Friday, March 29, 2013

Why is Friday good?

In Proverbs, which was written long before Jesus lived and died, it is written:

    "The bloodthirsty hate the blameless, and they seek the life of the upright." (Prov. 29:10)

Perhaps the biggest lie we are apt to tell ourselves is that we love people who are good. We yearn to be treated well by others, but we want to dwell in our self-determined and self-referencing subjective righteousness. We don't want anyone questioning our views on ourselves, others or the "reality" that is framed solely from the inside of our minds and eye lids. We are naturally self-righteous. Jonathan Haidt, when speaking about his recent book, The Righteous Mind, said that he'd thought of the title, "The Self-Righteous Mind"! However, having studied human behavior, he knew that the former title would  predispose our elephants to lean away from the truth that our minds will justify any behavior, words or actions to ourselves. 

In fact, the more intelligent and educated we are, the better we become at self-justification and self-righteousness.

Those of us who follow Jesus Christ seek, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to trust in God's justification of us in the faithfulness of Christ. We are not faithful. We fail. We injure others. We damage ourselves. We cannot love ourselves or others, perfectly. But, the difference should be that we do not self-justify. We confess our wrongs against and judgment of others. By definition, a Christian should never be SELF-righteous.

As spiritual humans, we step into the light and allow God's love, justice and righteousness to judge our thoughts, words and behavior. When others tell us we have wronged them, we allow God's love and laws to frame whether those reported "wrongs" are true. After all, in addition to being attacked for doing what is "wrong", the verse from Proverbs confirms that we will also be attacked for doing and speaking what is right! So, we must ask God, have we failed to follow You in this situation or relationship? If yes, we must turn (i.e., repent). When others betray us, we know that we betray Christ if/whenever we respond to betrayal with betrayal.

As natural humans, we will veer strongly away from allowing God or anyone else to examine our thoughts, words, behavior and acts. The natural human is self-righteous, and wants no input which challenges or contradicts his/her self-righteous brain.

As natural humans, we will betray, divorce and cut off, abandon, mock, slander, torture and kill anyone who dares to speak truth into our self-righteousness.

This Friday is "good", because God-in-Christ loved us - loved us who are God's hate-filled enemies - and God, 
  • was faithful in the face of our betrayal, 
  • steadfastly "with us" in the face of our divorcing and alienating acts, 
  • remained true when we ran away and abandoned the One bringing life, light, healing, grace & truth into our lives,
  • spoke with love when treated with mockery and gossip,
  • did not strike back when deliberately tortured,
  • bore the terrible pain we inflicted by our vindictive, self-righteous, self-defending hatred without transferring it onto others,
  • and, in fully bearing our enmity, hatred and false accusations unto death, forgives us.
Christ-following and Christ-loving people depend upon God's love, power and righteousness, revealed in Christ, to heal us and to redeem us. "...but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength."

This Friday is good news for those of us who seek first God's kingdom and God's righteousness!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

(Dis)honesty, Morality and Lessons from Financial Crisis

This is definitely one of the most insightful RSA videos I've ever watched which covers our self-justifications, our capacity and inclinations to seek our own selfish interests while fully engaged in rationalization of those choices (sins!), and the inherent problems of the distancing from people that working in finance exacerbates terribly, which I'd noted when I worked in investment banking industry earlier in my career. In my experience and understanding as a Christian, Dr. Dan Ariely makes significant inroads into nailing reality as it truly is:

The Truth about Dishonesty

That video is approximately 11 minutes, long. There's a longer version of 28+ minutes, here. At the second link, there is another link which leads to a Q & A session.  Dan Ariely also has a series of TED talks which we can listen to, and his book develops his insights and studies, further: Predictably Irrational.

The healthiest aspect of Dan Ariely's insights is that he seeks out what can mitigate and temper these selfish interests to which we are all naturally subject. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On money & power – men and women differ!

Figure 1 - source:

It seems little has changed in the male-privileged power circles since my stint in NYC and eastern US investment banking. Within the higher echelons which identify wealth as power, women who don't cater to &/or serve the dominant paradigm are rare or non-existent. It's not a coincidence, according to statistically-based research, that merely admitting a woman's influence and hearing her voice change group outcomes. Romney is not alone in his disregard of women. Genesis 3 is alive & kicking in the world, today, and certainly in NYC and DC.

In regard to the worship of money, there truly exists a substantive difference between women's & men's use of money. The statistical studies of the UN, World Bank, UNESCO and other NGO's, viewed alongside the results of microfinance initiatives in the developing world, have revealed significant differences in the way men and women employ money. (cf., Half the Sky - book or documentary, the UN’s summary, and other resources available on the web)

When more women disconnect further from family responsibilities and social ties (to which we're more tied, bodily – barring contraception, celibacy or infertility) and manipulate others in order to acquire worldly power, the discrepancy diminishes.  Conversely, when men are more actively connected to families and communities, and less to one another's approval and ruling over others via power-games, then the gap also diminishes. We need to pay attention to the actions more than to the lip-service. Women may say they value men, but their actions reveal manipulative techniques to acquire power and win. Men may say they value women more than money, but seek every opportunity to gain power and diminish and rule over women. Both genders will rationalize and justify their actions, verbally. Ignore the words that don't match the actions and outcomes! Power games are not confined to physical force; power games include emotional, sexual and religious blackmail, intellectual domination, financial fraud and deceptive practices, legal machinations, and systemic economic injustice.

