Saturday, June 29, 2013

Money and politics


I have commented several times in Ethical Musings posts about the influence of money on politics. The chart shows research from the Sunlight Foundation reported in the Washington Post (June 28, 2013) that graphically illustrates the problem.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Further thoughts on exorcisms


An Ethical Musings reader sent me the following true story in response to my post on twenty-first century exorcisms:

Some years ago, I met an African woman, also named Mary, at a national Episcopal conference. She turned up in all the same small group workshops I attended, so we saw a lot of each other. Subsequently, I sent her some knitting yarn, which apparently she was having trouble buying in Harare, where she lived. And at Christmas, I sent her a card; about twice more I sent her some little card or a note. I got a few replies.

Then Mary sent me quite a long letter, in which she described the ‘demon possession’ of her brother-in-law. He had got ‘into the hands of the witchdoctors’. As a result, he was deeply disturbed, even to the point of coming to their house late at night and wanting to stay the night; then in the darkest time of the night, they woke to his screaming outside their bedroom door, ‘the light, the light’. Of course, they tried to help him. In the morning after sitting up with him, they heard the story of the witchdoctors, and that he had been sent to kill them to gain more power. So they burned his clothes that he’d been wearing when he was put under the ‘spell’, and he tried everything he knew to escape the power of the ‘devils’ he had agreed to release within himself. Unfortunately, he was fine during daylight, but at night he raved again.

So, being modern educated people, they took him to the psychiatric ward at the hospital. The hospital staff told them that plenty of cases were possessed day and night, and that if he were functional during the day they wouldn’t admit him, even for tests.

On further investigation, Mary found that her husband had gone to visit the witchdoctors with his brother, but had not undergone the initiation and taken up with them in the same way.

While this was going on, Mary got a card from me. It said ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,’ as I had sent it as a Christmas card, though by the time it was delivered it was long past Christmas. So Mary went to an Anglican church and asked for help. They did some sort of service for the whole family, banishing all evil thoughts or acts that would disturb the family. The brother gratefully accepted forgiveness for what he’d done, and from then on, they had no further incidents.

Mary wrote about this to me, and thanked me for bringing light to a very dark time for her and her children. I was amazed that a mere Christmas card could be such a powerful agent for God’s love. Mary, in her letter, said that people in the West can’t understand the power of evil since they have been protected by their faith in God for so long.

My perspective on Mary's story is somewhat different. Mary, her formerly possessed brother-in-law, the witchdoctors, and others obviously believed literally in demon possession. They similarly believed in God's power to free a person possessed by demons or evil spirits. Consequently, the exorcism, or whatever other service the Anglicans conducted was effective in ending the nightmares. In other words, I think this incident has a straightforward psychological explanation. Analogously, Christian teachers and healers – to include Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller – built expansive ministries utilizing similar pyscho-dynamics to help people live more fully and abundantly.

If my interpretation of what occurred is correct, then the incident raises two additional issues. First, is spirituality synonymous with, or a subset of, psychology? Alternatively, is spirituality something at least partially distinct from psychology? The latter seems to me to be correct.

If spirituality is reducible to psychology, then let's close churches and open counseling centers. (Incidentally, John D. Rockefeller built Riverside Church in New York City to provide a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the foremost American preacher of the first half of the twentieth century. Fosdick thought that good preaching was good group counseling.)

Spirituality's distinctive element is its transcendent dimension, which humans can experience through the various components of the human spirit, i.e., self-awareness, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy and the ability to love/be loved. Not every aspect of what happens in a Church will be explicitly spiritual in the sense of helping people connect with the Ultimate. But for Mary, in the service at the Anglican Church, the presence of a life-giving, loving transcendent power (God) may have reinforced the transformative power of the psycho-dynamics I sketched above.

Second, I wish that Mary were correct, that people in the West were protected from evil by the power of their longstanding faith in God. Evil is insidious and pervasive. The West's façade of religiosity is crumbling, revealing widespread apathy or antipathy to religion. Polls consistently show the downward trend and the superficial beliefs many nominally religious people hold, e.g., those who pray to God in times of need, treating God as a heavenly vending machine intended to dispense requested aid in a human's time of need.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Twenty-first century exorcisms


My most recent sermon describes the first exorcism that I performed. Writing that sermon prompted some additional musings.

