Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reframing grief and other emotions

A friend’s father died the day after Thanksgiving. Conventional wisdom holds that having a loved one die on or near a holiday permanently taints that holiday with grief. In other words, the holidays are not the preferred time for a loved one to die, not that anyone except a murderer – not even those who decide to terminate life support, controls when a loved one dies.

Perhaps conventional wisdom is right only because people think it is correct. What would happen, if instead of thinking the holidays a poor time for a loved one to die we thought it a good time, forever coloring the holiday with good memories of the deceased and shared times?

Reframing one’s perception of an event is a basic technique of cognitive therapy, a set of psychological tools for exerting positive control over one’s thoughts and emotions. As a pastoral counselor, I found the insights and tools of Cognitive Therapy especially helpful for highly rational individuals, which includes many of the most successful people.

One important premise of cognitive therapy, held in common with most other approaches to counseling, is that people can learn to control at least some emotions. People do not have to accept the idea that they have no control over their emotions, that emotions are simply a psychologically given.

If an individual can learn to control her or his emotions, then not only can events associated with grief become catalysts for positive memories rather than absence and loss, but lust, greed, avarice, jealousy, inappropriate anger, and other negative emotions need not invariably trigger unhealthy or destructive responses.

Jesus employs reframing in an intriguing manner. The gospels set up a situation with the lead-in, “You have heard it said …” Then Jesus says, “But I say to you …” His goal in reframing the Mosaic law is for his words to be catalysts that move people from the letter of the law, narrowly interpreted, to focusing on the spirit of the law, broadly interpreted. For example, Jesus broadens the definition of adultery from a physical act to include the emotion of lust. The feminist movement helpfully has underscored his message. Looking at a person with lust reduces that person from a multi-textured human being to a physical object important to the beholder primarily as a source of potential sexual gratification.

Healthy grief acknowledges the loss and void that a loved one’s death creates in the lives of the bereaved. In unhealthy grief, the irreparable loss and emptiness produced by death eclipse both a sense of gratitude for shared lives in this brief, highly vulnerable existence over which we exert little control and the possibility for life to move in new, unexpected directions. This movement may be undesired. This movement may also never be as good or fulfilling as the relationship that ended. But the movement may nevertheless be a gift, a wondrous and genuine gift of life abundant, a gift that unhealthy grief can block.

Holidays are often special times, fuller of joy and love than other seasons of the year. The elderly and the ill frequently exhibit great tenacity in clinging to life through holidays (a term I am using inclusively to connote birthdays, anniversaries, holy days, and other important commemorations). Suicidal persons similarly will often postpone their death until after a holiday, hoping that the holiday will change their life’s direction and tenor.

Reframing is one way to exercise control over grief, linking holiday joy and love with positive memories of, and experiences shared with, the deceased. Helpful reframing techniques may include intentionally redirecting one’s thoughts, engaging in behaviors that reinforce positive associations, and telling stories about the deceased to others that emphasize good feelings.

Additionally, many Christians and others believe that all life is connected. Death does not end the connection. Rather, death simply alters the nature of the relationship. We pray for the living and the dead because we believe in this interconnection. Furthermore, God's love for us is so great that nothing, not even death, can separate a person from that love. Thus even in grief’s most suffocating grip, we are thankful for the unbreakable tie of God's love that binds us to one another.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Preparing for Advent

Recently, I bought a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Rome, GA. The barista and I chatted briefly. He had graduated from Shorter College (a Southern Baptist school in Rome, GA), sung at the Vatican with Shorter’s music program, worked in the music program of some evangelical churches, married, and needed the larger income that he earned at Starbucks.

He and his wife are visiting all of the Christian congregations in Rome, trying to find the one that is for them. They had attended St. Peter’s Episcopal Church the last Sunday and he was sold on the Episcopal Church. Our liturgy appealed to him, he liked the traditional music, and he especially valued our theological openness, i.e., we are a church that prays together without mandating doctrinal specifics. Consequently, he favorably contrasted the Episcopal Church with the Orthodox churches. His wife, however, wanted a congregation with more contemporary music. And, he informed me, some creative arrangements of earlier hymns set to contemporary tunes are appearing, a welcome relief from the vacuity of singing the same seven word phrase eleven times (his analysis!).

