Thursday, May 30, 2013


Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same hospital room. One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from his lungs. His bed was next to the room's only window. The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back.

The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation.

Every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window. The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance. As the man by the window described all this in exquisite details, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine this picturesque scene.

One warm afternoon, the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man could not hear the band - he could see it in his mind's eye as the man by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.

Days, weeks and months passed.

One morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window, who had died peacefully in his sleep. She was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take the body away.

As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.

Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the real world outside. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window besides the bed. It faced a blank wall.

The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his deceased roommate who had described such wonderful things outside this window. The nurse responded that the man was blind and could not even see the wall. She said, 'Perhaps he just wanted to encourage you.'

I don't know whether this story records an actual incident or is an urban legend, endlessly repeated on the internet. The story's truth is that when we have compassion toward one another we make life better for both the other person and ourselves. This is what Jesus meant when we hold us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, the nation does well both to remember those who have died fighting the nation's wars and the importance of the citizen-warrior for preserving democracy.

Perhaps the greatest threat the nation faces is internal rather than external. In a New York Times commentary published yesterday, retired U.S. Army Lt. General Karl Eikenberry and Stanford history professor emeritus David M. Kennedy expressed concern about the gap developing between Americans and their military(Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart, May 26, 2013). They identified three components of the gap:

  1. The post-Vietnam War decision to replace the citizen-soldier Army with an all-volunteer force substantially diminished the tie between citizens and the military. Only 0.5% of the population now serves in the military, compared with 12% during WWII. In 1975, 70% of the members of Congress had military service; today, only 20% do. Conversely, many military families view the military as the "family business," perhaps signaling the emergence of a military caste, something that history suggests will end poorly.
  2. Technology helps to insulate civilians from the military. The military's portion of the federal budget is under 20%, compared to 45% at the height of the Vietnam War. Technologies such as remotely piloted drones accelerate isolating civilians from the military and its activities.
  3. Expansion of the military's role from warfighting to nation building further blurs distinctions about the military's proper role.

Eikenberry and Kennedy propose restoring a draft, conducted by lottery, to meet military manpower requirements, Congress taking back from the President its Constitutionally mandated war making powers, paying for wars with taxes instead of off-budget special appropriations, and decreased reliance on contractors. All of these are good changes, ones that will reduce militarism and help to preserve, if not strengthen, democracy.

My fellow Bowdoin College graduate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a few years ahead of me, I hasten to add!), wrote the following poem, the first well known poem for Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as the holiday was known in the Civil War era), which The Atlantic published in June 1882:


Decoration Day


Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest

On this Field of the Grounded Arms,

Where foes no more molest,

Nor sentry's shot alarms!


Ye have slept on the ground before,

And started to your feet

At the cannon's sudden roar,

Or the drum's redoubling beat.


But in this camp of Death

No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath,

No wound that bleeds and aches.


All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the Truce of God!


Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

Your rest from danger free.


Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinitarian images

A self-identified Christian professor at Florida Atlantic University, part of Florida's public university system, asked his students to write the name Jesus on a piece of paper, put the paper on the floor, and then step on it. This was not an original idea, but one that he borrowed from faculty at a Roman Catholic university. The voluntary exercise – nobody had to participate –illustrates the power of cultural symbols. Unsurprisingly, most students hesitate to step on Jesus' name.[1]

That incident prompted three thoughts, a number appropriate for Trinity Sunday. Read more (link to my recent sermons, then follow link to the sermon for Trinity Sunday).

[1] Stanley Fish, "Stepping on Jesus," New York Times, April 15, 2013.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Justice – part 4

John Rawls believed, "justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought."

Predating Rawls by several thousand years, Aristotle, famously defined the virtues as the contextually appropriate means between two extremes, one an excess of the trait and the other a deficit of the same trait, e.g., courage is the appropriate mean, in a given situation, between rashness and cowardice. But Aristotle, who struggled with defining justice, believed it to be the only virtue of which one cannot have an excess.

My nearly four decades of ministry have taught me that as difficult a concept to define as justice may be (see the three previous posts in this series on justice, the third of the four cardinal virtues), the harder, more important challenge is being an effective catalyst in encouraging people to live justly and to work for a just society. Stories about people have an emotional power that purely cognitive approaches lack, so I end this series with two anecdotes.

