Posted by: dacalu | 13 March 2014

Don’t

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Lord God, you became fully human, that through you we might inherit divinity; grant that through your body here on earth, we may live into the fullness of our own bodies, being enlivened by your Holy Spirit. Amen

All Heat and No Light

Why do we need a new sexual ethics? Don’t Christians already have good value systems set forth in the Bible and tradition? Yes and no.  Yes, I think they are there and I’ll try to lay them out as the blogs roll by. No, they are not the ones that you think they are.

Americans have an unhealthy ambivalence about sex and sexuality. (Sadly we are exporting it to the rest of the world.) We both recognize the power and importance of sex and refuse to talk about it in any rational way. We see a ridiculous amount of sex and pandering to sexual desires in the media. We hear about these issues with a sad and predictable frequency from “evangelists” mysteriously quiet about the dangers of wealth and power. (Ironically this kind of moralism works wonders for fund raising and campaign purposes.) And yet, when is the last time you heard two people sit down and rationally talk about sex and ethics?

Most preachers I know are afraid to address these questions from the pulpit for fear of offending their congregations, or worse yet their religious superiors. When they do, they tend to stick with a simple message: “don’t.”

Just (Don’t) Do It

Americans are seemingly divided between the libertines – “Do whatever feels good; here let me give you a pamphlet” – and the ascetics – “It’s just wrong, I won’t even talk about it.” In truth, I think most of us are somewhere in the middle, but those are the voices we hear. Those are the safe positions in the public discourse. It always seems to be someone else’s responsibility – a doctor, or a pastor, or a parent, or a friend, but most of them are somewhat uncomfortable as well.

I should give a brief shout out to (Dr.) Ruth Westheimer and other public sex advice specialists who have made talking about sex more acceptable. I give even greater credit to the brave Christian souls who lead small Bible Study and group discussion groups that allow people to have real conversations with peers and leaders about these topics. Some of us, though would like to find a happy medium between “Savage Love” and the “Alpha Course.” I can’t believe those are the only options.

I want to engage around issues of how to make sex part of a healthy, Christian life. Christians should take the ideas of incarnation, embodiment, and sacrament seriously. Doing so, we should have proactive ways to think and talk about sexuality.  It’s not enough to say “love and do what you will.”  People need advice, perhaps because our generation is messed up, but more likely because sex is significant in people’s lives. It can be a powerful force for good and ill. If Christianity is about living a good life, it has to deal with good physicality as well as good spirituality.

Alas, the “conservatives” don’t have a healthy message here. It usually goes something like this:

You should have sex with your spouse. Otherwise, just don’t do it.

But that doesn’t really help. First, it’s rather spare on why and when and how to get married, not to mention serious discussion of whom you should marry. Second, where does the advice come from once you are married? Third, and most importantly, it neglects the very real components of love, intimacy, friendship, attraction, and desire that play a part in all of our relationships. Too often we pretend that it is easy to differentiate between “romantic interest” and “everyone else.” Only by recognizing the complexity of relationships can we responsibly keep them healthy. Only by recognizing the ambiguities can we give meaningful advice about flirting, dating, courting, and marriage. A useful sexual ethics will need to address a broad range of social interactions.

We know that we treat people better when we are attracted to them.  This is not just folk wisdom; behavioral economics has proven it, repeatedly. We pay more attention to and are willing to give up more in trading with attractive people.  That means that physical attraction has a demonstrable power element, even between people who only see each other briefly. Any time you wield power over another person, it raises ethical questions.  Any time you know you will be predisposed to one person over another, it raises ethical questions.

Think about what happens when you enter into relationships of trust – teacher, pastor, doctor, …

Think about what happens when you introduce social dynamics with 3 or more people – envy, jealousy, judgment…

Think about how your attractiveness (and attractedness) impacts your self-image and the choices you make…

Suddenly, there are all these issues related to sexuality that have nothing to do with who you sleep with. It’s not good enough to say: don’t. It’s not good enough to say: do. Because this was never a question about rules. It’s a question of priorities and relationships;

I don’t actually think Genesis 2:15-3:24 is about sex, but it is about gender, trust, and relationships, particularly how Adam and Eve’s relationship with the snake affects their relationship with God.

power over bodies and minds;

I recommend reading Genesis 14-22 straight through and note how the Bible intertwines the tale of Sarah and Hagar with the tale of Lot in Sodom. They are both stories about the relationship between power, trust, ownership, and sex.

individuality and communion.

