Monday, December 31, 2012

2013 predictions


At the beginning of 2012, I made the following predictions on Ethical Musings, now annotated to indicate my prescience (or lack of):

·         A dictator will emerge in Iraq, probably Nouri al-Maliki. The war in Afghanistan will wind down but the Taliban insurgency will continue. Iran will develop, or be on the verge of developing, a nuclear weapon. Iraq does not yet have a dictator, though Maliki continues to move in that direction. The Taliban insurgency is continuing and Iran appears to be on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. Overall assessment: 50%.

·         No progress in reconciling South and North Korea will occur until after the end of 2012. Accurate. Indeed, the recent North Korean missile launch has probably moved the two nations further apart. Assessment: 100%.

·         Obama will win reelection; the Republicans will gain control of both houses of Congress. I got two out of three correct – the Democrats retained control of the Senate. Overall assessment: 66%.

·         North Carolina will defeat the proposed amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage in heterosexual terms. I was wrong. North Carolina adopted the proposed amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. Overall assessment: 0%.

·         Violent and unusual weather patterns will increase in frequency and severity causing multiple major natural disasters around the globe. This is happening; West Antarctica may be warming twice as fast as previously thought. Overall assessment: 100%.

·         The major stock market indices (Dow Jones, S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) will advance 5-10%, less than typical for an election year; all will have multiple, substantial fluctuations of several percentage points in a single day. I only got two of five prognostications correct: the Dow is up between 5 and 10%; there have been some substantial daily fluctuations. Both the S&P 500 and Russell 2000 are up over 10% for the year; conversely, the NASDAQ is up less than 5%. Overall assessment: 40%.

·         The world will not end. We're still here; the Mayan's new age interpreters were wrong. Overall assessment: 100%.

Although I cannot claim to be a definitive oracle, making predictions about 2013 is certainly more fun than making resolutions. So, here are my predictions for 2013:

·         Iraq will continue to move toward dictatorship and relations between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will become increasingly fractious. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will almost have ended; Afghanistan will remain a lawless, chaotic country. Pakistan will also become progressively more unstable.

·         The U.S. will go over the fiscal cliff it faces at the end of 2012, and then Congress will raise taxes on the wealthiest 2% but largely leave taxes on the 98% at or near 2012 levels. Congress will cut Medicare and other entitlement programs, but not Social Security, to reduce spending and the deficit.

·         The major stock market indices (Dow Jones, S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) will advance 8-10%.

·         The U.S. economy will continue to improve – gradually. Going over the fiscal cliff will cause problems, but by the end of the year unemployment will again be declining.

·         The Supreme Court will strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act but duck the larger questions of whether states must recognize same-sex marriage to ensure equal protection and rights for all.

·         Church attendance and belief in God will continue to decline.

·         Global warming will continue, as will an increased number of natural disasters caused by climate change. No major war will break out. The world will not end.

Some of these predictions seem fairly certain, e.g., that the world will not end. Others are wild guesses; others represent educated speculation. I encourage you to consider joining me in making predictions about the year ahead and welcome any that you care to send to me.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Promise keeping


A friend recently forwarded me an article in The Atlantic, "How I Learned to Stop Criticizing and Be Nice to My Husband" (December 17, 2012) Written by a self-professed evangelical Christian and author of The Respect Dare, Nina Roesner, the article surprised me and then prompted some musings about relationships.

Roesner surprised me because she did not hew – at least in the article –to a conventional evangelical Christian line about wives obeying their husbands. Instead, she emphasized mutuality: husbands and wives should respect and love one another. While I would insist on broadening her understanding of marriage to include same sex couples, her emphasis on mutual love and respect is basic.

When Roesner's marriage hit the rocks, rather than abandoning her partner, she did something unusual in the twenty-first century: she took a hard look at herself and her behaviors. She concluded that she and her husband shared many goals and values; she also recognized that when she criticized her husband, she often did so unfairly and in a way that communicated disrespect rather than her true feelings. All couples could learn (or have current behaviors reinforced) from this insightful, relatively short article.

Concurrently, I was reading some of philosopher's John Rawl's thoughts on promise keeping.

"… what would one say of someone who, when asked why he broke his promise, replied simply that breaking it was best on the whole? Assuming his reply is sincere, and that his belief was reasonable (i.e., one need not consider the possibility that he was mistaken), I think that one would question whether or not he knows what it means to say 'I promise' (in the appropriate circumstances). It would be said of someone who used this excuse without further explanation that he didn't understand what defenses the practice, which defines a promise, allows to him. If a child were to use this excuse one would correct him; for it is part of the way one is taught the concept of a promise to be corrected if one uses this excuse. The point of having the practice would be lost if the practice did allow this excuse." (John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," Philosophical Review LXIV, No. 1 (1955), 3-32 quoted in Paul W. Taylor, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing, 1967), p. 285)

Divorce rates, although down slightly from the late twentieth century, remain hear historic highs. Social scientists are accumulating a vast amount of data that shows parental divorce is generally bad for children. Among other things, most children in single parent families have a lower standard of living and more emotional difficulties. Most of the time, a stepparent is at best a poor substitute for a biological parent. The children who survived the Newtown massacre, and other children who have had to cope with significant suffering or evil, obviously need both parents.

