Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hard and not so hard political choices

Several states have recently passed laws regarding civil rights for LGBT persons. These laws tend to restrict individual rights. They were apparently enacted as a backlash against the Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. One state that has passed such a law is North Carolina, where I lived prior to moving to Hawaii. North Carolina's law prohibits North Carolina localities from passing laws to protect the rights of LGBT persons and stipulates that individuals use the public restroom provided for persons of the gender listed on the individual's birth certificate.

By nature, I intend toward libertarianism. That is, I think that laws should be a last resort; people should enjoy maximum freedom. However, laws should establish boundaries that equitably limit the individual exercise of freedom.

For example, individuals should not have the right to discriminate against other persons based on religion, sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, race, or gender orientation. Permitting same sex marriage in no way devalues or diminishes heterosexual marriage. Arguably, just the opposite is true: legalizing same sex marriage increases respect for intact families, regardless of the composition of those families. Prohibiting municipalities from banning discrimination against LGBT persons harms LGBT individuals and harms the wider community by diminishing the state's expectation that its citizens will respect the dignity and worth of all persons. In other words, North Carolina's law limits freedom and sanctions rather than ends immoral discrimination.

North Carolina's law is also unenforceable. Who will check the genitals of all persons wishing to a use public restroom? Furthermore, will the state require everyone to carry her/his birth certificate to prove she/he is using the proper restroom? One North Carolina sheriff opposes the law as unenforceable (he refuses to station his deputies outside of public restrooms) and, because the law is so patently unenforceable, as having the unintended consequence of tacitly promoting disrespect for law and order.

If I still resided in North Carolina, I would advocate replacing gender specific restrooms with facilities designed to accommodate everyone. One option is individual restrooms. Another option is to have individual stalls (some might have only a urinal) and a common wash area. Single parents with a young child of the opposite sex can face difficult decisions when the child needs to use a public toilet. These options avoid these problems.

The fact is that the hullabaloo about restrooms masks prejudice against LGBT persons that the law allows to become immoral discrimination. I heard similar bogus arguments against allowing LGBT persons to serve in the military. When finally forced to integrate, the military had no significant problems. People simply need to respect one another as God's creation, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Mutual respect is not a panacea for all political conflict. Hard choices do exist. For example, abortion opponents generally believe that life begins at conception and abortion is therefore murder. Proponents of abortion rights disagree that life begins at conception. Both sides agree that murder is wrong. Unfortunately, answers to the question of when life begins remain elusive. Abortion is therefore a political question that forces hard choices. How can we respect individual choices and beliefs while also not legalizing murder?

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, often will begin with easy questions (e.g., LGBT rights) and then proceed to harder questions. Sometimes, the best feasible outcome is to agree to disagree, accepting that living in a democracy means that one will not always have one's opinions prevail.

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, can sometimes advance by parsing large issues into smaller issues. For example, treating abortion as a complex problem rather than a bifurcated choice between murder and respect for life can move a conversation forward while reducing the number of abortions, a goal about which most people agree. Laws against abortion have proven ineffectual and harmful. Women who seek abortions obtain them from unlicensed practitioners in potentially dangerous ways. Furthermore, the number of women who seek abortions declines as the number of unplanned pregnancies declines. Improving access to birth control therefore is an effective approach to reducing the frequency of abortion. Also, convenient and affordable alternatives to abortion, such as the morning after pill, can further reduce the number of women seeking abortions.


In sum, politics need not degrade into irreconcilable polarization. Most people – that is, almost everybody except sociopaths – have good hearts, solid civic values, and a positive vision of communal life. Together, we can uphold the rights of all through mutual respect while constructively promoting the common good in public discourse and government.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Freedom and submission

