Monday, July 30, 2012

Sharing good news

More than 10,000 children attended this summer’s Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Second Baptist Church of Houston. Most had no affiliation with the Church. All attended without the Church charging them a fee. The Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist, believes that if he can entice the children to attend and to want to keep attending, many parents will follow.

Three things struck me about this phenomenal event. First, Second Baptist’s VBS dwarfs any program with which I’m familiar. Indeed, their VBS dwarfs any Episcopal Church. Big results require big dreams and large efforts, all sometimes possible with God's help.

Second, Ed Young and his congregation have an intentional plan for growth that has a sound psychological basis. Parents often will support their children’s desire to participate in quality programming. Theologically, I could not characterize this as evangelism, but perhaps as pre-evangelism. People who have no contact with the Church will never hear our message. If Christianity is worth living, then Christianity is worth sharing with those who find themselves spiritually hungry. What does your congregation offer to people that is of sufficient practical value that they freely choose to participate instead of using their time in another way?

Third, Second Baptist decided to adopt VBS as the lynchpin of its outreach strategy after analyzing community needs. What, Ed Young and key leaders asked, was the number one problem for people in the Houston area? Their answer was, The dissolution of the family. Charles Murray in his latest book, Coming Apart, would agree. I don’t know what programs Second Baptist has established to strengthen the families they entice into coming. I quite likely would disagree with Second Baptist about their definition of family. But I’m willing to bet that this congregation has a plan in place designed to strengthen their vision of the family.

Vibrant, growing congregations – Episcopal and other – consistently seek to respond to the genuine needs of the people in their neighborhoods with real love that gives life, promotes justice, liberates, and heals.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Accentuating the positive

Six thousand people attended a Tony Robbins self-improvement seminar, “Unleash the Power Within,” at the San Jose Convention Center on July 22. Participants paid between $600 and $2000 to attend, grossing Robbins’ organization something in excess of $5 million. One element of the seminar invited participants to walk on hot coals. Almost all did. About two dozen suffered burns on their feet.

I cannot imagine a similar even – with or without a fire walk – occurring in the Episcopal Church. The average annual pledge in the Episcopal Church is less than $2500. How many Episcopalians would pay $2000, or even $600, for a single weekend’s experience in the Church? The highest average Sunday attendance is less than 1900 people, not quite a third of the attendance at the Robbins’ seminar.

Most, perhaps all, of the injured took responsibility for their burns. One woman, for example, reported that she became afraid, losing her focus. In our litigious society, Robbins’ willingness to risk the fire walk and the participants’ acceptance of individual responsibility are striking.

What can the Church learn from Tony Robbins?

First, people hunger for spirituality. That hunger is sufficiently great to support high-cost, large events such as those Tony Robbins orchestrates. Most small congregations cannot organize such events. However, dioceses can. The diocese, not the congregation, is the basic organizational unit in Anglican polity.

Second, people value what promises to speak to their spirituality. The Church should not hesitate to emphasize stewardship. We give out of gratitude for God's love and we give to enable the Church’s ministries. Too often clergy and laity are loathe to discuss money, over reacting to both the excessive emphasis on money in some (thankfully, not Episcopalian) congregations and the distorted prosperity gospel preached elsewhere. Silence about money is irresponsible. Generally, the Church cannot function without funding.

Third, the Episcopal Church offers a deep and genuine spirituality that does not depend upon publicity generating gimmicks such as fire walking. However, we need to do a much better job of telling our story, of emphasizing what the Church offers rather than incessantly engaging in non-productive self-reflective criticism. Similarly, individuals who accentuate the positive are much more attractive and endearing than are individuals who accentual the negative.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Setting the past right

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has ordered that all of Penn State’s football victories under former coach Joe Paterno be vacated. This is an attempt to set the past right. Paterno, by all reports, ignored evidence that one of his coaches was sexually abusing children. If Paterno failed to protect the children, which apparently he did, then he acted wrongly and immorally.