Pay close attention to the order of I Corinthians. Paul is trying to say something about what it means to be one with a spouse, and one with the church, and one with God. I am not convinced this was intended as a sequential argument, but clearly the connections are there.

It’s about grace to be found through the Holy Spirit, in the situation of the flesh. So, Christianity has some very important things to say about sex and sexuality, but in order to hear them we must be willing to see how they relate to the entirety of our lives.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 March 2014

Reaching Out

This Lent, I have been asked to write several reflections for a series assembled by college chaplaincies in the Boston area. Here is my reflection for today.

Loving people can be a work of a lifetime, but it is also the work of a moment. In seminary, I worked with a group that served homeless people with mental challenges. Sitting in the office lobby, a member of the congregation corrected me. “You never said hello to me,” he said. I had been nervous and didn’t know what to say, so I had entered and sat there without saying a word. He had to reach out to me.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I have been conditioned not to say hello to strangers.  As a Christian, however, it is my responsibility to reach out.  You cannot serve people unless you know them and you cannot know them unless you make a connection. I will always be grateful for the lesson.

It can be scary to reach out for the first time and yet it is necessary, day-by-day to reach out in openness, curiosity, and love. I am learning to love people in this way, to be open to everyone I meet, and to make the effort, ever so small, to reach out to them.

Posted by: dacalu | 10 March 2014

Summary of Core Ethical Principles

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

I would like to summarize briefly, the core ethical principles I have settled on for my exploration. Core ethical principles will be the foundation for further analysis, not replacing the vast treasure trove of wisdom from scripture and tradition, but serving as a lens to focus our attention and give us a place to start.

Love

“he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:28-31

My ethics will be based first and foremost on love of God and neighbor, interpreted (through I Corinthians 13) as valuing a thing for its own sake rather than for what it provides you or someone else. It requires curiosity, caring, and a willingness to sacrifice personal good for a greater good to the other. It respects the preferences of others as well as our preference for them.

Stewardship

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Genesis 2:15

Stewardship extends love of God to love of that which God has created. It entails a responsibility to care for all things in the world, not just humans.

Obedience

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15

Obedience is not a value in and of itself, but it is an extension of our love of God. Respecting God’s preferences, we attempt to see that they are carried out. It should be noted, however, that God’s preferences are not always clear and require discernment. Obedience must be for the sake of love; thus any apparent conflict will be resolved in favor of love.

Purity

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Ephesians 1:3-4

Often masked as obedience, purity is not a Christian value. The gospel supersedes Hebrew purity laws, which should be viewed as safety protocols for living in the vicinity of the Most High. It also speaks against Greek ideals of good spirit trapped in bad flesh. Christians, appealing to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, believe God is approachable and flesh redeemable. Purity and holiness are gifts of God to be desired, but they cannot be achieved by our merits.

Justice

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Justice extends love of neighbor into those areas where there are too many individuals to deal with on a one-to-one basis. Though love for a particular principle will always trump generic and theoretical justice, several social values play an important role in ethical considerations: liberty, equality, and responsibility.

Posted by: dacalu | 7 March 2014

Justice: Ends and Means

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Instrumental Justice

Over the last three posts (here, here, and here), I have explored the idea of justice as a core ethical principal. Largely, I have come to the conclusion that justice in itself is not worth that status separate from the love it produces. I have, however, found that it is worthwhile for questions of social ethics – when you need a policy for large numbers of interactions. And so, policy may follow the ideals of liberty, equality, and responsibility when there are too many relationships to measure them all. Nonetheless, love trumps justice for any individual relationship, once you asses it. Justice is a social virtue.

I want to ask now, whether it is an instrumental virtue. To be clear, principles of justice have been invoked as necessary steps leading to love. Many have claimed that a predictable, retributive society is necessary for us to grow in loving relationships. The general arguments go something like this:

1)     Love rewarded leads to more love.

