Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Life

Going to the well too often…

seraphim_greek_churchI’ve had some interesting experiences since I’ve been ordained, many of which have involved people in need (or who claimed to be in need) of assistance.  I always try to give the benefit of the doubt to folks, and to follow the injunction to give to any who begs from you (Luke 6:30).  At the same time, good stewarship means that I–or anyone else–can’t just go around enabling people to lie or steal.

In light of the above, several weeks ago I was at a local restaurant when someone approached me in the parking lot.  The man explained that he and his wife were from Pensacola Fla and were stranded in the area, and needed X amount of money to get gas/have their van fixed (I can’t remember which).  Now, being the son of a retired Highway Patrolman, I know that most of these sorts of stories are just that–fictions concocted to get money out of folks.  However, on the off chance that the story was honest, and because I always tell people that if they are lying the burden is on them, I went ahead and gave the man the money he needed, plus a little extra for some lunch.  Fast forward two weeks.  I was back in the parking lot of the same local restaurant and I see the same man–keep in mind he’s told me he was from Fla–in the parking lot walking up to people asking for money.  I watched him walk purposefully around the lot and speak to an older man in his truck.  When I saw what scammer was doing, I got out and walked over, but not before the older man had turned him down and the scammer had moved on across the lot.  When I got to the truck, I asked the older man if the guy had told him he was from Fla and needed help etc…  Sure enough, the guy was telling the same story.  Since this restaurant is in a fairly busy area, I’m certain he was doing pretty well for himself going from lot to lot with his tale.  After talking to the older man for a few minutes, he suggested calling a local law enforcement agency.  I only thought about it for a moment–I gave them a call and a description of Mr. Scam Artist, as well as telling them which direction he left in.  I have no idea whether they caught him or not, but I at least felt like I’d done my part to prevent scammers from taking assistence out of the hands of those who actually need it, and are honest about it.

Another story:

During my first summer at St. Francis a gentleman called my cell phone one day while I was waiting in the lounge of a local Toyota dealership waiting for my truck to be fixed.  “Pastor” he said when I picked up, “I wanted to talk to you about something.  One of my mom’s friends goes to your church and I got your number from her.  What I’m wondering is, is it wrong for a man to feel like he should take his own life?”  I proceeded to talk to him for a half hour, then for about another hour later in the morning about the various problems in his life, his feelings of failure, sadness at being a bad father etc… but was unable to go see him in person because my truck was in the shop and I had no transportation.  Later the same day I got a call from the Diocesan office indicating that this guy had shown up there asking for assitance and talked with one of the Canons, who had then suggested that he contact me, once he mentioned what area he lived in.  Well, I worked with the guy a bit; he said he wanted a job, so I came up with something for him to do around the Church.  When I paid him, he asked me to make the check out to his land lord to help with his rent.  Later on, his “land lord” called to thank me–lo and behold he sounded exactly like the man who was supposedly his tenent.  In fact, I even said as much when he first called, referring to him by the “tenent’s” name before he told me he was actually the “land lord.”  The funny thing is, about two minutes after I got off the phone with the “land lord” the original guy calls back, wanting to know if the “land lord” had called.  Of course, “they” were calling from the same number.  Not only that, but I had a note the guy had given me to proove something about a medical problem–guess whose hand-writting mached the “land lord’s” signiture on the back of the cleared check when it came back from the bank?   You got it.  The land lord and Mr. Suicidal were one and the same.  But that’s not the best part.  The best part is that about four months ago, I got a phone call, “Hello” I said as I picked up.  “Pastor, I was just wondering if it’s wrong for somebody to think about taking their own life…”  Oh Brother.  Same voice, same number (I keep records), using a different name–denied we had ever spoken.

There is such a thing as going to the same well once too often.

From the Front Porch: Only A Man Harrowing Clods

I have found in Wendell Berry, like the late Neil Postman, an insightful critic of contemporary culture and a voice that we ignore at our own peril and to our own impoverishment. The Front Porch Republic has posted the following essay related to Berry’s work and I commend it to you.



