Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some possibly heretical views about Sunday School

Let’s be honest about Sunday School.

In my experience, clergy and laity widely regard Sunday School as an essential element of a congregation’s programming but equally widely hope that someone else will take responsibility for ensuring that Sunday School happens. This tacit disdain for Sunday School is evident in our delegating responsibility for Sunday School to newly minted and therefore inexperienced curates (in those few remaining parishes fortunate enough to have a curate) and fervent prayers that longsuffering volunteers will serve one more year. The proffered justification that youthful clergy will somehow instinctively relate better to youth and children lacks prima facie credibility. What that justification really communicates is that Sunday School may be necessary but is not one of the rector’s top priorities.

Sunday Schools began as a church-sponsored initiative to teach children to read and write in the days before universal public education. When publicly funded schools superseded that initial purpose, churches seized the opportunity to reimagine Sunday Schools as vehicles for religious education, that is, for forming children into mature Christians who actively participate in the life of the Church.

Given that purpose, then today, as for several prior generations, most Sunday Schools are abject failures. Children who grow to adulthood attending Episcopal Sunday Schools (or Sunday Schools of another denomination) generally do not remain faithful members or even faithful Christians. If they did, our pews would be full (or at least measurably fuller) of people between the ages of 20 and 60.

Sunday Schools fail for multiple reasons. First, some parents and congregations view Sunday School as a sanctified babysitting service intended to permit adults to worship (or perhaps to enjoy Sunday brunch) in relative peace and quiet. Second, some parents believe that sending their children to Sunday School will satisfy their vague sense of obligation to educate their children in the basics of Christianity. Yet many of these parents yet opt to minimize their own participation in the Church, implicitly communicating by example that, at best, religion is for children and not adults. Third, Sunday School teachers often teach by default a literal interpretation of the Bible. Teachers want children to learn the biblical stories and are ill-prepared to differentiate myth from fact. Children subsequently discover that this literalism is untenable as they mature and their education in science, history, and other disciplines progresses. Fourth, a great many Sunday School teachers volunteer because nobody else steps up. These good hearted souls frequently lack both a genuine calling and passion for communicating the faith to children.

More broadly, the Church acts as if it has little understanding of how to form children into mature Christians. Numerous programs have initially generated excitement only to produce disappointing results when replicated or failed to achieve promised results when assessed with the benefit of hindsight. For example, the once promising idea of Eucharists designed and implemented by youth (with the assistance of a priest, of course) has proven ineffective as a vehicle for forming youth into mature Christians who will populate our pews.

Well intentioned groups continue to market new programs. Journey to Adulthood (J2A) has promised more that it has been consistently able to deliver. Godly Play similarly often falls short of its advocates’ aspirations for forming children into mature Christians. Both are good programs that I have used and in some places produce striking results. Yet neither is a panacea for forming youth and children into mature Christians.

When programs such as J2A and Godly Play do help youth and children become mature Christians, the program succeeds because the youth and children catch the faith from their parents and other Christian leaders involved in the program.

Faith is caught, not taught, according to a well-known adage. Most Christians can point to one or several “saints” from whom they caught the faith. Religious education programs, no matter how creative or initially exciting, fail if they ignore that truth. Catching the faith necessarily precedes effective Christian formation.

Therefore, let’s stop wasting precious resources and efforts on fundamentally ineffectual religious education programming. In the absence of inspired Christian teachers and leaders from whom children and youth can catch the faith, cancel Sunday School and other youth programs. Invest those resources in efforts more likely to produce positive results, e.g., caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. Ineffectual programming harmfully contaminates congregational morale with guilt.

Parents who are committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children can catch the faith are the most effectual source of Christian formation. The Church beneficially invests its resources in complementing those efforts. We can encourage and support parents and supplement their efforts with church programming. However, even with the best of parenting and ecclesial help, some children will still leave the Church for a season and occasionally for all of their days. No set of Christian formation efforts can ever guarantee positive results.

The preponderance of children and youth with parents who are not committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children are unlikely to catch the faith pose an evangelistic rather than educational challenge. Until an individual catches the faith, until s/he says yes to the one who stands at the door knocking, until s/he experiences an inspired moment in which s/he acknowledges God’s loving touch, then religious education is little more than the transmission of data and not genuine Christian formation.

Effective programming for children and youth begins by understanding its goal with respect to each individual. Is the aim Christian formation for one who has caught the faith? Or, is the aim evangelism, i.e., the leader or teacher assisting the individual in a non-coercive manner to recognize and affirm God’s presence in her/his life by openly revealing that same presence in the leader or teacher’s life? This openness includes not only mountain top experiences but also times of doubt and when the person has traversed the valley of the shadow of death.

Packaged programming for children and youth succeeded for its originators precisely because they opened themselves to program participants, allowing those participants to see God’s presence. From that experience, participants caught the faith, recognizing that what they saw in the leader or teacher resonated with their own, perhaps heretofore unacknowledged, experience of God’s loving presence. Packaged programming works only when leaders and teachers are Christians from whom participants can catch the faith.


Let’s drop the pretense that Sunday School is an essential program for every congregation and regard it as one tool among many for sharing our faith and forming new Christians.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fewer not more US troops for Afghanistan

The Pentagon has proposed sending an additional three to five thousand US troops to Afghanistan. The Trump administration appears likely to accept that recommendation.
Sending troops into harm’s way and expending scarce government funds without a valid strategic goal is immoral.
What possible strategic purpose will an additional three to five thousand US troops in Afghanistan serve?
  • Fifteen years of efforts to train an effective Afghan army and police force have failed. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will be able to achieve that goal?
  • After spending hundreds of billions of US dollars and the loss of the lives of two thousand plus US armed forces personnel as well as thousands of other casualties, Afghanistan still lacks a viable national government, genuine democracy, and protection for the rights of all Afghan citizens. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will succeed in achieving those goals?
  • Taliban and other forces opposed to the Afghanistan central government and the US often seek sanctuary in Pakistan to avoid losing a battle or capture by US forces. Why should anyone believe that an additional three to five thousand US troops can end this practice when tens of thousands of US troops could not?

Afghans are highly effective fighters – when motivated to achieve goals that are important to them. Afghanistan has never had an effective national government because Afghan loyalty to tribe and religion take precedence over national allegiance. Sending additional troops to Afghanistan, regardless of the size of the surge, solves neither of those problems.
Allowing a resurgent Taliban to govern a substantial portion, or even all, of Afghanistan will be horrific for most Afghans subject to Taliban rule. However, the Taliban would not be regaining traction in Afghanistan without significant support from Afghans, support often fueled by opposition to their central government and the US instead of an actual desire for Taliban rule.
Additional US troops may achieve temporary tactical advantages. However, those advantages will prove short lived when the US withdraws its troops, a prediction repeatedly confirmed over the last fifteen years.
I want military leaders who think they can win. I want civilian leaders to oversee the military and to determine both whether the cost of victory is worthwhile and whether the military engagement is likely to achieve strategic goals consonant with US national interests and progress toward greater peace in the world.

