Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kohlberg and Christian Faith

December 21, 2010

I mentioned Lawrence Kohlberg and his theory of moral development last Sunday as a way of awakening some recognition that we do, in fact, develop in some fairly predictable ways in many areas of our life. A friend said on the way out of church “I really didn’t expect to hear about post-conventional morality on a
Sunday morning.” I did not sense that she was distressed about this, --quite the reverse if anything. It seems to me that if Kohlberg’s theory has merit, and if it could be applied to Jesus in relation to the religious authorities of his day, he could be identified as someone who was by and large ‘post conventional’ over against a ‘law and order‘ orientation of many religious leaders of the day.

I realize that this is a pretty gross generalization on a number of fronts, but am struck by how often Christianity, the churches or Christian Faith are identified with a view that suggests that the will of God is somehow enshrined in a moral order supported by law. We have seen this recently in the move toward the ending of the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ regarding gay and lesbian members of the armed services. We were told that military chaplains were opposed to any change in the policy on religious grounds. The New York Times carried a story on Saturday (December 17) about a debate at Belmont College in Nashville, TN as to whether it was going to remain true to its conservative Christian and Baptist roots or become more of a world class university with an “aggressively earned…reputation as a progressive, artsy place to study the music business.” The focus of the discussion was a lesbian soccer coach who was having a baby with her partner.

It seems that many people, including many Christians, assume that a large part of what Christianity is about is ‘helping us lead a better life’, ‘giving our children a moral upbringing’, ‘providing stability in society by teaching traditional morality’ and the like as though morality was somehow an enshrined set of rules and norms rather than a way of living that gets worked out in differing ways in differing situation as and contexts. I know this is an area of legitimate debate. What bothers me is how many people assume where Christians must stand in the debate. Surely Jesus did not “die to make us good” as I used to have to sing on Good Friday in Mrs. Alexander’s hymn of 1847, There is a green hill far away.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Fair Game

December 16, 2010

I suppose it was inevitable that the movie Fair Game would be controversial in some way. What I took to be a move primarily about the effects on Valerie Plame’s marriage and life of her being ‘outed’ as a covert CIA operative, is, according to the director, Doug Liman, is “about the President of the United States lying to the American people, and what happened to the people that challenged him”. This from an article at CJR.org in response to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Judith Miller (a journalist who was herself caught up in reporting the issues of the case at the time.) Both articles are worth reading for anyone interested in the history, but they are also examples of the polemic that is so divisive in the US at the moment where any deviance from a party line (on either end of the political spectrum) gets a vigorous party line response. I would not accuse President Bush of lying to the American people in the sense of some personal and morally culpable choice. At the same time, and however it came about, a lie was told which was a critical part of the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and so part of the case for American engaging in a war of aggression, the costs of which we will be paying for generations to come. (Serious question: Is that, as I believe, an indisputable statement of fact? Or is that somehow a political statement, meaning someone would not like it said?)

Fast forward to the kind of rhetoric around President Obama’s ‘tax deal’. While I do not understand the logic of being both against the deficit, AND against any ending of temporary tax cuts for people earning over $250,000 per year AND supporting the costs of two wars, I do get that letting some temporary tax cuts go a little longer in exchange for the continuation of unemployment benefits is worth doing. There are too many people hurting right now to play games with their lives for a principle. I’m pro-pragmatism.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Dean’s Diary

December 9, 2010

I was a newly ordained deacon when I had the privilege of preaching at the wedding of a friend in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which is the ‘parish church’ of Parliament. The Canon of Westminster who also served as Rector of the parish was a lovely man called Trevor Beeson. He could not have been more kind or hospitable to this strange phenomenon of a very young English deacon ordained in The Episcopal Church (then ECUSA). He went on to serve as Dean of Winchester Cathedral from 1987-1996, during which he kept a Diary (SCM, 1997). He also published a similar account of his time at Westminster and some wonderful portraits of some of the ‘characters’ that have served the Church of England as The Bishops, The Deans and so on. A few years ago he ‘came out’ as the author of most of the clerical obituaries in The Telegraph and published a collection of them. At one point in his Winchester Diary he recounts friends being offended on his behalf when and obituary of his immediate predecessor referred to him as “possibly the last of the gentleman Deans.” He could not tell them that he has actually written the thing.

