Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Can Christians Be Catalysts for Ending Tribalism?


Recently, I attended a couple of Democratic Party events in Hawaii. Although I am a member of the Democratic Party, I am on its fringe in terms of participation. The events interested me more from a sociological than political perspective.

Political tribalism dominated. For many attendees, the local party functions as an important, perhaps even their primary, community. Few legislators or their staff members attended; none spoke or were key participants. Attendees expressed desires to include shared meals and other social events in the party’s activities. Importantly, participants with whom I spoke sought a Democratic victory in all elections and on all legislative issues. Compromise and bipartisan cooperation were unthinkable. Tribe defined identity, eclipsing concern for good government.

The core membership of the Republican, Socialist, Green, or any other political party in the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, is most likely equally tribal. On reflection, the tribalism I observed in those political events reminded me of the tribalism that prevailed in the military before the full implementation of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act designed to end inter-service rivalry, e.g., Army vs. Navy.

Researchers now report that political tribalism has reached the point where many parents are more upset when a child announces her/his engagement to a person of a different political party that when their child becomes engaged to a person of a different race or religion. Political tribalism is a key symptom of the polarization that causes gridlock in the federal government and in some state government. Compromise has become unthinkable; bipartisanship is a dirty word.

Other forms of tribalism also create fault lines along which societies and cultures fracture and become polarized. Religion is sometimes a prominent form of tribalism, e.g., Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims in much of the Middle Et, but not in Europe; Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic Christians in much of Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.; Buddhist vs. Muslim in Myanmar. Pro-life vs. pro-choice groups sometimes represent tribes in parts of the U.S. Economic disparities sometimes create tribes. Fans of one sports team vs. fans of another team may represent tribes. And so on – the types of tribes and the various identities that they entail are too numerous to delineate.

Tribalism is literally a dead end. The planet faces existential threats from the climate crisis and global heating. While competition and diffuse identities undeniably enrich life, tribal identities must be subordinated to globalization if humanity and life as we know it are to survive. The climate crisis adds fuel to tribal fires, threatening to intensify and spread those fires. The climate crisis has contributed to armed conflict in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere as “tribes,” sometimes fighting as proxies of other “tribes” fight for their fair share of scarce resources, resources the climate crisis makes increasingly scarce.

Christianity that follows in Jesus’ footsteps insists upon its adherents adopting a global identity and belonging to an inclusive community that welcomes everyone. Illustratively, Christianity is not defined by party membership. Even as it was once an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as the GOP at prayer, so now it is equally an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as Democrats in action. Faithful Christian Churches have room in their pews and warmly welcome people of all political parties and no political party (independents!).

Contrary to Christian groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and others that teach or require their members to withdraw from the world in order to remain faithful to Jesus, God calls the Church to live out its mission in the world. Jesus described Christians as salt and as leaven. Neither salt nor leaven is of any use stored in a container on a shelf; both must be proportionately mixed with other ingredients to be of any value. Additionally, Jesus sent his disciples into the world; he never instructed them to withdraw from the world. Going into the world obeys Jesus’ teachings and follows his example.

Christianity acknowledges that to be human is to have multiple identities. A person is invariably somebody’s child, perhaps someone’s parent, perhaps a spouse, maybe an employee or employer, perhaps a member of a union or organized group, certainly a citizen of some country, and so forth. Christianity hopes to shape and influence all of those identities, but never invalidates or cancels our multiple identities.

Ultimately, Christianity reminds us that our primary identity is as a child of God, an identity share with people of other religions, persons who identify as spiritual but not religious, and even atheists.

Christianity calls its adherents to promote justice – economic, social and political – for all creation. Christianity teaches that we collectively will live or die together. Savor your tribal identity(ies), always remembering that our primary identity as God's child places loyalty to all creation before loyalty to any particular tribe. This is our best hope for our broken, badly damaged world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Discerning God's presence


General Douglas MacArthur had a reputation as something of a “cold fish.” After World War II, his public relations people came up with an idea to help him improve his image. MacArthur would review a contingent of veterans. In the middle of the review, he would stop and suddenly recognize an enlisted man who had served with him during the war. “It will be a tremendously moving and human moment,” his advisers told him. “Out of hundreds of men lined up for your inspection, you suddenly pick out a single individual, call him by name and recall past campaigns.” MacArthur agreed to the plan.

The lucky soldier would be unaware that he’d been singled out for the honor. They searched Army records, found out everything about the fellow, and figured out precisely where he would be standing when MacArthur marched through the ranks. Just to be safe, they arranged for an aide to nudge MacArthur discreetly when he was directly in front of the proper soldier.

The plan worked perfectly. MacArthur saluted the veterans; the veterans saluted MacArthur. The General began his inspection. At the right moment, the aide nudged MacArthur. He halted, turned, and looked at the man standing stiffly at attention in front of him. “Jones!” he boomed. “We were together on Corregidor. You are Corporal Jones. I remember you.”

For a moment, Jones looked startled. Then he peered quizzically at the General. Finally, he blurted out somewhat uncertainly, “MacArthur?”[1]

Do you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life? In the world? Those questions capture the essence of today’s gospel reading.[2] Those questions are also central to the spiritual struggle of many Christians and non-Christians.

Consider these two metaphors that are useful for discerning God’s presence and activity in one’s life and in the world.

First, as our Presiding Bishop constantly emphasizes, God is love. This metaphor is a prominent New Testament theme. Critically, love is non-substantial – has no being – but relational. God is present in loving relationships that liberate and give life. These relationships call us to love one another and all creation. Furthermore, loving, liberating and life-giving relationships are works in which we see God, a point the 23rd Psalm and today’s first reading[3] memorably illustrate.

Tangentially, Christians have tragically cited this morning’s gospel to justify both displacing the Jews as God’s chosen people and anti-Semitism. A literal reading of the text is nonsensical. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples and other followers were all Jews. Christianity emerged only after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel was written to appeal to Gentiles, including Romans, during Roman persecution of Christians. The author crafts his appeal by implying all Jews rejected Jesus and that the Jews were responsible for his death. That line of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion: Jesus, a Jew, would have been filled with self-loathing and partially culpable for his execution.

A better interpretation focuses on Jesus and his command to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Democrat and Republican, the 1% and the 99%, and so forth. We follow Jesus when we love unconditionally, choosing the path that leads not to perishing but to life abundant.

A second common biblical metaphor for God is light. This metaphor reminds us of God’s unknowability. Light has some characteristics of waves and of particles, but is neither. Similarly, the metaphors of love and light help us to discern God’s presence and activity without our being able to describe God's actual nature.