A massive boulder had fallen into the middle of a highway. Cars would zip around the curve and crash into it. A family living nearby was horrified and moved to pity by the sight. They would help people from their smashed-up cars, tend their injuries, feed them, pray with them, and send them on their way. Finally, after years of compassionate care, one family member said, "You know, we really should try to move that boulder." (Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Salt of the Earth, March/April 1995, p. 35)

So what, exactly, does the rabbinate at Beth Emet aim to persuade its membership to do? 'That which I feel like I’m compelled and obligated to move people to do,' Rabbi London explains, 'is to really reach out and to make the world a better place. I feel like that is a place where I have some responsibility to push. I don’t feel like I have a responsibility to push people to light Shabbat candles. I think it’s really powerful to light Shabbat candles—it’s made a huge difference in my life and I’ll share that with people, but if I got everyone in the congregation to light Shabbat candles, you know, I didn’t really do much. If I got everybody in this congregation to give ten hours of community service because they felt compelled by their religious tradition to do so, I’d feel like I had done a lot.' (Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell, American Grace, Kindle Loc. 5299-5305)

Predating Aristotle probably by several centuries, the prophet Micah, mapped the path to life abundant, "God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Direct democracy

Beginning before the 2012 election, I have published a series of Ethical Musings posts on politics (these link to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7), considered whether Jesus was a politician, discussed the campaign (these links to parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), and the role and influence of campaign contributions.

Two threads, woven through those posts, are a commitment to democracy and a concern that people in the United States (and perhaps in other democracies) increasingly feel less ownership of their government, i.e., We the people have become They the government.

Thus, I read with considerable interest an excerpt from Jack N. Rakove's The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 2009). Following the first census in 1790, the U.S. House of Representatives expanded to 105 members, each representing about 33,000 inhabitants as specified in the Constitution for apportionment purposes, i.e., slaves counted as only three-fifths of an inhabitant.

By Rakove's calculations using data from the 2000 census, the House of Representatives would need 9,380 members to maintain the same ratio of representatives to inhabitants as in 1790, ignoring the skewing attributable to not counting slaves as people. (p. 112) Instead, the 435 members of the House of Representatives each, on average, represent 646,952 people, almost twenty times as many constituents as their predecessors from two centuries earlier did.

No deliberative body could function well with almost 10,000 members. Conversely, some measure of the alienation that many citizens feel toward Washington, the constant need for raising money to fund election campaigns, the constantly expanding size and influence of Congressional staffs, and the influence of large donors have all, to some degree, been caused by the huge increase in the number of people each member of the House represents.

Perhaps the United States (and other large democracies) should consider complementing representative democracy with direct democracy. Direct democracy – citizens voting directly on an issue, as in the case of a referendum – was not an option in the eighteenth century, but it is today, with the advent of the internet era.

Direct democracy offers at least three potential advantages but comes at a price. First, direct democracy may reverse the growing alienation that many feel toward the government by affording people a personal say on important issues. Direct democracy truly gives power to the people.

Second, direct democracy may prove an easier way to rebalance power within the nation than amending the Constitution to change the Senate so that not every state automatically has two senators. This provision was important for the founders, among whom loyalty to their state (or commonwealth) sometimes exceeded loyalty to the nation. Post-Civil War, few Americans order their loyalties that way; an overwhelming majority of citizens is primarily loyal to the nation; loyalty to a state tends to be minimal. However, small states this anachronistic provision allows small states to wield disproportionate influence in national affairs, an affect that direct democracy would to some degree nullify.

Third, direct democracy might prove a way to break the logjams (e.g., caused by political polarization) that blocks Congressional action on issues ranging from the budget (the U.S. has not had a budget in four years) to gun control (which polls repeatedly show that a preponderance of citizens support).

The price of direct democracy can be measured in both dollars (this includes all costs associated with voting) and in a potentially ill-informed or uninformed electorate making decisions. Of course, one can make the same observation about the votes of members of Congress who prioritize electioneering and fund raising over legislative business.

