From God to Fake News and Back Again

Gene Bales, June 17, 2018

I wanted to day to speak to you about an issue I have come to feel very strongly about: truth in the age of Trump, in the age of post-truth, as it has been called.  If I speak of the age of Trump, I am not going to make this a political speech, though it may initially sound like that.  Rather, my focus is on the various ways our ideas of truth are being smashed to smithereens by various forces at work in our current world.

I am a philosopher and having to listen to a philosopher talk about truth on a Sunday morning is not something I would wish even on myself.  But I am not going to trouble you with the kind of discourse philosophers usually engage in, which is admittedly not interesting to anyone except philosophers.

Let me begin with a few examples of things that have increasingly troubled me, and I suspect, many others.

I’ll begin with lies.  People lie all the time.

It is well known that President Trump has an unusual propensity to lie about things.  In an essay that appeared in the Brookings Institution, James Pfiffner lists a litany of such lies.  I offer a small sample of these: Obama was a Muslim and was born in Kenya; millions of undocumented illegals voted for Clinton, thus denying him the popular vote; the unemployment rate was 42%; the U.S. had the highest taxes in the world; the U. S. has the highest murder rate in 47 years.[1]

President Trump has not been alone in his lies—all Presidents have lied at one time or another.  But the sheer number of these lies in the case of Trump far exceeds others—the count is in the thousands according to some.  And unlike others who when caught lying might admit the fault, Trump typically doubles down.  When contrary information is presented, the President has become famous for labeling such things “fake news”.  So, the question becomes not whether the liar knows the truth and lies anyway, but what is at work in the resolute commitment to not recognize it.  A lie told by someone with authority is an attempt to control the thinking of others, sometimes the thinking of millions of others.

Another assault on truth, quite different from this, has come with the emergence of the #MeTooMovement and the denial of sexual harassment and assault made by many famous men.  While the truth of each charge must be evaluated on its own terms, the sheer magnitude of the charges in cases like those of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby makes them impossible to dismiss.  Perhaps the most disturbing were the charges made against Eric Schneiderman, a man who had regularly embraced the causes of women in his career.  In this case, I don’t know whether Mr. Schneiderman was lying in public about his opposition to assault on women, but I suspect he was caught in what amounts to a whopper of an existential lie about his life.  There is always a gap between how we appear to others, and what we do or think in private.  Ordinarily we adjust as we can to keep ourselves sane.  But it is possible that our personal integrity is so compromised that our personal life gives the lie to our public life.  Our personal integrity is a matter of the consistency of truth between our private and public lives.

Another important feature in the war on truth in our age is the deliberate effort on the part of the government to hide scientific, and especially environmental, information.

The most egregious example of this has been the wholescale scrubbing of scientific information from the EPA website.  Anything that provides support for environmental concern has not only been eliminated wholesale, but other kinds of subtler linguistic changes have made it look as though climate is unaffected by human activity.

Hiding information from the public is a deliberate assault, not simply on the truth, but on the search for truth.  I would not defend the claim that every bit of information of a scientific kind has infallible truth.  But that is not really the point.  Lack of information may well impede research into weather patterns, and directly impact public safety. The lack of publicly accessible scientific information has the effect of privatizing the search for truth, thereby rendering it much more difficult.

In Dec. 2016, not long after Trump’s election, many climate scientists began a feverish effort to download any information on a US government website onto independent servers, for fear it would disappear altogether.  Much of this information went to Canadian scientists in Toronto.  And sure enough, once Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and others became cabinet members the scrubbing of publicly available scientific information began in earnest.

Another way to hide the truth in public life is to make transparency impossible.  I think of the Kansas legislature in this regard.  Many of our laws used to be developed in a bipartisan fashion by legislators.  Now some laws are prepackaged by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization made up of many corporate leaders, whose legal playbook is an outgrowth of the Koch family’s commitment to the principles of libertarianism.  ALEC is not usually labelled a lobbying group, because it works as a kind of educational forum for state legislators and others.  Go to an ALEC meeting, come back with laws you can pass without change.  It’s easier than ordering a Happy Meal at McDonalds, and about as healthy.  Most people in Kansas and in other states are unaware of what laws are being passed that have previously come from ALEC.  And legislators are not anxious to make this better known.