However, rewriting history to declare that Penn State lost rather than won numerous football games between 1998 and 2011 does nothing to help the abused children. Nor is it honest. Penn State won those games. Furthermore, rewriting history is dishonest and therefore immoral.

Other attempts to rewrite history show the foolishness of attempting the impossible, i.e., pretending the past did not happen. The communists frequently rewrote history to suit their ideological purposes. Their ideological opponents ridiculed these attempts and pointed to the fallacious histories as evidence of communism’s intellectual bankruptcy.

Fundamentalist Christians in the United States are engaged in a campaign to convince people that the founders were devout Christians (in fact, most of the prominent founders were deists who intentionally distanced themselves from orthodox Christian theology). These efforts invite similar ridicule, affording non-fundamentalists one more reason to reject the fundamentalist message.

In general, people and organizations can take only two steps to set the past right. First, one can express regret for what happened. Expressing regret is different from apologizing. Apologizing is meaningful only when it comes from a person or organization responsible for the wrong (cf. Ethical Musings: Apologies Wanted). Expressing regret acknowledges the wrong but omits any misguided effort to take responsibility when responsibility belongs elsewhere. Second, one can attempt to set things right, especially to make restitution, to those the wrong harmed.

Ironically, rewriting history adds insult to injury (if not further injury) by pretending that the wrong did not happen. Nobody knows to what extent the Penn State football program succeeded because Paterno ignored his staff’s immoral and unlawful behaviors. Penalizing Penn State players, who presumably had no knowledge of the illicit activities, by vacating the wins, contributes nothing toward restitution or setting things right.

Bad things happen. This is a basic tenet of all of the world’s major religions. Christianity labels human participation in bad things sin. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the futility of rewriting history, e.g., a woman who lies about what she and her husband did with their money drops dead (the story of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-10). Whether one regards that story as historical fact or as illustrative, the message is clear: rewriting history, personal or institutional, is impossible.

The most insidious form of rewriting history is when an individual or organization consciously or unconsciously strives to rewrite its history for its own benefit. For an individual, psychologists call this rewriting denial or repression. Denial and repression prevent the individual from living as abundantly as possible while burdening the person with an energy sapping and ultimately futile efforts to pretend the past did not happen.

Terms are not readily available when this rewriting occurs in an organization, but the results are parallel to what happens in the individual. The organization, denying its past, cannot learn from previous mistakes or foibles. Repressing the past, the organization creates an unhealthy and dysfunctional climate/psychology. Anyone familiar with very many local religious congregations has probably witnessed efforts to rewrite history by denying or repressing details of unpleasant or unfortunate incidents. The result is consistently destructive.

For both individuals and organizations, health begins by shedding light on the past and acknowledging what actually occurred, preliminary steps in expressing regret. Only then is progress toward health possible. Honesty remains the best policy.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What ails Episcopalians?

A week ago, journalist and Episcopalian Jay Akasie wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, “What Ails Episcopalians?” (July 12, 2012). In it, he lambasted The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) General Convention for its sheer ostentation and carnival-like atmosphere. Among those who have responded to Akasie’s essay and who are worth reading are Scott Gunn, Winnie Varghese, Jon Meacham, Kirk Smith, and Tom Ehrich.

Akasie phrased those charges to evoke a visceral response. Some ostentation is appropriate. The Church is about God's business. The National Cathedral with its soaring, spacious architecture can inspire awe (i.e., a sense of the holy) in a way that the average building of any faith community cannot. Vestments, for example, can perform a similar function. Criticizing the Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori for carrying a primatial cross (what Akasie calls a metropolitan cross) is completely inappropriate. Bishop Katharine is TEC’s primate; she, like her predecessors, rightly carries that crozier. The real issue for objectors tends to be that Bishop Katharine is a woman. Thankfully, gender no longer defines one’s eligibility to serve as a deacon, priest, or bishop in TEC. By the vast majority of accounts, Bishop Katharine and her ministry as primate have been tremendous gifts from God to the Church.