Direct democracy is no panacea. National votes are not suitable for complex issues (e.g., the national budget); no process exists for amending proposals as part of a referendum; discussion and compromise consequently are problematic. Nevertheless, perhaps direct democracy is an idea worth considering.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Research on guns and killing - follow up

In response to my Ethical Musings post, Research on guns and killing, I received the following comment from an anonymous reader:

"About 30,000 Americans die annually because of gun violence. None of those Americans dies defending her or himself against governmental tyranny. The evidence very strongly supports debating the merits of the second amendment, with an eye toward advocating its repeal."

Two thirds of those unfortunate deaths are suicides. How many would still commit suicide with something other than a firearm? I don't want any of them to, mind you. But to call the suicide portion a "gun violence" problem is ridiculous. The remaining third are dominated by urban gang and drug violence. These lives are precious, too. But your idea of gun control for this segment is irrelevant. As long as we have a porous border, we cannot exclude things that are in demand (cheap labor, drugs, and guns if there was no domestic supply).

Lastly, you remain stuck on this notion that the only reason for the Second Amendment is storming the Bastille. For law-abiding citizens, it is defensive, either in a personal protection sense (as noted by the Supreme Court of the U.S. in the Heller decision) or a defensive check on tyranny. By that, I mean raising the political and financial cost of suffering the fate of some 100 million individuals who were easily taken into custody and sent to Gulags, collectives, or concentration camps.

Although the comment may appear cogent at first glance, closer reading reveals deeply flawed arguments:

  1. The comment is correct: two thirds of those who die from gun violence are suicides. Suicide, for example, is the number two cause of deaths among male teenagers and guns are their most prevalent method. Reducing the number of guns in homes would reduce the number of male teenagers committing suicide. This is clearly a gun violence issue.
  2. Reducing the number of guns, banning automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and outlawing large magazines will not end urban or gang violence. Gangs and other criminals may (hopefully!) find obtaining guns and ammunition more difficult. Gun control legislation is not a panacea. But that is not a reason to do nothing. Instead, policies that achieve incremental reductions in the level of gun violence are worthwhile and cumulatively can make a significant difference in the quality of life of in the United States.
  3. Gulags, collectives, and concentration camps are generally found only when tyranny rules. The one notable exception to this was the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WWII, which was a terrible insult to loyal citizens, an embarrassing example of state sanctioned racism, and an abrogation of the Constitution that the Second Amendment did not prevent. Additionally, people may voluntarily choose to live and work in collectives, e.g., the Israeli kibbutz. The gulags, collectives, and concentration camps that are morally reprehensible occur under dictatorships, which brings us back to my argument that the Second Amendment is an anachronism, no longer an effective means of preventing tyranny.

At Ethical Musings, I am interested in what should be (i.e., ethics) not in interpreting the law (the role of the Supreme Court). As a Christian, an ethicist, and a patriotic American, I'm convinced that the United States would be a much better nation in which to live if the Second Amendment were repealed and automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, and large magazines outlawed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Justice – part 3

Historically, the Christian tradition from at least St. Thomas Aquinas forward has recognized three spheres of justice: the commutative, the legal, and the distributive. Commutative justice connotes justice between people. Arguing that all people have equal worth and dignity is a fundamental commutative principle. An important corollary is that all people (at least all sane adults) have one vote in the political process.

Legal justice, sometimes referred to as criminal justice, connotes justice between people and the law. This sphere of justice encompasses civil, criminal, and commercial law. Due process – the right to equal treatment at and before the law – is a vital component of legal justice.

Distributive justice denotes the fair allocation of power, economic resources, and other goods. A major challenge with respect to distributive justice is balancing the tension between respect for private property and the need to ameliorate existing injustice. The principles of distributive and commutative justice together argue for democracy as the form of government most consistent with Christianity.

The three spheres of justice constitute a useful framework for examining the different areas of life in which justice is important. However, the spheres require further principles before they have sufficient specificity to define a Christian ethic, e.g., the biblical teaching that all people are worthy of equal dignity and respect because God created all.