Light, like the gospel’s anthropological metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice, points to God giving us wisdom. Even as light illuminates a path, a road, or a darkened room, so does God nudge or lure us in a particular direction. Jesus most famously sought this wisdom in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for God's guidance about whether to face execution in Jerusalem or to take a different direction.

Light also gives us courage. Think of the child – or even adults – who are afraid of dark places, moving shadows conjuring up evil images. Generations of authors have written about scary things in the dark. Turning on the light banishes those images and imbues even the faintest of heart with some degree of courage.

Light warms, or as physicists would tell us, energizes that upon which it shines. Solar power and solar heat are green alternatives to carbon-based fuel sources. Analogously, God's light, which illuminates our way and gives us courage to take the next step, also gives us the strength to take that next step.

Neither metaphor – love or light – is comprehensive or sufficient to fully describe God's presence and activity in a person’s life or in the world. However, the two metaphors helpfully point to the living God’s presence in the warp and woof of the fabric of the cosmos. We experience God relationally, God calling us to love one another and to care for creation, showing us the way ahead and then filling us with the courage and strength to journey along that path. Unlike Corporal Jones struggling to recall General MacArthur, we can with confidence acknowledge God’s presence and activity when we walk in love and light. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1]James Dent, Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, 2 July 1991.
[2] John 10:22-30.
[3] Acts 9:36-43.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A starting point for theology


Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences.  Theology was dethroned several centuries ago because of the growing recognition of the scientific method’s inapplicability to theology.

In general, theologians have begun their work from one of two starting points, either implicitly or explicitly.

One of those starting points was God.  Theologians working from this starting point presumed that humans could directly apprehend God.  For example, the classical arguments for the existence of God – the ontological, cosmological, and so forth – all rest on this presumption.

This starting point requires assuming that humans are able to know God.  Consequently, some religious traditions posit that humans have a soul that is similar in nature to God.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that at conception a human receives an immortal soul.  Many other traditions have similar teachings about humans having an immortal or eternal soul.  Since the soul is immortal, there is no physical evidence of its existence.  Nor does any evidence exist that supports ensoulment.  Belief in such a soul is non-rational and therefore not subject to scientific study.

Indeed, the via negativa in the Christian tradition, Theravadan Buddhism and approaches to God in other traditions premised upon God’s unknowability all reject the idea that finite humans can accurately describe the infinite God in finite human words.  These approaches to God invariably point or lead to mysticism, which presumes that while humans may experience God they lack any specific knowledge of God that they can communicate to another person.  Unsurprisingly, mystics have often been branded heretics and mysticism rejected as providing a solid foundation for theology.

The other starting point for theology is scripture.  A theologian would presume that the scriptures of his or her tradition were authoritative.  Sometimes, these theologians argue that their scriptures are authoritative using their scriptures to prove that God had revealed those scriptures.  Protestants who subscribe to a solo scriptura approach to their faith have adopted the presumption that the Christian Bible is authoritative.  Similarly, Muslims who believe that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammad and Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from two golden tablets, which the angel Moroni showed him, all presume that their scriptures are authoritative. From a rhetorical perspective, these theologians use their conclusion to prove their initial predicate.

Awareness of other religions and the claim of multiple, conflicting scriptures to be the authoritative revelation of God undercut the claim that any one scripture is authoritative.  How is one to choose which scripture to accept as authoritative?  In the past, the vast majority of people simply adopted the religious tradition of their family and culture.  In a global world with multiple religions and many more people aware of at least several of those religions, fewer people find the practice of mindlessly following in parental or cultural footsteps satisfying.  People now want to choose which if any religion they will practice.

Simply positing that one particular scripture is authoritative no longer works, nor is that approach amenable to scientific study.  The essence of the difficulty is the claim that God dictated or otherwise revealed the scripture through a supernatural process.  The word supernatural itself highlights that religion claims not to be natural and therefore not subject to scientific study.

If God, should God exist, be entirely natural as some theologians now claim, then scientific analysis may lead to signs of God’s presence and activity in the cosmos.  This presumption of a natural God calls for a new starting point for theology.

Perhaps humans do not have an immortal soul.  Perhaps humans have an entirely natural spirit comprised of those aspects of human existence that are quintessentially human although evident in other species to a lesser degree.  For more on this idea, read my article “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (a link to this article is also found on the right hand side of the Ethical Musings webpage).

One major advantage of this approach to theology is that it moves theology from the realm of speculation and grounds it in in the physical world amenable to scientific study.

A second major advantage of this approach to theology is that it begins to construct a believable, more factually based understanding of God and spirit. This approach builds on the deconstructive work of Bishop Spong, Bishop Robinson and others who identified the reasons why theism in all of its forms lacks credibility in the third millennium. Sadly, most of the deconstructionists failed to offer a post-theism theology.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Choosing the right lens


Recently, I read an article that suggested environmentalism should be a lens through which people view the world rather than treated as one of many issues that warrant attention and action (Nathan Empsall, “Connecting the environment and the church”). The rationale for arguing that environmentalism should be a lens is that basically everything (or almost everything) a person does affects the environment.

An environmentally responsible approach to life entails asking, “How will this action affect the environment?” Sometimes the answer is easy: throwing away trash creates unsightly litter and inappropriately disposes of waste material; walking avoids creating greenhouse gases internal combustion engines produce; eating less meat supports a food chain that harms the environment less; etc.

Often, however, the answer is less obvious. Is the environmental harm of an electric car or of a gasoline powered car greater when one considers (1) the manufacture of the vehicle and all of its parts, (2) the generation of electricity to operate the vehicle or the production of gas to operate the car, and (3) the environmental impact of eventually disposing of the vehicle? Few if any of us can knowledgably answer such a complicated, comprehensive question.

In general, the familiar mantra of reducing, reusing and recycling provides a convenient heuristic for learning to see the world through an environmental lens.

The article prompted some further musings about the importance of having the right lens or lenses through which to view creation, other people, and life itself. The image of a lens resonates with me because having the correct prescription for the lenses through which I see the world is essential if I am to enjoy clear, accurate vision.

Similarly, the ongoing journey of becoming a Christian is more about learning to view the world as Jesus saw it than about ontological change, i.e., becoming a Christian is not about a changing a person’s being but altering a person’s way of living and seeing the world. Illustratively, Jesus taught his disciples to see each person the disciples encountered as an individual who was worthy of dignity and respect.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see the difference between condemning evil and not condemning the person who commits an evil deed. For example, this means welcoming back into the community the person released from prison by helping that person find a decent place to live, a job that pays enough for the person to pay his/her bills, and embracing the person as a valued member of God’s family.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see myself as a member of a larger community, a community that begins locally with my fellow Christians and that extends to embrace all creation. Consequently, I must change the narrative of my life from self-centered to communal. This means, among other things, changing the narrative about paying taxes from avoidance/minimizing (what President Trump advocates, belittling those who willingly pay taxes) to viewing taxes (as economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw taxes) as an opportunity and responsibility to pay for civilization and its benefits.

