Friday, May 30, 2014

The problem at the VA

An Ethical Musings reader sent me these thoughts about the recent problems at the Veterans Administration:

I believe that one of the greatest weaknesses in our government today is the lack of strong Cabinet secretaries who have experience in their responsibilities. The reasons are obvious: the White House has increased its control over decisions made by departments; the secretaries are a refuge for out of office politicians; and the financial sacrifice that business executives have to make all works against having highly qualified people wanting to have a Cabinet position. What is the upside?

I believe one of the problems with the VA is what I believe is the benign neglect at the White House. This is not intentional, but it is not an area that anyone in the 'inner circle' of this or the Bush administration has a personal or political interest in – this is a mundane administrative issue as is Medicare and Medicaid – the only headline would be a bad one so who in the White House wants responsibility for that?

Since everyone in every administration on every level wants to do something 'important' and 'ground breaking,' very few politicians simply want to make the government simply work since that is both hard work and not noticed, since that is what government is supposed to do and who likes government workers anyway?

I think this reader has identified a huge problem with government today: nobody wants to "mind the store," doing the mundane, quotidian tasks that ensure people receive authorized services in a timely, efficient manner. The Civil Service certainly has many conscientious capable staffers, but, as with any system, that is insufficient. A ship with a good crew but ineffective or incompetent captain will eventually flounder. The same is true in government: departments, bureaus, agencies, and other entities require good leadership from the political appointees who comprise top management.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Some belated Memorial Day musings

Memorial Day (this past Monday) began as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who died in WWI. In the decades since then, the holiday has become both a major sales event (the triumph of commerce!) and a time to recall more generally the sacrifices of US military personnel, especially of those killed or wounded in combat.

Commemorating the sacrifices of military personnel—whatever the sacrifice and regardless of who made it—is hypocritical unless the commemorator also commits to ensuring that no future sacrifice is made in vain. Sadly, no way exists to alter the past and the thousands of US military casualties, along with those of other nations, pointlessly or even immorally injured or killed. Simply and indiscriminately commemorating the sacrifices of military personnel encourages a militarism that is antithetical to the essence of the world's great religions.

President Obama in his commencement address (full transcript) at West Point said,

Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. …

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. …

For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

I agree with his sentiments. I strongly disagree with several of the policies he implicitly and explicitly recommended in his speech:

  1. Obama failed to recommend cutting defense expenditures, apparently unwilling to tackle the military-industrial-political juggernaut that wastes valuable national resources on military equipment and personnel that are not essential for national defense.
  2. Obama described the outcome of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as victories. Iraq is falling apart. Afghanistan, in spite of our presence for 13 years has never achieved an effective national government. Both wars were failures. Tens of thousands of people are dead; the US alone has spent more than $3 trillion; yet, it is difficult to say that the world is a better or safer place because we fought both wars. Failing to encourage politicians to speak the truth unhelpfully paves the way for future military adventurism.
  3. Giving military and political assistance—regardless of the type of amount—to other nations to aid in combatting terrorism will not dramatically reduce the problem of international terrorism. Ending terrorism begins by the people whom terrorists threaten or attack developing the cardinal virtues of courage, prudence, justice, and temperance. The second step is seeking justice for terrorists by apprehending suspects for lawful adjudication, releasing the innocent and punishing the guilty. The final piece is to promote greater equality, political fairness, and distributive fairness among peoples from whom terrorists seek the recruits, resources, and other support that a terror group requires to flourish. Only a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism maximizes counterterrorism effectiveness.

On Memorial Day, we appropriately remember those injured or killed in the nation's service. However, we appropriately honor them when we commit ourselves to working to end militarism and to use the military only as a last resort when the cause is just and success seems reasonably probable.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pointing to the moon

In a globalized world, if there is any truth to religion, if there is some ultimate reality that humans can apprehend but that is not susceptible to scientific study, then one can reasonably expect all of the world's great religions to point toward that reality. My e-book, Charting a Theological Confluence, presents the rationale for that conclusion more comprehensively and systematically, analyzing four Christian options for understanding other religions. Those options range from narrow exclusivity to a broad pluralism that seeks genuine interfaith dialogue and mutual learning.

