Friday, October 5, 2018

Mandela’s Courage as Politicized Forgiveness

Whereas we grasp the interior sense in which Gandhi taught to forgive, the media promoted a false, politicized forgiveness as operating in Mandela’s case. I am of course impugning the aggrandizing press here, rather than Mandela himself.
In claiming that Mandela “insisted on forgiveness,” John Mahaha uses the following quote from the man himself: “To go to prison because of your convictions and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”[1] The suffering being referred to here is neither suffering for its own sake nor suffering unnecessarily. In regard to being willing to suffer for what he believed in, Mandela had Gandhi as a role model, though (and this is crucial) Gandhi's social-moral principle of nonviolence cannot be reconciled with Mandela's prescription of violence. To the extent that advocating armed rather than non-violent resistance legitimated even just a portion of Mandela's prison time, the Father of South Africa could not have considered his own suffering in prison as strong (morally) as that of the Father of India. By moral strength, I have in mind a sort of power that had escaped Nietzsche's grasp; it is the sort of strength that Jesus evinces in the New Testament. Both Mandela and Gandhi endured great suffering to be true to their respective principles and see them realized in a more just world. This is not to say that both men forgave in the same sense, or that both deserved their respective suffering equally.
I submit that what Mahaha took in his piece to be forgiveness is actually something else. In philosophical terms, he unknowingly committed a category mistake. To be willing to suffer for one’s convictions is indeed laudable, but forgiveness is not necessarily entailed or even implied. I suspect that Mandela himself would admit that he did not feel any sense of forgiveness during the 27 years of imprisonment. I have seen video-taped footage of him on the prison-island refusing to speak with a group of people passing by while he was outdoors. His stiff glance and held silence belies any hint of forgiveness.
Lest it be claimed that Mandela forgave his former oppressors once he had regained his freedom, his second wife insisted on a television interview following her husband's death that Mandela had drew on an incredible strength of self-discipline and fortitude, rather than the interior sort of forgiveness that Gandhi preached and felt. Sadly, commentators and both print and broadcast journalists marveled in saccharine platitudes at Mandela's amazing forgiveness after suffering for nearly three decades in prison. Clearly, the journalists and pontificators had not done their research.
The research could have started with topical statements from Mandela himself. “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he once said, “you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”[2] Insisting that such advice is none other than felt forgiveness artfully “gilds the lily,” as if dipping Mandela’s heart in gold with the benefit of hindsight. The working peace is political rather than interior; accordingly, any forgiveness would be likewise, for Mandela would not have said “you have to work with your enemy” were the enemy already forgiven. Instead, he might have said, “you must get to the point of caring about and for your enemy.” Although the term political forgiveness applies, the operative virtue here is actually closer to political courage than forgiveness. According to his second wife, Mandela used great self-discipline rather than forgiveness to resist the impulse to retaliate and instead work with the bastards.

Nelson Mandela reaching out to a former enemy. Political or religious forgiveness? (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It takes interior courage to muster political courage, to deny oneself the convenient route politically. Mandela drew on his mighty courage in not only risking imprisonment by urging armed resistance, but also pushing himself to work with the party of his former oppressors. I suspect that humility, even if only in a political use, played a role after his arduous suffering in prison. Elongated pain has a way of resizing a man’s estimation of his own powers and proper stature. Interestingly, endured suffering may also rarify courage, for the downside is no longer of the unknown. While more difficult to unpack than saccharine forgiveness so often bandied about by dandies, tremendous self-discipline applied as courage as political forgiveness more closely fits the man who saved South Africa from itself.

1.  John Dramani Mahama, “Mandela Taught a Continent to Forgive,” The New York Times, December 5, 2013.
2. William Welch, “South Africa’s Leader Transformed Nation, Self,” USA Today, December 27, 2013.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Seminarian

A closeted gay student at an evangelical seminary is a contrast with a rather obvious clashing point, with the predicted ending being that the student is kicked out and must find or come into his own identity free of exterior constraints. Yet The Seminarian (2010) smartly avoids that road well-traveled. Instead, the screenwriter risks giving theology a prominent, and perhaps even central place in the film. The venture is at odds with the bottom-feeder mentality of Hollywood represented in the film, De-Lovely 2004), in which Cole Porter’s bisexuality occupies center-stage. Comparing these two films, irony drips off the screen as De-Lovely, which is patterned after a theatrical musical, looks down on Hollywood and yet has a common theme, while The Seminarian is a film through and through and yet takes the high road by supposing that the viewers can and will stay through some substantive theology, which transcends social issues and even the dramatic.