We humans value freedom for at least two reasons. First, the idea of freedom is integral to our self-image, i.e., we generally think of ourselves as being free and widely identify freedom as a primary good. The central narratives of the Old and New Testaments, the Exodus and the resurrection, both have liberation as their defining theme. Second, because we humans believe that we are free, we hold one another morally accountable for our actions. Conversely, we deem it morally unjust to hold a person morally accountable for an act over which the person had no control. Analogously, we blame any wrongs done by a drone not on the drone but on the person(s) who authorized, programed, or controlled the drone.
Given those observations, what do the several biblical exhortations to live as a free person mean for twenty-first century Christians?
Forty plus years ago, the instruction I received in seminary tended to juxtapose freedom in Christ and bondage to sin. The latter pole was clearly evil, interpreted using historical, linguistic, and theological analysis that relied upon analogies with slavery, captivity, cravings, and compulsions. The former pole, freedom, was the good, made possible by Christ's atoning death. I do not remember anyone paying much attention to physiological factors that might limit a Christian's freedom.
Today, that juxtaposition of freedom and bondage easily seems inadequate and dated. Personal knowledge or experience of bondage is meager. Slavery, which is almost universally illegal, mainly exists in opportune shadows. Slavery's tragic legacy in the U.S. and elsewhere at best affords only opaque views of its horrors. We treat addictive cravings as the diseases that they are instead of erroneously viewing addicts as sinners who have chosen to live in bondage. Most importantly, we seem to be in the midst of what Robert Schuller perhaps presciently labelled a new reformation. Theologies of positive living and self-help as paths to freedom are rapidly displacing the old paradigm in which Christ liberates sinners.
Concurrently, contemporary discourse about human freedom in the sciences, social sciences, and sometimes the humanities often focuses on questions of whether the twin determinants of human behavior, DNA and nurture, allow any possibility for human freedom. DNA (i.e., a person's hardware) significantly determines a person's physique, abilities, and interests. Nurture – the family(ies), culture(s), and geographies of one's formative years – shape the brain patterns (i.e., human software) that, along with DNA, determine mental processes.
Perhaps the phrase limited autonomy most accurately describes human existence, sited tentatively and imprecisely between free and determined, but almost certainly much closer to the latter than to the former. Scientific advances constantly re-chart the uncertain boundaries that demarcate where and when humans appear to exercise some measure of choice. Theologians and ethicists ignore these charts at the potential cost of misclassifying human behaviors.
We emulate Jesus when we charitably and situationally understand limited autonomy in ways that manifest love and justice. This framework importantly and broadly exegetes biblical exhortations to live as a free person in terms of human flourishing. Illustratively, the revised model recognizes illnesses unrelated to sin (e.g., a cancer caused by a spontaneous DNA mutation), illnesses caused by sin (e.g., giving an STD to one's partner after unprotected sex with a prostitute), and illnesses caused by unintentional systemic failure (e.g., lead water pipes installed to provide clean water that we now know can harm the unsuspecting). Freedom may connote maximizing one's quality of life, healing and forgiveness, or working for systemic improvements while caring for individuals.
In addition to the inherent physiological constraints that limit freedom, human freedom should also have moral limits. John Dunne memorably, if unknowingly, hinted at these limits in his poem, "No man is an island":
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Donne's gender specific language sounds discordant to my twenty-first century ear. In part, that is because I hear the bias and exclusivity his words convey. To say that Donne intended his words to include men and women is to remove his words from their original cultural locus. Women, under English law, had more in common during Donne's life with chattel than they did with free persons.
Yet Donne's insight into human connectedness was correct. The death of another person – Syrian refugee, Liberian victim of Ebola, hungry child in drought stricken Bangladesh, affluent nursing home resident, or anyone else – diminishes my existence. Globalization, environmental concerns, and geopolitics relentlessly tighten the bonds linking us to one another.
Additionally, Donne's anthropocentric language sounds discordant because I increasingly recognize my connectedness to other species and to the earth itself. My actions may have consequences not just for me but also for other humans, other species, and the planet itself. The butterfly effect, chaos theory's colorful term for the potentially huge aftereffects of a seemingly inconsequential action, reminds me that my exercise of freedom can have multiple unintended, outsize effects on people, species, and things distant from me in time and space.
Both civil government and ecclesiastical structures thus should aim to constrain human freedom in ways intended to optimize and to balance the common good, the flourishing of all creation, and individual liberty. In contrast, mob rule, bullying, every type of autocracy, and the tyranny of the majority are all forms of subjection that elevate the well-being of a few above the common good and that deprive all of equal opportunity to flourish. The exclusionary policies promoted by many candidates in the 2016 elections pander to narrow slices of the electorate; these policies exemplify the breakdown of our civil structures' commitment to the common good and equal opportunity for all. Similarly, biblical exhortations to live as free persons rightly prompt Christians to reject prior generations' exclusionary lenses (masculinity, creedal homogeneity, cultural superiority, etc.). Instead, Jesus calls his disciples to support expansively inclusive and connective ethical perspectives. He challenges us to develop an ever-richer, more comprehensive ethic of reciprocal altruism that will eventually widen our civil and ecclesial circles of concern to embrace all creation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The end of politics as we have known it?