2)     Anti-love punished leads to less anti-love, hence more love.

3)     Consistent reward and punishment lead to a more predictable environment; a more predictable environment leads to a feeling of safety; safety leads to people being more open with one another; and openness leads to love.

All three arguments have some merit, but I find none fully convincing. I want to look at them one at a time.

Justice as Love Rewarded

The first argument claims that love rewarded leads to more love. I agree with this completely, but must point out a question of competing ends.  If we reward love with more love, then the argument holds beautifully. Love is being valued and increased. If, on the other hand, we incentivize love in some other way, perhaps with financial reward, then we send a mixed signal. We are saying that it is good to love, but it is primarily good because you’ll get money for it. Either love is its own reward or it is not. I do not think love should ever be made instrumental to something else – nor do I believe this is, in some sense, fully love.

The rule even applies to “loving” and “being loved.” I’m not convinced that the two can exist independently. Even if I were, we would still be left with the tradition favoring loving over being loved. Any true orientation toward faith and love must make them their own reward. Thus we must repay love with love, true reciprocity in that both people are entering into the same, deeper relationship.

Of course, we are also asked to repay persecution with love (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14). No conclusion may be drawn for justice here, only the general admonition to love in all cases.

Justice as Anti-Love Punished

My language is somewhat awkward here. Love is our goal, so perhaps we could speak of love’s opposite – hatred – or lack – apathy – as something to be punished. Many have argued that a loving society will be upheld by the punishment of those who do not contribute. This mistakes reciprocity for love.

It has been demonstrated, repeatedly and scientifically, that humans behave reciprocally.  When we are given gifts, we feel an obligation to give gifts in return. When we are hurt, we feel a strong desire for retribution. The giving and receiving of gifts leads the creation of stronger communities and a stronger sense of belonging within a particular group. (Notably, spite – when you punish rule breakers at greater cost to yourself – can also lead to stronger communities.) If our goal is to strengthen group identity, even personal sacrifice for other group members, then we must admit that punishment and reward work. They bring about that end.

That end, however, is not love. Love has to do with a willingness to sacrifice without hope of reward. Jesus specifically instructed us in this kind of sacrifice (Luke 6:32-35). Reciprocity turns out to be the exact opposite of Christian love – it has to do with enlightened and long term self-interest. Doing things at cost to yourself but for the benefit of your group (even your church) sets up the group as the primary good.

I am a fan of reciprocity and I am a fan of group loyalty, but we must not confuse them with love. The challenge of Christianity will be to find those acts that we do not just for the benefit of self, not just for the benefit of group, but for the sake of the whole world.

Let us assume for the moment that some act was better than selfless love at producing selfless love. If such an act existed, we would, I admit, be obligated to do it. I think the burden of proof must be extremely high, though, for it would mean giving up actual selfless love in the present in order to accomplish potential selfless love in the future. The idea is not without merit. Isaac Asimov, for example explores the topic at great length in his Robots of Dawn books and elsewhere, when he asks whether love of humanity can trump love of a particular human (1st vs. 0th law of robotics). Neither Asimov, nor I am fully comfortable with either answer.

There may be cases where love of many is better than love of one; still it must be framed in terms of love. It cannot be an instrumental kind of punishment that you hope will achieve the greater good. It has to be done concretely out of love in the moment. Thus it is not a question of punishment or even justice, but a genuine case of balancing loves.

Safety

I have found safety to be one of the greatest idols of modern culture. Unlike previous generations, very few of us fear sudden death in a serious way. I am glad, and yet the safer we become, the more I think we make safety into a goal in and of itself, instead of an opportunity for happiness, love, and companionship. We will never be perfectly safe, and the more resources we devote to safety, the less we have for pursuing the goods safety was meant to provide. Thus I would contest argument three above.

“Consistent reward and punishment lead to a more predictable environment.” True. Predictability makes it easier to explore the world.

“A more predictable environment leads to a feeling of safety.” I’m not sure this is true; a more predictable supportive environment leads to a feeling of safety. The admonition to love seems to play a more important role than the desire for predictability.

