts of the Anglican Communion through visits, conversations, and joint mission/ministry will produce the only form of unity sustainable in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned.

What will we do?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Nero fiddled and Rome burned

According to legend, Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. That legend provides an apt (although, like any analogy, imperfect) metaphor for today’s Church. Nero connotes we who are Christian and our ecclesial structures; fiddling suggests a focus on something other our real mission; and Rome signifies the mission to which God has called us.

People have lamented the numerical decline of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in particular and Christianity in general for decades (cf. Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). Yet the decline continues apace, unchecked. In the meantime, TEC quibbles about who may receive Holy Communion and whether to continue restricting ordination and certain church offices to confirmed members.

Few, if anyone, outside the Church really cares. The preponderance of persons interested in joining TEC recognize that TEC, like any organization, cannot exist as an organization without “borders,” i.e., without membership requirements. Lowering or removing TEC’s already minimal requirements for membership, if it achieves anything at all, may have the unintended consequence of communicating to prospects that TEC has little to offer because membership requires so little effort or commitment.

In the civilian parish that I most recently served, many adults had affiliated with the congregation without having been confirmed or received. Encouraging these adults to take more active leadership roles, a step that required the adults to attend confirmation classes and then attend a special confirmation service, required some time and effort. Nobody demurred. If anything, my sense was that these busy and talented individuals recognized that the parish, like any worthwhile organization, had reasonable and valid membership requirements. The classes afforded an opportunity to deepen relationships and to explore their spirituality and spiritual journeys together.

Likewise, a woman to whom I had served Holy Communion for over a year in a Navy Chapel was surprised to read in the bulletin one Sunday a note that Holy Baptism was a prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion. The note had been in the bulletin every Sunday for a year; it had simply taken the woman months to notice it. She then began to wonder whether she had been baptized, consulted her parents, and shamefacedly told me what had been happening. I explained that her actions posed no problem. Neither God nor the Church was offended. She wanted to receive the sacrament of baptism; the instruction classes provided a greatly appreciated opportunity for her husband and her to explore their beliefs and the Episcopal Church. She, her husband, and the congregation experienced her baptism as a moment of grace, something that theoretically happens at every baptism. Then she and her husband surprised me by inquiring about joining the Episcopal Church. I provided instruction and arranged for confirmation. When the man retired from the military, the couple enthusiastically joined an Episcopal congregation in their new community.

These anecdotes typify what I consistently have experienced and continue to experience in my ministry. Having reasonable rules and policies does not inhibit numerical or spiritual growth. The real barriers to entry in the Church include congregations and facilities that do not communicate a genuine warm welcome to all comers, clergy with poor interpersonal skills, and ministry/mission focused on anything except caring for the hungry, thirsty, hurting, alienated, and dying people all around us. I have no strong feelings about the particulars of amending the canons with respect to confirmation or the requirements for Holy Communion. I do feel strongly, notwithstanding any anecdotal evidence to contrary, that if we think any of these changes will reverse TEC’s numerical decline we are at best mistaken and at worse deluded.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned. (To be continued)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Government corruption and cynicism

An excerpt from Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power (New York: Knopf, 2012), pp. 284-287, paints a disheartening picture of corruption in the U.S. government. The excerpt (which is well worth reading), records how, in the days before John F. Kennedy's assassination, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was caught up in an escalating corruption scandal that at the very least might lead to his being dropped from the 1964 ticket, if not forced to resign as Vice President or to serve a prison sentence. Johnson had been involved in pay-for-influence practices so pervasive that it had turned a lifelong government employee, who had not earned more than $35,000 per year, into a millionaire many times over.

Johnson’s corruption preceded his lying about the role of the United States in Vietnam, which set the stage for widespread disillusionment with government. Since at least the Johnson presidency, U.S. citizens increasingly seem to feel distant from government and progressively more cynical toward the ideas of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” LBJ’s personal corruption mirrored his public persona of lying to the public.

Notwithstanding these gross foibles, Johnson did much good. He used his political power to push civil rights and social services legislation through Congress, ironically leading the nation in its greatest strides toward justice since FDR’s presidency. Had Kennedy’s assassination not occurred, Congress would probably have failed to enact most of this legislation.