In 2015 the state of Kansas got an F rating from the Center for Public integrity. [2] The Kansas City Star ran a series of reports after that, focusing on the lack of transparency in Kansas government.  Just recently there have been efforts to address the problem.  But it says much that if you were trying to decide whether your representative had voted for or against a particular measure in the last few years, there was no record of it.  The truth of legislators’ votes was deliberately kept from the public.  According to a study published by the Brookings Institution in 2013, the most common bills pertained to immigration and the environment, followed by those relating to guns and crime.   And Kansas was one of the states most targeted by ALEC.[3]

There is one last example of the assault on truth in our society that I must mention—the assault on truth in the marketplace.  There is an axiom in basic economics that a free market is only a just market when the buyer knows exactly what he or she is getting in product A, as opposed to product B.  When corporations withhold information about the effectiveness or danger inherent in the use of the product, the consumer is tricked into thinking that he or she knows the truth in what is being purchased.  But in fact, the deck is stacked against the consumer.  The truth about many products is not just unknown, it is actively prevented from becoming public knowledge, lest the government interfere with regulations to prevent potential harm.  Caveat emptor—buyer beware—is only effective or sensible when the buyer knows the truth of what is being bought.  How many of the products sold relentlessly on TV do we know much about, other than what we are told?

When truth is hidden, especially when its hiddenness has a significantly negative effect on large portions of a population, the search for truth may no longer be as effective or  urgent.  In fact, what often happens is that everyone resorts to the next best thing—my opinion.

At the beginning of every course in ethics I have taught over the years, students will insist that in the end, they have their opinion of what is ethically right or wrong, and others have their opinions, and that is the end of it.  Opinion is not a waystation toward truth for them, but a mask for giving up any search for truth.  And occasionally, it is the basis for aggressive behavior toward people who disagree with them.  It is perfectly true that we all have our opinions but clinging to that uncritically through one’s life commits the individual to a life of untruth.  The reason is this: if the other person is always wrong about their opinions, then I have nothing to learn from them.  Learning ceases.  Thinking ceases.  And the search for truth, especially ethical truth, can go nowhere with this.  Truth demands openness and sometimes discomfort, but the warm and cozy womb of opinion closes it down.

Unexamined opinion can guide a life for a long time.  But in some opinion becomes a weapon against others.  Examples of this are common in social media, and in political discussions on Facebook and Twitter.  For some it is very easy to prove the truth of your own position by vilifying, rightly or wrongly, the position of someone whose position is at odds with yours.  The underlying assumption is that there are only two possible positions: mine and yours, and if mine is true it follows that yours must be false.  This is one of the most common fallacies in elementary logic, but my experience is that many people commit it routinely.  But logic is largely beside the point for some, who use memes and comments on social media like verbal hand grenades.  In these instances, opinion is not a waystation on the path to truth; it is an effort to establish the truth through the will to power, the will to control and silence the other.

We often think of truth in abstract terms—a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality or is consistent with other things we know to be true.  And it is very easy to think that a given fact proves an entire theory or generalization, when it all may do is offer weak confirmation.  But the appearance of proving a generalization from a single fact is often used to hide the real truth.  So, the fact that the oceans are gradually rising was explained by soil erosion and by rocks falling into the oceans around the globe by Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. And this shows, supposedly, that climate science is mistaken, that the poles are not melting, etc.  Or that because I know somebody who routinely milks the government out of benefits and food proves that welfare for the poor is a very bad idea.  These are all examples of bad generalizations, where purported facts or anecdotes do not really go to prove the conclusions that people want to draw from them.  And if we ask what the real source of such generalizations may be, we are forced to conclude it is resistance to challenges to corporate interests.  Bad generalizations serve a will to power that is often being hidden.

So, are we doomed because of this natural propensity?  I don’t think so at all.  One of the things that works against this tendency is the ability to carry on an internal conversation with oneself, to see a given issue from perspectives different from the one we have chosen.  To do this, however, requires thinking, self-conscious and purposeful reflection.  Not everyone is capable of this.  It ought to be the purpose of higher education to create habits of personal questioning.  But higher education frequently fails to do this because of a focus on specialization.   While the search for truth demands openness to the other, it also demands an openness to the broader world, to the big picture.  There is much in our educational system that works against this.  Our concern about a narrow approach to the value of specialized education, ramped up by the need to begin making a good salary right after graduation, can and does lead to a narrow view of truth and a disdain of any truth not found immediately in our own realm of expertise.  Specialization of knowledge is a good thing and inevitable in our lives today.  But well-trained people can end up being naive about the big picture of our world.  We do not produce good citizens when everyone has a business degree and has never read anything else.  Any more than we produce good religious minds when the memorization of verses from scripture determines everything that can be known or should be known about the world.