Sending more US troops to Afghan is not worthwhile and will not achieve any strategic goals of value to the US or even to Afghans. Instead of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the Trump administration should withdraw all US troops from there. If in the future, terrorists who pose a genuine threat to US national interests again operate from bases in Afghanistan, then the US should conduct targeted strikes against those terrorists of the type that I describe in my book, Just Counterterrorism.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lessons from a terminal diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of having a fatal disease shocked me last September. The experience underscored three truths:
  1. Few of us know when we will die. And, except in cases in which death is imminent (e.g., from illness), I would prefer not to know when I will die.
  2. The possibility of imminent death, always a possibility for everyone yet something that we invariably discount heavily to avoid becoming overly morbid and too risk avoidant, was undeniable. Moments became precious. Some South Koreans stage fake funerals to gain more appreciation of life by allowing death to become more of a reality.
  3. Upon being diagnosed with a terminal disease, I had no interest in shopping for healthcare even though I am fortunate enough to have healthcare coverage that often allows considerable choice of providers. What I wanted was a cure (something that is currently impossible) or treatment that would allow me to live as well and as long as reasonably feasible. I had a disease of which I had never heard, no criteria for judging the best available treatment, and was in no condition for researching treatment options.

Now being in remission and having a relatively good life expectancy prognosis for someone with my diagnosis, the most poignant question with which I grapple is: How do I want to use my remaining time, presumably a number of years?
Persons with a terminal diagnosis are not the only ones who ask that question.
In working as a chaplain with young adults, I found that many of them rarely struggle with that question. Instead, many young men and women act and talk as though they simply want to grab all of the gusto they can, regardless of the risks, confident of their own invulnerability. The largest number of exceptions to that generalization I discovered was among the Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, many of whom were highly motivated to achieve some form of greatness or excellence in life. I suspect this is also true of students at the nation’s premier colleges and universities.
Midlife crises represent another moment when humans often find that they cannot ignore the question of how they wish to use their remaining time.
Christians should also ask that question because we all have a terminal diagnosis. Death invariably follows birth. The Easter season, after living with the stories of Jesus’ death during Lent and Holy Week and now living with the stories of his resurrection, affords Christians an excellent annual opportunity to ponder the question, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? How do I want to live?
One of the vital yet often ignored differences between Christians and many others is that Christianity maintains life has a purpose. Popular preacher and bestselling author Rick Warren has packaged the presumption in his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I love the book’s title. I find his exposition simplistic and wrong. Contrary to Warren, our goal is not to persuade others to accept any form of the Christian credo.

Instead, I argue that our goal is to increase the love of God and love of neighbor. Loving God is difficult because as I have repeatedly insisted in Ethical Musings postings, the idea of God is irreducible to human language or concepts. We can, however, not only easily identify our neighbor but also, in moments of honesty, know how well we love our neighbor. Indeed, perhaps the two precepts are actually one: perhaps the best way to love God is to love our neighbor.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why won't Trump release his tax returns?

President Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public is intriguing and troubling. The IRS routinely audits Presidential and Congressional tax returns. Yet former Presidents and most members of Congress have made their tax returns public.
Possible explanations for Trump’s refusal include:
  • His tax returns may reveal that he is not as wealthy as he would like for people to believe. Many real estate investments are heavily leveraged (i.e., mortgaged), so perhaps his substantial real estate holdings represent a relatively small net worth totaling in the hundreds of millions instead of billions.
  • His tax returns may reveal that he derives a disproportionate share of his income from licensing his name instead of the successful real estate deals about which he boasts.
  • His tax returns may reveal aggressive interpretations of the tax code that trigger repeated audits that are not always resolved in his favor.

If Trump’s tax returns would enhance his public image by showing that he possesses great wealth or that his real estate empire is highly profitable, making his income tax returns public would seem to flatter his narcissistic ego. Similarly, if his tax returns revealed that he paid relatively little in tax, his public remarks indicate that he would view that outcome favorably. Maybe Donald Trump is much less wealthy and less successful than he wants people to believe.
Given Trump’s alleged wealth, human’s consistently acting in their self-interest, and Trump’s undeniable consistent self-promotion, the public and legislators understanding how his proposed changes to the tax code would benefit him is vital for transparent, fair government. Is Trump’s support for specific changes to the code motivated by what he thinks best for the nation, what will benefit him, or both? The one tax return that Trump has made public illustrates the importance of those questions as he advocates changes that would have personally benefitted him. In that one return he used deductions related to real estate investments to minimize his income and had to pay Alternative Minimum Tax.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Aliens in a strange land

Aliens in a strange land

The focus of the Episcopal Café’s Magazine (a site to which I contribute a monthly essay – this is my April contribution) for April is captured in these questions:
What is the relation of the Church, Government, and the American Experience? Where is the church called to be in these tense political times – a place of activism or a refuge from political rhetoric? Have we been hobbled by our declining influence or set free from our shackles to the establishment?

Those questions reminded me of William Stringfellow’s book title, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. I increasingly feel that I live in a strange land. Political polarization has displaced the mutual respect and compromise essential for democracy to protect the rights of the minority and the majority. Physical isolation with people connecting via social media has become the new norm, causing many communal organizations (including religious congregations) to wither and die. Growing economic inequality has overwhelmed commitment to promoting economic opportunity for all. We fight wars with ill-defined objectives using borrowed funds, leaving the debt to our children as part of their inheritance. Impetuous narcissism and self-interest rather than servant leadership now characterize many who occupy positions of power and influence.

Where is the Church, and most particularly The Episcopal Church (TEC), to be found in this strange land?

Jesus was the face and voice of justice in an unjust world. Yet too frequently our voice is muted. We may be seen but not heard. Our Presiding Bishop speaks loudly, prophetically, and whenever possible from a national platform. He is an exception. A majority of our diocesan bishops speak softly or are silent. Some of our parish clergy preach the gospel boldly, but few carry that message to their larger community through personal advocacy and witness.

Jesus welcomed everyone – the foreigner, the Jew, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sinner. Yet too frequently our avowed inclusivity contains an unspoken exclusivity. Some parishes emphasize activism; other parishes emphasize being a refuge from political rhetoric. Few parishes provide space for both activists and those seeking refuge. Some parishes welcome liberals; other parishes welcome conservatives. Problematically, parishes, regardless of who they welcome, usually send mixed messages, communicating who they welcome through body language and code words that unintentionally, if not intentionally, exclude dissenters while verbally affirming that all are welcome.

Jesus exhorted his disciples to love God and their neighbor. He called disciples but did not form an organization. Yet too frequently our goal is to revive, or at least to sustain, the institutional church. Maintenance, not mission, is our real agenda. We need to pay our clergy. We need to maintain our buildings. And we want some money for programming. Whatever is left, and typically it is only a pittance, goes to mission beyond the parish. Parishes typically view the money that goes to the diocese as a burdensome “tax” rather than as an opportunity to engage in mission beyond the parish. Financial prudence and institutional self-preservation widely preclude risk taking that advocates for the vulnerable, aids the least among us, welcomes the stranger, cares for the earth, and otherwise proclaims the gospel.

My observation and pastoral experience is that people seek a congregation that intellectually challenges their spirituality and theology, emotionally both embraces them and offers a safe community in which to move toward wholeness, and provides multiple, diverse opportunities to work toward improving the world. In sum, a Jesus shaped community attracts followers. Such congregations, vibrant communities of aliens in a strange land, invariably grow. For them, institutional maintenance is a byproduct of their focus on mission.

We Christians are aliens living in a strange land. Without good leaders we will perish. Those persons and groups responsible for discerning whether God has called a person to serve as a bishop, priest, deacon, or warden must examine the person’s gifts for leadership. A call admittedly has many facets. However, in this crucial time for the Church, God surely calls very few if any persons who lack significant leadership gifts. The greater the scope of responsibility, the greater is the requirement for superior leadership.

Effective leadership in today’s Church includes these three essential elements:
  1. Effective leadership connotes a clear and passionate vision of mission shaped by Jesus’ teachings and ministry, a vision the person consistently and unrelentingly communicates in her or his own unmistakable, proven, and contextually appropriate voice.
  2. Effective leadership connotes a demonstrated, successful commitment to growing a loving Christian community.
  3. Effective leadership connotes an energetic engagement with the broader community, translating her or his vision into practice. Mission, not institutional maintenance, is the priority.