A couple of weeks before that incident, a snowstorm had left me stranded in a hotel lobby off an interstate highway in New York’s Westchester County. As I struggled with the New York Times crossword, I could not avoid overhearing a man describe at length how Jesus had helped him to defeat the devil’s attempts on his life. I could not see the face of the person to whom this man was describing his spiritual journey, so do not know if his intended hearer welcomed, tolerated, or rejected the message.

This evangelical Christian believed that he had an extensive and reliable knowledge of the Bible, an understanding shaped by biblical literalism and substitutionary atonement. He clearly had no inkling that some of us Christians approach the Bible in an entirely different manner. In his simplistic view, Jesus had saved him from the devil’s clutches and given him a more abundant life.

Then I read William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Sort of a modern Canterbury Tales, Dalrymple tells the stories of nine Indians and their spiritual journeys. The journeys do not cohere theologically or philosophically with one another. Some are Hindus, one is a Jain, and none is a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. One of the nine is virtually an atheist, though he has built his life around spiritual values and growth.

The common thread linking the nine lives together is that each person has found a community of like-minded individuals who offer support, guidance, and encouragement. All nine have rejected materialism and consumerism; they find meaning and joy in their relationships with others and through an inner journey. In this, they share significant commonalities with the Christian that I met at Starbucks and the one I overheard in the hotel lobby.

Advent begins this Sunday, December 2. Advent is a Christian season that traditionally emphasizes spiritual journeys. What is the goal of your spiritual journey? What are your traveling rules? Who are the companions on your journey? Who is your spiritual guide?

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, has challenged his diocese to read the Bible in the ecclesiastical year that begins on the first Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2012) and will end on the day before the following first Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2013). He recognizes that people have various spiritualties and different demands on their time, so several options are available (read the entire Bible, only the New Testament, only the gospels, etc.).

Bishop Curry may not have identified your preferred path. If you don’t opt to follow his suggestion, what will you do to nurture your spiritual growth in the year ahead? One of the striking commonalities among Dalrymple’s nine pilgrims and the two Christians that I encountered is that all eleven are actively pursuing spiritual growth. They have a clear idea of the path set before them, even though some, like the Starbucks’ barista, are uncertain as to where that path will lead.

What is your path? What is your next step?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The meaning of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving evokes a complex set of memories. Some of the memories center on our family celebrations. My mother took pride and pleasure in preparing a sumptuous meal for her family, served on the best china, symbolizing the specialness of the day and the people. Even in years when my great aunt would host the family Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, my mother would prepare her traditional meal on another day, a meal that all of us truly relished.

Some of the memories involve family lore. My great aunt claimed that my father’s family (her family) could trace its lineage back to the Mayflower. She was proud of belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution and gave my father a lifetime membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. Since her death, I’ve wondered if her claim about the Mayflower was more wishful than fact. Otherwise, why had she not documented the lineage and joined an association of Mayflower descendants?

If my family did arrive on the Mayflower, we were among the first illegal immigrants to enter the continent. Explorers planting a flag and declaring that the land belonged to their monarch completely usurped the land’s true owners, the Native Americans. Therefore, a charter granted by one of those monarchs – the King of England – was meaningless, unable to change theft into legitimacy. The Mayflower immigrants – and I’ve visited their place of departure in Plymouth, England, and place of arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts – sought a better life. The better life they desired included both the freedom to worship in accordance with their belief and by greater prosperity. The initial welcome the Pilgrims received from the Natives was much warmer than the one we extend to illegal immigrants today, although they too aspire to greater freedom and prosperity.

