Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday reflections on anger

Pontius Pilate was an angry man. Although Scripture does not explicitly paint that portrait, the biblical clues consistently point toward an angry Pilate:

·         Crucifixion was how the Romans executed criminals. The Jews could only execute people for blasphemy, and then they imposed the sentence by stoning.

·         All four gospels record that Jesus died by crucifixion, an ugly death offensive to devout Jews. If Jesus had died some other way, Christians would have assuredly preserved some hint of his dying in an alternative manner. Just the opposite is the case. The New Testament authors work hard, twisting passages out of context, to show the Jewish scriptures foreshadowing the messiah dying on a cross, e.g., Galatians 3:13.

·         Depictions of Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus' death are unbelievable. No Roman governor could disavow responsibility and hope to preserve the public respect and fear upon which Roman rule depended. Pilate disowning responsibility more likely reflects a literary attempt to make Jesus' story palatable to Romans and Roman authority. By the time the gospels were written, few additional Jews were accepting the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. Christianity's future was plainly among the Gentiles, not the Jews.

·         The sign that Pilate allegedly ordered attached to Jesus' cross – The King of the Jews – highlights the reason that Pilate ordered Jesus' death. Pilate regarded Jesus as an insurrectionist who plotted to overthrow Roman rule, wanting to replace it with himself as king of an independent Jewish kingdom.

·         The threat that Jesus purportedly posed to Roman authority in general, and Pilate's authority in particular, angered Pilate. When threatened, humans react with a fight or flight response. Pilate was not about to flee, yielding his province to some petty rebel. And had Pilate found this option tempting, the sobering reality of imperial accountability would have caused him to abandon the idea immediately. No. Jesus' perceived rebellious defiance would have triggered the fight response, angering Pilate and sealing Jesus' fate.

·         Alternatively, Pilate may have been a sadist or sociopath who ordered Jesus to die because he enjoyed exercising his power to have people killed. Or, perhaps Pilate was so emotionally detached that life and death decisions did not affect him. But these hypotheses seem much less likely, and fit the existing data less well, than does the theory that Pilate was angry.

Anger is a defensive reaction that expresses frustration at one's lack of control over people or situations. Anger readily translates into aggressive behavior directed at the perceived source of frustration, whether self, another person, or even an inanimate object. And if afraid to direct anger at the actual cause of frustration, a person will channel their anger in a different direction.

Typified by Pilate ordering Jesus' death, sinful anger destroys rather than creates life. Ironically, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified anger as the second stage in the grief process. Unable to restore life to the deceased, the bereaved become angry with the deceased for abandoning them.

Obviously, not all anger is sin. Righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice that threatens harm. Psychologists have discovered that anger floods the brain with a chemical that heightens alertness, improves thinking, and enhances physical abilities. In other words, the distinction between righteous anger and sinful anger is that sinful anger destroys life whereas righteous anger helps to preserve it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sloth - the forgotten sin

Sloth, the English term for acedia (Latin) and akedeia (Greek), denotes a baleful indifference or laziness. Aldous Huxley called it the primary affliction of this age.

Re-reading Thoreau's Walden his description of a neighbor as "an honest, hard-working, but shiftless man" impressed me as a great description of a slothful person. The neighbor found countless excuses to avoid work and activities that would build a better life for his family and himself. Today, it's easy to picture the slothful person glued to a television or spending countless hours playing video games. Moralists condemned novels in the first centuries after the advent of printing as an indulgent of the slothful, among other reasons.

Recreation is not sloth. Recreation consists of activities through which one experiences an enjoyable and renewing change of pace. Kathleen Norris has written, "Those who suffer from acedia are unable to rejoice in beauty or in the gift of life."

Clinical depression is not sloth. Clinical depression, with its associated lassitude and negative emotions, is a diagnosable, pathological condition. Treatment can sometimes cure, and otherwise generally alleviate the symptoms associated with clinical depression.

Conversely, the Protestant work ethic, with its unrelenting push for constant productive activity, is the opposite extreme of sloth. The Protestant work ethic, in its simplest form, represents a misguided attempt by an individual to demonstrate through consistent moral behavior, persistent hard work, and increasing material prosperity that he or she is among God's chosen, elected by God for the blessing of eternal life.

This is Norris' self-confession and a powerful description of sloth:

I have always been an industrious person, good at meeting deadlines. My strength has always been that of the woman warrior, good in a crisis, good at striving against the odds. But as so often happens when God sets about to change us, this year my strength became my weakness. I could function, but not feel. I could generally meet my responsibilities as a caregiver to my husband and my dying father, and help support my mother, but I felt dead inside. I dreaded waking in the morning, and sometimes went straight from bed to the couch, where I would watch television or do crossword puzzles until it became absolutely necessary to rouse myself to action. The hateful 'noon-day demon' of the desert monks had found me in the lush environs of Honolulu, and made me unable to respond to the beauty of the planet. I was a far weaker soul than I cared to admit, a person pathetically subject to the sin of sloth. ("Plain old sloth," Christian Century, January 11, 2003, 9)

What part of you is dead? What causes you to crawl on to a couch and to try to lose yourself in a TV, a cheap novel, or endless puzzles? When do you lose your zest for life? Dying from sloth, unlike most of the other deadly sins, is a slow death, as indifference and laziness progressively erode one's spirit.

The cure for sloth? Easter, i.e., resurrection from death, the transformation of one's life through an encounter with the holy. For those who struggle with sloth, I recommend reading Kathleen Norris' Acedia and me.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lust and gluttony

Two of the seven deadly sins – lust and gluttony – emphasize bodily appetites. Of course, some lust and some gluttony involve coveting, wanting to enjoy a sexual relationship to which one has no right or privilege or a food that belongs to another. Lust and gluttony may also express greed: an insatiable appetite for more.

