Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is gun ownership Christian?

Lisa Miller in an eponymous Washington Post column asked, "Is gun ownership Christian?" She reported that 57% of white evangelicals live in households with guns and that 59% of them oppose gun controls. Then she asked how these Christians reconcile their actions and beliefs with their claim to follow a Lord who allowed the Romans to crucify him rather than engage in armed resistance. She identified several rationales that evangelical Christians use to justify their views about gun ownership. I list these below, along with my rejoinder why each rationale is severely flawed.

·         The second amendment is approved by God. Whatever cogency this claim may once have had is long gone. As my previous post emphasized, the second amendment no longer constitutes a bastion against tyranny; personal weapons are no match for a modern army (Mass murders and gun control).

·         Only prayer can conquer gun violence. This claim wrongly presumes that God acts unilaterally and that prayer is an acceptable substitute for human actions. Prayer, rightly understood, complements other human actions rather than being a replacement for those actions; humans cannot shift their responsibility to God (cf. Responding to a reader and What is prayer?).

·         Don't blame guns, blame a corrupt society. Guns obviously require human operators. However, we do not entrust individuals with nuclear weapons, confident that a few would abuse the responsibility to the detriment of the many. Similarly, we should not entrust all types of guns, and not every size of magazine, to everyone.

·         Curbing gun ownership is the gateway to curbing other rights. This claim entails two false assumptions. First, that people have a right to gun ownership. Although such a right may exist in U.S. law, there is no such natural right and most countries do not recognize a legal right to gun ownership. Law and ethics are different disciplines whose conclusions are not interchangeable. Second, curbing one right does not necessarily lead to a slippery slope. A classic example is that morally and legally people have no right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium when there is no fire. The imposition of that limit on free speech has not caused an erosion of the right to free speech.

·         Self-defense and love (and defense) of neighbor are biblical values. Christian theologians and ethicists debate whether self-defense is a biblical value. St. Augustine, for example, declared that killing in self-defense is morally wrong. Defense of neighbor is a biblical value. However, gun ownership is not essential for either defense of self or neighbor. Owners of guns are at a greater risk from suicide and having an accidental homicide in their household than are people who do not own guns. A community delegate responsibility for defense of self and neighbor to its police and military forces because this delegation has proven more effective and prevents more violence than does the alternative. Vigilantes, by any name, are immoral.

Miller concluded her column by quoting from a sermon that the Very Rev. Gary Hall, new Dean of Washington's National Cathedral, preached last week: “If we want to stand with Jesus and Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. . . . That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.”

I am not opposed to all gun ownership. Hunting, in the absence of natural predators, is necessary to cull animal populations, prevent disease, and reduce the number of vehicular accidents caused by wild animals. Some people enjoy the sports like skeet and target shooting.

On most military installations, residents are not permitted to keep guns in their residence but must store the weapon (and often the ammunition) in the installation's armory. This policy should make anyone who owns a gun re-examine their reason for having the gun and the manner in which they store it. Anyone who owns a gun should keep the weapon and all ammunition under secure lock when not in use; they should only permit individuals who have taken the appropriate weapons safety courses to use the weapon. Guns inappropriate for hunting or sports belong in museums (not private collections!) or police/military custody.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Growth or decay?

Erich Fromm in The Heart of Man characterizes human nature not as substance but as a contradiction, a battle between forces that push toward decay/regression and forces that push toward growth/progress. He identifies three sets of forces:

1.      Necrophilia vs. biophilia (Necrophilia entails loving love of death and destruction whereas biophilia connotes loving life. The terms, as is the case with all three pairs of forces, encompass far more than the sexual. For example, Fromm points to Hitler's anti-Semitism as evidence of Hitler's necrophilia.)

2.      Narcissism vs. love for neighbor

3.      Incestuous symbiosis vs. freedom (Incestuous symbiosis connotes a human who has not differentiated him/herself from mother/father. Fromm broadens and extends Freud's discussion of the Oedipal complex to include both genders and the need to differentiate self from parent. Freud's focus on the sexual relationship in his treatment of the Oedipal complex represented only one exaggerated way in which differentiation may fail to occur.)

