Fields of Blood, by Karen Armstrong (Alfred Knopf, 2014)

I just finished this wonderful book, and am compelled to sing its praises.  I have a number of Armstrong’s books and enjoyed them all, but this is by far the best researched and most detailed study of the history of the relation between religion and violence that I have ever seen.

Armstrong’s vision includes the ancient religions of China and India, and the Axial religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Her discussion of the Crusades and the later history of violence against both Jews and Muslims is fascinating and at times enlightening.  Her analysis of contemporary jihadi movements and violence makes a good case that much of the violence committed is not rooted in any deep appreciation of Islam, and the whole idea of a suicide bomber is utterly contrary to the teachings of the Koran.  Many Americans fail to understand any of this.

If one asks why there has been so much violence in relation to religion, Armstrong answers that anytime religion has been assumed by and allied with political and national concerns, violence is often the outcome.  In short when the social-political goal is the control of populations through the assertion of power, religion is sometimes utilized as a kind of justification.  But this belies the important resources within all religious traditions that are critical of this use of violence.  Her view of the use of violence is somewhat pessimistic, but she makes a strong case for the important role religion can have in resisting this.

I cannot do justice to the rich detail in her argument.  All I can say is that this book is one of the best I have read on religion in a long, long time. I cannot recommend it too highly.


Gene Bales

The Seven Principles of UU:
• 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• 3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• 4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• 5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
• 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

When David Norlin first contacted me about speaking today, he mentioned the seven principles adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and that they were hoping for comments on these principles. I had not been aware of them before this, and was very happy to make an acquaintance with them. One thing that struck me right away was the word “justice” which is mentioned twice—in the 2nd and 6th principles. Justice is a guide the formation of human relations, and it is thereby part of the goal of world community. So I thought I would offer some reflections today on the question of Justice.

I. Justice and Fairness
Justice in philosophical circles is a very complex subject, but getting clear about it is one of the most important moral challenges today. And that is because in many respects justice is itself being challenged on many fronts.

In common parlance, justice can simply mean being in accord with the law, or it can refer to someone who rules on what is lawful or not. The concern even from ancient Greek times is that justice is giving what is due or appropriate to someone. Fairness is essential to many forms of justice. So if there is a dispute about an inheritance, justice would be to recognize the legal situation of the will, and to insist that the will be followed, even if that angers some individuals and pleases others.

The role of fairness is more important in everyday interactions: a parent who distributes candy, and gives the same amount to every child except the one she doesn’t really like as much, acts unfairly. And children are good at sensing a lack of fairness.

Fairness is also seen in questions about retributive justice, the justice that oversees punishment of crime or offenses. Normally we would find it unjust to sentence to death someone who stole a television from a store. We would also find it unjust to dismiss pedophile charges against someone because we know the individual and we’re sure he won’t do it again.

II. Punishment and Injustice
Currently the injustice in our system of criminal sentencing has come under ever greater scrutiny. In a 2001 published study David Mustard found very large differences in the sentences of criminals, the relevant variables being race, class, gender, education. And this is true for many different kinds of crime. We have all become aware in recent months of the unusually high arrest record for blacks as compared with whites. And, along with this, is the extraordinary amount of individuals in jails and prisons in the United States, compared with other countries around the world.

One of the things that contributes to injustice in the sentencing of criminals is the insistence, contrary to the evidence of imprisonment, that our society is too lenient. So laws have been devised to prevent this. The third-strike-you’re-out laws are a case in point. Recently the fairness of such laws has been brought into question because there are times when the “third strike” is very far in severity from the action of the first several criminal acts. Sending someone off to prison by reason of this makes some people think that justice is being done because we are strict. But in fact strictness is sometimes just an excuse for a lack of good and thoughtful judgment. Justice requires good judgment, even more than strictness or heavy-handedness.

III. Distributive Justice
Let me change the focus a bit here from retribution and punishment to distribution of goods and services in society. Justice is a positive virtue as well as a negative one. But what is this kind of justice? Is it just another liberal name for welfare? How should we think of it?

Let me go back to the initial example of a parent giving out candy to her children. There a just distribution would normally be a fair distribution, where fairness is mathematical equality—the same for each child. We could give differential amounts under some circumstances. So for example I could tell my children that based on how many times they helped out in the kitchen during the week they would get some appropriate reward. Some would get more than others, but normally even children can accept that this is in principle fair.

Let me stretch this example a bit. Suppose you have three children, one of whom is confined to a wheelchair and has no ability to help at anything. You then give awards proportionate to how much they helped in the kitchen, and needless to say the child in the wheelchair is on the losing end, not just once but forever. Would that be fair or just?

IV. Care and Ethical Partiality
When it comes to society’s goods, there are people who will claim that justice is when each person earns their candy or salary or what have you. Obviously in such an economy it makes sense to have the highest employment possible. But in the end there are always large groups of people who can’t earn much of anything: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, young children. So we give them, if not nothing, then as little as possible. We don’t want them to be a drain on the rest of us. To spin this a different way : the more I have to give through taxes and the like to people who can’t earn their own living and cover their own expenses, the less I have for my own family. And surely the care and concern I have for my own family trumps any consideration of the good of others.

Feminists such as Carol Gilligan have made much of care as an ethical principal, a principal which it seemed male philosophers had neglected in their preoccupations with abstract ideas of justice and the common good. She was no doubt correct about this. But is justice understood as distributive justice for all undermined by care?

