Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent

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Advent is the season of the liturgical year in which Christians prepare remember Jesus' birth, celebrate their commitment to living as his disciples, and look forward to the time when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Advent began yesterday, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and ends with the coming of Christmas.

In some times and places, Advent observances have had a strong penitential flavor. That does not make sense to me. We should celebrate good news. Turning away from one's sin can help a person to align him/herself more fully with God. However, Jesus was, and will be, born regardless of whether I turn from sin toward God.

Thankfully, a growing number of Churches and congregations are setting aside the idea that Advent is a penitential season. Symbolizing this change, royal blue is supplanting penitential purple as the seasonal color. Blue recalls Jesus' Davidic lineage (a maternal lineage according to the New Testament!) and the promises of hope, peace, and life from God that Israel believed it had received.

In the hustle and often-stressful rush of Christmas preparations, this year I have set two personal goals. First, I hope to keep my preparations in perspective. That is, to see the preparations as symbolic acts: gifts and cards as tokens of love for family and friends; decorations as catalysts for the Spirit; special meals as opportunities to cultivate deeper relationships.

Second, and similarly, I want to carve out some time each week (perhaps the hour or so that I spend in a worship service on Sunday morning) to reflect on the pearl of great value contained within the earthen vessels that are Christian theology and the Church (cf. my recent Ethical Musings' post on Jesus, Christ, and Christianity).

If interested, my sermon for the First Sunday of Advent is here.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Wishing someone a "Happy Thanksgiving!" can have two very different meanings.

The greeting may simply convey hope that the greeting's recipient will enjoy a break in her/his ordinary routine. Implied in that wish may be thoughts of extra time with family or friends, a sumptuous meal, and watching sports or a parade on television.

A more thoughtful interpretation of "Happy Thanksgiving!" is that we should be grateful. Gratitude requires both something for which to be grateful as well as someone to whom to be grateful. Prior Ethical Musings' Thanksgiving posts (e.g., in 2013 and 2014) have emphasized the importance of not blithely regarding all good things as God's blessings upon us. That perspective falsely implies that God frowns upon, or has even cursed, persons who do not enjoy those blessings. Instead, true gratitude focuses on those gifts, such as love and inner strength, that we truly receive from another. The giver may be God or another human.


Happy Thanksgiving! And may you take time to number the gifts for which you are thankful and give thanks to the ones who gave you those gifts.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus, Christ, or Christianity?

An Ethical Musings' reader requested my thoughts on Mohandas Gandhi's statement,
"l like your Christ, but not your Christianity."

Admittedly, there is much about Christianity to dislike. Gandhi personally experienced much evil done in the name of Christianity. Injustices he suffered from people who used Christianity to justify their actions included racism, colonialism, and imperialism. In fairness, much good (e.g., campaigns to abolish slavery, to respect the dignity and worth of all persons equally, and to care for the sick) has also occurred because of Christianity, but critics prefer to emphasize the negative.

Christianity – even at its best – is an earthen vessel. Humans who find the Jesus path helpful, who experience in trying to walk in Jesus' footsteps the one who is life itself, have discovered a pearl of inestimable value. Many who tread the Jesus path want to preserve the treasure they have found as well as to share it with other people. This initiates well-intended attempts to encapsulate the infinite in finite human words, actions, and traditions. Invariably, the process dilutes and distorts the experience. The word "Christ," which means savior, represents an effort by followers of Jesus to encapsulate in human words who Jesus was and what he meant to them. Had Jesus not had any followers, nobody would even know that Jesus had been born, lived, and died.

Similarly, pilgrims who try to follow the Jesus path band together, united by shared goals and commitments. When these pilgrims journey together, even if they number only a handful, they quickly realize that they can move forward more easily and quickly if they cooperate, adopt some rules, and organize themselves. Thus is born the institutional church, which is both an essential blessing and an unavoidable bane for pilgrims.

The greatest challenge for anyone who wants to follow Jesus today is to decide who Jesus is and what he taught. The four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament (i.e., the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are all earthen vessels attributable to humans and codified by the church. Non-biblical sources of information about Jesus are generally more suspect historically. These sources include non-canonical biographies such as the Gospel of Thomas and references to Jesus in other writings. Nothing that Jesus may have written has survived. Nor do we have any sketches or paintings of Jesus made by an artist who actually knew Jesus.

In sum, the dichotomy Gandhi articulated may seem attractive but is actually false. Apart from Christianity, nobody would or could know Jesus. Gandhi himself developed his positive opinion of Jesus the Christ through information he gleaned from Christianity's earthen vessels, regardless of his overall assessment of Christianity.


What Gandhi recognized in the Christian tradition, what he called the Christ, was what he experienced in his own Hindu tradition. That is, the earthen vessels of theology and organized religion are earthly vessels containing the same pearl of inestimable value, the ineffable and infinite mystery that is life itself, that which many call God.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why I do not worry about terrorism

I do not worry about terrorism for four reasons.