This emphasis on leadership does not deny the importance of other elements of ministry such as pastoral care and religious education. The reality, however, is that TEC is a denomination of small, aging congregations. Thus, most vicars and rectors have limited demands on their time for hospital visits, pastoral counseling, funerals, baptisms, or confirmand preparation. Too often, clergy spend time with friends among the congregation in ways that lack any discernible connection to the Church’s work. This time masquerades as genuine ministry. Small congregations similarly have limited requirements for religious education.

We have strong reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Church. God is on our side. Furthermore scholars who study pastoral leadership widely agree that one clergyperson can adequately serve a congregation of 500-700 people. Over half of all TEC congregations are smaller than a quarter of that size. A priest who recruits, trains, and then cedes canonically appropriate pastoral care and religious education ministries to the laity has ample time for exercising leadership that passionately communicates a vision, lovingly builds inclusive community, and vigorously engages in mission.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The cost of saving a life

Today I researched on the internet the cost of the maintenance drug that I take to help extend the length of my remission. Although I could not find 2017 prices or the price at which the pharmaceutical company had sold the drug to the government in prior years, I did find lots of prices for the drug sold to individuals or non-federal healthcare providers in prior years. A reasonable estimate is that my monthly maintenance dose costs approximately $15,000.
When that cost is combined with other treatment and healthcare that I have received because of having cancer, in the eight months since being diagnosed with cancer my care has cost more than $200,000. Ongoing care in years while I remain in remission plus additional costs related to forcing the cancer into remission a second and perhaps third time could easily drive the total cost of treating my cancer to well over one million dollars.
Few Americans can afford to pay one million dollars to treat a catastrophic illness.
On the other hand, few Americans would opt to refuse treatment to a person who suffers from the type of cancer that I have who cannot pay for treatment when the person can reasonably expect to enjoy several or more years of healthy, productive life.
The best way forward in dealing with the cost of catastrophic illness is for the US to implement single payer, universal healthcare. The single payer would be the federal government. Universal access means that everyone would have access.
Half of all persons employed in the healthcare industry, which is 20% of the US Gross Domestic Product, are not healthcare providers but administrative, etc. A quarter of healthcare costs is attributable to billing and associated costs. Eliminating private payers would shutter the immensely profitable private health insurance corporations, but would concurrently generate tremendous savings in healthcare related costs for the entire nation.
Two examples of a single payer system – with the federal government as that single payer – already exist in the US, though both systems limit access. The first is Medicare, available to everyone over 65 and the lowest cost provider of healthcare. The second is the military healthcare system, available to active duty and retired military personnel and their families.

Congress should replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a single payer system that provides universal access.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The meaning of resurrection

In my previous Ethical Musings’ post, “Holy Week and Theology lite,” I explained why resurrection without death is incomprehensible. At best, resurrection without death becomes a form of self-help teaching.
So, given that all are dying or dead, what is resurrection?
My answer to that question begins by recognizing two definitions that are inapplicable to resurrection. First, resurrection differs from resuscitation. Resuscitation restores a person to this physical life. The experience may or may not change the individual. In any case, the resuscitated person remains mortal and will die another physical death. The biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, found in John’s gospel, when read literally describes resuscitation rather than resurrection. Simplistic, literal readings of Jesus physically rising from the dead similarly are often closer to resuscitation than resurrection.
Second, resurrection requires external intervention. Nobody has the power to resurrect him or herself. If a person had that power, then the person would not be truly dead or dying. Twelve step programs describe the outside assistance for resurrection in terms of a person’s dependence upon a “higher power,” while concurrently acknowledging the ineffability of that “higher power.” Resurrection, however, does not preclude an individual cooperating with that “higher power.”
Resurrection is the higher power – God, in the vocabulary of many – intervening, often with the assistance of the individual in whose life the intervention occurs, to transform the inauthentic into the authentic. Other persons and things (e.g., a beautiful sunset) may also contribute to the process of resurrection. Resurrection transforms a person’s I-It relationships, in which the person objectifies others and God as a consequence of self-betrayal, into I-Thou relationships, which depend upon the authenticity of self and the other. Resurrection may also be defined in terms of liberation, e.g., the liberation of a person from bondage to an addiction.
The Bible, read mythically as an account of human experience, consistently reports God acting to resurrect the dead and dying. For example, this definition of resurrection provides a useful framework for understanding the account of the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, the return of Israel from its Babylonian captivity, the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead, and Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus.
Most importantly, this understanding of resurrection makes sense out of what happened on the first Easter, when the spirit or memory of Jesus, persisting after his death, transformed despondent disciples into messengers of hope and new life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Not so steady at the helm

Chaos can be creative. The existence of chaos at the sub-atomic level of the cosmos introduces both novelty and the possibility for beings to have limited autonomy. Novelty and limited autonomy are two important elements of the human spirit as well as two of the ways in which the human spirit emulates the Creator’s spirit. Furthermore, the Creator’s own limited autonomy and capacity for introducing novelty help to explain why the cosmos continues its dynamic evolution
However, chaos can be destructive. Human beings generally function on the basis of patterns, presuming consistency rather than chaos. For example, voters desire consistency in their elected officials. With consistency, a voter reasonably expects the elected officer holder to support policies advocated during her or his election. Similarly, in an uncertain world with continuing threats from terrorists, nuclear armed powers, and aspiring economic competitors consistency allows both friends and enemies to have a high degree of confidence about the likely response to adversarial acts.
The importance of consistency, an essential element of integrity, is one reason why the media and other politicians quickly attack a politician for changing positions. Of course, some changes reflect the availability of new information and other changes result from a politician reassessing known facts. Yet other changes appear chaotic, whether attempts to sail with the prevailing wind of public opinion, indicative of indecision, or otherwise inexplicable.
President Trump’s actions this week indicated major departures from several key elements of his campaign platform. He communicated that he now opposes a border added tax. He is reviewing his stance on immigration. He is looking for a way to revise the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), contrary to his previously avowed intent to move on to tax reform. Most notoriously, he intervened militarily in Syria, a move that he adamantly opposed during the campaign and a move for which he repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting.
Do these changes point to Trump reassessing what he deems to be the best course of action, reassessments attributable to his new view of the world from the Oval Office? Alternatively, are these changes simply the latest expression of the chaos characteristic of Trump the businessman and Trump the president?
The US and the global community benefit when there is a steady hand on the helm in the White House. If this week’s past week’s policy changes by the Trump administration indicate an effort to reduce governmental chaos, then the changes represent a constructive step forward even though I vehemently disagree with some of them, e.g., defunding Planned Parenthood as part of his proposal to repeal and replace the healthcare law. More likely, the changes demonstrate the continuing lack of a steady hand on helm of the US ship of state.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Holy Week and Theology lite