Like Jesus, I must dare to believe that, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable image, the arc of history is long but bends irreversibly and inevitably toward justice. Thus, Christians who look through the lens of Jesus at the world act in ways that affirm justice will eventually prevail. We begin even today to beat swords into plowshares by spending more on the most vulnerable and needy instead of supporting defense budgets that exceed Defense Department requests.

What is the lens or lenses through which you see yourself and the world?

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Now is the time for “Burger King” churches


The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church.

If you doubt that pronouncement, map where the attendees or members of your congregation live. Also plot the locations of all churches – regardless of flavor (i.e., denomination) – in the geographic area in which your congregation lives.

The parish system originated when the Christian Church tailored its organization to meet the requirements of being the Roman Empire’s established religion. Ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities divided territory into non-overlapping, contiguous dioceses. Dioceses were subdivided into geographically defined parishes, with a church and at least one priest assigned to each parish. The nation states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire retained the parish system for their established Churches.

The parish model theoretically provided ministry to everyone. Ministry, particularly in pre-printing press days, primarily consisted of administering the sacraments, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and managing the institution.

The parish system has two potential disadvantages. First, as population shifts occur, church buildings and parish boundaries once tailored to fit the population distribution may no longer align with where people live. Second, the parish system presumes a sufficient supply of clergy to staff all of a diocese’s parishes.

The Church of England’s Diocese of Birmingham recently proposed ending its parish system for both of those reasons. Birmingham’s population has migrated from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, producing an imbalance between the location of church buildings and people. The Diocese also has too few clergy to assign one priest to each parish.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) does not have formal geographic boundaries for its parishes and missions. Nevertheless, TEC has functioned for most of the last two centuries as though it had a de facto parish system. TEC divided the nation into geographic dioceses. Dioceses often aimed, intentionally or otherwise, to situate a parish or mission in each town, neighborhood, or other population cluster. Each of those congregations then usually sought to develop the finances to afford its own full-time priest, the primary distinction between parishes and missions.

Both disadvantages of the parish system are evident in the American context. First, population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas have left many once thriving congregations struggling to afford a priest and to maintain buildings. Second, many rural congregations experience great difficulty in calling a priest because priests generally prefer urban or suburban living. This distribution problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a clergy shortage.

Another factor compounds the parish system’s problems, especially in the United States but also increasingly in the United Kingdom. We are living in a “Burger King” culture. Individuals want everything, including religion, their own way. No longer do people almost reflexively walk to the nearest congregation of the faith group inherited from their parents. People want to choose where they worship – if they attend any worships service at all. Growing numbers in both the U.S. and U.K. now opt to identify as spiritual but not religious, agnostic, or atheist.

Persons who do choose religion increasingly want to choose whether to belong to a Christian church or faith community of another religion. Those who choose Christianity then choose which flavor of Christianity they like, at least the flavor they currently prefer, and may move from one flavor to another. Over half of U.S. Episcopalians, for example, are not cradle Episcopalians.

The desire to choose is so strong, that coupled with the American love affair with the automobile, people unhesitatingly drive past one or several congregations of the desired flavor to find a congregation that offers what they seek in terms of worship, programs, ordained leaders’ personality style or type, parking, etc.

The neighborhood church is on life support, if not dead.

Is there a healthy alternative to the parish system?

Intentionally becoming a destination church – what I more broadly call a special interest church – offers a promising alternative, especially in the U.S. where the parish system is not mandated by law.

“Destination church” is not a new concept. “Destination church” typically connotes a church that offers something so special that it draws people from well beyond its immediate neighborhood, analogous to how magnet schools attract students from across a school district. English cathedrals, and often American cathedrals, are destination churches. A large downtown congregation may be a destination church because of its expensive, high-quality music program or some other, probably costly, distinctive programming.

The concept of special interest church adapts the idea of a destination church to fit congregations of all sizes and resource levels. Let’s stop pretending that any one congregation can, or even should attempt to, minister to everyone. Wealthy congregations, like Trinity Wall Street, will never attract people who believe, as St. Francis of Assisi did, that walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires disavowing all worldly possessions. Large congregations, such as St. Martin’s in Houston, will never attract people who seek the family-like experience that comes from knowing every member of the congregation. Conversely, small congregations cannot offer either the anonymity or diverse programming possible in a large congregation. Not every congregation has the youth, leaders or money to offer top-quality youth ministry.

What does your individual congregation do really well? Honest answers, for most churches, will number only one to a half-dozen items. No congregation, no priest, can do everything exceptionally well. To identify strengths, truthfully compare your congregation to other congregations in the community (of all flavors) and in the diocese. What does your congregation do so well that other congregations could learn from it?

Paul wrote that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul’s statement was clearly a hyperbole. He could not change his race or gender. He remained a tentmaker, being neither a peasant nor a noble. As identity politics underscores, nobody can literally be all things to all people. Let’s stop tilting at windmills, attempting the impossible, and deluding ourselves about congregational limitations. Instead. build on your strengths.

Furthermore, with the multiplication of denominations (making lemonade out of the lemons of schism), extremely few communities have just one church. Only very large congregations have the people, staff, and resources to offer a truly wide variety of first-rate programming for children of all ages, adults of all ages and interests, professional quality music, effective social advocacy that makes a difference locally and globally, etc. People today increasingly reject the mediocre as unsatisfactory. Instead, people want to be associated with the truly excellent, whether in their choice of a smart phone, health care, or a religious congregation. Great congregations today measure success by the quality, not the quantity, of their ministries and missions.

Dream about what your congregation might look like if it single-mindedly focused on its few outstanding strengths. Then design and deliver ministry and mission programs to bring that dream to fruition, boldly scrapping everything else and realigning resources, including lay and staff time, with that dream.

The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Holy Week – some modern images


This year, in the days before Holy Week (the 8 days from Palm Sunday to Easter, inclusive), my thoughts turned to some contemporary images that are evocative of biblical images embedded in the Holy Week narrative. To find those images, read the Holy Week narrative, versions of which are found in the first three books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, the biography of Jesus read this year by many churches, including the Episcopal Church, that follow the Revised Common Lectionary for selecting the scripture passages to be read in worship service, the Holy Week narrative spans Luke chapters 22-24.

Here are some suggestive images.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before he shared a final meal with them. The disciples wanted to wash Jesus’ feet; his filling the servant’s role discomfited them. Today, the “dirty” may belong to a different political party, different race, or have a different sexual orientation. How can I humble myself to see that I, not they, am truly the one who is dirty? How can I allow Jesus to wash me?