Former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards offers another high-profile example of a flawed politician. Edwards generated much enthusiasm as a populist advocate of justice and family values (his wife, mother of his four children, fought a losing battle with cancer) all the while having an affair funded with gifts from wealthy supporters.

I wonder who among us, if the truth were fully known, could pass a rigorous ethical exam. I suspect that disproportionately few with significant achievements in any field would be among that number. The Christian tradition suggests that temptation increases with each notable accomplishment and that the greater the temptation the greater the likelihood of succumbing to some temptation. Perhaps that is too great a price to pay for achievement. Remember that Jesus warned his followers of the difficulty that the wealthy would experience in entering the kingdom of God; perhaps the difficulty of the powerful and popular in entering the kingdom is even greater.

Complaining about corrupt government cures nothing. Instead, people can:

1.    Pray for leaders in all fields of endeavor;

2.    Work to lead as ethical a life, personally and professional, as possible;

3.    Develop healthy accountability mechanisms to aid in resisting temptation and to recover from ethical lapses;

4.    Refuse to succeed in any field of endeavor if the price of success entails unethical behavior;

5.    Invest the time and effort required to vote responsibly, i.e., on a factual knowledge of the issue rather than opinions shaped by the media or paid advertising;

6.    Reclaim government, struggling to make government once again of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Planting trees

The historical context for this morning’s reading from Ezekiel (17:22-24) is the alliance that Judah’s King Zedekiah formed with Egypt at the beginning of the sixth century BCE preparatory to revolting against his Babylonian overlords. The alliance fizzled when Egypt proved undependable. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, then exacted a heavy vengeance upon rebellious Judah. His army sacked Jerusalem in 587; he killed Zedekiah’s sons, blinded him, and then deported him, along with Judah’s leading citizens and their families, to Babylon.

The prophet Ezekiel was very unpopular in Judah. Perhaps King Zedekiah and his supporters even regarded Ezekiel as a traitor. Ezekiel repeatedly declared that God opposed Judah’s Egyptian alliance and would use Babylon to punish Judah. Judah should rely on God, not foreign alliances, for its security. Preaching and politics, as much as some hearers and preachers might dislike it, have been and remain inextricably linked. Furthermore, contrary to what advocates of positive thinking, possibility thinking, and the prosperity gospel claim, the word of the Lord does not always sound like good news to its hearers.

Incidentally, scholars debate whether this morning’s first lesson pre- or post-dates Judah’s Babylonian captivity, a helpful reminder that material in over half of the books of the Bible has a thematic rather than chronological arrangement.[1]

Thankfully, today’s reading from Ezekiel announces good news. God will bring Judah back to Palestine from exile, restore the Jewish kingdom, and reestablish the temple. The image of a cedar planted on high with birds nesting in its branches – Mount Zion, the site of the temple in Jerusalem – symbolizes this restoration, which the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle.

We rightly read Ezekiel as history. God fulfilled Ezekiel’s message of hope. But we can beneficially hear two fresh, unfulfilled words from God in this text.

First, from a vantage point more than two and a half millennia distant from Ezekiel, we can hear the good news that God intends to restore all creation, not just Israel. Ezekiel, along with the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, was instrumental in broadening Israel’s concept of God from being Abraham’s God to being the God of all people and nations. We continue moving on that same trajectory toward a rigorous, all-inclusive monotheism when we emphasize God's equal concern for the whole of creation, not just one nation or one species.

Although Ezekiel, Zedekiah, and the rest of sixth century BCE Judah probably did not realize it, the kingdom of Judah suffered from environmental devastation that adversely affected their quality of life. Archaeologists, historians, and scientists agree that the land God promised to Israel, a land purportedly flowing with milk and honey, subsequently suffered from severe deforestation as its population increased. Demand for firewood and building supplies caused this deforestation. Deforestation, in turn, caused soil erosion, made the land less able to hold moisture and therefore more arid and less productive, and altered the local climate.[2] The modern nation of Israel has produced an agricultural miracle in part by planting more than 240 million trees to reverse the deforestation.[3]

Ezekiel’s message is a poignant declaration of hope for our fragile island home. Working cooperatively with God, we can reverse ecological damage and restore the earth to health. This is God's plan, God's desire.