For most fashionable American intellectuals, the life and work of the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry represents something of a scandal. Of course, it is understood to be a scandal in its current meaning as a disgrace and most certainly not in its older Christian sense as a temptation. Not only is Berry a writer who lives among the hoi polloi in rural Kentucky instead of cultivating a salon in New York City, but he also spends most of his time farming, or, in the vernacular of contemporary America, doing menial labor.

Further, with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, Americans tend to think of everyone who has been begat as either a Republican or a Democrat. Berry’s polemical work, however, is not easily classifiable under either label. In an age when people are leaving or being forced from their farms and when most Americans no longer understand that the phrase res publica refers to something more significant than ‘everyday low prices’, Berry is committed to the old Jeffersonian idea of an agrarian republic comprised of independent, self-reliant citizen-farmers.
Of course, Berry’s agrarianism has been dismissed as anachronistic by those for whom the idea of progress is religious dogma. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘as to putting the clock back, would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and if the clock is wrong it is…a very sensible thing to do?’

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Berry’s The Unsettling of America, which was published in 1977, appears at first glance to be a critique of American agricultural policy, which indeed it is. However, it also articulates a sustained, coherent, and compelling analysis of the fragmentation and alienation of modern American liberal culture, and offers an intimation of both an alternative understanding of culture and community, and a classical conception of human beings, their past, and their purpose.

According to Berry, America has suffered from a split personality since the time of the arrival of the first Europeans. In that European beginning, America was considered a land of economic opportunity, a colony in the modern sense of the term. It was understood as a resource to be exploited by the mother country. As Berry writes, “the first and greatest American revolution…was the coming of people who did not look upon the land as a homeland.” This America, the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, attracted fortune hunters, conquistadors, and assorted other adventurers on the make who treated the land and its inhabitants as a business venture.

At the same time, however, America was also a colony in the classical sense in that it was a place of settlement. This America attracted those who wanted a place to live and a land to cultivate, free from the religious and social strife which plagued Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wallace Stegner, who was Berry’s teacher at Stanford, called the first of these types ‘boomers’ and the second ‘stickers’. A century and a half earlier, Tocqueville noticed this split and attributed it to the difference between royal, proprietary, and merchant colonies and colonies created by compact. However, for Tocqueville, the Revolution and the generally democratic character of the population overcame this dichotomous beginning.

{Read it all}

I highly recommend the following books by Berry:

Continue reading

Nothing to do with the faith: Torture and Paternalism

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

A while ago I found an article in my Google Reader with the following in the first paragraph:

“The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.”

The survey cited by this CNN article was conducted by Pew Research and indicates that regular church goers are 12% more likely to support the use of torture (in what circumstances is beside the point) than non-church goers.  The Creedal Christian thinks that “Perhaps this sheds some light on why many of the unchurched think Christians are hypocritical and that the Church is irrelevant and/or espouses unacceptable values.”  I think he may be correct.  It also demonstrates that that Church in the United States is not doing the job we’re called to…. unless you believe the job of the church is to inculcate an unhealthy nationalism and concurrent means of self-justification.  And there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism.  Unhealthy nationalism is the sort of thing that leads to the belief in the “my country right or wrong” principle while true patriotism leads to a commitment to serve your country in part by calling it back to its truest ideals.

There has been a lot of response to this survey, not the least of which has pointed out that the margin of error was nearly enough to account for the discrepancy between church goers and non-church goers.  Additionally, the sample was fairly small, with under 800 people surveyed.  But regardless of whether more church going Americans think torture is justifiable or not, shouldn’t our concern be centered on the fact that far fewer Christians, if any, should believe this way than the general public?