The full essay is at "The Seminarian."

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Deal with China: Did the Vatican Lose Its Soul?

In September, 2018, the Vatican and the Chinese government reached “a provisional deal” that would end “a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China.”[1] In regard to the power struggle itself, the deal “would mark a major victory for China.”[2] In regard to spreading Catholicism globally, the Vatican stood to gain both in terms of souls and money. Protestantism had been spreading fast in China, whereas the number of Catholics at the time was 10 to 12 million.[3] The question is therefore whether the Vatican ceded too much for the promise of access to the world’s most populous nation.
In the New Testament, Jesus advises to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Does this mean that a secular government should have the final say over who is to be a bishop in the Catholic Church? Jesus himself is portrayed in the New Testament as a religious figure who is by no means sanctioned by the Roman government. Ultimately, he is put to death for claiming to be a king, which the Roman government cannot abide. Similarly, the Chinese government could not abide bishops not approved by the government—and least of all, bishops said to be future kings. Yet a Roman Catholic bishop must be approved by the Vatican—the Pope himself—to be a Roman Catholic bishop. For a government to do so is presumptuous, even impious. It would seem, therefore, that bishops following Jesus would continue to risk arrest and persecution by worshipping in the underground churches, rather than in the “parallel structure: a state-sanctioned, state-controlled Catholic Church.”[4] Again, as Jesus says, those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who are willing to lose their lives will save them, and thus themselves. Therefore, Pope Francis would have gone too far had he agreed to bishops being appointed above his objections. To be sure, bishops could get the nod from both parties.
In the provisional deal, “Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Because they had not been selected by the Vatican, they had previously been excommunicated.”[5]  This recognition solves that problem, but what about the appointment of future bishops? Which side would have the final say? Would either have a veto? The provisional deal is not clear on this point. “Neither side provided a clear answer.”[6]
At the time of the agreement, Archbishop Claudio Celli, a lead negotiator for the Vatican, said the deal provides for “the intervention of the Holy Father for sure” in the selection of bishops. The negotiator would not say, however, that the intervention could be a veto; he said only that “the Holy Father gets to say something about the appointment of bishops.”[7] Only having a say, such as in raising objections, is not sufficient, I submit, for a Roman Catholic official must pass muster with that Church in order to be Roman Catholic.
That the Vatican would have to sever relations with Taiwan raises the question of how bishops there would be selected. Moreover, in ceding this point, the pope risked being perceived as throwing out a very small country for one with a lot of potential Catholics. Was this even to save more souls or to catch up on Protestant denominations in China? Did the Vatican stand to pull in a lot of money from the expected increase in numbers in China? Even in raising these questions, I see a lot of distance from the negotiations and the relationship between Jesus preaching and the Roman government, as well as the preachments themselves—especially in regard to treasure not being of the earthly sort and to being willing to bear one’s cross rather than travel on the road of convenience; for in gaining the whole world to save itself, a religion may lose its very soul.[8]

1. Jason Horowitz and Ian Johnson, “China and Vatican Reach Deal on Appointment of Bishops,” The New York Times, September 22, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6, Ibid.
7, Ibid.
8. On Christian thought on greed in relation to wealth, see Skip Worden, God’s Gold.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

7 Billion People Worldwide in 2011: Catholicism's Humanae Vitae Compromising or Protecting Human Life?

According to the Huffington Post, “Amid the millions of births and deaths around the world each day, it is impossible to pinpoint the arrival of the globe's 7 billionth occupant. But the U.N. chose on October 31, 2011 to mark the day of that occupant's arrival with a string of festivities worldwide, and a series of symbolic 7 billionth babies being born.” I contend that the milestone is nothing to celebrate; rather, it should have served as a wake-up call for us all, lest the species continue undaunted to maximize itself right out of existence. Both the slope and its relative abruptness, evident in a historical perspective, ought to have given us all pause in our assumption that our species would necessarily go on without either self-regulation or a drastic correction from nature. 

