Sunday, September 16, 2018

A higher or different standard


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 receives unbelieving.

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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The episcopacy


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 adiaphora)

·       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 live.

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 grow?”.

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.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The New York Times Op-Ed piece by Anonymous


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 three reasons.

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 abortion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Identity politics


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 diversity?

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 human community.

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 political party.

I vote to end identity politics. I vote for celebrating diversity. I vote for making America (and the whole world) good, not great.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Inequality and charitable giving


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 history.

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 lived.

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 accomplished.

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 presumptions.

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.