There is a similar argument from a viewpoint more in vogue today. If the notion of care is restricted to “my own interests and livelihood”, then self-care may well demand that government be scaled back as far as possible, taxes be reduced to zero. On this libertarian view, justice is giving to each person their due, and each person is due things only through their own labor and work. Social welfare programs of any kind are inimical to this idea of justice.

It may seem thoroughly unjust to put libertarian justice in the same camp as Gilligan’s notion of care. And they are clearly different in many ways. But they do have one thing in common: the substitution of care for a larger view of justice. (I add parenthetically that Gilligan has addressed the issue of justice in her later writing, so I am not being entirely fair here to the whole of her thinking.)

If we see these two examples of care in a very narrow sense, one can see why appeals to “social justice” are sometimes reckoned as socialism by astute commentators like Rush Limbaugh. But we can’t beg the question: is the cause of distributive justice today doomed in light of our commitment to home, hearth, and self?

V. The Importance of Distributive Justice
There is no doubt that what has been traditionally called distributive justice is under serious attack in this country and in many other places. To begin to address the issues raised here, I think it is important to step back and ask the question: just what does distributive justice look like and why should it exist?

Civilization around the globe has always relied on redistribution of goods for one reason or another. In the earliest agrarian civilizations, redistribution of food went to priests and kings, for the purpose of insuring the safety of the city-state. Therein was the original tax without representation. But whatever its inherent injustice, redistribution did serve the purpose of insuring survival. The armies staved off threats from other nations, and the high priests staved off divine threats.

The original trickle-down economics came with the growth of the wealth of monarchs and aristocracy, their homes, their armies, their lands. In the medieval period in the west, the Christian monasteries owned much of the land, and many bishops were simultaneously members of the landed aristocracy. So redistribution of goods served the interests of the ruling classes, which in some cases were both religious and secular.

In the modern age, the growth of a middle class made wealthy from industries of various kinds also made possible and necessary the beginnings of at least a minimal commitment to public welfare, notably public education, utilities, roads, infrastructure and the like. It was clear to at least some that the welfare of workers demanded that some of the immense wealth possessed by the aristocracy should be shifted back to workers who needed it for sheer survival. Increasingly movements arose to force the owners of factories to provide basic goods such as food, clothing, and shelter for those who labored. But economic growth required greater investment in education for all citizens and a multiplicity of other goods. Welfare was for the present in part, but also for the future.  The possibilities of redistribution of wage labor increased as wage labor itself came to prominence.

We know much of the story after that. The imposition of things like sales and income taxes, inheritance taxes and the like grew as the need for a dependable safety net for citizens seemed to be in the best interest of the nation-state. Taxes are almost universally hated and seen as unjust impositions, but when a person looks carefully both at the outcome of taxation and the impact of taxes on social welfare it is clear that taxes are not always bad things at all.

Taxes support the defense of the nation. They support those who are old, who cannot work, who are disabled physically or mentally, who are children in need of education—and the list goes on. Taxes for these ends are not only good, but in some measure ethically required for us to realize our obligations to one another. And yet taxes can impact citizens in some bad ways: high taxes on land, high sales taxes especially on food, are just two examples of regressive taxes which negatively impact social welfare.

Let me focus on one example to illustrate what is happening more and more these days.
Public school education was instituted in part to integrate the children of the relatively poor into American society and the American work force. The assumption was that a modern industrial work force was not workable without a public commitment to education for all.

VI. Privatization vs. Distributive Justice
But there are serious cracks in the public’s support. Some want to undo the public commitment to education, to privatize it, to make it a business, with the end result that commitment to the poorest children, and to those with special needs of any kind will not be able to afford an education, or at least not without being encumbered with enormous debt.

I know people who will say they see no reason why their hard earned tax money should go to public education when they don’t themselves have children in school. The point seems to be that the only time a person’s money should go to education is when it is really for their own family, and not for anyone else. This is a care ethic of sorts, turned back against the social fabric.

A similar sentiment may be found with regard to the use of taxes in maintaining national parks and museums. The idea of the day is to privatize everything, thereby relieving the public of taxes. If I want to take advantage of going to Yellowstone, I can pay my own way. And Yellowstone can become a private business.

Health care and Social Security are also under increasing attack for many of the same reasons. Health care, one hears, needs to be privatized and social security should be taken out of the government’s hands.

My point here is not to engage the usual arguments about all this, but to consider the nature of the contemporary standpoint. That standpoint is one where the individual, the individual self and possibly the individual’s family, is the highest good, whose welfare should take precedence over any other claim from the public, because the public by rights has no claim over anything. This is a view where the individual is a kind of ethical portal through which all other commitments must be either allowed or not allowed to pass. And the argument is forceful because the individual increasingly feels under attack from the world around him or her.

VII. Fear and the Ideology of Individualism
Thomas Hobbes back in the 17th century noted the importance of a fearful population for a political leader anxious to maintain absolute power. Fear individualizes; it cuts us off from others. The fear of losing our livelihood, of losing our own limited security, leads to a hatred of all taxes, a strong dislike of anything reeking of a social program for the benefit of others. Charity may be ok for the individual, but charity is not perceived as necessary.

There has always been a measure of egoism in human history; there has been occasionally a measure of selfishness; but not until modern times has there been an ideology of individualism. Individualism as an ideology is founded on a claim about the individual being the only source of ethical rightness and goodness, and goes hand in hand with a rejection and fear of government, internationalism, taxes, and public welfare programs of any kind.

