Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pope Francis: Possessing Nuclear Weapons is Indefensible

Pope Francis said late in 2017 that the nuclear arms race had become irrational and immoral. The irrationality itself rendered even just the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral, according to the pope. Whereas past popes had recognized deterrence as a legitimator, both irrationality and the extent and “upgrading” of such weapons were factors in Pope Francis’s admittedly personal view. Yet was his basis only moral, or religious in nature? 
With “such sophisticated nuclear arsenals,” the pope said, “we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least a big part of it.”[1] The proliferation of the weapons is relevant here, even in the pope’s answer to what has changed: “Irrationality is what has changed.”[2] Surely irrationality is a staple of human nature, rather than appearing all of a sudden in 2017. The pope must have had in mind the reckless rhetoric exchanged by the North Korean dictator and the American president. Unfortunately, even a large, established nuclear power, an old cold-war warrior, can allow for irrationality even though institutional safeguards exist as checks. But as time goes on and leaders come and go as weapons proliferate as well as become more powerful, we can conclude that the psychology of human nature is itself too weak. 
Ethically speaking, the harm that could befall a significant portion of humanity from nuclear bombs renders the possession thereof as immoral, given the element of irrationality in interpersonal and thus intergovernmental relations. But is the objection also religious in nature? If our species is made in the image of God, then destroying a part or all of the species can be said to be condemnable on religious grounds. The Catholic doctrine of humanae vitae can be taken in this sense, rather than that human life itself is sacred, which could be reckoned as a self-idolatrious claim. We have a spiritual nature—an innate yearning for the transcendent.[3] To expunge this nature is condemnable on religious grounds.
The pope can thus be criticized for having based his opinion on a moral position rather than going on to use the occasion to preach on the distinctly religious element (or grounding). A species that can not only conceive of transcendence beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, but yearn for it even though it remains beyond is also that species that can so easily lose perspective in altercations and lash out irrationally such that much harm is done to the species or a part thereof. If we are angels, a saying goes, we must be killer angels. But must we be? Are we not also capable of exerting will-power, self-discipline, especially if we can be watchful and hold in check powerful individuals who are in the sway of irrational emotion? Or is the proverbial cat out of the bag, with no one willing to destroy the most powerful weapons? Will time eventually catch up to our sorry species?

1. Francis Rocca, “Pope Calls Nuclear-Arms Growth Illegitimate,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. This point enjoys considerable space in my book, Spiritual Leadership

On the Place of Religion in Business: Refusing to Serve Gays

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 2017 in a case on whether a baker in Colorado had been justified in refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. He claimed that his Christian faith forbid him from making wedding cakes for gay couples. “I follow Jesus Christ,” he declared when interviewed at his store. The Gospels are silent on the issue of homosexuality—it being said to be a sin only in the Old Testament—so the inference that following Jesus requires opposition to gay marriage (not to mention that homosexuality is an important issue in following Jesus) can be questioned. If the inference is tenuous, then it is the baker’s ideological stance that was actually at issue before the court. More broadly, is religion vulnerable to acting as a subterfuge, or cover, for what are really personal prejudices?
In terms of constitutional law, the baker contended that the First Amendment, “whose guarantees of free speech and religious exercise supersede any state law, exempts him from [Colorado’s] antidiscrimination act,” which has covered sexual orientation since 2007.[1] The question, I submit, is whether free speech and religious exercise are salient in a business context. 

The full essay is at "Refusing to Serve Gays."

[1] Jess Bravin, “Supreme Court Set to Hear Gay-Rights Case,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Greed and Christian Ethics in Profit-Seeking

In his 2011 Easter sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued an outspoken attack on the greed consuming the world’s civilized nations. Speaking against the rush for oil, power and territory, the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams argued that the comforts and luxuries that people take for granted can not be sustained forever. He forecast that civilization itself would one day collapse from the over-production and consumption.  