Jesus is famously tried by Pilate who washes his hands of the entire affair. When individuals wrongly or falsely disclaim responsibility for a problem, they emulate Pilate, figuratively attempting to wash their hands of the entire affair. Among such individuals are climate change deniers, flat earthers, white supremacists, and those who rely upon their own “alternative facts.” Who might you add to this list?

Jesus, whom the gospels describe as without sin, was executed as a common criminal, an insurrectionist. When humans harm the planet, wantonly destroying other life forms, humans reenact the wanton execution of Jesus. Conversely, when humans strive to live Jesus’ radical teachings about loving God, neighbor, and creation then those humans become vulnerable, as was Jesus, to forces opposed to any change, actual or possible, that threatens their power. For me, authoritarian leaders and most of the world’s wealthiest 1% invariably react against changes that would bring liberation and give life to the dying, downtrodden, and disadvantaged.

Scripture reports that the Easter event begins with the discovery of an empty tomb. Is emptiness ever sufficient to point the way to God’s loving presence?

The Easter event was unexpected. The disciples had no inkling that Jesus would continue to be present with them. The disciples failed to recognize him in reading their Bibles, in sharing meals, and in one another. When I saw an angry man today, who appeared to be under the influence of some substance, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in him? When I saw a parent berating a misbehaving child, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in the parent, in the child? When I listen to egocentric politicians rant, I wonder: Can I see Jesus in that person? In other words, is God’s Easter promise to still be with us true? Or, will death and evil prevail?

What contemporary images do you associate with the biblical images? How does the story of Holy Week come alive for you?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Protest resignations OR protest retirements?


A reader of my article, “Duty at All Costs: The Ethics of Protest Resignations by Military Officers,” (Naval War College Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 103- 128) raises an interesting question regarding a military retiree being recalled to active duty and prosecuted under Article 88 of the UCMJ for “contemptuous words.” My response follows:

First and foremost, I am a priest and not a lawyer. I am completely unqualified to offer legal advice. The thoughts that follow are simply my musings about your question.

To the best of my knowledge, the military has not yet recalled and court martialed a retiree for expressing political opinions. The retired Marine recalled for a court martial to whom you refer in your letter, if my internet research identified the correct individual, was living in Japan and convicted of child pornography offenses. His case is similar to the cases I found in my quick, non-exhaustive search. Every military retiree court martialed for an offense committed while retired, whose case I read about, faced charges of criminal activity such as child pornography or sexual harassment.

However, the possibility of prosecution for expressing political opinions does seem to exist. James Joyner in a blog post, “Prosecuting Retired Generals” (Outside the Beltway, April 27, 2006 at https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/prosecuting_retired_generals/), quotes Dean Falvy from a post at FindLaw:

Even retired officers may be at risk when they speak out – as Lt. Col. Michael J. Davidson noted in his July 1999 Army Lawyer article, “Contemptuous Speech Against the President.” Davidson noted that Article 88 may apply to retired commissioned officers by virtue of other articles of the UCMJ. No charges have been brought against a retired officer for such an offense since 1942, and most retired commentators are probably oblivious to the risk. But the theoretical possibility does exist.

Criticism is not synonymous with contempt. Furthermore, free speech is a protected right in the Constitution, unlike child pornography or sexual harassment. Recalling retirees for court martial because a retiree expressed particular political opinions or participated in the political process would, I suspect, place the Department of Defense and probably the incumbent administration on very thin ice politically. At a minimum, such a prosecution would create an explosive news story.

CAPT Michael Junge, USN in his blog post, “The Retired Admiral, the President, and the Military Profession” (Defense One, August 20, 2018 at https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/prosecuting_retired_generals/) recognizes the impracticality of recalling for court martial or non-judicial punishment an officer whose speech may have expressed contempt for the president. He argues that the military profession should be self-correcting, i.e., peers should correct one another. Failing that, the Secretary of Defense should informally but publicly reprimand the officer by using tweets, for example. Importantly, CAPT Junge defends the retired admiral’s prerogative to offer political criticism.

Distinguishing between political opinion and contempt is often difficult. Consequently, courts have generally exempted the authors of comments directed at prominent political leaders from libel suits. Indeed, legal opinion is divided over whether the comments of the admiral in question were contemptuous or merely strongly worded political opinion.

Recalling and prosecuting even one retiree under the UCMJ for expressing his/her opinions would invariably create a “chilling effect” on retirees exercising their first amendment right to free speech and on their active participation in the political processes as a citizen. The chilling effect might deprive political leaders and voters of valuable advice, e.g., that the U.S. was actually losing and not winning a long-fought war. If that occurred, the real measure of a retiree’s convictions and courage would become whether the retiree chose to resign from the military, thereby forfeiting all benefits a military retiree receives but regaining the freedoms all civilian citizens enjoy.

Of course, the less prominent a retiree is and the smaller the audience his/her comments attracted, the less probable any punitive action becomes. Any action, of course, presumes that someone in a position to act knows of the comments, in itself a rather unlikely presumption.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What's next?


The Presiding Bishop’s canonically required visit to my diocese (Hawai’i) occurs in late March of 2019. His visit, following his well-established pattern, will primarily consist of several events, most open to the public, intended to renew and revitalize the diocese and its people.

Reflecting on his upcoming visit, which certainly builds on Bishop Curry’s skill as an exhortative preacher who energizes his hearers, I wondered, what next? How does this diocese, or other dioceses post-visit, capitalize on whatever renewal or revitalization that they may experience and move forward? Alternatively, do Bishop Curry’s diocesan visits simply provide a one-time injection of spirit that dissipate without producing any substantive long-term gains?

Critiquing The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) long-term numerical decline and other organizational problems is easy. I’ve penned such critiques, as have others. To date, these critiques appear to have prompted few changes, much less reversed the decline.

Consequently, perhaps Episcopalians collectively should do what Bishop Curry has done as an individual: play to our strengths. Appreciative inquiry argues that flourishing organizations emphasize their strengths rather than weaknesses or problem solving.

Appreciative inquiry’s starting point is a focused version of what Hawaiians call “talking story.” In congregations (both parishes and missions), talking story might consist of attendees (not just members!) discussing what attracted the person to that particular congregation and what keeps the person returning. Also, what has the congregation done in the community of which its attendees are proud? For dioceses, talking story might connote congregations describing what they learn and the benefits they receive from the diocese and other diocesan congregations. Additionally, what does the diocese do to make a difference in its geographic area and/or member congregations? Similarly, on the provincial and national levels, people could talk story by sharing what why they personally find rewarding by participating in the province or national church, what they perceive the province or national church contributes to dioceses and congregations, and ways in which they believe the province or national church changes the world for the better.