The very idea of a twenty-first century exorcism can easily evoke conflicting images. First, casting a demon out of a possessed person seems to be more fiction than fact (for many people the definitive image of an exorcism is what happened in William Blatty's bestseller, The Exorcist). Heads of living humans cannot spin in 360-degree circles.

Second, the most widespread interpretation of the biblical narrative with respect to evil owes more to Dante's Divine Comedy, pagan myths, and fears of the unknown than it does to responsible scholarship and theology. The Bible is clear: in the beginning, God was. Dualism – a pitting of a good God and against an evil entity - is primarily from Zoroastrianism, a religion rooted in Iran and foreign to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The delightful, imaginary demons of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters are just that: imaginary fictions with no basis in fact.

Third, demon possession clearly refers to multiple phenomena. In the biblical narrative, the authors, out of ignorance, often labeled mental illness and severe emotional distress as demon possession. More recently, many religious people personify the reality of evil, employing images of devil, demon, and Satan to describe the seductive and powerful attraction of evil psychological and sociological forces.

As I have repeatedly argued in this blog, religion and religious language depends entirely on symbols. Even the word God is a symbol for that ultimate reality that lies beyond the finite. If demons and demon possession are metaphors for evil, i.e., the absence of God, then exorcism is a metaphor for the process by which a person experiences God's healing, loving presence.

A former colleague of mine, a Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan monk who had served as a missionary in a remote area of South America before he joined the Navy, once told me about his experiences with exorcism. When sent by the Franciscans to South America, he flew to a remote city, rented a jeep that he drove first on a paved highway and then down a dirt track as far as he could. Then he walked, the track gradually becoming less and less of a path. About the time he was ready to despair, thinking that he had taken a wrong turn, though there had been no forks from which to choose, he reached a small village of mud huts. There he spent the next several years as a missionary, eventually building a small church and making several converts. There he observed what he believed were truly demon possessed individuals, whom he healed by performing exorcisms.

This priest was truly a man of God and a colleague whom I greatly respected. But I am convinced that he was wrong. I'm uncertain what he experienced, but demons do not possess only the uneducated in remote tribal areas. In some transformative manner, the Indians to whom he ministered, of whose worldview and value system I am completely ignorant, experienced a liberating, life-giving power through the exorcisms he performed.

I suspect that the Indians, unlike many of us, expected God to act. Because we doubt that God acts, we do not perceive God at work, since God usually (always?) acts in ordinary rather than extraordinary ways. The power of religious symbols – words, Bible, water, bread, wine, etc. – is their power to point to, and to evoke, that mysterious presence that permeates our world so pervasively and constantly that we no longer notice it.

We rightly reject superstition and seek knowledge. But this does not mean that the only source of knowledge is science. Pragmatism, a contemporary approach to philosophy, argues that knowledge that others and we consistently find life giving, a path to more abundant living, is a genuine source of wisdom. Defining exorcism as God healing the distressed, giving strength to the tempted, and comforting the afflicted seamlessly links the biblical narrative, my colleague's experiences in the South American jungle, and our own experiences of the mysterious other.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

No aid to Syria!


Sadly, in my book, Forging Swords into Plows, I predicted the deteriorating situation now occurring in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Chapter 5, I argued that after the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, violence between Sunnis and Shiites would resume and that Iraq would move toward either a dictatorship (probably under the current prime minister, al-Maliki) or fragment into three separate nations. In Chapter 6, I explain that Afghanistan has never had an effective central government, why Afghans widely regard their current leader, Hamid Karzai, as an American stooge, and that NATO nation building efforts have failed.

Nothing that has happened in the six months since I finished the book has caused me to alter my predictions.

Indeed, Iraq and Afghanistan are the two best arguments for the United States and other nations staying out of the current problems in Syria. The approximately 90,000 dead are the result of unjustifiable killings by the Syrian government, its Hezbollah allies, and the Sunni rebels, many of whom are radical Islamists.

Sending small arms to the Syrian rebels will not reverse the government's regaining the upper hand. Sending small arms to the Syrian rebels, as President Obama has directed, will increase the killing and postpone any eventual progress toward a more stable, less violent Syria. Sending small arms to the Syrian rebels, if intended to keep Israel from taking more aggressive action against Syria, will not win us friends on either side. The rebels know that this aid will not be decisive and see it as a sham. Conversely, Assad and Hezbollah will see the aid as a move against them.