Second, Christians have long heard in Ezekiel’s words a precursor to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32); some commentators on Mark’s gospel even suggest that Jesus taught his parable with Ezekiel’s words in mind. In an era before canning and refrigeration, food was not always as fresh as we expect. Because most people lived a subsistence existence, food, especially meat, was too precious to discard because of a little mold or rot. Salt was very expensive. Mustard, however, was affordable in first century Palestine. Its strong flavor and pungent odor could mask a variety of problems.

Mustard trees were native to that area; a fully-grown mustard tree that began as a seed the size of a pinhead could grow extend its branches over an adult on horseback and produce as many as half a million seeds. Furthermore, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed points to an unstoppable contagion that commentators generally ignore. Once introduced into a garden, mustard, particularly wild mustard, easily dominates, quickly overrunning everything else.[4]

Too often Christians spiritualize the parable of the mustard seed, identifying God's Kingdom with a future reality not located on this earth. Yet Jesus and his early followers clearly expected God's Kingdom to develop in this world. The Kingdom is breaking into the present, right here.

A small action – using compact florescent lights instead of incandescent bulbs, switching to reusable cloth shopping bags from disposable paper or plastic, walking rather than driving, and so forth – may be the seed that grows into a tree that changes the world. Some of these seeds have already begun to sprout, including Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, the work of Interfaith Power and Light, the 2011 House of Bishops Pastoral Teaching on the Environment, and Nativity’s own Environmental Stewardship Ministry.
What seed are you planting?

[1] Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 324.
[2] R.B.Y. Scott, “Palestine, Climate of,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, pp. 621-626. W.L. Reed, “Forest,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 2, p. 314.
[3] Jewish National Fund website, “Forest and Ecology,” accessed June 13, 2012 at
[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 65.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

To hell and back again

The independent film, “Hell and Back Again,” describes one Marine’s incredible journey to war and return home as a wounded warrior. Every voter should watch this powerful film to realize the human costs of employing the military, something that the United States does far too often and far too casually.

This is a PBS review and synopsis of the movie:

Thursday, June 14, 2012


As I’ve argued previously, cultures that prize individualism dominate the West (cf. Ethical Musings: Thinking about community, Class divisions, and What difference does religion make?).

Thirty years ago, Gibson Winter in Liberating Creation (New York: Crossroad, 1981), presciently suggested that individualism could easily become narcissism (pp. 92-93). Reflecting on the last sixty years in the United States:

·         The already strong sense of individualism, symbolized by the frontier ethos, became even stronger as the civil rights, anti-war, and other social change movements fractured the existing sense of community. This was not inherently bad; the U.S. enjoys a much more just culture today than it did in the 1950s.

·         Excessive individualism developed into the narcissism of the “me generation.” People in the 1980s and especially 1990s focused on hedonistic self-fulfillment and personal pleasure to the exclusion, often the detriment, of the common good.

·         That excessive individualism and shattered sense of community is now apparent in our political process. Politicians pander to voters’ self-interests as the best way to win the next election. Politicians’ agenda rarely includes the common good, especially the common good that connotes the interests of anyone other than the politician’s constituency. Consequently, government often approaches deadlock; compromise and bipartisanship signal the end of a political career rather than the emergence of genuine leadership.

The nineteenth century German philosopher Hegel proposed that history moves dialectically, i.e., an antithesis develops in response to each thesis. In this case, renewed emphasis on community would emerge as a response to the excessive individualism. The antithesis that emerges is usually excessive.

Nazi fascism and communism both exhibited excessive emphasis on the communal, becoming destructive and evil. Following the founding of the modern state of Israel, the emphasis on communal life in kibbutz yielded to a healthier balance between individualism and communalism without excess. That seems to be an exception, not the historical norm.

What is the future in the West? How much further will the sense of community disintegrate in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of the individualistic? The libertarianism of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul would push our culture even further in that direction.