Other ostentation behaviors are less appropriate. Lodging, food, and drink were expensive in Indianapolis. General Convention attendees from low cost areas of the country may have experienced particular surprise at prices. However, relatively few venues can accommodate the large number (over two thousand) people who attend General Convention in one capacity or another. Holding TEC’s triennial convention in different parts of the country permits, over time, a wider cross-section of TEC to attend than if the convention always met in the same city. Furthermore, Jesus apparently enjoyed a good party (detractors criticized him for this) and we do well to follow his example. Could General Convention be shorter, focus less on business issues, and more on energizing people for a shared vision of mission? Absolutely. But, until that happens, the expenses associated with General Convention are mostly a cost of doing business in a Church that values representative democracy over one man rule.

Conservative Christianity, briefly resurgent at the end of the twentieth century, is dying in the United States. Thank God for that! Religious belief should not cause a person to choose between Christianity and science. God, for example, did not create dinosaur fossils to test the sincerity of religious belief, something that conservative Christians have repeatedly told me. If Christianity does not change, then it will die (cf. Bishop Spong’s book, Christianity Must Change or Die, for a fuller explanation of this argument).

What changes are ahead for Christianity?

First, Christianity will continue becoming more inclusive, discarding prejudices and barriers against women, people of color, the poor, the GLBT community, and others. Jesus tried to embrace everyone, not just those who satisfied particular demographic criteria. The only people Jesus did not successfully embraced were those who refused his welcome.

Second, Christianity will continue moving toward affirming that it is one path among many, discarding the narrow and provincial exclusivism of its first nineteen centuries. Living in a global community emphasizes that the world is bigger than Christianity. The God manifested in Jesus was a God who loved Jew and Gentile. Thus, there is every reason to believe that God lures people toward God along a multiplicity of paths that includes the world’s major religions. The exclusive language of the New Testament (e.g., the gospel author quoting Jesus as saying, No one comes to the Father but by me) is the language of love. For the disciples there was no other path but the Jesus path, even as one lover will, in complete honesty, tell his/her partner, You are the best, you are the only one.

Third, being the Church is a messy business, so TEC will continue to change and to evolve. Some of the change will be structural. TEC will adopt a more nimble organization better suited to the 21st world. Some of the change will be theological. TEC, recognizing that theological propositions are earthen vessels rather than factual statements, will persist in revising those propositions in light of ongoing scientific, historical, and other epistemological advances. The treasure in our earthen vessels is the Light and Jesus is a window through which that light shines in the world and the lives of his followers. Confusing structure or doctrine with the treasure in the earthen vessels is a form of idolatry.

Fourth, local congregations that are spiritually alive are growing numerically and will continue to do so. People are spiritually hungry. One major reason why people are leaving organized religion is that too many congregations, denominations, and faith groups emphasize earthen vessels (structure and/or theology) over moving more fully into the Light (loving God) and helping others to do the same (loving others). Local congregations that are not spiritually vibrant will continue to wither and die.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

U.S. taxes and transfer payments

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw posted this in his blog:

To update one of the tables for the next edition of my favorite textbook, I have been looking at the new CBO report on the distribution of income and taxes. I found the following calculations, based on the numbers in the CBO's Table 7, illuminating.

Because transfer payments are, in effect, the opposite of taxes, it makes sense to look not just at taxes paid, but at taxes paid minus transfers received. For 2009, the most recent year available, here are taxes less transfers as a percentage of market income (income that households earned from their work and savings):

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

The negative 301 percent means that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives about $3 in transfer payments for every dollar earned.

Like Mankiw, those statistics concern me.

The tax structure should be progressive, that is, people who earn more should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. (Incidentally, the same is true of charitable giving. The tithe is not the Christian standard. Instead, a Christian approach to charitable giving is progressive proportionality where one voluntarily increases contribution as income increases.) The current U.S. system of income taxes and transfers is clearly progressive.