Having counseled hundreds of couples who were considering divorce, I found that the most common difficulty was that one or the other partner had decided that the grass was greener elsewhere, whether as a single or in a different intimate relationship. Therapists and clergy, whose experiences match my observations, often describe marriage today as serial monogamy.

Two caveats are essential. First, divorce is sometimes morally right. No person should have to live in a condition of mental or physical abuse, fearful for personal safety or the safety of his or her children. Similarly, abandonment morally justifies divorce. Second, divorce is not the unpardonable sin (only one is mentioned in the Bible, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – whatever that is, it is assuredly not divorce). Stigmatizing the divorced, forcing the divorced to play a hypocritical game such as the Roman Catholics do with their annulment process, or otherwise failing to embrace fully, wholeheartedly, and graciously the divorced is morally reprehensible.

That said, couples who marry need to take marriage more seriously. Marriage is a serious promise. Moderns take promises too lightly, e.g., few people seem to honor their word as their bond, but prefer to have everything in writing with pages of fine print to cover every contingency.

Rawls is right: a child who offered the excuse that she or he did not feel like keeping a promise should expect adults to reject that excuse. Yet people who opt out of marriage often do so for little reason. Roesner's resuscitation of her marriage required years of effort. Her husband eventually noticed that she had changed, and began to change his own behavior.

Keeping a marriage promise is a duty, not a hedonistic act.

·         "The point of having rules derives from the fact that similar cases tend to recur and that one can decide cases more quickly if one records past decisions in the form of rules…

·         "The decisions made on particular cases are logically prior to rules. Since rules gain their point from the need to apply the utilitarian principle to many similar cases, it follows that a particular case (or several cases similar to it) may exist whether or not there is a rule covering that case…

·         "Each person is in principle always entitled to reconsider the correctness of a rule and to question whether or not it is proper to follow it in a particular case. As rules are guides and aids, one may ask whether in past decisions there might not have been a mistake in applying the utilitarian principle to get the rule in question, and wonder whether or not it is best in this case…" (John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," Philosophical Review LXIV, No. 1 (1955), 3-32 quoted in Paul W. Taylor, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing, 1967), p. 286)

Tragically, marriage is becoming less prevalent among the poor and middle class. When exiting a marriage (i.e., divorce) is so easy and people opt to exit when a marriage no longer seems fulfilling or pleasing, people begin to wonder why bother getting married? Why make a promise that has little likelihood of being fulfilled?

Reading Rawls after reading Roesner's article changed my thinking about marriage. I've never thought about leaving my partner and always presumed that in a good marriage people stay together from choice not any sense of duty. In retrospect, I think my marriage is more special than I had realized. Most couples experience seasons in which separation, or even divorce, appears more attractive than remaining in the relationship. We collectively will benefit if we help couples honor their promises to stay with one another in good times and bad, health and sickness, wealthy and poverty – keeping mind the two caveats above.

Matthew's gospel records that the Holy Family, after Jesus' birth, fled Bethlehem for Egypt to avoid Herod's slaughter of the innocent children. Imagine the immense stress Mary and Joseph felt. Not only did they have a new child, but also Jesus was born out of wedlock and then the presumably impoverished threesome had to flee for their lives to an alien land in which they probably knew nobody. I wonder how many times Joseph felt like throwing in the towel and abandoning Mary and her (not his!) baby. Of course, in that patriarchal society, Mary had no choice but no stay with Joseph. And before one romanticizes the characters too much, Christians have always maintained that Mary and Joseph were just humans, without even a hint of extraordinary divinity. We would do well to reclaim the Holy Family, not in its gender composition but in its commitment to one another, as a model for our families.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas wish

(Image courtesy of phanlop88 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

A former editor of the Christian Century, John M. Buchanan, wrote a column several years ago in which described he an unusual and powerful Christmas sermon:

One of the most memorable sermons that I ever heard, one of the very few I actually remember – was a Christmas Day sermon preached by Charles Leber. At the time, he and Ulysses Blake were co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church on Chicago's South Side. Leber's sermon was title 'Another Roman Holiday.' He explained that the early church chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus' birth even though everyone knew the birth had happened sometime in the spring. Dec 25 was the beginning of the Romans' yearend holiday, which Leber said was quite a bash: seven straight days of eating, drinking, and reveling. The Christians did not participate in these revels. They decided to draw attention to themselves be rejecting the celebration. And so, to provide an alternative and to help them resist the sensual temptations of the Roman holiday, they came up with Christmas. I don't know about the historical accuracy of that story, but it made a great sermon, and it provides a useful way to address the annual dilemma of how to celebrate the incarnation in a culture that's going a little crazy. (John M. Buchanan, "Song in the City," Christian Century, December 13, 2005, 3)

The Puritans proscribed Christmas celebrations as a pagan observance. They obviously needed to listen to Leber's sermon. Thankfully, the Puritans no longer rule and their insistence on strict conformity and narrow readings of Scripture have yielded to religious liberty. If you choose to celebrate Christmas, and I hope that you will, then celebrate the wonder of transcendent mystery – God's loving presence – in our world.