His diary recounts the challenges of a Cathedral system that gives a Dean virtually no ability to manage, rein in, discipline or otherwise count the cathedral clergy as his staff. He recounts overcoming such difficulty to raise over 7 Million pounds in a recession, the encouragement of the arts, the challenge of his wife’s progressive decline from Alzheimer’s disease, his (good) relationship with his bishop and a host of other matters. He occasionally allows his wry humor free rein with lines such as “after a long rehearsal, so-and-so officially retired.”

A fair amount of time in these years was given over to issues around the ordination of women, which he supported, but his bishop and some other members of his Chapter, did not. He made extraordinary arrangements for the consciences of those with whom he had to work who saw the ordination of women as ‘contrary to the will of God’, but after the fist women were ordained in the Cathedral he remarks that in a few years “we will wonder what all the fuss was about.” He thought it sad that his bishop should have stayed at home and missed a marvelous and significant celebration while a Suffragan carried out the ordinations.

I think about our more recent journey with regard to gay and lesbian people and hope that one day the whole church will ‘wonder what all the fuss was about’ even as I recognize that we are not there yet. I was heartened by reports of a recent meeting of our wedding guild who, I’m told, are excited about the likelihood of further Celebrations of Commitment taking place in the church and looking forward to being able to serve all of our parishioners.

If you come across anything written by Trevor Beeson, even if you think you would not be interested, I promise you will enjoy what you read.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Praying in Public

December 8, 2010

Earlier this week I prayed for the work of the Atlanta City Council, something I have done once before. I have also prayed for the House of Representatives of North Carolina and the Senate of Virginia (who gave me a lovely small Jefferson cup to remind me of the occasion). There is something strange about offering prayer in such public legislative settings and I’m not sure what makes that so.

It could be strange because of the separation of Church and State business, but constitutional buffs tell me that a firewall between the two was never intended.

Or it could be the age old problem for Christians as to whether or not to pray through or in the name of Jesus. My standard with that question is that if I am allowed to be generous it is best to be so, and if there is some implied requirement that I be so, I prefer to pray with confidence in who I am as a Christian. (On this last occasion I asked that ‘whatever our tradition of faith we may carry out the work we are given to do in the assurance of your love for us, O God.)

It might be strange to pray in a legislature as a participant in some kind of meeting that needs a ritual but really doesn’t have a natural one. On this occasion the Invocation fell between the Call to Order and Roll Call of Council Members (a quorum for the 1 p.m. meeting was present by 1.15 p.m.) and the Pledge of Allegiance. This last is always tricky for a ‘resident alien’ who is unwilling to take the oath very reasonably required of U.S. Citizens. It currently reads as follows:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

In no way do I wish to express any disrespect to my hosts, so I usually turn toward the flag, and, if in very public view, place my hand over my heart, and then remain silent.

That done, I was then ushered out, while a group was being recognized for completing a massive and successful food drive. Our need for ritual is real. This is particularly so for otherwise non religious people seeking to get married or families trying to mark the death of someone they loved but who requested ‘no funeral’. I see it most clearly a t a Presidential Inauguration. (If only they would let the church take care of that. At least we can usually organize a procession.)

All this is by no means terrible, merely odd.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

World War

December 7, 2010

This fall, a friend gave me David Fromkin’s extraordinary book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 1989). It chronicles the chaos of the era in which the Allies of Europe led to the drawing of lines on a map creating the countries of Israel, Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere (1914-1922). He sees the formation of the Middle East as a consequence of ‘The Great Game’, the age in which Britain sought to protect the road to India from French, Russians and anyone else.