First, as I explained in last Ethical Musings' post, "Responding to the Paris attacks," terrorists have never prevailed against a democratic government. Terrorism poses no real threat to the United States or other democratic nations as long as we hold fast to our cherished political values of freedom, respect for others, and self-determination. Terrorist attacks are likely to occur, a relative handful of people will become casualties (about 479 in the Paris attacks, counting killed and wounded, which is a tragic but negligible percent of France's 66 million residents).

Second, I personally can do almost nothing to avoid being injured or killed in a terrorist attack. However, I also am confident that democratic governments take every reasonable step to avoid future terrorist attacks. In fact, my concern is just the opposite. Governments take not only every reasonable step but also many steps that are unreasonable. Unreasonable steps include measures that (1) are not cost-effective (e.g., the cost of armed air marshals flying on US commercial airliners far exceeds any potential benefit), (2) fail (government tests repeatedly show the multi-billion dollar Transportation Security Administration's passenger screening is ineffectual), or (3) tacitly cede victory to terrorists (e.g., invasive government data collection and mining that destroys personal privacy and freedom). Political leaders and government officials are now so afraid of the public blaming them for any terror attack that occurs that governments seek to implement both every reasonable and unreasonable measure to avoid a future terrorist attack. Unfortunately, terrorists have too many targets from which to choose to make the goal of preventing all future attacks feasible.

Third, terrorists kill very few people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ten leading causes of death in the United States in 2013 were:
  1. Heart disease: 611,105
  2. Cancer: 584,881
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
  4. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
  6. Alzheimer's disease: 84,767
  7. Diabetes: 75,578
  8. Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
  9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
  10. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149
War ranked as the #112 cause of death; terrorism did not even make the list. Although I cannot do much to prevent dying in some of these ways, I choose to focus my energy and efforts on taking measures to achieve realistic goals. I exercise regularly, eat and drink in moderation, use sunscreen, do not smoke, have an annual flu shot, try to maintain mental health, etc. These measures do more to improve my quality and of life and longevity than anything that I can do to prevent becoming a casualty in a terrorist attack. Furthermore, since I do not live in fear of heart disease, cancer, and other leading causes of death, realizing that I will inevitably die, I see absolutely no reason to live in fear of the statistically insignificant threat that terrorists pose.


Fourth, and in view of the foregoing, I recognize that the media finds reporting about terrorism exciting and rewarding. A never-ending, 24/7 news cycle, generates an insatiable demand for new stories. The stories that captivate the most public attention are immediate, dramatic, and filled with pathos. Reporting about terror attacks fits those specifications. I, for one, believe that effective, just counterterrorism depends upon not allowing the mass media to dictate my political priorities, personal values, or emotional responses to terrorism, terror attacks, or terrorists.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Responding to the Paris attacks

Last week, Islamist extremists killed 129 people and wounded more than 350 others. How should a Christian respond?

First, Christians will respond with compassion and care toward all the attacks have harmed. Those harmed include not only individuals numbered among the casualties, but also their grief stricken families, family members of the attackers left grieving and bewildered by the seemingly incomprehensible actions of their loved ones, and all of the thousands whose quality of life the attack left diminished because of heightened fears and security measures. At a minimum, these people all deserve our prayers. Persons in a place to offer assistance that is more direct should accept that responsibility.

Second, Christians will attempt to model, and encourage others to emulate, a response shaped by the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance. Courage is important because the terrorists win only through instilling fear in others. A courageous community attacked by terrorists can defeat terrorism by prudentially taking proven, cost-effective defensive measures, insisting on justice for both the attacked and terrorists, and temperately refusing to overreact through either costly, ineffectual security measures or excessively violent attacks on alleged terrorists. I develop this analysis more fully in my book, Just Counterterrorism.

Third, Christians will seek to live hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Peace is our dream. However, as with most births, the process by which peace becomes reality is fraught with dangers and generally entails considerable pain. The vast majority of terrorists are sane individuals who see so little hope for ending injustice that they adopt terror tactics or strategies out of desperation. The weak, never the strong, adopt terrorism. No movement has ever succeeded in achieving its goals through a terror campaign waged against a democratic government. In fact, once a terror group gains sufficient strength to adopt guerilla or conventional warfighting tactics and strategy, the group invariably ends its reliance upon terrorism. Terror groups gain strength through building public support for the group's goals. No group can successfully cultivate that support unless at least some of the group's goals involve ending egregious and widespread injustice. Military and law enforcement efforts to end a terror group rarely succeed without concurrent governmental reforms to end the legitimate injustice(s) that enable a terror group to gain traction with its potential supporters. (Just Counterterrorism presents extensive evidence in support of these conclusions.)


In particular, extirpating or severely degrading one Middle Eastern Islamist terror group (e.g., al Qaeda) will only lead to the emergence of a successor group(s) (e.g., ISIS) until significant progress is achieved toward improving justice for all in the Middle East. This improvement must include establishing a viable Palestinian state, promoting genuine self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East that allows them to draw new borders, and ending support for economically beneficial despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

No longer homeless

In September, I wrote an Ethical Musings' posts about homelessness, reflecting on my experience of not having a residence for five months. While my experience was dramatically different from the experiences of homeless people who live rough on the streets experience, those months did give me a better understanding of the problems of being homeless.

