Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Yes, it’s a very bland and almost tedious title, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Recently I explained my problems with taking one side or the other in the UMC’s ongoing response to General Conference 2019 (GC2019).  As I described with more detail, I don’t feel that either side–conservative/traditionalist or progressive/liberal/inclusivist–has made sufficient theological arguments based on critical exegesis of the Bible, which we claim as our primary authority.  I recently bumped into an article by on William B. Lawrence that effectively makes my point and raises an issue that deserves some exploration.

Lawrence argues that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” distorts and otherwise violates the UMC’s theology and doctrinal standards.  The “incompatible…” phrase refers to “the practice of homosexuality,” which by the letter of the current (2019) Discipline prohibits those engaged in “the practice of homosexuality” from entering the ordination process.  Moreover, same-gender marriage is prohibited.  Because Methodism never developed a single doctrinal statement, it synthesizes its doctrine from a variety of sources, which include its Articles of Religion (adapted from those of the Church of England and the Evangelical United Brethren Church), and a particularly revered collection of John Wesley’s sermons plus some of his journals and his notes on the New Testament (forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two).  Even with this rather chaotic framework for its doctrine, Methodism has a structure for theological reflection that is called the Quadrilateral, with its four vertices being church tradition (teaching), reason, experience, and in the preeminent position, the Bible.

But that stuff isn’t what Lawrence leans on.  Instead, he argues his position for doing away with “incompatible with Christian teaching” because it violates the General Rules of Our Methodist Societies (so called by John Wesley).  The General Rules are a trinity of ethical statements:
(1)  Do no harm.
(2)  Do all the good you can.
(3)  Attend to the ordinances of God (I.E. do those things that maintain one’s relationship with God).

The problem Lawrence strays into is that, while he asserts that “incompatible with Christian teaching” has harmed LGBT persons, he maintains that this ethical violation is also a violation of our theology and doctrine, but he never substantiates this claim.  Instead, he seems to conflate ethics, theology, and doctrine.

While I accept his assertion that LGBT persons are experiencing the harm that comes from exclusion and discrimination based upon the current polity of the UMC, I am unwilling to use that ethical valuation to make claims about the UMC’s theological and doctrinal understandings.  Doing no harm is not an ethical position unique to Methodism.  Lawrence, like many (all?) of his progressive colleagues, needs to address what scripture and a few thousand years of church teaching say about homosexuality, as hostile as they may be.  They cannot simply be ignored because people are experiencing changed realities within our current societal culture.  Nor can we impose a generic ethic on the church and declare it doctrine without demonstrating how its roots dig down into scripture and church teaching.

None of this is to say that our ethical sense in these matters is invalid.  It may be that our ethics has gotten ahead of our theological and doctrinal formulations.  After all, the church has changed its doctrine and dogma over the centuries and our understanding of theology, even Biblical theology, isn’t entirely fixed.  However, acknowledging such change hardly gives license to avoiding the hard work of constructive, competent, and critical exegesis and theological reflection.

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The following is liturgy used at Tecumseh UMC to work through a difficult week nationally as I reflected on how the focus of our public discourse has been misdirected toward President Trump’s prejudiced rhetoric, white supremacists, and the two shooters in last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  While each of these have some responsibility for the conflict and suffering of our recent days, what is missing is a call to us–to America, and especially white America–to look into our own hearts and lives.  After all, we elected Trump having heard plenty of his hateful speech.  We are willing to be tempted into fear of the non-white ‘other’.   And we now routinely cycle through trauma, outrage, then acceptance of “the new normal” with every new mass shooting.  We are complicit.

Call to Worship

The table is set
The food is prepared

Invitations have been sent . . .
to Whites, Blacks, Browns, Reds, and Yellows;
to Anglos, Africans, Asians, and Latinos;
to citizens, immigrants, and refugees—with and without documentation;
to straights, gays, and trans;
to conservatives, liberals and progressives, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents;
to you and to me.

Will you come to the table Christ has set for all?