Both lust and gluttony receive too little attention today.

Lust properly denotes wanting to possess another person sexually The word's broader connotations that encompass strong desires for food, drink, money, power, etc., all of which are forms of envy, greed, or gluttony.

Morally, lust is wrong because it dehumanizes the object of one's lust, reducing that person to an instrumental means of satisfying the luster's sexual appetite. Mutual passion is not lust, distinguished by both persons' equal interest in giving and receiving pleasure.

Unfortunately, the presumption that women are male possessions permeates the Bible's condemnations of male lust are riddled. In Scripture, for example, adultery is wrong because it violates the claim of the father on unmarried and the husband on the married woman. This dated and incorrect view of women does not negate the more basic rejection of lust as dehumanizing.

Contemporary condemnations of pornography, prostitution, and sexualized product promotions most helpfully emphasize that dehumanization of a person for the sexual gratification of another is wrong. Even when the person being dehumanized participates freely and receives generous remuneration for doing so, the practices are wrong because they erode human dignity and worth.

Concomitantly, lust dehumanizes the person who lusts. Lust diminishes aspects of being human that differentiate us from other animals, especially our self-awareness or self-transcendence, our ability to love and to be loved, and our limited autonomy. Lust enslaves one to her or his passion, often causing a person to do acts later regretted. In lust, a person is less than fully human.

Gluttony has a similar effect on the glutton. Eating, rather than sex, becomes the driving passion. The glutton's hunger diminishes self-control (part of limited autonomy), maybe the ability to love and to be-loved (certainly true for the morbidly obese unable to move without assistance), and the aesthetic sense (quantity not quality of food is important). As with lust, that which diminishes one's humanity ultimately destroys one's spirit.

Today, people often emphasize the physically destructive aspects of lust and gluttony more than the spiritual and relational issues. Lust puts one at increased risk of having sexually transmitted diseases. Gluttony leads to obesity and increased odds of health problems and dying prematurely. The deadly sins are illustrative of how the spiritual wisdom of the world's religions has much of value in spite of being found in the often anachronistic, inaccurate, and incomplete vessels of ancient scriptures.

How can the person, whose life is spinning out of control, caught in the grip of lust or gluttony (or envy or greed) experience transformation, returning from death to life?

Twelve Step programs, such as Overeaters Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous, are one path that many people have found helpful. For the glutton, as for the person trapped in a life define by lust, envy, or greed, what began as sinful overindulgence can become a pathological pattern over which the person has no power or control. These powerful, spiritual programs recognize that what may have begun as sin, can become pathological illness. Sadly, no Twelve Step program exists for the pathologically greedy.

Community offers another path out of gluttony, lust, envy, and greed that many people have found helpful. The power of community has received particular emphasis among commercial organizations formed to help people take control of their eating, e.g., Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Healthy religious congregations of all major religious traditions have provided countless people essential lifesaving assistance in coping with deadly sins, helping people to regain their humanity by focusing on God and others.

Yet a third path, perhaps the most difficult, is for the individual tempted or ensnared by the deadly sins to embark on his or her spiritual journey in solitude, refracting personal experience and struggles through the prism of other people's experiences, encountered in oral or written form.

Only a fool thinks I can do this alone; I don't need any help. From birth, we have leaned on others to learn how to walk, to talk, to drive a car, and to live. My parents, when frustrated by my stubborn independence, would remind me that I could go through life the hard way, learning everything for myself, or the easy way, learning from others and their mistakes. The interiority of the spiritual life, and the inability to experience another's interior life, lulls the unsuspecting into thinking that the spiritual journey is an exception to learning from others.

Greed, envy, lust, and gluttony destroy a person's own humanity. They are indeed deadly sins. What is your path to freedom, your path to living more fully and abundantly?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Iraq 10 years later

Ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. After a quick, relatively easy conquest, the costly occupation seemed to stretch interminably. Casualties, Iraqi, allied, and American, mounted. Violence first spiraled out of control, then receded, but, post-U.S. withdrawal, has again begun to increase. Twenty attacks rocked Baghdad on the tenth anniversary of the invasion's launch.

Iraqis appeared as divided – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds – as ever. Their nominally democratic government appears teetering on the brink of becoming another dictatorship, with Nouri al-Maliki at the helm instead of Saddam Hussein. Almost assuredly, more Iraqis have died in the last ten years than would have died had Saddam continued to rule.

To achieve these results, the U.S. frittered away more than $1 trillion in nation building efforts. The withdrawal of U.S. troops saw many of these incomplete projects abandoned or significantly reduced in scope. Reports from U.S. government auditors and inspectors reveal widespread waste, fraud, and abuse.

For a fuller discussion of why Iraq is such a mess, read my book, Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War.

The United States mistakenly acts as if it can solve many of the world's problems, a form of hubris, which is one of Christianity's seven deadly sins. Even with the best intentions and huge amounts of resources, the U.S. has developed very poor nation building skills. Furthermore, humans know little about how to transform tribal cultures into democracies, centrally controlled economies into market driven economies, and prejudice (religious, ethnic, etc.) into genuine tolerance and respect for the equal worth and dignity of all.

Proud nations pursuing their national interests, like self-centered behavior by prideful individuals, offer no assurance of benefiting anyone else. What works for my nation or for me will not necessarily be desirable or beneficial when applied in a different context. In Iraq, the pursuit of oil and elimination of a perceived enemy (Saddam), led the United States to actions that have had the undesired and unintended consequences of moving Iraq more closely into Iran's orbit, destabilizing the Middle East (e.g., by fueling Kurdish national aspirations and Iraqi support for Syria's government), and jeopardizing global oil supplies.