Gifts, trees, parties, family, worship services, music, art, decorations, cards, special foods – all of the myriad ways in which we commemorate the season when rightly understood are symbols that point to that wondrous transcendent mystery.

Attempts to literalize the Nativity story necessarily fail. Jesus' disciples only began to think that his birth was important after he died. Consequently, the Nativity story is pure romantic fiction. But that does not emasculate the Nativity story; its real power, like that of any good story, is the ability to evoke a fresh perspective, a new experience, and a transformation in its hearers.

One Christmas during the European trench warfare of World War I, Allied and Axis soldiers warily watched one another across no-man's land. Then something amazing happened. These warriors, committed to vanquishing their opposing foe, set down their arms and to the consternation of their superior officers spontaneously declared a Christmas truce. They joined in singing carols, exchanged gifts, and shared Christmas cheer with one another.
 



Imagine a world in which everyone followed that example, a world with no more war, no more greed, no more mass slaughter of innocents. This exemplifies a story's power to draw its hearers into the wonder of a transcendent mystery that brings life instead of death, joy instead of sadness, and love instead of emptiness. This is the power of Christmas, a power we can observe when our communities annually become just a little nicer, a little more generous, and a little more caring for a few December days.

May your Christmas be such a Christmas, i.e., a truly blessed and merry Christmas that lasts all year long.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff


Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

 

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

 

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances. The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation’s number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office’s website.)

 

What can $162,000 – or even $244,000 – in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members’ expectations.

 

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I’m guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC’s equivalent of the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

 

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds’ principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived “essentials” (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

 

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians’ average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

 

I do not intend this essay to be an Advent message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

 

Advent season is a season of expectant waiting and new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management – a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy – is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

 

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC’s anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:

(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;

(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);

(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today’s young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);

(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;

(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

 

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That’s okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity.

 

Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church’s practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

 

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

 

The promise of Advent – that God has not finished creating the world – offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God's presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child’s birth. TEC needs leaders – our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members – who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God's people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Broadening perception


How broad is your outlook? Do you, for example, consider a football field as a large playing field, a small patch of grass that comprises part of a much larger landscape, or both?

People generally seem to prefer to function with a narrow view on life. I reached that conclusion experientially, observing that most people who attended the same meetings I did, whether in civilian organizations or the military, usually focused on details, small issues, or narrow slices of large problems. Discussion of the large issues, issues of considerable breadth and depth, invariably seemed to gravitate around a subset of details that, from the larger perspective, were actually incidental or trivial.

Consultation with a variety of mentors forced me to accept the proposition that most people found large issues so complex, challenging, or overwhelming in scope that they preserved face and remained in their comfort zones by limiting their comments and opinions to particular facets and avoiding proffering an opinion on the larger issue.

Votes on broad issues by members of groups with more than a dozen people appear to follow a similar, predictable pattern. Having remained silent or voiced an opinion on some aspect of the larger issue, a majority of people present typically vote in support of either their perception of how the majority will vote or their leader(s) of choice's position.

Big, complex issues – for example, how to avoid the impending fiscal cliff in the U.S. or how to restructure a non-profit organization – admittedly require a breadth of knowledge that nobody is likely to have. People also often lack the courage to take risks and to make decisions with admittedly incomplete information in ambiguous situations.

One consequence of this widespread proclivity for disliking and thus avoiding grappling with big questions is that it cedes power to the relative handful of individuals who are willing, indeed, who perhaps relish, the opportunity to deal with such questions. This popular bias against big questions becomes apparent in how candidates for public office conduct their campaigns: they focus on sound bites and image rather than offering careful, substantive analysis of the principle issues. Few people read, much less thoroughly digest, the point papers prepared by presidential campaigns.

Carol Gilligan, an American psychologist and feminist, showed spider webs to men and women. Men generally saw a threat, while women saw interconnectedness. In other words, a variety of sociological, psychological, and physiological factors that can include gender, age, race, emotional state, employment, class, etc. shape human perceptions.

The majority preferring to abdicate direct responsibility for large decisions can therefore skew those decisions in favor of the people willing to make those decisions. I think that this happens many times at the intersection of politics and economics, as evidenced by policies that benefit elites rather than the broader populace. Even decisions nominally made for the benefit of non-elites may, in fact, benefit elites by allowing the elites to remain in power. The Roman Empire's grain subsidies for Roman residents illustrate this.

Psychological egoism is the theory that humans act in ways that the individual perceives to be in her or his best interest. Psychological egoism coheres well with my observation that most people focus on smaller issues, ignoring the larger ones. A person's world, in very many respects, consists of those people, things, and ideas that impinge directly and recognizably upon one's existence. Shifting focus from the narrow (self) to the broadly inclusive (all people, the entire planet) is difficult, even when presented with reasonable evidence that what is good for the larger picture will most often be best for self.