In the syndrome of decay a person moves toward increased necrophilia, narcissism, and incestuous symbiosis; the syndrome of growth describes a person progressing toward biophilia, love for neighbor, and freedom.

Fromm's analysis appeals for several reasons. First, he recognizes the central importance of a healthy love for self that complements love for one's neighbor. Trying to balance these two motives pushes a person toward greater autonomy. Second, Fromm recognizes that life is dynamic, not static. Change may feel uncomfortable or disorienting, but life is inherently dynamic. Death is static. Third, Fromm's paradigm acknowledges that change is often for the good or the bad, i.e., change is infrequently neutral or indifferent. Fourth, although Fromm applies his framework only to individuals, the framework, to a lesser degree, can offer a helpful perspective for viewing change in organizations. The challenges I have described in The Episcopal Church (cf. Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff) represent the dynamic tensions between the forces of decay and growth.

Individual spirituality and organized religion at their best promote growth; at their worst, individual spirituality and organized religion embody decay and death. Humans celebrate Jesus, Gautama, and other major religious leaders precisely because these figures embody and teach the way of growth rather than of decay.

In my recently published book, Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations – available from Amazon and elsewhere), I identify four models Christianity has used to view other religions. Three models (the Christ Alone, Christ Essential, and Christ Universal) argue for Christian exclusivity and superiority. The fourth model, the Theocentric Model, contends that in this era in which people are increasingly aware of other religions and of members of those religions who have experienced liberating and enriching transformation, Christians need to regard their religion as one path among many, reinterpreting scriptural claims of exclusivity as expressions of love.

Attempts to hold on to narrow claims of exclusivity and superiority reflect the forces of decay at work and will necessarily fail. Engaging other religions in genuine dialogue offers opportunities to learn and therefore to grow; this is the path of progress, setting aside necrophilia (love of dead forms) and incestuous symbiosis (union with yesteryear's theology that birthed us but from which we must differentiate ourselves).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Epiphany thoughts

Popular artist Thomas Kinkade died on Good Friday of 2012 at age 54.

Many people love Kinkade's art, which belongs to the Lumnism School, an approach to art characterized by painting in a way that brings out the natural reflection of light in the paint. His works appear to emit an otherworldly "glow," which Kinkade believed evoked "the light of the world," Jesus Christ.

One part of Kinkade's story is his marriage to childhood sweetheart Nanette, with whom he has three daughters. At times, the marriage was strong and faith-filled. Kinkade has often hidden his wife's and his daughter's initials in his paintings.

A second part of Kinkade's story are the hundreds of people who have contacted him to tell him how his art brought them closer to God or helped them to overcome depression. Some people report that his art was instrumental in keeping them from committing suicide or in revitalizing a spiritual journey.

Sadly, a third part of Kinkade's story is his premature death from acute intoxication from alcohol and Valium. Kinkade's wife had sued for divorce two years earlier; he was living with his girlfriend of 18 months and spent his last hours drinking all night.

Kinkade's story offers several poignant reminders for Epiphany, the season of light, the season in the Church year when Christians celebrate God's gift of light in Jesus Christ to the world.

First, light is precious, free, and nobody can bottle, package, or preserve it. In other words, light is for the moment and must be cherished in the moment, for otherwise it perishes. Kinkade, whatever one thinks of his art, sought to share light and had some considerable personal experience of living in the light.

Second, for whatever reason(s), Kinkade moved from the light into a world of shadows and darkness. His life spun out of control. The scary reality is that this can happen to any of us, no matter how firmly anchored in the light we may think ourselves. Small steps and actions, seemingly innocuous, can introduce shadows; events beyond our control can block part or most of the light.

Third, the message of Epiphany is that shadows and darkness do not have the power to block the light permanently. God acts repeatedly to shine the light anew into our lives, to expose the shadows and darkness for the emptiness that they are.

In the prelude to the 1996 summer Olympics, runners carried the Olympic torch across the United States to Atlanta. Several times during the run, the torch went out. The first time was on a foggy day when two cyclists were carrying the torch across a drawbridge. When a steel joint in the bridge punctured one of their tires, the cyclists dropped the torch and the flame died.