Contemporary Thanksgiving observances bear little relation to the meal from which the tradition grew. The original feast did not happen on a day filled with gladiatorial combat (aka football) nor precede the year’s busiest shopping day. The original feast was, based on available evidence, substantial but not a day of gluttony. And, most significantly, the Pilgrims discerned in the Natives gracious gifts of food and in the harvest of their crops evidence of God blessing their endeavor to build new lives in North America. Moderns consumer factory reared turkeys, amuse themselves watching, perhaps even attempting to play, football, but largely ignore God.

Whether the unwarranted suffering of victims of famine, pestilence, disease, genocide, or something else, suffering starkly warns us against overly facile identifications of God's blessings with the good things in life. Instead, discerning God's presence requires courage and wisdom. We need courage because we live in a polarized world with little dialogue between postmodern atheists and ardent theists. We need wisdom because the true God is one, who if named, is no longer the ultimate but a human creation. Places in which to look when seeking to discern God include beauty, acts of love, moments of creativity, and freedom. In such places and moments, it’s possible to sense the activity of something greater than self, something inexpressible in human language. Giving thanks for this abiding presence is the real theological meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday, the reason that many Christians appropriately think of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Memorable Thanksgivings

A woman who worked at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey when I did shared this story from her childhood with me. Although lengthy, I’ve preserved her words to give you a sense of the story’s emotional importance for her:

When my father was a boy, an old man came to their almond ranch in Oakley, California with a beautiful parrot on his shoulder, asking for my grandmother. He was an old grammar school friend of hers, had gone off to sea on a tall ship, and they hadn't seen each other for years. When Myra, whom our family called "Dode,” came outside, she was happy to see the old man. While they were exchanging greetings and catching up on old times, the beautiful green parrot with the brilliant blue, crimson and gold feathers paced back and forth on the old man's shoulder, yelling "Get out of here, you Old Bat !!"

Dode asked why the parrot said that. The old man explained that she'd been the Captain's Bird for decades on board the ship, which sailed around the tip of South America -- she was already at least 50 years old -- but he needed to find a new home for her because she attacked the ship's cleaning lady's broom whenever she entered the Captain's cabin. My father begged my grandmother to let him keep the bird and she agreed. The sailor was happy, the bird was happy, and my father was very happy. Dode was also happy, until "Lorie,” the name my father gave his new friend, started attacking her broom while flapping wildly and screaming, "Get out of here, you Old Bat!” But soon Dode learned not to use the broom when Lorie was around, and then everyone was happy.

Years went by, and my father loved Lorie very, very much. He taught her many words and phrases, and she went with him everywhere, on his shoulder. Then my father went off to college and couldn't take Lorie with him. But they were reunited every weekend, when he came home.

Then he met my mother at college, and they fell in love. When my father proposed and my mother said yes, he told her there was only one thing she'd have to agree to -- that he'd get to keep Lorie. My mother agreed, and everyone was happy.

Then WWIII came, and my father went off to sea, like the old man, leaving Lorie with his parents. He survived Iwo Jima and came home. When his ship came in at the pier in San Diego, my mother, Dode, Grandpa, and Lorie were all there -- Lorie perched expectantly on Grandpa's shoulder. Everyone was very, very happy.

When I was born, not long after my father came back from the war, in the central farm valley of California, one of the first things I remember is the beautiful green parrot with the bright blue, red, and gold feathers in the tree outside the back door. When I could talk, my father explained that she was a Free Bird, and that she always -- always -- came home.

As a young girl, my Mother and father and I, and later also my brother, when he was born, would go on mushroom hunts in the tall green grass in the open fields by our house. Lorie would be on my father's shoulder, as he reached down to pick the glistening white treasures in the grass. On one of the mushroom hunts, when I was about five, we saw a possum in the grass. My father said to stay away from it, because it might not be well. When it ran away, he said possums were known to eat birds.

On the Thanksgiving night not long after that mushroom hunt, all the lights were out, and we were all asleep. Lorie, as usual, was in her tree by the back door, or so we thought. Suddenly, there was a fluttering sound on the back porch and the light above the back door came on. I heard my father get up and go to the door to see what made the light come on. I heard the door open and then my father exclaim, "Oh…!"