The emergence of populist, extremist candidates has dominated the public's attention in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses, although there is no assurance that one of those candidates will eventually win election.

On the left, Bernie Sanders' popularity signifies discontent with the center and business as usual. Sanders is a self-identified socialist who has caucused with the Democrats in Congress but steadfastly refused to align himself with that party. Nevertheless, he now is in a hard fought battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On the right, in a once crowded field of more than a dozen only three candidates remain. Donald Trump has effectively tapped into an angry electorate's desire for political change. Many of his supporters feel disenfranchised. A true demagogue, Trump has modified his positions to cater to the far right GOP base. At times, some of his comments appear designed to attract media attention while not necessarily representing his actual political views. He styles himself as a dealmaker, but a close examination of those deals raises serious questions about his business acumen, e.g., several of his business have gone bankrupt, leaving him personally unscathed financially but harming his creditors and investors. Trump's main opponent at this point in the contest is Ted Cruz, a senator with whom other senators find cooperation very problematic. Cruz, like Trump, seems happy to be a loner and taps into much of the same anger as has Trump has. The only non-extremist remaining is John Kasich who has struggled to gain traction with voters.

Electorates tend to have normal distributions, i.e., graphically represented by a bell shaped curve. Consequently, effective governance generally occupies the center of the political spectrum formed by the electorate. Attempting to govern from far right or far left (as opposed to somewhat right or left of center) imposes the views of a minority upon the majority and can set the stage for political disruption, perhaps even revolution. Sharp political swings in some South American countries, in which government shifts abruptly from the far right to far left or vice versa, exemplify these problems. In the United States, post-Civil War reconstruction provides the clearest and saddest examples of this pattern. Policies and laws that might have fully integrated freedmen into the nation's political and economic mainstream fell victim to struggles between Radical Republicans and white supremacists (for a fuller exposition of this history, cf. Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction).

Effective governance in the center entails civility (i.e., respecting one's opponents and avoiding ad hominem attacks) and compromise by finding common ground on goals if not means (i.e., people have shared values and nobody has all of the good ideas). Neither civility nor compromise seems very popular in 2016.

The 2020 election cycle seems likely to be more polarized and divisive than the current election. If so, at what point does representative democracy stop functioning? When will power, which abhors a vacuum, gravitate to such an extent to the presidency that the President becomes a de facto dictator?

For example, national government provides essential services upon which most people depend. These essential services include national defense, transportation infrastructure, law enforcement, enforcement of health and safety regulations, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and much more. The President lacks statutory authority to spend federal funds until Congress appropriates them. In the past, brief government shut downs have occurred when Congress failed to appropriate funds. What might happen if Congress becomes so dysfunctionally polarized that it is unable to pass spending authorizations for an entire fiscal year? Alternatively, what might happen if Congress and the President are so polarized, and Congress unable to override a Presidential veto, that the government must operate for an entire fiscal year without fiscal authorizations? You may have be able to suggest other scenarios caused by government paralysis.

Furthermore, the U.S. political system presumes a two-party system. If the Republican and Democratic parties collapse at the same time, what will happen? Nations with more than two major political parties can sometimes function through coalition governments, a more viable political alternative in which the head of government is a prime minister who is not also the head of state (Great Britain, unlike the US, is an example of this). Thus, in the U.S., a multi-party political system will more probably result in government paralysis, or near paralysis, than in effective government. Weak, ineffectual government will inevitably degrade security, diminish economic growth and competitiveness, increase the federal government's cost, and erode democracy's underpinnings. Italy, which has a prime minister and multiple weak parties, illustrates the long-term consequences of ineffectual and ineffective governance.

New political parties have occasionally replaced an existing U.S. political party, e.g., the Whigs disappeared as the Republicans rose to national prominence. The odds seem to be against two new political parties simultaneously replacing the two now dominant parties. However, if only one of the current parties collapses (or is shattered into irreconcilable fragments), perhaps a new party will emerge, forming new coalitions, articulating a fresh agenda, and constituting a vibrant, healthy opponent for the other party.