Most people should have some skin in the game, i.e., most people should pay something in taxes both to help fund the government and, much more importantly, to convey a sense of ownership and responsibility for the government. When the bottom sixty percent of people receive net benefits from the government through a wide variety of tax credits and welfare payments, the system badly needs fixing.

Generally, government revenues should match government expenditures. In economic downturns (the 2008 recession) or national emergencies (WWII, not the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), governments should have the option of borrowing funds. But governments, like all good borrowers, should repay those debts in good times. The current tax and transfer system operates at significant deficits in good and bad economic times. Increasing the tax burden on the bottom sixty percent of earners will help to fix that situation but will generate insufficient revenue to allow the government to match revenues with expenditures. Those who earn more – especially those in the top quintile – should pay more in taxes.

The Episcopal Church at its 77th General Convention passed a resolution that supports the propositions I’ve outlined above and that highlighted God’s preferential concern for the poor. The United States has the highest percentage of people who regularly attend Christian churches of any developed nation. Yet the United States in many respects has done less to care for the poor and the most vulnerable.

Charles Murray in Coming Apart argues that four characteristics have made the United States exceptionally free and prosperous: industriousness, marriage, honesty, and religiosity. He argues persuasively that all four are waning among large segments of the population and that a new elite that is privileged and very affluent has emerged, increasingly isolated geographically and socially. The Horatio Alger myth is losing apparently losing whatever validity it once may have had as the new elite insulates itself from the rest of the population and becomes ever better at self-perpetuation.

Concern for the poor does not mean eliminating individual responsibility (one expression of industriousness). Concern for the poor does entail providing a short-term safety net so that nobody starves, has to live on the streets, or be naked. Longer-term, concern for the poor involves promoting equality of opportunity for all, individual responsibility, honesty, marriage, and religion.

The Church has three significant roles to play: promoting those values; being an attractive, inclusive community that practices a genuinely radical hospitality by welcoming all people; and prophetically insisting on our collective concern for the poor and the most vulnerable. Individual responsibility does not eliminate or in any manner preclude the importance of exercising appropriate collective responsibility.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What will you regret?

When death nears, what will you regret? These are the top five regrets of people who are dying:
1.    I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
2.    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
3.    I wish I had let myself be happier
4.    I wish I had had the courage to express my true self
5.    I wish I had lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me
Obviously, when death nears, it’s too late to change one’s lifestyle and behaviors. And sometimes death comes unexpectedly.
Stated affirmatively, the five points provide a thought provoking rule of life. Here’s one version; I recommend crafting your own.
1.    I balance relationships, pleasure, and work.
2.    I stay in touch with loved ones and friends.
3.    I choose happiness over negative emotions.
4.    I seek to be faithful to my values, goals, and personality.
5.    I will follow the dream God gives me, to be all that I can be, as I live into the abundance of God's grace and love.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is liberal Christianity dead?

Ross Douthat in his July 14 New York Times Op-Ed essay ponders whether liberal Christianity can be saved from extinction. He bases his pessimism on three unidentified and incorrect premises.

First, Douthat incorrectly presumes that historic Christianity contains an unchanging deposit of doctrine. Words are earthen vessels, too often equated with the spiritual treasure they may contain. Each era must formulate for itself concepts and metaphors that helpfully point to a reality inherently irreducible to human form. The myth of the incarnation exemplifies this. First century disciples of Jesus, powerfully encountering God in the person of Jesus, relied on the prevailing images of and ideas of their era to speak of this transformative reality. Contemporary textual and historical studies support this understanding. The treasure is not the doctrine but is instead the reality of the ineffable and living God, which humans continue to experience.

Second, Douthat incorrectly presumes that the changes within Christianity, on balance, move liberal Christianity in the direction of less rather than greater fidelity to Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to love God and one another. Christians have slowly grown, over the last nineteen centuries, into a fuller understanding of what obeying those commands entail. For example, in most places the Church required seventeen or more centuries to conclude that slavery was incompatible with loving God and neighbor. Similarly, the Church has only recently begun to live more fully into the reality that women are people and not chattel, that God loves everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and that God's saving love extends to all people and not just Christians.