Iraq, after decades of tyranny and with few national institutions, little sense of national identity, and a tribal culture, was unprepared for democracy. U.S. hubris resulted in the U.S. rarely viewing or interacting with Iraqis as equals, instead preferring self-centered paternalism. The occupation's outcome was fully predictable.

Reflecting on Iraq ten years after the U.S. invaded, it's easy to understand why Christianity deemed pride one of the seven deadly sins.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Thinking and writing in Ethical Musings about greed, prompted me to reread Henry David Thoreau's Walden, in which he promotes the idea of living simply. One of my high school English courses had required reading Walden. I don't know if that is still true. In retrospect, I wonder if we, high school students in Maine, read Thoreau because he was a New England writer, his work on civil obedience was timely in a college community riven by controversy over the Vietnam War and the draft, or if the teacher appreciated his style and philosophy.

If you are unfamiliar with Walden, I commend it as a collection of reflective, insightful essays. For two years, Thoreau lived in a cabin that he constructed on the shore of Walden Pond. He rarely worked for money, instead surviving by growing his own food. He was a squatter. Both his cabin and garden were on somebody else's land. No rent was due, he believed, because his "improvements" added value to the land.

Several of Thoreau's emphases resonate deeply with me. First, he was right that stuff, whether possessions or wealth, inevitably burdens people with time-consuming chores and, often, financial expenditures. These collectively may include maintenance, cleaning, taxes, insurance, storage, and the need to generate income to pay those expenses. All of that takes time.

Second, Thoreau most cherished the time that he spent contemplating life, the cosmos, and ideas. Having lots of stuff deprives one of the time for contemplation, a loss that few people even recognize. He enjoyed reading books and writing; he found manual labor satisfying. But his real joy seems to have been in the freedom to savor each moment of the day as he desired.

Third, Thoreau appears to have lived an intentional life, choosing his lifestyle and how he used his time rather than allowing the tides of social conventions or public opinion. He chose clothes for their practicality, food for his perception of its nutritional value and affordability, and accommodation that suited him.

Unlike Thoreau, I don't want to swim in a pond in lieu of a shower or bathtub. Using a pond might cut my water bills and reduce my need for income. But ponds, even one in North Carolina's piedmont, are sometimes too cold for my comfort.

On the other hand, reading Thoreau reminds me of important values. I do not want wealth and power because achieving them carries too high a cost. I value my time. I want to savor my minutes and hours. Like Thoreau, my wealth is intangible and beyond price.

Psychologists distinguish between envy (one of Christianity's seven deadly sins) and jealousy. Jealousy consists of wanting what someone took from you; envy denotes desiring something that you have never possessed. Limited envy can fire ambition and improve achievement (envious people pay closer, more accurate attention to people whom they envy). In these ways, envy produces an effect similar to that of limited greed.

However, unfettered envy erodes social bonds. Cooperative relationships deteriorate into negative ones (betrayal, animus, etc.). Active envy saps the strength of the envier, further disadvantaging the individual and community. (To read more about what psychologists have discovered regarding envy, cf. John Tierney, Envy May Bear Fruit, but It Also Has an Aftertaste, New York Times, October 10, 2011.

In the Christian tradition, envy is also known as coveting. One (the Protestant and Anglican versions – includes people and things) or two (the Roman Catholic version – separate bans against coveting people and things) of the Ten Commandments prohibit coveting. The numbering depends upon how one enumerates the commandments against having no other gods and idols as one or two commandments.

Spiritually, both envy and greed kill, hence the label deadly sins. Both kill because they suck a person into moral quicksand. No matter how much wealth or power one has, no matter how high in the pecking order one climbs, somebody else is – or soon will be – even higher. The world's most powerful person can only hold the position for a maximum eight years. Forbes' estimate of who is the world's wealthiest person often changes each year. The world's most popular entertainer, best-paid athlete, etc., all change even more frequently. Vanity is fleeting and worthless, says Ecclesiastes.

If greed and envy are poor ambitions around which to construct one's life, what should a person seek that she or he might truly flourish?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Musings about death

Four friends are talking about death. One of them asks the other three, "When you're in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?"

The first one replies, "I'd like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and loved my family."

The second one says, "I'd like to hear that I was a wonderful parent and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children."

The last one answers, "I'd like to hear them say … Look, he's moving!"[1]

Today's gospel reading, which is unusual in that all four biblical accounts of Jesus' life include similar anecdotes, confronts us with the universal reality of death.[2] The incident, as John describes it, has a Greek or Roman flavor, with Jesus and the guests reclining at a dinner given in his honor, similar to a dinner party that our family or we might host for a visiting dignitary. Things are going well. The food is good, the wine palatable and plentiful, and the conversation pleasant. Then Mary, already infamous for not helping with kitchen chores, takes a pound of a special perfume normally used only for burial preparations, anoints Jesus' feet with it, and then, like a brazen hussy, unbinds her hair and wipes his feet with it. Her actions offended common decency and were, at best, a servant's task, not what a host did. She ruined the party, especially since the subject of death probably made people as uncomfortable then as today.

This strange incident highlights three important ideas.

