Thursday, January 28, 2016

When will we learn?

Last week, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, suggested that the US might integrate members of its armed forces with Iraqi military units at Iraqi bases as part of the effort to recapture the city of Mosul from ISIS.

His pronouncement is bad news for two reasons. First, the warning indicates that Iraq's military and civil governments are not up to unilaterally defending Iraqi territory from ISIS aggression in spite of thousands of US casualties and billions of dollars in aid. Almost fifteen years after Saddam's defeat, Iraq still lacks a stable, effective government. Second, the US appears to be on the verge of expanding its continuing, although currently low key, military presence in Iraq. Sending more troops will inevitably lead to more casualties with little prospect of achieving enduring gains.

Immediate control of Mosul is strategically unimportant. The fundamental strategic needs are for peoples in the Middle East to exercise self-determination and agree to peaceful coexistence.

ISIS is an insurgent movement that aims to establish a state, a global Caliphate governed by its extremist version of Sharia. If ISIS only had aspirations as a state, the US and its allies would handily finish defeating it. ISIS in the last year has suffered repeated losses and now governs less than 75% of the territory it controlled a year ago. Furthermore, people ISIS rules are widely dissatisfied. ISIS has had to employ increasingly harsh measure to coerce compliance from the people it governs. Concurrently, recruitment of foreign fighters is slowing. M of ISIS' current fighters are growing demoralized and disenchanted.

However, ISIS is actually both a state and a political/religious movement. ISIS retains significant popular appeal in the region. Many disenfranchised Sunnis in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East believe that ISIS represents their most viable, perhaps only realistic, option to better their lot in life. Foreign military victories against ISIS are unlikely to alter that perception.

Instead, ISIS' defeat and ultimate demise as a political/religious movement will happen only when its putative constituents believe that a more viable path exists for realizing their aspirations for their children to have greater opportunities for better lives, economic prosperity, improved physical security, and progress toward self-determination. No external organization or state can impose these changes.

The US should stop meddling in Middle Eastern internal affairs (i.e., withdraw all military personnel, halt all arms sales, etc.), guarantee Israel's continued existence (but not its borders), and strongly endeavor to convince other states to follow suit. The peoples of the Middle East need and deserve the opportunity to establish states and borders of their choosing (not have to live with states and borders European nations created at the end of WWI). The emergence of these new states will be messy, slow, and conflicted. However, this represents the region's best hope for peace. Incidentally, the current global oil glut, the lifting of Iranian sanctions, and oil shale production in North America, diminish the potential adverse economic effects on the rest of the world from implementing this policy.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Brokenness as the source of healing

A class discussion during the first week of my second semester of seminary left me feeling unsettled. One of my classmates nonchalantly remarked that she was attending seminary to search for mental and spiritual healing. Several classmates quickly echoed her sentiments. I dissented. I was not attending seminary to work on personal issues. Instead, I had reluctantly concluded that God was calling me to ordained ministry because that ministry was how I could do the most to make the world a more just, peaceful place. Seminary, I hoped, would provide the knowledge and skills to equip me for effective ministry.

At some points in the conversation, I sensed that at least a few of my classmates regarded personal brokenness as a prerequisite for ministry. That idea conflicted with my self-image. Although I have never considered myself perfect or whole, I still had enough self-awareness and confidence to recognize that I, a child of privilege with reasonably good health, had the relational competence, education, and marketable skills to live well without attending seminary. My understanding of call emphasized service and not self. Any personal benefits that might accrue from ministry seemed incidental rather than essential.

My efforts to convince my seminary classmates that Jesus' power to heal the sick was not dependent upon Jesus' being ill or broken failed. I have occasionally wondered what happened to my classmate who attended to seminary to find healing. I hope she found the path to health that she sought without becoming an unintentional source of hurt for others.

However, during almost four decades spent in collegial ministry, much of it in a supervisory capacity, I almost inevitably observed problems when the sick tried to heal the sick. Sometimes it worked. Most often, it ended in tragedy, e.g., as occurred in the ministries of a former Suffragan Bishop of Maryland and that of a gifted colleague at the Naval Academy who was arrested for public indecency.

Thankfully, effective ministry does not require health, wholeness, or perfection. If it did, the Church would not have any ministers, lay or ordained. Nevertheless, effective ministry requires awareness of one's disease(s), brokenness, or imperfection while having sufficient health (1) to set and keep appropriate boundaries to avoid harming others, (2) to be a channel of the grace that heals self and others, and (3) to be an icon in and through which others meet God.