                             The Archbishop of Canterbury (The Telegraph)

Williams laid the root of the excessive acquisitiveness at the doorstep of the fear of death. “Individuals live in anxious and acquisitive ways, seizing what they can to provide a security that is bound to dissolve, because they are going to die. . . . Whether it is the individual grabbing the things of this world in just the repetitive, frustrating sameness that we have seen to be already in fact the mark of an inner deadness, or the greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires - enough oil, enough power, enough territory - the same fantasy is at work. We shan’t really die.” Relentless activity in the world of business is our way of forestalling the thought of our own coming non-existence.  It follows that “(w)e as individuals can’t contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilization, like all others, will collapse.”  Therefore, we take our comforts and luxuries for granted and ignore the warning signs that they cannot be sustained indefinitely.

In short, the West defines itself in terms of ceaseless activity geared to acquisition without limit—as though a fatted calf stuffing itself for dear life—in order to keep the inevitability of an end at bay. Hence, we identify ourselves by our functions, as in “I am a banker,” rather than by our respective natures, which exist in idleness as much as activity. In fact, it may only be in the silence of a holy night that one can come face to face in the darkness with oneself, unfettered by one’s vocation.

Whereas the Archbishop’s sermon focused on greed inherent in excessive acquisitiveness, the Easter message of the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev Nazir-Ali, discussed the immorality of the financial markets in terms of financial inequality. As reported in The Telegraph, “The bishop said that high-earners such as City traders and company directors must swap their desire to ‘make a quick buck’ for a commitment to share their wealth. Bishop Nazir-Ali blamed the turmoil in the world’s financial markets on amoral forces and warned that one of the ‘great disparities’ of our age was the gap between rich and poor.” Even though capitalism necessarily makes use of people unequally according to particular efforts, talents, and resources, the greed of the “haves” need not be utilized in ways that exacerbate the inequalities such that the “have nots” are left without the means of sustenance. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, the bishop charged, "The turmoil in the markets is almost certainly the result of such forces.” Indeed, the greed of irrational exuberance pushes the gap to such an extent that volatility can destroy the market from within.

Accordingly, the bishop urged: “Those with power need to ensure that the poor are not disproportionately affected. What is required is a change of heart, of disposition, of attitude. . . . From possessiveness we need to move to gratitude for what we have, from 'cutting corners’ to make a quick buck to that integrity for which business in this country was celebrated, and from mere accumulation of wealth to a generosity of spirit. . . . When that happens, hedge fund managers and directors of companies can indeed go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders." This statement is a departure from the rich man getting into the kingdom of God being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle—a view that was dominant in early Christian thought. The bishop’s thesis that generosity can deliver even a rich person harkens back to the salience of the virtues of liberality and magnificence that were dominant in the Christian thought on wealth in the late Renaissance. Such is the distance within the history of Christian thought on wealth in relationship to greed (on this shift, please see my book, God's Gold available at Amazon).

Because generosity requires wealth in the first place, the bishop was assuming that the link between earning wealth and greed is mitigated or even eliminated by charity (the root of which is caritas, which means sublimated human love) of part of one’s wealth. Although involving virtue, this approach is less idealistic than the earlier stance in which even pursuing wealth was assumed to be tantamount to being greedy. In other words, the bishop’s stance is more worldly because it allows for some profit-seeking and wealth-holding (as long as they are accompanied by the virtue of generosity rather than the vice of selfish acquisitiveness sans limit). Even so, the stance is quite idealistic compared with the greed that nearly brought the financial markets to collapse in 2008. The question is perhaps whether generosity amid profit-seeking and wealth-holding is sufficient to restrain the ceaseless productive activity for still more.