Unfortunately, there is no good option for a third party solution to Syria's problems. If the U.S. (or other nations) side with Syria's government, that strengthens Iran's position in the Middle East. This would further destabilize Iraq and perhaps embolden Hezbollah to reach for more power in Lebanon and to become more aggressive and intransigent in its dealings with Israel. Alternatively, if the U.S. (or other nations) tilts toward the rebels, this probably prolongs the conflict, causing more death and destruction. If, in the unlikely event, the rebels prevail, then Syria will probably become another dysfunctional nation, vulnerable to takeover by Islamists.

Those who would help another – whether an individual caregiver or a nation committed to developing stable democracies (a laudatory goal!) – must learn that help is not always possible. Even Jesus experienced this. When a rich young man desired to learn the path to perfection and Jesus replied that he must sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, the man said nothing, but turned and walked away. The New Testament does not mention what happened to him. Contrary to the romanticism of some interpreters, I suspect that the young man found wealth's grip on his heart, at least for many years, too strong to break.

The other important lesson from what's happening in Syria is that the conflict graphically and tragically illustrates the impotence of a people equipped with small arms against even a third rate military force. Defenders of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution right to bear arms who maintain that Americans owning weapons constitutes a bastion against tyranny would do well to study events in Syria and Egypt. In Syria, rifles have proven no match more tanks, artillery, air power, etc. More importantly, in Egypt, the word has proven mightier than the sword. Networking through social media, protesters overthrew a repressive regime without tens of thousands dying. Government data collection and mining are a greater threat to liberty than are laws that restrict the right to own guns.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Making a difference


An article in the Washington Post by Dylan Matthews, "Join Wall Street. Save the World." evoked memories of long conversations that my business partner and I had while still in college. Matthews' article features Jason Trigg, a twenty-five year old MIT graduate who earns a large salary by writing computer code for a high-frequency stock trading firm.

Trigg could have pursued many different careers, ranging from academia to cancer research. He opted for the Wall Street firm because of the high salary he earns. Unlike his peers, Trigg lives on less than half of what he earns, living with three roommates and walking to work. He donates the rest of his income to charity. His favorite cause is the Against Malaria Foundation, a highly effective non-profit that estimates it saves one life for every $2500 donated.

Philosopher Peter Singer's work inspired Trigg's commitment to helping others. Singer first told the following story in a 1972 paper, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality:"

A man walking by a shallow pond notices a toddler struggling in the water. No one else is around. Rescuing the child would ruin his shoes and muddy his suit. Tending to the girl and finding her parents would take time, making him late for work. So he walks away. The girl drowns.

Singer believes the story's moral is that “If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” In Matthew's words:

Most people would agree with this. But as Singer notes, most people don’t give much, at all, to those in other countries suffering extreme poverty. Remember that giving about $2,500 can save one life from malaria. For the median American household, which earned about $50,000 in 2011, that amounts to 5 percent of one’s gross income. Arguably, a child in Africa gains more from not dying than an American family loses by making $47,500 rather than $50,000 in a given year.

New York Times columnist David Brooks in "The Way to Produce a Person," (June 3, 2013) wondered whether Tripp had made the right decision, noting that what a person does gradually alters who a person is. Brooks asked, without answering, whether Trigg would become more like his colleagues at the Wall Street firm and less focused on his mission of saving lives.

When I graduated from high school, a classmate and I were both unemployed and both entering the same expensive college at the end of the summer. For lack of anything else to do, we agreed to paint a house that my father owned. We quickly realized that we could make very good money as painting contractors – as long as we did not work for my father again (he thought our inexperience justified paying us near minimum wages). By the end of our fourth summer, our fifteen employees worked on a variety of projects ranging from painting to computer programming, and we made very good money.

My friend and I were confident that post-graduation we could turn our summer business into a very profitable firm. I planned to attend seminary. He contended that I could do more good by making money and then donating a large fortune (it doesn't hurt to dream when one is young!) to help others, à la Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, etc. I responded that years spent accumulating a fortune would change who I was as a person.

In retrospect, I'm thankful that I went to seminary rather than pursuing wealth. I'm a very different person today because of my experiences over the intervening four decades than I was upon graduating from college. Experiences and relationships change people. Trigg will be truly exceptional if he successfully sustains his commitment to helping others by earning and donating as much money as he can.