There is a great advantage to the use of potential terror in creating the mindset of individualism. When everyone feels fearful and threatened by one group or another, then the mere feeling of being threatened is legitimation enough to kill someone else.

Democracy is an enemy of fear. Democracy is not built on an ideology of individualism, but on recognition of the individual’s embeddedness in a web of real and potential social and political relationships. In such democracy, the meaning of courage is very clear. Courage is recognizing that the full development of the individual requires a commitment to other individuals and their full development.

Justice requires a great deal of the individual. For one thing it requires knowledge and understanding, not just of what justice is in the abstract, but of what injustice is in the concrete. In real life injustices can often go quite unrecognized. The injustice of prison terms of inordinate length for minor drug crimes or a minor infraction that counts as the third strike you’re out and sends you to prison for decades—these are things that, unless they happen to you or your family or your friends, you may be unaware of.

VIII. The Incoherence of the Ideology of Individualism
This kind of ideology masquerades as something ethical. But it contains a fatal contradiction, since it puts me at the center of the moral universe, and resolves conflicts with others by simple self-affirmation. This ignores the question why someone else who claims individuality as an ethical philosophy cannot do so. To put it in other terms: individualism is not much more than an irrational and incoherent ethical philosophy resting on a presumed superiority of this individual over another. What reasons could ever be given for this kind of position that everyone else could not give?

If individualism is not a coherent ethical philosophy, then is every form of partiality incoherent? Let’s look at an example: parents have the opportunity to save their two children from a sinking boat, but doing so makes it impossible to save other children who are in the same dangerous situation. Is it wrong for parents to prefer to save their own children? Surely not. But there are obvious limits to this. Suppose the parents could save not only their own children, but others as well. Could they say: we’ll save our own, but not others because we only care about our own family? That would be an instance of partiality that is utterly unethical, in the end because it cannot give any good reason why my family possesses ethical importance, and some other family does not.

IX. Partiality and Justice
Partiality in our ethical judgments is both good and inevitable. Partiality may establish some kind of practical everyday order in our ethical goals. But partiality does not have final say-so over who has ethical rights over and against our own. Partiality is essential to justice, but it does not exhaust the meaning of justice.

This leads inevitably to the ethics of justice and fairness in society generally. Is justice an example of an extended partiality, which all individuals that make up a society constitute a large kind of family where all have equal rights? And what would we mean when we say that everyone in a society has equal rights?

One minimal definition of justice or a just society is one where each life is affirmed on the basis of a right correlative to a duty. So far so good. But surely this is not the end of the matter. A just society is one that embodies much more than simply a right to life. One might add that a just society is one in which people’s ability to create a sustainable good life is maximized. Does justice demand equality in every respect?

Justice does demand that freedom be as extensive as possible. But what limits are there to freedom, and thus to justice?

Some of the ideas of the late philosopher John Rawls may be useful here. Unlike some liberal thinkers in the past, Rawls thought that some kinds of inequality may be inevitable in fact. But he made two important provisos to this admission: first, inequality must in the end promote the freedom of all. An example: inequality with regard to my freedom to use water in California right now may be irritating, but inequality in water consumption will help sustain the population and economy much better than not. Golf courses need more water than people do for drinking and bathing, but surely the aesthetics of a green field is less important than the survival of humans.

Another important proviso is that all political offices should be open to all as much as possible. This insures justice and freedom as much as possible. It is questionable just how much offices are open to all today. It is no coincidence, for example, that most of our representatives in Congress and at the highest levels of government are all independently wealthy, or at least much wealthier than you or I. And frankly, it is beyond the financial means of many ordinary people to run even for local or state offices. Our political offices function like they might in an oligarchy, not a democracy.

These principles are not arbitrary, Rawls says. He says that if you did not know what social class or economic situation you belonged to, you would choose these principles or something like them. This is a kind of hypothetical argument under a veil of ignorance. It’s not hard to see how this kind of argument is intended to eliminate unfettered partiality as much as possible from ethical reasoning, without compromising freedom any more than necessary.

We all have partial interests and concerns that we want to defend. We cannot eliminate such things, nor should we necessarily. But when my interests lead to the enslavement of others as a way to keep labor really cheap, we need to ask ourselves: would I choose to live in a society where I might turn out to be a slave? If not, then I should not support a political or socio-economic system that requires this kind of enslavement.

X. The Political Utility of the Ideology of Individualism
I said earlier that individualism as a modern ideology is an incoherent ethical philosophy. Generally, incoherence like this does not go far in the world. But modern individualism has had a much more successful path to prominence than one might have thought. It has done this, I would like to suggest, by a variety of political and religious moves that draw one’s attention elsewhere. Individualism has turned out to be an important façade for political and religious maneuvering.

At the most extreme, individualism becomes a paranoid life style called survivalism, a political movement focusing on the need to have guns to protect individuals against imminent government attacks. The individual’s life and well-being are threatened everywhere by taxes, by government health care, by immigrants legal or illegal, by racial and ethnic minorities. Today this ideology of individualism stands behind many political efforts to lower taxes on the wealthy, to restrict voting rights, and to keep the lawless members of minority groups in a state of constant wariness.

But there problems of inequality that go far enough beyond the everyday that it is difficult for anyone to begin to catch sight of them. An example: there is much political wrangling today over issues like minimum wage. We mostly have a sense that wages in some industries are hardly adequate to meet living at a poverty level. So we propose, or oppose, raising the minimum wage in the hope that this will address a serious inequality in our society.