The more extreme individualism becomes, the more likely the move toward community will be extreme. A healthy society constructively and creatively balances individualism and communalism. Globalization increasingly pushes us to define community globally rather than locally or nationally. But globalization also brings with it the capacity for ugly totalitarianism that may allow precious little individualism. Future generations will benefit if we can reverse the move toward individualism without triggering an over-reaction in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Incredibly, by 1980, more Vietnam veterans had committed suicide than had died in Vietnam in combat. (Center for Suicide Research, Department of Veterans Affairs, Wadsworth Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA: Report No. 4 (January 1978) and subsequent releases. Cited by Gibson Winter, Liberating Creation (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 131.)

Far more than in Vietnam, there was no rear echelon in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Being in country meant being in harm’s way. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report more mental health issues, perhaps twice as many, as did veterans of previous wars. Will the suicide rate for these warriors with their hidden wounds be even higher than the rate for Vietnam vets?

Two possible causes for veterans’ suicides are receiving renewed attention. The first is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For women vets, sexual assault by a comrade in arms can cause or compound combat related PTSD.

The second cause is moral injury, the harm a warrior experiences from performing acts in war that society otherwise considers immoral. Killing is the most egregious of these acts. Some theorists believe that a healthy human has an innate resistance to killing another human.

One source of the increase in moral injury is likely the training that modern warriors receive to lower their resistance to killing, a resistance so strong that U.S. military funded research during WWII suggested that only 10% of soldiers when in combat actually shot their weapon at the enemy. The other soldiers aimed away from the enemy or did not shoot.

From Constantine until the late Middle Ages, the Church generally insisted upon returning warriors performing penance to cleanse the spirit before being welcome to again receive Holy Communion. Penance began with confession and then might include spiritual disciplines such as fasting, a pilgrimage, or lengthy prayer. The Church recognized that war, no matter how morally necessary, invariably left the warrior with moral injuries. Failing to take those injuries seriously resulted in a cheap grace (e.g., a welcome embrace, plaudits, and pretending everything is once again normal) that killed rather than offered healing and life.

With an all-volunteer force, the need to take moral injury seriously is even more important. These warriors volunteered to fight. Failing to take their moral injury seriously dishonors them and their selfless service.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Keeping pace with change

My partner and I recently terminated our landline, that is, we cancelled our wired telephone service opting to rely exclusively on wireless telecommunication.

That sentence actually contains references to two changes, one good and one bad. The bad change was North Carolina voting last month to adopt an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. I find this blatant discrimination egregiously immoral. My Ethical Musings post on NC Amendment One explains my objections.

However, the voters passed the amendment. I briefly considered divorcing my wife (whom I love deeply and with whom I hope to spend the rest of my life) to put us on an equal footing with people who cannot obtain the legal advantages of a marriage contract. Denying my partner and myself the benefits of that contract, which as a military retiree are considerable, will do nothing to end unjust discrimination or to advance the cause of equality.

Words are powerful. So I have chosen to stop using the language of marriage in order to identify with people against whom a secular government discriminates based upon religious bigotry. I encourage other people to do the same.

The good change is that technology offers the potential to simplify our lives and to reduce our dependence upon material possessions. My cell phone has more capabilities than any phone I have previously owned. It is also the smallest phone I have ever owned.

Similarly, the Kindle that I’ve owned for a couple of years now contains hundreds of books. Because these books are in an electronic format, I’ve reduced my environmental footprint at no cost to myself, i.e., I’ve avoided purchasing additional shelving not to mention the horrendous pollution associated with papermaking. These tomes cost less than the print version (some are even free), raising my standard of living without requiring me to increase my income; the author, if alive, earns more. The Kindle is also highly transportable. Furthermore, my partner and I share a Kindle account, enabling us to read one another’s books at no cost, exactly as we would do with a printed book.

Technology has revolutionized modern life. No longer are the tasks of ordinary living – cleaning, cooking, caring for clothes, etc. – arduous, time consuming endeavors. Additionally, technology has often improved the result. Cooking on a gas or electronic appliance generally trumps a wood or coal fired cooker (unless one seeks a particular flavor). Washing machines generally clean clothes better, more quickly, and with less effort than does hand washing. Personal hygiene is vastly superior because of modern plumbing and products. The advent of 3-D printers offers the prospect of manufacturing on demand, potentially eliminating the need to stockpile items never used as well as the preferred square footage of dwellings.