For example, I want to travel safely and minimum inconvenience. Therefore, I reasonably want rules that target others because I know that I do not pose a threat to anyone's safety. However, rules that target others may have the unintended consequences of ignoring people with salient characteristics similar to me but who do pose a threat to my safety; these rules may also have ramifications that ripple beyond transportation safety, such as creating or exacerbating societal divisions by using stereotypes or profiles.

Important values of a liberal arts education, which hopefully begins in elementary school and then continues through high school and college or vocational school even for people whose studies are concentrated in the scientists or learning a trade, are learning to think, to frame questions, to be comfortable with ambiguity. Exploring great literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion push people to expand their horizons and to struggle with ambiguity and problems for which no simple solutions exist. Travel can similarly expand one's ability and comfort in dealing with large issues.

The best of religion promotes ethical living through facilitating abundant living, aiding us to love our neighbors more fully, or assisting us to struggle with life's big issues. Advent and Christmas especially call attention to questions about the future of all creation (cf. Ethical Musings Advent: Looking to the future) or experiencing God's presence in our midst (e.g., Ethical Musings The Christmas Myth).

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent: Remaking self and world


Advent is a good season for stories. Last week, I heard a sermon that featured Crockett Johnson's story of Harold and the Purple Crayon (New York: Harper Collins, 1955)), the account of a four year old boy who created his own world using a purple crayon. That story is doubly appropriate for Advent, purple being Advent's traditional liturgical color and God inviting, calling, us to re-create the world and ourselves in God's image through the crayon that is the Holy Spirit.

Our canvas for sketching this re-created world in God's image is certainly not a fresh, blank canvas. Indeed, the canvas is messy, containing jumbled messages, incomplete images, and false starts. Symbolically, the first two readings on the third Sunday of Advent are full of joy (hence the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath), but the gospel reading calls us to repent (hence the three purple candles).

I, for one, do not associate John the Baptist's stern call to repentance – to stop sinning and turn back to God – with joy. If my sin makes me unhappy, then it's relatively easy to quit. It's when I enjoy sinning that I don't want to quit. The seven deadly sins of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth are powerful attractors that appear to offer us more pleasure than godliness can. The path to freedom, forgiveness, and healing begins by heeding John's call to repentance, to turn from sin back toward God. If you're caught in sin that you enjoy, now's the time to pick up your crayon. However, if you want to stop sinning and know that you should, but can't, many times a superficial diagnosis of sin masks a much deeper and more complex problem; the inappropriate behavior is symptomatic of another problem, typically addiction or mental illness. In that case, seek help from a priest, physician, or other qualified source.

So working with a messy canvass is realistic. Having a messy canvass permits experimentation, guilt free mistakes, and eliminates the need for perfection. No matter how well you draw, the canvass will remain messy.

Furthermore, working with a messy canvass and a single crayon generally means that less is more. If you draw too much, attempt to finish every detail, then the lines overlap and blur. Broad outlines of this re-created world will work best.

Perhaps you read syndicated columnist Laura Kreutzer's "At Christmas, More Isn't Always More," which ran in last Sunday's newspapers (December 8, 2012). She explains that she prefers extensive Christmas preparations and decorations but that her husband likes a less exuberant, simpler holiday. Consequently, in the past, she has taken primary responsibility for planning, shopping, decorating, and all other preparations. And because she's a year-round gift shopper, she's been able to buy bargains and spend more on gifts than if she only shopped in Advent.

But this year is different. She has two major work projects that consume the time and energy she needs for doing Christmas as usual. Her husband was unwilling to pick up the slack. So, after realizing that what they both really treasured about Christmas was family, they compromised. She identified the two aspects of Christmas that she most values and is limiting her efforts to them; he's agreed to help her with both. In spite of her initial fears that this would ruin Christmas, she's discovered that she's more relaxed and enjoying the season more.

So keeping those two principles in mind (that we're working with a messy canvas and only one color), what exactly does the image of a world re-created in God's image look like? It's not homogenous, that's certain. Collectively, we have many different colors, artistic styles, and visions. Even if several of us choose to draw the same scene, each drawing will be distinctive.

Pope Benedict XVI, with whom I seldom agree, published a new book last month on the Christmas story, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Random House, 2012). The book has attracted attention at least partially because Benedict debunks key elements of Jesus' birth narratives including the date of Jesus' birth (probably several years earlier than our calendars indicate) and argues that the gospels support neither the presence of animals nor angels singing at Jesus' birth. The pope, however, does not call for people to scrap these or other traditions with which Christians have generously embroidered the Christmas story. Instead, he argues that the story should draw us, in my words, ever more deeply into the wonder of transcendent mystery.

Laura Kreutzer and her husband have the right idea, perhaps without realizing it. Why is Christmas important? Because of family, but family in a broadly inclusive sense. Christmas is important because in the birth of a child some two thousand years ago people experienced, and continue to experience, the wonder of the transcendent mystery of God's love, a love that transforms death into abundant life, a love that restores health and energy to the exhausted, a love that heals brokenness, a love that accepts just as we are, regardless of who we are, what we have done, thought, or said. Christmas is important because God reaches out to embrace with a love that never lets go the family that begins with our immediate family and extends to our church, to our community, and eventually to the whole world.