I have recently been leading a discussion group in the parish in which I serve of Paul Knitter's book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian. Knitter is a laicized Roman Catholic priest who now teaches theology at New York's Union Theological Seminary. He identifies himself as a hybrid, i.e., a person whose religious affiliation represents an amalgam of different traditions. He contends, correctly I believe, that everyone's faith is actually an amalgam of traditions and ideas—there is no such thing as a purely orthodox Christian, Buddhist, etc., because everyone unavoidably places his/her own imprint on any idea, a notion that coheres with what cognitive science teaches about how the human brain functions.

Knitter's methodology in Without Buddha is instructive. He begins by describing some aspect of Christianity that causes him difficulty, explores some aspect of Buddhism, and then considers what Buddhism and Christianity can learn from one another with respect to the issue(s) being discussed.

If a literal approach to Christian doctrine or the scriptures causes you difficulty (e.g., you have qualms about reciting the Creeds, finding the ancient formulations of Christian dogma problematic), you may find Knitter's book helpful. One of his overarching metaphors is that religious language is like a finger pointing at the moon: the finger is not the moon, but only a tool for giving the direction in which to look if you wish to see the moon. Similarly, religious language does not represent propositional truth but is only a finger for pointing to that ultimate reality which no words can adequately describe.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Musings at the death of a loved one

My mother-in-law died last week. She lived in a small town in northwest Georgia. The community rallied around my sister-in-law and her family, providing much appreciated emotional and logistical support.

The secular and sacred rituals surrounding the death offered a window on an alien culture. For example, some people stopped at the funeral home during visiting hours (itself a successor to the older custom of holding a wake) just long enough to sign the guest book, not even taking time to speak with one family member. As in many things, people hope that appearances will count for more than substance does; the non-stop, hectic pace of contemporary life is a catalyst for change.

A number of people who did attend the visiting hours emphasized that they wanted to pay their respects to the deceased. Their well-intended but unthinking words ignored the impossibility of doing that. The deceased was gone. The body, contrary to the assurances of the funeral home staff and others, did not look life-like. Death is the end of one's physical existence. The time to pay our respects, to communicate our love for someone, is while that person is still alive. Shared moments can be priceless and, once a person has died, irreplaceable. (For some thoughts on what life after death might be, cf. Ethical Musings What does life after death mean? and Is believing in life after death important?)

Trying to be kind and to offer words of comfort, a number of individuals said that my father-in-law, who died ten years ago, was waiting to greet my pain-wracked mother-in-law. I appreciate their hope that her suffering would soon end. There was little about her suffering that was redemptive or meaningful. However, the idea that her pre-deceased husband, with whom she had a long and loving marriage, was waiting in heaven for her lacks a solid foundation in orthodox Christian theology. Although the biblical witness is muddy, containing conflicting messages, the Christian tradition has consistently taught that the resurrection of all will occur at some future time and not immediately upon death. In other words, thinking that our deceased loved ones await us, ready to welcome us to heaven, is more an expression of sympathy than orthodox theology.

Furthermore, I cannot imagine that either of my in-laws, both of whom had multiple physical disabilities in old age, would want to live forever in the body as was at the time of death. Again, heartfelt sympathy more than solid theology often colored expressions of sympathy can concern.

I appreciated the many heartfelt expressions of caring and sympathy. Those same expressions also made me realize how shallow many of our thoughts about death are, i.e., death is a subject most people generally avoid and about which the Church typically offers little real instruction.

The most effective condolences were reminisces of times shared, whether joyous or painful, always moments in which one human connected with another. Those moments reminded me that life for many of us is way too short, that love is what makes life worthwhile, and that death inevitably follows birth (cf. Ethical Musings Musings about death).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sketching Jesus

Biblical scholar Gregory C. Jenks participated in the Jesus Seminar, organized by Robert Funk when he retired as Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature. Comprised of more than 80 scholars, the Jesus Seminar sought to find the historical Jesus, the man whose life and teachings proved so magnetic and powerful that they were the catalysts for the emergence of Christianity.