The distance between openness to the truth and the will to control information can be seen very readily in the EPA’s decision to scrub scientific information from its web site.  The goal here is to protect the interests of those whose profits are made activities that result, directly or indirectly, the pollution of air and water.  Controlling the flow of information to the public makes it possible to destroy regulations which protect the public.

The will to control is not the same as the will to power.  Power is shared with others; control is not designed to be shared, but to be imposed.  Control is inevitable in human life and social institutions of all kinds; but control that attempts to limit the openness of power is a silent declaration of war on truth itself.  The pursuit of truth requires openness to others and essentially empowers everyone in that pursuit.

The economic marketplace is another arena where control is often pitted against the power of truth.  Certainly, manufacturers need control of the production and pricing of goods to sell; but all too often what goes into production and pricing is a total mystery to everyone.  Telling the truth about what is being sold might well lead the consumer to reconsider the purchase.  But our economic system is such that all producers are reluctant to say much at all about the potential dangers of their product, unless compelled by government to do so.

Perhaps the classic case of how control over the production of goods leads to wholescale denial of truth is the case of cigarette manufacturers decades ago in the battle by scientists against false claims of companies like Philip Morris and others.  What really poisoned the well was the attempt by the manufacturers to hire their own scientists to help bolster their own claim that not only were cigarettes safe to smoke, but they were even good for your health.  It has become a commonplace now for companies to hire their own scientists to make claims about safety.  The net result with the public has been in part a decline in the believability of scientific method and findings.  So, then what happens to truth? The individual lacks resources to pursue the truth, and increasingly the government is not interested in doing anything to interfere in the private sector.

It is the great irony of our age, an age of complex electronic systems of information sharing, that we also are living in a time when the truth about many things is no clearer than a heavy fog on a San Francisco morning.  In the face of such uncertainty about truth, there are especially two forces that are often invoked to buttress one’s opinion about things.  Those two forces are religion and politics.

For many, the belief in a deity is an extension of one’s opinions in a way which another person cannot easily question or challenge.  While for some belief in God is an umbrella for the pursuit of truth, beauty and the good, for others the belief in God marks the point at which all pursuit comes to an end.  One sees this in the notion that God has minutely planned every moment of our lives.

Bonhoeffer once spoke of “cheap grace”.  I think I could also speak of a “cheap God” who appears at every moment of personal anxiety and offers absolute security from a world which might crucify me.  This is a vision of the divine which excuses us from pursuing truth, because truth is already promulgated, either in person or in the Bible.  Anything that raises questions about our understanding of God or the Bible is dismissed as temptation.

A second source for certainty in the search for truth is political ideology.  Like religion, a political ideology provides all the answers to life’s questions in advance.  No questioning is necessary, just obedience to the principles of the ideology or the autocrat whose authority mediates the ideology to ordinary people.  Political ideology and authoritarianism are much like religion in solving the question of whether the search for any other truth is necessary at all.

True religion as well as true politics lives with the uncertainty that comes with an openness to the many sources of truth and knowledge and wisdom.  In a curious way, the openness of the search for truth requires the same kind of openness to the stranger that Christian love does.  In this sense, love of the neighbor and love of the truth are mutually reinforcing.  And conversely, hatred of the neighbor and certainty of our own pretended knowledge often reinforce one another.

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Salmon Rushdie says this:

We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.[4]

While I agree this is an inevitable and necessary part of restoring a public commitment to truth, I don’t think this is the whole story.   That is because Rushdie’s reconstructionist attitude toward truth leaves the origin of the search for truth unexplained and unexamined.

All truth is in part created by us and from us, with others and sometimes with divine inspiration.  Truth is an openness to the being of others and the divine, which implies a fundamental rejection of the notion of the will to control others.  When one detects a will to control others is behind what is being claimed as true, it is appropriate to ask questions.