So, this Advent and Christmas let's ditch the guilt. Let's quit using Advent and Christmas to try to prove our love, or multi-tasking productiveness, or anything else to ourselves or loved ones. Instead, take up your messy sheet of paper, your single crayon, and sketch a few lines – but only a few – that re-create the world in the image of God's wondrous, transcendent, mysterious love, a love revealed in the story of a child's birth. And then do what Harold did: step into that re-created world, becoming the person God created you to be. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Advent: Looking to the future


Samuel Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, wrote this in 1749:

THAT the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time, now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetorick. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it. (The Rambler, section 2)

Johnson is correct. Humans persistently look to the future. An optimist anticipates good things; a pessimist looks for bad things to happen. Rarely will anyone other than a person who expects death in the very near future spend more time living in the past than she or he devotes to contemplating the future.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein even suggested that animals hope: “One can imagine an animal angry, frightened, unhappy, happy, startled. But hopeful? And why not?” (Philosophical Investigations II, i, 174, cited by Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, Kindle location 1120-1122)

Advent is a season of hope, a season defined by Christians waiting, watching, as we relive the days of Mary's pregnancy in our readings and liturgical observances. For children and some others, time seems to drag; the long expected birth seems an eternity away. Some harried moderns may think and feel the opposite: that the time passes too quickly, not allowing them to do everything they wish before Christmas.

The Church's liturgical calendar has always, though somewhat arbitrarily, compressed the usual nine months of pregnancy into an annual observance of only four weeks. (I've known many women who have expressed the wish that their pregnancies could have been compressed and that they would nevertheless have delivered a full-term baby!)

But, if we're honest, remembering the birth of Mary's child is really Advent's minor theme. Advent's major theme directs our attention to the future, to a hope that God is not yet done with us or the world. The celebration of Christmas that overwhelms Advent may blind us with lights, busy us with activity, deafen us with carols, and burden us with gifts and cards. Indeed, many of us prefer that to happen. The hope of Advent just seems so dim, so unlikely. More than two thousand years after Jesus' birth, Christians still wait for God, decisively and dramatically, to fulfill the promise of Christians perceive in Jesus.

And, if we're honest, the crackpot Christian fringe dominates our imagination and thinking about the future. Their ignorant reading of the Bible has shaped popular opinion, and often our opinion as well. The late twentieth century, wildly popular series of Left Behind books and movies represents one prominent example of this misguided at best and intentionally deceptive at worst rhetoric. Taking the Bible's apocalyptic literature (the books of Revelation and Daniel, passages in the synoptic gospels that speak of the end of the world) as a straightforward outline of what God intends for the future is as silly and pointless as is searching the Bible for answers to scientific questions.

What can Christians – realistically and honestly – say about the future?

First, the future is unwritten, i.e., the future is unknown by us and by God. We live in an ambiguous world with an uncertain future.

Second, God has a depth and breadth of perspective that humans lack. God created the cosmos and God is not a God of lost causes. In other words, we have just cause to hope for a better, more promising future in which life will abound.

Third, in looking back to the birth of Jesus, an event in and through which generations of Christians have experienced the wondrous transcendent mystery of God's love, we hope to join their ranks, to experience, like them that mysterious power we call God. At Christmas, when so many people are a little nicer, a little more joyous, a little more generous, we experience an in breaking of that power and God transforms the world, along with many of us, at least temporarily, into a closer of approximation of the future that God intends.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Consent of the governed


David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1740) wrote that the following proposition is completely erroneous: "All men, they say, are born completely equal: Government and superiority can only be established by consent."

With respect to an individual, Hume was correct. An individual who objects to the status quo political authorities cannot, by her or himself, change the system. However, if that one individual can identify others who share that belief, or cause others to adopt that belief, and collectively these individuals acquire sufficient critical mass they can force political change.

These musings are not hypothetical, but have significant immediate practical import. For example, had only a handful of American colonists objected to British rule in 1776, the American Revolution would have been stillborn. Instead, individuals who objected to British rule organized (e.g., Committees for Public Safety), enlisted others, and then took direct action (the Boston Tea Party is one of the first examples of this).

For decades, nefarious dictators ruled Libya, Syria, and Egypt (to name only three such countries). Sometimes Western nations formed temporary alliances with one or more of these three – when the Western nations perceived an advantage in doing so, e.g., the U.S. heavily subsidizing Egypt after Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, making peace with Israel. Other times, Western nations condemned the dictators, occasionally initiating direct action against them from a distance, when the Western nations perceived this as advantageous, e.g., the U.S. launching cruise missile attacks on Libya's COL Qaddafi in response to Libya's support for or participation in international terrorism.

The West generally refrained from directly and openly intervening in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, although some funding and other forms of support probably aided dissidents in one or more of the three nations.