On Palm Sunday, a friend reported that the rector of his parish had preached a sermon, which my friend partially summarized in these words:
He said he had a meeting with a Roman Catholic friend who told him she always felt guilty during Holy Week since she had been taught that it was ‘her’ sins which were the reason that Jesus had died. The Rector said he was a post-Resurrection person who only found joy in Holy Week. It would appear that the Old Testament and theological matters of salvation, atonement, sanctification, etc., do not bother the Rector too much. Apparently spreading the Good News is all that matters in the post-Resurrection church.
Resurrection without death is impossible. Regardless of how a person understands resurrection and death – literally, metaphorically, or mythically – that which is not dead cannot be brought to life.
I agree with what my friend’s summary of his rector’s sermon implies, that is, orthodox Christian theories of the atonement are at best incomprehensible and at worst evil in the developed world of the twenty-first century. Any theological framework that requires Jesus to die in order for humans to participate in Jesus’ resurrection depicts God as a masochist, sadist, or child abuser.
However, that agreement does not mean that I think resurrection is possible without death. If resurrection is possible without death, then the Good News of the gospel is reduced to the self-help message of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, a self-help message characteristic of much popular evangelical preaching, e.g., that of Joel Osteen.
The death that humans universally experience is what twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich described as inauthentic life. The inauthentic life occurs when a person is no longer faithful to him or herself and is therefore incapable of having what twentieth century Jewish theologian Martin Buber I-Thou relationships with other people and with the divine. Instead, in an inauthentic life a person reduces others and God to objects. With respect to God, this reduction easily and generally leads to agnosticism or atheism.
During Holy Week, Christians commemorate on Palm Sunday Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, remember on Maundy Thursday Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and his command to them that they love one another, and on Good Friday recall Jesus’ crucifixion. In sum, Holy Week encourages Christian self-examination:
·       In what way(s) am I living an inauthentic life?
·       Who do I objectify, viewing and treating as an object instead of entering into an I-Thou relationship with them?
·       In what way(s) do I objectify God, reducing God to a concept that I can describe, perhaps even control, instead of daring to enter into an I-Thou relationship with the Divine, a reality utterly beyond human description or control?
None of us is fully alive, for all are dying if not dead.

In my Easter post, I will explore the concept of resurrection.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Transformation rather than conversion

The theological term conversion has sufficiently troubled me that I have avoided using it for decades. Initially, this avoidance was unconscious but more recently has been intentional.

The English word conversion has today, especially in religious contexts, the overwhelming connotation of a change in a person’s beliefs or thinking. Yet Christianity is about learning to walk the Jesus path ever more faithfully, not about persuading people to hold right beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words. My observation of religious people (including me!) is that considerable disparity often exists between an individual’s avowed theological beliefs/thinking and what that person’s actions indicate s/he actually believes/thinks. While it’s easy to describe that disparity as hypocrisy, the disparity is frequently better understood as the aspirational difference between what a person would like to believe and what s/he actually believes.

Christian evangelical efforts focused on conversion easily produce unfortunate aberrations and coerced conversions. Until the nineteenth century, Christians occasionally baptized non-Christians and then slaughtered the newly baptized before they could commit apostasy. More recently, some evangelically motivated Christians superficially “count coup,” i.e., track the number of individuals who verbally confessed faith in Christ as a result of the Christian’s efforts while ignoring the deeper question of whether any real lifestyle or behavioral change occurred in the new convert.

Consequently, I find that the word transformation more accurately communicates the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, the Biblical word frequently translated as conversion. Having less baggage than does the word conversion, transformation emphasizes a change in a person and their actions as well as in their feelings and ideation.

Emphasizing transformation instead of conversion has shaped my ministry. For example, I am convinced that there is only one God and that many paths lead to God. One reason I subscribe to those views is that persons treading diverse religious paths hold varying beliefs but nevertheless experience similar life-giving and life-enriching transformations.

Those convictions cohered well with my ministry as a Navy chaplain. Historically, military chaplains have had three roles. First, chaplains minister to people of the chaplain’s faith community in as an inclusive a manner as possible. For Episcopal priests, inclusive ministry may include: (1) Conducting a wide variety of Protestant worship services, most of which are arguably some form of Morning or Evening Prayer; (2) Administering Holy Baptism when requested, to include full immersion of a believer who desires that form of baptism; (3) Celebrating Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites.

A chaplain’s second role is to facilitate the free exercise of religion for members of other faith communities. While on active duty, I provided space, equipment, and supplies as needed and upon request for Buddhist, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, and Muslim faith communities to worship and otherwise practice their faith. Memorably, I once had a Jewish sailor ask me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I explained to him that if I conducted the Seder it would by definition be a Christian Seder. I then added that if he conducted the Seder, I would provide the foodstuffs, publicity, and coaching for him, as well as attend and recruit other attendees to ensure the presence of a minyan.

Incidentally, the last few decades have seen an increase in controversies over the military chaplaincy precisely because some evangelical Christian chaplains have abandoned facilitation in favor of conversion. Sometimes evangelical Christians have implicitly linked career or promotion opportunities to conversion. This move, reminiscent of some coerced conversion efforts in prior generations, seriously undermines the chaplaincy’s constitutional standing by prima facie establishing government support for a particular religion. Analogously, this move also inhibits the interfaith cooperation and communication that depend upon respecting the beliefs of all and honoring the integrity of other faith groups.

A chaplain’s third role is to care for everyone. A Marine whose mother has just died has, in my experience, no interest in religious conversion. The Marine simply seeks an understanding, caring listener. Other times, the person who has sought out the chaplain because of vocational concerns, adjustment issues, family problems, substance abuse, or a host of other difficulties may want to change, but is usually unaware of any theological dimensions of that change. The best chaplains in such situations function as catalysts for transformation rather than as conversion agents.

Widespread adherence to those three roles by military chaplains of previous generations built the mutual respect and trust required for genuine interfaith cooperation and established military chaplaincy as a model for such ministry. Similar patterns of ministry, perhaps articulated in different terms, also frequently shapes chaplaincy in other institutional settings, e.g., hospitals, prisons, and hospices.


Since retiring from the Navy, I have recognized that those three functions equally describe parish ministry at its best. The best parochial priests exercise a ministry that seeks to include as many people as possible while being faithful to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites. Illustratively, in my current diocese, this inclusivity sometimes means adapting ancient Hawaiian symbols and terms. But no parish, regardless of its size or resources, can meet everyone’s perceived spiritual needs. Honoring that diversity by pointing a person to a more suitable alternative – another Episcopal parish, a Roman Catholic parish, or a congregation of another denomination – ministers to that person while respecting his/her dignity and worth. Finally, the Church should care for all. Genuine caring seeks what is best for a person: healing, growth, becoming more whole, and living more abundantly. Genuine caring has no ulterior motive. Transformation, not conversion, best describes Christianity’s goal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why I object to putting America first

I object to Trump’s campaign slogan and post-election efforts to “put America first” for two reasons.
Firstly, trying to “put America first” is ultimately self-defeating behavior similar to an egocentric’s efforts to put him/herself first. As I have repeatedly explained in Ethical Musings posts, no person is an island. Our individual welfare depends upon assistance from other people. Therefore, reciprocal altruism and not self-serving behaviors best describe human behavior, regardless of any dissent by selfish gene proponents. The survival of the fittest, for humans, requires not only personal but also interpersonal competencies. Theological ethics express this idea in the various formulations of the Golden Rule, e.g., love others as you love yourself.
Similarly, as globalism inexorably expands until one day it will touch every aspect of our existence, larger human communities, such as nations, will maximally thrive only by practicing reciprocal altruism. In other word, win-win will ultimately replace win-lose in geopolitics. Trump’s America first is a throwback to win-lose and therefore has no long-term viability or future.
What’s best for America is to try to balance US interests equitably with the interests of other nation states instead of putting America first.