“Safety leads to people being more open with one another.” This turns out to be unreliably true. Stress can often lead to bonding experiences. [That is not an argument that we should be producing stressful environments; rather, it is an affirmation that God allows love to happen in many different ways.]

“And openness leads to love.” True again.

Thus, the safety argument fails. Consistency does not produce love; consistency in love produces love.

Institutions

I am in favor of rules and policies. I want to reiterate what I’ve said in the past two posts. We need justice as a way for institutions to set social ethics. We need policies that regularize sexual behavior and our responses to sexual misconduct. We need policies that lead to transparency and mitigate abuses of power. At the same time, we must recognize that the policies cannot replace – and in some instances must not trump – individually loving decisions. It is a hard truth, but unbendable policies increase trust in and love for policies. They may even increase trust in and love for institutions. They do not foster love for people. That kind of love is best fostered by love. We must remember that the law is for people and not the other way around (Mark 2:27).

Justice is an excellent social virtue; it may even be a good instrumental virtue in some cases; but it can never stand apart from love in Christian ethics.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 March 2014

Ash Wednesday

We have no right to be lonely / or sad or afraid.

We are but dust / and to dust we shall return.

For wind blows through the ashes / and they dance.

We are stirred up / by the very breath of God.

And that breath makes us one in spirit / one in truth.

That breath sticks us together / like oil / consecrating us for something holy.

That breath makes us / more than we are.

We have no right to be but dust.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (part III)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last two posts, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Social Virtues

I want to look more closely at justice as a social virtue, something that applies when we are dealing with many people at the same time. In my last post, I introduced this idea that justice included some social virtues – principles that must bow to love in one-on-one interactions, but allowed us to think about our obligations to a large number of people all at once. Liberty is one of those social virtues. It is not worth granting or exercising for its own sake, but it is important in fostering communication. Thus it will be important for societies and governments to grant liberty to all, so that they might know and love one another.  In this post, I explore a few more social virtues.

 

Equality

I have never met two people with the same needs and I have never met two people with the same abilities. Thus, when thinking about any two relationships, I never have identical obligations or identical expectations. In matters of personal relationships it will be terribly important to recognize that no level of balancing will make two partners equals. The only thing we can ask is that they be invested in serving one another to the best of their ability. Honesty and curiosity force me to recognize that equality is practically useless on a one-on-one basis. Nor do I see anything in the Bible which commends equality. It appears to be an import of modern Western society into Christianity.

Having said that, I think equality can be a useful tool in assessing relationships of all kinds. When dealing with large groups, equality can be a measuring stick. How do I know if I’m paying full attention to all of my students in the classroom? I can ask whether one gets more attention than another. If one student gets more or less attention, more or less care, it tells me something interesting is going on and I can ask myself why.  How do I know whether a couple is truly invested in a marriage they are proposing? I can ask whether attention and energy are flowing one way or another. If the current is strong in one direction, it tells me something interesting and I can ask why. Equality is not a virtue, but inequality is always a warning sign. We must be aware of what it tells us.

 

Responsibility, Punishment and Reward

Responsibility is another popular American virtue that finds little Biblical support. Christians have been quite clear through the centuries that we are to blame both good fortune and bad fortune on God. We should never consider individuals fully blameworthy when something goes wrong. We can never give them all the credit when something goes right.

The rejection of full responsibility in Christianity serves several purposes. First, it emphasizes the power of God working in the world. Second, it reminds us the communal nature of life and the choices we make. Third, it leaves the door open for reconciliation at all times. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Few things are as distressing to me as the prevalence of accountability language and theology in modern Christianity. We are not called to blame one another for failures (Luke 6:42; John 8:1-11), nor are we ever called upon to reward one another (or take credit) for success (John 4:37-38, I Corinthians 3:3-9). Rather we are to accept all good things as gifts of God (Matthew 20:1-16). The idea of worthy and unworthy should be completely wiped away by the entirety of Matthew 5-7 (esp. 5:45) and Romans (esp. 3:21-30). This does not deny our call, indeed our obligation to respond to the free gift by giving freely (as Jesus continues in Matthew 7:13-27 and Paul in Romans 6).