Without answering this question, I would suggest that there are far bigger inequalities in our society that are not visible to most of us most of the time. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has published a monumental study of capital in the twenty-first century—though in truth it is a study of capital for the last several centuries. Enormous wealth is generated through the interest on what is called capital—estates, businesses, land, investments, inheritances—much of which is untaxed or taxed at a very low rate. Most of the 1%ers can actually live off this wealth without ever working at all.

We are under the impression that the great wealth that accumulates at the top of the economic structure helps society. But in fact it doesn’t. The burden on society generally increases as the tax base is siphoned off into tax shelters, and the rest of the population of a country is left to pay the bills. While Piketty aims much of his analysis at Europe, he includes the U.S. as well. We have only a vague sense of the problem. We are aware that there are CEO’s in the business world and elsewhere who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, not always from what they achieve, but sometimes simply because paying a high salary is a sign that the business is doing well, even if it isn’t. And our tax structure increasingly favors giving tax breaks to the wealthiest citizens.

I am not here to urge some particular political solution to these problems. I simply want to emphasize that wealth is a moral problem in modern society, and not just in some accidental sense. We often think of taxes as simply a burden. The modern doctrine of individualism promotes this view. But taxes aren’t just an economic solution to a practical problem; they are equally are reflection of our moral commitments as a society. We use our taxes to create, sustain, and promote a better socio-economic world for our children and grandchildren. It is not an acceptable view to regard the whole arena of education as a kind of business that is always losing money and should therefore be taught the virtues of austerity. I would never argue that efficiency is not important; but I will argue that education is not a business, any more than health care is, at heart, a business. For modern individualists, everything is a business, and the value of life is a product of individuals scurrying about in their businesses making as much money as possible. When everything is seen as a business, then much about human life has been falsified and demeaned. Aristotle claimed once that people in business should not be allowed to have a vote in the political assembly, because by definition their vision of things was too limited. Our society not only denies that; it has exalted the limited vision of businessmen into the only moral and political philosophy of the age that is worth considering.

In the world of justice, vision is a starting point, but it is a difficult one to achieve in practice. I think we all need to consider that the search for justice and equality in this age is far more daunting than the sexual crises we are led to believe constitute the problems of the age. Our preoccupation with sex is not unrelated to our preoccupation with individualism. Further, it is in the interests of the very wealthy to promote the view that something like gay marriage or access to contraceptives, or sex outside marriage, are the real injustices we have to face. And of course if there were not challenges in those areas, no attempt to blind citizens to other inequalities would ever work. But there is a real effort to keep the focus off the monumental injustices of the untaxed growth of capital.

To some extent conservative forms of Christianity have helped in this process. To put it bluntly: God, they understand, will judge us far more harshly at Judgment Day for our sexual misconduct than for our inaction with regard to poverty. So it is not surprising that the reaction of conservative religious leaders—even Catholic bishops—to Pope Francis’ many denunciations of global capitalism has been one of horror.

It is perhaps uncomfortable for religious leaders, used to going on about salvation through faith in Jesus, to realize that the Jesus they claim to have faith in spent far more time denouncing wealth and power than denouncing sexual misconduct. Jesus himself was understood in the Gospel of Luke as a sign and symbol of a challenge to the power structure. Mary, Jesus’ mother, speaks the following words in the Gospel of Luke, to bring to mind how Israel’s past will intersect with and inform the future:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Today, it seems, God is on the side of the proud who sit in their thrones, while others eat crumbs they don’t even really deserve. The lowly need to get out and get jobs. If there are any.

I don’t want to end on a note of cynicism, but a note of encouragement and hope. The spiritual life is one not only of seeking justice at the personal level, in my life, in my family’s life, in my community; it is also one of seeking justice, and a vision of justice, for our society and the world at large. We cannot neglect the mind in the spiritual life because a vision of justice depends on that in our journey. And we cannot neglect the journey itself either simply because we feel that only our own small world is all that counts. We need to build on our own partial ethical concerns toward a larger social reality. Impartiality is not perhaps entirely possible, but sitting in a corner with folded hands is not an inevitability either. Vision, compassion, and courage are the prescription for the injustices we face.

Capital in the Twenty First Century, by Thomas Piketty

Piketty’s massive book (almostt 700 pages), supported by massive data of an extraordinarily impressive variety, drive home a conclusion that today’s conservatives and, frankly, many liberals, cannot be happy about: the inequality in societies across the globe is increasing at a frenetic pace, despite occasional bumps in financial history (the 2008-9 debacle, e.g.,).

The heart of Piketty’s argument is that the growth of capital, which includes dividends, rents,  inheritances, land, buildings, etc., is constantly outpacing the growth of income, and does so by virtue of the nature of the beast itself.  And while just a few of the 1%ers live directly off capital, who can make upward of of $200,000 and more per annum.  All of these individuals pay taxes at a much reduced rate, and the wealthiest pay much less or nothing at all.

The only way to change the picture is to reform banking rules so that corporations cannot hide their profits in tax havens outside a given country.  That is a possibility in the EU; it seems much less likely in the U.S., where devotion to banks is equal to devotion to firearms.