Representative democracy is not ideal, but it is the best system of governance of which we know. I remain optimistic about the future of democracy in the U.S. I do not think that the United States is at risk of devolving into a collection of independent states, as might happen with Great Britain. Nor do I believe that most Americans want tyranny, even though I am persuaded that most Americans want good governance and are unhappy with the current performance of Congress, the presidency, and probably the judiciary.


Hopefully, a plurality of citizens – what Richard Nixon once described as the silent majority – will decide to act. This silent majority (albeit one with a different composition than the one Nixon identified) by restoring civility to public discourse, becoming more involved in political processes, courageously voting for the common good instead of self-interest, and pushing elected officials to govern effectually through compromise and respect for the dignity of all can revitalize American democracy. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Politics 2016

English has some evocative, anthropomorphic collective nouns for groups of animals. For example, a group of lions is a pride, of whales is a pod, of crows is a murder, and of geese is a flock. One the loudest, most obnoxious, aggressive, and least intelligent primates is the baboon. A group of baboons is, perhaps appropriately, a congress.

Pundits frequently bemoan the lack of great candidates running to become the next president of the United States. A woman with whom I recently spoke voiced considerable frustration that in a nation of 300 million plus people, the political process could not identify stronger candidates. She also lamented the apparent dominance of the political process by a handful of families.

Democracy breaks down when citizens cease to feel that they own the political process. Among worrisome signs of this disengagement from politics are (1) lower voting rates, (2) fewer people identifying with a political party, (3) political outcomes that increasingly benefit the privileged few, and (4) describing the government as "them" rather than "us."

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both tapped into this disaffection, albeit from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Sanders is a self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats although not a member of the party. Trump lacks political experience and often attracts supporters who identify with his disdain for politics even though they disagree with his policy positions.

What would Jesus do?

First, Jesus understood human connectivity. Jesus described himself as the vine and his followers as branches. This metaphor emphasizes the essential connectivity between people through which life flows. The Apostle Paul described the Church as the body of Christ. In this metaphor, life and usefulness both depend upon a member's connection to the body. More broadly, the Psalmist describes humans as God's vice regents to whom God has entrusted the responsibility of caring for creation. This metaphor, which was familiar to Jesus who was a Jew and steeped in the Scriptures, underscores the mutual interdependence of all life and the key role that humans play in sustaining creation.

Second, the aim of politics for God's people is about living together peacefully. Peace, in both Greek and Hebrew, denotes the fullness of human flourishing and well-being. Because of our connections to one another and to creation, peace results only when all flourish and have equal opportunity to achieve well-being. Jesus, himself a political animal, sought to promote human flourishing in his teaching, healings, and way of life. Similarly, Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers.

Third, I think that Jesus would weep over the current state of politics in the United States. He would find the almost complete absence of concern about other people disheartening and see the proclivity of Christians to promote narrowly focused, self-serving agendas as clear evidence that his alleged followers had failed to comprehend the basics precepts of his teachings and love.


Perhaps recovering Jesus' political agenda in 2016 begins with getting to know Jesus again, and then attempting to imagine him onstage in both Republican and Democrat presidential debates.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Eternal life - what is it?


In Eastertide, this Ethical Musings' reader query seems especially timely:
When a person dies, do you go wherever you deserve? Are you in your youth or just the way you died without pain? Also, if we live to eternity, then I like a comic believe that I would not like it.
The reader's last comment is frustrating and intriguing because s/he offers no explanation why s/he would not like eternal life. Below, some reflections on the possible appeal of life eternal follows a reprise of a previous post, What does life after death mean?

What does life after death mean?

Life after death does not and cannot denote a continuation of physical existence. Many of the atoms in each human body have previously been part of another human body. Even substituting replacement atoms would result in a physical body that is not literally identical with a person’s original body. Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people (including the elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased) would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have.

Alternatively, one of my seminary professors, process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, contended that life after death consisted of a person living forever in the mind of God. Although that proposal has its challenges (e.g., how can a person sustain an independent existence?), her suggestion avoids the difficulties inherent in traditional physical and spiritualized definitions of life after death.