Although this was probably an embarrassing moment for the riders, the moment was far from a catastrophe. A "mother torch" was kept in one of the support vans; the cyclists relit the torch they carried from the "mother torch," fixed the flat, and resumed their ride.

Relighting the torch is an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey during Epiphany. The good news of Epiphany is that people – and this can include all of us – who once walked in darkness now walk in light. Religious resources – scripture, meditation, prayer, music, art, community, helping others, etc. – are all means of relighting our inner torches and our paths.

The ironic tragedy of Thomas Kinkade's death is that the artist so many called "the painter of light," when lost in a world shadows and darkness, did not (perhaps could not, because of pride, self-image, or addiction) allow anyone, not even God, to re-illuminate his life and his path.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cycling to forgiveness

Look upon my adversity and misery and forgive me all my sin. (Psalm 25:17)

Cyclist Lance Armstrong made headlines last week when he publicly acknowledged, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, that he had used illegal drugs to help him win a record seven Tour de France races and other events. Armstrong's statements end years of denials and lawsuits contesting efforts by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to prove that he had used illegal drugs to achieve his victories. His comments are a window into the human psyche.

First, Armstrong's public remarks appeared to fall short of the requirements for a genuine and healthy spiritual confession. Commentators consistently described Armstrong as a man whose pride inhibited him from taking full responsibility for his actions. Perhaps most significantly, he expressed little responsibility for having bullied his staff into helping him and his teammates into using the illegal drugs with him.

Personal responsibility is an unpopular concept. Accepting culpability for one's actions generally depends upon having some degree of personal responsibility. Scholars from various disciples are asking important philosophical and scientific questions about the degree to which humans can actually exercise choice. Pundits and other opinion makers have turned that issue into a bandwagon, pointing to mitigating factors that range from genetics to environment, as reasons why a person – including Armstrong – may not be fully responsible for his or her actions. Typically, nobody knows, perhaps cannot know, the degree to which he or she is personally responsible for actions.

Nevertheless, real confession requires accepting personal responsibility. Pointing a finger elsewhere may unhelpfully shift the locus of responsibility from self to another. Conversely, accepting too much personal responsibility by attributing too little influence to genetics or other factors has only one potential downside: accepting a disproportionate amount of guilt.

Guilt for having erred can be a powerful motivator for change. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, assures people that God forgives the repentant sinner all sins, great and small (incidentally, other religious scriptures offer similar assurance). Who is a person – God's creature – to hold onto sin that God has forgiven or to wallow in guilt instead of accepting God's healing embrace?

Our current age's discomfort with guilt is partially a result of the Victorian age's misguided emphasis on guilt and the unlikeliness (if not impossibility) of forgiveness. Series 3 of Downton Abbey, broadcast on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre this season, features a former housemaid who became unemployable and so turned to prostitution to support herself after having had a child out of wedlock. Neither she nor the other characters – both upstairs and down – can forgive her for what she has done. This clearly distorts biblical teaching. Jesus forgave the woman charged with adultery that his opponents brought to him. The prophet Hosea married a prostitute.

Yet, trying to eliminate guilt is unhelpful and unscriptural. To some extent, major or minor, individuals are responsible for their actions. Taking more rather than less responsibility seems to promote healthier, more abundant living. Dealing forthrightly with mistakes and the attendant guilt also promotes healthy, more abundant living. No sin, no wrong, is unforgivable. (The Bible labels only one sin unforgivable, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; this phrase denotes a person consistently and persistently refusing to harken to God moving in her or his life, in which case God's forgiveness is impossible because the person refuses to accept God's life-giving, transformative love.)

Second, genuine confession opens the door to transforms guilt from an emotion that blocks growth and inhibits relationships into a catalyst for deeper, more genuine relationships and personal development. Armstrong told his thirteen-year-old son to stop defending him. What Armstrong, at least in public statements, has not done is explain to his thirteen-year-old son that he had erred and the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions. By modeling genuine confession, Armstrong could have established a deeper relationship with his son and been a better father by being a catalyst for his son's moral development.