First, nobody can escape death. Jesus had to die for the same reason that you and I have to die: he was born. Don't capitulate easily or unnecessarily to death. Yet denying death's inevitability is equally harmfully, although our culture often foolishly attempts it. The United States wastes enormous sums on medical treatments that increase a dying person's suffering without a realistic chance of improving that person's quality or length of life. Hospice care offers a positive alternative. Similarly, taking the initiative, while in robust health, to formalize your desires regarding end of life healthcare issues such as when you do or do not want to be placed on life support equipment, promotes the dignified dying and good stewardship appropriate to Christian living.

Jesus had no reason to believe that he would peacefully die in his sleep. Indeed, biblical scholars generally view this morning's gospel as a literary foreshadowing of Jesus' impending death just a week later. Anthropological and psychological research indicates that all humans appear to fear their own deaths.[3] Some scientists hypothesize that human spirituality developed because of anxiety stemming from an awareness of death's inevitability.[4] The transience of this life naturally makes us contemplate the possibility of another life.

Awareness of our own mortality points to a second insight in today's gospel: Mary's gift of nard to Jesus reminds us to cherish the time that we have with our loved ones and friends.

The Rev. David Roper has never forgotten a funeral that he conducted for a small child. While waiting for the family to gather, a little boy walked up to the tiny casket and gazed in. The boy was obviously distressed, and Roper wanted to comfort him. "Your little sister is with Jesus," the minister said.

The boy burst into tears. "I don't want her to be with Jesus," he sobbed, "I want her here with me so we can play!" They hugged and both cried.[5]

A person can only receive a gift – whether shared experiences, emotional intimacy, or something more tangible – while living. Mary's gift of the expensive perfume expressed her great love for Jesus and her fear that his death might be in the offing. She also gave Jesus the gift of an opportunity to speak of his death, a gift that many dying persons greatly treasure.

History, always written by the victor, gives Judas a bad rap. Assume that he genuinely desired to care for the poor, an aim consonant with the preponderance of the biblical witness; we generalize John's comment that we will always have the poor at great peril. Instead, the tension between Mary and Judas is one that we continue to experience: should we use our limited resources to love and care for our nearest and dearest or for our more distant, less well-known neighbors?

Third, carpe diem, i.e., seize the day! Few people ever have an accurate idea of when, much less how, they will die. Part of death's terror is its unpredictability. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the first psychiatrists to explore death and dying, reported that the greatest lesson to be learned, according to the dying, was to "Live so you do not have to look back and say, God, how I have wasted my life."[6]

In his book, Tuesdays with Morrie, journalist Mitch Albom shares the things he learned from his weekly visits with his former professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Many of Morrie and Mitch’s conversations centered on how Morrie was facing his eventual death. One day, Morrie remarked, “People see me as a bridge. I’m not alive as I used to be, but I’m not yet dead … I’m on the last great journey here – and people want me to tell them what to pack.”[7]
We Christians journey, not just through Lent but also through life, with Jesus as our guide, our bridge, the one who tells us what to pack. Today's gospel reminds us to pack our lives full of love for God and neighbor, experiencing fully life in the present and confident about life in the future.

(Sermon preached at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2013)

[1] Source unknown.
[2] John 12:1-8; Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50.
[3] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 132.
[4] Lee M. Silver, Challenging Nature (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 67.
[5] David Roper, A Burden Shared, (Nashville, TN: Discovery House Publishers, 1991), p. 29.
[6] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. xix.
[7] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 33.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greed as "intense and selfish desire for wealth, power, or food." Spiritually, the Christian Church identifies greed as one of the seven deadly sins. For the greedy person, wealth and power have become ends in themselves, rather than being the means to flourishing, for self, others, and the world.

Identifying extreme examples of greed can be relatively straightforward. For example, Luke's gospel includes Jesus' story about a wealthy farmer whose greed knows no limits, who continually builds barns to store his ever-increasing agricultural produce, but who unexpectedly dies before he can enjoy his wealth. In the prelude to the 2008 housing bubble bursting, greed led mortgage underwriters to abandon sound business practices, writing mortgages to home buyers that the buyers patently could not afford to pay and then re-selling those mortgages to investors without fully and accurately describing the quality of the mortgages.

Greed may also be more mundane, perhaps more insidious, e.g., a non-hungry child knowingly taking more cookies than his or her fair share, thereby depriving one or more others of their fair share. (Adults act in similar ways!)

Furthermore, greed denotes desire and not necessarily results. Greedy people may be poor, possess little power, or be hungry, but consumed with an overwhelming desire to possess more and more.

Yet, as the definition of greed stipulated, not all self-serving acts constitute greed. Market economies depend upon people wanting to increase their income or wealth as their engine of growth. Psychologists and some biologists question whether all human actions are, at least to some degree, intended to benefit the self.

Christianity's basic ethical injunction is that we love our neighbor as we love our self, implicitly recognizing the inevitability if not importance of loving self-love. The newly elected Pope chose the name Francis, an allusion to Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis will certainly not live in poverty nor give away all of the Roman Catholic Church's wealth and possessions. This Lent, ask yourself, what is a healthy, Christ-like balance of self-interest with concern for others?

As Jesus' story about the wealthy farmer poignantly illustrates, death will separate us from any wealth or power we have accumulated. Wealth and power are useful only as a means to an end, a life of flourishing for self and others. As you prepare to file your income tax forms this year, ponder how much wealth and power are enough?

Are your answers honest ones? Or, have you succumbed to the moral hazard of deceiving yourself about your real motivation?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Drones and targeted killings - Part 4

MQ-9 Reaper

A reader, in response to my first three posts on drones and targeted killing (Part 1, 2, and 3), sent this to me:

I don’t disagree with your framework, but it only discusses targeted killing, not “collateral damage.” According to reports, a matrix supposedly exists that allows determination of collateral damage in proportion to the “value” of the target. How can we or any other country justify killing innocent people in order to eliminate a targeted individual?