Alternatively, in the latter half of the twentieth century, Christians sometimes speak more about rights than about justice. The concept of rights is not an explicitly biblical concept. However, noted Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, writing from an avowedly Christian perspective, argues that the secular concept of human rights actually emerged out of the secularization of the Christian tradition (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)).

Monday, May 13, 2013

The privilege of inviting

Roughly four decades ago, I did something that I had never done before or again. I conducted an altar call, i.e., invited members of the congregation to commit their lives to Jesus publicly by stepping to the front of the worship space. It occurred in a Nashville, TN, rescue mission's nightly service.

I was an intern at a downtown parish, tasked to discover ways in which the congregation could expand its ministry to the needy and the homeless. One of the first homeless men with whom I began to develop a relationship had arranged, without consulting me, for the rescue mission's director to invite me to preach there. Everything about the mission – its clientele, its services, its theology, even its very existence – was alien to me.

Not wanting to damage the nascent relationship I was forming with the man who had arranged the invitation, knowing that he had sought the invitation as a way to help me, and having already learned that trustworthiness is a sine qua non in ministering to people living on the streets, I warily accepted the invitation.

All went well until I finished my sermon. Then the mission's director sidled up to me and told me that I had to conduct an altar call. I replied that this was foreign to my religious tradition. He answered that without an altar call, none of the men would eat dinner. His manipulative aggressiveness angered me. Still, I quickly evaluated my options. I could refuse, leaving the premises if necessary to avoid a pointless argument and a no-win confrontation. If so, would the director conduct an altar call himself, perhaps inflicting another sermon on hungry, restless men? Or, would he follow through on his threat and cancel dinner? Alternatively, I could accede to his demand, invite those present to commit their lives to Jesus, and hope that the service ended quickly and with no further harm to anyone present. Apparently, most of the congregation knew that sitting through the service, with an altar call, was the price of dinner, a cot for the night, and breakfast. So I capitulated to the director's coercion.

When I studied marketing as part of an MBA program, I learned that the most common reason a salesperson loses a potential sale is that the salesperson never directly asked the potential buyer to make the purchase. Reflecting on my experiences and observations of ministry, I repeatedly saw opportunities to nurture commitment missed and abused.

On the one hand, I suspect that a key factor in the growth of evangelical churches is their clear and frequent emphasis on giving people an opportunity to make a commitment to Christ and/or a religious institution. Unlike what happened in Nashville's rescue mission and too often occurs elsewhere, I've occasionally witnessed this done in genuine, caring, and non-coercive ways by clergy from other faith traditions with whom I was honored to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps. This is pastoral ministry as selling.

Similarly, valued chaplain colleagues from faith groups more akin to the Episcopal Church and I regularly afforded people in the military, a secular institution in which the average age is about 21, genuine, caring, and non-coercive but explicit opportunities to commit to Christ and the Church through Holy Baptism, Confirmation, receiving Holy Communion, and volunteering. This, too, is pastoral ministry as selling.

A correspondent sent me the following thought-provoking comment in response to my last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, "Pastoral leadership as selling:"

Leadership, charisma, etc. are very important, but very difficult to teach. And the church needs to acknowledge that fact, especially in a modern world with so much else to do/choose. But, do you tell people who are looking at ordination they just don't have the right stuff? Or do you send them to training classes for car sales representatives? What's the solution?

Also, is it a lack of leaders capable of selling the product or is it a problem with the "product"? Does TEC know what it sells? Are the "via media," Big Tent, or Anglican Fudge still sellable? After a lifetime of infomercials, how many believe anything that "... Does … It ... All!" really does, or does anything other than empty your wallet.

I'm deferring ruminations about inspirational leadership for a future post. In prior Daily Episcopalian posts, other contributors and I have frequently emphasized that the Episcopal Church is not theologically or liturgically bankrupt. People continue to want be part of an intentional community focused on cultivating the spiritual life (loving God) and cooperating in developing ethical lifestyles (loving others and caring for creation). They come, attracted by good liturgy, enriching aesthetics, welcoming inclusivity, and pastoral sensitivities.