Secondly, Trump’s slogan is blatantly dishonest. His executive actions, legislative proposals, and tweets consistently put only select Americans first: the wealthy, the healthy, the military, and those alive today (not future generations who will have to deal with the consequences of global warming and pollution). America consists not only of the people Trump likes and favors but also of those he apparently dislikes and treats unfavorably: the poor, the ill, globalists, future generations, immigrants, and many others. Genuinely putting America first requires treating all Americans equally, thereby emulating the living God.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Giving to panhandlers

Pope Francis recently offered advice regarding the perennial question of whether giving money to a panhandler is good. He said, Give and don’t worry about it. His advice is scripturally sound and was offered in an interview with a Milan magazine before the beginning of Lent.
An Ethical Musings’ reader took the Pope’s advice to heart. Here’s the reader’s description of what happened the first time that he followed the Pope’s guidance:
This evening I was walking up to the State House and ran into a panhandler, he asked could I spare a dollar.
I said, yes and gave him more than a dollar, shook his hand, looked him in the eye, wished him luck – I think he was shocked and I was also. We spoke to one another like two people. He looked me in the eye as we were shaking hands, thanked me and wished me luck.
The Pope is right – I believe we both felt good about the meeting.

Try giving to panhandlers during Lent. If you are willing to share, I’d like to read about your experiences.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A new Lenten discipline

In view of my previous Ethical Musings post about Rethinking Ash Wednesday, traditional Lenten practices of giving something up to demonstrate one’s true feelings of regret and penance for one’s sins or of taking on a new discipline to help one to sin less in the future by becoming a better Christian are outdated.
Instead, a more appropriate and spiritually helpful discipline is to commit to celebrating life daily, weekly, or at least once during Lent. This discipline is admittedly out of step with traditional ecclesiastical emphases on confessing one’s sins and penitence, e.g., many parishes will use (pp. 148-153, Book of Common Prayer) on Sundays during Lent. However, this discipline coheres with a twenty-first century understanding of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Celebrating life can take many different forms; one’s imagination is the primary limiter of what is possible. Options include arranging a feast or night of lodging in a hotel for a homeless person, an outsize generous gift for a person who works for minimum wages or less, and adding a work of art to the life of another or to one’s own life. These ideas are intended to prime the pump of your imagination.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. We therefore share in the glitter, the reflected glory of the creator, visible in all creation. Similarly, we are also inherently part of something far vaster than the self. So celebrate life, for in doing so we celebrate the gift of creation and the Creator!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Rethinking Ash Wednesday

In this post, I suggest a more modern interpretation of why Christians continue to impose ashes. (My 2016 Ethical Musings post Ash Wednesday sketched the traditional understandings of the annual Christian practice of imposing ashes.)
Christianity needs to rethink Ash Wednesday. Few twenty-first Christians in the developed world feel very guilty, especially compared to Christians during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, guilt is a poor motivator for changing behavior. Finally, increasing numbers of Christians reject not only the theological doctrine of original sin but also all of the several interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion that emphasize his death as an essential requirement for God forgiving human sin. Hence, a majority of Christians have voted with their feet, absenting themselves from Ash Wednesday observances, tacitly believing the observances generally meaningless and irrelevant.
Rethinking Ash Wednesday begins by recognizing that the words used to impose ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – has two widely ignored meanings vitally relevant to contemporary life.
First, being dust emphasizes that humans are physical beings. Our spiritual dimension has no independent existence. Instead, the human spirit consists of those physical attributes that are quintessentially and uniquely (only in degree) human.

Second, because humans are dust, humans are inherently integral elements of God’s glorious creation. Therefore, we should celebrate rather than bemoan or lament human life and the human condition. Consequently, adding glitter to the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday is a very appropriate act (though I’ve not yet seen this interpretation of that act).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Holy places

The Episcopal Café asked for articles in February on holy places. This Ethical Musings post is my contribution to that great website.

I, like a great many people, experience some places as holy places.

However, I do not believe that God created specific holy places. Ongoing, consistent evolutionary processes produced the cosmos as we know it. This presumably precludes God differentiating particular places in ways that those places are inherently holy or “thin,” i.e. places in which God is more easily or frequently encountered.

So what makes a place holy?

When I served for two years as the Head of the Religious Facilities Management Branch in the Office of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I oversaw the design of a dozen chapels and religious support facilities. I wanted Navy religious facilities to offer sailors, Marines, and their families the feeling of being in a holy place. The question of what made a place holy acquired an urgent professional importance that caused me to begin organizing previously fragmentary and occasionally contradictory ideas into more comprehensive, coherent, and cohesive thoughts.

In the years since then, I have refined my answer to that question, but the basic ideas have largely remained unchanged. Places that people deem holy facilitate the human spirit discerning or encountering God in one or more of the following five ways. An essential caveat to all five ways in which a place may become identified as a holy place is that each person will have an individual response to the place, sometimes finding the place holy and sometimes not.

First, some places evoke or encourage an awareness of the transcendent. Magnificent cathedrals with their massive size, soaring towers, and stained glass do this for many visitors, including me. Some of my favorite cathedrals are Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, and the National Cathedral in Washington. I have experienced these, along with other cathedrals, as holy places. Grandeur is no assurance that people will identify a place as holy. I felt the lure of the transcendent when I visited Jesus’ alleged childhood home in Nazareth, a small grotto of stone and dirt, but not while visiting the huge and historic Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Second, some places are catalysts for reflection upon the meaning of life and the quality of one’s own life. Some depictions of saints and biblical scenes in stained glass, sculpture, and paintings invite me to assess ways in which I might deepen my spirituality. Conversely, Cromwellian depredations of churches that destroyed many such works of art and installed tablets with the Ten Commandments warn against idolatry and remind me of the need to keep my spiritualty well-grounded. The austere simplicity of Quaker meeting houses underscore the otherness of the divine.

Third, the beauty of some places – sometimes a beauty created by humans but at least equally often a beauty discerned in nature – imbues a place with a sense of being holy. Such places can infuse lives with hope that evil will not triumph as well as trigger reflections about the transcendent and my awareness of self and God. Illustratively, star gazing at night while underway, with the ship that I was aboard the only visible sign of human existence, was often incredibly beautiful. In those moments, I could see immense numbers of stars and the ocean, which can feel threatening, empty, or overwhelmingly vast, became a holy place for me.

Fourth, the originality or uniqueness of some places can disrupt ordinary perceptions thereby promoting awareness of the holy and a fresh look at one’s self. I found this dynamic especially important in the design of Navy religious ministry facilities. Sadly, limited funds usually precluded installation of art. Additionally, a requirement to construct facilities that welcomed people of all faiths excluded reliance upon art or architecture identified with a particular religious tradition. Architects, however, creatively employed soaring ceilings, abstract colored glass, and other novel techniques in their efforts, often successful, to give people entering the space a sense of being in a holy place.

Finally, some places are holy because of the love people experience in that place. When I have visited places in which people have gathered for hundreds or even thousands of years to pray and to affirm their love for God, I have sometimes sensed that I was in a holy place. I do not know if this feeling had an objective or only a subjective basis, but I don’t think that ultimately matters. The place was holy for me because of my awareness of the love for God associated with the place. Other places feel holy because the loving community that meets there. Illegal immigrants seek sanctuary in churches for this reason. The hungry, homeless, and broken-hearted seek out a church known for being a loving community, finding that congregation’s meeting place a holy place.