We all jumped out of bed and went to the door. There on the porch just under the light switch was a foot long mass of sticky blood and feathers my father was lovingly, ever so lovingly, picking up off the landing and held in his arms. He held it up to his face and slowly, carefully looked into its eyes, which were open and blinking, as if to be sure of something. Tears welled up in his eyes, which fell onto what was left of the face of the thing in his arms, and then he whispered, "Lorie? Lorie! Oh, Lorie!"

That night, my father gently bathed Lorie in the sink, as my Mother had the turkey earlier in the day, carefully removing the blood and dirt from what was left of her beautiful feathers. He made a special mixture of warm milk and stuffing left over from Thanksgiving dinner, and dropped it drip by drip into her open beak, using the dropper from the Thanksgiving gravy. He made a special bed for her in a box, with soft towels for a mattress, and fixed up a light at the top of the box, to dry her and keep her warm. Then he got a blanket from the closet, laid it out on the floor next to her box, and was there the whole night -- and many nights thereafter. For weeks, every few hours, my father would come in from the fields to check on Lorie and make sure she had everything she needed, and just to be there. He'd talk to her, and try to get her to talk again.

One day while my father was home for lunch, she suddenly yelled "Get out of here, you Old Bat!" to my mother from her box. My Mother laughed, and I thought my father would never stop crying for joy.

Slowly, but surely, Lorie started looking like her old self again. She wanted to eat more and more. One by one, her feathers came back -- brilliant green, with the highlights of bright blue, red, and gold. Even her eye healed, and the soft tufts of especially bright green came back on the top of her head. And she wanted to be back in her tree.

My father, who raised cotton, took one of the huge metal cages from an old cotton picker, cut a hole in the side near the middle and fitted it with a small latched door, big enough for Lorie to get through, but not big enough for anything else to get in. Then he hung the entire thing -- all ten by ten feet of it -- half way up Lorie's tree.

Lorie lived happily in her tree house by the back door, in all her glorious beauty, for many, many years after that. When my father came in from the fields, he'd open the door and she'd fly out and sit on his shoulder. As he puttered around the house, garden, and shop, she'd be right there with him.

One Thanksgiving dinner, many years later, with Lorie in her house in the tree outside, my father was telling the story of Lorie. Suddenly, in the middle of telling it, he threw his head back and started to cry.

"Oh, My God!" he said, wiping his eyes. "I just realized! After she was attacked by the possum and somehow made it back home, it was Lorie who landed on the light switch and turned on the back door light that night!" Then we all cried together. Without saying a word, we raced outside to make sure Lorie was all right. She was. My father went back in the house and came out with a big plate brimming with Thanksgiving stuffing, which Lorie ate gratefully.

They were the two most wonderful Thanksgivings we ever had.

Reading her story about her father and Lorie leaves me with two poignant Thanksgiving questions. First, for whose transformative love do you give thanks? Like Lorie, our lives are richer – if not preserved -– by someone who has truly loved us. Second, whose life can you transform -– to whom can you give life itself -- through your love?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Veterans Day

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Four years of war had seen 16 million killed and another 20 million other casualties. The scale of death in WWI exceeded anything previously experienced or even contemplated, a magnitude of tragedy made possible by mechanization and massed armies.

Less than 25 years later, World War II had begun, a war with an even great toll. Since then, humans have fought fewer wars and those wars have had far fewer deaths and casualties.

Post-Korea, the United States changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in recognition of the millions of men and women who have served, and some of whom are still serving, in the nation’s armed forces.

The military does not decide what wars to fight. From the perspective of Christian ethics, the nation should fight only as a last resort, only when victory is possible, and only when victory has a reasonable prospect for moving the world closer to genuine peace.