Talking story locally, in dioceses, and nationally will create new narratives about Episcopalian congregations, Episcopal dioceses, and TEC. Concentrating on problems, lamenting lack of growth or diminished influence, and so forth attracts few and energizes even fewer people. The path to life abundant lies in using our God given gifts (strengths) to incarnate God’s love manifested in Christ more fully as individuals and as the gathered body of Christ.

When I consider what drew me to the Episcopal Church and what keeps me involved, among the concepts that cluster at the center of my thinking are:

·       Acceptance and inclusivity that are the building blocks of community

·       Affirmation that I am beloved child of God

·       Pastoral sensitivity that emphasizes helping one to live more completely in the light, respecting the individual’s journey without inappropriate judging

·       Celebrating beauty in the cosmos, persons, and worship

·       Compassion, practicing love for my neighbor locally and globally

·       Working together for justice

Individual lists of what drew the person to an Episcopal congregation and what causes the person to continue participating, may be different. And even if the words are the same, the specifics will differ. Talking story and building narratives is not about creating lists. The process is about actually listening to one another, learning the specifics of how, for example, a person experienced acceptance and why that was a memorable element of the person’s spiritual journey. Similar guidance applies to dioceses, provinces, and TEC as they talk story.

God does not ask anyone or any part of the body of Christ to be something they are not or to do something impossible. God gives individuals, congregations, and dioceses particular gifts expecting that those people and organizations will use their gifts to do great things for God. Incidentally, doing great things for God stands in sharp contradistinction to popular prosperity gospels that masquerade as Christianity, pseudo gospels that simplistically equate health and wealth with God’s agenda.

According to 2017 parochial reports, average Sunday attendance for TEC was 556,774 people in 6447 congregations organized in a nationwide network of dioceses. TEC’s more than 1.7 million members annually contribute in excess of $1.3 billion to its congregations and dioceses. A politician would think s/he had died and gone to heaven to have that many volunteers in an organization that reaches into almost every U.S. community and has those financial resources.

In other words, the time has come to stop looking back, wistfully focused on what our congregations, dioceses, and national church used to be. Capitalize on the renewal and revival that Bishop Curry is trying to engender in the Church. Look to the present. Who are we? What draws us together? What keeps us together?

Then, living into those new narratives, dare to dream about how we can build on our present strengths and past successes to achieve new and future successes for God? What is next for your congregation, diocese and The Episcopal Church? Lastly, after designing plans to turn those dreams into reality, work in our parishes, dioceses, provinces and TEC to deliver the projects, programs, and other initiatives we have designed to a broken, hurting world desperately in need of God’s transforming love. Even as we transform the world, we will discover that we ourselves are transformed and have become part of a transformed Church.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Why?


One day, the eighteenth-century Polish rabbi Baal Shem-Tov and his students were standing on a hill when foreign troops invaded their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to Heaven and cried out, "Oh, if only I were God."

A student asked, "But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?"

The rabbi answered him, "If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand."[1]

In today’s gospel reading,[2] many in the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus were galvanized by news of a recent tragedy: Pilate's soldiers had killed some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Why would God allow this? Similarly, why had the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen people? Why did God allow that to happen?

Our questions echo the crowd’s questions. Why did God allow two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to crash, killing all aboard? Why did God allow the slaughter of fifty worshipers in two New Zealand mosques? Why an unending war in Afghanistan? Why cancer? Why any tragedy?

The day had been long and the sun hot. Moses was dusty, thirsty and tired. All day his only companions had been the bleating, cantankerous sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He had led the flock from the wilderness to the mountain called Horeb, that is, desert. It was an arid place, of parched ground and few shrubs. His father-in-law said that it was the mountain of God, but Moses simply hoped to find better grazing for the flock and perhaps a spring.

That was when he smelled it: the aromatic smoke of the cassia; incense like he had smelled in the temples of Egypt; incense like his father-in-law used when he prayed to the God of Horeb. Moses shook his head to clear his mind, thinking the smell a daydream. Yet the smell persisted. Slowly, he looked around. He was startled to see a thorn bush ablaze. Yet the bush itself did not actually seem to be on fire. There was fire, but the bush was not burning. Was he daydreaming?

Forgetting the sheep, intrigued and yet wary, he took a couple of cautious steps towards the fire when a voice came from the fire: "Moses, Moses!" He stopped abruptly, still not sure of what was happening.

Again, the fire spoke, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

Moses was afraid, his body trembling. He held his head in his hands, afraid he was losing his mind, afraid that this bush really was a god speaking to him.

Again, the fire spoke: "I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered the oppression of the Israelites. He remembered the cruelty of the overseers. And he remembered his outrage and how he had killed an overseer who was brutally beating an Israelite slave.

Yet again the fire spoke: "I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered how the Israelites had turned on him in anger. They did not want his leadership or his help. He remembered fleeing Egypt and finding sanctuary with Jethro. And he remembered Zipporah, his wife, and the good life they shared.

Was this some strange dream, brought on by heat and exhaustion? Who was he, a hunted man, despised and rejected by his own people, to lead them out of bondage to freedom?

"I will be with you. This will be a sign to you: bring the people to worship me here on this mountain."

That is no sign, Moses thought to himself. How am I to convince the people to follow me out here into the desert? And what is supposed to happen when and if we get back to this mountain? Anyway, bushes do not speak. Bushes burn when ablaze. This was not right. Whose voice was this?

"I am who I am. Tell the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'"

That was no answer. But Moses even then knew he would go. The fire's power had reached into his spirit and burned unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Once he had tried to free the Israelites on his own and failed; now he would go to Egypt and try again, this time filled with hope and power from knowing that God went with him.[3]

Moses’ renewed commitment to improve the plight of his enslaved fellow Israelites prefigured Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. Land for Jewish peasants, as in Hawai'i today, was precious. People cut down an unproductive tree to use as building material or firewood. Granting the unproductive fig tree another year, with fertilizer and care, emphasized that God lovingly and unfailingly offers persons opportunity after opportunity to become productive, i.e., to grow in love for God and neighbor.

This Lent, remember, and re-live in your imagination, your failed attempts to love your neighbor and God. Assured of God’s love and forgiveness, let go of those failures. Dare to move the seemingly meaningless suffering and tragedy in life, to pause in those moments when you think God might be speaking. Dare to try one more time to love God and neighbor. May God use our remembering to cultivate within us a new awareness of God's abiding presence, that we might not be barren but that Christ's love and strength might help us to truly love our neighbor all of our days. AMEN.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019



[1] Robert H. Schuller, Turning Hurts into Halos (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), pp. 218-219.
[2] Luke 13:1-9.
[3] Exodus 3:1-15.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Medicare for all


David Brooks in his column, “‘Medicare for All’: The Impossible Dream,” (New York Times, March 4, 2019) argues that regardless of the appeal of adopting Medicare for all, the U.S. transitioning to Medicare for all is impossible.