Third, genuine confession leads, when feasible, to atoning actions. Atonement means attempting to set things right. Sometimes this is impossible, e.g., the one injured has died or refuses to communicate with the offending party. Many times atonement requires thinking creatively: how can the one who has erred make reparations to the injured, either directly (payment for theft or injury) or indirectly (help others to avoid the same error)? Too often Christianity wrongly downplays the importance of atonement, or even focuses exclusively on Jesus having atoned for all sin. The various Twelve Step movements (Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.) have attempted to correct this distortion with their eighth and ninth steps that direct an individual to make amends to anyone injured, except when doing so will cause further harm. Intriguingly, the Twelve Step programs incorporate this emphasis on making amends even though they concurrently teach that addiction is a disease rather than moral failure, i.e., take personal responsibility for the consequences of actions attributable to disease rather than sin.

Fourth, genuine confession entails repentance, i.e., a change in life. Hypocrites do the opposite. They apologize, express regret for their actions by saying sorry, and then continue to act as before. The genuinely repentant person engages in a good faith effort to change their behavior, even if the change is slow and inconsistent. Repentance frequently has multiple dimensions, including living one day or moment at a time, seeking help and support from others for the journey, starting over numerous times, etc.

Lance Armstrong achieved much of his success as a cyclist because he refused to accept failure. Had he confined his behavior to the legal and ethical, refraining from using banned drugs and bullying others into cooperating with his illicit acts, I think that he would still have achieved considerable success. Maybe he would only have won the Tour de France once instead of seven times. Maybe he would only have earned hundreds of thousands instead of tens of millions from product endorsements. But he would have avoided the humiliation and scandal of being a cheat.

What's next for Armstrong? Will he overcome his pride and make a genuine confession that will transform guilt into constructive atonement and healthy amendment of life? Or, will his pride and remarkable perseverance block his development as a human, inhibit his relationship with his children and others, and prevent him from becoming a positive role model for generations of athletes and others?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Further musings on the ecclesial fiscal cliff

My previous post, Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff, evoked considerable interest and comment. The comments seem to consist of four identifiable, sometimes intersecting, streams.


First, some responders do not seem to have grasped the severity of the problem I sought to describe. Yes, some congregations do great liturgy in traditional ways and are growing numerically. However, there are relatively few such congregations. The Episcopal Church (TEC), as a whole, is a denomination in which the majority of congregations are declining numerically while concurrently experiencing increasing financial struggles to pay full-time clergy and to maintain underutilized buildings. Those declines are facts, not assertions or hypotheses (cf. Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff for the data).


If doing traditional liturgy better – whether high or low, sung or said – were a panacea, then TEC would not find itself in this predicament. Traditional theology and Anglican emphases would have kept a majority of our congregations on a safe, healthy course. The minority of our congregations that are thriving will wisely stay their current course (though an unknown number of these congregations have already begun to reinvent themselves for the twenty-first century). Quite probably, a handful of other congregations have the resources and context in which adopting a similar course will bring renewal.


However, thriving traditional congregations are exceptions to the norm. They represent a great danger if they distract leadership – lay and clerical – from recognizing that for the preponderance of TEC congregations staying the course will result in certain shipwreck. Each year the shoals of empty pews and fiscal insolvency become visibly closer and more threatening. Furthermore, underutilized buildings and clergy constitute bad stewardship of the gifts that God’s people have given (remember Jesus’ parable of the talents).


Secondly, contrary to many comments, technology is neither the problem nor the solution. Technology is only a means to an end. The English Reformation built on the technology of its day (the printing press) to make the Bible and Book of Common Prayer more available to all. The twenty-first century Church should adopt contemporary technology as a means for achieving the same end, a point some commenters grasped. Additionally, the new technology can benefit the hearing and sight challenged, which I had not fully appreciated.


Crucially, focusing on arguments about the pros and cons of PowerPoint vs. tablets puts the proverbial cart before the horse. If anachronistic technology were the essential problem, congregations that adopted modern technology while retaining traditional liturgy and theology would consistently experience renewal. This does not happen. The problems are much deeper and more basic than a dated form of presentation.