One might say that one good sign of the possession of truth is the openness to questioning.  People who are not open to asking questions, to discussing with others what may be the case, are probably more interested in controlling others for their own well-being than in finding the truth.

The search for truth has an origin in human nature that experiences not merely contradictions and puzzles but wonder and awe.  Much of our search for truth in everyday life has obscured much of the wonder and awe that anchors our sense of truth.  But there are times and places and individuals who demonstrate such wonder.  I would note our human fascination with understanding the cosmos around us, the deep strangeness of galaxies and the odd components of the universe.  Such wonder and awe may lead to a religious experience or may make one wonder about the nature of a divinity.  I want to suggest that the reason it is not totally necessary to reconstruct truth is that the truth about existence itself haunts us.  Our sense of truth is an anchor for our human nature, and while we do not know exactly how or why, we do know we cannot and should not escape the call of the ineffable mystery that directs us to raise our minds and eyes above our own individual lives.

There is a legendary story told about the first Greek philosopher Thales.  The story is that he was so preoccupied looking up at the heavens that he didn’t see where he was walking and so he fell into a well.  The original point of this story was that philosophers who spend their time focusing on the truth above fail miserably in getting the truth below in this world right.  The point is quite well taken.  Thales may have been a textbook image of the absent-minded philosopher, but it is in fact well documented that he predicted a near total eclipse of the sun on May 28, 585 B.C.  Although we are not sure just how he did that it was clearly the result of his preoccupation with the heavenly bodies.  So, the story about him falling into a well is in part a joke, but also in part a lesson about something the whole human species must be alert for: namely, that we must as humans always make sure our gaze is at what is above us.  While our search for the truth beneath our feet must go on, our higher nature aims at the truth of the whole cosmos.  Truth beckons us to connect with one another and with the cosmos.



[1] “Trump’s Lies Corrode Democracy,” James Pfiffner, The Brooking Institution, April 13, 2018.


[3] “ALEC & State Legislation: Who, What & Where”, Molly Jackson, Thursday, Dec.12, 2013, Brookings Institution.

[4] “Truth, Lies, and Literature”, Salman Rushdie, May 31, 2018, The Atlantic.





Chapel Talk, Bethany College, April 20, 2016

 Since I am a Catholic, I thought it would be good to speak a bit about Pope Francis and his ecumenical endeavors.  I am not concerned so much about praising the man, though I do admit to admiring him, but about looking at the relevance and importance of ecumenism.

I wanted to begin by pointing to an important distinction whose relevance may become clearer by the end of my talk today.  That is the distinction between ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.  Ecumenism is the discussion within the household of Christians; the term derives from  Greek οἰκουμένη , which means “the whole inhabited world”.  Or more precisely, the entirety of the household of Christians (in this case).  We sometimes forget the metaphor of God’s church as a household, as a building in which resides a family.  This is the root meaning of oikos in the New Testament. 

Does ecumenical work involve Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and others?  No, traditionally ecumenism is among Christians.  Interfaith endeavors of one kind or another are thought to be different by nature because the commonality of God’s household is not that inclusive.

One more point before I look at Francis work:  ecumenism is not universally loved by Christians.  Every denomination tends at some point to be exclusivist, and at some point its members may become antagonistic to efforts to build bridges to other groups, especially if it is perceived that essential beliefs are thought to be compromised. 

Ecumenism can be weakened not just be its enemies, but by those who say that all denominations are the same, that differences don’t amount to anything important.  If that is true, then it is really pointless to engage in ecumenical discussion because there is no need to build bridges.  Christianity is one big bowl of jello where each group is indistinguishable from the next.

Pope Francis, like all popes, defends the heart of Catholic teaching.  He has consistently refused to modernize doctrines.  His approach to ecumenism has been distinctively different, because he has not focused primarily on doctrines, but on other issues.

If we take a look at his various major ecumenical meetings in the last few years we can get a glimpse of this.

In May of 2014, Pope Francis became only the fourth pontiff to visit the Holy Land.  It was, as he said, a pilgrimage of prayer.  Among the highlights of that trip was his meeting with the head of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I Patriarch of Constantinople.  The significance of such a meeting cannot be underestimated.  The two communities had mutually excommunicated each other in 1054, and ensuing crusades did not endear the European Christians to the Greek Christians, since, among other things, the Europeans killed thousands of Greek Christians along with Muslims in the effort to retake Jerusalem. 