Unfortunately, holy places are not timeless. When maintaining a building has become an end in itself, the building is no longer a holy place, i.e., it is no longer a means to an end as a place in which people encounter the holy. The building may be a memorial to a once vibrant community, but God calls us primarily to love our living neighbors rather than to preserve historic memorials. Places can also lose their claim to be holy because of changes in aesthetic sensibilities (I, for one, find Victorian ecclesial structures spiritually unmoving), ecological changes (a fire destroyed a wooded glen that often triggered spiritual reflections), etc. Holy places, like the divine, are not static but are dynamic sources of life.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we no longer engage in civil discourse

Civil discourse – meaningful conversation about issues important to democracy – rarely occurs in the US today. Unmet requirements for civil discourse among politicians, public figures, opinion makers, and others include:
  • Trust – Trust presumes honesty. Civil discourse has no room for “alternate facts.” Even the most honest person will occasionally get the facts wrong or say something later regretted, e.g., an ad hominem remark or an overly broad generalization. When this occurs, a retraction and an apology are offered. Continuing to insist that a falsehood is true erodes the foundation of trust required for civil discourse and democracy.
  • Civility and mutual respect – This excludes personal attacks and requires focusing on the issues and not personalities. I may disagree with a judge’s ruling, but that disagreement does not entitle me to attack the judge verbally nor to question the judge’s fitness to sit on the bench.
  • Willingness to compromise – No person, organization, or political party has all of the right answers. Not every issue is worth a fight to the death. I disagree vehemently with many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions and views. However, he is well qualified to sit on the Supreme Court and deserves an up/down vote in the Senate. Similarly, President Obama’s nominee, Judge Garland Merrick, was also well-qualified and deserved an up/down vote in the Senate. Democrats who advocate refusing to have confirmation votes on one or more of Trump’s judicial, cabinet, or other nominees contribute to the breakdown of civil discourse and democracy. Senators reasonably vote against the confirmation of any nominee whom the senator deems is unfit to hold the office for which the person was nominated. However, unfit is not synonymous with policy differences, an inevitable byproduct of any democracy in which there are winners and losers.
  • Commitment to the common good – US government is of, by, and for the people. Seeking the common good denotes seeking what is good for all US residents. Public schools and their supporters should welcome visits by Education Secretary DeVos (the more visits she makes, the greater the likelihood that she will see the vitality and importance of public schools). Conversely, the Secretary should seek to strengthen public education for all children regardless of the type of school that the child attends.
  • Public discourse – People from all sides of an issue must listen, really listen to one another. If those with whom I disagree really had nothing to contribute to the discussion, I believe that the vast preponderance of them would adopt another position. Emotions as well as logic can determine a person’s views. For example, widely held fears (of change, of economic loss, of displacement, etc.) are issues every bit as real as technological change (e.g., substituting robots for human labor) that make goods more affordable by reducing cost. Good solutions take into account all of a problem’s dimensions, often requiring compromise based trust, upon recognizing that all participants seek the common good, and civility that presumes mutual respect.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Choosing between fear and courage

In response to both cancer and terrorism, an individual has two basic choices: fear or courage.
In the short run, fear advantageously heightens a person’s senses, thus increasing vigilance along with the potential to improve the rapidity and quality of one’s response. Over the longer term, including fights against cancer and terrorism, fear’s disadvantages outweigh that advantage:
  • Fear loses its power over time, the altered condition becoming the new normal.
  • Life is inherently risky. No prophylactics exist to ensure that one will not develop cancer. Similarly, no guarantees exist to prevent one from becoming a victim in a terror attack. Indeed, counterterrorism authorities unanimously agree that there are too many potential targets to protect all of them.
  • Fear inherently degrades one’s quality of life.

Conversely, courage tempered by prudence (avoiding that which is rash) has only advantages:
  • Courage is a moral habit that develops and strengthens with practice.
  • Courageous living is essential for living abundantly.


President Trump’s policies and pronouncements about terrorism are a call to live fearfully. I, for one, refuse to live in fear, whether fear of terrorism or fear of cancer. I choose life. I choose to live courageously. What is your choice?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Guilty?

The Old and New Testaments both reflect widespread, theologically rooted belief in the idea that the sin is the cause of illness. For example, when Jesus heals a man who was born blind, some of the people in the crowd ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9)
Who sinned and caused my cancer, my parents or I?
My parents were by no stretch of the imagination perfect. However, to posit that two of their five children would die of incurable cancers (one of my brothers died of colon cancer almost twenty years ago) because of egregious sins my parents committed is unreasonable. First, my parents – like most people – did not commit horrendous sins. Second, punishing children for sins committed by their parents is unjust. Old Testament declarations that the sins of the parents will affect their children make sense only in limited contexts, e.g., parents who pollute the earth invariably harm the lives of their progeny or pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages will often cause detrimental consequences for their newborn.
I’m with Jesus: in general, parental sins do not cause illnesses in their children.
Similarly, an individual’s sins sometimes cause harm in that person’s life. Illustratively, cancers frequently occur in the lives of adults who knowingly work with asbestos without taking proper precautions and those who smoke in spite of the well documented link between tobacco and cancer. Individuals sin when they fail to practice reasonable safeguards in caring for their life.
However, such explicit links between sin and disease of any kind is the exception and not the norm. I tried to take care of my body. I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and avoided known health hazards. Indeed, scientists do not know the cause or causes of multiple myeloma. Likewise, my brother who died of colon cancer had a healthy lifestyle and left behind a loving wife and two young children. His death punished them as much as it may have punished him.
Again, I’m with Jesus: in general, an individual’s sins do not cause illness in that person’s life.
Positing a link between sin and illness expresses a desire for justice, i.e., the sinner should be punished for wrongdoing. Life is not that simple. Indeed, life frequently appears to be unfair. Good people suffer and die unjustly. Evil doers enjoy wealth, power, and privilege.
The cosmos’ trajectory appears to arc toward justice, but that does not mean that every individual experiences justice in his or her life. One of my seminary professors told me that Christians must believe in life after death because only then do all receive justice.

Again, I’m with Jesus: the cosmos functions on a paradigm of love rather than justice. Jesus healed a few; the vast contemporaneous multitude of the world’s sick, lame, blind, and hungry lived and died in misery. God calls us to love those whose lives intersect with ours. The larger questions of justice for all, even of love for all, remain mysteries best left to God.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Respite or reprieve?

The pace of executive orders and other changes issued by the Trump White House appears to have slowed.
Is this a respite or reprieve?
According to senior Trump administration officials, the administration has hundreds of draft executive orders ready to be finalized and signed. The slower pace at which Trump is signing these orders may optimally reflect President Trump’s belated recognition of the desirability of staffing the draft order through the departments and agencies that will be responsible for implementation. For example, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly, has acknowledged that the Trump administration should have better staffed the executive order on immigration before issuing it. If so, this may represent the beginning of a positive learning curve for the Trump administration.
Furthermore, President Trump is no longer assured of being center stage in the daily news, nudged (or shoved, depending upon one’s perspective) aside by other people and events, e.g., Super Bowl LI.
Finally, President Trump is encountering the limits of presidential power. He has no direct control over the judiciary, as evidenced by a federal district judge blocking implementation of his immigration ban. He is discovering that his words matter. Unlike in business, where inflammatory rhetoric, even if it is false, may help the speaker achieve a negotiating advantage, in politics and foreign affairs inflammatory rhetoric – especially if false – may exacerbate a bad situation, provide opponents irrefutable ammunition, or otherwise work to the speaker’s disadvantage.