Our liturgy and theology are themselves earthen vessels whose form and design date to previous centuries. The immanence of God’s loving presence, which Jesus’ followers recognized as so powerfully manifest in him, is not defined, inherently and perfectly, by Greek philosophical thought (some moderns, for example, find process philosophy a more useful vessel) or the Creeds (e.g., the subtle, once hotly contested, distinctions used to define Jesus’ identity as God and human are irrelevant to, and ignored by, many in our post-modern world).


Many post-modern people hunger for a genuine spirituality. They seek a path that will lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They seek, often without realizing it, the treasure – the immanence of God’s loving presence found in the Jesus’ narrative – that the Church’s earthen vessels hold. Unfortunately, our ecclesial vessels too often impede rather than aid access to that treasure. For example, why should our theology depend upon thought forms that pre-date Jesus? Why should our worship use seventeenth or eighteenth century music instead of contemporary music? Ironically, Martin Luther’s hymns provoked ecclesial outrage in Luther’s own day because they set religious verse to popular drinking tunes, exchanging dated earthen vessels for more contemporary ones.


Third, some of the comments to my last essay remarked upon the economic plight of clergy formed and educated for full-time ecclesial employment. TEC has a problem. Our seminaries continue to produce well-educated clergy, many with significant indebtedness, all having made considerable sacrifice to obtain an M.Div. degree, who are committed to serving a Church that has a diminishing need for their services.


Technological and cultural transitions frequently create economic hardship for employees of affected concerns. Perhaps the highest profile example of this are rust belt and garment industry workers who experienced economic hardship when employers closed antiquated facilities or moved factories to lower cost locations. TEC, and other Christian bodies, rightly support displaced workers and advocate that government and employers provide appropriate transition assistance.


We need to take similar steps to support and aid displaced clergy. Consolidating seminaries and rethinking M.Div. programs can help seminarians graduate debt free (see A word on our seminaries: Consolidate! in the Daily Episcopalian). Emphasizing to people entering the discernment process for ordination as a priest that opportunities for full-time ecclesial employment are diminishing is another important step. Bi-vocational and other, non-full-time forms of clergy deployment will become increasingly common.


Diocesan and congregational leaders should not expend all of a congregation’s resources in usually futile last-ditch efforts to resuscitate an already deceased congregation. Instead, they should earmark sufficient resources to fund one or two years of secular education for the congregation’s last full-time priest, preparing him/her for bi-vocational work or a new career. Second career clergy may require less assistance to resume a previous career. The Church repeatedly calls for secular employers to support displaced employees in this way. Practicing what we preach would both add credibility to our social witness and encourage our ordained leadership to speak and lead with refreshing boldness.


Fourth and finally, a few people who commented – some Episcopalian and some from other denominations facing their own impending ecclesial fiscal cliff – actually grasped my message. (I’d like to think that these few represent the “silent majority,” i.e., readers who grasped my message, perhaps who even understood it and were taking action before they read my post.) The ecclesial fiscal cliff is real and we move alarmingly closer every year. In too many congregations, attendance declines annually while expenses inexorably increase.


Thankfully, we do not have to go over this cliff. Worn-out earthen vessels neither signify the death of God nor God having abandoned the Church. But choosing not to go over the cliff requires replacing the Church’s tired, dated, though often familiar and well-loved (by me, among many others) earthen vessels. Otherwise, God will sing a new song and act in new ways to achieve God’s purposes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mass murders and gun control

My previous post described the changing face of tourism in Hawaii. Two additional observations merit comment. First, I see more homeless people here now than I did twenty years ago. The high cost of living causes many people in Hawaii to struggle financially and the temperate climate and generous welfare benefits make Hawaii more survivable for the homeless than many places in the other forty-nine states. The increased number of homeless people accentuates the disparity between the wealthy 1-2% who vacation here and the other 98-99% of the population.

Second, Oahu now has several shooting ranges where tourists may fire assault weapons and other firearms. Paid representatives distribute flyers in the heart of Waikiki for the several ranges, competing for tourist dollars with those distributing flyers for luaus, dive trips, and luxury shopping. The existence of these firearms galleries feels strangely incongruous in the land of aloha.

I’ll bet I have seen a dozen or more people advertising the shooting ranges. Not one of them solicited me or my partner. In fact, I did not see any of them solicit a Caucasian. All targeted Asians, perhaps to include anyone identifiable as Russian. I’m willing to bet that economics rather than racial prejudice motivated this profiling.

