Should leaders – in the church, the government, the
military, elsewhere – be held to a different or a higher moral standard?
Most of us will almost immediately respond in the
affirmative to that question. Yet implicit within the question are two basic presumptions
about the nature of sin.
First, is all sin equally bad?
Answering this question affirmatively creates the difficult
problem of delineating a hierarchy of sin. The Roman Catholic Church has
defined such a hierarchy, broadly categorizing sins as venial or mortal. Mortal
sins, unlike venial sins, place the sinner’s eternal soul in jeopardy.
In reaction to efforts to categorize sin, some Protestant
reformers argued that all sin was equally bad because sin, whatever the
specifics, separate a human from God; otherwise, that human sin taints God,
with the result that God ceases to be perfect.
The Protestant position seems untenable. Sin exists.
Nevertheless, God remains in relationship to the world. Additionally, murder or
rape seem much worse offenses than does coveting someone else’s truck, but not
acting upon that desire. However, attempting to delineate a hierarchy of sin
seems an impossible task: nobody can list all possible sins; the effect on one
person of committing a specific may differ from the effect on another person
who commits the same sin.
What can be said without too much risk of refutation is (1)
certain sins are always more egregious than other sins (cf. the example in the
preceding paragraph); (2) certain sins are more objectionable when committed by
persons in particular positions, e.g., a priest who divulges what s/he learns
in the confessional is worse than most gossip; (3) some individuals do appear
to have become great souls (Hinduism) or saints (Christianity), i.e., less
sinful than the majority of other people.
Second, some sin appears to have little effect on other
humans or upon creation but primarily alters the sinner’s relationship with
God. Illustrative of this type of sin might be the person who regularly
receives Holy Communion yet has no Christian belief whatsoever. Presumably, the
preponderance of other people present are Christian believers. If anything, the
sin of receiving without belief may reinforce the belief and practice of those Christians.
The harm of this sin seems to fall almost entirely upon the non-Christian who
Are sins against only God therefore less egregious than
other types of sin?
No objective basis exists for definitively answering this
question because no finite being can know the mind of the infinite God. Indeed,
the metaphor of God’s mind is itself an example of anthropomorphism, imposing
human images on the divine.
Instead of pursuing a theological dead end, how can a person
identify that which is sinful and thereby journey toward holiness (the absence
of sin in one’s life)?
Main definitions of sin include missing the mark (behavior
that is not as loving toward God, others, self, or creation as it might be),
impairing a relationship, and inappropriate boundary crossings. These definitions,
better than any enumeration of possible sins, offer guidance on how to become a
better, less sinful human.
Individuals who hold, or who aspire to hold, positions of
leadership or significant responsibility do well to reject claims that all sins
are equivalent and that spiritual growth away from sin is impossible. Ever
mindful of the definition of sin and sin’s temptation, strive to develop a
virtuous life, especially focusing on the cardinal virtues of justice, courage,
prudence, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Then God will say, Well done good and faithful servant.
An Episcopal priest recently contacted me with these three questions:
Is the episcopacy necessary for the
wellbeing and growth of the church? How does a bishop exercise power and
authority? If we ask Jesus what he thinks now about the office of the
episcopate, what might he say?
The Episcopal Church, like many other Christian Churches
(e.g., the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, some Pentecostal groups),
has bishops. The Greek word episkopos in English becomes episcopal
and its cognates. The word bishop similarly has its etymological roots
in the Greek episkopos. In Greek, a bishop or member of the episcopacy
was an overseer. In particular, the New Testament usage of episkopos
denotes an oversee of one or more Christian congregations, a meaning that continues
in the Christian tradition today.
The theological and biblical question has never been whether
bishops are necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church but adherence
to the biblical model of ministry.
Some Christian Churches (e.g., the Baptists,
Congregationalists, and Quakers) do not have bishops. In Presbyterian
denominations, the presbytery collectively acts as the bishop.
A commonly expressed argument in favor of bishops is that
connectional Churches hold clergy more accountable for their actions. However,
even a cursory review of sex abuse problems among the clergy points to a disproportionate
number of those problems occurring in Churches with bishops.
Furthermore, bishops are expensive. Typically, a bishop is
paid approximately the same or more than the highest paid clergy in the
diocese. Most bishops have one or more staffers; searching for and calling a
new bishop is expensive; bishops tend to travel extensively, visiting not only
diocesan congregations but also attending many meetings.