Third, Douthat incorrectly presumes that statistically measuring the success of the Church is possible. Measuring love for God and others is impossible. Data suggests that while fewer people are in the pews, people may be doing a better job of loving others, i.e., the world is more just, peaceful, and respectful of life than in any prior generation. Indeed, Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity for the Rest of Us and Christianity after Religion) argues in her response to Douthat that liberal Christianity may save Christianity.

Douthat is correct that liberal Christianity has often done a poor job of focusing on the spiritual core at the heart of religion, i.e., the encounter with God. Bishop Spong, in my two extended conversations with him, struggled with this very issue. He cogently presents the case for understanding Christianity mythically rather than literally. He passionately believes in God. But he has failed to articulate a metaphor or image for the divine that captures the imagination, invites one into the light, and functions as a catalyst for encounters with the holy. Identifying such metaphors is, I believe, Christianity’s greatest challenge.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

77th General Convention – 4

The 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) is winding down as I write this post. The exhibition hall closed Tuesday afternoon. Both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops have approved most of the potentially contentious legislation:

·         A provisional liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships;

·         An initiative to relocate the national office out of New York City and to conduct a study that will lead to restructuring TEC’s national office and governance;

·         Responding to the proposed Anglican Covenant by declining to accept or reject it (the Covenant is in effect a dead issue because of its rejection by other provinces) while concurrently reaffirming TEC’s commitment to the Anglican Communion.

After House of Bishops approval yesterday, ninety minutes of discussion on the budget for the next triennium this morning and then relatively quick approval in the afternoon session reflected widespread agreement in the House of Deputies about the budget.

This General Convention has been far less contentious and more obviously grace filled than the last few conventions have been. A new, encouraging spirit of mutual respect seems to be emerging among those present. Hopefully, this spirit will continue to grow and find expression in a renewed missional focus.

Anecdotally, many attendees express a desire for TEC to shift its focus and agenda from internal institutional concerns to mission. For example, a representative of Integrity (the GLBT Episcopal network and interest group) informally told me that we needed to shift focus from changing the institution to changing the world. Unless we successfully refocus and energize for mission, TEC will become ever more marginalized and irrelevant at an accelerating pace.

I leave Indianapolis encouraged that God still values and works through The Episcopal Church.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

77th General Convention – 3

After a week of sessions, the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) has three legislative days remaining. I see more weary deputies and bishops; a few more people are absent from the sessions; meanwhile, the complexity of issues on the table is increasing.

Yesterday, Convention produced three significant results. First, the House of Deputies affirmed inclusivity, for both TEC and its ordination process. The votes were lopsided: almost four-fifths voted in favor of the resolutions. Hopefully, these votes establish a firm foundation and pervasive tone that all are truly welcome in TEC.

Second, the House of Bishops approved provisional rites for blessing same-sex relationships by votes of more than two-thirds but not quite three-quarters in favor. That legislation moves to the House of Deputies today for approval. The Church needs this liturgy (or one like it). Another resolution, which hopefully both houses will approve, establishes a task force to study marriage and report to the 78th General Convention.

These actions represent constructive steps toward providing appropriate pastoral care for all God's people. TEC is obviously not ready, as an institution, to move beyond the traditional but defective (in my estimation, neither biblical nor theological sound) view that marriage is between a woman and a man. I expect the liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships will pass the House of Deputies after contentious but not divisive debate. Most of the individuals who cannot accept this action have already left TEC.

Furthermore, since many dioceses already allow priests to bless same-sex relationships, creating an appropriate liturgy for this action is important in a Church united by common prayer rather than common belief.

Third, the House of Deputies approved and sent to the House of Bishops for their approval two resolutions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The two resolutions call for positive investment to aid the Palestinians, encourage peacemaking, urge TEC and individual Episcopalians to examine whether their investments and purchases unintentionally support injustice in the Middle East, and task various Church bodies to develop study resources on the conflict.