Twenty years ago, a laicized Roman Catholic priest, a former vocation director for his diocese, told me that a major reason he had left the priesthood was that his superiors, faced with declining vocations and desperately needing priests, repeatedly lowered the standards of candidates for holy orders. This became intolerable when his superiors directed him to accept candidates they knew had serious mental health problems.

Pressures to accept individuals and move them through the ordination process are growing in The Episcopal Church (TEC). Even though TEC currently has no shortage of clergy, too few are willing to serve small congregations, particularly in rural or geographically remote areas. Consequently, some dioceses are developing alternative ordination paths. Hopefully, these dioceses will maintain TEC's historic insistence on refusing to ordain those with significant mental, physical, and spiritual impairments. Admittedly, TEC's screening never identified every troubled individual; furthermore, clergy sometimes develop problems after ordination. Yet the process, as I know from watching hundreds of chaplains from faith groups without similar screening requirements, is essential for safeguarding the health of the Church and well-being of its members. Concurrently, a few diocesan ordination processes appear reluctant to impose stringent requirements for mental, physical, and spiritual health on putative ordinands, wanting to honor the call the individual and sponsors think that they have heard.

TEC's continuing numerical decline will inevitably increase pressures to generate ordinands. Ironically, the necessity of ensuring healthy ordinands varies inversely with institutional health. A more stable, institutionally flourishing Church has far greater capacity for identifying clergy with problems, minimizing the harm those individuals can do, and guiding them into wellness programs and positions that provide close supervision. A weaker institution has less resilience, less capacity for averting harm from dysfunctionality, and more pressure to accept aspirants.

My sporadic, though continuing, reflection on classmates' explanation that they attended seminary to find healing has deepened my appreciation for metaphors about Jesus that connect brokenness and ministry. Brokenness in these metaphors does not connote illness or imperfection. Illness and imperfection may help a minister to stay grounded in his/her humanity, reveal the minister's need for healing, and encourage awareness that s/he journeys as a fellow pilgrim. But this brokenness can never displace or replace God as the source of healing.

Instead, brokenness in metaphors that connect brokenness and ministry connotes Jesus giving himself in love to us: his life poured out (spent) for us; his wounds (physical and emotional pain suffered because of his uncompromising love) being a source of healing for us; his emptying himself (becoming human) that we might become whole. Through his being broken for us (both his passion and in Holy Communion), we enter into the health of his wholeness. God's love flowed then and now through Jesus to heal the sick and restore the broken to life.

My ongoing prayer asks that I may be broken (spent, emptied, or poured out) so that the love of God and neighbor may increase. In living into that prayer, I have experienced life, love, and God more deeply than I could have imagined when a seminarian.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Lessons in community

The Golden State Warriors – reigning champions of the National Basketball Association – provide three lessons for creating and strengthening community, which Ed Frauenheim identified in his article, "Lessons from the Warriors" (Fortune, January 1, 2016, p. 16):

  1. Have fun. Too many congregations are not having fun. Declining attendance, financial struggles, seemingly unending conflict over priorities, policies, and programs can leave a congregation full of negative emotions that unintentionally discourage participation and growth. Healthy congregations are fun places to be to which people want belong and from which people derive great satisfaction. God created people to enjoy life, not to be miserable.
  2. Care for each other. Tragedy and pain are inescapable in every life. Few people, however, suffer great pain and experience large needs every day. This allows us to have the capacity to care for one another, which Jesus articulated as a basic tenet of Christian community ("I give you a new commandment: Love one another.").
  3. Cooperation is key. Everybody has ego needs; humans are hardwired to be self-centered. Nevertheless, nobody succeeds in living abundantly entirely because of individual talent and effort. Working together, people can achieve more than any person can achieve acting alone. The Apostle Paul's metaphor for this truth is the body: no part of the body can exist by itself; all of the parts are necessary; as a whole, the body can do absolutely wondrous things, none of which any part of the body can do by itself.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Anglican Communion update

Last week (January 11-15, 2016), the Anglican Communion primates gathered in Canterbury for the first time in four years. The statement they issued at the end of their conversations singles out the Episcopal Church for special treatment because of recent canonical changes that broaden the blessing of marriages to include same sex couples as well as heterosexual couples.