The following points are from a presentation by Jenks in a public debate with the Anglican Bishop of North Sydney in Brisbane, Australia, on December 9, 1998, "Behind and Beyond the Jesus Seminar: Implications for Christian discipleship." Jenks is summarizing Funk's book, Honest to Jesus, which itself summarizes the work of the Jesus Seminar.

1. Jesus appears to have been an itinerant sage who delivered his parables and aphorisms in public and private venues for both friends and opponents in return for food and drink.

2. He never claimed to be (nor allowed others to call him) the Messiah or a divine being.

3. Jesus taught a wisdom that emphasised a simple trust in God's unstinting goodness and the generosity of others. Life was to be lived and celebrated without boundaries and without thought for the future. He rejected asceticism.

4. Ritual ceremonies had no value. Purity taboos and social barriers were never allowed to come between the people who responded to God and one another in simple trust.

5. There were no religious "brokers" in Jesus' vision of God's domain. No priests, no prophets, no messiahs. Not even Jesus himself was to be inserted between a person and God.

6. To experience forgiveness one simply had to offer forgiveness to others.

7. No theological beliefs served as a test for participation in God's domain.

8. Apocalyptic speculation with future punishments for the wicked and rewards for the virtuous played no part in Jesus' teaching.

9. Jesus was killed because he refused to compromise this radical vision of life. Those defending the status quo with its elaborate brokerage system for religious favours had to destroy him or lose their hold over others.

While more recent summaries of research about the historical Jesus are available (for example, Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity), Funk's summary is worth considering. The summary provides a useful overview—a broad-brush picture—of who Jesus was, something that is too often lost because we tend to focus in reading, preaching, and teaching on small passages, parables, and incidents. This was Funk's motivation for launching the Jesus Seminar and for writing his biography of Jesus.

If you were to try to sketch, in outline form, a portrait of Jesus as you see him, what 5-10 points would comprise your sketch?

Monday, May 12, 2014

A global order in transition

The Westphalian settlement, the result of peace treaties signed in 1684 that ended both the Thirty Years' War of the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch, ushered the era of the nation state firmly onto the global stage. Since 1684, nation states have dominated the global stage and respect for national sovereignty has become the foundation of international relations.

In the twenty-first century, three factors seem to be eroding the stability of the Westphalian settlement:

  1. Massive multinational corporations have little national allegiance.
  2. New, non-state actors—such as the al Qaeda terror network—have emerged.
  3. Electronic communication increasingly makes national borders irrelevant for spreading ideas and moving money.

On the one hand, the emerging sense that humans are members of a global family offers the planet's best hope for the future. Reciprocal altruism, which began with concern for one's genetic kin, then progressively expanded to include clan, tribe, and nation, now appears to be stretching once again, to embrace all people and often all living things. Nationalism represents an exclusionary, parochial perspective that focuses on short-term gains rather than long-term survivability. Furthermore, nationalism is, at best, consistent with Christianity as only an interim measure, one that falls short of the Creator's concern for all creation and equal care for all.

On the other hand, respect for national sovereignty has helped to prevent wars, deterring nations—at least some of the time—from aggressive, overt interference in the affairs of other nations and empire building. These courses of action do not produce enduring positive results, as evidenced historically by the tragedies that resulted from European colonial empires and the more recent US fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Even the British in North American produced tragedy, e.g., the fate of Native Americans and the legacy of chattel slavery.)

In part, the Westphalian settlement lasted because multiple powers prevented one another from gaining permanent hegemony. The Cold War was the most recent of these contests. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been the world's sole superpower. This has not been good for the US or for the world. The US—nor any other nation, for that matter—cannot unilaterally solve the world's problems. US efforts to exercise hegemony have repeatedly failed. The current administration may or may not have a clear foreign policy; it may or may not seek to exercise US power assertively. However, our best hope for the future lies in other nations joining us as equal partners or the global stage. Engagement and not dominance represents the path with the best odds of leading to world peace.

