Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On the Methodist Complaint against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on an Immigration Policy

Assessing whether a Christian denomination’s formal discipline is being used for religious or politically-ideological purposes is fraught with difficulty. Certain governmental policies, such as genocide, clearly violate Christian teaching, such that government officials charged with implementing such policies could legitimately be sanctioned on religious grounds without it being thought that a political or partisan difference is the actual basis of protest. As the harm to others in a given policy lessens, the specter of ideological opposition as the actual motivator increases as a possibility. In 2018, 640 United Methodists filed a complaint to their church charging U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions with having violated the Church’s Book of Discipline, its code of laws and social principles, on account of the alleged “child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and ‘dissemination of doctrines contrary’ to those of the United Methodist Church.”[1] Sessions had been tasked with implementing the U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the border. At the time of the complaint, over 2,000 children of illegal aliens were being held by the U.S. Government as their parents were being prosecuted.
From a political standpoint, the separation may have served as a deterrent to potential illegal immigrants as well as a practical means by which the adults could be prosecuted. The moral harm in the separations is clear. For Christians, the morality factor must be put up against Jesus’s teachings and example. It is highly unlikely he would have supported separating children from their parents. In fact, he pointed to the innocence of children as being like the Kingdom of God.
For his part, Jeff Sessions pointed to Paul’s dictum in Romans 13 to obey civil authorities. Jesus himself said to give what is Caesar’s to Caesar. Sessions’ defense is flawed, however, because obeying the authorities would apply to the illegal immigrants who are Christian, rather than to the authorities themselves. What would Jesus say to a Christian authority concerning harm to others through a government action or policy?
The answer may depend on the grievousness or extent of the harm to others. Surely Jesus would disown any of his followers involved in perpetuating the NAZI holocaust in Germany. Separating children from their respective parents involves less harm than would killing the parents or their children, but the harm is still very significant to both parties. Sessions could point out that the parents risked this harm by crossing the border illegally. Even so, the question for the Christian is where Jesus would stand on a civil official implementing a policy of such harm. I contend that Jesus would have rebuffed such an official. How Jesus rebuffed the rich man, who would not part with his wealth to follow Jesus, can be taken as a model or indication. You can keep your power or money, but you cannot follow me if you do.
In terms of money, Jesus’s stance toward the rich man is a very strict view, which would be modified in Christianity from the Commercial Revolution on.[2]  In particular, the good use of even just part of a fortune would come to justify being wealthy. Similarly, could the good use of political power be said to legitimate holding civil power by a Christian? The difficulty especially concerning governmental power is what counts as good, for partisans have different answers, even different ideals or stressed values. The 640 Methodists may have objected to the good that Sessions saw as coming from the policy. In his view, that good is the order that comes from a nation of laws; illegal immigration hampers or detracts from such good because of the lawlessness itself as well as the associated culture of disrespect for laws. Would illegal immigrants suddenly respect and obey traffic laws in Arizona after having presumed that the immigration laws do not apply?
In short, as soon as we drift away from “What would Jesus do?” to consider the good use of political power, we open up the problem of different political ideologies, each of which can be said to have some version of the good in mind even if harm to others is in the means. What would Jesus say to Jeff Sessions? This is what his pastor should focus on, rather than wading into political waters that can easily be twisted one way or the other, and can belie legitimate religious points. From the latter perspective, the harm in the action of the policy itself is at issue. Would Jesus accept one of his followers assuming a government post that involves separating children from their parents?

[2] Skip Worden, God’s Gold.  Available at Amazon

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ethical Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church: The Case of the Chilean Abuse Scandal