Brooks is partially correct. Transitioning from the current mélange of health care insurance programs to Medicare for all will be exceedingly difficult. However, the difficulty in transitioning is an insufficient reason for not moving forward.

First, health care is a basic human right, a basic corollary of the right to life. The right to life is corroded by selfishness and greed every time somebody’s life is cut short or somebody’s quality of life is substantially diminished by a preventable or treatable condition for which the person could not obtain the required health care. Studies consistently show that people in the U.S. have shorter life expectancies and live lives impaired by more preventable or treatable conditions than do residents of other developed countries. In other words, Americans enjoy the right to life less than do people in other developed countries in spite of spending more on health care per capita than do people in any other country. Refusing the challenge of transitioning to Medicare for all permanently condemns Americans to enjoying an unnecessarily limited right to life.

Second, a huge number of people associated with health care currently produce little of real value: everyone connected with the health insurance industry (those who work directly for the health insurance company, those involved in billing health insurance, those involved in tracking per patient costs, almost all Medicare employees, all those whose work is tied to administering Medicaid, etc.). Nobody would need to determine an individual’s eligibility for care as everyone would be eligible. Medicare for all is estimated to reduce health care costs by 25% or more simply by cutting administrative costs. In implementing Medicare for all, the government should compassionately assist those harmed economically by the transition: displaced health care administrative personnel, health care workers, not just doctors, saddled with outsized student loans, etc.

Third, health care costs would fall. People would get less care, because preventive care is less costly than treatment and people who have free access tend to seek preventive care. Emergency room usage would sharply decline, as people substituted lower cost options for emergency room care, which is the highest cost source of care. Personal costs, often less tangible but nonetheless real, would diminish because people would not need to track health care costs, make copayments, etc. If Medicare for all paid for outcomes, not procedures, wasteful tests and procedures would go away.

Fourth, federal funding for health care could rely on a simple formula of $xx/person served with a higher rate of reimbursement in rural and other areas in which it is hard to get providers to locate. By pushing the funding down to states, and then allowing states to fund municipalities, the federal government could rely on local expertise and knowledge rather than attempting to decide how to allocate funding among local provider, i.e., rely upon our federal system to allocate health care funding recognizing that allocations may vary substantially from one part of the country to the next. Federal health care administrative costs would be reduced to fifty (or fifty-five, if one includes the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) monthly electronic transfers using the modified per capita formula outlined above. States might choose to utilize current state health department personnel involved in Medicaid funding to allocate the monthly check from the federal government, keeping costs to a minimum and allowing municipalities (city, town, or county) maximum leeway in spending the money or might adopt a more centralized form of control. That would be a state, not a federal decision. Federal enforcement of constitutional guarantees of equal rights would still apply, as it does in other fields, without needing a large, special bureaucracy.

Fifth, as implementation progresses, the federal government could also give the VA medical system to the state in which the VA facility is located, allowing the state the option of operating the facility, giving the facility to a municipality, or closing the facility. Veterans would no longer require special access to care because all Americans would have equal access to care.

The very simplicity of this proposal has two major strikes against it. First, special interests – insurance lobbies, groups focused on a special disease, health care companies – would inevitably strive at every opportunity to establish preferential treatment for themselves (just think of the U.S. tax code!).

Second, the U.S. has sadly become less of a federal system and increasingly centralized. Changing laws or rules at the federal level is easier than making those same changes in each state and territory. This negates one huge benefit of a federal system: the opportunity for states to adopt different approaches, policies, and programs, as a testing mechanism to find what works best. When one approach, policy, or program is widely perceived as the best, other states are generally quick to adopt it. People dissatisfied with the approach to health care delivery in one municipality or state could relocate, just as they currently do with respect to schools, employment opportunities, etc.

Even if you reject this proposal, not moving ahead with health care for all because of the difficulty in transitioning from the current mélange than harms so many and works well for only the privileged few is illogical and immoral. Health care for all is a fundamental corollary of the right to life.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Restoring God’s Earth




The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world and all who dwell therein. 

(Psalm 24:1)



The people of ZeroWasteChurch.Org write:

When we think about the planet, the solar system, the world as we know it, and as we learn more, and learn how much we don’t know, it is easy to feel incredibly small. When we hear of our world changing, climate changing, biosystems changing, animal species being destroyed, it hard to imagine how one person’s action, one person’s act of faith could possibly make a difference.

Mother Theresa said once, “There are no great things; only small things with great love.” She also said of herself, “I’m but a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

What if there was something individuals could do? What if there were a series of small acts of faith, small practices, new habits persons could start that did make a difference in care and concern for God’s creation? Would you do it?

ZeroWasteChurch.org has prepared an e-book of themes that collect small actions and habits that a person can take to incorporate the theme into her/his life. These themes have been shown, and they are optimistic, that these practices will indeed make a change to the ways we treat creation and the effects of human behavior on creation. 

ZeroWasteChurch.org call this process “Restoring God’s Earth: A Year of Personal Action.” Each month their free e-book of the same title will introduce a new theme, and each week it will offer several practical suggestions for you to try out. The free e-book is also available by clicking the link embedded in the photo of the book’s cover in the column to right.

They and I invite you to be God’s pencil in the world. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; its these little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Some thoughts on Ash Wednesday


Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Christian season of preparation for the annual celebration of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.

In some Christian traditions (including mine, the Anglican), churches hold special services at which attendees have ashes imposed on the forehead as a mark of sorrow and repentance for their sins and as a visible sign of the start of a Lenten journey. Lenten journeys are frequently characterized by an individual adopting a special spiritual discipline, giving up something (caffeine, TV, etc.) or taking on something (praying one of the daily offices, volunteering more time in helping others, etc.). In either case, the spiritual discipline is generally intended to help the individual focus more attention on God and on walking more closely in Jesus’ footsteps. These Lenten spiritual disciplines, though tailored to and chosen by the individual, function analogously to the practices of observant Jews.

Recently, some congregations and clergy have engaged in what they call “Ashes to Go.” The intent is to take ashes to people, whether on street corners or elsewhere in response to diminished attendance at Ash Wednesday services and a good faith effort to accommodate faithful but over-scheduled people. At least one priest, who is part of the “Ashes to Go” movement, tries to engage a person who wishes to receive ashes in a brief conversation about the person’s spirituality and then offers a brief prayer along with the imposition of the ashes.