A respite from the flurry of Trump’s initial presidential actions is welcome; a reprieve would be a sign of hope that the chaos, dishonesty, and incendiary efforts intended to cause conflict are ending, moving the US and the world away from potential catastrophes that an unreformed Trump might cause.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Frustrated yet thankful

In the middle of September last year, I spent a week in the hospital, my body ravaged by the effects of multiple myeloma that had gone undiagnosed for months. Three months of chemotherapy followed.
During those three months, my oncologist encouraged me to exercise, so as to maintain my strength. My neurosurgeon, however, encouraged me to spend my days lying in bed. He was afraid that some unexpected movement my result in my becoming a paraplegic because of the damage that the cancer had done to my spine. The two physicians never gave me a mutually agreed recommendation on exercising. So, I erred on the side of caution, exercising some while spending considerable time sitting on lying down. This was easier than it might sound because the multiple myeloma, hospitalization, and chemotherapy combined to leave me in a rather weakened, exhausted condition. During those months, I lost about twenty pounds.
In December, my cancer went into remission. Kyphoplasty ended immediate concerns about becoming a paraplegic. All obstacles to exercise were removed.
The slow pace of regaining strength, mobility, and endurance has surprised and frustrated me.
In reflecting on that slow pace, and in discussing it with my physicians, I have identified several mitigating factors that help to explain the pace. First, I am in the middle of my seventh decade and the body regains what it has lost more slowly as one ages. Second, I am still taking eight different drugs daily, some of which limit my energy and increase my feelings of tiredness. Third, I do not fully appreciate just how sick I was in September and how long recovery typically requires.
On the other hand, I am regaining strength, mobility, and endurance even if it is at much slower pace than I think I should.
Thus, I have a choice. Will I be frustrated or will I be thankful? Is my incentive to continue exercising, taking the medicines designed to maximize the length of my remission, and sustaining other actions intended to promote my health and well-being found in feeling frustrated, thankful, or some combination of both?
I suspect that many other people find themselves facing similar choices, e.g., the person who wishes to lose weight but finds losing the pounds agonizingly slow or the person who desires to learn a new skill more time consuming and difficult than anticipated.
No one combination of frustration and thankfulness best suits everyone. Instead, each individual must find the best balance for her or him. Persons who would encourage that individual will maximize their support for that individual when they identify that balance and then offer both negative and positive encouragement as appropriate.
This insight has wider applicability.
Recently, I have read a couple of books about families that moved to France from the US. The authors contrasted American and French schools. American schools and youth organizations stereotypically emphasize praising everyone. For example, every child who participates in some sports receives a trophy simply for participating. Universal praise is intended to strengthen weak egos and enhance self-image. In France, teachers and other adults who work with children stereotypically offer little or no praise. Instead, these leaders provide what is intended to be constructive criticism, comments about how the child or youth might improve performance. The French contend that universal praise is meaningless and helps to prevent individuals from achieving peak results.
Probably, the optimal approach tailors positive and negative feedback to the particular character of each child or youth, offering a mixture of both positive and negative comments. The same is true of leading and managing (cf. The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Donald Trump Amateur Hour

Ted Mack hosted an amateur hour on radio and then television from 1948 to 1970. That show was one entertainment forebear of more recent shows such as “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.”
Sadly, Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” also seems to have provided the model for the Trump presidency. Consider:
  • Trump delights in portraying himself (and being seen by others) as the quintessential Washington outsider with no political experience. In other words, he is a political amateur.
  • Similarly, Trump’s cabinet members and closest advisers are amateurs.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s initial executive orders, tweets, and interactions with foreign leaders reflect that amateurism. For example:
  • Cozying up to Russia’s Putin and alienating the Prime Minister of vital US ally Australia.
  • Claiming in Tweets and public statements, contrary to all available evidence and expert opinion, that he would have won the popular vote had there not been several million fraudulent votes in favor of Clinton.
  • Banning legal residents of the US (green card holders) from entering the US if they were citizens of one of the seven Muslim majority states from whom he had banned all immigrants for 90 days.


The amateurism of Trump’s administration is also plainly seen in the administration’s focus on Trump’s ego instead of the people. Illustratively,
  • His Holocaust Day statement omitted any mention of the Jewish Holocaust and he used his meeting with Africa-American leaders intended to mark the beginning of Black History Month as an opportunity to denounce the media.
  • British Prime Minister Teresa May in her joint news conference with trump blatantly pandered to Trump’s ego, something Trump appeared to enjoy.

Most importantly for me as a Christian, Trump’s amateurism is evident in his superficial understanding of Christianity:
  • Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump unethically belittled the performance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new host of “The Apprentice” and asks attendees to pray for the show’s ratings while largely ignoring the more profound moral challenges facing the nation.
  • In his inaugural speech, Trump calls for policies that put America first, having taken the oath of office placing his hand on two Bibles (one apparently is insufficient!), implicitly contradicting Jesus’ fundamental teachings to love our neighbor and that all people, regardless of religion or nationality, are our neighbors.
  • Pandering to economic and security fears by threatening trade wars and promulgating travel bans instead of promoting courage, prudence, and justice.
  • Consistently preferring “alternative facts,” ad hominem attacks, and other fallacious forms of discourse to engaging in constructive public discourse.
Amateurism in the White House will not last very long. Trump and his minions will develop some level of professional, their amateurism will lead to impeachment, or their amateurism will have major, disastrous national or international consequences.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Christian Polarities: Liberation theology vs. Evangelicalism

At the end of the Reagan era, I found liberation theology's pragmatism attractive for four reasons:
  1. The then prevalent emphasis on self (remember the "me" generation) was increasingly disturbing and repugnant because it is the antithesis to Jesus' teachings.
  2. My doctoral research on religious pluralism raised difficult, perhaps unanswerable, questions about the exclusive trustworthiness of any one religion's scriptures. For example, given both a lack of scientific evidence and conflicting scriptural accounts about what happens at death (e.g., the faithful enter new and everlasting life, death is the end, life follows death which follows life in an endless cycle), one's cultural heritage and personal biases arguably determine which, if any, scripture most persons accept as authoritative.
  3. Marx's critique of religion as the opiate of the masses poignantly questions individual and institutional motives for claiming that religion benefits its adherents primarily after death.
  4. I learned that the world's major religions speak with one voice regarding a key element of their basic aim of salvation, transformation, or liberation. However else a religion may unpack the term that describes its aim, at a minimum its aim includes improving the quality of life in the present. For Christians, paradigmatic examples of this motif are the exodus narrative's theme of liberation and Jesus' teachings and interactions with people that emphasized God's acceptance of all (e.g., his interactions with women and sinners), God's command to love everyone without exception, and Jesus' healing of the sick and demon possessed.

Concurrently, social changes during the last half century have subtly pushed Christianity to emphasize defining salvation in terms of ethics. With globalization came a growing awareness of the universality of the core ethical teachings of the world's major religions, in contrast to their mutually exclusive theological or spiritual precepts. This commonality provides fertile soil for many varieties of liberation theology.

Additionally, the apparent incompatibility of science and religion has led many people to abandon religious belief in favor of atheism, agnosticism, or being spiritual with no religious preference. Not only has this trend caused worship attendance to decrease, it has also eroded the certainty of religious belief among some of those who remain involved in a faith community. This latter group finds supporting programs that promote a more ethical and just world less theologically troubling than they do supporting programs that have a narrower theological or spiritual focus.

Hence, Episcopal congregations and dioceses, as well as the national Church, invest more energy and resources in the Standing Rock protest, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other ethical causes than in evangelism. Even the Presiding Bishop's appointment of a canon for evangelism and his plan to conduct a dozen revivals in 2017 reflect this shift. Both moves emphasize Jesus and his teachings as the reason for engaging in ethical action, largely ignoring the promises of eternal life central to prior generations' evangelism efforts.