Leaders taking an ethical stance, even en masse, may find themselves risking their very positions, including the associated perks. In May, 2018, “all Chile’s 34 [Roman Catholic] bishops offered to resign en masse . . . after attending a crisis meeting with [Pope Francis] over allegations of a cover-up of sexual abuse” in the South American state.[1] The pope could have accepted all of those resignations. Instead, he accepted the resignations of three Chilean bishops, including Juan Barros of Osorno, Cristian Cordero, and Gonzalo Garcia, a month later. The ethical leadership, I submit, was not evinced in the pope’s decision to get rid of the three sordid clerics, but, rather, in the other bishops who had been willing to take a stand even at great personal loss. Indeed, the pope admitted he had made “grave mistakes” in the Chilean sexual abuse scandal. Had he been guilty of protecting his friends?
Cicero’s natural variant of friendship, or amicitia, places family and friends closest, whereas Jesus’s notion of neighbor love places an emphasis on the misfits, weak, and vulnerable. Taking a stand on behalf of unknown kids, for instance, above close friends, especially if in risk to one’s own interests, evinces the sort of benevolence “with a cross” preached by Jesus. Christian ethical leadership involves taking a stance that is neither convenient nor easy, whereas love of friends and family—of people who are dear to us—is of less ethical value in such leadership.
Even in a Christian organization, Christian leadership may not be evinced at the highest level, even in a position that is principally that of leadership. The Chilean bishops upended the pope, who was left with admitted that he had made grave mistakes even as he was insisting that his Church would not tolerate clergy molesting children. Stark action, such as en masse resignations, may be needed when an organization’s culture, even if only principally in certain countries, is itself part of the problem. Inertia, in other words, can be very difficult to move, even when it is squalid in an organization with a Christian mission. In such a case, ethical leadership must almost inevitably involve taking painful stands at possible great cost to oneself.

See: Christianized Ethical Leadership, available at Amazon

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Schindler's List: A Christian Notion of Power Based on Compassion

In German-occupied Poland during World War I, Oskar Schindler spent millions to save 600 Jews from the death camps. In the 1993 film, Schindler’s List, the gradual transformation of the luxuriant capitalist is evident as the film unfolds. At the end,  he comes to an emotional realization as to the worth of money as compared with human lives. He realizes that had he not spent so lavishly, he could have saved even more lives. He realizes, in effect, his selfishness that had blinded him even to the obvious severe suffering of the Jews around him. The story is thus not simply that of greed giving way to compassion. 

The full essay is at "Schindler's List."

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Is Greed Implicit in Christian Theology?

In Business Ethics for Dummies (p. 123), greed is defined as a basic desire for more. The authors posit a “reasonable greed,” which in business “fuels growth,” which in turn “creates jobs and adds value to a society [and] economy” (p. 124). The authors conclude that “in terms of this social and economic growth at least, greed is a good thing” (p. 124). This sounds like a partial affirmation of Gordon Gekko’s claim that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Wall Street). As long as greed proffers good consequences—the greatest good for the greatest number—the desire for more is ethical, or “reasonable.”

In terms of Christianity even where the religious thought has allowed for profit-seeking and the holding of wealth (e.g., for the virtues of liberality and magnificence), greed itself has been excoriated as sin. That is to say, even though Christianity contains different takes on the relationship between wealth and greed, the religion has never approved of the desire for more.

Theologians have typically assumed that the fundamental desire for more is for lower goods, such as wealth, rather than for higher ones, such as God. Greed thus represents misordered concupiscence: the placing of a lower good over a higher one. Such greed is thus desire in excess to what the object deserves. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed” (p. 316). The desire is thus sordid in that it is selfish and excessive, regardless of the object being desired or any beneficial consequences for others.

Undoubtedly, the basic desire for more can be directed to many objects. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, people can be greedy “for power, status, influence, or anything else they desire in excess” (p. 316). One might ask whether a desire for God can possibly be selfish and in excess.

Augustine, for instance, writes of his yearning for God as though a lover pining after a beloved. His language evinces an obsession of sorts, hence possibly capable of excess. “You are my God, and I sigh for you day and night,” Augustine declares in Confessions (7.10.171). “You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you and I hunger and I thirst for you. You have touched me and I have burned for your peace” (Confessions, 10.27.254-55). If it is the limitless nature of the desire for more that is responsible for Christianity’s long-held aversion to greed, then what of Augustine’s sighing and burning for God?  If Augustine’s higher passion is akin to lust, is not selfishness and excess possible? Augustine’s more may be higher, but it is still more, and he wants the object without limit.