For me, the existence of the episcopacy is a given (or not,
depending upon the denomination). I’m comfortable with Churches emulating the
biblical pattern of ministry (bishops, priests/pasts/elders, deacons, and all
of the baptized). Trying to alter an existing pattern of ministry in a dying
religion such as Christianity ignores the basic problem of reversing declining
membership and participation.
My interlocutor’s second question – how does a bishop
exercise power and authority – points to a far more pressing issue. How do
bishops collectively and individually add value to their denomination and
diocese? Here are some suggestions:
·Model trustworthy, gift
affirming ministry that respects the dignity and worth of each priest/pastor,
deacon, and lay person
·Focus their and our attention
on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call
·Support diocesan clergy through
pastoral care, listening, assisting each in finding a call that matches that individual’s
gifts and abilities, etc.
·Minimize administrative overhead
(time and money) and maximize ministry and mission
·Hold all persons within the
diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering
to legal and moral behavioral standards
·Ensure that the bishop
him/herself is held accountable by the Standing Committee and House of Bishops
·In other words, exercise
power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way
characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love
What might Jesus say about the episcopacy today? This
poignant and timely question was the third and last question my correspondent
sent me. in view of current events in the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus would be
extremely displeased with much of the episcopacy.
Illustratively, covering up sexual abuse and misconduct is
at best a misguided way to protect the abuser and thee institutional cost at
the cost of the one abused. Indeed. most often the perpetuator continues to
harm others. In fact, covering up abuse not only egregiously harms those abused
in the past, present, and future, but also harms the abuser by failing to give
the abuser the opportunity to move toward wholeness. Additionally, the cover up
when discovered harms the institutional church more than if the ecclesiastical
authorities had dealt with the problem openly and appropriately.
Similarly, Jesus appears to have lived among the poor,
according to what we know about him from the New Testament. Yet several Roman
Catholic bishops have recently attracted media notice when they purchased residences
costing more than one million dollars.
We Anglicans are not beyond criticism. Sexual abuse has
occurred in every province of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England
provided palaces for their bishops in which many of their bishops continue to
Closer to home, would Jesus approve of the compensation that
our bishops (and some other clergy) receive? Jesus would surely insist that
bishops and other clergy receive a living wage. Does a living wage anywhere in
the U.S. require a compensation package of more than $250,000? Does any bishop (or
other cleric) continue to exercise his/her ministry in order to obtain better
retirements benefits or because s/he does not have good alternative career options? (In the interest of full disclosure, the same questions apply to senior military chaplains (Navy Captains and Admirals; Colonels and Generals in the other military services), of whom I was one.)
Would Jesus approve of authoritarian bishops whose actions
reflect more concern about the bishop’s authority than those actions
communicate trustworthiness, care for the wellbeing of the bishop’s clergy, and
an unrelenting focus on ministry and mission?
Would Jesus approve of bishops whose calendar and efforts are
devoted to administering the Church instead of revitalizing a dying
institution? Admittedly, asking that question is easier than answering it. For one
part of the answer, cf. my Ethical Musings posts, “For
such a time as this” and “Looking to
Would Jesus approve of bishops who struggle with mental
health problems, relational difficulties, or spiritual emptiness not seeking
appropriate help, perhaps even resigning (or taking a leave of absence) her/his
diocese to concentrate on moving toward personal wholeness?
No bishop is perfect; every bishop remains fully human, no more
deserving of dignity or respect than is any other human. Hopefully, a bishop
does have a goodly measure of spiritual maturity that surpasses the average. Bishops
have a challenging ministry in the best of times. Bishops, like all Christians,
need God’s help and the support of others.
The path toward Church renewal entails improving the
episcopacy, not eliminating or replacing the episcopacy. Questions such as the
second and third ones discussed above are essential for keeping the episcopacy
aligned with the Jesus path, promoting episcopal integrity, and for helping
bishops to live into their calling more fully.
The New York Times recently departed from its customary protocol
of requiring Op-Ed piece authors to identify themselves and published an Op-Ed
piece by an anonymous author who identified him/herself only as a senior member
of the Trump administration. The piece, “I Am
Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” available by
following this link, disturbed me for
First, the anonymous author paints a picture of the Trump
White House that is consistent with Bob Woodward’s depiction in his book, Fear,
as well as details obtained from multiple sources stretching across Trump’s
presidency. Chaos, infighting, and staff jockeying to have the last word with
an erratic, inconsistent and amoral president – all apparently common practices
in the Trump White House – are extremely worrisome in today’s world. Trump acts
as if he would prefer to be a dictator than an elected leader in a nation
governed by the rule of law.