After I received that comment, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) conducted his thirteen-hour filibuster of the Senate's vote to approve President Obama's nomination of John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This quote captures the essence of Paul's objection:

I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.

This post addresses both of those issues.

First, a drone strike against anyone on U.S. soil is wrong, unless circumstances dramatically change. Drones, as I have previously noted, employ relatively large warheads that create large explosions and frequently produce much collateral damage. The Philadelphia, PA, police department employed excessive force (bombing a Philadelphia neighborhood) against MOVE activists in 1978, a decision that still haunts that police department and city. Using a drone to kill people as part of a police action would create even larger, more consequential political reverberations. More importantly, from my perspective, police actions that wantonly disregard human life by employing excessive force are immoral.

Furthermore, citizens, as Sen. Paul emphatically recognizes, have rights that a drone attack would preemptively erase. Indeed, the law generally, and rightly, extends constitutionally guaranteed rights to anyone on U.S. soil. The President's responsibility is to enforce and to protect not to abrogate the law and Constitution.

Is an armed rebellion that poses an existential threat to the Union's survival, as did the Civil War, conceivable? Barely, but in such a circumstance use of a drone attack against American citizens in open rebellion might be an appropriate component of quashing the insurrection. However, short of some such scenario, a drone attack against American citizens on U.S. soil is categorically wrong, politically, morally, and legally.

Second, targeted killings frequently entail weighing the death of one person (a justifiable killing under the conditions that I stipulated in my third post) against the deaths of one or more other individuals killed or injured in the attack, as well as any damage to property, international relations, etc. (the collateral damage). No matrix can cover every conceivable contingency.

For example, if the one person, regardless of past actions (the purpose of the attacks is not punishment but defense), has become isolated and ineffectual, then killing that person does not warrant any amount of collateral damage (except to that person's property).

Alternatively, if the person, who has yet to injure anyone, is the critical lynch pin in an attack deemed highly likely to succeed, that is apparently impervious to disruption once the person departs his/her present location, and will probably kill thousands using a nuclear weapon, a targeted killing that creates substantial collateral damage (dozens of casualties, much property damage, etc.) is morally justifiable.

In between those two scenarios are permutations that defy enumeration. Consequently, authority to conduct a targeted killing mission should

·         Not rest exclusively with an individual nor entail applying a simple checklist. Human judgment is essential. And because human judgment is fallible and humans tend to abuse power, the authority to launch a targeted killing mission requires post-attack review. Officials who abuse their authority should face the legal consequences of their malfeasance. Giving an official the power of life and death is one situation in which holding the official fully accountable after the fact is morally essential.

·         Emphasize apprehension instead of killing and employment of minimum required forces to provide further safeguards designed to avoid unnecessary collateral damage.

·         Weigh the full consequences of a decision – costs measured in human, financial, international relations, etc. This will further reduce the likelihood of abuses. Decision makers unlikely to be swayed by accidentally killing a few innocents in order to kill a high value target may consider the consequences for future cooperation, bad publicity, and other similar factors more highly.

·         Value all human lives equally. The lives of potential collateral damage count for as much as potential American casualties in any attack that the target might aid. The proportionality calculation is straightforward but frustratingly complex: how many will die/be injured in an attempted target killing versus how many will die/be injured if the attempted target killing is not made.

·         Remember that most terrorists conduct or organize few attacks and that all terror groups eventually die. Not launching a targeted killing mission will very seldom enable the terrorist, or the terrorist's group, to conduct an attack that would not have happened if the targeted killing had succeeded. Terror groups almost never disappear because of decapitation, i.e., killing the group's leaders. Future opportunities to apprehend or kill the suspect will almost invariably present themselves. In other words, apprehending or killing the suspect is important but not necessarily urgent, which is a distinction frequently lost in the action-oriented cultures of the military and the intelligence community. Calculations of collateral damage should always heavily favor not conducting the attack.

·         Resist the temptation to reduce the go/no-go decision to a matrix. There are too many contingencies and too much judgment involved to give officials an easy way of disclaiming responsibility through reliance on a simplistic chart.

·         Belong to a person, or better yet, small committee who cannot approve adding an individual to the list of those approved for targeted killings. Separating these two key responsibilities provides a check against either party abusing his/her power.

This list of protocols may be incomplete, but it offers a starting point for improving the ethics, legality, and multiple outcomes (human, political, international, financial, etc.) of targeted killing missions.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moving the Episcopal Church's national offices

The report, Locating the Episcopal Church Center for Missional Strategy by senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) contained a couple of surprises.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) is, at least in part, a hierarchical organization. General Convention (GC) sits at the apex (or in the vortex, depending upon one's view!) of our denominational decision making process. Although some of GC's decisions are advisory or exhortatory, some decisions (for example, changes to the canons) are authoritative.

The 2012 GC passed D016, which states, in full: "That it is the will of this Convention to move the Church Center headquarters away from the Church Center building at 815 2nd Avenue, New York." D016's intent seems straightforward, especially in view of the House of Deputies' debate of D016 and related resolutions. Discussion emphasized the multifaceted issue of finances (reducing overhead to make money available for mission) as well as deputies desiring a more central location for TEC's offices.

Some deputies advocated modifying D016 to stipulate that TEC sell its building at 815 Second Avenue before General Convention 2015 met. After spirited exchanges, the Deputies defeated mandating a deadline, deeming it financially unwise, e.g., potential buyers, having done their homework and learned of the deadline, might wait until the deadline approached and then low-ball their offers, preventing TEC from obtaining the building's full fair market value.