Even if personal responsibility encourages you to take up service I cannot commend it. Enforced obedience is not faith and service for the sake of reciprocity is not love. It is only worship of balance (Luke 6:27-36).

Responsibility and reciprocity strike me as virtues only insofar as we use them as measures of equality, and equality is a virtue only insofar as it encourages love. We must not mistake American values for Christian values.

I think we will need one more post to deal with the question of whether we have an obligation to use these social virtues when teaching. What if our goal is to instill good ethics (love) and know that punishment causes people to have good behavior…do we then have an obligation to punish? Next time, the ends and means question.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (Part II)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last post, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Living in Community

I want to turn now to aspects of justice relating to communities. Often we have ethical obligations to groups as well as to individuals and it can be hard to decide how to treat people relative to one another. I’m a firm believer that organizations, both secular and religious hold fast to principles such as liberty, equality, and responsibility and yet I see them primarily as ways we deal with general policy, but not specific cases. Often there are too many relationships involved to deal with on a one-by-one basis and we are forced to average our ethical concerns over a community.  It’s painful, but necessary.  This does not mean that we can then fall back on the rule when troubles arise, but it does allow us to generate more general policies.

Consider public restrooms as an example where generic ethics need to be applied in regards to sex and sexuality. I take it as given that public buildings need to provide restrooms and that, in many cases, the volume of people makes it impractical to construct a separate restroom for every individual. At the same time, there are a number of reasons to separate men and women. I hope to return to this subject in detail later on, but for now, let me say that one of the most important reasons, from my perspective, has to do with the (unfortunate) power differential between men and women (in our society) and the need for women to have spaces they can go where men cannot follow. It is not simply a matter of gender roles or clothing requirements. In small communities I might be able to assess both power and gender dynamics of all members and come up with another solution (perhaps mixed sex bathrooms with closed stalls). In large communities, I have to do the best I can, envisioning the most common as well as the most dangerous situations. As I do so, liberty (the ability of everyone to find a toilet), equality (equivalent accommodations for everyone), and responsibility (strict expectations about who uses which room) will be important criteria.

The common solution, of course, presents difficulties.  How do we accommodate transgender members of the public? Some people do not have matching gender (social role/clothing/…) and sex (biology/anatomy). [For details of language, see here.] Occasionally – when sex obviously does not match gender – a transgender person may have difficulty dealing with social expectations for which bathroom to use. These situations call for loving concern for the particular people involved, not retrenchment in the rules-of-thumb we invoked earlier. The easiest solution is often to have a one person, gender-neutral restroom available.

I only sketched my moral reasoning here.  The point of the example is, rather, to demonstrate the difference between the core ethical principle of love and the pragmatic rules-of-thumb: liberty, equality, and responsibility. The latter are necessary when dealing with large numbers of people, but only so that we can apply the core principle reliably. They yield to love when conflicts arise, and thus should not be considered core ethical principles.

As I explore several more aspects of “justice” in the next post, keep an eye out for where they might apply for communities and whether they will ever arise as issues for individuals.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (Part I)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at justice as another possible standard.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Proper Proportion

Many people see justice as a key component of ethics. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Indeed, many passages of the Bible point toward the importance of justice and it forms a cornerstone of modern American civil ethics. I have two major concerns, however, for setting up justice as a core ethical principle.

First, I think we have a tendency to be imprecise.  Most people agree that justice is important, but few people agree on exactly what constitutes just behavior. In a post last year, I set out five notions of justice, all of which have enjoyed some success in Western culture: egalitarian, meritocratic, need based, hierarchical, and pragmatic.  You can read the full argument, but I would note here only that the mottos “from each according to ability, to each according to need” and “equal rights, equal responsibilities” lead to radically different ethical outcomes. If we use justice as a core ethical principle, we’ll need to have a common understanding, and I don’t know what that would be.

Second, and this may surprise you, justice is only rarely invoked as an ethical principle in the New Testament. A quick word search shows that it almost never appears and when it does, it refers to God’s justice and not humans’.  Rather, we are admonished to not judge (Matthew 7:1; John 8:15; Romans 2:1, 14; James 4:11-12). God may have a standard of justice that is not love, but we do not.