Transitions are almost inevitably difficult.

In the UK, all three factors eroding the Westphalian settlement have produced a problem that is likely to become increasingly common. Affluence (the result of world trade, a function of multinational corporations) has resulted in many immigrants coming to Britain. These immigrants, influenced by their Muslim faith and foreign ideologues (i.e., formal and informal non-state actors communicating electronically), are attempting to take control of some of the state operated schools. In at least some Birmingham schools, for example, students a year short of graduation seen holding hands have been expelled. In a manner foreign to British values and traditions, which include a strong emphasis on pluralism, narrow-minded Islamist extremists have successfully imposed their standards on others, appropriately triggering public concern. (Investigative Project on Terrorism Blog, "Blueprint's Discovery Fuels UK 'Trojan Horse' Concerns," April 29, 2014) The US and Europe are likely to experience similar problems.

Another set of problems associated with the demise of the Westphalian settlement is the increasing desire among various groups—defined by factors including ethnicity, religion, etc.—to control their own destiny, either as a state within a state (e.g., the demand of Kurds for autonomy within Iraq) or as an independent nation (e.g., in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia). In the UK, this desire for autonomy is evident in demands for Welsh and Scottish devolution. The US, with its growing numbers of immigrants and racial tensions, will not be immune from similar demands.

Somehow, if Homo sapiens are to survive, let alone thrive, we must find a way to respect one another and to live together in harmony. Given our rapid destruction of earth's capacity to support human life, the imperative of peace with justice must cease to be regarded as hoping for pie in the sky and instead must set our personal and communal agendas.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An ancient saint still speaks

Some years ago, I visited Norwich, which is the shire town of the County of Norfolk, northeast of London. While there, I took a few moments to see the Church of St. Julian, the place at which Dame Julian of Norwich was an anchorite. A bomb destroyed the original building in 1942. The present Church, erected in 1953, is a reconstruction.

Little is known about Dame Julian of Norwich. She was born sometime around 1342 and died in 1417. Even her actual name is a mystery, the designation Dame Julian connoting the place at which she was an anchorite. Nothing is known of her early life. Following a grave illness at age thirty, Dame Julian had a series of visions (or, as she called them, showings) in which she had intimate encounters with God. She described these visions in her only writing, Revelations of Divine Love. The short text contains her 16 visions; the long text includes her subsequent prayers on and interpretations of those visions.

My visit to a rather uninspiring Church confirmed my pre-existing disinterest in Dame Julian. Voluntarily limiting one's life to a small room seemed wrong. God created humans with the ability to move about, ability that we have enhanced by devising various modes of transportation. More importantly, the idea that T.S. Eliot popularized and for which Dame Julian is best known ("All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.") appeared prima facie naïve if not patently wrong.

In the intervening years, intrigued that Dame Julian's popularity has remained constant, perhaps grown, I researched her. What I learned changed my thinking. Dame Julian has much to teach twenty-first century Christians.

First, Dame Julian described God as our Mother. Although that depiction may not seem remarkable today, it was uncommon in the fourteenth century and it continues to trigger negative criticism from evangelical writers as an unbiblical image. The image of God as Mother has critical implications for anyone who wants to defend maleness as a necessary qualification for ordination, for persons recovering from sexual abuse perpetrated by a male, and for persons struggling to move beyond gender specific images of God. Dame Julian similarly invites scientific literalists to enter a world of metaphorical realities.

Second, Dame Julian's showings (or visions) emphasized God's love and left her yearning for God. Paraphrased in our vernacular, she wrote,

Would you learn the Lord’s meaning in these showings? Learn it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What showed him to you? Love. Why did you see him? For Love. Hold yourself to this love and you shall learn and know more of the same.