Second, the Op-Ed author’s actions presumably unintentionally
undercut the rule of law. Neither staffers and political appointees are elected
officials; some, but far from all, require Senate confirmation before permanently
assuming their position. Allowing, perhaps even trusting, staff and political
appointees to temper if not to limit Trump’s most outrageous actions erodes the
rule of law upon which the U.S. was founded.
Third, the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution
provides a mechanism for removing, temporarily or permanently, an individual incapable
of functioning as president. Staff members surreptitiously removing documents
from the president’s desk, anonymously leaking descriptions of a dysfunctional
president and staff, and other immoral if not illegal behaviors ignore the real
problem and deny the U.S. the opportunity to address these problems in a responsible
way. Staffers and political appointees who cannot legally and morally fulfill
their duties have a moral obligation (cf. my article, “Duty
at All Costs,” in the Naval War College Review for a fuller explanation
of the reasoning behind this position – similar reason applies to political leaders
as to military officers).
Prayer alone will not change the dangerous political situation
in which the U.S. now finds itself. Christians in a democracy have the duty to participate
actively in the political process and to vote. Even if one believes that
abortion is a terrible evil (and I am not among those who hold that belief), a
dictatorship in which abortion is illegal will be infinitely worse than a
democracy in which individual women decide for themselves whether to have an
Life in the United States is increasingly defined by a person’s
identity as a member of a particular race, gender, income stratum, political party,
religion, and so forth.
I strongly dissent.
I am of European descent but that does not define my
identity. My race certainly shapes my existence in ways that I only partially
understand but my identity is primarily as a human. As a human I attempt to
value people of all racial heritages equally. Racial diversity incalculably enriches
rather than impoverishes my life.
I am a male but that does not define my identity. As with
race, gender shapes my existence in ways that I only partially understand. However,
masculinity does not define who I am. My X chromosome arguably shapes my
existence more than does my Y chromosome. The diversity of gender identities incalculably
enriches my life.
The same is also true for membership in a political party,
affluence, religion, etc.
When I look at another person I see a child of God and
wonder how my life will be enriched by my relationship with that person.
I don’t know what the slogan “Make America Great Again” means.
What is greatness? When was American great in a way that both embraces and honors
Ironically, perhaps the most quoted phrase in the
Declaration of Independence is “God created all men equal.” While in elementary
school, I ceased accepting the prevailing interpretation of the word “men” used
in that phrase, i.e., that “men” when placed in its historical context, meant
all people. That interpretation is egregiously wrong. The authors of the
Declaration of Independence intended the word “men” to denote white, property
owning, males. By implication, females and people of color, whether free or
enslaved, were less than fully human.
I do know what it means to “Make America Good.” A good
nation is one that respects the dignity of every human being. A good nation is
one in which all people enjoy liberty, justice, and equal opportunity.
Identity politics inherently move us away from goodness.
Enjoy diversity. Allow diversity to enrich life. Illustratively, multi-racial
ethnic and racial neighborhoods and workplaces are healthier, more creative,
and horizon expanding. Living and working in economically and politically
diverse contexts broaden perspectives and tear down artificial barriers to
I regrettably attended an all-white elementary school (hard
to avoid in small town Maine sixty years ago), divided my college years between
an all-male school and one that accepted women, attended economically elite and
economically diverse universities, worked in a couple of all-male environments,
lived and worked in contexts in which some people had to hide their true gender
identity, etc. I am thankful that these experiences have been exceptions not
the norm in my life.
I have viewed my experiences at the time and in retrospect
uniformly: a lack of diversity impoverished and harmed me; diversity of every type
shaped me into a better person by improving my enjoyment of life, enabling me
to better understand other people, and being a catalyst for my more fully
respecting the dignity of every human being.
In the America of my adolescence many parents worried about
a child marrying a person of another race or religion or of the same gender.
Thankfully, those prejudices are rapidly dissipating. Even so, race, religion,
and gender identity too often define a person’s identity rather than describing
some of an individual’s characteristics. And too many neighborhoods are becoming
more economically segregated.
Parents now worry that a child may marry someone of a
different political party; people similarly worry that a new neighbor may
belong to the wrong political party. A politician’s character and judgment are widely
regarded as less important than whether the politician belongs to the right
I vote to end identity politics. I vote for celebrating diversity.
I vote for making America (and the whole world) good, not great.