Other major issues remain on the table awaiting action, including restructuring and finance.

When the House of Deputies votes by orders (each diocesan delegation then has two votes: one from its clergy deputies and one for its lay deputies), the House takes the vote electronically and with paper ballots. Staff then validates the electronic vote by comparing it to the paper ballots. This redundant process illustrates some of the dysfunctionality of TEC’s governance processes. People do not trust the electronic vote, used for at least two General Conventions. Why utilize the technology? The gadgets, if truly unreliable, are a gimmicky, expensive, time-consuming waste. Alternatively, if the electronic vote is reliable, why waste time with the traditional paper ballots?

TEC loves its traditions and appears likely, only with great angst and resistance, to adopt efforts to streamline essential housekeeping tasks, shed unproductive activities, and become a more nimble, mission-focused twenty-first century Church. Spending $5-10 million on a triennial General Convention attended by 0.1% of Episcopalians during which they primarily focus on denominational governance is a luxury that a declining Church can no longer afford. More importantly, God has called us to bring the water of life to a parched world, a task far more critical than most of the issues General Convention faces but one that will receive disproportionately little time, energy, and focus.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

77th General Convention - 2

General Convention is an energetic extrovert’s paradise. The pace rarely slows; among the two thousand plus people involved in the Convention, rarely is there a moment without conversation. Nor is General Convention a place for the timid or faint of heart. Deputies and bishops must decide about hundreds of resolutions on an incredible variety of topics. These range from the relatively obscure (who to add to our calendar of ecclesial observances) to central issues for The Episcopal Church (the budget for the next triennium, e.g.) to complex geo-politics (how TEC might best contribute to establishing a just peace in the Middle East).

On Saturday, the Bishop of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, preached at the daily Eucharist. He called for Episcopalians to become “crazy” for Jesus. People whom the world regards as crazy are the ones who change the world; their roster includes John the Baptist, Jesus, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (remembered Saturday on the calendar). In a powerful emotional appeal, he encouraged the Church to develop a depth of spirituality and commitment that would propel us into becoming “crazy,” creatively and effectively establishing justice and peace on earth.

As I observed in my first post from General Convention, TEC is restructuring, realigning and reprioritizing its finances, and updating its liturgy. These are important tasks. None, however, is an end in itself. All are properly the means to an end, i.e., all are steps for focusing our collective life, equipping God's people, and marshaling resources for mission. Being an institutional Church – a Church that incarnates togetherness in visible organizations – holds the potential of expanding what we can do for God.

But that enhanced potential carries a risk: that TEC become so preoccupied with internal issues that we never realize our great potential for moving the world toward peace, justice, and abundant life. By the end of the next triennium, TEC must have resolved its institutional angst and change if it is to live into its great potential for being God's prophets, God's “crazy” people.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

77th General Convention – 1

This post is the first in a series on the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC).

For those unfamiliar with TEC, the denomination spans 18 countries, although heavily concentrated in the United States. Every three years, TEC holds a General Convention, a bicameral legislature that is the denomination’s highest authority. Each of the 100 plus dioceses sends 10 delegates (5 lay, 5 priests/deacons) to sit in GC’s House of Deputies. The House of Bishops consists of the Church’s bishops, active and retired. GC establishes policies, programs, and budgets for the next triennium. Amending the Church’s canons and constitutions – the rules that govern how the Church does business – also happens at GC.

Perhaps the most controversial GC was the 74th, which met in 2003 and consented to the election of Gene Robinson as the new Bishop for the diocese of New Hampshire. Although each diocese elects its own bishop(s), TEC must consent in order for the individual to be consecrated a bishop. Generally, the standing committee and diocesan bishop vote on these consents; for elections within 120 days of GC, GC acts in lieu of diocesan standing committees and bishops. Robinson’s election was controversial because his was the first of an openly gay, non-celibate priest as a bishop (he certainly was not the first gay bishop).