Since these findings were released, there has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about it.  One of the better essays I’ve seen is from The Scriptorium, and is entitled “If Torture, then Evil,” a selection of which you can read below:

A government decided to execute a prisoner who threatened its control of a region. It did not just kill the man, but selected, as usual, a means calculated to do the most pain and prolong the suffering. His torturous death is recorded in the Gospels and should give every Christian pause in supporting any form of torture. Torturing any man, even the most base, may not elevate the victim, as it did with the Son of God, but it almost certainly debases the torturer to the level of the Romans who killed Him.

Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.

This should have been obvious, but like many hard and inconvenient moral lessons it was not. Christianity grew in cultures that used torture frequently and so had cultural assumptions inconsistent with their faith. Like most evil things, torture is justified by the good that can come of it. Most bad things are tempting because of alleged goods, but Christian experience shows that any gains from torture are not worth the cost to the souls of men and cultures.

Because there are times when torture seems like a good idea, Christians followed the practice of most ancient cultures and sometimes used it when they gained power. However, it was always a difficult decision for Christian civilizations to make and always had critics amongst Christian theologians and philosophers. The practice was modified and prisoners were given greater rights. The longer Christians thought about the practice and experienced the results, the broader the disdain and condemnation for it.

Eventually, a consensus developed in the traditional Churches that torture was a temptation to do evil, a snare of devils to corrupt souls, and a delusion that promised good, but only certainly did evil.

The condemnation of torture is part of the culture of life so central to the Faith. It is sad to see some Christians use arguments and lines of reasoning to justify torture that are similar to those used to justify abortion.

Traditional Christians disdain those who mutilate the corpses of enemies, because it dishonors the Image of God. How much worse is it to mutilate the living body or the immortal soul of a man?

Most Christians are not pacifists. They will honor the choices of a man who declares himself their enemy by fighting him in fair combat. Once he is a prisoner, they will honor his God-given free will by allowing him to preserve his conscience. Christian nations developed rules regarding interrogation that allowed prisoners to preserve their dignity and God-given choices. A Christian can kill a man who is asking for it, but he will not warp and twist his body and soul when the fight is done.

Sadly, Christian history reveals that the “good reasons” for torture tempted many Christian leaders to torture in order to do some hoped for good. We don’t have to guess at the bad results or the later condemnation of history for our short-sighted pursuit of immediate gain over our deepest principles.

Men have always been tempted to torture to get information to “save the city.” However, experience showed that saving the physical city by destroying its values was never a good bargain. At the very least, a nation that ordered torture had to turn some of its own sons into torturers. There has proven no way to compartmentalize such men after the alleged good they did was done.

A nation that turns its bravest and best into torturers instead of warriors has dishonored itself. There are worse things than losing a war and that is one of them.

{Read it all}

Recently other Christian leaders have been commenting on the use of torture, notably Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who recently stated that he believed waterboarding to be torture and that “There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence gathering process, in [his] view.”


The Water Torture

Last week, however, I heard a voice of American pop-evangelicalism speak in contradiction to Mr. Land.  As I listened to local radio pundits discuss the release of the torture memos by the administration, and debate the merits of prosecution, a listener called in and began his statement with the words “I’m a born again Christian, but that has nothing to do with my response to this question.  Yes, I would torture.”  I could only laugh and mentally thank the brother for being such a wonderful witness to the faith by prefacing his comment with that statement.  I’m sure our Lord, along with George Washington, is proud.