Honoring veterans is therefore appropriate despite the ugly and inconvenient truth that many of the nation’s wars are morally problematic. We best honor veterans in three ways:

1.      By fighting only moral wars;

2.      By caring for warriors and their families, especially wounded warriors, including those warriors with physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds;

3.      By maintaining a strong defense, but a defense that is no larger than absolutely necessary to defend the nation and its ideas (the nation gains more from redirecting any expenditure above that minimum to other uses).

Using those criteria, we have a very poor record of accomplishment of honoring veterans. We find praying for veterans, offering glib verbal expressions of thanks, and giving veterans discounts in restaurants and stores more palatable. I support all of those efforts. My point is not that we should cease those activities but that those efforts are collectively insufficient to honor veterans genuinely and appropriately.

When I lived in London and worked with the Royal Navy, I was amazed at the importance given to Veterans Days observances, which still centered on WWI fatalities. Between one in ten and one in twelve people who lived in the United Kingdom died in WWI, a staggering death rate that literally changed the nation. We Americans should be thankful that we have never experienced similar high casualty rates.

However, U.S. veterans are three times more likely to be homeless than are non-veterans. Veterans also have substantially higher rates of many other problems (PTSD, alcoholism, etc.). The true cost of war is not measured primarily in terms of dollars but in terms of extinguished or ruined lives. I challenge you, this year, to honor veterans by becoming part of the solution to these problems, encouraging our leaders to rely on military force only as a last resort and only when likely to make the world a better place.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

New leaders

This week, two highly visible positions were filled. The first, the presidency of the United States of America, saw Barack Obama reelected for a second term. He won the necessary majority in the Electoral College (each state has a number of votes equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus two, for its two senators). More symbolically, he won a plurality of the popular vote. After a fierce, contentious, and lengthy campaign, voters decided to stay the course with Obama rather than to replace him with Republican Mitt Romney. Similarly, the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican majority in the House both increased. Gridlock may continue.

In the United Kingdom, the Queen announced that she was appointing the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, currently Bishop of Durham, as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His selection process began with a specially appointed Crown Nomination Commission that sent the U.K.’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, a short list of two names from which he chose Welby. Bishop Welby’s selection surprised many observers because of his brief eleven months of experience as a bishop. He also was ordained later in life, having first had an eleven-year, successful career in international business.

The two processes are starkly different. The U.S. election cost billions and involved tens of millions of people. The Archbishop of Canterbury selection involved dozens of people at a trivial cost. Ironically, religious rhetoric and issues pervaded much of the U.S. election; odds set by bookmakers on the identity of the Most Rev. Rowan Williams’ successor as Archbishop of Canterbury received more publicity than did the serious discussion of religious issues.

Political analysts of all stripes attribute Obama’s victory to his ground game rather than the air war, i.e., to traditional politicking rather than to media messages. As in Obama’s 2008 win, his campaigns understood that we live in a postmodern era in which the world is increasingly flat. Through contacting individuals directly, telephonically, and via the internet, Obama garnered sufficient support to achieve victory. Perhaps the biggest loser in the election was Karl Rove whose PACs spent in excess of $100 million for measurably few results, a doubly encouraging outcome. Not only do I find Rove’s politics divisive and un-Christian, but also dethroning the centrality of media advertising may indicate a small step away from the de facto purchase of election victories by the candidate who spends the most on advertising.

Conversely, Bishop Welby’s nomination represents an antiquated hierarchical ecclesiology rooted in a long gone concept of Christendom rather than in postmodern realities that include the internet, increasing rejection of authoritarianism, and growing individualism. The push for an Anglican covenant to bind the provinces of the Anglican Communion more tightly together has floundered, in part, because its authoritarianism is antithetical to postmodernism. The Anglican ethos of communion among those who pray together but do not necessarily believe together has never been timelier.

Bishop Welby has declared his support for women bishops in the Church of England. He has stated his support for the Church of England’s opposition to same sex marriage. Once in office as Archbishop of Canterbury, I expect that he may view the world differently. If anything, his support for women clergy may strengthen. How his attitude toward same sex marriage may change is much harder to predict.