This description circumscribes the profound need of our world. Here is where I see the reconciling work of God in Christ, God imaged male & female in creation, God working in & through the church, as having profound effects on the world as we know it: connecting men more strongly to God, women & their families; and giving worth & voice to women in their embodied gifts which inform their valuing of reality diversely to men. Both men and women properly use their equally-valued gifts to serve God, neighbors and enemies with the other gender. Thus, the Holy Spirit-empowered church of men and women cut off the dual temptations to over-value money & power and de-value healthy relationships with one another!

[Note: I have a third blog post on the Conference on Civility to complete. Please forgive this intervening tangent!]

Friday, October 5, 2012

Uncommon Decency 2

Part 2 of a series of posts on a Conference held in Washington, DC, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012:
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Season 

Following Dr. Mouw (summarized in previous post), Ross Douthat of the NY Times spoke about civility from the perspective of the gospel writers’ observations of Jesus. In his position as an Opinion Editorial writer, he tries to live out civility in his public life. However, the question remains: is there ever when enlightened zeal can switch from civil to uncivil? Douthat contends that Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 indicate that there are times for incivility in discourse with others. There are some, of course, who say that Jesus was the Son of God so he can do what we may not. However, setting aside that restriction which we’ll never meet, Douthat presented an analysis of the context in which Jesus and the OT prophets spoke with such harshness.

Douthat proposed there are three critical criteria which need to be met for speaking with incivility:
  1. The speaker is speaking to his/her own community, who should share the same fundamental premises and beliefs as the speaker.
  2. The speaker speaks against people of power within the community from a position of powerlessness, and speaks on behalf of those who are oppressed and persecuted by the powerful clique.
  3. The speaker addresses issues which are primary to the community’s beliefs, not secondary issues. The primary issues are those which address good and evil, justice and injustice.
a.       Douthat referenced Michael Walzer’s book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, which evidently noted that there isn’t much in the OT directly written about politics, but there is plenty of direct theological and moral language directed against those oppressing the poor, doing evil against others and sowing injustice in the community.

So, as a Catholic speaking to fellow Catholics, Douthat said that he could speak more in a form of a jeremiad; however, in another forum, with a different audience who are outsiders to that group (e.g., readers of the NY Times), he phrases things differently. Douthat noted that his recent book, Bad Religion, had been called a “refined jeremiad” by a reviewer.

As examples of people who suit the criteria, Douthat noted that Harriet Beecher Stowe used jeremiad-like language when speaking against slavery as a woman abolitionist. The language employed and the manner in which she spoke were markedly different than that of President Abraham Lincoln, who addressed the nation from the highest position of power, as an insider and as the embodiment of civil authority to the nation.

Douthat believes that our failure to maintain the balance thus illustrated provokes all sorts of problems.

He gave the contemporary example of Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who fought vigorously against Pres. Obama on the issue of contraceptives and Roman Catholic convictions, but who then invited President Obama to the Alfred E. Smith Dinner. Douthat perceived this as a measure of respect for Obama’s civil position despite the RCC’s outspoken opposition on the issue of contraceptives and women’s freedom. However, the invitation enraged many conservative Catholics.

The word, “jeremiad”, offers a unique religious glimpse into the societal confusion we’re experiencing, today. There is less of a Christian “center and focus” for American dialogue about issues, and many people “love Jesus” but want to make him into their own image. Americans are uncertain about the implications of their own positions, and even more uncertain or mistaken about the true positions of those against whom we’re arguing. Furthermore, groups have reasons to see themselves as being in a position of powerlessness. After the 2004 election, for instance, secular liberals believed themselves to have been shoved aside by “morality” voters. Subsequently, conservative believers reacted to the “secular” victory they perceived as endangering their values in the 2008 election.  The responses from both ends of the spectrum came from perceptions of personal powerlessness and uncertainty over those with whom they’re arguing. [I’d note that “alienation” might have been a better word choice than Douthat’s use of “uncertainty” in this context. Polarization of groups has made it rare for many people to have friends among the “opposition”.] The result is that people perceive themselves justified in repeatedly resorting to the use of the language of jeremiad. Douthat pointed out that the far right perceives itself marginalized, uses such language, but has identified itself as “The Moral Majority”. The depiction of Obama by a few liberals as a president of messianic proportions was appropriated by many conservatives to justify their turn toward conspiracy theorists, such as Glenn Beck and other Revelation-quoting religionists.

In closing, Douthat connected the de-institutionalization of American “Christians”, on the one hand, with the inspiration of many to pour their disembodied passions into another “body” or institution – “the body politic”.  People will split and divide because we do so, naturally; however, it’s important for everyone to see the spectrum of opinions. Neither political party has monopoly on truth from the religious perspective we have as Christians. We can't look to or expect any political party to craft all their party’s positions according to Christ.