Visitors whom nobody asks to come again, and, as appropriate, to become part of the community, integrated into its ministries and missions, slip away. I observed many chaplains from a wide spectrum of religious traditions whose ministries were less effective than they might have been because the chaplain failed to ask people – both visitors to religious services and people encountered in other settings – to make appropriate religious commitments in a caring, genuine, and respectful manner.

As Jim and Jennifer Cowart in Reach More Volunteers insightfully remark, "Recruiting sounds like work; inviting is a privilege. People want to be needed. Even more than that, they want to spend their lives doing something significant. So don’t ask people to do a job; instead invite them to join you in changing the world." This is the essence of pastoral ministry as selling.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Justice – part 2

Twentieth century Harvard philosopher John Rawls defined justice as fairness. Two principles undergird that proposition. The first is the principle of greatest equal liberty. In choosing, a person must decide as if in the original position, that is, from a situationally appropriate starting point with a veil of ignorance obscuring the position s/he eventually occupies. For example, in debates about slavery, if one did not know in advance whether one was to be a slave or slave owner, nobody (except maybe a masochist!) would argue that slavery was just. Rawls contended, correctly I believe, that most people who engage in this type of analysis would try to distribute rights and freedoms such that regardless of what position they occupy they are not disadvantaged when they compare themselves to other people. The result of not disadvantaging anyone is that all receive, as much as possible, approximately equal or fair benefits.

Rawls' second principle, known as the difference principle, stipulates that social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions: "first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society." He identified five types of primary goods (what free and equal persons need as citizens): basic rights and liberties; freedom of movement and free choice of occupation; powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and responsibility; income and wealth; and social bases of self-respect. (Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, rev. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999) and Justice as Fairness, edited by Erin Kelly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2001))

Justice as fairness offers a practical framework for determining just actions, policies, and programs in a wide variety of settings. Rawls presumes a democratic context, which fits both many churches (excepting authoritarian ones such as the Roman Catholic Church) and secular society.

Although he wrote from a secular perspective, nothing about his concept of justice as fairness precludes a person of faith from discerning God's spirit guiding people as they attempt to decide what is just. Sermons and church teachings about justice might receive a better hearing if the authors strived to be explicit why they declare something just or unjust using Rawls' two principles of justice.

Unfortunately, little agreement exists about what specifically constitutes the set of basic human rights or primary goods. Are these rights only political (free speech, free exercise of religion, right to due process of law, etc.)? Or, do these rights also include the right to life and, if so, what does that include (the right to be safe in one's own person or also the right to water, food, shelter, and perhaps healthcare)? Once delineated, how does a society most justly resolve conflicts in rights between one person/group and another?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mother's Day

Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal priest and colleague at the Episcopal Café for which I write, posted this there:
The high holy day of Hallmark™ is nearly upon us. Amy Young, writing at the Messy Middle, offers so advice for clergy negotiating these dangerous waters:
Dear Pastor, Tone can be tricky in writing. Picture me popping my head in your office door, smiling and asking if we could talk for five minutes. I’m sipping on my diet coke as I sit down. ... A few years ago I sat across from a woman who told me she doesn’t go to church on Mother’s Day because it is too hurtful. I’m not a mother, but I had never seen the day as hurtful. She had been married, had numerous miscarriages, divorced and was beyond child bearing years. It was like salt in mostly healed wounds to go to church on that day. This made me sad, but I understood.
Fast forward several years to Mother’s Day. A pastor asked all mothers to stand. On my immediate right, my mother stood and on my immediate left, a dear friend stood. I, a woman in her late 30s, sat. I don’t know how others saw me, but I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman. Real women stood, empty shells sat. I do not normally feel this way. I do not like feeling this way. I want no woman to ever feel this way in church again.
Some of her ideas for Sunday if you are going to include Mothers' Day in your liturgical planning:
1. Do away with the standing. You mean well, but it’s just awkward. Does the woman who had a miscarriage stand? Does the mom whose children ran away stand? Does the single woman who is pregnant stand? A.w.k.w.a.r.d.
2. Acknowledge the wide continuum of mothering.
3. Commend mothering for the ways it reflects the Imago Dei

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Justice – part 1

What is justice?