DFMS management proposing that the Executive Council revisit the decision to sell 815 Second Avenue required commendable chutzpah. I, for one, do not want TEC staffers to defer unhesitatingly and unthinkingly to every GC decision, an abdication of their duties as TEC stewards and servants. However, Locating the Episcopal Church Center for Missional Strategy would have been timelier and more credible if issued prior to GC 2012. The idea of relocating the Church Center is not new. Good stewards look ahead, assess alternatives, and convey recommendations to decision makes in a timely manner.

Their rationale for concluding that TEC should maintain its Church Center at 815 Second Avenue in New York is not persuasive. Careful exegesis of the report suggests that staffing issues weighed more heavily in reaching that conclusion than did the other three factors (partnerships, justice, and maximizing financial resources for mission).

TEC does not exist to support its staff. TEC staff members, like diocesan and parish staffs, are servants of the Church. Being a servant is not always easy. Working conditions may be demanding and the pay lousy. But job satisfaction, serving God, and laboring alongside God's people, not the working conditions or pay, make the job worthwhile.

If relocating TEC's Church Center prompted 70% or more of the gifted and dedicated staff who now work there to seek employment elsewhere, this would temporarily disrupt mission. Yet other major organizations have relocated out of New York City to another city and continued functioning, sometimes even improving effectiveness and efficiency.

Suggesting that Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) might close if forced to relocate was particularly troubling. If EMM's very survival depends upon one key staffer, or even a handful of them, then EMM is already in trouble. What happens if that staffer(s) retires, suffers an extended illness, or voluntary resigns?

The report explicitly assumes that relocation would result in a two-tier salary structure. Why make the assumption? Alternatively, TEC could reduce the salaries of personnel who relocate to a level commensurate with what new hires with the same qualifications and experience would earn. Some firms and non-profits that relocate adopt this approach.

Transitions can be difficult, particularly in this economy when not relocating requires finding a new job. If the Church Center relocates, TEC can and should fulfill its obligations to current DFMS staff through appropriate relocation assistance, generous personal support, severance pay, etc. Additionally, organizational development studies have repeatedly demonstrated that good executive leadership can engender positive staff morale in even the most trying of circumstances, including relocation.

The DFMS report cites preserving important missional partnerships as the primary justification for retaining the Church Center at 815 Second Avenue. On the one hand, GC 2012 may have passed D016 with insufficient information to assess the consequences for TEC's New York based missional partnerships. On the other hand, perhaps GC 2012 – or the Spirit speaking through GC – expected that relocation would create new missional partnerships, incarnating different priorities and involving different constituencies. In his recent Daily Episcopalian post, "There's an elephant in the living room—now what?" Eric Bonetti's response to the DFMS report highlights TEC's need to change. Maintaining status quo priorities and partnerships will not reverse TEC's steep, persistent numerical and fiscal declines. General Convention, not the DFMS staff, sets missional priorities.

Furthermore, phones, email, videoconferencing, and other technologies enable close cooperation without requiring physical co-location. At least one other denomination successfully moved its national offices out of New York to another city. The DFMS report acknowledges, even with transition costs and a two-tier salary structure, financial savings. Presumably, these savings allow for the costs of staff travel to meetings in New York City necessary to maintain important mission partnerships.

The report's discussion of justice emphasized the King Holiday, marriage equality, gun violence, and immigration. These are important issues and I strongly support the executives' views on all four. However, TEC exists and ministers within all jurisdictions. Identifying four particular issues as litmus tests for possible Church Center locations is unreasonable when God calls TEC to bear a global prophetic witness. Litmus tests imply that Episcopalians should relocate to jurisdictions that pass those tests. Instead, God might just be calling TEC to locate its Church Center in a city that fails the public policy tests so that TEC can work more proactively and effectually to change public policies.

The report's financial analysis summary is at best frustratingly vague. Some of the vagueness is attributable to what the report labels proprietary information, a term that presumably connotes the estimated fair market value of the building at 815. After wisely investing assets, paying relocation costs, and even establishing a two-tier DFMS staff compensation structure, relocation increases funds available for mission. Critically, the report omits any indication of relocation's relative financial advantage or the estimated number of years before we realize that gain. Without that data, a meaningful cost-benefit analysis of relocation versus remaining in New York is impossible. The omission of this information reinforces the impression that staff concerns, not finances, justice issues, or preserving missional partnerships, were key in executives concluding that DFMS should retain its offices at 815 Second Avenue.

Choosing a location for the DFMS staff offices is really a secondary issue. New York is a great city and many people deem it a wonderful place to live. The same is true of many other cities. Headquarters of major corporations and other large organizations literally dot the nation. Mission, as the DFMS executives write, is the primary issue.

One motto that guides many entrepreneurs is carpe diem, seize the day. Perhaps God is calling Episcopalians to again be spiritual entrepreneurs, walking in the footsteps of the twelve disciples and of William White, Samuel Seabury, and other early American Episcopalians.

Is God calling TEC to sing a new song in the twenty-first century? What new missional priorities might God envision for us? What new models of corporate ministry might God have in mind, e.g., models more dependent upon volunteers and part-time personnel than full-time staff? What might the national Church look like in a world that relies less upon brick and mortar structures and more upon virtual realities? Would housing DFMS staff offices in underutilized parish buildings scattered across the nation generate rental income and direct mission involvement for those parishes, reduce DFMS overhead, and trigger new, almost unimaginable, missional partnerships that reenergize God's people?