Bishop Welby believes that reconciliation should shape his ministry, a good priority if at times impossible. The GAFCON bishops are clear: the Anglican Communion must take a firm stance against same sex marriage, ordaining the openly gay, and other positions they regard as departures of historical orthodoxy before they will consider remaining in the Communion. In the meantime, The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in Canada, significant parts of the Church of England, and some other provinces continue to move forward toward fully including all of God's people in the life and ministry of the Church regardless of gender or gender orientation. Reconciliation between a stolidly entrenched party and a party that is continuing to move further away appears very improbable. Such reconciliation would also be out of step with the gospel and the tenor of postmodernism. Obama has a better chance of breaking gridlock in Washington than Welby has of breaking the impasse that some elements of the Anglican Communion currently perceive.

The previous week, a blindfolded ten-year-old boy in Cairo’s St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral chose one of three, wax-sealed, crystal balls. Each ball contained the name of a Coptic bishop; the one the boy chose became the next Coptic pope, Tawadros II. This process, based on the biblical precedent of choosing Judas’ successor by choosing lots between two qualified candidates, emphasizes the uncertainty of human affairs. The future is unpredictable. Time may prove an apparently obvious choice a mistake.

I wanted President Obama reelected. No candidate who ran, or who might have run, seemed preferable. Bishop Welby was not my preferred choice to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Both will have my constant prayers and full support – whenever their agenda aligns with what I think is right and whenever possible. And I hope that God moves in surprising and unexpected ways through the leadership of both to make the world a better, more peaceful place. This is the loyalty that we owe our leaders.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Occupy at one year

In September, the Occupy movement marked its first anniversary, an event that the major news media largely ignored. The Los Angeles Times was an exception, assessing the Occupy movement’s impact as difficult to describe (Andrew Tangel, “Occupy movement turns 1 year old, its effect still hard to define,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2012).

Occupy has given a voice to a deep but poorly focused stream of discontent in the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, the Occupy website boasts 226,000 followers on Facebook; the Occupy Wall Street site boasts 131,000 Facebook followers. Similarly, the original Wall Street protest quickly spread to numerous other cities, most at least temporarily hosting their own encampment of the discontented.

The discontented have diverse stories. A majority of them once bought into the economic system, but now feels disenfranchised and left behind by the wealthiest 1% who, even in the midst of economic hard times, continued to get richer. Some people never bought into (or were allowed to buy into) the economic system. This latter group includes an emerging permanent underclass in the US and UK multi-generational welfare families.

Nevertheless, the Occupy protesters are a highly visible and poignant reminder that our economic system is broken. Even as the number of billionaires increases and at least two Americans each own several times more land than is in the entirety of Rhode Island, so does the number of people increase whose finances are underwater because the size of their mortgage exceeds not only the value of their house but all of their financial assets.

The Occupy movement has also been clarion call to reform our economic system. Cutting taxes is not the answer. Government provides essential services that range from transport, schools, and first responders to managing international affairs, national defense, and providing a basic social safety net that ideally ensures care for the most vulnerable (the elderly, those needing medical care, the unemployed, children, etc.). Nor is continued national deficit financing the answer. Huge public debts in Greece and Italy significantly contribute to those nations’ financial struggles and warn against unlimited deficits.

Jesus did not prescribe an economic system. Various Christian ethicists, including one of my mentors, Phil Wogaman, have persuasively argued that a form of regulated capitalism is most compatible with Christian values. These Christian ethicists, like others who favor socialism, consistently emphasize God's preferential bias for the poor.

At a minimum, economic reform should include:

1.      A progressive tax structure, a fundamental element of fairness for the poor;

2.      Simplified regulations that keep the system fair and establish appropriate accountability, e.g., the US tax code unfairly shifts the tax burden to those unable to afford effective lobbyists while the code’s complexity discourages compliance;

3.      A balanced national budget that both provides essential services and protects the most vulnerable;

4.      Policies and programs that both encourage wealth formation and seek to bridge the growing chasm between rich and poor, e.g., where 100 years ago CEOs earned about 40 times more than their lowest paid employee today that difference was multiplied by 90 to CEOs earning360 times the lowest paid worker.