One of my seminary professors asked my class that deceptively simple question almost four decades ago. The question and resulting discussion were so surprising that I still recall it, one of the few seminary class sessions that I can still remember. Nobody had a good answer to the professor's question. I thought I should know the answer, but after each proposed definition – suggestions such as fairness and equality –the professor asked the respondent, or anyone else in the class, to define that term.

Most people, I suspect, like to think that they know what the definition of justice but if pressed find it a frustratingly abstract and elusive term to define. That has certainly been my experience when I've asked ethics classes that I've taught to define justice and when I've asked church groups, both youths and adults, to do the same.

Some examples of fairness and equality are obvious. At a meal served family style, people, generally without realizing it, count the number of people present (=n) and then take no more than the appropriate portion of each dish (=1/n).

But what is a fair distribution of political power? What do mean when we speak of equal opportunity? What is a just distribution of income between labor and capital?

Justice is one of the most important biblical themes (the word appears 131 times in the New Revised Standard Version). Although Scripture contains numerous illustrations of justice and injustice, the Bible does not define the concept of justice.

God is for justice and actively works to establish justice in the cosmos, especially for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. God invites humans to work with God to establish justice for all creation, i.e., everything God created deserves justice, i.e., some measure of fairness or equality. The next three posts define justice in ways that provide practical guidance (i.e., prudential wisdom) to those who wish to act justly.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jesus the Homeless

Timothy Schmatz' sculpture of Jesus the Homeless has evoked some controversy. The statue depicts Jesus asleep on a bench; his face covered; nail wounds visible in his bare feet.

Offered to the Roman Catholic cathedrals first in New York (St. Patrick's) and then in Toronto, each cathedral's leadership expressed initial acceptance but declined the gift of the statue after consulting with higher ecclesiastical authority.

I find the statue profoundly spiritual and ethical. Jesus' cloak obscures his face; he could be anyone. He instructed his followers to care for the hungry, the lonely, the sick, and those in prison. Surely, today he would direct his disciples to care for the homeless, reminding us that what we do for the least of those we meet we do for him.

As debates about tax policies, immigration, healthcare, and social security rage, Jesus the Homeless may be the most appropriate icon that those of us who would walk the Jesus path can find.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Prudence - part 3

A disciple came to the Muslim Master Maruf Karkhi and said, "I have been talking to people about you. The Jews say you are one of their own. The Christians consider you to be one of their saints. And the Muslims look upon you as a glory to Islam." Maruf replied, "That's what they say here in Baghdad. When I lived in Jerusalem, the Jews dubbed me a Christian; the Christians a Muslim; and the Muslims, a Jew." "Then what are we to think of you?"

"Think of me as a man who said this about himself: Those who do not understand me revere me. Those who revile me do not understand me either." (Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight (New York: Bantam Doubleday, Inc., 1990), pp. 140-141)

Unlike the spiritual wisdom of the mystics – regardless of religious affiliation – that is incomprehensible to those whose journeys do not include a mystical component, prudence is, as the second installment of this three part series on prudence emphasized, accessible to people contextually co-located. The prudence of the Greeks, or of modern Pakistanis, may seem incomprehensible to a twenty-first century American but genuine prudence is understandable by people who hold common, or substantially overlapping, worldviews.

Developing the virtue of prudence is no mere intellectual exercise. In addition to grasping concepts or ideas, the virtue of prudence requires practice, that is, opportunities to make prudential decisions. For this reason, Aristotle argued that only rulers can develop this virtue: only rulers have the opportunity to exercise practical wisdom (Politics, III.4). He explains: "Virtue is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time. Virtue of character results from habit." (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1)

Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, recognized the importance of every person developing prudential wisdom: "Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; in other words, it matters that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion." (Summa Theologica, II(I), Q57, A5) This notion of the virtuous person exercising practical wisdom coheres well with Rawls' description of prudence in terms of reasonableness, decency, and rationality, broadening Aristotle's understanding of prudence without stretching it to a breaking point.

What ongoing steps do you take to acquire practical wisdom through listening to (or reading) the ideas and experiences of others? Do you daily consider your opportunities to exercise prudence by recognizing moral choices that you can make, identifying the issues involved, and then make good choices that rest on the wisdom of a reasonable, decent, and rational community?