Prayer of Confession

Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed. (James 5.15-16)

Holy God, we are a people loathe to admit our mistakes, ill-chosen words, neglect of others, and harmful actions.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We too easily forget that all people—every race and nationality, party and ideology—are created in your divine image.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

In our day we have too often welcomed the hateful speech of others, claiming they refreshingly “tell it like it is” while denying how such speech affirms our darkest impulses and tempts us to validate our own fear and hate.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

Leader: We have allowed ourselves to become insensitive to the suffering caused by the violence of word and deed.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We thank you, Holy God, that through your Son Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Bring us now to repentance—change our hearts and lives that we may be more Christlike in all our ways.

The Great Thanksgiving

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us lift up our hearts.
We lift our hearts to the Lord.

Let us give thanks.
It is good and right to give our thanks and praise to God

We give thanks to you, Almighty God,
not to serve the need of ritual or tradition,
but because it is good and right for us
to acknowledge your love wherever we are
and in any season.

You created a good world.
Having made us in your image and given us life,
you placed us into the world to care for it
and build community with each other.

We confess that we have not been satisfied to be your people;
that we have rebelled against your authority
as spoiled children wanting things our own way.
We have abused your creation and each other
through what we have done and left undone.
We have let prejudice, difference of opinion,
and fearmongering build walls of suspicion and hatred between us.
We have broken your heart.

Yet out of love, you pursued us and cared for us.
When slaves in Egypt, you freed us.
When wanderers in the wilderness,
you offered us a covenant to guide us
in our relationships with you and with each other.
When we strayed, you sent prophets to call us back to you,
prophets who cast before us your vision
of justice, righteousness, and peace.

For these mighty acts of love, we raise our voices with
all people on earth and all the company of heaven
to praise your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

You are holy, perfectly righteous,
and likewise your Son Jesus Christ who, at the right time,
entered our corrupt and broken world to be a beacon of hope
to a people stumbling desperately through the dark.

Through him you gave sight to the blind, good news to the poor,
belonging to those on the margins and beyond,
and love to the untouchable.

Through him you lifted up the lowly and humbled
and repudiated the status, position, and honor
of the rich and powerful.

Through him you fed the hungry and healed the sick for no charge.

Your own Son came to us as a servant to be Emmanuel,
your presence with us.

He obeyed your will without question,
trusting in your wisdom and your plan
as he freely accepted death on the cross.

Through his suffering, death, and resurrection
you gave birth to your Church,
freed us from sin’s power and our souls from death,
and renewed you covenant with us.

[ Institution of the Lord’s Supper
Bread – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said…
Cup – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said… ]

In this remembrance of your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves with thankfulness as a living sacrifice
in union with Christ’s offering for the world.

May your Holy Spirit rain down on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and juice
so that we may experience them as the body and blood of Christ.

In that experience, may we be the body of Christ for the world.

Knit us together with Christ and with each other by your Spirit,
that we may go boldly into the world to minister and to offer the gospel
until Christ comes again in final victory, and we join his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours, Almighty God, now and always.

Amen.

With the 2018 midterm election just days away, I offer the following recommendations for the voter’s consideration:

  • VOTE! Just do it! Yes, your vote matters. Our democracy is based on our right and responsibility to vote.
  • DO NOT LET ANYONE SCARE YOU INTO A DECISION ABOUT WHERE TO CAST YOUR VOTE! Fear is used to manipulate voters. Do you want to let yourself be manipulated? Get a well-rounded view of the issues that are most concerning.
  • Ignore political advertising, propaganda, etc. on social media. Most of the time we don’t know where the content originates. Social media is where the Russians messed with the 2016 election by originating hot-button postings.
    Remember, if you pass something along in Facebook, Twitter, or whatever, you have taken ownership of it. Do you want that responsibility?
  • Ignore TV advertising by PACs and SuperPACs (those ads with fine print saying something like, “by XYZ and not affiliated with any candidate,” or related language). The rule of thumb is–ignore any ad in which you cannot determine who has created it.
  • VOTE!
  • Ignore TV advertising by candidates. Whether a candidate says good things about themself or slings mud at an opponent, what they say will almost surely be cherry-picked bits bereft of the context that fills in the whole story.
    Also, we live in an age in which we no longer need joke about politicians’ dishonesty as lying is now in fashion and made quite acceptable by example. How can any of us watching a candidate’s TV ad know that they are truthful?
  • VOTE!
  • The choices we make should reflect our ethics. Therefore, take a moment to decide what kind of ethics you want to be remembered as having. You have two choices:
    a. Utilitarian Ethics — at its best, this ethic can be described by asking the question, “What decision leads to the greatest good for the most people?” However, most of the time our natural selfishness and short-sightedness leads us to practice this ethic under the rubric, “the end justifies the means.” Over the last few years, utilitarian ethics has acquired the crass description of “hold your nose because what is promised is worth it.”
    b. Virtue Ethics — this ethic asks, “what kind of person do I want to be and what decisions do I make to reflect this?” In other words, the end does not justify the means and it matters how we get from a concern or desire to a reality. Virtue ethics makes it unnecessary to hold one’s nose. Typically, virtue ethics seeks the good always, but prioritized the common good.
    Each of us will vote informed by our ethics, therefore it might be wise to take a moment to make sure you can live with them. If you have to hold your nose, can you defend the smell?
  • If you want to be known as a person of integrity, vote consistent with your ethics.
  • VOTE!
  • Be open-minded and willing to cross party lines if the best candidate is on the “other side.”
  • When discussing the election, or anything related to governance and politics, unload your pre-determined proclamations, shut-up and listen, and give the other person respect enough to constructively converse with them. This is a lot more difficult than simply presenting a list of your hardened opinions or refutations, but the work is worth it.
  • VOTE!
  • The news media IS NOT the ENEMY OF THE STATE. Historically, it has been totalitarian and fascist regimes who either denigrated or manipulated the media in order to control public opinion and hide the worst of their offenses against their own people. A vital and unencumbered news media is a crucial safety feature in our democracy as it provides transparency into the government who exists to serve us.
    Take a critical look at all news media to understand any bias, but make your own analysis–don’t let anyone else make it for you.
  • VOTE.

 

How shall we respond to the October 27th mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA?  An article on the United Methodist News Service website offered a thought-provoking recommendation by the bishop presiding over the Pittsburgh area:

It will not do for United Methodists to expect God to step in to bring about change after a deadly shooting that killed 11 and wounded six at a Pittsburgh synagogue, said the Pittsburgh Area United Methodist bishop.

“As you pray, I urge you not to suggest to God what you want God to do to bring about change,” said Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi said in a statement. “But rather, I urge you to listen to God so that God can reveal to you what to say and what to do in order to provide comfort to our Jewish sisters and brothers, the first responders and all those for whom this tragedy reignites previous trauma.”   (emphasis mine; see the full article here)

This caught me out because I have a bad habit of telling God what I want God to do about various troublesome things as if God hasn’t been paying attention and I know best.  How weak my own faith if I believe that God has not witnessed the tragedy and is unaware of the suffering!  How presumptuous of my ego to tell God what has to happen in response!

Of course, we pray for God’s grace of healing, comfort, and peace for all affected by the shooting, from the families of those killed to those recovering from their wounds to the congregation and neighborhood of the synagogue to first responders to all who are touched by the tragedy.  But then, I feel an urge to pray that God tweak lawmakers so that how we manage guns in America be made more safe and sane, and that President Trump’s hair fall out for responding to the tragedy by suggesting the victims shared responsibility for the tragedy by failing to have an armed guard in their sacred space.  Whether unrealistic, unreasonable, or simply silly, these last two petitions are hardly worthy of both the God whose vision and wisdom transcend the universe and his humble servant who is often not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

If I understand Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s recommendation correctly, then I agree that the first step in our response is to shut-up and listen for God’s guidance with regard to sharing the comforting and healing love of God with those most directly affected by the shooting.  Our subsequent response is like the first–shut up and listen for God’s guidance for what to do next.  Typically though, this is then the time when our own preferences and politics enter in and we seek to impose our own solutions by having God do our will under our guidance as if we know best.  Worse yet, we might even go a step further asking God to implement our solutions.

Maybe it’s time to simply ask God for what is right and what God wants of us in this situation.  We might also ask for help in shedding our intellectual ego and presumptions so as to more clearly listen for God’s wisdom free of our presumptions, prejudices, preferences, and politics.  And then we might ask God what God wants us to do rather than telling God what we want God to do.  After all, we’re here to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

The shootings at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue are horrific and tragic.
Now then, what, God, do you want us to do?