To be sure, God is without limit, being omnipotent and omniscient as well as omnipresent, so it could be argued that a desire for God can be unlimited without being excessive (given the nature of the object). If so, Augustine’s sublimated eros being directed to God can be carved out as an exception and labeled as “holy greed” to distinguish it from the commercial “reasonable greed” that issues in economic growth and jobs. The nature of the object and beneficial consequences are the respective justifiers of these two manifestations of greed. However, this path of carving out exceptions can lead to greed itself being deemed good in itself.

I contend that the desire for more is troubling even if the desire evinces a proclivity to vindicate more and more of itself. In being selfish and subject to excess, the desire for more can be said to resemble an addiction, regardless of the object and unintentional beneficial impacts on others.

In terms of excess, the desire innately sets aside any possible restraints such as a desire for equilibrium (e.g., “enough is enough!”). Furthermore, in being self-centered, the desire warps one’s perception to enable still more. For instance, something just ascertained is suddenly viewed as a given, and thus to be augmented rather than accepted as sufficient. If the amount gained had been a good deal, this is taken for granted as an even better deal is sought. Hence, the desire does not diminish out of a sense that enough has been gained. Lest a declining marginal utility arrest the desire in terms of consumption, still more is desired in terms of savings either because 1) you can never be certain that you won’t be able to use the still more or 2) the addiction to more is too captivating. The question is perhaps whether the human desire for more is itself subject to declining marginal utility as a motivation.  Does one become tired of feeling it or is it self-perpetuating?

Even though the desire is innate and self-perpetuating, it need not dominate a person’s motivation and behavior. I suspect that the key to setting aside the desire for still more is seeing it for what it is—that is, being able to recognize it as one is in its grip. A person noticing the cycle can instantly see that the good deal one has just achieved as sufficient. In other words, once the desire is recognized, a bracketing counter-motive can be applied. The promise of freedom from the otherwise all-consuming desire for more is superior to even “reasonable” and “holy” greed.  


Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011).

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance. 

An Interfaith Declaration of Business (Ethics)

Released in 1994, “An Interfaith Declaration: A Code of Ethics on International Business for Christians, Muslims, and Jews” is comprised of two parts: principles and guidelines. The four principles (justice, mutual respect/love, stewardship and honesty) are described predominantly in religious terms, devoid of any connection to business. In contrast, the guidelines invoke the principles in their ethical sense, devoid of any religious connotation. The disconnect in applying religious ethics to business is not merely in books; the heavenly and earthly cities are as though separated by a great ocean of time.

 Are these religions applicable to business?    Wikipedia

The full essay is at "An Interfaith Declaration of Business."


Related paper: "Religion in Strategic Leadership: A Positivistic, Normative/Theological and Strategic Analysis," Journal of Business Ethics (2005) 57: 221-239.

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Christian Films as Distinctly Theological: A Theological Project

Should films with a distinctively religious theme and narrative water down the theological dimension so to be more acceptable in modern, secular society (i.e., a broader range of movie-goers), and thus profitable? The success of films like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Nativity Story, The Passion of the Christ, and Son of God suggest that theology should be embraced rather than tempered if box-office numbers are at all important. The genre should thus be distinguished from historical drama. Screenwriters and directors engaging in the religious genre would be wise, therefore, to distinguish the theological from the historical even in handling religions in which the historical is salient in the theological.

The full essay is at "Christian Films as Theological."