Piketty’s proposal is a modest 4-5% (at best) tax on capital, which would greatly help the economies of many struggling countries (and the U.S., not to mention Kansas, is one of them).  But you cannot tax what monies companies take outside the U.S.  And so we have a conundrum.  The wealthiest are not about to be taxed for any reason, and their patriotism and nationalism ends with the I.R.S.

In the meantime, addressing inequality by raising the minimum wage can be seen as at best putting a band-aid on the larger issue.

Piketty’s book is one I highly recommend.  It is surprisingly not filled with a lot of jargon, but it is long and detailed and takes a bit of work.  Piketty has thoughtfully included all his graphs and charts online so the reader can study them at his leisure.

Piketty does intersect with some of Karl Marx’ ideas.  But his analysis and his proposals are not Marxist in the end.  They are progressive in a way no one seems to be thinking about these days, which is a shame.  Fox News has generally treated Piketty as something approaching the Antichrist.  Which is a recommendation in my book.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher R. Browning

A friend sent me this book out of the blue.  It was off the beaten track for me, though I have read things on and off over the years about the Holocaust.  The book did not at first capture my interest, and so I was very slow getting past the first 10 pages.  But eventually I made a go of it, and I am very happy I did.

The book examines the behavior of ordinary policemen working under Nazi orders in Poland.  There is an amazing wealth of information about the conduct of these men, left by the Nazis themselves.  And their conduct was brutal and awful by any standard in the universe.  Rounding up Jews, shooting women, infants and the disabled who could not keep up with the forced marches to one-on-one massacres–it was awful to read and to imagine.  Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by about 500 policemen, only some of whom were Nazi party officials.  Most of them were just ordinary folk.

Browning makes a very good case for a multi-layered social-psychological view of what happened.  He resists the one-size-fits-all antisemitic racism that others have argued explains all of it.  He points to the notable experiments of Stanley Milgram which showed just how much people can be led to do really awful things by reason of authority or social expectation.

The book has a peculiar relevance to the current issues surrounding police conduct in relation to blacks and minorities around the United States.  It suggests that simply pointing to racism may not fully or completely answer the question why police officers do what they do.  There are also issues of training and expectations among officers, of acculturation to a society in which fear and racism both play important roles as conditioning factors.  I recall that three of the six policemen in the Freddie Gray episode were themselves black.  The problem in the end is the way people are treated and why they are treated that way.  How do the police see themselves?  How do they evaluate their conduct?

A few thoughts at the end of an interesting book.

The Bible and Homosexuality: Summary of Comments from John Boswell

Source: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Material taken from “Ch 4: The Scriptures”; and “Appendix 1. Lexicography and Saint Paul”.
Boswell suggests that there are just five passages in Scripture that have ever been taken as clearly implying the condemnation of homosexuality, two from the Old Testament, three from the New Testament. Before looking at these he makes several preliminary points:

1. Most early Christian misgivings about homosexuality did not rely upon Scripture, but other arguments or sources.

2. There is no word like “homosexual” in the Bible, in any manuscript, whether in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic. “Homosexual” in English refers to a type of person, and there was no such concept or word in the ancient languages. The word and concept are of modern vintage (since the 16th 17th centuries). Note that the word “sodomite” is ambiguous and could refer to either homosexual or heterosexual behavior, and thus only inaccurately or misleadingly translates a concept of “homosexual”.

PASSAGE #1: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom):

. . . the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

The interpretations of the passage as concerned with homosexual offenses are generally very late in history. None of the references to this story in the Old Testament suggest that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality or the like. Most scholars today believe that the offence that led to the destruction of Sodom was inhospitality. Lot was violating the custom of Sodom by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city. When the men of Sodom gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, “that they might know them,” they meant no more than to “know” who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers. (The verb “to know” used here is not used in a sexual sense; Boswell notes that contrary to popular belief, only something like 10% of the uses of this word in Hebrew have any sexual connotations.)

An interesting confirmation of the thesis that in ancient times everyone thought Sodom was destroyed because of inhospitality comes from Jesus himself (in Matt. 10:14 15 and Luke 10:10 12):
Matt. 10:14 15

“And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Luke 10:10 12

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

References in the Old Testament also confirm that the destruction of Sodom was not because of homosexuality. Thus Ecclesiasticus (16:8) says that God abhorred the Sodomites for their pride; the Book of Wisdom suggests the same thing (19:13 14), as does Ezechiel (16:48 49).

There are sexual overtones to the story, as there are in parallel stories in Judges 19:22 ff, and Joshua 6, but the major concern is always inhospitality.

The origin of the emphasis on the story of Sodom as concerned with sexuality is probably datable to the reaction of early Jewish and Christian moralists to the sexual licentiousness of pagan culture. Evidence to this effect is found in the Jewish apocryphal writings, and in early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Jude.

Even Origen (185-254 A.D.), inclined to puritanism, dis¬cusses the sin of Sodomy as the sin of inhospitality. St. Ambrose (339-397 A.D.) followed him on this. Ambrose was concerned about the offering of Lot’s daughters as a bribe, but did not suggest homosexuality as the issue. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) explicitly rejects the homosexuality interpretation, as does Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.).

It should be noted that “sodomite” is used to translate various sexual sins in the King James version. The term as originally used did not specifically mean “homosexual”, since sodomy often referred to any sexual act that was unnatural whether heterosexual or homosexual. The word in Hebrew which “sodomite” translated was kadash; according to Boswell the term meant or referred to prostitutes in sacred temples. There is no implication of homosexuality at all. The history of the condemnation of sodomy by reference to Scripture depended on mistranslations of terms.