The arrival of the Arab Spring has brought numerous calls for Western nations to support dissidents in all three countries. Egyptians displaced longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak without any direct foreign interventions. The current Egyptian government, nominally dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, presently struggles to establish a non-dictatorial form of government acceptable to Egypt's major constituencies. Libyan dissidents succeeded in ousting Qaddafi with the aid of air support from Western nations, but they have not yet formed a stable new government. Syria remains in the throes of the dissidents struggle to overthrow the Assad regime. Western governments are beginning to give the dissidents international recognition and some material assistance.

In general, externally imposed regime change is ineffective and often ends disastrously for all parties. Two high profile examples of this assessment are Iraq, where the al-Maliki government increasingly moves toward dictatorship, and Afghanistan, which is one of the world's most corrupt and ungovernable nations. In both of those countries, U.S. predictions that oppressed people would rise up and embrace democracy proved wrong.

Patrick Henry's memorable words (Give me liberty or give me death) framed more than a personal slogan but a sine qua non for effective regime change. Sufficient numbers of people must want liberty and democracy more than they want life itself in order for a country to move toward democracy and human rights. Conversely, if fear of death (or torture, imprisonment, etc.) inhibits residents of oppressive, autocratic regimes from open dissent, then – sadly and tragically – those people lack the motivation required for a regime change that will move their nation toward democracy and more fully respecting human rights.

What can people of democratic nations that broadly if imperfectly respect human rights do to promote other people and nations embracing these practices?

First, international proponents of democracy and human rights can constructively form alliances with dissidents in autocratic countries and in countries that broadly fail to respect human rights.

Second, democratic nations should similarly move beyond narrow self-interest and convenient short-term answers to promote consistently through diplomacy, rhetoric, alliances, foreign aid, and other non-military ways the enduring values of democratic governance and respect for human rights.

Third, individuals, non-government organizations, and governments can cautiously provide limited assistance and support for dissidents and dissident organizations in autocratic, oppressive nations. External intervention – international recognition and limited logistical support from France, in particular – was probably decisive in the outcome of the American Revolution. Alternatively, the day after the U.S. announced its recognition of a Syrian dissident group as the leader of the opposition to Assad's regime, that group emphasized the importance of its ties to a group of Syrian dissidents linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Several factors warrant cautiously extending external assistance and support. Among these are that not all dissident movements succeed and that not all offer a reasonable prospect of establishing a more democratic regime that will improve respect for human rights. External support for dissidents may also prompt a regime to move more vigorously against nascent dissident movements than the regime had planned. Limiting external support ensures that dissidents do not become simply a "front" for external intervention.

Fourth, two well-defined conditions may justify humanitarian intervention and externally imposed regime change, though such intervention launches the invaded nation upon a trajectory in which achieving enduring progress toward democracy and respect for human rights is fraught with difficulty and the possibility of failure. The first such condition is genocide, when a government intentionally and maliciously directs or tolerates the murder of an entire people. The Nazi Holocaust is the highest profile example of this. A second condition is when a government that can prevent large-scale disaster fails to do so, allowing the decimation of an entire people through famine, pestilence, or disease.

No person is an island who exists as an independent entity. Nor do any of us have a voice in choosing the nation in which we are born. Along with our genes, we inherit citizenship and an existing government. However, no government can survive in power without the consent – coerced or freely given – of a sizable proportion of the governed. The fall of European totalitarian Communist states demonstrates the relatively short shelf life of a government in which a small minority (in these cases, the Communist elites) dominates an unwilling and unhappy majority.

Regardless of how much sympathy one may have had for people living under Communist rule, externally forced regime change would have created an even more horrific situation. Thankfully, the Soviets, and subsequently the Chinese, possessing nuclear weapons precluded this option, though a bad outcome was certain even if they had not had nuclear weapons. Nurturing democracy and respect for human rights requires respecting the dignity of others. Allowing them to struggle and to establish their own autonomous governments are integral components of human dignity; violating those components is thus self-defeating, a difficult truth to accept while watching autocratic and oppressive regimes victimize their citizens.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church


If someone asked me for a two word, thumbnail sketch of The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop and her two immediate predecessors, I’d respond:

·         Ed Browning: Justice advocate

·         Frank Griswold: Prayerful spirit

·         Katharine Jefferts Schori: Gifted helmswoman

I’m confident that other Episcopalians, if asked the same question, would offer different thumbnail sketches of these three TEC Chief Pastors and Primates. That’s not surprising. Personal experience, individual knowledge, and encounters (actual or virtual) all shape our impressions of another person. Furthermore, no person – absolutely no one – is reducible to a single phrase. Thumbnail sketches dangerously lend themselves to caricatures, which if not offered in good humor and with genuine respect can convey an acidic attack upon a person’s dignity, worth, and competence.

However, the advantage to setting a complex job description in its historical context and then summarizing both context and performance in a single phrase is that the phrase can provide helpful clarity about who a person is and the primary gift or emphasis that she or he brings (or brought) to the position.