Dialogue, conciliation and compromise are imperative in civil society!

Next blog: wrap up, with Q & A session

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Season

On Saturday, I attended a Conference on Civility held in Washington, DC, at the National Presbyterian Church. The speakers were Dr. Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Theological Seminary) and Ross Douthat (NY Times columnist, author and editor). Michael Cromartie, VP of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in DC was the moderator. The speakers critiqued the current cultural climate in a helpful manner, and challenged the church to be more proactive in promoting civil discourse for the common good.

Dr. Richard Mouw spoke first. He began by outlining the need for religion to provide a constructive frame for social harmony. Without proper framing, humans naturally split into various factions. “Zeal” for our own groups (& groups’ agendas) overtakes civility and the need to live harmoniously with others with whom we disagree. Mouw referenced James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, wherein Madison explored problems posed to healthy government by human factions operating with harmful zeal (section 10.7). Mouw then expressed his concern that we not give up “zeal” altogether, because the apostle Paul clearly described the characteristics of both bad and good zeal in his letters (cf. Romans 9:30-10:4, & 12:1-21). Mouw cited John Calvin’s Institutes (book IV, ch. 2) in which Calvin wrote that civil government is formed and given the mandate to promote and preserve concord and common peace. It’s remarkable that the US government has had a history, within many of our lifetimes, of perceiving political rivalry as not inherently antithetical to or prohibiting of friendship and fellowship. Mouw specifically mentioned the political rivalry but personal friendship between Pres. Reagan and House speaker, Tip O’Neill.  

Rather, we need to choose the path of “convicted civility”. Mouw attributes the phrase to Martin Marty, who used it in his 1981 book, By Way of Response. Marty further developed the theme in a later book, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: “A problem in contemporary life, [Marty] said, is that the folks who are good at being civil often don’t have very strong convictions, and the people who have strong convictions usually aren’t very civil.”

The word, “civility”, comes from the word rooted in “city”. According to Aristotle, civility begins with kinship and friendship, but maturity enables us to recognize and respond respectfully to the stranger, because we share common bonds of humanity and dwelling together within the city. We can treat others with dignity and honor, respecting what we share in common while acknowledging the differences between us.

Catholics and evangelicals have had theological understandings based on being marginalized in American society for decades, but we haven’t developed a good theological understanding of how to live within the center of government, economics and society. [Blogger’s note: I understood that Mouw was driving at the difference in engagement and volume of rhetoric which is needed for outsiders and for insiders, here. Excluded, marginalized and disenfranchised people find themselves needing to crank up the volume of their voices and harden their words in order to be heard, as it were. Disharmony and dissonance result when those people are truly being listened to, but cannot or won’t stop shouting and harshly criticizing others, and/or cannot cease operating from an assumption of being marginalized.]

Humans have defective characters, and the way for Christians to participate healthily in society's center is founded in becoming “the right kind of people”, by which Mouw means that our character has to be reformed by humbling ourselves before God through spiritual disciplines and enacting Christian values. Our manners should be shaped for public life, and Mouw referenced Ronald Thiemann’s insight that local congregations should be functioning as schools of common virtue. Furthermore, we need to regain our old commitments to community which have been lost in our selfish, individually-centered pursuits. The sociologist, Robert Bellah, developed the understanding that we, as Americans, have lost our sense of being committed to something larger than ourselves. We have forgotten or misplaced the worth of loyalty to each other as fellow humans and citizens.

Mouw touched upon Calvin’s explication of Just War theory, and emphasized that, at the end of all the evaluations of arguments for and against war, Calvin specifically called upon us to examine ourselves and to perceive the opposing side as fellow humans. War should never be undertaken when we have failed to grasp both our own tendencies to over-evaluate ourselves as “good”, and dismiss others as “bad”. The Psalms have numerous shifts which demonstrate this necessary spiritual discipline. Psalm 139, for instance, after celebrating the humanity and wonder of the psalmist’s person and God’s creation, strongly denounces the wicked in vv. 19-22, but then immediately asks God to search his own heart and mind (vv. 23-24). Should God find any “wicked” or “offensive” way within the psalmist or today’s reciter of the psalm, we implore God to reveal that way and lead us in “the way everlasting”.

We need to love our neighbors as ourselves, in every way, action, conversation and choice. (In a later discussion with Dr. Mouw, we agreed that business and financial decisions and actions are included in this commitment to love our neighbors!) In every discussion, even regarding hot-button issues such as human sexual expression, “how may we express our views without being needlessly offensive” to the other? We must never bear “false witness”, either, by misrepresenting what the other truly believes or testifies to be true, because we’ve failed to listen well, and to allow them to tell us.

“We aren’t just pitting position against position”, according to Mouw, we truly need to see one another as humans together. Mouw has recently revised, expanded and re-published his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.

Next blog: Ross Douthat’s presentation.