Within those broad ethical parameters, the actual shape of reform primarily becomes a series of economic and political. People of good conscience will disagree about the preferred changes, in substantial measure because the outcome of potential changes is highly uncertain. Thus, Christians committed to economic reform can constructively rally around these broad ethical prescriptions without insisting upon unanimity about details.

Disappointingly, the Occupy movement never gained enough volume or traction to become a mighty river of protest, one that might have propelled the US or UK to initiate needed economic reforms. Although Occupy became for a time a powerful set of braided streams, they were unruly and unstable ones, riven by internal debates over the priority of various issues and organizational questions that unnecessarily limited Occupy’s growth and influence. Today, the Occupy movement appears to be drying up.

Frustratingly, the broader Anglican Church and the Occupy movement never identified common ground for a unified witness with respect to economic reform. The convoluted and occasionally tense relationship between Anglicans and Occupy is apparent at both London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and New York’ Trinity Wall Street parish. In London, high profile clergy resignations and more recently Occupy protesters chaining themselves to the pulpit during an October evensong service highlight the conflict. In New York, tensions culminated in the widely publicized arrests of retired Bishop George Packard and others for trespassing on church property.

I don’t have enough facts to attempt to apportion responsibility for these problems among the various parties. To some extent, these problems certainly stem from Occupy’s own internal dynamics. But I also wonder whether the Church has consistently acted as Jesus would have done, whether the Church appropriately prioritizes standing with the discontent and financially vulnerable, and whether the Church attempts to draw too much of a Pharisaic line between spiritual/religious issues on the one hand and economic issues on the other.

Occupy’s message reminds me of Jesus telling the rich young man who wanted eternal life to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-25). All three gospel accounts of the incident report that Jesus concluded the interview by observing that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Francis of Assisi’s radical commitment to the poor was a helpful corrective, essential counterweight, and mission complement to the work that the Roman Catholic Church’s establishment, endowments, and institutions made possible. Initial conflict yielded to uneasy compromise and then to cherished coexistence in which the Franciscans – at their best – are living reminders of Jesus’ commitment to the poor and the power of voluntary poverty to be a catalyst for establishing God's kingdom on earth.

Many people still view the Church of England and The Episcopal Church as churches comprised of the wealthy, the powerful, and the elite. Both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Trinity Wall Street are arguably such bastions. Conversely, both churches’ prominence and wealth enable a breadth of mission that very few congregations could undertake.

Yet perhaps God has sent the Occupy movement, and its self-identified Christian participants, to be another Francis of Assisi, i.e., to call the Church to remember Jesus’ commitment to the poor, to use our wealth for the good of all, and, on our knees, to pass through the eye of the needle into the fullness of God's kingdom.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Campaign 2012 - part 4

For the 2012 election, evangelical Christian Jim Wallis from the Sojourners community has identified five issues about which Christians of all political views should be able to find common ground (Jim Wallis, “Listening for the Voice of Aslan,” Huffington Post, April 13, 2012):

1.      Defense of the poor, which neither party will champion during an election year -- they all want donors and voters. How policies affect the most vulnerable is always the Christian political question; vital international and domestic poverty programs which allow the poor to survive and prevent their further suffering should be defended by Christians of all political stripes.

2.      A particular focus on how undocumented immigrants will be talked about and treated -- the biblical "stranger" in our midst -- and the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform. Christians across political boundaries are coming together around the urgent agenda to fix a broken immigration system.

3.      Supporting policies that reduce abortion and that support strong families should be points of agreement between both liberals and conservatives, especially people of faith.

4.      Protecting religious liberty is a commitment we also share -- both at home and around the world.

5.      Promoting foreign policies that seek to prevent and resolve inevitable human conflicts, instead of increasing them, should be something that Christians should also support because Jesus called us to be peacemakers.