New York's real estate market has remained surprisingly strong during the present economic downturn. Is D016 a unique window of opportunity to capitalize upon both the Church's financial assets and the forces for institutional change that any relocation will inevitably unleash? What is the Spirit saying to God's people? Or has the Spirit already spoken through D016 in unexpected ways?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Campaign contributions

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering at least one case in which the plaintiff is contesting laws that establish limits on campaign donations. On the one hand, the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, press, and association. Campaign contributions are arguably elements of all three. On the other hand, the Constitution also intends democratic government constructed upon the premise of one vote per person. Somehow, unlimited spending seems to skew that electoral process in favor of moneyed interests. In the vast preponderance of cases, money prevails, with the candidate (or cause, if the vote is a referendum) who spends (or for which is spend) the most money winning.

Stipulating the precise way in which money improperly skews electoral results is difficult, as Harvard philosopher Michael Walzer recognized:

"The problem is hard, for money talks in subtle and indirect ways, and sometimes, no doubt, the people for whom it talks are admirable people; success in the market does not come only to ruthless and self-serving entrepreneurs. Still, this is insidious talk in a democratic state, and it requires us to seek some way of limiting the accumulation of money (much as we must limit its weight)." (Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 112)

Yet one does not have to read the Jewish and Christian scriptures very carefully to recognize that the problem of the wealthy trying to take advantage of the poor is not new. People tend to act in ways that accord with their perceived self-interest. Defenders of democracy and capitalism, and I number myself among both, rightly argue that those systems, by balancing contending self-interests against one another, tend to produce fairer, more just, results than do systems, such as oligarchy and oligopoly, in which one set of self-interests prevail over others.

Why should citizens seek a democratic system in which financial resources in candidates (or both sides of a referendum question) have roughly equal funds? Because campaign financing is a matter of justice, allowing contending voices to be heard more equally.

One way in which money's influence effects elections is through increasing the breadth and distribution of ads. Marketing professionals, psychologists, parents, and others know that more times a person receives a message, the more likely the person is to accept and then to act upon that message.

A second way in which money can effect elections is through enhancing the quality of ads. The correlation is imperfect. Some low budget ads are extremely effective; some high budget ads flop. Nevertheless, having more money available tends to increase the quality of ads a campaign produces.

Yet a third way in which can alter electoral outcomes is by creating, or creating the appearance of, momentum. Many people prefer to be part of a winning rather than a losing cause. Momentum, or its appearance, can cause premature or even incorrect shifts.

Regardless of any imbalance in campaign funds, the public should know the identity and amount given by large donors. The threshold for public disclosure might be whichever is less, $100,000 or 1% of the total the candidate/cause has raised. Establishing a relatively high threshold prevents the minutia of all donors burying the identity of important ones. A person who gave $1,000 to a presidential campaign has made a statement about his/her beliefs but will reasonably not expect anything in return. The person who gives 1% of the a candidate's total raised, whether $200 in a local election or $1 million in a presidential campaign, generally expects access to the candidate during both the campaign and any tenure in office the candidate wins, access that includes opportunity to express views on issues important to the donor. At the least, this access unfairly advantages large donors. At the worst, this access symbolizes the pernicious influence of moneyed interests.

More broadly, many elected office holders – including all federal ones, except perhaps a second term president – probably spend a majority of their time raising funds for the next election. Voters did not elect office holders to raise money; an officer holder focused on soliciting campaign contributions lacks the time and focus to properly fulfill their duties.

Increasingly, I think full, adequate, and mandatory public funding of most elections may constitute the best option. Public funding would not be outrageously expensive. For example, a presidential election might reasonably cost $4 billion today ($1 billion for each major party candidate, a total of $2 billion for candidates who lose in the primaries and any third party candidate(s)). U.S. senate elections might cost $30 per registered voter (something less than $1.5 billion every two years), and the same for the House of Representatives. In sum, federal elections would cost, recognizing the need for future adjustments for inflation, less than $10 billion every four years or $2.5 billion per year. Although that's a significant amount of money, it is less than $8 per citizen per year, a relatively small and very affordable cost for improving our democracy.

Public funding would eliminate the distraction of constantly raising money and the electoral system's bias toward moneyed interests. Candidates already have to file comprehensive reports on how they spend contributions. These reports, perhaps with minor adjustments, should prove adequate to prevent fraud. Previous efforts to replace private funding with public have failed, in substantial measure, because the public funds proved inadequate or candidates believed they could raise more money privately.

Realistically, mandatory, full, and adequate public financing of elections and referenda will not entirely eliminate the undue influence that moneyed interests exert on the political process. Moneyed interests could use their resources to promote causes, organize support for issues apart from voting, and still often enjoy disproportionately easy access to most elected officials.

Completely leveling the political playing field is impossible and probably socially undesirable, e.g., some moneyed interests may have a more, insightful wide-angle perspective on an issue or have earned their wealth through intellect and ability that is valuable to an office holder. However, campaign contributions that come with explicit, or more often implicit, expectations wrongly skew voting. Office holders whose top priority is raising money for the next election wrongly deemphasize their public responsibilities.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Drones and targeted killings - Part 3

My first post on drones and targeted killing posed a set of ethical issues that the practice of targeted killings raises. My second post on the subject further analyzed the dynamics of drone strikes, arguing that neither law enforcement nor warfighting constituted the right ethical or legal framework for governing the practice. In that post, I concluded:

Drone strikes seem to me, when conducted apart from formally declared war, to fall between warfighting and law enforcement. Neither set of rules fully applies. But relying upon drone strikes apart from any moral framework invites abuse (power always tempts those who have power to abuse it), chaos (decisions based upon varying, even contradictory criteria), and undermines the rule of law nationally and internationally (as happened with the detention of those the Bush administration called illegal combatants following 9/11

This post offers an ethical framework, drawn from law enforcement and the just war tradition, for deciding when and how to use drone strikes for targeted killing in a morally justifiable manner.