Ethicists classify the process of character formation described above as part of virtue ethics. The values (or virtues) that a person acquires strongly influence that person's perceptions of the world, the way in which s/he habitually acts, and how s/he weighs occasional moral choices.

Virtues are both taught and caught. The teaching may be formal (e.g., in a class on ethics) or informal (e.g., by reading a novel or watching a movie). We catch virtues when we decide to emulate someone (an ethical role model, aka a moral exemplar), engage in an activity that alters us (e.g., feeding the hungry), or are in relationship with others (e.g., a partner, parent, boss, or teacher).

Who do you want to become? What type of person would you like to be? What are you doing to learn and to acquire (catch) the virtues inherent your answers?

In the moment, we may have little control over who we are or what we do. In the longer term, by having an idea of who we want to be (e.g., child of God), we can develop and acquire the virtues, skills, and other characteristics required to be that person. Conversely, not living intentionally means that the odds of becoming somebody we do not want to be increase greatly.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Defense spending


The United States should demobilize its Army.

Ok, let's agree to keep a couple of small portions, e.g., Special Forces units and sealift capacity (the Army has more hulls than does the U.S. Navy). There may be another group or two of units worth preserving, but what would happen if the United States basically demobilized its entire Army?

Importantly, the odds of any nation invading the United States are almost negligible. No North or South American nation has the capability or evident desire to invade the U.S., regardless of whether the U.S. has a standing Army. Other nations that might want to invade, such as Iran, lack the sea and airlift capability to make an invasion feasible. China, whose intentions toward the United States are more opaque, also lacks the sea and airlift capabilities to make an invasion possible. U.S. surveillance (from space and through other means) would provide timely information if any nation began to acquire the immense sea and airlift capacities an invasion would require. Furthermore, nuclear weapons provide a powerful, almost certainly effective, deterrent against invasion.

The Cold War rationale for maintaining large numbers of troops overseas no longer exists. The United States lacks the resources to fight and to win a conventional ground war against China in Asia. During the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the U.S. troops in Europe were a "trip wire," that if attacked would delay the Soviet conquest of Europe long enough to mobilize more forces and sufficient in number to assure the Soviets that attack would inevitably lead to nuclear war. Thankfully, Russia does not pose a similar threat and there is no identifiable need or benefit from establishing a similar "trip wire" to contain potential Chinese aggression. Japan does not want the U.S. to station troops there. If necessary, the Marines could relocate their forward based troops from Okinawa to Korea, replacing demobilized U.S. Army units.

A small U.S. Marine Corps provides expeditionary capabilities for overseas contingencies. The Air Force contributes to the nuclear deterrent (which the U.S. could also safely eliminate, but that is the subject of another post), vital air defenses, and airlift capability to support overseas operations. The Navy's submarine force provides the critical component of nuclear deterrence (ballistic missile subs are almost undetectable and have sufficient nuclear capacity that the intercontinental ballistic missile and manner aircraft launch platforms are a very expensive, unneeded redundancy). The Navy's carriers and surface forces, in conjunction with the Marine Corps and retained Army units, provide the ability to project power.

Demobilizing most of the Army's authorized end strength for fiscal year 2012 of 547,000 (keeping only 10%, say) would represent a huge savings of perhaps $100 billion with no reduction in the nation's safety. Reducing the size of the Army reserve and National Guard (together totaling almost 600,000 personnel) would generate smaller but still very significant savings.

This proposal is not anti-defense but pro-United States. The U.S. has huge unfunded and underfunded requirements that include repairing a crumbling infrastructure, soaring national debt, spiraling healthcare costs, and an educating system that is increasingly uncompetitive. Spending limited resources in ways that develop the nation will produce more benefits than wasting money on preparing to fight a massive ground war that the nation will never need to fight. Realistic mission appraisal and appropriate reliance on unmanned weapons systems will also permit substantial reductions in the size and force structure of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Government data mining and collection


Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the National Security Agency's extensive data collection operations, worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private firm with large government contracts. The incident has prompted several thoughts:

First, I have no problems with the government prosecuting Snowden. Snowden violated the law by disclosing classified government information. Snowden voluntarily obtained his security clearance, promising to maintain the secrecy of classified information given to him. People who divulge classified information should expect prosecution, as did Snowden. This helps to ensure the integrity of the system by providing a barrier against capricious disclosures.