The theological issues involved had already been studied for a number of years prior to this, and the mutual excommunication had been lifted in 1965.  Nevertheless, full unity remains in the future.  The document published by Francis and Bartholomew speaks intensely of the desire to restore intercommunion at the Eucharist, and one gets the impression that this may come sooner rather than later.

But Francis and Bartholomew also had other issues to discuss, notably the growing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and the impact of climate change on the world and especially the poor.  Bartholomew has been a champion of environmental issues for many years, and Francis would publish his own encyclical on care for creation only a year after his meeting with Bartholomew.

The issue of persecution of Christians came up when Francis, nearly a year before this meeting with Bartholomew, became only the second Catholic Pope to have met with the other “Pope”, Pope Tawadros, Patriarch of Coptic Christianity.  In that meeting, the two Popes emphasized their common belief in baptism, and their hope to overcome various theological differences, so that in time they would be able to take the wine together at a Eucharist. 

Two years later in Feb. 2015, Pope Francis again made mention of Egyptian Coptic Christians.  He prayed for “our brother Copts, whose throats were slit for the sole reason of being Christian, that the Lord welcome them as martyrs….”   It was also with respect to the murder of Coptic Christians that Pope Francis made this unusual comment:

The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard…It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.

Perhaps the most distinctive ecumenical action taken by Pope Francis was his recent meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first such meeting in history.  Although the Greek Orthodox Church has been on friendly terms with Roman Catholicism, the Russian Orthodox Church has not been.  In part this is because of the growing unity between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church.  This is so much the case that Vladimir Putin has often claimed that the religious shield of Russia is the Orthodox Church.  And that in turn has been helpful to Putin in the conflict over the Ukraine, which has within it both orthodox churches beholden to Russia and to Greece, as well as a uniate Orthodox church beholden to Rome. 

Pope Francis was criticized even in advance of his meeting with Kirill, which took place at the Havana, Cuba, airport.  The concern was that the Pope was not so subtly giving credence to Putin’s imperialism in Ukraine.   But Francis’ vision transcended the political dimensions of this meeting.  The statement that was issued by the two religious leaders affirmed their common heritage from the first thousand years of Christian history, insisting that the command of unity from Jesus was the basis on which the churches recognized one another, and appealing for greater cooperation between the churches, especially in Ukraine and Russia.  No doctrinal issues were addressed. 

The next important development in Pope Francis’ ecumenical endeavors will be a trip to Lund, Sweden in late October, to pray with the leaders of the World Lutheran Federation in commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation in 2017.  During the Oct. 31 visit to Lund, in southern Sweden, the pope will take part in a joint ceremony of the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation.  I have met with representatives of both Messiah and Bethany Lutheran, and we are hoping to initiate a dialogue on Lutheran Cattholic rrelations in advance of the meeting in Sweden.  We are still working out the details, but an announcement will be forthcoming.

At a service for Church unity in January of this year, Pope Francis said: “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values.  “We cannot erase what happened before, but we do not want to allow the weight of past wounds to continue to contaminate our relations.” 

There has already been work by both Catholic and Lutheran theologians on one of the largest of the theological issues from the Reformation, one raised by Luther himself; namely the notion of justification by faith alone, and more generally the relation between faith and grace.  An agreement from 1999 was published which essentially resolved the heart of the conflict for both Lutherans and Catholics.  In 2006 the World Methodist Council also agreed to this document.

All this was in the air before Francis became Pope.  Typically, he has not spoken of the theological issues as much as he has of the sins of past generations—sins which included animosity on both sides, and an obvious lack of Christian charity.  In fact, the aftermath of the split between Catholicism and Protestantism was the Thirty Years War of the 17th century.  Protestants and Catholics killed one another with abandon, such that the population of both Germany and Italy, in particular, were severely reduced.  While this was the last war between the two groups, elements of it still survive: the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island.  And while war is not a major issue these days here in the U.S., I am just old enough to remember the paranoia that emerged in the U.S. when John Kennedy ran for President in 1960.  The U.S. was a Protestant nation, and Kennedy, it was feared, would become a lackey for the Roman papacy.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and its decree on Ecumenism (1964), as well as other statements from that time, a great amount of ecumenical work was inaugurated.  Pope Francis inherited all that. 