So, how can so many Americans who claim to be Christian be OK with torture?  The answer is simple: they are using a simple form of pragmatic or utilitarian moral reasoning to come to their conclusions and not ethical reasoning based in the Christian tradition or scriptures.  I’ve written about this issue before in reference to some comments made by Elizabeth Edwards about embryonic stem cell research.  In that post, I commended a comment made by theologian Stanley Hauerwas as a memorable tool to quickly determine whether something passes the smell test for Christian ethics.  Evidently Hauerwas was once asked to discuss the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and to reply to the arguments of someone who spoke in favor of such research.  Inevitably, as is always the case in such discussions, the hoped-for goods that could possibly, maybe, someday come from such research where trotted out as justification and defense.  Hauerwas cut the gordian knot with the remark, “If it were discovered that foetal tissue were a delicacy, could you eat it?”  As well as being memorable, the remark highlighted the distinction between the sort of default utilitarian thinking that governs much of our ethical decision-making in this country, and traditional Christian morality which sees an evil perpetrated in the service of a good as nothing more than an evil which taints any good that might come from it.  In contrast, the sort of superficial utilitarianism that governs public discernment of such matters is usually predicated on a calculus of “if we do this then we will save X number of lives.”  The problem with such thinking is that it neglects two important aspects of life: sin and tragedy.  Utilitarianism often neglects the sense of the tragic because it refuses to see a necessary decision as a possitive evil.  Likewise, it often refuses to consider notions of sin because it sees anything done in the service of utility as necessarily a good.  These reactions are two sides of the same coin, the first of which I wrote about here.

Of course, none of this means that the United States is obliged to abide by a Christian ethic, but at least we should expect Christians to strive to do so.  It is, of course, a difficult thing to do, and can bring about disagreement (expected and welcomed), uninformed criticism (bearable) as well as giving rise to a sort of patronizing paternalism (very irritating) that sees Christians as the naive and eccentric relative who must be protected from their own fantasies.  Be that as it may, at least our response in such a situation might have something to do with the state of our immortal soul.  In other words, maybe being born again ought to have something to do with how we answer this question as Christians.

From New Geography: New Towns and New Lives in the Country

A retired landscape architect and Tennessean has some interesting ideas.  I know from friends and family that the necessity of the two pay-check home is balanced by the cost of living the life-style.  Often the gain is very little indeed, and just enough to keep everything afloat.  Lea lays out the problem pretty clearly, but it’s his suggested solution that’s interesting.  I don’t know whether it has much of a shot though:

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, pundits worried a lot about automation and the problem of leisure in a post-industrial society. What were the American people going to do once machinery had relieved them of the daily burden of routine labor? Would they paint pictures and write poetry? Armchair intellectuals found it hard to imagine.

It was the age of Ozzie and Harriet, when ordinary working and middle-class families could aspire to a house in the suburbs and a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids. Today, of course, that popular version of the American dream is a thing of the past, especially the part about a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids.

Ironically it was washing machines and automatic dishwashers – automation – that brought this idyll to an end. These two labor saving devices made it possible for housewives to go out into the workforce and compete with their husbands. At first they did it because they were bored at home and wanted to earn extra money, if only to help pay for those new household appliances. Gradually, however, it became a matter of necessity as two-paycheck families bid down wages even as they jacked up the price of suburban real estate in areas where the schools were good and the neighborhoods safe. By the time you subtracted the costs of owning a second automobile and using professional child care services, the advantages of that extra paycheck had largely disappeared.

The biggest surprise – to me as well – was that labor-saving technologies do not automatically redound to the benefit of labor. Other things being equal they reduce the demand for labor and hence its price in the marketplace. We saw this happen in the 19th century when modern agricultural machinery forced three-quarters of the population off their farms and into the cities, where they had to compete with immigrants and each other in the new industrial economy. Not until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, which outlawed child labor and established the 40 hour work week, did the world of Ozzie-and-Harriet become a democratic possibility.

But of course Modern Marvels never cease[…]

{Read it all}

Ethical discussion: a slip of the tongue?