Many deem the special treatment to be sanctions imposed against The Episcopal Church (TEC):
… for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

The vast preponderance of Episcopalians and other Anglicans will be unaware that these sanctions exist, much less feel any pain because of their imposition. Indeed, TEC faces a much more important agenda than prioritizing internal Anglican Communion issues, i.e., self-renewal that will reverse the continuing decline, a need repeatedly addressed in this blog.

Concurrently, the Anglican Communion has at least preserved – perhaps only temporarily – an appearance of unity. The primates described their conversations as a gathering and not a meeting, a distinction that is more semantic than substantive. Unity within the body of Christ is important. Accepting the sanctions for three years, sanctions alter neither who we are nor how we journey as God's people, seems a small price to pay for contributing to the preservation of an appearance of Christian unity.

Critically, TEC's prophetic witness that God loves all people, regardless of gender orientation, continues unchanged. The statement that the primates issued does not disclose the views of individual primates or whether any of them supported TEC having broadened its understanding of marriage in ways that more fully cohere to the gospel mandate of God's equal love for all people. As the Most Rev. Michael Curry told the gathering,
Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
Other members of the Anglican Communion (e.g., the Anglican Church of Canada and the Church of England) are moving toward expanding their views of marriage.

Today, the United States commemorates the ministry and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign for racial justice civil rights did not begin with Dr. King, reach its apogee in his powerful oratory and tremendous accomplishments, or end with his death. Similarly, I am persuaded that the campaign for a truly inclusive church did not begin with TEC or end with the primates' meeting. TEC's witness and continuing Anglican Communion conversation about gender and marriage, even with the sanctions, are hopeful signs that God is not yet finished with the Communion and that love will triumph over bigotry and brokenness.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

North Korea's recent nuclear weapon test

North Korea claims to have tested a thermonuclear weapon (widely called a hydrogen or H-bomb). An excellent article Science News article (Thomas Sumner, "Five things science can (and can’t) tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test," January 6, 2016) summarizes the reasons why it is likely that North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon but not a thermonuclear device. Most basic, a thermonuclear weapon would have caused a much larger tremor.

On the one hand, North Korea's continuing nuclear weapons program does not cause any new worries. No other country is in a position to stop North Korea's weapons programs. Although the test has cause perturbations in China, North Korea's staunchest ally, China lacks the influence to persuade North Korea to change. China, like the US and other states, has more to lose than gain from waging a war to coerce North Korea to change.

North Korea's leadership clearly has some different values and goals than do the leaders of most states. However, North Korea's leadership has given no indication that it is either suicidal or intent or initiating a nuclear war that would result in total devastation of North Korea. The leaders of other states (e.g., President Obama) recognize North Korea's bluster, braggadocio, and attempts at bullying for what they are and wisely want to avoid the types of misinterpretations that erroneously led to the second Gulf War against Iraq.

On the other hand, the almost unfathomable destructive capacity of nuclear weapons (a small thermonuclear device packs a punch equivalent to 1,000 of the bombs the US dropped above Nagasaki in WWII) should prioritize arms control and non-proliferation.

First, the US should dramatically reduce its nuclear arsenal. These weapons and their delivery systems are expensive, needlessly redundant, and taunt other states to engage in unproductive arms races. One step the US could take unilaterally to deescalate nuclear weapons' competition is to eliminate the ground and air components of its nuclear triad, relying only upon ballistic missile submarines. These subs are virtually undetectable and pack sufficient punch to destroy any enemy five or more times (the number depends upon the enemy's size). Another step the US could take is to phase out ballistic missile subs as those subs reach the end of their expected service life (this will happen in the next decade). Instead of replacing the current Ohio class subs with a newer, yet more expensive ballistic missile sub, the US could modify some of its hunter-killer subs to launch ballistic missiles (these subs can already launch cruise missiles). The cost of the modifications, along with the cost of the missiles, will be less than a tenth the cost of replacing the Ohio class subs with a new class of ballistic missile subs. In a list of probable national security threats, nuclear war rates as highly unlikely. In an era of multiple real threats and limited defense dollars, the US and its citizens stand to gain much from eliminating wasteful, unnecessary programs and expenses.