Imposition of ashes outside of the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (or an equivalent service in another tradition) raises questions about the meaningfulness of imposing ashes. Is wearing ashes for the remainder of the day simply a method of drawing attention to the wearer’s piety, real or imagined? If so, a prima facie reading (and probably a careful exegesis as well) of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, the gospel text widely read on Ash Wednesday, condemns the practice. Is wearing ashes for the wearer’s benefit, rather than trying to send a message to anyone else? If so, ashes may help to remind the wearer, conscious of the mark on his/her forehead, of his/her dependence on God’s grace. Of course, similar questions apply to persons who receive ashes in a traditional Ash Wednesday service.

Awareness of personal sin is less pervasive today than in some previous generations. Furthermore, belief in hell has also decreased as has belief in a wrathful, unforgiving God. Many Christians and Christian clergy today believe in a God whose perfection is neither marred nor diminished by embracing imperfection in anyone or anything. Jesus’ death on the cross is increasingly regarded as a demonstration of God’s unbreakable, infinite love for us. This interpretation rejects expiatory, propitiatory, and substitutionary explanations of the crucifixion. Theses latter theories all have the unintended and often unvoiced consequence of conceptualizing God as either a child-abuser or masochist.

Nevertheless, evil and sin are pervasive. The prayer of confession in Enriching Our Worship elegantly expresses the pervasiveness of evil and sin: “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Admitting one’s sin, turning towards God more fully, and seeking to make reparation for one’s sin are steps away from evil and toward more abundant living.

If the imposition of ashes, whether in a traditional Ash Wednesday service or from someone offering Ashes to Go, assists one in that spiritual journey, then receiving ashes is worthwhile and commendable. Otherwise, the imposition of ashes seems to replicate practices Jesus rebuked: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ecclesiastical dieting for better health


Approximately 70% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. Similarly, The Episcopal Church (TEC) after decades of declining attendance and membership is organizationally overweight or even obese. The sooner TEC diets, the greater the probability of TEC returning to ecclesiastical health and vitality.

TEC can lose weight. A prior Ethical Musings post examined the episcopacy. In that article, I advocated reducing the number of dioceses to better serve TEC’s declining number of congregations. This essay identifies ways TEC’s congregations (a category that includes both parishes and missions) can improve their organizational health by shedding unhealthy burdens of excess programs, staff and facilities.

Corporate worship constitutes the programmatic and spiritual heart of most Episcopal congregations. I have served a congregation that needed to add a third Sunday morning service to accommodate the growing number of worshippers because of limited parking. I have also served congregations with two Sunday morning services held in naves that could accommodate three or four times their combined peak Sunday attendance.

New congregations invariably begin with a single Sunday worship service. A congregation adds a service when seating or parking ceases to accommodate attendees. Unfortunately, one unintended result of adding a service is that attendees at each service quickly evolve distinct identities based upon their preference for a particular time or style (silent or sung, Rite I or II, etc.). Those separate identities then take precedence over identity as members of the larger congregation. Consequently, congregations continue to offer multiple Sunday services even after the disappearance of the original reason for those services.

Fragmentation of congregational unity is perhaps the most visible cost of unnecessary Sunday services. Clergy while conducting a service are unavailable for pastoral conversations, teaching, or other ministries. Volunteer time is wasted on marginally beneficial, duplicative activities such as needing two sets of ushers and lectors. Multiple services may increase the cost of utilities, janitorial services, and bulletin preparation/printing if each service has its own leaflet.

Small savings in small congregations may have an outsize impact on growth and mission as well as aid in balancing budgets. Although consolidating Sunday services is frequently contentious and may result in losing a few regular attendees, potential gains usually exceed costs. Surveys consistently suggest that newcomers tend to seek thriving, larger congregations instead of inwardly focused, small congregations.

Concomitantly, many congregations can realize gains from eliminating some special services and other programming. Neither Scripture nor tradition dictates that every congregation offer a nearly identical schedule of worship and programs. Instead, reasoned cost-benefit analysis can point the way to shedding the excess weight of once important, now superfluous services and programs. Illustratively, in some small congregations, an early Christmas Eve family service and a Christmas Day service designed for the elderly who do not like to drive after dark may better meet needs than the diffusion of effort and attendees entailed in also offering Midnight Mass. Likewise, not all congregations need a Sunday School, a program initiated in the nineteenth century to teach reading and writing to children whose parents could not afford to send a child to school. Additionally, congregations can reap savings at little or no cost by eliminating any service or program that exists primarily to satisfy the clergy’s needs or wants.

Congregations, by prudentially retrenching the number and variety of worship services and other programming, will reduce the amount of staff time required to support the remaining services and programs. This will permit cutting the hours of part-time musicians, sextons, educators, and secretarial help and/or boosting their compensation. Few small congregations need or realistically can afford a secretary, by whatever title the position has, i.e., parish administrator, operations manager, etc. Mobile phones, ubiquitous word processing skills (who can graduate from college, let alone seminary, without word processing skills?), online liturgical resources, and other twenty-first century technology allow priests to perform those duties about as quickly and efficiently as coordinating and supervising another person’s completion of the tasks. Many non-ecclesial organizations have already streamlined their operations by eliminating similar positions. Contracting with human resource and accounting firms may generate significant savings over employing a bookkeeper to perform those functions.

Most importantly, congregations should closely examine their need for clergy. Estimates vary, but congregations with an average Sunday attendance under 150, and probably under 200, do not require a full-time priest. Compensation for a priest is usually a congregation’s largest budget item. Congregations may want to share a priest with another congregation (made more feasible by reducing the number of worship services), call a bi-vocational priest, or call a non-stipendiary priest. An intriguing and innovative possibility is for a diocese to pay all seminary tuition, fees and living expenses for a candidate for holy orders with the mutual agreement that the person will return to the diocese for ten years of ministry in a bi-vocational or non-stipendiary setting. A payback of 200 to 300% over ten years in lower costs for clergy makes the high up-front cost an attractive investment. This scheme may prove especially attractive to individuals pursuing ordination as a second career. This proposal will never be the complete solution to educating mid-career clergy but may be one element of a mosaic of solutions.

Clergy compensation too often saps congregational funds better spent on other ministries and missions. The answer is not to cut clergy compensation for those serving small and mid-size congregations. The answer is to rethink how best to deploy clergy and the hallmark(s) of “successful” congregations. At a minimum, the hallmark of a “successful” congregation is a congregation vitally engaged in loving God, one another, and their neighbors.