                                            Source: UN Population Division

It may simply be human nature to focus on putting out individual brush fires without pausing to ask whether one person set them all and to look at the fires in a larger, historical perspective. It could be that the fires are fueled in large part by decades of built-up deadwood from "no fire" policies. In other words, it could be that we are more complicit than we know. Our presumption that absolves us of any role and our assumption that we can't be wrong may be the death of our species. Before getting to the role of religion as illustrative of this presumption and assumption as applied to over-population, I want to briefly discuss the relevance of global population to several problems facing the world so the gravity of the problem can be better grasped.
Other things equal, more people on Earth means more consumption and thus more pollution. In other words, a species that does not self-regulate its size may alter the ecosystem (i.e., climate) beyond the range of that specie’s own habitat. In academic terms, a schizogenic (maximizing) variable can breach the “ecologizing” constraint that is an ecosystem. Still less understandable, a schizogenic variable within a system can destroy that system’s homeostatic nature. In short, the 7 billion milestone (and still counting) portends baleful consequences for our species.
In addition to climate change, one could point to commodity supply, such as foodstuff and energy. The increase in the price of corn, for example, could be attributed to the increasing use of ethanol (made out of corn). Going further, an increasing population means increasing demand of both, so the explanation should not rest with “alternative energy sources” as an issue. Both food and energy can be expected to be stretched as the global population increases. Oil companies going to more high-risk extractions of oil (e.g., deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico) can be viewed as still another manifestation of what happens when energy supplies are relatively fixed. Fundamentally, increasing global population magnifies the disconnect between the maximizing variable and finite resource supplies. If we as a species refuse to regulate ourselves as a species, we do so at the peril of our progeny. Indeed, the transmission of human life may hang in the balance ironically as people and certain organizations enable the maximizing tendency in order to transmit human life.
As the world’s population was thought to surpass 7 billion, Eric Tayag of the Philippines’ Department of Health warned, “Seven billion is a number we should think about deeply. We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education and a decent life for every child," he said. "If the answer is 'no,' it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion." I contend that Tayag was understating the problem and thus the need for corrective action at the global level. Problematically, however, some influential international organizations have priorities that exacerbate rather than solve the problem.
The Huffington Post reports that in the Philippines, “much of the population question revolves around birth control. The government backs a program that includes artificial birth control. The powerful Roman Catholic church, though, vehemently opposes contraception.” The vehemence itself may be a problem for the Vatican. The teaching itself may evince an overreach from the vantage point of a religion. As such, the foray may unnecessarily compromise the Vatican’s credibility even to the Catholic laity.
According to the Huffington Post, “The Catholic clergy opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, stem cell research and all artificial contraception and sterilization methods, including birth control pills and condoms. But according the 2008 National Survey of Family Growth, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women over the age of 18 have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican. Even among more religious Catholic women, who attend Mass on a weekly basis, 83 percent use some form of contraception. In 2009, 63 percent of Catholic voters said they support health insurance coverage for contraception, including birth control pills, according to a Belden Russonello Strategists poll.” Essentially, the laity have been saying that the hierarchy has been overstepping its proper domain, given the Catholic Church is a religious organization and morality is not theology. Ironically, the overreach has diminished rather than extended the clergy’s influence. The root of the clergy’s error may be their conflation of morality and religion.
The “transmission of human life,” and, moreover, “the happiness of human beings” referred to as the basis of the humanae vitae encyclical have at best an indirect relation to religion or theology, which, being about God’s nature, transcends the human domain. In other words, the encyclical has a rather secular basis. It is at best peripheral to worshipping God. To claim the transmission of human life is somehow like God being the Creator obfuscates the human and the divine. It is thus to make a category mistake.
Even in terms of humanae vitae as an ideal, acting only when one can act in the ideal can be criticized. Indeed, this dictum is inconsistent with the very notion of ideal. For example, to say that one should ideally eat fruits and vegetables is not to say that one must never eat a cookie. Likewise, to say that a man and woman being in love and actively involved in the transmission of human life is an ideal in married life is not to say that one should limit oneself to it. Rather, it is to say that making love with the possibility of transmitting human life is better than making love in marriage without transmitting human life. It is a fallacy to go from this to claim concerning an ideal that “therefore” one should never act other than in the ideal.
It would be unfortunate if the transmission of the human species were compromised rather than sanctified by a religious organization whose clerics mistake the very notion of ideal and apply it in a domain that is only indirectly related to religion. In other words, even well-meaning maximizing (i.e., over-reaching) can function as a catalyst in the downfall of the human species. The underlying culprit may be individual self-interest, whether by individuals or organizations, that is inherently partial and thus puts the part ahead at the possible expense of the whole. Beyond the self-interest may be the intractable assumption that one cannot be wrong, for this assumption alone can blind one to the harm of which one is unknowingly complicit. The end of the transmission of human life may come down to human stubbornness and presumptousness (i.e., to human pride), ironically perhaps most strident in its own assumption of infallibility when it is in religious garb.


Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, Paul IV.

Jim Gomez and Tim Sullivan, “World Population Hits 7 Billion: Babies Celebrated Worldwide,” The Huffington Post, October 31, 2011. 

Laura Bassett, “The Men Behind the War on Women,” The Huffington Post, November 1, 2011. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Justice’s Last Resort: Accountability in the Roman Catholic Church Sex Scandals

A pattern of deeply violent acts of power-aggrandizement, followed by the efforts of “organizational men” to cover up the atrocities in the interest of the organization and even the offenders at the negligent expense of the offended, cannot but have ripple effects, or make waves, once the stories are revealed to the public. It is sad, very sad, when an offending institution, or “club,” refuses to enforce accountability on its offending functionaries—members of the club. In early August, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office released to the public an 884-page report finding that six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania had covered up sexual abuse—molestation and even rape—by 301 “predator priests” over 70 years in the twentieth century.[1]
With even at least one bishop (then cardinal)—Donald Wuerl--a prime culprit in covering up rapes, the lack of accountability on Wuerl by the Vatican would send a message that within a club, the big guys are essentially beyond reproach, even in such a sordid matter as covering for pedophile rapist subordinates. The sheer extent of injustice within one organization can trigger vigilante acts at justice. Hence, Rev. Basil hJ. Hutsko was thrown to the ground while praying at his church one morning—the assailant saying, “This is for all the little kids.”[2] It is sad, very sad, when justice is so imperfect as to be “accomplished” on an innocent priest. This incident thus reflects badly back on the lack of justice having been enforced by the Vatican on its own.
After the grand jury report was issued by the Attorney General, Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s upcoming appearance at a Roman Catholic conference on the family. Additionally, a Catholic High School in Pittsburgh removed mention of Wuerl from the school’s name—ostensively because Wuerl suggested that mention of his name would “detract from the purpose of Catholic education.”[3] The remaining question at the time was whether the pope would remove Wuerl from the College of Cardinals.
In line with the dictum, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, I got a snapshot of how Bishop Wuerl’s cathedral operated when I was a graduate student studying business and religion at the University of Pittsburgh. Late one weekday afternoon when the church was open, I knelt down near the low fence separating the place for the laity from the liturgical area. A janitor came up to me from behind and pushed me down, even though I was on the people side. So, interestingly, I can have a sense of how the innocent priest felt when he was pushed down from behind. At the very least, I concluded at the time that the bishop was probably a hard-ass, or at the very least he put up with some rather squalid employees. I complained at the time to the church office receptionist, but she gave it only a cursory notice. Clearly, Wuerl’s little world in Pittsburgh was not to be a part of my study of places of worship there.
My point is that the callousness and even violence one a very small scale in a religious organization can be just one sign of a broader and much deeper dysfunctional organizational culture. In such cases, accountability and justice from within are not likely; presumptuous boundary-issues are more likely. The press reported in the wake of the report that American Catholics were demanding action rather than just words in enforcing accountability; even so, I was struck by how many Catholics kept going to their same Roman Catholic church as if news of the report had not been made public. Perhaps accountability can easily be slighted by religious laity who believe that going to their church—receiving Catholic communion—is vital soteriologically even if not ethically. Yet Jesus surely would have tapped the dirt from his sandals and moved on had he been amid a religious group that covered up rapists in the group and even the cover-uppers. Great harm to others is antithetical to the Golden Rule, let alone the notion emphasized by Augustine and Calvin both that God is love. How can love of this sort overflow in an organization that covers up rapists and then the cover-uppers? We all know what Jesus thought of the hypocrites—the Pharisees.

[1] Hayley Miller, “Indiana Priest Beaten Unconscious, Allegedly Told ‘This Is for All the Little Kids.” The Huffington Post, August 22, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michelle Lou, “Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s Name Removed from School after Abuse Coverup,” The Huffington Post, August 22, 2018.

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