PASSAGE #2: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (toevah).
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (toevah): they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
The word for “abomination” in Hebrew is toevah which does not designate something intrinsically evil, but something which is ritually unclean, such as eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are mentioned in the same part of Leviticus as the passages above. Often toevah is employed to mean “idol”. There is thus the question whether these prohibitions stem from moral absolutes, or from concerns to keep Jews separate and distinct from the nations.

The Greek Septuagint translation eventually distinguished between violations of law or justice (anomia) vs. infringements of ritual purity or monotheistic worship (bdelugma). The Levitical prohibitions fell into the latter because they were specific to the Jews, or tied up with rules about idolatry, etc.

It should not be surprising that converts to Christianity from outside Judaism would not take these laws any more seriously than they took the dietary laws. Conflicts arose about these matters, which were settled by the so called Council of Jerusalem. The decision was that no obedience to Mosaic law was required, except for four things: abstinence from idol pollution, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication (porneia). None of these entailed homosexuality.

PASSAGE #3: 1 Corinthians 6:9

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (= malakos arsenokoitai). . .

The word “homosexuals” translates two Greek words:

a) malakos = “soft”, very common Greek term, often has connotation of “licentious, lacking in self control”. Never used of gay people or homosexual acts in Greek literature. The Greeks did not think of homosexuals as “effeminate or soft”, but generally as manly. One of the guests in Plato’s Symposium speaks approvingly of the Athenian army founded on male-male homosexual relationships, because such relationships bring out the “virility” in men, and help to create a stronger army. Hence the fallacy of assuming that if a word to designate “effeminate” is used here, the reference must be to homosexuals. Indeed, the term malakos is often used of heterosexual acts. Generally interpreted by the church as referring to masturbation, until the modern era, when “homosexual” began to be the preferred translation/interpretation.

b) arsenokoitai = quite rare, meant “male prostitute” to St. Paul, and never meant homosexual until the 4th cent. St. Paul may have invented the word; it has not been found previous to him. The word literally means “a male who takes the active position in sexual intercourse” (and not “having sexual intercourse with a male”, as Greek dictionaries commonly have it). There is evidence from other sources, several centuries later, that this term meant a male prostitute, and did not mean homosexual (Aristides [early 2nd cent. A.D.] and Eusebius [265-339 A.D.]). Only late in the 4th century was the term used to mean “homosexual” and many other things, the term itself probably having considerable ambiguity.

PASSAGE #4: 1 Timothy 1:10

(. . .the law is laid down not for the just but for the lawless . . .) immoral persons, sodomites [arsenokoitais], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. . .
Again, the crucial term is arsenokoitais, and Boswell’s suggestion is that it should be translated as male prostitute.

PASSAGE #5: Romans 1:26 27

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against [para] nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.

Three points: first, this is part of an argument, and functions as an analogy to something else. Paul’s point is that there was a time when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv. 19-23). The present passage offers an analogy, and is not primarily concerned with a moral analysis of homosexuality.

Second point: the passage in question does not condemn homosexuals, but heterosexuals who have abandoned their commitments and true calling. The analogy is between those who are naturally inclined to monotheism, and those who are inclined sexually toward those of the opposite sex.

Third point: Paul refers to “natural use” and says these acts are “against nature”. Close textual study of Paul’s use of “nature” reveals that he did not have a natural law theory, and did not use “nature” in a moral sense, but only in the sense that nature referred to some “character of a group of persons” (thus: “Jews are Jews by nature”). The word translated as “against” is para. But para does not mean “in opposition to” (in which case kata would have been the word of choice), but rather “more than”, “in excess of”. The sense is that these acts are not contrary to nature, but unusual or unexpected in the natural order of things. There is no suggestion of a “violation of natural law.”

Several final notes:

1) Jesus’ comments on sexual mores are extremely few, especially in comparison with the frequency of his observations on such matters as wealth and demonic possession, which were largely ignored by later Christians. Indeed, while most Christians “read” Scripture liberally in interpreting comments about the wealthy getting into heaven, they read it like fundamentalists when interpreting comments about homosexuals, even presuming the obscure words used by St. Paul in fact referred to them. Consistency of interpretation and approach to Scripture on moral questions is extraordinarily important.

2) It is not true that Scripture has only negative messages about same sex relationships and friendships. There are extreme positive images of same sex relations in the O.T., which would often be quoted by “gay” spiritual writers in subsequent centuries: Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. In the N.T., there is the unusual relation of Jesus and John.

Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?

Chapel Talk, Bethany College, Wednesday, March 31, 1999

I begin with a reading from Matthew: 27:45-50.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, This man is calling for Elijah. At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him. Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? What an easy topic! The question can be dispensed with very quickly. God does answer my prayers. Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. The Bible says so. End of discussion.

My flippancy contains perfect theological truth, but remains emotionally and personally empty. It does not come close to persuading someone whose prayer is deeply felt, whose need is profound, and whose frustration at God’s silence threatens to erupt in agonized despair. Something else needs to be said than just interpreting verses from Scripture, as these bystanders do when hearing Jesus’ prayer.

There are, it must be said, various reasons why God does not answer our prayer. Some of these reasons are clearly not God’s problem, but ours.