What shall we now say to the family of death number 852 of the 2,975 estimated victims of hurricane Maria who died in Puerto Rico last year?  Or death number 1,590?  Or death number 68?  Or any of the families of the 2,957 persons President Trump tells us did not die due to Maria?

Our president, who is also Puerto Rico’s president, calls the 2,975 mortality figure an invention by Democrats to embarrass him.

How shall we word our condolences to those thousands of families whose loved ones lives are less important to President Trump than his reputation.

What shall we say to comfort them when the leader of their nation, to whom they would be expected to turn for encouragement, cannot offer anything but a defense of his frail ego.

What shall we say now that it has been declared that their suffering is hardly as important as the man in the Oval Office.

What shall we now say to Puerto Rico?

Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump, while a political phenomenon, is also a fascinating study in Christian ethics, or, more specifically, the complexity of mixed ethical systems.  In an interview aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 29, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, did a fine job of articulating the complex ethical calculus Evangelicals apply to President Trump.  And before getting into that calculus, we need a brief refresher on Christian ethics.

There are two major ethical systems that we use to guide our decision making.  One is Utilitarian Ethics, in which the primary question to be answered is, In a given situation requiring a decision, which will lead to an outcome expected to yield the greatest good for the most people.  On the up-side utilitarian ethics is practical.  On the down-side it easily leads to the ends justifying the means.  The other ethical system is Virtue Ethics, which asks, In a given situation requiring a decision, which is most consistent with the virtues and values that express one’s understanding of who one wants to be.  Its up-side is a consistent correspondence with one’s understanding of the ethical example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers.  Its down-side is a possible lack of practicality and a danger of placing principle over the needs and common good of people.

In the Morning Edition interview, Jeffress articulated his ambivalence with both ethical systems early on, when he said, “I think evangelicals understand there’s a difference between supporting a president’s policies and supporting individual behavior” — a jump from utilitarian to virtue ethics.  Pressed on which policies Trump has supported that he supports, Jeffress side-stepped a little and said of Trump, “He has been the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary president of any president in history . . . that’s why these evangelicals enthusiastically support him.”  When pressed on Trump’s moral failings, vis-a-vis “sleeping with a porn star . . . paying hush money . . . mistruths the president has stated time and again,” all of which Christians generally find reprehensible, Jeffress said, “The Gospel message is all of us have sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of God’s glory.  We are all sinners.  We all need a savior.”  True, but where Jeffress exposes his ambivalence is in failing to offer the same grace in judgment to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  As the interviewer pointed out, evangelicals were critical of Bill Clinton because of his personal faults arguing that “you cannot compartmentalize someone’s morality.”  Moreover, he flatly stated that “I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump,” and mentions, without identifying “a litany of Hillary Clinton’s offenses.”  If I understand Jeffress correctly, then one who commits adultery, consistently deceives, and often denigrates persons is as moral as someone who does not commit adultery, has deceived, but in frequently, and does not generally denigrate others.  I have to admit that I do not know in what moral universe such an equivocation makes any sense.  Jeffress needed to simply admit that he is willing to overlook some serious and unrepentant sin in order to support someone who puts forth a policy agenda he believes is needed.  He also needs to own up to his political bias that prevents him overlooking the sin of those with whom he disagrees and does not trust (specifically the Clintons).

Another interesting bit came during a shift in the conversation when the interviewer asked Jeffress about the ways he felt that evangelical Christians are “treated as a persecuted minority in this country.”  He responded that Christians have become marginalized, rolling out the trope, in so many words, that America was once but no longer a Christian nation.  Although I want to save a discussion about this idea for another essay, I do want to answer Jeffress basic complaint that Christians are restricted in serious ways from practicing our religion.  I for one have never experienced this restriction, but then I have never insisted that everyone around me, regardless of their religious tradition (or none at all), practice the religion that I do by virtue of imposing Christian practice and symbolism on people in schools and the public square.  For me, evangelism is not a matter of public policy but relationship as the Gospel is passed from one to the next in places where we have earned the respect to be heard (especially by our moral behavior).

I think I now better understand evangelical equivocation and ambivalence.  It is hard for me to accept, coming as I do from a holiness tradition (Wesleyan Methodism) whose ethics are summed up in this question by its founder, John Wesley, “Are you going on to perfection?”