The prevalent view that having a full-time priest is a (arguably, the) hallmark of a “successful” congregation is anachronistic. TEC is not an established church that must have a priest in every parish. Furthermore, TEC congregations lack geographic boundaries. People, including clergy, generally commute by vehicle and communicate electronically. Meetings, for example, occur by videoconference with increasing frequency. Religion’s cultural marginalization is diminishing expectations for clergy participation in community and civic events. Distinguishing parishes from missions based upon the former’s ability to pay a full-time priest reinforces the mistaken perception that “successful” congregations must employ a full-time priest.

Finally, TEC can reap great benefits from reducing the property it owns. Too often, most of the resources small congregations have – money and volunteers – are devoted to a losing struggle to support a priest and maintain aging buildings crippled by deferred maintenance. Few small congregations attract the visionary, charismatic leaders who are catalysts for numerical and spiritual growth. Allowing small congregations to fritter away scarce resources on their few remaining souls neither honors God nor best serves God’s people.

The unhealthy congregational mentality that permeates TEC complicates implementing this strategy. Congregations tend to view themselves as largely independent entities. Many congregations ignore TEC’s connectional polity and property rights. The courts have upheld those property rights in a flurry of recent court cases filed by various schismatic groups.

A relative handful of small congregations have a strong missionary justification. For example, some serve isolated constituencies, though the number of such congregations diminishes as TEC establishes full communion the ELCA and other denominations.

More commonly, small congregations result from changing demographics such as changing urban neighborhoods and the depopulation of rural areas and small towns. These demographic shifts have also caused a clergy distribution problem: too many priests hear a call to urban and suburban areas; too few hear a call to rural areas and small towns.

Meanwhile, newer suburbs and revitalized urban areas may lack an Episcopal congregation (or a congregation of a denominations with which TEC is in full communion). Proactive bishops and dioceses will identify dying congregations. Then, instead of futile life support efforts which are extremely unlikely to reverse that prognosis, they may close the congregation, sell its underutilized property, and redeploy the funds to establish new church plants in under-served areas, even if that means transferring assets from one diocese to another. This process, painful as it may be, is arguably more faithful to the intent of the donors whose gifts paid for those properties and will most probably best advance God’s work.

Losing weight is rarely easy. The habits and values that prevent weight loss are deeply ingrained. Yet, by almost any measure, TEC is overweight, burdened with too many small congregations, many of them in the wrong location, and most of them doing little more than struggling to survive. God calls us to be and do better. God calls TEC to renewing its commitment to following the way of love, honest examination of our stewardship, and then to take the painful yet essential steps to better align our resources with the world’s current needs while never forgetting any part of the faithful remnants in small churches. God wants and deserves our best effort. Then and only then can we, with the author of I Timothy, say that we fought the good fight and, with Paul, say that we raced to win.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Our imperiled democracy


Democracy in the United States, already endangered, took a step closer towards extinction when President Trump declared a national emergency to reprogram federal funds in order to build a border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.

Warning signs that U.S. democracy has been becoming endangered include presidents:

·       Issuing Executive Orders in lieu of obtaining Congressionally passed laws

·       Signing statements that identify portions of new laws that the president believes unconstitutional or which the President states the executive branch will ignore because of policy disagreements, attempting to exercise a line item veto when none exists

·       Refusing to spend authorized funds in another attempt to exercise a non-existent line item veto

·       Waging de facto wars without the Constitutionally required Congressional authorization

Over the second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Presidents have employed those devices – and others – to move government when Congress was either stalemated or the opposition party blocked Congressional action.

Concurrently, economic inequality has been rising sharply, returning to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.

Together, the political dysfunction and economic inequality eerily parallel conditions in ancient Rome prior to the end of its democracy. The poor were kept pacified through distribution of free food. Rome itself was governed by an elected Senate and two consuls. Senators largely came from a recognized wealthy elite. In the face of Senatorial stalemate, senators sympathetic to a consul would vote or figuratively stand aside to allow the consul to exercise greater authority. This increased the power of consuls. The Roman system also allowed appointment of a dictator in an emergency situation. Declared emergencies became more common; consuls acting as dictators gradually seized more power; democracy became increasingly imperiled.

Julius Caesar, returning from wars in Gaul, formed a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. The triumvirate used the combined military power of Pompey and Caesar along with Crassus’ wealth to end Roman democracy.

Although the percent of the population receiving various forms of welfare in the U.S. has remained relatively constant in the last few decades, the percent of people receiving all forms of government assistance (this includes welfare as well as the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, etc.) is rising. Collectively, welfare and other forms of assistance are analogous to first century bread distributions. Both are intended to quiet the poor in the face of staggering economic inequality.

As in Rome, the U.S. Congress is frequently stalemated, regardless of which party controls the House or the Senate.

Meanwhile, authority and power increasingly flow to the executive branch, headed by the President.

Democracy, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution realized, requires a set of checks and balances to prevent any one branch, and any one individual or group of individuals, from acquiring too much power. U.S. democracy is badly bent, heavily tilted in favor of the executive branch.

Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for creating the imbalance, with each successive president since Truman contributing to the imbalance.

Under President Trump, the slide towards tyranny has rapidly gained momentum.

President Trump publicly praises the media and reporters who support him; he castigates media and reporters who oppose him as “fake news,” implicitly redefining truth as what he says rather than as objectively verifiable facts. Indeed, Trump in his public statements and interviews displays little grasp of facts, repeatedly asserting false claims and sometimes contradicting himself. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall rests on several untruths that Trump repeatedly asserts. Contrary to Trump, (1) the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border is declining, not increasing; (2) illegal drugs primarily enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry, not illegal crossings; (3) few violent criminals and even fewer terrorists enter illegally.

Loyalty now trumps fact, pun intended. This is the behavior of a dictator, or would be dictator, not the behavior of a democratic president. Indeed, during the 2016 election Trump declared that he would not accept defeat at the polls. Will he accept defeat in 2020 or, if re-elected, step aside at the end of his second term?

The U.S. Constitution presumes that government will generally act incrementally rather than through the major changes possible in a parliamentary democracy. Incremental change necessitates compromise, something that legislators from both parties increasingly seem unwilling to do (the most recent appropriations that avoided another government shutdown are a noteworthy exception). In the absence of compromise, Congress usually becomes deadlocked. The executive branch then faces an almost irresistible urge to fill the resulting power vacuum, further contributing toward a slide away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

The Christian tradition has long identified pride as the principle human sin. Checks and balances in the federal system are intended to prevent members of any of the three co-equal branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) from becoming excessively arrogant, gather a disproportionate amount of power and thereby unbalancing equality among the branches.

Justice for all has greatly increased in the last seventy years due in significant measure to Christian efforts. Though justice remains imperfect, Christians now need to shift a major part of their focus to protecting democracy in order to preserve those improvements in justice, gains certain to be lost under a dictatorship. Defending democracy is a core, non-negotiable Christian ethic.