In the first place, prayer may not be answered because the faith on which it rests is not genuine. I recall the agnostic Voltaire’s famous prayer: May God, if there is one, save my soul, if I have one. The only appropriate answer to this kind of prayer is laughter, and I am sure God chuckled along with Monsieur Voltaire, perhaps even longer than he.

In the second place, prayer may not be answered, because, while the faith on which it rests is genuine and real, the will to let the spirit carry out one’s faith in the rest of life is not there. I recall in this context the prayer of St. Augustine: O Lord give me chastity, but not yet.

In the third place, prayer may not be answered because it is designed to be heard by others, not by God. Jesus especially notes this in the Sermon on the Mount: Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. Jesus insists that true piety manifests itself in a sincere prayer that is done in secret outside the judgment of others. His point is not to discourage prayer with others; it is to discourage a form of prayer that is really about impressing others.  Our prayer is only genuine if it is for God. And in fact, that is not always the case. Styles of public praying sometimes get in the way; they sometimes become the vehicles for personal pride and self-righteousness.

How, then can we insure that our prayers will be answered?

Perhaps the best clue we have to how we should pray is the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prefaces this prayer with the words: Pray then in this way. We have often prayed the words that follow literally, forgetting that it was not just this prayer, but the manner of this prayer that Jesus was endorsing. What was the manner of this prayer?

First, we are to pray by acknowledging the absolute holiness of God’s name, the centrality of God’s claim over our lives. That claim implies that everything we want or need is in God’s hands, and that it is not functional to worry about anything. If I can truly pray “God will provide”, it is only because God’s holiness has already claimed me. But often, we are not at all sure that God will provide. We are like the Gentiles who Jesus says are the sort of people who worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” The Gentiles are thus not all those who are not Jews; they are all those who do not yet experience God’s providential care, but are dedicated instead to the human production of needless anxiety.

Immediately after the phrase “hallowed be thy name” comes “Thy kingdom come”. That phrase is the central mission of Jesus. And he contrasts the Gentiles who worry about food, drink, and clothing, with those who seek first the kingdom. This is the point at which I suspect many people’s understanding of prayer leaves off. For most, prayer is about what one does in one’s ongoing individual relation with God. But Jesus’ mission is not about how each relationship with God is individual (apologies to Kierkegaard). It is about the coming of the kingdom of God. And our prayer must always and centrally be as much about the coming of this Kingdom, as it is about God, and that is because the coming of the Kingdom is the meaning of the phrase “Thy will be done”.  In many cases, I suspect our prayer is not “heard by God” because it has nothing to do with the coming of his kingdom, but with another kingdom, my own. Too often the anger and the pain that we feel when God does not answer our prayer comes from the fact that praying is a form of getting control over our world, and God has not cooperated very well with this project. The Kingdom of Control, the Kingdom of My-World-on-My-Terms, is forever to be contrasted with the Kingdom of Heaven, which on earth and in heaven is the Kingdom of God’s will.

The difference in attitude between these two kingdoms comes out in a short parable recently passed on to me via e-mail by an alumnus. The parable goes like this:

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert-like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the island and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren. After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the island. On the other side of the island, the second man had nothing. Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, and more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God’s blessings since none of his prayers had been answered. As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?” “My blessings are mine alone since I was the one who prayed for them”, the first man answered. “His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything.” “You are mistaken!” the voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered faithfully. He prayed that all your prayers be answered!”

There is another way to put this. In the Kingdom of God, prayer is no longer mere words, however piously uttered, but a heart so much aflame with love that it cannot rest. Prayer is a vector, an arrow shot forth from the Spirit, if you will, that aims straight at the Christ one finds in the need, the despair, the loneliness, of those who have suffered. Prayer seeks God not just beyond the clouds, but through the body; not just in another realm, but through the Christ in all. Such prayer is more akin to a groaning of the Spirit, a groaning which St. Paul thought he heard all through creation. When we can no longer hear this groaning, it is because the spirit is not in us and there is no flame in our hearts. Prayer emanating from self-preoccupation cannot see God as all in all, as Paul says; the experience of God in such a deprived state is one of finding ourselves alone with the alone, as the philosopher Plotinus once said.

Prayer in the Kingdom and for the Kingdom is an outstretched hand: God’s hand outstretched to us before we ever pray; our hand outstretched to God’s; and our hand outstretched to every other hand in the kingdom. Prayer is always about all of us in Jesus and the spirit in relation to God, never simply about me and God.

Perhaps I can sum up what prayer is in two words: mystery and ecstasy.

In prayer, we encounter the mystery of God’s grace to all in the Kingdom. We pray for an elderly man’s recovery; he doesn’t recover, he dies. Our prayer, if it is genuine, and if it has ears to hear, begins to hear the suffering of others in the Kingdom, and begins to attend to their needs, their sorrow, their cries. God writes straight with crooked lines. The shortest distance between that point called me and that point called God includes an infinite number of other points called the kingdom of heaven. Prayer hallows us out for life in the kingdom. It helps us to become the instruments or answers to the prayers of others, and in doing so to hearken to the will of God.

The mystery is to be found in the fact that God’s answer is usually not all at once or complete, but partial and provisional and temporary. Prayer is never completed; it sets us on a journey through life with all those who do not have their daily bread, who have not been forgiven, whose sin is great.