Thus we will need to be very careful when invoking justice as a principle for human action.  I think it serves as a useful by-word for love, rights, responsibilities, and respect in proper proportion, but I’m not convinced it has any value for us beyond what may be found in the other principles. I value justice, but mostly as a word for private and communal ethical behavior.  With that in mind, I want to say a few words about ethical principles which people often try to sneak in under the rubric of “justice” (other than love, obedience, purity, and stewardship, which I already addressed).  We can spell them out and see if they are worth adding in.

Liberty

Perhaps, the most popular American virtue, I can find no evidence of it in the Bible, or much in Christian theology.  There will always be a tension between the desires of individuals and the desire of communities.  The Bible always favors communities while at the same time demanding that those communities care for the last and the least.

I find liberty to be a useful tool when figuring out how to apply love. We must allow others the freedom to express themselves so that we may know them, truly and fully. Only in that knowledge can we come to love them deeply and well. This will turn out to be especially important in questions of sex and sexuality.

Liberty must be bounded, though, by concern for others, for their liberty but also for their well-being. I believe that the deepest hell is, in fact, the absolute fulfilment of liberty.  With no concern for the will of others, with no responsibility, we will find that we have nothing to live for.  It is the constraints of life that provide the greatest blessings, ever acting for the good of others. This is nowhere more apparent than in sex and marriage, where one discovers the challenge, intensity, frustration, and fulfilment that come from exploring exactly where the self ends and the other begins.

I value liberty to the exact extent that it restrains the powerful from overwhelming the weak. It is a manifestation of love that we nurture and strengthen those without strength so that we can come to know them better. It is also a manifestation of love to express the deepest part of yourself so that you can share it with another. I see no role for liberty beyond the end of love. Whenever it arises in conflict with concrete care for another, I think it must be viewed as a vice.

It looks like justice will require a couple more posts as I explore concepts like equality and responsibility.  Stay tuned.

Posted by: dacalu | 27 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Stewardship

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In recent posts, I have addressed love, obedience, and purity as possible candidates for core ethical principles. Here I turn to stewardship.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one
day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

All Things Come of Thee, O Lord

Love of God requires us to love all that God creates. Far too often, we have seen ourselves as the paramount of creation and its only proper end. Scripture advises us otherwise. The whole book of Job counsels that there are things going on beyond the scope of humanity. Chapters 40-43 in particular speak of the vast extent of nature, which goes beyond our interest, our power, or even our comprehension. Jonah 4:11 reminds us that God cares for the cattle just as Matthew 10:29-31 (and Psalm 84:3) remind us that God cares for the sparrows. We are not alone in God’s regard.

The two accounts of creation diverge with regard to stewardship. In Genesis 1:29 God gives all the plants for our use, saying, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”

Note 1: It appears to be a free gift, though made to all animals, not just humans. “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30) Humans are given dominion over the animals in 1:28, but no permission to eat them until after the flood (Genesis 9:3).

Note 2: There is, I think, an important distinction to be made between giving for use and giving for ownership, but that is a discussion for another time.

In Genesis 2:15, God is clearer about human responsibility: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The accounts differ, but the ethical mandate is the same. We must care for creation. In the first account, we value the earth as a gift from God and a heritage for our children. In the second account, we value the earth as God’s own property, which we keep on God’s behalf.

We have an obligation to care for the land and its produce, just as the tenants in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16; I Corinthians 3:7-9). While that care may be derived from love of God and neighbor, I feel it worth setting aside as a particular ethical principle because it emphasizes a point. God’s care, and ours, extends beyond things with personalities. We have obligations to the animals, plant, even the stones of the earth.

I am not arguing that our care of these things should trump our care of humanity, but I do think we have this duty even when no human interests are being met. I think we are called to care for all of creation, which stands witness to the hands that created it.

A Temple of the Holy Spirit

We have a special obligation to care for ourselves, our souls and bodies, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19). That care extends beyond what we would wish for ourselves; it must include what God wishes for us and what service we may do. This is more than an appeal to obedience, though it has that aspect. It is also, I think, an important gloss on how we balance love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. Thus we have a variation on the theme of purity that makes it into Christian ethics, if in a rather narrow way; it must always exist in tension with love (which sacrifices) and obedience (even unto death).