One of the things that becomes most clear in the book is that the European powers introduced an artificial system of ‘states and nations’ on the assumptions that they could change the fundamental life of Islamic Asia, that they should and that while this was about extending their own power it was dressed up as being good for the Arabs.

As with everything about the First World War it is a confusing story of bureaucratic infighting, terrible communications, unbridled arrogance, all underneath a heavy layer of myth. Most of the mythology was crated in the imagination of T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

This is not a ‘happy read’, but is essential for having a clue about what is going on, (and what does not have a chance of going on) in the Middle East (including Afghanistan) today.

Ken Follett, tells a similar story in a wonderful and accessible novel of the First World War in the first volume of his Century Trilogy. It is called Fall of Giants (Dutton, 2010), and once again the arrogance of those with power in social respects and international respects, in class systems and gender inequality, in Europeans over Africans and Arabs, in Christians over Muslims and on and on. It is a sad story that caused untold suffering and slaughter and provided the seeds for societal change among those willing to be self critical. The consequence of that war was not only the Second World War. This idea is a main thrust of John Keegan’s magnificent history, The First World War (Knopf, 1999). It also fueled class struggle and bolshevism with its eventual strengthening of democratic institutions and countries, gave impetus to the case of equal rights for women in such democracies, began the rumblings that became civil rights movements and also moved the Democratic West further and further from the norms and assumptions of other peoples and systems.

I support fully the vigorous defense of our way of life and the freedoms that we enjoy within it. I remain hard pressed to understand how our aggressive wars contribute to that defense. I was never sold on the logic of invading Iraq. I thought going after Osama Bin Laden and his organization made sense. I can see some merit in trying to keep Pakistan honest and an ally. But I am unclear what virtue there is in continuing to pursue military action in Afghanistan that talks as thought the outcome will be the formation of a functioning ‘country’. Even if I thought that was a desirable goal, I can find no basis for having any hope that it is achievable through warfare.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fair Game

December 6, 2010

Fair Game is a film that I saw a couple of weeks ago and about which I keep thinking. It is the story of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA operative who was ‘outed’ in the press in concert with administration conversations about how to rein in her husband. Joe Wilson was a career member of the Foreign Service who had been an ambassador in the Clinton administration and who had written an op-ed piece for The New York Times. He believed that a statement made by President George W. Bush in a State of the Union address was wrong, and importantly so, as it was part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq and was made contrary to the report of an investigation he had carried out as a temporary consultant for the CIA.

The movie is really more about the effects on the lives of Plame and Wilson more than it is a political screed. Nonetheless, it brings me back to the question I have had since the beginning: Why did we invade Iraq? I once had the privilege of being in a small group in conversation with journalists Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez, soon after the infamous “Mission Accomplished” declaration. Neither of them could really answer the question as to why we had troops fighting and dying in Iraq. The idea of there being WMDs that had been sold to us in a concerted campaign that included the President’s State of the Union Address and Colin Powell’s ‘Adlai moment’ at the UN had been discredited, as had the basis for that belief.

I think it came down to people in an administration who were ‘believers’. The believed that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator and may well have been correct about that. They believed that Iraq and the world would be better off without him leading a strategically critical country. They also believed that Iraq, with its vast oil reserves and relatively ‘secular’ government was ripe for ‘nation building’ and the creation of a real ally in the Region. It is not clear that these last beliefs were based on much beyond a certainty that any right thinking person would want democracy as their form of government. That strikes me then and strikes me now as a flimsy basis for sending troops to fight and die.

We were the aggressors in that war. Traditional notions of ‘reparations’ don’t seem to apply. And it looks as though we will be paying for our choices for a long time to come. Our financial situation in general and our national debt in particular are not solely the problem of bankers and sub-prime mortgages. Surely trying to wage the most expensive war in history without asking for sacrifice from everybody to pay for it is bonkers. We really should require that engaging a war on this scale should require an automatic commitment to a draft. That would help clarify the decision making process and ensure that we are not dying for the opinions and beliefs of those who have only political ideas at stake.