Sometime just over 600 years ago, long about 1393, an English woman named Julian of Norwich, about whom little is known, wrote down the story of her lifetime spiritual struggle. She had had a revelation from Jesus perhaps twenty years earlier. One of the things that Jesus spoke to her was, as she says, “those sweet, cheering words, ‘I am the foundation of your praying’.’ She writes this after her long search: ‘From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. “You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else–ever!” (Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters, Penguin Books, pp. 211-212). We may say then that our prayers never seem to be heard when what we are looking for is some answer or other; but they are always answered when we realize that love is the only answer to our prayers that will be given or has ever been given.

It is difficult to bear this mystery; we need moments when the clouds part, moments to be reassured of God’s faithfulness, moments, if you will, of ecstasy. One important moment is in the sharing of bread and wine. But there are other moments as well. Just over a week ago, I ducked into the last hour of the dress rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. It had been two years since I had heard the performance. And in the last chorus, a piece of music I have come to know well in the years I have sung the Messiah, I found one of those moments of prayerful ecstasy: Amen, repeated a thousand times, in a complex play of musical lines, that comes as close as anything perhaps to the sublime grandness of Jesus’ words in the Our Father: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer ends in the ecstatic affirmation of the mystery of our life in the kingdom: So be it, Amen.

The prayer of Jesus on the cross, the prayer of one living in mystery and love, is ultimately answered by the prayer of ecstasy. I conclude with a reading from the Book of Revelation: Revelation 21: 1-5a:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Gene Bales

Some Notes on Capitalism and Inequality

Gene Bales

Capitalism is not one thing; it has been taken many different forms over time. I do not like talking about “capitalism” as though what Adam Smith talked about in the 18th century (England as the nation of shopkeepers) is the same thing we have today. There are historical connections and continuities, but not identity.
Capitalism has produced much good, both in mass consumer products, technology, and the rising standard of labor. None of that I would deny.
But it has also simultaneously increased inequality and that in the following respects:

1. First and most fundamentally the sheer growth of capital beyond labor income has been astronomical in recent decades. The distance between the 1% who live off the income derived from capital and the rest of humanity has grown to be very great, and has shown no sign of decline. Piketty’s statistical studies lend strong support to this.

2. Secondly, capitalism in its current international structure utilizes tax avoidance processes which robs nations of needed tax revenue and thus thrusts needs further on those less well-off to pay for them.

3. Third, capitalism demands that production aim at the lowest cost per item. This implies lowest quality of production, and it also implies the lowest possible wage. This has meant increasingly shipping jobs out of first world countries to countries where wages are lower and labor can be better exploited because of weaker government regulations. Those who make Nike tennis shoes in Asia are not just paid abominable wages; they also work under conditions that are often a threat to health.

4. Fourth, capitalism has no inner motive to limit the drive to profit so as to realize other ethical demands. It resists government intervention for this very reason, and it resists improving anything unless workers get fed up and either strike or quit. As long as labor is plentiful this is not too problematic. Capitalism has always sought to eliminate unions and the power of laborers because of the threat to profit. Thanks to labor, and not capitalism, we have a 40-hour work week and various other improvements.

5. Capitalism has intensively increased the inequality between poorer countries and wealthier ones by refusing to internalize the cost of pollution and degradation of water and natural resources. The lowest possible price leads inevitably to environmental disasters which disproportionately affect the poorer citizens of countries in South America, Africa, and Asia, among other continents. And in the U.S. as well: think Exxon-Valdez, and the BP disaster in the Gulf.

6. Capitalism today is largely a non-competitive environment, in which no one can enter the market place to compete and consumers have no serious choice in buying many products. Early capitalism was all about competition, but the entities competing were relatively small. As corporations and businesses grew exponentially in the 19thh and 20th century, anti-trust laws were instituted, but capitalists have been good at avoiding the consequences. Today, a given corporation may own sub-units manufacturing everything from plant food to autos to computers. This is far beyond traditional capitalism and its limits of size and scope. And all this means that the consumer and the laborer is at the worst possible disadvantage both in terms of working conditions, wages, benefits and the like.

7. Capitalism in the US. today has large eliminated the middle class. As more and more jobs are eliminated, the world economy may be getting better, but the gap between the rich and the poor in this country and in other developed countries is getting worse.

8. In short, capitalism has no moral conscience. Making the highest possible profits is what it’s all about. Some inequality is both inevitable and good in societies. But the kind of gargantuan inequality in wealth that capitalism has created today blocks serious environmental improvements, labor improvements around the world, and new products or services that might otherwise compete in a better market place.

9. One final issue has emerged: the need for some capitalists to begin to actively address attempts by government to regulate them. Thus some capitalists are now in the political business full-time, writing “ideal” laws for legislators—thereby eliminating the need to listen to ordinary citizens–, funneling money to candidates who espouse their concerns, and attempting to stop drives to increase voting in the U.S., since marginal voters are often more likely to be liberal than conservative. Modern capitalism is a thoroughly political phenomenon. It champions quiet government intervention—i.e., intervention to weaken government.

10. One consequence of modern capitalism in the U.S. is the redefinition of conservatism from moderate pragmatism to something close to libertarian anti-government philosophy. This is true across the political spectrum. Along with this has come a desire to abolish as many taxes as possible (this never reaches the point of disbanding the military, of course), and to insist that taxation is the greatest evil of all. But the abandonment of progressive taxation either increases the powerlessness of ordinary citizens, or it is compensated for other kind of regressive taxes that especially impact those at the bottom of the social class hierarchy. Those at the top ceased paying taxes a long time ago. Getting rid of capital gains tax is high on their list of noble imperatives.