On the one hand, the existence of the shooting galleries highlights the second amendment’s stipulation of the right of individuals to own firearms and laudatory American entrepreneurialism.

On the other hand, the firearms galleries underscore the tragic gun culture that permeates American society. In London, fifteen years ago, I had parishioners who feared traveling to the United States because they believed that gun play – featured in gangster movies and Western TV shows– occurred everywhere much of the time. Although those fears were irrational and wildly overblown, the United States has far more mass murder than does any other developed nation:

Since 1982, there have been sixty-two mass murders in the United States. During that thirty-year period, there have been only three times—1983, 1985, and 2002—when the country made it from January 1st to December 31st without seeing such an incident. Last year, there were seven. (“Joe Biden and the gun control debate,” New Yorker, January 2013)

So some businesses make lemonade out of lemons, promoting tourism among Asian visitors, at least in part, as an opportunity to participate in our gun culture by legally firing weapons banned or severely controlled in their own country.

We have a problem with firearms in the United States. In Switzerland, which requires universal military service, most adult males have at least one firearm readily available. Yet murder rates are exceptionally low and mass murder is almost unknown. The American fascination with firearms, desire for immediate action, and frequent failure to exercise adequate self-control (the widespread abuse of alcohol is another manifestation of this third factor and one that compounds the problem with firearms) combine in a lethal cocktail that annually leaves more Americans dead from homicide and suicide than do car wrecks.

Can you picture Jesus, the prince of peace, carrying – even owning – a weapon? I can’t. However, I can picture him weeping, as he did when told of his friend Lazarus’ death, each time someone is killed by a firearm. What can we do?

First, we need to de-glorify guns. A gun does not make anyone a bigger, better, or safer person. Guns have a few practical uses, e.g., safe hunting. The military and some police also sadly need weapons to carry out their duties. But de-glorifying weapons could constructively begin with eliminating most police SWAT teams. These over-armed teams often unleash excessive firepower and bring an unhelpful urgency to situations, e.g., once the police have corned a suspect(s), police can apprehend the suspect(s) by allowing hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep to take their toll over several days rather than conducting an assault. Similarly, the military could eliminate armed guards for all four star officers except those actually in combat zones. Religious leaders, celebrities, the media, politicians, and others can all publicly and repeatedly speak and act in ways that de-glorify guns.

Arming school teachers or other staff, even assigning armed police officers to schools, is not the right answer. Such moves perpetuate the gun culture and, because these individuals will rarely receive sufficient, ongoing training to fire accurately only at real killers when under pressure, are likely to increase rather than to reduce the number of fatalities and wounded. More guns and more armed people will never change our gun culture.

Second, we should ban the sale to civilians of ammunition (e.g., hollow point rounds) and magazines (those that hold more than two or three rounds) that have no civilian use. Realistically, given the number of weapons owned more by individual Americans (more than in almost any country, including both Iraq and Afghanistan), imposing controls on ammunition and magazines is more likely to have beneficial results than is attempting to ban certain types of weapons.

Third, better background checks and waiting periods will help (though not entirely succeed) in keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons. States that have implemented these policies consistently have lower firearm fatality rates than do other states.

Fourth, we need to shift the political debate from politicians perceiving that gun control is the proverbial third rail of politics and therefore competing with one another for endorsement by the National Rifle Association to a public debate on the merits of striking the second amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms. The historical rational for the right – a defense against tyranny – is anachronistic today. The twenty-first century dependence of Syrians, Libyans, and others on foreign military assistance to overthrow their dictators amply illustrates that point.

I, for one, do not want to live in a nation in which private militaries are legal. Nor do I want to live in a country in which private citizens may own fighter jets, bombers, tanks, missiles, machine guns, and other implements of modern warfare. The idea of a militia armed with rifles defeating a tyrant’s armed forces is a romantic, anachronistic fiction and no longer a reality as it may have been in the eighteenth century.