Today’s economic inequality is reminiscent of America’s
Gilded Age. Andrew Carnegie, the steel and railroad baron whose gifts built and
endowed over twenty-five hundred local libraries, was perhaps the richest man
In his “Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that the wealthy
had an obligation to use their wealth for the common good. He rejected the
alternatives of leaving the bulk of one’s wealth to family or to the poor, both
of which almost certainly would produce undesirable results.
Three years after authoring “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie
broke a strike at his Homestead steel works in Pittsburgh. The workers went on
strike when management proposed a thirty-five percent pay cut for workers. To
break the strike, Carnegie relied upon armed guards who, when a riot ensued an
attempt by scabs to enter the plant, killed sixteen.
Is it possible to gain great wealth ethically? If so, why do
large corporations consistently lobby the federal and state governments to
enact legislation that will provide their industry and, more specifically,
their business with a competitive advantage? Legislative or regulatory
competitive advantages tilt the playing field in favor of certain player(s),
thereby eroding the equal conditions that inherent in fair competition.
Following the example of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others,
today’s wealthiest (e.g., Gates, Buffet, Kochs, and other billionaires) are
endowing foundations and committing the bulk of their assets to philanthropy. On
its face, this giving would seem to counterbalance some of any evil entailed in
accumulating great wealth.
One problem with that conclusion is that the wealthy may not
use their money for causes that I (or you) endorse. Illustratively, as a
liberal I disagree with many of the political causes the Kochs support; as an
advocate of democracy, I object to political activism (efforts to shape public
policy) being cloaked as philanthropy and to that political activism thus receiving
many of the tax benefits associated with philanthropy.
Another problem is that if the accumulation of great wealth
depended upon laws or regulations that tilted what a theoretically level
playing field in favor of the one who accumulated that wealth, philanthropy in
no way compensates those who suffered because of unfair competition. This is
directly analogous to how local libraries, several institutions of higher
learning, and other Carnegie philanthropy did nothing to alleviate the horrendous
working conditions of his employees nor the poverty in which they and their families
Carnegie in “The Gospel of Wealth” wrote
Individualism, Private Property,
the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition … are the highest
results of human experience, the soil in which society so far has produced the
best fruit. Unequally or unjustly, perhaps, as these laws sometimes operate,
and imperfect as they appear to the Idealist, they are, nevertheless, like the
highest type of man, the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet
Even from a strictly materialist perspective, Carnegie’s
assessment of the best results of human experience is disturbing. His flawed list
omits love, friendship, knowledge, and art.
Furthermore, each item on Carnegie’s list is a limited
instrumental good, not an absolute good. No person is an island; promoting
individualism as the highest aim undercuts the inescapable web of community
that supports each person. Private property similarly depends upon government establishing
and maintaining law and order as well as services from which all benefit and
yet for which none pays directly (economists refer to these goods as common
goods, e.g., a public park benefits all, those who use it directly as well as
those who see it or even think about its availability). Competition should be
fair, which requires a level playing field. Accumulation of wealth is, per se,
not bad; accumulation of wealth by exploiting others or avoiding communal
responsibility is immoral.
Carnegie does favor the estate tax over leaving large wealth
to heirs. However, he prefers for the wealthy to give their assets directly for
the common good. His preference rests upon two widely held but erroneous
First, Carnegie presumes that he knows how to benefit the
common good than does our democratically elected state and federal legislatures.
I disagree. An ability to earn money is not necessarily indicative of an
understanding of how best to improve the common good. Legislatures are imperfect.
However, given the choice between relying upon legislatures or the wealthy to
act in a way that will best benefit the common good, I prefer to take my chances
with legislatures that embody multiple voices, have different perspectives, and
represent varied constituencies.
Second, Carnegie presumes that government spending involves more
waste than does individual philanthropy. Examples of wasteful government
spending abound (e.g., studies with no apparent social benefit, expensive
airplane parts, unnecessary travel, Medicare scams, etc.). Critically, those
examples collectively do not amount to even one percent of government spending.
Large scale waste – well-intentioned programs such as some job training initiatives
that fail to achieve their objectives or defense contracting cost overruns –
are generally ignored. Including both small- and large-scale waste, most
government spending is still beneficial, paying for schools, police, roads,
Social Security, much healthcare, and more. These are items towards which few
charitable dollars are expended.
Five hundred foundations exist today for every foundation
that existed in 1930; their assets have grown from less than a billion dollars
to over eight hundred billion dollars (Robert Reich, “Just Giving: Why
Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”). In spite of this dramatic
increase in charitable giving by the wealthy, inequality continues to grow, leaving
the bottom twenty percent ever further behind.