Technology is assuredly no panacea for our problems. Technology does offer a means to reduce per capita consumption of many of earth’s resources without a commensurate reduction in the quality of life. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome will be obtaining sustainable and abundant energy with which to fuel the technology at a reasonable price. The other major obstacle may be persuading people to adopt technology without committing to a never ending cycle of non-essential, producer driven product upgrades.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Economic growth

Classical economics presumes that unlimited economic growth is possible and good. Both assessments are wrong.

Economic growth requires resource utilization. Humans have access to limited quantities of all resources. With respect to some resources, the quantities are in desperately short supply. For example, the earth has insufficient carbon based fuels to permit all humans to consume those fuels at the per capita rate enjoyed by people in North America and Europe. Furthermore, consumption of carbon based fuels directly contributes to global warming.

Beef consumption is another example of the problem of presuming the possibility of unlimited economic growth. Raising cattle is perhaps the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. Raising cattle for food requires more land and resources than does a vegetarian diet. Humans do not have to forego eating meat to achieve ecological health. However, moderating meet consumption is one-step toward ecological health.

As the examples of both carbon based fuels and beef consumption illustrate, unlimited economic growth is neither possible nor good. Furthermore, human flourishing, at some level of consumption, shows diminishing returns from additional consumption. Unlimited economic growth is not synonymous with human flourishing.

If economic growth is not the panacea for economic problems that candidates of both political parties presume, what is the answer?

First, economic health requires an intact social fabric; unfortunately, in Europe and the U.S. the social fabric is increasingly frayed as access to opportunity shifts toward the elite and away from the least advantaged. This growing disparity between the wealthy elite and an impoverished underclass augers poorly for the future, raising the possibility of social disintegration. As the world increasingly becomes a global community, global social disparities will loom as large as, if not larger than, national discrepancies.

Second, economic health requires long-term sustainability. In the past, human utilization of resources did not exceed the earth’s capacity for self-renewal so grievously. When that did happen (e.g., in newly industrialized, coal-burning London), time brought improvements and the global effect was minimal. Today, the consequences of excessive resource utilization or using resources in a way that notably pollutes or harms the environment is more of a problem because of the greater scale, e.g., the concurrent industrialization of India and China even while the West continues at unsustainably high levels of consumption and pollution.

Third, economic health requires shifting the emphasis from material consumption to genuinely improving the quality of life. For example, producing art arguably enriches the world more than does producing more cars and trucks (or electronic gadgets, clothes, etc.). Similarly, improving health through better diets, exercise, adequate sleep, and the practice of preventive medicine is less resource intensive, less polluting, and has the potential to improve human flourishing more than traditional economic growth can. Encouraging people to consume education (take courses, earn degrees, read, write, listen) in lieu of conspicuous material consumption can also improve quality of life while expending few non-renewable resources.

Fourth, economic health requires that inflows balance outflows. The discrepancy between traditional notions of economic growth and ecological sustainability occurs in part because economics, finance, and accounting have ignored many production costs, e.g., the cost of pollution. Likewise, both personal and national economic health requires that inflows balance outflows. Politicians across the board have unrealistic proposals for achieving this balance. Some politicians advocate austerity, dramatically reducing outflows (government spending). Some even advocate more dramatic cuts in outflows by concurrently reducing inflows (tax revenues) in spite of U.S. history over the last thirty years demonstrating that tax cuts cause insufficient growth in economic activity to offset the reduction in government income. Other politicians advocate raising taxes to increase inflows, intending to balance outflows. Dependence on debt is a reprise of the causes of today’s ecological crisis: pushing the cost of current consumption onto future generations.

This vision of dynamic, sustainable economic health is consonant with an ethic that values all people equally and that values all of creation. Different cultures and different sectors of the economy will rightly opt for various economic models (capitalism, socialism, etc.) to achieve economic health. Communist efforts to collectivize farming consistently resulted in diminished agricultural output. Thus, capitalism is the preferable economic model for farming and much production.

Alternatively, capitalism relies upon informed consumers choosing between multiple vendors to balance supply and demand at the lowest price. Healthcare has few knowledgeable consumers (perhaps mostly patients who are themselves healthcare professionals) and few vendors competing on price (scarcely any patient inquires about the cost of care ahead of time). Relying on the capitalist model for healthcare is a misfit, which the high cost of care and poor outcomes in the U.S. reflect.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Coveting and ambition

A recent report in Science News (Laura Sanders, “Thou Can’t Not Covet,” May 22, 2012) described a study to test the prevalence of mimetic desire, also known as coveting in theological and ethical language.