The recent slaughter of school children and teachers in Newtown, CT, affords opportunity for us to act. Simply rehashing old ideas, most of which have proven ineffectual, is unhelpful. We need to acknowledge that we have wrongly glorified the gun and then take positive steps to build a safer society.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The changing face of tourism

I have lived in Hawaii, on Oahu, for five years: two and a half years in the early 1980s and two and a half years in the early 1990s. I’m now on my third visit to the Aloha state since I last lived here.

Tourism has changed significantly in the almost twenty year interval between the present and my last residency here. First, Waikiki has more Asian tourists. Second, the Caucasian tourists I overhear now speak a wider variety of languages, noticeably Australian English and various European ones including Russian. Third, chain restaurants from the mainland U.S. have pushed aside some of the local establishments. Fourth, luxury shopping (think Bulgari, Hermes, Tiffany, etc.) has become a mainstay activity. The Ala Moana Center, once a prominent shopping mall that catered primarily to residents, now features luxury boutiques filled with tourists.

Prior stops during this trip on Guam and Saipan found absolutely full hotels and dozens of luxury shops filled with tourists from China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. The Guam I remembered from visits in the early 1980s is no more. The sleepy backwater with just a couple of hotels has become a major tourist destination; the airport that I though overbuilt on brief transits to Saipan was a bustling hub when I arrived there for my morning flight to Honolulu.

Observing the changes has prompted some musings:

1.      The global economy is slowly reviving. Conversations with businesspeople on Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Oahu provide consistent anecdotal confirmation for this observation. This is good news for most people.

2.      Global warming has touched Hawaii, causing slightly higher tides that shift more sand on Waikiki beach. This is a warning sign. Unless we promote economic activity and growth in ways that respect the environment, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction and dishonoring God’s creation.

3.      A global economic elite is rapidly emerging. Members of this elite happily spend a thousand or more dollars on a brand name, designer luxury purse and other items whose price and recognizable design elements are primarily intended to announce status rather than to meet functional requirements. When I watch who shops in these stores, not just in the Pacific but also in Europe and elsewhere, I see few Americans – very few Americans. Part of the explanation may be that Americans value prominent displays of wealth and status less than some others do. But part of the explanation is that Americans are losing the global competition for economic dominance.

4.      The United States enjoys many advantages. Among those are our freedoms, our independence, our natural resources, and a heretofore broadly shared wealth with a very small semi-permanent elite. The U.S. economy is changing, veering toward the emergence of a permanent upper class, the wealthy 1-2%, who wields sufficient economic and political power that they are able not only to preserve but to increase their wealth and power from one generation to the next. This bodes ill for the social mobility of future generations (i.e., many fewer Horatio Algers), the health of democratic governance (no more government of, by, and for the people), and creative self-reliance (entitlements – remember the Roman grain dole – to pacify the masses rather than engaging people in constructive, creative wealth production).

Monday, January 7, 2013

Making tough choices

Almost thirty years ago, I visited Ground Zero in Nagasaki, Japan. Ground Zero marks the spot above which the second nuclear bomb dropped on Japan during World War II exploded. The bomb exploded, as designed, in the air because by doing so it caused more destruction than if the explosion had occurred upon the bomb hitting the ground.

Last week, I visited the airfield on Tinian from which the B-29 Superfortresses launched the nuclear attacks on Japan. I saw the bomb pits where the bombs were stored prior to loading, four 8500 foot long deserted runways (the other two runways are now the Tinian airport), and the shell of the air operations building.

Tinian’s population is under 2000 people supplemented by 400-800 temporary workers. A struggling casino/resort with 427 hotel rooms, several restaurants, a spa, pool, fitness facility, and a handful of small shops is Tinian’s primary economic engine. Tinian’s port was empty; only one small commercial fishing vessel (perhaps 40 feet in length) and several pleasure boats were visible. Most businesses seemed permanently shuttered. The miles of roadways stretching Tinian’s length and breadth were primarily legacies of WWII when the island hosted the world’s largest and busiest airport.

Nagasaki, by contrast, was a thriving commercial hub, larger and more prosperous than at any previous point in its history. The peace park at Ground Zero includes an obelisk marking Ground Zero and a museum that briefly summarizes the military campaigns of WWII, the devastation the nuclear bomb wrought, and the story of the city’s recovery.