Monday, March 26, 2018

Differences between Two Living Popes White-Washed in Fake News

People in glass houses should not throw stones. Or, the person who is without sin casts the first stone. Lastly, a house divided cannot stand, at least in the long run. Yet houses are so rarely as fundamentally divided as the one in which I grew up. Regarding religious institutions, theological differences can be allowed to blow up into major, life-threatening disputes, or papered over by sins of omission pertaining to just how deep a fissure goes. Conflicts, in other words, can be exacerbated or mollified, depending on the temperaments.
On February 7, 2018, Joe Ratzinger, a former pope of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter pertaining to a multi-volume book on the then-current pope’s theology. Reading from the letter at the book’s presentation the next month, Dario Vigano, the prefect of the Vatican’s communications office, said that Benedict, the  former pope, confirmed that Francis, the current pope, had a solid theological and philosophical training and that the book showed the “interior continuity” between the two papacies.[1] This “left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the [book] and l endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.” The retired pope had not read the book!
Vigano was guilty of bearing false witness; he lied. He also conveniently left out the last two lines of the first page of Benedict’s letter, and the Vatican went so far as to blur the lines in a digitally manipulated photo of  the page released to the public. The former pope noted in those lines that the author of one of the volumes—a progressive theologian by the name of Peter Huenermann, “had launched ‘virulent,’ ‘anti-papist’ attacks against [Benedict’s] teaching and that of Pope John Paul II.[2] But is criticism of the theological interpretations of two popes in particular the same as criticizing the papacy itself? It apparently felt so to the retired pope, who consequently decided he had insufficient time in a retirement confined to the Vatican to read the book. He had not read the book, so he could not possibly have found in it an “interior continuity” between him and Pope Francis.
As if bearing false witness were not hypocritical enough for the Vatican, the Secretariat for Communications made reference to the “presumed manipulation” of the letter even though the office had just released the entire letter, in focus, publicly, which clearly showed that manipulation had taken place. Indeed, the Vatican admitted that it had blurred the final two lines of the first page of the letter. The Secretariat “said its decision to withhold part of the letter [had been] based on its desire for reserve, ‘not because of any desire to censor.’”[3] Recalling the detective Perot reacting to the old countess in the film, “The Orient Express,” I answer in a similarly raised, shrilled voice, obfuscation and another lie!
The inherently irresolvable, Kierkegaardian sort of irony can be found in Pope Francis having dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting fake news and the distortion of information. That pope had “frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.”[4] Francis probably had had the United States in mind, and deservingly so, for the splinting of network news had resulted in some very partisan news networks, and, perhaps relatedly, U.S. President Trump had presented his country and the world with a gaping loophole: the possibility that lies can slip through with impunity such that truth itself becomes, as Nietzsche had urged, a problem rather than a given.
As bad as fake news is in the media and government, the added element of hypocrisy in a Christian church that recognizes the Decalogue as truth renders the Vatican’s lapse much more severe. Alternatively, the Vatican could have produced the entire letter and mollify any perceived cleft between the two living popes as that which exists between theology and pastoral care. A woman who thought I might make a suitable pastor at her church, said to me when I visited her church, “I know you got the theology down, but can you care for the people?” I answered affirmatively; she should have asked about my theology instead, for I am indeed a deep thinker who transcends reigning assumptions, sometimes treating them as problems rather than as given. I suppose folks could make my propensity into a big deal, or not, depending on their penchant for conflict.
Certainly the two co-extant popes could be said have differed. I submit that they were closer on Catholic social ethics than people who conflate style for substance have realized. Both popes resisted the institution of women priests, and both men maintained that homosexuality is a sin. Perhaps Benedict put more emphasis on God’s judgment while Francis pointed to God’s mercy. Is such a “division” worth fighting over? Can it instead be transcended? I submit that a focus on transcendent, religious or spiritual experience, which is oriented beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, can relegate differences of emphasis on theological and pastoral matters. Put another way, the people invested psychologically in turning mole hills into mountains with troops digging in on both sides are not transcending in a religious sense. This includes Vatican officials, for time devoted to lying and manipulating could otherwise be more focused on what really matters in a religious organization. The worldly, our realm of quotidian activity in which we live, can be viewed as merely a surface that can be transcended in a distinctly religious sense. What I remember about Pope John Paul II was images of him kneeling whether in prayer or raw yearning for God. His views on women or gays in the church pale in comparison. So too, his anti-communist view and work similarly have fallen aside. A religious organization is primarily about religiosity. Perhaps both Benedict and Francis could emulate their common predecessor in this respect.

For more on religion and leadership, see "Christianized Ethical Leadership," and "Spiritual Leadership in Business."

1. Nicole Winfield, “Vatican Bows to Pressure, Releases Retired Pope’s Letter,” Religion News Service, March 18, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.