Similarly, once again having a home has awakened a fresh appreciation of the benefits of having a home. A fixed place of abode enables fuller participation in the community and modern life (e.g., voting, mail delivery, and assured internet access). Having a home also provides greater security for the occupants and their possessions. Homes offer a place to sleep, access to potable water and sanitary facilities, and a kitchen in which to both store and prepare food. Perhaps most importantly, a home gives its occupants a place to enjoy the spiritual benefits of safely resting, relaxing, and renewing themselves.

In the US, women now comprise 47% of the labor force. Yet women, on average, still spend more time on household chores than do men (about 2.5 times as many hours!) and consequently have less time for leisure activities than do men (about a half hour less per day). Over the last two decades, these statistics have remained relatively constant.

Ending my months of homelessness has prompted several thoughts:

  1. Feminism rightly decried the lack of value most societies placed on homemaking and the underlying lack of respect and equality for women by men, women, and cultures.
  2. The struggle for female equality is not yet won, either in the US and Europe or in other cultures.
  3. Devaluing homemaking is not the path to female equality. Individuals and families benefit from having a good home. Perhaps one of the contributions that gay married couples will ultimately make to the larger community is to show that homemaking is not a gender-based skill. Similarly, perhaps one of the gifts that lesbian married couples will ultimately make to the larger community is showing that labor force participation is not a gender-based skill. Creating a good home requires considerable skill and effort.
  4. Most arguments by alleged Christians about family values are at best distractions and at worst actually erode support for one if not both of the two most basic, important family values. Those values are (1) a strong bond between two loving adults who (2) build a good home by sharing responsibilities in way that they have negotiated, embodies healthy interdependence, and is mutually satisfying.
  5. Researchers are repeatedly finding that the members of strong families enjoy greater prosperity and health. Conversely, persons whose family of origin or choice is broken or severely dysfunctional are more likely to be poor, suffer ill health, and commit crimes. Unfortunately, research also broadly confirms the biblical warning that parental sins and troubles have adverse consequences for children and the children's children.
  6. In sum, people of faith and society as a whole will benefit from greater public emphasis on the value of good homes and homemaking. Concomitantly, ending homelessness is often the essential first step toward enabling someone to move toward resuming a life of economic independence, positive social engagement, and an existence consonant with God's intent for each of us.

Monday, November 2, 2015

All Saints Day and foreign missions

All Saints Day is November 1. On that day, some Christians annually remember all who lived the faith large and have died, especially those for whom the Church has not set aside a particular during the Church Year. Other Christians commemorate All Saints Day more broadly, remembering all of the faithful who have died. Consonant with this theme, a congregation may offer special prayers for those who died during the past year.

All Souls Day is November 2. On that day, Christians have historically offered prayers for all those who have died, especially Christians who have died.

I prefer All Souls Day to All Saints Day. Saints provide role models for people seeking to walk in Jesus' footsteps, people who want to live ethically and abundantly. Saints can be positive alternatives to contemporary celebrities whose claim to fame most often is rooted in their athletic prowess, ability to entertain, wealth, or political popularity. These may be good but none is the rock on which to build a truly abundant life.

Nevertheless, All Souls Day is more basic. All Souls Day is a time to remember that God loves everyone equally and always. There is no life apart from God.

Some time ago, an Ethical Musings' reader inquired whether Christian missionary efforts endanger people in other countries and whether Christians should attempt to convert non-believers. Recent news items reporting the diminishing number of indigenous Christians living in the Middle East and Southern Baptists downsizing their overseas mission presence because of funding constraints prompt these answers to the reader's questions.

Evangelism is and is not important. That sentence is neither the equivocation nor doublespeak that it may seem at first glance. Evangelism, defined as becoming a catalyst for helping people to discover and walk a path to more abundant living, is important. This type of evangelism best promotes love for God and expresses a profound love for one's neighbor. However, this meaning of evangelism is not the equivalent to converting people to Christianity. Walking in Jesus' footsteps is one path to God that many people find helpful. Other paths also lead to God. Numerous people find traveling a path other than Christianity helpful and life giving. Aiding those people on their journey, without attempting to redirect their footsteps toward another path, is genuine evangelism. (Readers interested in an in-depth analysis that supports this view might want to read Charting a Theological Confluence.)

Sending missionaries from one culture to another is fraught with dangers. Foreign missionaries have too often brought intentionally, and more recently unintentionally, the destructive baggage of imperialism (religious, economic, political, and/or cultural). The missionary enterprise frequently embodies an implicit assumption of superiority that precludes the mutual respect, friendship, and learning inherent in building community. The persecution causing Christians to flee the Middle East has its roots in a long history of economic exploitation, political oppression, and religious exclusivity that exemplify some of the worst Christian missionary endeavors.


Jesus fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the outcast, and healed the sick. It is sufficient for contemporary Christians to emulate his example. Whether others choose to call themselves Christian or to walk the Jesus' path is ultimately unimportant. On All Souls Day, give thanks for everyone for all are God's people.