Second, I applaud Snowden for divulging information about programs that he deemed detrimental to the nation. Informed public discourse will determine whether he was right. This view does not contradict my first point because doing what one perceives to be the right thing is not always without cost. People unwilling to pay a price for their beliefs do not hold those beliefs very dear.

Third, the U.S. government should not prosecute anyone who published or otherwise disseminated the information that Snowden revealed. These persons and entities (e.g., The Guardian newspaper) contribute to the public good by publishing news and have no legal obligation not to divulge classified information that they obtain legally, e.g., from a source like Snowden in contrast to conduct the newspaper conducting its own illegal wiretaps, break-ins, etc.

Fourth, I have mixed feelings about the U.S. government's data collection programs. At the present, there is no evidence that the government listens to phone conversations or otherwise mines the data that it collects without first obtaining the proper legal authority. However, over time government programs tend to expand rather than to contract, eroding safeguards rather than strengthening them. The danger of government overreach, of the government becoming Big Brother, is real; perhaps we are further down the road that most Americans realize. By raising public awareness, Edward Snowden has given the nation a gift.

Our Constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, free assembly, and security of one's papers – all drafted before the electronic information age – if they are to be meaningful in the twenty-first century necessarily seem to include the right to communicate confidentially with persons of our choosing via email, internet, and voice without the government knowing either the identity of our correspondents or the content of the communication. The Constitution recognized that on occasion government may have a legitimate need to search a person's papers or otherwise limit individual freedoms, and stipulated that the government must seek a court authorized search warrant and comply with due process.

When national security consistently and pervasively trumps individual freedoms, we have lost our liberty. I stand with Patrick Henry: Give me liberty or give me death. The loss of liberty is a greater harm than any terrorist threat the nation has or can face. By definition, terrorist threats are not existential, i.e., terrorism, the tactic/strategy of the weak, does not pose a threat to the nation's continued existence. Government surveillance, on the other hand, does pose an existential threat to individual freedoms.

The nation needs to have an extended and thoughtful conversation about where to strike the balance between individual freedoms and security, and about the appropriate criteria and legal mechanisms for authorizing the government to intrude on individual freedoms.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Losing the war against drugs


Several times, I have written posts arguing for the decriminalization of marijuana and against imprisonment as an effective way to fight illegal drug use, e.g., Ethical Musings Ending the war on drugs, Some data about the war on drugs, and Gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. This graph from Harold Pollack, The most embarrassing graph in American drug policy (Washington Post, May 29, 2013), underscores the abysmal failure of the war against illegal drugs:

 
(Graph published in the Washington Post courtesy of Peter Reuter, Jonathan Caulkins, and Sarah Chandler)

What the graph clearly shows is that putting dramatically more people in prison has done nothing to make illegal drugs less available. Indeed, just the opposite appears to have occurred. The street price of illegal drugs has plunged, indicating greater availability, as the number of people in prison for using or trafficking in drugs has skyrocketed, supposedly diminishing both demand and supply. A 15-fold increase in the number of people imprisoned for crack cocaine related offenses produced only a 5-15% increase in the street price of crack. Meanwhile, the percentage of the U.S. population that uses illegal drugs has remained relatively constant for decades.

Pollack's article reports that even politically conservative groups have begun to question the wisdom and cost effectiveness of imprisoning so many people.

Widely disregarded laws promote disrespect for the law in general. Imprisoning drug users and small-time dealers is costly, often alters the life trajectory of those individuals in unfortunate ways, costs exorbitant amounts of tax dollars to fund police, prosecutors, and prisons, and is ineffective. Conversely, decriminalizing marijuana and some other illegal drugs may increase respect for the law and law enforcement agencies, can generate a public revenue stream through taxation, and can free tax dollars for better uses such as funding drug rehab/prevention programs and deficit reduction.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Focused on marketing


During the course of my internship in a downtown Nashville parish, tasked to expand the congregation's ministry to the needy and the homeless, I met a man baptized four different times, each one in a church of a different Christian denomination. A homeless alcoholic, he kept hoping that baptism would "take," i.e., miraculously free him from his addiction and restore him to pre-addiction health and relationships.