Was the nuclear attack ethically justifiable? Before answering that question, two widely held shibboleths require debunking. First, the military alternative to employing nuclear weapons was not invading Japan but maintaining the blockade that was already in place. The allies prior to invading Okinawa had near total control of the air and effectively blockaded Japan by sea. The blockade was slowly starving Japanese to death. Furthermore, Japan no longer had an offensive military capability. Japan lacked both the natural resources to feed itself and to rebuild its capacity to wage war. All of this was known to U.S. military leaders.

From an ethical perspective, assessing the morality of the Okinawa invasion requires weighing the total costs to both sides of the invasion (number of fatalities and casualties, other fiscal and logistical costs, destruction and environmental ill effects, and intangible costs, e.g., increased racial or national prejudice) against an estimate of the same costs to both sides had the allies relied upon a blockade rather than invasion strategy.

Second, the U.S. and its allies had no urgent requirement to win the war. Victory was extremely important, but whether victory occurred in 1945, 1946, or 1947 was far less important. Many people and leaders among the allies felt an understandable urgency to end the war that nevertheless lacked a factual justification. War weariness and near-total commitment to the war effort had taken a toll, emotional and otherwise. The U.S. could have reduced its near-total war footing and implemented military personnel rotations while continuing to control the skies and blockade Japan. These steps would most likely have been less popular among the American citizenry than achieving a more immediate victory, but the best ethical choice can entail difficult, painful, and unpopular steps.

Were the nuclear attacks on Japan morally justifiable? I’m persuaded the attacks were morally justifiable, costing less in human and other costs than an extended blockade. Relying upon Just War Theory, the only ethical framework for assessing the morality of war that has gained significant traction among Christians and Western philosophers, the two jus in bello criteria of proportionality and non-combatant discrimination provide the framework for drawing that conclusion. The proportionality assessment consists in weighing the actual or potential costs associated with each of the three strategic options that the U.S. had (invasion, extended blockade, and nuclear attack).

Tragically, all three strategic options inescapably entailed significant violations of the noncombatant discrimination criterion, i.e., injury and death to noncombatants. Even though most of the dead and injured in the two nuclear attacks were civilians, no comparable military targets existed against which the U.S. could have used its two nuclear weapons. Like all siege warfare, the blockade of Japan probably had disproportional consequences for the civilian population, as the military prioritized the well-being of its personnel and the need to maintain Japan’s already severely limited war fighting capacity. As the invasion of Okinawa sadly proved, invading a densely populated island on which the populace greatly feared the allies and using WWII era air, ground, and naval forces and munitions against an entrenched enemy, many of whom were willing to fight to the death, caused large numbers of civilian casualties and fatalities. In short, one can reasonably argue that the nuclear attacks were the least bad alternative.

Musing about my visits to Nagasaki and Tinian left me with several thoughts:

·         Sometimes we have no good choices, but we may have ignored an alternative (e.g., the blockade) that offers the best available choice;

·         Confusing the urgent and the important can wrongly skew decisions, moral and otherwise;

·         Long-term success in life does not depend upon avoiding bad things (Tinian, a Japanese possession prior to WWII, suffered invasion; Nagasaki suffered a nuclear attack), but upon how the community responds in the aftermath (Tinian remains an economic backwater, Japan developed into a democratic and economic powerhouse);

·         These musings seem applicable to both individuals and communities.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Maureen Dowd had a terrific column, "Why, God?" in the New York Times on Christmas day. The column's actual author was Fr. Kevin O'Neil, a Roman Catholic priest who is a long-standing friend of her family. In her prefatory remarks, Dowd wrote that doctors were amazed that when Fr. O'Neil held the hand of her dying, unconscious brother her brother's blood pressure dropped noticeably. Obviously, Fr. O'Neil is a man of God who touches life in powerful if mysterious ways. Dowd requested Fr. O'Neil to address the question of how one can celebrate Christmas in the aftermath of the tragic and incomprehensible death of 20 children and 7 adults in Newtown, CT.

In part, Fr. O'Neil wrote:

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

I applaud Fr. O'Neil's understanding of the meaning of Christmas. On this tenth day of Christmas, I pray that my ministry is as powerful as his is.