Under the Most Rev. Ed Browning’s leadership, TEC continued the process, which began prior to his incumbency, of transforming this denomination into a more inclusive organization that rightly stresses the gospel’s ramifications for individuals and societies in the present. During the Most Rev. Frank Griswold’s tenure, TEC focused on creating a healthy balance between spiritual and worldly concerns. I especially remember his efforts to heal division and animosity in the House of Bishops during a very tumultuous period.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori has sought to turn our focus to the future. She has encouraged us to face our numerical and financial declines, to adopt a more nimble, leaner structure (a task that should be well underway by the next General Convention), and to resolve the conflicts spawned over the last three decades. The recent Diocese of South Carolina’s declaration of secession quite likely represents the final, and based on outcomes elsewhere, presumably futile attempt by a diocese to withdraw from TEC. Apart from that one diocese, the 2012 General Convention’s adoption of trial rites for blessing same sex relationships happened with little visible angst. Although unanimity does not, and never will, exist, most of the people – lay and clergy – who cannot live with our present diversity and directions have already opted to leave. May God bless them – far from us.

Because of the ministries of these godly Primates, TEC is by many measures a much healthier, stronger, and faithful Church than it was fifty years ago. Our numerical and financial struggles, as much as anything, stem from the body of Christ freeing itself from unchristian social shackles and from the need for our organizational structure to keep pace with social change (for more on these subjects, cf. Episcopal Church Finances, Part 2: The Story the Budget Tells, and Rethinking Episcopal Church Structure Part II).

Adopting a nautical metaphor, TEC has cleared her decks for action. We’re ready to get on with the mission of being God's people in the world, working to make God's kingdom a reality. To accomplish that goal, using words adapted from Esther 4:14, what type of person with what agenda should we call in a time such as this to be our next Presiding Bishop?

Now is the time for this conversation. The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop is just beginning its work. The next PB, sine qua non, should be a godly person of deep spirituality, great ministerial gifts, respecter of the dignity and worth of all people, and a person being formed in the image of Christ. Since all potential nominees are already TEC bishops, I prayerfully presume that all of them – or at least the vast preponderance of them – satisfy those criteria. Yet their individual spiritualties and spiritual journeys vary widely; these criteria are too broad to provide much help in identifying particular nominees, let alone a final selection.

Similarly, the PB’s job description (found in Canon 2) is sufficiently broad to cover a wide variety of circumstances and leadership styles. For example, that job description has suitably encompassed the diverse ministries of Bishops Browning, Griswold, and Jefferts Schori. In other words, the job description offers no constructive specifics for those tasked with selecting the next PB. Most of our bishops could adequately perform these tasks, each in her or his unique style and with her or his unique personal emphases.

So, what do we want in our next PB? What combination of gifts, skills, and personality is God calling TEC to raise up as the next PB for this season in the Church’s life? The nine years from 2015-2024 will include several obvious challenges: completing the resolution of lawsuits and other actions in response to bishops, dioceses, and parishes that have sought to leave TEC in a manner that violates the canons; completing the restructuring now in its formative stages; and restoring TEC’s financial health. Concurrently, with the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion’s uncertain future has become even more difficult to discern.

However, an even more basic, more vital challenge should define the next PB’s ministry. TEC has a vision of its mission and ministry: to be the twenty-first century Anglican expression of the body of Christ in the United States (and affiliated overseas dioceses), incarnating an inclusive, radical hospitality that contributes to establishing God's reign on earth. We’ve struggled over the last few decades to articulate that vision and there are various formulations of it, some more eloquent than mine is. Yet wide agreement about that vision of our mission and ministry exists, as evidenced by the ability of this year’s General Convention to act on several potentially divisive issues while maintaining a spirit of cooperation, unity in the midst of diversity, and fidelity to our historic Anglican distinctives. TEC has also initiated internal steps toward establishing the organizational structure and health to live into that vision more effectively (achieving its mission) and efficiently (with the fewest possible resources).

What TEC needs is a PB whose inspirational leadership, building on predecessors’ accomplishments, will enlist an ever-growing number of Episcopal bishops, dioceses, clergy, parishes, and laity in the exciting ministry and mission of living into our vision. This next Chief Pastor should not be primarily an organizer (++Jefferts Schori has most ably set the needed work in motion), nor a healer (we are blessed with continuing benefits from ++Griswold’s legacy), nor a prophet (++Browning’s ministry firmly committed us to justice with love). Instead, we need to turn our eyes from an internal focus on self and organization to an outward focus on a hurting, desperately hungry world.

The English word inspire has its etymological roots in the Middle English verb to blow into. Breath and wind are both metaphors for God's spirit. Dwight Eisenhower famously defined leadership as, "the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." An inspirational leader motivates people to live into God's vision for their individual and collective lives.

As an inspirational leader, The Episcopal Church’s next Presiding Bishop will spend his or her tenure communicating our vision to TEC and the world, and inspiring us to live heartily and fully into our vision. Everything else that needs doing – including the important tasks of finishing organizational restructuring, balancing budgets, negotiating Anglican Communion changes, etc. – is secondary and, as much as possible, delegated to others. The PB, borrowing a Presidential metaphor, has a bully pulpit. Bishop Jefferts Schori, an excellent communicator, has made good use of that platform. The next PB, an inspirational leader called by God for a time such as this, should concentrate her or his ministry almost entirely on that filling that bully pulpit, freed to do so by delegation and building on predecessors’ ministries.