Jonathan Petre, “Archbishop of Canterbury Attacks Western ‘greed’ in Easter sermon,” The Telegraph, April 24, 2011.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christian Leadership Navigating Geopolitics: Pope Francis in Myanmar amid Ethnic Cleansing

With the U.N. having “denounced the murder, rape and pillaging of the Rohingya in western Myanmar as ethnic cleansing,” Pope Francis had to “strike a careful balance” during his visit to the country in late 2017 “by maintaining his moral authority without endangering his tiny local flock.[1] Even the decision to meet first with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of the military that had “driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country” could be taken as a compromise of the Pope’s moral authority because Francis would met with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the next day.[2] That the local Cardinal had urged the Pope not to even use the word Rohingya during the visit pointed in the direction away from the Pope acting as a moral compass and thus to a hit to his reputation as a leader of principle rather than expediency.
Considering the salience of agape, or self-emptying love, in Christianity, the spiritual virtue should be in the Pope’s leadership even in the context of national and global politics, especially if on behalf of a persecuted group. Was not Christ himself persecuted? Furthermore, a history of Christian martyrs suggests that compromising for the sake of one’s self or organization enjoys little legitimacy. To gain the whole world and yet to compromise or lose an opportunity for spiritual leadership in a secular, sordid context—evading talking truth to power—has an anti-Christian resonance that can deplete a Christian leader’s reputational capital.   
The institutional self-protection that an organization tends to engage in can rationalize all sorts of antithetical conduct, including protecting clerics who rape children. Are not such children worthy of protection even if the institution itself bears the brunt? What then of a persecuted religious and ethnic minority? If Christ evinced love where it is not convenient, then Christian leaders should be protecting other religions even more than Christianity itself. Paradoxically, only in such a way can Christianity really thrive, for being true to itself—being authentic rather than self-serving—is true strength, whereas expediency evinces weakness.  

[1] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis Arrives in a Myanmar Tarnished by Rohingya Crackdown,” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Religion and Politics: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Helped Syria’s Assad Regime

In the wake of yet another Syrian massacre of civilians, including families being shot at close-range in their own houses, the New York Times published a report in 2012 that claimed that Russian priests and theologians commiserated with diplomats from Damascus at the opening of an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin. While it is understandable that the Kremlin would not want to lose its “longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East,” it is perhaps less palatable for Christian prelates and doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church to essentially look the other way on atrocities so the Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, won’t be pushed under the bus in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that could be unleashed should Assad fall from power. The Syrian Christians were reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad for fear of being persecuted by the Sunnis should they gain power.

                                     Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church                                  NYT

The full essay is at "Russian Patriarch Helped Assad."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Essence of Leadership

In The Essence of Leadership, leadership itself is reformulated in such a way that what emerges—the essence of leadership—is distinct from related phenomena, including management, presiding, and mentoring. This is not to say, however, that leadership bears no relation to strategy—hence the complex concept of strategic leadership, which is not without risks. Leadership itself contains risks, which a focus on the essence of leadership, rather than, for instance, taking leadership as simply about having influence, can arguably minimize. Such risks include the cult of the leader, to which charisma and attributions of heroism are especially susceptible, and the distorting impact of ideology, such as in Burns’ version of transformational leadership. Shaking out the risks and distinguishing leadership as a unique phenomenon are ways of pointing back to the essence of leadership, which applies in virtually any culture. That is, the essence is cross-cultural. Taking comparative religion as a stand-in for cultures, I demonstrate that the essence of leadership can be informed by Taoist, Buddhist, and Judeo-Christian principles.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Christianity and “Social Capitalism”

The SEC charged Ephren Taylor with a fraudulent $11 million Ponzi scheme in April 2012. According to Reuters, “Taylor fraudulently sold $7 million of notes said to bear 12 percent to 20 percent annual interest rates, to fund small businesses such as laundries, juice bars and gas stations.” He “had conducted a multi-city ‘Building Wealth Tour’ in which he spoke to congregations” on the importance of “giving back.” He called himself a “social capitalist.” In actuality, he used the money on himself and his wife’s attempt to become a singer.

The full essay is at "Christianity and 'Social Capitalism'"

See: God's Gold, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Jonathan Stempel, “SEC Charges Ephren Taylor II ForAllegedly Bilking Churchgoers In $11 Million Ponzi Scheme,” The Huffington Post, April 12, 2012.