First, this framework does not apply to targeted killings by drones (or any other means) against military personnel in the course of a formally declared war. In such instances, the jus in bello ethical paradigm from the just war tradition applies.

Second, this framework never applies when conventional law enforcement methods are applicable. The rule of law necessitates that police attempt apprehension; police killing a suspect is justifiable only when the exigencies of attempting apprehension necessitate it, e.g., in self-defense against a suspect presently attempting to kill police, hostages, or others.

Third, a nation's definition of the "rule of law" should be transparent, i.e., public. Nations can profitably collaborate on this definition, establish it in international law, and then publicize a list of those nations in which the rule of law reasonably exists/does not exist. At a minimum, the "rule of law" requires written laws, an independent and fair judiciary, law enforcement by police held accountable for conforming to the law, and safeguards for the accused (right to competent counsel, to avoid self-incrimination, to see/hear the evidence, to a jury trial, and to due process). Addressing this through international forums will pressure nations to adhere to the rule of law and discourage nations from prioritizing perceived short-term national interests over long-term healthy relationships, e.g., the U.S. has often supported friendly dictators for short-term gain to the long-term detriment of its interests and those of the citizens ruled by the dictator.

Fourth, targeted killings are morally permissible only in nations in which the rule of law does not exist and in which the nation planning the killing has made its assessment that the rule of law does not exist public. Making a public assessment affords the other nation an opportunity for reform as well as inviting international discussion of whether the assessment about the rule of law is reasonable and widely held.

Fifth, apprehension of the suspect by the police in the country in which the suspect is (unlikely since the rule of law does not hold in that nation) or by agents (military or intelligence) of the nation seeking to apprehend/kill the suspect is highly unlikely or would entail major military action. This principle, for example, precludes needing to conduct a major invasion, recognizes the implausibility of putting an uncompromised agent inside many groups (e.g., al Qaeda or a drug cartel), and yet incorporates the possibility of raids by Special Forces or intelligence personnel (e.g., the strike against Osama bin Laden should have attempted apprehension rather than killing).

Sixth, a court that is part of an independent judiciary must authorize the targeted killing. Requiring authorization by a court greatly reduces the possibility for an official within the executive or military to abuse the power to authorize killing. This requirement also means that more than one person, even if the court consists of a single judge, approves the killing because the person seeking the approval has obviously reached an affirmative conclusion about it. Similarly, requiring a court order makes moot the issue of whether the person is a U.S. citizen, since, regardless of nationality, the person benefits from a legal process designed to balance individual rights with collective security.

a. Establishing this court requires legal counsel that will act on behalf of the person the government proposes to target for killing. This legal representative's duties include challenging the completeness or accuracy of evidence presented, advocating any reasonable prospect for apprehension instead of targeted killing, etc. Although imperfect, requiring a representative incorporates the advantages of an adversarial process in avoiding abuse of power by the other parties. Legislation creating the court should also create or designate a State Department office to provide these legal representatives. Assigning this responsibility to the State Department precludes potential conflicts if the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, or Justice (all involved in prosecuting/attacking those who would destroy the nation) had the responsibility.

b. The court should rely upon a reasonable standard of doubt test in its decisions. A lower standard of proof is inappropriate because the court's decisions are literally matters of life and death. Utilizing this standard of proof attempts to balance risk to the individual with risks to the nation's collective well-being.

b. Obtaining a court's authorization is unlikely to impede the timeliness of action, especially if the court's procedural guidelines emphasize timely adjudication of cases. Even if this were untrue, without some system of checks and balances on the authority to kill, the potential for abuse outweighs any occasional advantages of rapid action. Furthermore, developing a case against an individual requires careful analysis of information generally gathered from several sources over time, i.e., the process is inherently deliberative rather than rapid.

c. Of necessity, these court proceedings might have to occur in secrecy. However, the court should preserve a full transcript of its proceedings, released to the public in ten years, or sooner if the court deems adverse consequences national security improbable. The accountability this transparency provides constitutes another important barrier against potential abuse.

Seventh, once the court issues an order authorizing a target killing, the President (or designated senior representative) will oversee implementation and approve any attempted execution. If apprehension of the target appears possible, then apprehension rather than killing shall become the primary goal (e.g., the suspect travels to a nation in which the rule of law prevails). Any approved targeted killing mission shall employ the minimum force consistent with reasonable odds of success and carefully weigh prospective collateral damage against the value of the target's death. In every case, uncertainty should favor restraint.

Eighth, a post-mission evaluation, with a report to the court that authorized the killing, should follow every targeted killing mission, whether or not the mission succeeded. In evaluating missions, the court and the executive should ensure that officials acted with reasonable due diligence given information available to the decision maker. The evaluation is intended to keep decision makers honest, not to indulge in unhelpful second-guessing in light of information known after an attack. The law should stipulate appropriate penalties for decision makers within the executive branch who wrongly execute their duties in reviewing and approving proposed targeted killing missions.

These eight protocols represent an initial attempt to articulate an ethical framework for targeted killing in cases that fall between traditional law enforcement and warfighting. With drones having killed an estimated 2700-4600 people, the need to establish clear ethical and legal frameworks is urgent. Although probably improvable through discussion and trial, the framework seeks to balance individual rights and collective security, preserving an option for targeted killing when apprehension is impossible and the likely cost of allowing the target to remain alive outweigh the international ramifications transgressing national boundaries and abrogating normal justice procedures.