The Christian scriptures offer little help beyond a consistent affirmation that there is life after death and that this is a positive experience. The images and metaphors for life after death, as one would anticipate, have strong roots in the authors’ historical and cultural milieu. After all, what other images and metaphors would make sense to an author or to the author’s audience?

Christian biblical scholars and theologians have generally supported a dichotomous view of life after death: heaven for God's people and hell for all others. They sometimes understand hell as death, because apart from God no life can exist and because the idea of eternal punishment seems incongruous with a God who is love. A minority of biblical scholars and theologians, notably including William Barclay as well as the 18th and 19th century Universalists, have argued that God's love so firmly embraces each person that all receive the gift of eternal life.

Epistemologically, little or no evidence exists for life after death. Investigators routinely debunk claims of alleged contact between the living and the dead. The world’s great religions diverge widely in their teachings about life after death. Hinduism and Buddhism both teach reincarnation; ultimate liberation in both religions consists of ending an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by entering into unity with the ultimate. Some Jewish traditions still teach that death marks the end of a life. Christianity and Islam both affirm life in heaven for the faithful. This lack of consistency makes drawing a conclusion based on human experience problematic.

Reflections on the possible appeal of eternal life

The possibility of eternal life may appeal to persons in four different ways. First, some persons so enjoy this life, and yet recognize the possibility for even greater enjoyment in an unlimited future, that they find the possibility of eternal life very appealing. Second, some persons experience so much pain and suffering in this life, that the possibility of a new life, one without pain, suffering, tears, or death has great appeal. Third, and more broadly, some persons believe that this life rarely if ever provides justice for the righteous and the wicked, a justice possible only through eternal life. Fourth, if God's love for people is as great as many believe, then God's love, which knows no boundaries or limits, can find fulfillment in eternity.

Regardless of why the possibility of eternal life appeals, I find conventional images of eternal life hugely dissatisfying, e.g., strumming a harp while drifting about on a cloud or of unending, never changing perfection.

Change is essential for me to find something interesting, enjoyable, and beautiful for the long-term. The prospect of an eternity of stasis – never-ending, never changing, sameness – feels more like an eternity of punishment than of blessing. Comedians have long joked about preferring to party in hell than bask in the glory of heaven, jokes we find funny because of our aversion to stasis.

Furthermore, I have repeatedly contended in Ethical Musings that God is dynamic and not static. If there is life after death, I see no reason to believe that life is unchanging and every reason to expect that it will represent opportunity for continuing to have new and ever richer experiences.


Alternatively, perhaps one of my seminary professors, Marjorie Suchocki, is right when she suggests that eternal life consists of a person's eternally enduring memory in God's mind.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Pope Francis' Statement, "Love in the Family"

Pope Francis recently issued a statement on "Love in the Family" to the Roman Catholic Church.

The statement is long (264 pages), its rhetoric frustrating difficult to follow, and, most importantly, does not represent a break with any of the Roman Catholic Church's formal positions.

Instead, "Love in the Family" takes two small, but perhaps significant, steps. First, "Love in the Family" stresses the importance of the Roman Catholic Church offering a supportive welcome to diverse person and families. Francis obviously recognizes that kindness and mercy, far more often than rigid legalism, characterize Christ-like love. Second, Francis advocates a limited decentralization of authority. Observing that local situations can vary considerably amongst dioceses and parishes, he calls for local leaders to develop policies and programs appropriate for promoting love within the family.

Predictably, neither conservative nor liberal elements within Roman Catholicism praised Francis' statement. Conservatives voiced concern that the "Love in the Family" might lead to an eventual weakening of Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage. Liberals expressed disappointment that Francis had not changed any of the Roman Catholic Church teachings that they find too narrow or exclusionary, e.g., not welcoming the full inclusion of LGBT persons, not moving toward accepting same-sex marriage, etc.

I appreciate the shift in tone, both in rhetoric and pastoral practice, Francis hopes to implement in the Roman Catholic Church. However, I agree with Francis' liberal critics: Francis needs to revise basic Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality and the family. More fundamentally, improving the tone of Roman Catholic rhetoric and pastoral praxis will not staunch the flow of Roman Catholics from that Church. As is the case with other faith groups, the Roman Catholic Church needs to grapple with the question of why anyone should bother to be part of a Catholic Church (cf. my Ethical Musings post, Why bother with church?).


