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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Predictions for 2017

Here are my predictions for 2017. Given my batting average for my 2016 predictions of approximately 50% and my surprise diagnosis of cancer in 2016, which was a poignant reminder of life's inherent unpredictability, my predictions are prognostications rather than factual statements of what will actually occur.
  • National and international affairs
    • Syrian President Assad will remain in power, Iraq will move closer to fragmenting, and the Islamic State will continue to pose a terror threat. Israel, supported by the Trump administration, will continue building settlements on Palestinian territory; Peace with the Palestinians will become more elusive. In short, 2016 will not see major changes in the Middle East.
    • US politics, along with those in several European nations (e.g., France and Italy) will become more polarized. Right wing populist candidates are likely to win in many European elections.
    • The Trump administration will prove chaotic. Trump will continue to seek the limelight without thinking through the consequences of his words or actions. The US Constitution's emoluments clause will have unprecedented importance because Trump will fail to draw a clear legal distinction between his political responsibilities and his business interests. His family's involvement in government will also result in charges of nepotism. Trump will chafe at the limits of his power, e.g., feeling frustrated when Congress, the Supreme Court, federal bureaucracy, and state and local governments refuse to do his bidding.
    • The Putin-Trump honeymoon will sour in 2017 as these two narcissistic autocrats discover that although they have similar personalities but conflicting agendas.
    • China will become the US's enemy #1, sparking trade conflicts and heightened military tensions.
    • North Korea will continue testing missiles and nuclear weapons. The wars in Yemen and Syria will continue. Terror groups will continue to operate in Africa and the Middle East as well as executing strikes in Europe.
  • Economics
    • The price of oil will remain below $60 per barrel even though OPEC successfully trims production. Trump's campaign promises to increase employment in the coal industry and to expand US oil production will largely prove hollow.
    • The US economy will grow slowly, in spite of Trump's campaign pledge to achieve 4-5% growth, with stock prices ending the year up, unemployment flat, and wages showing some slow growth. Interest rates will continue to move upwards.
  • Social and cultural
    • Any GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) will delay full implementation for several years to give Congress time to devise alternatives to the law's popular provisions.
    • Abortion foes will experience modest success. Broader efforts to limit access to birth control will fail. Efforts to rescind progress toward full equality for LGBTQ persons will have, at most, marginal success.
    • Climate change deniers may succeed in voiding the Paris agreement and voiding some executive orders. Nevertheless, other nations, US states, and corporations will continue to take actions to minimize harm to the climate and environment.
    • The number of persons who identify as non-religious will continue to grow in 2017.
    • The white supremacist movement in the US will grow in numbers and visibility.
  • Personal: I will end the year as I began it, with my cancer in remission.

What are your predictions for 2017? (I encourage you to post your predictions as a comment to this post.)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Review of 2016 predictions

At the beginning of 2016, as I have for several years, I made a number of predictions about what would happen in the year ahead. In this post, I assess the accuracy of those predictions. Predictions are in black; assessments are in red.
  • National and international affairs
    • Syrian President Assad will remain in power, Iraq will move closer to fragmenting, the Islamic State will consolidate its hold on parts of Syria and the current Iraq, and Israel will not make peace with the Palestinians. The US will block the Palestinian's bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations. In short, 2016 will not see major changes in the Middle East. Assad remains in power; Iraq is closer to fragmenting; ISIS, however, has lost rather than gained power. Israel still has not made peace with the Palestinian's, although the US failed to block the latest UN resolution calling for a Palestinian state. Overall, 2016 did not see major changes in the Middle East.
    • Trump will not win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Trump not only won the nomination but also the election.
    • After a divisive, polarizing campaign, the US will elect Hillary Clinton its first female president. Clinton lost the election after a polarizing campaign.
    • Republicans will retain control of the US House of Representatives and Democrats will control the Senate. I was only half-right: the GOP controls both houses of Congress.
    • The Middle East will remain in turmoil: Yemen's insurrection will continue; the Saudi regime will face more open opposition; Assad will continue to cling, just barely, to power; Iraq will move closer to fracturing, with the Kurds exercising increased autonomy; Afghanistan will continue to destabilize; and Iran will remain an international pariah. The US will send more troops to the Middle East. Russia, the US, and other nations – divided by opposing aims – will not implement cooperative policies or actions in the Middle East. All of these predictions were basically correct.
    • China will struggle to maintain a rate of economic growth sufficient to pacify its population and keep its Communist overlords in power while concurrently flexing its economic, military, and political muscles abroad. This prediction was correct.
  • Economics
    • The price of oil will remain below $60 per barrel. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will show signs of fraying as its member states experience increasing financial difficulties linked to oil's persistently low price. Oil remained below $60 per barrel but OPEC has not shown evidence of fraying.
    • The US economy will continue to grow slowly with stock prices ending the year up, unemployment down, and wages finally showing some, albeit slow, growth. Interest rates will continue to inch upwards. All of these predictions were correct.
  • Social and cultural
    • Aging populations in the US and Japan will be the catalysts for a gradual erosion of youth worship and increased social appreciation and valuing of the elderly. This prediction was too optimistic; not much change in the predicted direction was apparent.
    • Deniers of climate change will become further marginalized, akin to people who claim that the earth is flat. Unfortunately, increased demand for energy generated using carbon based fuels in China, India, and Africa will outweigh the benefits global efforts to slow climate change. This prediction, sadly, was wrong, as evidenced by Trump's electoral victory.
    • Anti-Muslim sentiments will continue to escalate, exacerbated by both the threats posed by ISIS and non-state terror groups as well as an unstoppable flood of immigrants out of the Middle East. This prediction was correct.
    • Support for decriminalizing marijuana will continue to build as will support for reducing/eliminating mandatory sentences for many drug related offenses. This prediction was also correct.
    • Cultural conflict will continue in the US over same sex marriage and abortion. Nevertheless, same sex marriage will find increasing acceptance. Abortion, however, will remain an acrimonious, polarizing issue that further entangles Planned Parenthood and other providers. This prediction was correct.
    • Although Congress will fail in renewed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, healthcare costs will continue to grow faster than the general rate of inflation as will anger over the excessive cost of prescription drugs and awareness of the dysfunctionality of the US approach to healthcare. This prediction was correct, although repeal of the Affordable Care Act seems certain in 2017.
My predictions for 2017 will appear in my next Ethical Musings post.

In the meantime, best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2017!