The Glory about to Be Revealed

Many Christians believe we have a special care for the world around us. We, being rational creatures, have a unique opportunity, and thus a unique obligation, to care for the world in a way that only we can. The issue will be less important in sexual ethics than in other areas – notably economics and environmentalism – so I will not go into greater detail here except to point out the important parallel between our personal physical health, the health of the church, and the health of the world. If we are to take seriously our commitment to the church as the Body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ, we must remain mindful of the health of the whole body. Likewise, we should remember Paul’s admonition in Romans that the new creation came through Jesus Christ not only to benefit humans, but to benefit all of creation. If we, the church, are to be part of that, we must share his concern for the last and least (even when they are not human) and act as his hands and feet in the redemption of the world.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:18-23

We must not forget that bodies are a central element in God’s plan for us and for the world. We must not forget that we are inseparable from one another and (if only for the present age) from the very dust of the ground.

In the next two posts, I plan to wrap up core ethical principles with a post on justice and a summary.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 February 2014

The Power of Amen

I’ve been thinking about liturgy this week.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the word “amen.”  It is so short and so common; I wonder how much people have thought about it.

The word amen comes from a Hebrew word for “truth.” It signals consent, and it plays a particularly important role in the liturgy.  It allows the congregation to assent and participate in prayer.

Sometimes a single person will speak a prayer during a service.  In the case of intercessions, only one person speaks, because only one person knows what is in their heart.  The congregation speaks to affirm what they have said, to pray with them, and to enter into the prayer they only now are discovering.

In the case of communal prayer – such as the “prayers of the people” – only one person speaks as a symbol that the congregation speaks as one.  Often everyone knows the words, even speaks them in their heart, but only one person says them out loud.  This time, the amen allows the congregation to be part of the prayer retroactively.  The whole church prays with one voice, and that single communal syllable communicates the will of the whole.

In the case of priestly prayers, the role of spokesperson for the community has been intensified by years of ritual, training, prayer, and practice.  The Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer provides an excellent example.  Only the priest says the words, not because she has some magic power, but because she, in that moment, represents not only the people gathered, but the whole Body of Christ, the church near and far from the time of Jesus to the present.  This is why many Anglican priests raise the bread and the wine (the Body and the Blood) above their heads for the Great Amen (the highest elevation during the prayer), because the defining moment of the consecration occurs in that one powerful word of participation.  It is a communion not only of food, but of will and action.  This is why I always say “Amen” enthusiastically at the end of the prayer.

We can underestimate the power of things done on our behalf and the importance of our assent, even if it is only outwardly manifest in one word.

I try to be mindful of my amens in the same way I am mindful of my signature.  I don’t say it unless I mean it.  I don’t assent unless I truly believe what has been said is right and good and joyful.

I must admit, I also use the amen as a safety net.  If my mind has wandered while I was saying the prayer, or if it has wandered while someone else has spoken important words on my behalf, I use that moment of mindfulness to return to the intent and love of the prayer itself.  I want to participate fully, even when my mind is not cooperating.  And I have this marvelous tool to do so.

As a presider, then – as a leader of prayer – I take special care not to invite an amen without care.  No, I do not complain about loud amens during a sermon.  If the congregation agrees, they should say amen.  If the sentiment, the thought, the intention is important, they should say amen.  Episcopalians could use more of that kind of heartfelt participation.  What troubles me more is when preachers invite an amen at the end of their sermon.  I do this sometimes, but only when I need to reaffirm for myself what I have said, and only when I feel the congregation has come with me.

We should never shame people into agreeing with us.  A particularly troubling instance of this appears in the invocation “And God’s people said…”  I know it’s hard when you’re a presider and the congregation doesn’t know when to add their voice, but this really should be accomplished through education, before you ask for assent.  An amen should be a conscious choice.  Nor would I wish to imply that anyone who doesn’t assent is, therefore, not one of God’s people.

So I’d like to make a request in this post.  Congregations, be mindful of your amens.  They are an opportunity.  Presiders, please stop expecting me to say amen by reflex.  It means something more if it comes from my heart.

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