Almost three decades later, I realize that the factors that drew me to liberation theology have had opposite effects on many of those who identify as evangelical Christians. The first three motives are a typology of evangelicalism.
  1. Some self-identified evangelical Christians, instead of being repelled by an emphasis on self, have responded by adopting the "prosperity gospel," i.e., obey God's teachings and you will prosper materially. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump seems to find the prosperity gospel attractive. For example, he invited one of its leading exponents, Paul White, to offer the invocation at his inauguration.
  2. Some self-identified evangelicals (and conservative Roman Catholics who generally prefer Popes John Paul II and Benedict to Pope Francis), like some adherents of all major religions, choose to live in a closed world that excludes disagreement and dissent. These individuals and their churches regard the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the yardstick by which to judge the truth claims of everything else – science, history, other religions, etc. The slow decline in Southern Baptist numbers (as well as the decline in attendance at mass of non-immigrant US Roman Catholics) reflects this approach's diminishing popularity.
  3. Yet other self-identified evangelicals (e.g., Joel Osteen) appear to have taken Marx's critique of religion seriously, substituting self-help advice clothed in Christian language and stories for substantive teaching about orthodox Christian theological. Illustratively, Osteen oversaw his congregation's use of media before becoming its pastor; he does not have a degree in theology, the Bible, or religion.
  4. Finally, and probably in spite of evangelical leaders' best efforts, social trends are eroding the certainty with which evangelicals of all three types outlined above subscribe to their church's belief system. One response has been defensive, denouncing opponents for purportedly attempting to marginalize or deny Christianity's teachings if not its right to a voice in the public square. Commentators and participants sometimes label these debates about Christianity's proper role in the US "culture wars." White supremacists, including those who see Trump as an ally, sometimes deploy this type of rhetoric, trying to bolster the appeal of their message. Another response has dynamics similar to those that draw people toward liberation theology. However, this time the dynamics result in campaigns that support the status quo. These campaigns directly or indirectly advocate oppressing or exploiting women, LGBQT persons, the poor, and other vulnerable individuals. North Carolina's law requiring persons to use the public restroom provided for persons of the gender on their birth certificate, and proposed similar legislation in several other states exemplifies such campaigns, as do laws restricting access to birth control and abortion. This type of response diametrically conflicts with the message of liberation and love that constitute the common core of ethical teachings of the world's major religions.

Reflecting on the above typology, I acknowledge that I have written in terms of broad generalities and blithely ignore exceptions. Nevertheless, I am unable to discover much common ground between Christians drawn implicitly or explicitly to a type of liberation theology and Christians who self-identify as evangelical. This divide mirrors the increasing polarization that I observe and experience within the Christian tradition. The divide also mirrors the political and cultural polarities so apparent in last autumn's presidential campaign.


Sadly, what I do not see is how to bridge the divide, to reconcile the polarities. Perhaps our best option is to practice openness, non-judgmentally welcoming everyone, by living a faith that invites all to journey with the God who liberates, loves, and transforms death into life.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Consequences of Trump's inauguration

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will become President of the United States. The day is significant for at least five reasons:

  1. The peaceful transition of power according to the rule of law in the world's largest democracy is an important sign that the rule of law still prevails, no small achievement in a world in which democracies tend to have short lives and in which large nation states tend to have authoritarian rather than democratic governance. Protesters of Trump's inauguration in DC and elsewhere are themselves evidence that freedom of assembly and speech as well as the rule of law still prevail in the US.
  2. Trump's presidency will usher in an unprecedented era of chaos, reflected in both his idiosyncratic, narcissistic Tweets and his proclivity to disregard facts that contravene his opinions and feelings.
  3. That chaos will sometimes become the catalyst for change. For example, Trump's Tweets and other favored forms of communication may replace communication filtered through professional reporters and the media with direct, unfiltered communication to the public. Similarly, President Trump will function as salesperson in chief rather than as head of state, chief executive, and statesman. Trump's apparent preference for living in Trump Tower in New York rather than in the White House indicates his unwillingness to change his personal style and foci to meet the demands of his new office. Other persons, by default and of necessity, will attempt to fill those other roles.
  4. The US seems poised to make a hard turn to the right, with Republicans having a majority in both houses of Congress as well as occupying the White House. Conflict has already surfaced between Congress and Trump, first over the desire of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to gut the Office of Government Ethics' powers and then over the length of any gap between repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. More conflict is likely, especially as the exigencies of the Presidency inexorably push Trump toward centrist positions and policies. Consequently, US policies and programs will move toward the right but probably not as sharply as many fear.
  5. Politics will become increasingly personal. Trump perceives disagreement as an attack on him personally. He frequently responds with ad hominem attacks on anyone who has the audacity to disagree with him. The personalization of politics will further polarize politics, eroding Trump's ability to obtain Congressional support for legislative, budgetary, and other initiatives. Cooperation across party lines is unlikely to occur for similar reasons.

Monday, January 16, 2017

My preferred way to die

Having a chronic, fatal disease has been the catalyst for thinking about death. My preferred way to die is a death that is similar to falling asleep, whether that sleep is natural or drug induced.
First, I often realize that I am becoming sleepy. I do not, however, know the actual moment at which I fall asleep. Analogously, I want to know that death is near so that I say a final goodbye to those whom I love the most but feel no desire to know the actual moment at which I die.
Second, falling asleep is a natural, non-threatening process about which I harbor no fears. Although a tiny minority of individuals may fear falling asleep and never awakening, I know that death is an inescapable and natural part of life.
Third, compared to a slow lingering death in which the dying person retains consciousness to the very end, a death similar to falling asleep seems attractive, gentle, and almost familiar because I painlessly fall asleep every day.

Fourth, if there is life after death, then I am happy to place my future in God's hands; if there is no life after death, then death, if like sleep, offers a comfortable end to consciousness and being. Sleep entails time passing while I am completely unaware of everything (unless I am aware of my dreams), including the passage of time. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Remission and the sword of Damocles

According to the single moral anecdote that mentions him, Damocles – a Greek name that translated literally means fame of the people – was a courtier in King Dionysius' court. Damocles, trying to curry Dionysius' favor, was telling the King how deserving the king was to enjoy such power, wealth, and fame. Recognizing Damocles' compliments as the obsequious behavior that they were, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles. Damocles quickly agreed to the swap.
Dionysius, however, before exchanging places with Damocles ordered that a large sword be suspended by just one hair from a horse's tail directly above the throne. Once seated upon the throne, Damocles looked around to relish his great fortune. Seeing the sword that hung so precariously over his head, fear displaced pleasure and Damocles begged Dionysius to switch places again, each returning to his original seat. Dionysius agreed, observing that fear always accompanied great power.
Remission in the case of an incurable, chronic cancer such as multiple myeloma, can feel similar to sitting under the sword of Damocles. On the one hand, remission affords an opportunity to return to some semblance of a normal life and all of the pleasures of that life. On the other hand, there is the certain knowledge that no matter how long lasting it is, the remission will end, subsequent remissions will be more difficult to achieve and of shorter duration, and that finally the cancer will win.
After almost a month with my cancer in remission, the anecdote about the sword of Damocles highlights several practical truths that have been in the forefront of my thinking.
First, death is inevitable. Everyone who is born will die.
Second, I am thankful not to know the specifics of when or how I will die.
Third, fear helps one live abundantly only to the extent that fear encourages constructive behaviors. For example, I take fifteen plus pills per day in spite of not a general preference for avoiding drugs because my physicians think that those medicines will improve both the quality and quantity of my life.
Fourth, fear unhelpfully limits one's quality of life to the extent that fear drives behaviors and emotions that diminish one's enjoyment of life while not improving either the quality or quantity of one's life commensurately. Illustratively, to avoid any situation that may result in an illness because of one's compromised immune system would mean trying to live in a completely sterile environment in which there is no direct contact with other humans.

In sum, savor each moment as if it were one's last.