Get Religion and Touchstone have each directed attention toward a recent interview former president Bill Clinton gave on the subject of embryonic stem cell research in the wake of President Obama’s changes to embryonic stem cell research funding.  During the interview Clinton repeatedly refers to a fertilized embryo as though there were such a thing as an unfertilized embryo.  As I posted on Touchstone’s site, I’m willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt that he actually knew what he was saying and that he really meant “implanted.”  But whether he merely mis-spoke or he actually doesn’t understand the basics of biology, I believe his interview is indicative of a problem we have as Americans: a basic inability to discuss important ethical issues because so many of us have absolutely no clue what the heck we are talking about.  I might give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably knows the difference between fertilized and implanted–but there are a ton of other folks out there that I wouldn’t assume that about.  Of course some folks are assigning nefarious intent to Ole Bill, saying that he’s intentionally muddying the waters.  I don’t know about that, but I do want to know why no follow up questions were asked to help him clarify what he was trying to say.

Update: First Things has some commentary as well.

Princeton debate: Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?

Patrick Allen+ posted about the following debate on the morality of ending “early human life.” While the positions of Harman and Singer are disheartening, I find it encouraging that they are at least honest about what abortion is: the ending of a human life. At least we can move beyond the silly and unhelpful debate about whether a child in the womb is a life. (Hopefully anyway).

Thursday, May 1, 2008
2:30 – 6:00 p.m., Friend 101
Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?
Moderator: Harold T. Shapiro, Princeton University
Panelists: Robert P. George, Princeton University; John Haldane, University of St. Andrews; Elizabeth Harman, Princeton University; Patrick Lee, Franciscan University of Steubenville; Don Marquis, Princeton University & University of Kansas; Jeff McMahan, Rutgers University; Peter Singer, Princeton University;
A Public Conference co-sponsored by the University Center for Human Values

Watch the video here:

“Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?” (350K)

or here (56K)

Patrick also posted the following reflections from Ryan Anderson in the Wall Street Journal:

“Look, when we think about ending an early human life, this is something that is really bad for the embryo or early fetus that dies, it’s losing out tremendously—I agree with that as I already said. And then you said that it’s one of the things that we should care about. And, um, I think that I should have said before that I think it’s really dangerous to slide from noticing that something is bad for something, to thinking that that gives us a moral reason. And just to prove that that doesn’t follow, think about plants. So lots of things are bad for trees, and plants, and flowers, and often that gives us no reasons whatsoever, certainly no moral reasons. In my view, fetuses that die before they’re ever conscious really are a lot like plants: They’re living things, but there’s nothing about them that would make us think that they count morally in the way that people do.”

That came from Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman during the question-and-answer period of last week’s star-studded symposium at Princeton titled “Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?” The participants included Harman and her Princeton colleagues Robert George and Peter Singer, along with Don Marquis (Kansas), Patrick Lee (Franciscan), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), and John Haldane (St. Andrews). Moderating the discussion was Harold Shapiro, Princeton’s president emeritus and the chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton. On any measure, these are among the most prominent voices in contemporary philosophy and bioethics, and to have them together on one three-and-a-half-hour panel was an intellectual treat. (Disclosure: George, Lee, and Haldane are affiliated with the Witherspoon Institute, as am I.)

Many, no doubt, will find Harman’s comparison of human fetuses to plants—not to mention Singer’s moral defense of infanticide—deeply repugnant. I certainly do. But these are merely the conclusions of a chain of (gravely mistaken) moral reasoning, and such intellectually honest reflection is to be preferred, in fact welcomed, over the unprincipled rationalization that often takes its place. When people like Harman and Singer speak openly and follow their premises to their logical conclusions, the audience realizes what is at stake when a commitment to intrinsic human dignity and equality is rejected—and that realization is a very good thing.

Though ethical disagreement about such important matters as killing human beings, restricting women’s liberty, and forestalling scientific research often generate more heat than light, one of this panel’s many virtues was its consistent civility. The participants themselves stressed that intelligent and reflective people of goodwill can and do disagree. Eschewing ad hominem attacks, they opted to offer arguments and rebuttals, a mutual exchange whose currency is reason. This brought to mind Fr. John Courtney Murray’s famous remark that “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” So it is a credit to the panelists that the discussion was marked by a lack of confusion, albeit much disagreement.

{read it all}

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