On a more positive note, both steps have the potential to launch forces that Rome may one day rue because it cannot control them, forces that many people inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church will applaud. Will welcoming diverse persons and families cause some of those persons and families to become so integrated within some Roman Catholic dioceses that their presence becomes a catalyst for more radical, far-reaching change? Will the shift away from centralizing all power in Rome become an uncontrollable cascade that leads to an eventual splintering of the Roman Church?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Why bother with church?

In a recent conversation with another Episcopal priest, who after many years as a youth minister is now an active duty military chaplain, the chaplain commented that many of the young adults to whom he ministers do not see any reason to bother with God or the Church. Religion seems superfluous to them.

His observations prompted some musings about the question, Why bother with church?

Three traditional answers to that question have increasingly little power to change lives or behavior. First, growing numbers of people no longer regard the Bible as authoritative. Pointing to biblical injunctions to attend worship, exhortations about the body, which is the church, being incomplete without every individual Christians participating, and Christ as the vine who sustains the individual, is often a futile means of encouraging attendance or participation.

Second, few people spend much time contemplating questions about the possibility of life after death and, if life after death does exist, pursuing the path to eternal life. Factors contributing to this lack of attention to the question of life after death include the hectic pace of modern life, longer life spans (in the US and Europe, life expectancy has more than doubled since 1000 AD), and a growing disaffection with religion fueled by a belief that science increasingly demonstrates religious myths lack any factual basis.

Third, guilt plays a greatly diminished role in the contemporary psyche. Fewer people experience crippling or even a heavy sense of sin. The idea of eternal punishment in hell is widely recognized as incompatible with the idea of a loving God. And, perhaps most importantly, guilt is rightly recognized as effective in motivating only short-term behaviors and not lifelong transformations.

So, why bother with church?

Human behavior is always self-serving. Philosophical debates about the possibility of altruism, addressed in other Ethical Musings' posts should not derail this line of analysis. Briefly, altruism and self-serving, depending upon how one defines those terms, are not inherently contradictory. If every act is inherently self-serving, an altruistic act might be an act chosen because it benefits another at least as much as it benefits self; indeed, the benefit to self might be uncertain and entirely in the future, as often occurs in reciprocal altruism.


Consequently, the key to church participation – whether attending worship, involvement in a Christian education or formation program, or joining in an organized effort to help one's neighbors – is to aid potential participants in seeing the potential personal benefits of participating. Among these benefits are being part of a mutually caring community, intentionally spending time in exploring one's spirituality and ways to grow spiritually, acquiring important life skills, and exercising compassionate concern for neighbors and creation. The goal is to motivate engagement with the church, its mission, and God by highlighting the benefits of that engagement while concurrently avoiding the fatal pitfalls of reducing the church to a self-help movement or social service organization. In many respects, this approach is an updated version of evangelistic efforts centered upon helping persons to choose heaven instead of hell, a choice that many in the twenty-first century find irrelevant, inconceivable, or even incomprehensible.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Who speaks for God?