For post-modern people who reject judgmental religion, Christian exclusivity, doctrinal narrowness, and superficial emotionalism that too easily masquerades as spirituality centering language and practice on love invites a genuine spirituality that engages with self, others, the world, and God. The Anglican mystic, Margery Kempe, known for her copious tears, groans, and the erotic imagery of her prayers, consulted Dame Julian for advice, regarding her as a gifted spiritual director who emphasized pragmatism over theological speculation. We do well when we let love light our way.

Third, Dame Julian's confinement as an anchorite visibly reminds us, in the midst of over-committed and hectic lives, both to prioritize God ahead of all else and of how even the most physically challenged individual can make a difference in the world. I regret not having known more about Dame Julian when I served my first parish, calling on a woman so severely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that she never left her bed (a different type of cell), yet who spent hours daily praying for other people. Yet this woman was no saint. At times, she made life hell for her husband and daughter. Dame Julian might have inspired this woman to love the people in her life more fully for, like her, the anchorite relied upon the daily assistance of others to survive.

Finally, Dame Julian's optimism, for which she is widely lauded, was no pie in the sky, opiate of the masses, Christianity. She lived through plagues that decimated Europe. The Hundred Years War bankrupted England during her lifetime. As with the affluent today, the English nobility refused to pay for the war and, in 1380, they instituted a poll tax so burdensome that the peasants revolted. She declared "All will be well!" in spite of having witnessed unmerited suffering, unending poverty, and unimaginable hardship.

Reputedly, Albert Einstein when asked what is the most important question, responded, "Is the universe a friendly place or not?" Apparently, Dame Julian had asked that question. And her answer that all will be well reflected her convictions that God is love, is active in the world, and will somehow, sometime, in some unknown way, bring, guide, lead, or lure creation to the goodness that God intends.

Would I choose to confine myself to a small room in order to concentrate more fully on God? No. So radically, permanently, and unnecessarily narrowing my life would actually impair my ability to pray. I would resent not feeling the sun, wind, and rain; I would rue the people not encountered and places not seen. Do I subscribe to Dame Julian's theology in total? No. Her understanding, for example, of Jesus' passion as atonement for sin when read through a modern lens problematically resembles either child abuse or masochism.

However, I am thankful for Dame Julian and for what she can teach contemporary Christians. I find myself agreeing with Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 275), that Dame Julian is one of the greatest English theologians, someone who lived the Christian life writ large and for whom my appreciation deepens with the passing years. All will be well, for God loves the world and all who dwell therein; all will be well, and God calls us to proclaim that message and to join in transforming the world.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Biological anthropologist Robert Trivers in his book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, identifies seven categories of self-deception (pp. 15-27):

  1. Self-inflation, i.e., self-aggrandizement
  2. Derogation of others, i.e., wrongly belittling another person
  3. Biases of power, i.e., power distorts one's view of self, others, and world
  4. Illusion of control, i.e., thinking one has more power than is the case
  5. Construction of biased social theory, i.e., wrongly conceptualizing how one's social group functions
  6. Moral superiority, i.e., mistakenly believing you occupy the moral high ground
  7. False personal narratives, i.e., inventing, intentionally or otherwise, an autobiographical story that is not factual.

Trivers persuasively argues that self-deception results from both human genetics and cultural influences, suggesting that the split may be 50-50. Deception is also pervasive. For example, in courting, humans universally give thought to personal grooming, seeking to convey a particular image. Genetics predispose a liking for certain body types or shapes; culture shapes plumage preferences.

In what ways, large or small, do you engage in deceit or self-deception? Who does this harm? Who benefits from it?

I'm unconvinced that all forms of self-deception and deceit are wrong. Someone who always speaks the truth, as s/he sees it, is at best socially awkward and at worse sometimes needlessly cruel. Some forms of self-deception may induce us to become a better person as we pretend to be a person that we hope to become (some forms of psychotherapy rely on this technique as does the power of positive thinking popularized by clerics such as Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller). Integrity may connote seeking to walk a path more fully, reavling who one hopes to be, instead of consistently and accurately revealing who one is.