TEC is at a critical juncture. Are we going to die? Or, are we going to continue to play an important role in God's work? I don’t believe that TEC has reached the winter of its demise. I am excited about our vision and the steps we have taken to incarnate that vision. Selecting an inspirational leader as our next Presiding Bishop will, I hopefully and prayerfully believe, usher in a new season of fruitfulness for us and for this Church.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The fiscal cliff


The fiscal cliff – expiration of the Bush era tax cuts, across the board significant reductions in federal spending in the absence of a balanced budget, and hitting the federal debt ceiling – looms nearer daily. Most economists, politicians, and pundits fear that the nation falling over that fiscal cliff will plunge the U.S. back into recession. To avoid the fiscal cliff, Congress and the President must find steps on which they can reach mutual agreement.

Falling over the fiscal cliff will be terrible for some of the most vulnerable people in the United States. For example, unemployment benefits will abruptly end for many long-term unemployed Americans. Many Department of Defense contractors will experience sharp contract curtailments, probably resulting in at least temporary layoffs for employees.

Some consequences, although significant, will have more gradual adverse consequences. Low and middle-income workers will find less money in their paychecks, as larger sums are withheld when income tax rates increase. Predictions of these workers losing $400 to $2000 per year represent $8 to $40 cuts in weekly income. For people who live paycheck to paycheck, even such modest amounts may mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy.

Still other consequences are hard to predict. Investors often factor bad news into security prices before the bad event actually occurs. Pundits disagree over whether the market has anticipated falling off the fiscal cliff. Holders of U.S. national debt (treasury bills, notes, and bonds) may similarly anticipate the fiscal cliff – or perhaps not.

Nevertheless, several consequences of the nation going over the fiscal cliff are neutral or even positive:

·         Falling off the cliff will have little effect on the lifestyles or sustainability of those lifestyles among the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

·         Raising tax rates will produce more income, reducing an outsized federal deficit.

·         Sequestration will not only help to reduce the deficit but also cut a bloated Department of Defense budget and force other departments of the federal government to be better stewards of federal tax dollars.

Furthermore, going over the fiscal cliff will put the President and his Congressional allies in the position of forcing their Congressional opponents either to vote against a tax cut for 98% of all Americans or to accept higher tax rates on the top 2% of earners. (Incidentally, only 2.5% of small business owners are in that 2%; raising taxes on them and others seems unlikely to stop small businesses from creating new jobs.)

Much of the fiscal cliff debate rhetoric is rubbish and morally wrong. For example, an acquaintance has told me that if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, then all estates, regardless of size, will be subject to a confiscatory federal estate tax of 55%. The truth is that if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff that estates worth more than $1 million that do not pass to a spouse will be subject to the federal estate tax. As I have previously argued on Ethical Musings, the estate tax is important for ethical reasons (cf. Taxation and Job Creation and Some thoughts about inheritances).

My feelings about the fiscal cliff are deeply conflicted. On the one hand, I am concerned about the well-being of the most vulnerable, and many of them are certain to suffer if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff. On the other hand, I am far from sanguine about the likelihood of the nation’s political leadership raising taxes on those most able to pay, taking constructive and sizable steps to simplify the tax code (to increase compliance through making filing easier, eliminating the plethora of special treatments that various groups now enjoy), and stopping unnecessary government spending.

What would Jesus do? Jesus would certainly contact his elected representatives and the President, encouraging them to focus on government’s responsibility to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. I think he would also emphasize to the importance of the nation exercising fiscal responsibility (i.e., a balanced budget); without fiscal health, life will become, probably quicker rather than later, much more painful for all people in the U.S.

Finally, I also believe that Jesus would be a complete pacifist or, if not, advocate relying on lethal force only as a last resort. Instead of cloaking defense and homeland security in red, white, and blue colored rhetoric that most politicians are fearful of challenging, the nation should ask itself what threats it faces and the lowest cost, ethical means of protection against those threats. Spending more on defense than the next 20 nations (ranked by size of defense spending) combined spend on defense is wasteful and immoral. If the U.S. does not go over the fiscal cliff, I’m unsure what will break the unholy alliance of military, industry, and Congress (to learn more about these relationships, I recommend Nick Turse’s 2008 book, The Complex).

By way of illustration, this week I read that the Department of Defense’s largest intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), was expanding and would soon rival the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in size. A majority of DIA agents will be civilians; the rationale is that the DIA will emphasize military related intelligence more than the CIA does. That begs the question of why the CIA cannot hire personnel who specialize in military intelligence. Assuredly, the nation does not need two separate intelligence agencies, each with its own administrative overhead. Sadly, concern over sequestration in the media and among politicians has focused more on prospective cuts to defense than for any other purpose or to any other agency.