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were sitting on a bench in Ala Moana Beach Park enjoying a view of Diamond Head. A woman was moving from bench to bench, telling people that God loves them, and attempting to distribute leaflets. We declined the pamphlet; I knew, only because we live near the park and had made previous inquiries, that the woman was a Jehovah's Witness. The Witnesses, like many religious groups, claim to speak authoritatively for God.
Knowing who speaks for God also has wider ramifications. For example, if you are following the Republican and Democratic presidential contests, then you almost certainly will have heard one or more candidate's claim that their positions align with God's will. If we accept these claims at face value, God apparently approves of, while simultaneously condemning, abortion, health insurance for all, broadened immigration, and lower tax rates. No one, not even God, can support and oppose an idea simultaneously. Similarly, in spite of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders repeatedly declaring that terrorism is always immoral, terrorists from all of those religions still try to justify their killing and maiming the innocent as God's will.
Controversies about who speaks for God are not new. Today's readings from Acts and John each depict one such struggle. In the reading from Acts,[1] Jewish religious authorities demand that Christians cease their schismatic teaching. The underlying question is Who speaks for God? Do the Jewish leaders, supported by over a thousand years of tradition and Scripture study, speak for God? Alternatively, do the leaders of this new Jewish sect, those loyal to Jesus, an itinerant and now crucified teacher and miracle worker, speak for God? In today's gospel[2] when Thomas discovered that the other ten disciples claimed to have met with Jesus in his absence, he refused to believe them until he too should see and touch Jesus. Did the ten really speak for God or were they suffering from a form of group delusion?
The resolution of both controversies is instructive.
In next Sunday's reading from Acts, you will learn that a respected rabbi, Gamaliel, suggests leaving the controversy between the Jewish religious authorities and early Christians unresolved. Gamaliel argued that if the Christian movement were not God's doing, then Christianity would quickly fade away; if the Christian movement was God's doing, the Jews could not prevail against it. Thus, he recommended doing nothing and the Jewish religious leaders agreed.
As an Episcopal priest, I happily coexist with Jehovah Witnesses. I'm confident that their misguided fervor and narrow-minded claims about the limits of God's love harm relatively few. We wisely apply Gamaliel's advice to wait and see who is right, the Episcopal Church or the Jehovah Witnesses. We claim that God loves everyone regardless of race, gender, gender orientation, ethnicity, religion, and so forth. They claim that God will only save 144,000 people, who must remain constantly on their best behavior to avoid incurring God's displeasure.
Conflicting ideas may leave us feeling unsettled or ill at ease. Ideas and words can also hurt, but generally only when the hearer allows that to happen. My parents were like an audio device caught in an endless loop, repeatedly and tirelessly reminding their children that sticks and stones may break bones, but words can never hurt one. Surviving in a pluralistic, secular culture can require having tough skin.
The dispute among the disciples about whether they had seen the risen Christ came to a very different resolution. Thomas, this time in the company of the other disciples, encountered the risen Christ. What I find most striking is that the risen Christ says the same thing both times he is with the disciples in the locked room: My peace I give to you. And he breathes on the disciples, bestowing upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Three points are essential for understanding those scenes. First, the second person pronoun you, in the Greek, is plural. Christ speaks not to the individual but to the group. Whatever the text may mean or describe, the message is for Christians, or God's people, collectively and not individually. Anglican priest and noted author on spirituality, Kenneth Leech, characterized distorting spirituality to emphasize individual tranquility as valium for the masses.[3] We have power, and exercise God's power, only when we strive together.
Second, the word peace (eirene in Greek and shalom in Hebrew) connotes the fullness of health, prosperity, and human flourishing. Peace includes individual tranquility but only when that tranquility also includes justice and concern for all. Edward Hicks' painting, "The Peaceable Kingdom" powerfully and memorably depicted peace, with a lion and a lamb amicably dwelling with children, angels, and other animals. Similarly, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, "True peace is not just the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
Third, the gift of the Holy Spirit affirms that God abides with us. Episcopalians, like most Christians, believe that in Holy Baptism every person receives the Holy Spirit, a gift signified by the priest anointing the person with oil and saying, "you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever." In other words, Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the peaceful;" he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
In the autumn of 2001, just weeks after 9/11, hospital officials asked eleven-year-old Mattie Stepanek, suffering from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, if he had any last wishes he wanted fulfilled before his death. Imagine the officials’ surprise when Mattie made his three wishes: to meet Oprah Winfrey, to speak with former President Jimmy Carter, and to publish a book of his poems, "Journey through Heartsongs." Here is how Mattie describes a “heartsong”: “It’s our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts. Some of us feel we can spread it. My life mission is to spread peace to the world. I’m not sure everyone is listening to their heartsongs now, especially with the national tragedy.”[4] Mattie Stepanek had a mission for his life. He was determined to be a peacemaker.
Who speaks for God? When theological or philosophical ideas conflict, we are usually right to heed Gamaliel's advice. Allow time to reveal which idea is correct. But when more than ideas are at stake, when one path leads in the direction of greater peace, a fuller approximation of flourishing for all of God's creation, then choose that path. Peace is God's desire for us and God assists us through the gift of the Holy Spirit in transforming peace from a utopian dream into a practical reality.



[1] Acts 5:27-32.
[2]John 20:19-31.
[3] Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1989), p. 33.
[4] “Eleven-year-old teaches peace while battling muscular dystrophy,” Stephen Manning, Associated Press, The Knoxville News-Sentinel Dec. 2, 2001, p. G6.