Copying other people’s behaviors has important evolutionary functions. For example, eating what others eat helps an individual avoid food poisoning. While traveling in Japan thirty years ago, I attempted to practice mimetic behavior when served a whole octopus. Is the entire octopus edible or does one eat only parts of it? Unfortunately, my observation of the other diners never yielded an answer, leaving me wondering if the octopus, which was a small part of a large meal, was decorative rather than food.

Mimetic desire also has unfortunate consequences. People tend to want what others have. A study conducted by a team from INSERM in Paris and reported in the May edition of the Journal of Neuroscience

showed adults one of two videos: a piece of candy sitting on a surface, or a person’s hand reaching toward a different-colored piece of candy. Participants then rated the desirability of each candy they saw. As the mimetic desire theory predicts, people rated the about-to-get-grabbed candy as more desirable. The same effect held for clothes, tools and even toys…

Brain scans conducted during the videos showed that both the brain’s mirror neuron system and the parts of the brain that assign value to objects became active. In short, humans want other humans want. Coveting is biologically not optional.

Coveting may also serve some social purposes, e.g., encouraging people to engage in productive activities the community deems beneficial because of the value the community places on those activities. In the twenty-first century, this value finds expression in terms of financial reward, celebrity, or power. Thus, a person may work harder at his/her job in order to obtain more pay, a promotion, or more influence within the organization, thereby contributing more to the community’s level of well-being than by becoming indolent or self-serving. In other words, coveting – keeping up with or exceeding the competition – may foster healthy ambition and productivity.

The tenth commandment is an injunction against coveting (unless one counts the prohibition against false gods and idols as a single commandment (Exodus 20:2-6), in which case the injunction against coveting your neighbor’s house is the ninth and coveting anything else that belongs to your neighbor is the tenth (Exodus 20:17)). The commandment wrongly regards a wife as part of her husband’s property, dehumanizing her as an object to possess. From a modern perspective, we rightly understand the commandment as banning coveting and as a warning against treating people as objects.

I suspect that excessive coveting may have led to the need to temper the innate human impulse toward mimetic desire. Excessive coveting may prompt direct action to obtain the object of one’s desires by unauthorized taking from another person. This theft breaks the trust essential for community and potentially ignites feuds that fracture community. Thus, the commandment against coveting has a similar function to the commandment that established an eye for an eye as the norm for justice (Exodus 21:24, e.g.).

Coveting is now more of a psychological problem (by this I mean an idea with affective content and not a mental health issue) than the source of criminal activity. The mortgage crisis in the U.S. and Europe shows that the power of greed – an expression of coveting because money has no intrinsic value, especially if represented by electronic bytes, and people seek money for the relative status it conveys through power, prestige, or purchases – remains the source of some criminal behaviors.

Coveting that causes dissatisfaction and births unrealistic desires or ambitions robs a person of the satisfaction associated with flourishing. Similarly, coveting that distracts a person from genuine human flourishing (cf. Ethical Musings: Success) impoverishes a person.

Aristotle situated the virtues as the contextually appropriate mean between two extremes. Courage, for example, is the situationally defined mean between rashness and cowardice.

Perhaps ambition is a virtue contextually located between coveting and indolence, greed and asceticism.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pope John XXIII

Today, June 4, the Episcopal Church calendar commemorates Pope John XXIII. The commemoration is a trial; the Episcopal Church’s General Convention will vote next month on whether to formalize the arrangement. However, the trial is significant for three reasons.

First, Christianity has changed remarkably since the time of Martin Luther. The Roman Catholic conciliar commission known as Vatican II, convened by Pope John XXIII, formalized some of those positive moves. Among these were the recognition that salvation exists outside the Roman Catholic Church for Jews (more on this in my last post, Border Crossers) and for Protestants. As Apostolic Delegate to Turkey during World War II, the then Angelo Roncalli had saved the lives of several thousand Jewish children from Bulgaria and Romania by giving them blank baptismal certificates.