My general impressions of this GC, the third that I’ve attended, include:

·         Attendees are well above the median age of the nation’s population. Taking ten days to attend a church convention, perhaps even paying some of one’s expenses, is infeasible for the less affluent, those with limited vacations, single parents, and many others.

·         Attendees’ appearance suggests affluence but not wealth. The wealthy, like the poor but for different reasons, probably find attending impractical.

·         The process tends is largely dysfunctional. There are too many issues, too little time, and – especially for first time delegates – too much of the process is new to permit most delegates to understand breadth, scope, and consequences of the literally hundreds of issues on which they will vote.

·         Although GC’s large (1000 plus deputies and several hundred bishops) size suggests that it affords diversity of perspective and thinking, the real action happens primarily in sub-committees and committees, perhaps in the House of Bishops, but rarely in the House of Deputies. In the smaller forums, smaller groups of people address fewer issues more in depth.

·         Many of those present are passionate; all appear deeply committed.

On the first day of formal sessions, both the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, spoke. Bishop Katharine spoke of a vision of the future, in which TEC adapts creatively and constructively to a changing world, becoming an increasingly vibrant witness to God's reconciling love in Jesus. Bonnie Anderson, by contrast, offered a vision for the future that looked more like the past. TEC, as readers of this blog will know, is on a downward trajectory (if you are unfamiliar, read some of the blogs listed under the key word, “Episcopal Church”). More of what we have been doing seems unlikely to reverse the decline. Change is happening. Our best hope, institutionally, is to move intentionally in new directions that include:

·         More efficient, less costly, less time consuming governance (e.g., virtual conventions to address policy, program, and questions),

·         Directing more energy into mission (e.g., fewer committees and holding a triennial gathering of tens of thousands of Episcopalians to infuse fresh enthusiasm for mission and demonstrate that TEC lives vibrantly and abundantly),

·         Continuing to move toward becoming a more welcoming, inclusive Church (e.g., adopting rites for blessing same-sex relationships).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Criminalizing falsehoods

Should falsely claiming to have a military decoration be a criminal offense?

I intentionally phrased that question in ethical language (i.e., the use of should). False claims are inherently unethical; human community is impossible without the trust truth engenders. However, unethical and illegal are not synonymous. A moral act (treating all people equally) may be lawful, even required by law (e.g., equal employment opportunity regardless of race, gender, creed, or national origin) or unlawful (e.g., giving equal employment benefits in North Carolina to same-sex couples and heterosexual couples).

Hence the question: is it morally right to criminalize falsely claiming to have a military dedication?

Some false speech is rightly criminalized, e.g., lying as part of a swindle to con people out of money, such as Bernie Madoff did. Some false speech is rightly legal even though unethical. For example, flattery – whether socially correct or even employed to gain an advantage – is not a criminal offensive, perhaps not always unethical when one complies with a cultural more.

Several factors seem pertinent in distinguishing between those two extremes:

1.    The degree to which anyone is harmed. Excessive compliments generally do not inflict injury or harm; most adults are accustomed to dealing with false flattery. An adult flattering a child, seeking to exploit the child, illustrates the opposite end of the harm spectrum.

2.    The transparency of the claim and ease of verifying whether it is true or false. The person who claims to be able to fly unaided is obviously lying; criminalizing such a claim increases the number of laws without a corresponding increase in quality of life or community benefits. Swindles, by contrast, often entail hard to verify claims and may rely upon a relationship of trust between the liar and the person to whom lie is made.

3.    The adverse effect on free speech that criminalizing any speech act has. The more speech acts criminalized, the greater risk of violating the law – whether unintentionally or in a moment of braggadocio – that a person takes when in engaging in speech or speech acts.

4.    Individual / small group responsibility versus government responsibility for verifying the veracity of speech and speech acts.

Falsely claiming to have military decorations seems to fall closer to the end of the spectrum in which false claims, though legal, remain unethical:

1.    Although the harm of such false claims is difficult to measure, falsely claiming to have received military decorations surely inflicts serious harm on few if any persons.