His first two issues are both domestic; the last three are primarily international. This chart makes clear the difference between a Christian approach and the major political parties’ approaches:

How help the poor?
·         Domestically
·         Internationally
What will benefit you?
·         Tax policies
·         Job creation
·         Education programs
·         Healthcare coverage
Welcoming the stranger
How preserve what I have?
·         Border control
·         Voter ID
·         Deporting illegals
Promoting human dignity
·         Respect for life
·         Strengthening healthy relationships
·         Honoring all freedoms
Protecting “my” dignity
·         Respect for my values
·         Respecting relationships like mine
·         Protecting freedoms important to me
Peacemaking and conflict resolution
Promoting national interests

Recasting campaign issues to frame them in a Christian context requires extensive homework, pushing past one’s own biases and political rhetoric in an effort to promote God's agenda. I suspect few voters have the information or inclination to pursue this option with sufficient comprehensiveness to permit actually assessing which candidate appears likely, in an uncertain world, to best advance God's kingdom. Nevertheless, this is a second possible approach for Christians to decide for whom to vote. This approach is the best for referendum questions in which one must vote on an issue rather than for a candidate.

I have three major complaints about political campaigns:

1.      We spend too much money on campaigns ($5.3 billion in 2008, for example). Too often the candidate who raises and spends the most money wins creating the hard to refute appearance of having bought the election.

2.      Too few people vote (e.g., in 2008 only 56.8% of U.S. citizens old enough to vote actually voted). Non-presidential elections have even lower voter turnout.

3.      Political campaigns increasingly have too much fire (and incivility!) and too little substance to encourage careful voter consideration. Politicians typically seek to pander to voter emotions rather than offer substantive, well-reasoned views.

When I despair, I find hope in these words from Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and spiritual writer Richard Rohr:

There is no perfect political system. Jesus never promised us that any political system could realize the Reign of God on earth. … He said we should be the light on the mountain, but we want to be the whole mountain (Matthew 5:13ff). (Simplicity: The art of living, p. 71)

If you have not already done so, and are eligible, then VOTE! It’s an opportunity to let God's light shine.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Campaign 2012 - part 3

Former Dean of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, the Very Rev. Alan Jones, in a Huffington Post blog about Christians deciding how to vote, wrote:

Yet, at the heart of our current political impasse are spiritual questions: What kind of people are we becoming? Should not a society be judged, in the end, by how it treats its most weak and vulnerable? These two questions might inform our voting in November. (The Very Rev. Alan Jones, “The Shoot-Out Election: How to Vote?” Huffington Post, 10/18/12 -

The very definition of politics implies seeking the common good. Christianity is about community, not the individual. Individualism perverts the gospel, a lesson that Judas learned the hard way. Nor could any first century Jewish peasant have survived alone. This is not a popular message in the United States. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, experienced this first hand when she stated that salvation was communal rather than individual.

What is good? The prophet Micah answers that question definitively:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The common good promotes mutual interdependence, i.e., balancing self-interest with concern for all creation.

This approach to Christian voting is explicitly utilitarian (the greatest good for the greatest number, the latter including all creation) instead of deontological (obeying a set of God given commands). Trying to vote according to principles almost immediately encounters insurmountable problems:

·         Which principles will I select? The Ten Commandments? The two great commandments? A single principle such as opposition to abortion?

·         On what basis will I reduce Christian ethics to that/those principles?

·         How will I resolve conflicts between the principles?

·         How will I resolve conflicts within a candidate’s positions, some of which cohere with my chosen principles and some of which conflict with my principles?

·         Since almost certainly no candidate will perfectly adhere to my principles, how do I decided which candidate’s views represent the best agreement and least egregious conflicts?

Utilitarian analysis – weighing benefits and harms to assess net gain or loss – provides a framework for making those decisions. Utilitarian calculations, fraught with problematic assumptions about potential outcomes and iffy quantifications, also underscore the challenge of this approach to voting. Knowing a candidate’s real character may pose great difficulty; actually attempting utilitarian analyses about deciding for which candidate to vote seems to entail even greater difficulties.