Similarly, commemorating a contemporary Roman Catholic in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar shows that Protestant attitudes towards Roman Catholics have also changed for the better. Incidentally, John XXIII is not the only contemporary Roman Catholic included in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. This broadened inclusiveness represents a tremendous reversal from my youth when it was a sin for a Roman Catholic to enter a Protestant church and most Protestants considered it equally unforgivable to marry a Roman Catholic.

Second, John XXIII shows the potential for those normally discarded by the world to make a difference. John was seventy-six when his fellow cardinals elected him pontiff and widely expected to be a caretaker pope. Yet more than most popes, he his brief, five-year pontificate saw major changes in the Roman Catholic Church. Not only did the Roman Catholics acknowledge that there was salvation outside the Church (a critical step for ecumenical and interfaith relations), but they also replaced Latin in the mass with the vernacular, updated their liturgy, and renewed their commitments inclusivity and caring for the most vulnerable. Pope John XXIII said, for example, “Truth calls for the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination and the consequent recognition of the inviolable principle that all states are by nature equal in dignity...”

Third, the commemoration underscores the difference between the Roman Catholic and Anglican concepts of a saint. In the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is a deceased Christian to whom people pray and for whose assistance the Church has documented at least two miracles (i.e., supernatural interventions by God – for my thoughts on this subject, cf. Ethical Musings: Is God supernatural?). In the Anglican tradition, a saint is a person who has lived the Christian life writ large, i.e., somebody from whom others can learn how to live and in whom others can see the light of God shining. By all accounts, John XXIII was such a man, a saint of God.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Border crossers

This post takes its title from an article in The National Review with a similar title by Peter E. Gordon (“The Border Crossers,” May 18, 2012). Gordon, a history professor at Harvard, reviews John Connelly’s new book, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965. The change in the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching was dramatic: from tacit, even explicit anti-Semitism, the Roman Catholic Church changed its position to acknowledge that Judaism remained a valid path to God because God does not repent of the gifts that God makes. Connelly’s careful historical and theological analysis attributes the shift in Roman Catholic thinking to border crossers, converts to Catholicism from Judaism or Protestant Christianity.

Gordon’s final paragraph is important:

One is tempted to agree with Freud (another figure from the Moravian land of border-crossing) who observed that the injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” imposes an impossible demand: if the neighbor is truly a stranger to me and if he occupies no place whatsoever in my emotional life, then I will find this commandment in conflict with the jealousy and instinctual aggression that lie at the very core of my own psychic constitution. True love, for Freud, was therefore always entangled with narcissism: it is not the other whom I love but myself, or at least it is only that quality in the other which resembles me or resembles the person I once was. Connelly has written an important book, an extraordinary work of history, although it is sobering to think that its argument may depend on an original sin in human psychology: that the imperative of empathy resists its universal application and collapses back upon itself, darkening its own promise like an imploding star.

Globalization, with the advent of electronic communication and widely available rapid transport, has created more border crossers, people born with one identity who subsequently change that identity. Immigrants from one country to another, converts from one religion to another, and individuals who move from one social strata or class to another are all border crossers. Less easily identified border crossers, but nevertheless border crossers likely to alter the world to a degree disproportionate to their numbers, are people who adopt a worldview dramatically different from the worldview received at their birth.

Increased border crossing is a sign of hope for the possibility of a more peaceful world emerging. If Freud is right that humans cannot love a stranger, a limit that is probably intrinsic to reciprocal altruism in which we treat others well expecting somebody else to reciprocate, then border crossers reduce the number of strangers. Thus, instead of considering Muslim immigrants in the West as a developing problem, perhaps these Muslim immigrants constitute a pool of potential border crossers, able to bridge the gap between the secular West and Islam. Similarly, perhaps Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. – both legal and illegal – are not as much of a problem as a pool of border crossers who will bridge the divide between the affluent North and the poor South.

The power of border crossers is readily evident not only in the change in Roman Catholicism’s view of Jews but also in the changing attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons. GLBT persons, who crossed borders by coming out of the closet and courageously announcing their identity, have constituted the single most powerful force in changing prejudicial attitudes about gender orientation and sexual identity.

Are you a border crosser? What border can you cross to engender a fuller sense of the human community?