2.    Non-military personnel increasingly have little knowledge or experience of the military. Military personnel and veterans are in better positions to judge whether a claim is likely true or false; military personnel and veterans are also likely to know how to research whether a claim is true or false.

3.    and 4. Self-policing and public exposure are more likely to prove effective deterrents and responses to false claims of military decorations than is any criminal sanction. Furthermore, criminal proceedings involve considerable expenditure of scarce public resources. Shame, not criminality, is the appropriate response.

While I was on active duty in the Navy, the senior Naval officer – the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Boorda – was accused of wearing a military combat decoration that he had not received. The shame of exposure as a fraud contributed to his committing suicide. Criminalizing his behavior would probably have not altered that tragic outcome nor in any way set things right.

When I was a child, my parents frequently emphasized the old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. They expected their children to have sufficient moral fiber to withstand false words intended to hurt. They knew that the world was often unfair and that everyone was likely to experience false, even hateful speech.

Seeking to criminalize false claims about military decorations appears to me to be an effort to strike back against false words, rather than having the moral fiber to expose those speech acts as the falsehoods they are and then to get on with life. Not every immoral act should be a crime.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Displaying the national flag

Displays of the United States flag prompt three very different personal reactions.

First, I’m proud to be a U.S. citizen. The U.S. is far from perfect. The nation could more fully achieve all three dimensions of justice:

1.    Commutative – not all people are equal at law (e.g., gays cannot marry in most states);

2.    Legal – for example, the criminal justice system is not color blind and laws sometimes unnecessarily restrict freedom;

3.    Distributive – the wealthy have disproportionate access to healthcare, political influence, and quality education for their children, for example.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is arguably in the forefront of just nations, generally values human freedom and dignity, and affords a superior standard and quality of life. I proudly served in the U.S. Navy for over two decades, prepared and willing to go into harm’s way to defend those principles.

Second, the misuse or incorrect display of the national flag bothers me. I learned the protocols regarding the flag as a Boy Scout and had them reinforced through my military service. The flag is not a decorative item (e.g., only display one flag) and one should appropriately dispose of worn, dirty, or tattered flags (not leaving the shreds to whip in the wind, e.g.). However, I strongly defend the right of protesters to use the flag as a vehicle for expressing free speech.

The flag is a national symbol. Respect for the symbol infuses that symbol with a power and meaning that few other symbols have. Veteran’s coffins may be draped with a flag; military personnel salute a flag passing in review; etc. The flag symbolizes the whole nation, both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Thus, the flag is inherently an expression of speech. Denying protesters the option to use the flag as a means to express their protests denies those individuals a fundamental right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and most religious and philosophical conceptions of basic human rights.

Third, displaying the U.S. flag in Christian religious settings – with one exception – upsets me. Christianity is not the official or unofficial religion of the United States. Christianity, rightly understood, is global not national. Too many people, especially internationally and among military personnel, have a proclivity to confuse Christianity and U.S. patriotism. Displaying the U.S. flag in Christian religious settings can reinforce those tendencies and communicate a mixed message to other people. My loyalty to the Church is deeper, far more basic, and much more inclusive than my patriotism. Consequently, I have had the flag removed from every military chapel that I served, except one (see the next paragraph). As a civilian, I’ve followed that policy for another reason: my congregations have typically included the citizens of other nations; displaying the U.S. flag and not the flags from their nations could send an unintended message that the U.S. is superior to those nations, a conclusion at odds with my theology and, in the case of Canada, difficult to justify.

Christianity should define and shape patriotism. The Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis – my one exception to displaying the national ensign in a military setting – graphically and powerfully taught that message every Sunday. At the beginning of worship services, the midshipmen would carry the national flag as part of the opening procession. They would retire the flag from the Chapel as part of the concluding procession. However, before beginning the long walk down the center aisle to the rear doors, the midshipmen would dip the flag before the cross on the high altar. This act, which intentionally and appropriately violated the protocol that one never dips the U.S. flag to anyone or anything, symbolically declared the supremacy and primacy of God over country.