 

However, sacraments are not magic. Whatever happens in a sure and certain means of grace, it is not a technique for manipulating God and producing guaranteed benefits. Preachers had oversold or misled this man with respect to God's power; he then used God's alleged failure to heal him as an excuse for remaining ill.

 

Pastoral ministry as selling connotes inviting people to share in opportunities to love their neighbors, care for creation, and encounter the living God. With proper pastoral concern and respect for the dignity and worth of others, we solicit commitments to the Church and to opportunities to serve and to participate in experiences that some people find helpful in experiencing the living God's presence and love.

 

Integrity requires selling the Church as an imperfect institution, a community of broken, hurting people who join in worship, ministry, and mission. I've learned to suggest approaches, techniques, and perspectives on the spiritual journey, helping persons learn and practice what they deem best suited to their needs and situation. I've discovered that people need, even want, to commit to a community, spiritual practices, and ethical living. But I never promise what God will do in a person's life, constantly surprised at what I discern as the moving of the Spirit. God is management; the rest of us are in marketing and sales.

 

Over the decades of my ministry, I've read several dozen books on evangelism written by authors, some Anglican and some not, ranging from conservative evangelicals like Paul Little and Michael Green to more liberal like Richard Armstrong and James Adams. I've explored friendship evangelism, the church growth movement, the Alpha course, the effective church, and others. In general, I've found them to be better sources of ideas and encouraging anecdotes than systematic thinking that resonated with me.

 

Instead, I have found a set of four basic marketing criteria that I learned in my MBA studies far more helpful. Known as the four Ps of marketing, these comprehensive, flexible, and easily remembered criteria are product, price, place, and promotion.

Product connotes the service or product that one offers. For the Church, what is our product? Who wants it? Why do they want it? (NB: The latter two questions demand practical, real life answers.) I find that thinking about product helps, even forces, a shift from vague platitudes (e.g., our product is relationships with God) to the specific (e.g., an opportunity to experience God through participating in a contemplative Holy Communion service or to feed the hungry by packing 10,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now). If an activity, regardless of what it is, is not part of the product we want to offer then it has no place in the institution. Facets of a product important for thinking about what the Church provides include its features, packaging, and branding.

Price connotes the product's cost to the consumer. The cost may be time (time spent in worship represents an opportunity cost because the person could spend the time in alternative ways), money (the cost of getting to the proper location, of food brought, or even of making a pledge), or effort (using one's talents). When I served in Hawaii, the value of Sunday morning worship to various attendees was obvious on Super Bowl Sundays. Attendance annually plummeted at late morning services, regulars opting to make party preparations or to watch pre-game TV instead of attending.

Place connotes how, when, and where the product is available. As a seagoing chaplain, I quickly realized that in port sailors wanted to get off the ship as much as possible. Sailors considered their ship, even for those who had no other place to live, primarily as a workplace. Underway, sailors would attend worship aboard the ship; in port, even the most devout on their duty Sundays, unable to go ashore to worship, would rarely attend a shipboard worship service. Likewise, mid-week noon services in suburbia may not make sense while noon services in downtown parishes may be very popular. Contemporary Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes on street corners is one highly visible attempt to find a better placement for the Church's product.

Promotion connotes communicating information about the product to potential consumers and includes both publicity (free) and advertising (paid). No longer can the Church reasonably expect potential consumers to seek out the nearest parish and automatically become active participants. We need to reach out to our communities in appropriate (Does anyone still consult printed yellow pages? If not, why buy an ad?), multiple media (Twitter, Facebook, Internet, mailings, perhaps radio or TV, etc.) with repeated messages about products they want/need, at an acceptable price, and at an agreeable place.

 

Many parishes have marketing pros among their active participants. These persons, with their practical knowledge of selling and marketing, are a rich resource for institutional transformation. Building a better mousetrap (or ball field, if you prefer that metaphor) is not enough. People no longer will come just because the Church is there. Instead, we need to develop an intentional ministry that highlights who we are and what we offer, communicating that message to those for whom it is appropriate (aka target marketing).

 

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently commented on H.A. Dorfman's The Mental ABC's of Pitching, a book on the psychology of pitching:

Others are eloquent about courage and creativity, but Dorfman is fervent about discipline. In the book’s only lyrical passage, he writes: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”

 

His assumption seems to be that you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind. …

 

A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.

By putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.

 

And by putting the task at the center, Dorfman helps the pitcher quiet the self. He pushes the pitcher’s thoughts away from his own qualities — his expectations, his nerve, his ego — and helps the pitcher lose himself in the job. ("Pitching with Purpose," New York Times, April 1, 2013)

 

The path out of the Episcopal Church's numerical decline is for us, laity and clergy alike, to return to the business of selling, i.e., pitching with a purpose. You can call this evangelism if you want but, I, for one, find that term too encumbered with unfortunate cultural baggage, often implying that humans are responsible for converting the world. God's graces changes people; people can also change themselves. Being a change agent means helping people have opportunities in which they may recognize the experience of God's grace and then to discern those moments of grace.

 

Ultimately, we're in the business of selling God. But in practice, we're in the business of selling a wide array of products to help people grow in love for God and others. Like any large, multi-faceted organization, accomplishing that mission requires people performing a wide variety of tasks that includes leading worship, preaching, teaching, pastoral caregiving, organizing, etc. However, selling is arguably the most essential of those tasks, one that only we can do and one too often undervalued and neglected.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Temperance


Temperance is the fourth cardinal virtue in the Christian tradition (the other three, addressed in previous Ethical Musings posts, are courage, prudence, and justice). Let's be clear: Temperance does not denote abstinence. The movement opposed to consuming alcoholic beverages, also known as the Temperance movement, has shanghaied a great concept, and debased it by taking it to an extreme (cf. Ethical Musings And God made wine to make us glad).

As with all of the moral virtues, except justice, Aristotle defined temperance as the mean, with respect to physical pleasures, between the deficit of insensibility and the excess of self-indulgence. Thus, for example, the person who abstains from consuming all alcoholic beverages other than for health reasons (which may include a spiritual discipline) is insensible to physical pleasure; the person who drinks to excess, whether on sporadic binges or daily (though not the addict, who suffers from a health rather than a moral problem), is self-indulgent.

Both the insensible and the self-indulgent person fall short of the abundant life. The insensible person needlessly foregoes some of life's pleasures. God created humans as physical beings and gave us good things (e.g., food, drink, and sex) to enjoy.

Conversely, the self-indulgent person becomes numb to nominally good things through excessive consumption. This is readily apparent in the case of the self-indulgent eater for whom obesity brings a diminished quality of life through degraded health, mobility, and self-image. A senior Sailor with whom I worked pushed hard for a transfer to an overseas port known for its affordable, numerous prostitutes, and brothels. He eventually succeeded in obtaining the transfer. A ship I was aboard visited the Navy base in that port about a year later. I chanced to encounter the Sailor. He was a changed man. In response to my asking what had happened, he replied that months of self-indulgence had left him empty, lonely, and depressed. So, he had quit the life of self-indulgence, found a woman he thought he loved, and settled into what he hoped would become a permanent relationship.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle's lead in defining the virtues as the mean between two extremes, broadened the concept of temperance to include moderation in most things. Aquinas taught that in addition to justice, one could not have too much of any of the three theological virtues, that is, faith, hope, and love.

I disagree. I think one can have too much of all three. Too much faith leaves no room for doubt, which excludes the possibility of growth, presumes that one knows the complete truth, and gives rise to a pride that precludes humility. Too much hope equates to an unbridled optimism that causes a person to misjudge the trustworthiness of others, to fail to plan for adverse outcomes, and to have difficulties coping when bad things do happen.

I doubt that we can have too much love for God. However, we can have too much love for another person. A love too focused on the other person eventually experiences difficulties because love flourishes best between people who are of equal worth; focusing love on the other tacitly implies that the lover is of less value. Excessive love, for example, often causes an abused person to remain with the abuser, wrongly convinced that only the abuser can, or will, love the abused.

The idea of the Golden Mean is foundational for Confucian ethics. Consequently, it was no surprise to read this teaching in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, a recently discovered document allegedly written by some of the very first Christians in China:

The golden mean, 'Act toward others as you would have them act toward you,' expresses the mysterious fact that we are all profoundly dependent on one another, all mirrors of each other, and all somehow participants in the same life. This is not just moral principle; it is the secret to living with joy and pleasure. (Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert, p. 71)

Together, developing the four cardinal virtues point the way toward the abundant life, human flourishing as God's children.