In these 50 days of Easter, how can self-deception constructively lead to living more abundantly?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Capitalism and inequality

Does capitalism increase or diminish economic inequality? Alternatively, is capitalism neutral, neither increasing nor diminishing economic inequality? I know of no economist who argues for the neutrality of capitalism. Karl Marx famously argued that capitalism inexorably increases the disparity between the wealthy and everyone else. More recently, Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets has argued the opposite, that capitalism diminishes inequality. Who is right?

Thomas Piketty, in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (tr. Arthur Goldhammer), offers a theory of capitalism intended to resolve that debate definitively. Piketty, who lives and works in Paris, established his reputation as an economist through exhaustive historical studies that demonstrated present levels of economic inequality in the United States resemble those of the Gilded Age, the period of the robber barons that ended with WWII.

Piketty's analysis hinges upon his contention that the rate of return on capital owned by the wealthy generally exceeds the rate of economic growth, which he captures in the formula r > g. Data from the last decade certainly supports his analysis. Many poor and middle class people possess little capital, i.e., they have no investments or savings apart from any equity they may have in their home. Many among the poor and middle class who do have some capital invest that capital in various types of bank or money market accounts, all of which now pay a negative real rate of return (the nominal rate of return is less than the rate of inflation). These people accumulate additional wealth—or perhaps hold their own—only as they are able to save part of their current income.

The wealthy, in contrast, invest substantial amounts of capital in assets that have significantly increased in value even during the last decade's general economic malaise. They achieve positive results by having more capital to invest, using professional money managers to access investment vehicles not generally available, foreign investments, accepting more risk, a tax code biased in their favor, etc. For the wealthy, their rate of return (r) has exceeded the economic growth rate (g). Economic inequality has indisputably increased and it seems likely to continue doing so.

On the one hand, I'm not ready to abandon capitalism. Capitalism, more than any other economic system, promotes economic growth by providing individuals an incentive to take risks and to innovate. While reflecting on Piketty's assessment of capitalism, I read an opinion piece by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal, "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out" (April 25, 2014). Ridley is a former academic, an ecologist, and a member of the British House of Lords. He argues that pessimism about limited resources and the inevitable destruction of the planet's ability to support life resemble earlier, similar claims, such as those of early nineteenth century economist David Ricardo. Human innovation and behavioral changes (e.g., agricultural improvements, birth control, and declining birth rates) altered the assumptions on which Ricardo had based his predictions. Ridley contends that this is likely to occur again, pointing, for example, to the discovery of vast new supplies of natural gas, consumption of which is far less damaging to the atmosphere than is consumption of petroleum.

On the other hand, Piketty's case for the increase in economic inequality is persuasive. Like me, conservative New York Times' columnist David Brooks accepts that pessimistic assessment. ("The Piketty Phenomenon," April 24, 2014) Piketty's admittedly unrealistic ukase is to establish a global tax on the wealthy, which Brooks rightly dismisses. Brooks, to my surprise, advocates a tough inheritance tax and measures that will encourage saving, investment, and innovation. I agree—cf. Ethical Musings' Some thoughts about inheritances. Unlike Brooks, I'm also convinced of the need to situate capitalism within a regulatory structure that will prevent abuses. Without adequate regulation, capitalism easily leads to monopolies (think, for example, of the Standard Oil Trust or disk operating systems), unsafe products (remember the meat packing scandals of the early twentieth century, vehicles manufacturers know are unsafe, etc.), and exploitation of workers (why unions gained traction).

While a utopian community of shared assets appears congruent with Christian ethics, early Christian experiments in socialism failed. More recent experiments based on Marx's economic theories produced disastrous results. Capitalism is clearly the preferable economic system. The challenge, from the perspective of Christian ethics, is to structure through law, regulation, and taxes capitalism in a way that promotes innovation, economic productivity, and care for creation while ensuring an adequate social safety net and preventing excessive economic inequality. The Christian scriptures and tradition support each of those criteria. What the Christian scriptures and tradition do not provide are specifics, which are historically contingent rather than absolutes.