Second, making these moves will earn the US significant credibility in the global community, thereby bolstering its efforts at both arms control and promoting nuclear non-proliferation. This will further enhance US national security interests at no cost to taxpayers.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Holy Baptism

Image result for free images of jesus baptism

Baptism is an event comprised of six acts: renunciation, washing, crossing, anointing, dressing, and receiving light. My sermon on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which also marks the Baptism of the Lord, explains the relevance of each of these acts for twenty-first century Christians.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Long term trends

What will human life be like fifty years from now?

Here are some of my ideas (in no particular order):
  • Increasing percentages of populations over age 65 will change, in a positive direction, societal attitudes toward the elderly. Societies will place more value on the wisdom, potential economic contribution, and political influence of its older members. Concomitantly, societies will begin to shift away from preoccupation with youthfulness.
  • Intermarriage will continue to erode racial prejudice. Externalities – race, gender, ethnicity, visible indicators of religious identity – provide a convenient means of group affiliation and therefore will remain a source of unjust discrimination.
  • English will strengthen its linguistic dominance. Meanwhile, pockets of English dialects will multiply.
  • Compared to today, the average home size in the developed world will have fewer square feet in fifty years. Family size may have diminished slightly. More significantly, people will widely rely upon a single, wireless electronic device to connect with others as well as to access massive amounts of entertainment and educational materials on the internet. Cameras, watches, CDs, and DVDs are already rapidly becoming obsolete. Typing will have become anachronistic, superseded by voice commands and data entry. 3-D printing will further reduce a need and desire to own lots of stuff. Meanwhile, Homes and electronic devices will consume less energy and require fewer natural resources to produce, thereby reducing environmental harms.
  • US political power will become further centralized in the executive branch. Reasons for this shift will include:
    1. States and municipalities increasing their financial reliance on federal largesse
    2. Presidents from both parties will use executive orders to fill the power void created by Congressional stalemate
    3. Special interests prefer to enact national change rather than fight the 50 plus battles locally driven change requires
    4. Winning political campaigns will require ever-vaster sums of money.
  • Within fifty years, the US will experience a constitutional crisis. Among the possible outcomes are a military dictatorship, a civilian dictatorship (perhaps preserving the appearance but not the substance of popular democracy, with power residing in a small, self-selected elite), or – most unlikely – a renewal of genuine democracy. This latter option seems most unlikely because:
    1. Citizens feel increasingly alienated from the government, no longer believing that government belongs to each citizen (more broadly, the greater the population size, the more difficult it is for citizens to feel ownership of and responsibility for their government)
    2. Diminishing numbers of citizens feel a responsibility to contribute to the nation by paying taxes, serving in the military, personally participating in the political process, etc.
    3. Power, once concentrated a small elite, is difficult to pry loose.
  • The US will adopt a national healthcare system to replace the current hodgepodge approach that will become financially unsustainable. Meanwhile, life expectancy will continue to lengthen and overall individual health will improve through more effective treatment and better prevention.
  • Recreational use of illegal drugs will be decriminalized. Forces contributing to this change will include political leaders currying favor with the populace by seeking to satisfy consumer demands, the recognition that the war on drugs has failed abysmally, and both financial and political pressure to reduce the size and cost of the incarcerated population.
  • Employment will shrink, concurrently expanding time for self-development, leisure, and other pursuits. Technological changes will enable fewer workers to produce more goods. Automation will further reduce the need for service workers. Efforts to share employment equitably will achieve some reductions in working hours but will not be able to avoid the emergence of a de facto underclass whose members never find employment. Increased demand for leisure, education, and services will only partially offset the decreased employment due to advances in technology and automation.
  • Achieving the goals of space travel and extra-terrestrial colonization will remain elusive. High costs, the uncertainty of tangible returns on investment, and competing priorities will combine to defer realizing aspirations in outer space.
  • The world will not:
    1. Be engulfed in a third world war or experience a nuclear Armageddon
    2. Suffer a worldwide financial collapse comparable to the national financial collapse the US experienced in its Great Depression
    3. Be visited by aliens, much less find itself locked in a life or death struggle with alien invaders.
  • The earth and its peoples will:
    1. Suffer from increased weather extremes as a result of human caused climate change
    2. Experience sporadic pandemics, although none will cause death on the magnitude of the Black Death or the worst Spanish flu pandemic
    3. Find that terrorism and insurrections are continuing threats, especially as new states emerge and existing borders shift to better align with ethnic, racial, religious, and national identities
    4. See new alliances and federations emerge as states recognize the economic, political, and security advantages of cooperation over myopic focusing on self-interest
    5. Have harnessed a source of energy that is largely climate neutral, creating tremendous financial investment opportunities while shifting economic power away from oil producers and oil exporting states
    6. Have stabilized its human population but nevertheless shift toward a diet less reliant on animal protein, having by then largely overfished the oceans and become more sympathetic to the concerns of both animal rights advocates and environmentalists

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that I will be alive in fifty years to assess the accuracy of my predictions. Nevertheless, the exercise was an enjoyable catalyst for musings about directions and developments in global and local trends over the next half century.

What do you predict will happen in the next fifty years?

Collectively, we can improve my prognostications. I am also willing to bet that if Ethical Musings' readers developed a set of mutually agreed predictions for what life would look like in fifty years, surprises would still occur but we would nevertheless have identified many of the most significant changes.

In what way(s) can these predictions enable people move toward greater happiness and flourishing? Where are the opportunities for profit and the dangers to avoid? How can an individual use these predictions to help the world to become a healthier, safer, more prosperous, and more peaceful place?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Predicting the future

For the past few years, I have made predictions for each upcoming year and then reviewed the accuracy of my predictions at the end of the year (my most recent effort, for 2016, was my last Ethical Musings' post in 2015). In reflecting on that process this year, I realized that the preponderance of tectonic changes politically, economically, and socially occur gradually over a period of years.

For example, fifty years ago when I was in high school, the personal computer did not yet exist. The computer I used to learn programming filled a small room. I could slow its operations to a point where I could follow its execution of a program using lights on the computer's console. Today, a smart phone has more computing power than did that mainframe. However, the emerging prevalence of computers and their major role in early twenty-first century life was not at all obvious to me in 1966, perhaps because I gave little thought in those years to assessing large-scale social changes or perhaps for other reasons. Similarly, in 1966 I failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union's collapse, or the acceptance of same sex marriage.

Occasionally, I have identified the future consequences of current events. For example, during discussions of moving toward an all-volunteer military I argued, occasionally feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness,  that eliminating the draft would create a growing divide between civilians and the military. This has occurred. Few members of Congress or their children are veterans. Opinion polls show that growing numbers of US voters advocate sending ground troops to fight ISIS but that they are personally unwilling to serve.

I also argued that in time a professional, all-volunteer force would erode the underpinnings of democracy and make a military coup more likely. US political and economic dependence on the military-industrial-Congressional complex continues to grow. In a world with a diminishing number of wars and military threats, the US continues to spend exorbitant sums on its armed forces, buying weapon systems for which no demonstrable need exists. Concurrently, Congress avoids voting directly on resolutions to authorize the use of military force. Members fear the political ramifications of taking a stand should subsequent events prove that stand ill advised. Furthermore, Congress funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through deficit financing, thereby dodging the political consequences of imposing taxes to pay for those wars.

While still in college, I recognized that the dominant economic model with its presumption of unending economic growth was flawed. First, the globe has limited physical resources. Second, people can only consume so much stuff. Third, automating production, whether with a steam engine at the beginning of the industrial revolution or through use of a robot in the information era, reduces the need for labor. Consequently, fair distribution of wealth will require a more equitable distribution of employment (e.g., fewer hours of work per day or week). Some European nations have already reduced the average workweek. In the US, failure to address these concerns has led to increased economic inequality. The affluent now rely upon low wage service providers to take care of life's menial and unpleasant chores such as yard work and, unfortunately, childcare.

This post's purpose is not to tout my prescience. Indeed, some of my predictions have been wrong. Other times, I have been oblivious to the first indicators of profound social changes. On still other predictions, the jury remains out.

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, I want to emphasize that most changes occur gradually, over a period of years. Discerning those changes and mapping adaptive strategies requires leaders to spend time reflecting and thinking. Second, although annual predictions have value, developing and acting upon longer range predictions – if accurate – can have far greater value. Tangentially, successful investors such as Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch who advocate a buy and hold strategy recognize the great value of relying upon longer-term predictions.

My next Ethical Musings post will enumerate some longer-term predictions. If you have some of your own, please add them as a comment or send them to by email.