But his focus has not been primarily on doctrinal issues.  When he spoke about meeting with Lutherans in October, his words reflected the need to ask for forgiveness.  The break between the divisions of Christianity have never been simply intellectual affairs.  They have almost always produced violence, hatred, animosity, and contempt.  Mending fences is not possible by putting a group of theologians together in a room and asking them to come up with a document that will please everyone.  Mending fences begins with an acknowledgement of the sins committed by previous generations, and a humble admission of guilt. 

Pope Francis’ ecumenical endeavors have also sought to build unity among Christians by addressing common challenges.  Thus, the declaration that he and Bartholomew signed included an important emphasis on care of God’s creation, an issue that Francis cares as deeply about as Bartholomew.  And the declaration with Patriarch Kirill focused  on the growth of Christianity in Cuba and South America, and on a variety of other issues.

In short, ecumenical work involves focusing not just on theological differences, but on a more forward-looking agenda of issues both moral and religious.  To put it another way: ecumenism is not just about beliefs and past differences over them, but also about common concerns today, especially on moral and ethical issues.

There is another vision of ecumenical unity that Francis has mentioned as well, a concern that arises from the current crisis of Christians in the Middle East and Africa: namely, the persecution of Christians by the Islamic cult called ISIS and Boko Haram and other such groups.  In an interview relating to the Coptic Church Francis made the following statement:  For me, ecumenism is a priority. Today, we have the ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don’t ask if they’re Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics or Orthodox. The blood is mixed.

In speaking of martyrdom, and in forging new relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis has touched on the implications of ecumenism for political realities.  When Christianity becomes closely allied with the nation-state, it brings with it a number of political headaches, as the Russian and Ukrainian churches know well.  To some extent Pope Francis has seemed to want to make a gentle impact on the alliance of church and state, reminding all of the true message of Christianity.  In the case of ISIS, the problems deepen because of the group’s ties with Islam.  But ISIS is a political phenomenon not unrelated to world politics in the last five years and more. 

In the face of the ecumenical unity forged by the wanton murder of Christians by members of ISIS, interfaith dialogue with other religions becomes important and indispensable.  Such dialogue triangulates the relation between Christianity and Islam over against ISIS and its claim to represent all of Islam.  Such dialogue is not easy and criticism from all sides is not wanting.

Pope Francis visited the historic Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, removed his shoes before entering, stood next to the Grand Mufti Rahim Yarran, facing Mecca, and bowed his head in prayer for some time.  It is not surprising that some Christians and conservative Catholics found this horrifying.

This is interfaith dialogue, not ecumenical relations.  My point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the two in practice.

To return to the ecumenical side of the question: The foundation of all ecumenical endeavors is the prayer of Jesus that “all may be one, as I am in the Father”.  That unity is most fundamentally a unity of love, not simply of a set of beliefs.  Beliefs are important, but they are not everything.  Religious diversity has been a feature of Christianity from its beginning—think only of the difference between the communities under John, James, and others, each of which had its own distinctive preoccupations.  Diversity is not an evil thing necessarily.  In his address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis said: In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society.

Even though diversity in itself is not an evil, there are all too many times when religious diversity hides contempt, anger, hostility, and bursts forth occasionally into violence.  That is why I chose the parable of the Good Samaritan for the reading today.  It might seem that that parable is far afield from the subject.  But it is entirely apt when we consider its central character: The Samaritan.  We are a bit used to think of the Samaritan as someone from Samaria, which is true enough.  But Samaria was the geographic location of a people who were heretical and schismatic, who accepted only the Torah and none of the rest of Scripture.  They were always looked down upon by proper Israelites.  The parable of the good Samaritan is accordingly a parable about how God’s grace is sometimes better seen in the actions of a detested religious group than in the authorities of the Jewish religion. 

That remarkable parable is a reminder that God’s grace may appear in the work of others we don’t like or don’t respect.  And when faced with that, we need to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins of hasty and insensitive judgments of those whose beliefs we do not accept.

My concluding prayer is simple: Lord, that we may all be one in you, in love, in respect, and in humility.

Gene Bales




Transformation in Hope


Feb. 21, 2016

Talk given to the Salina Mennonite Congregation

Reflections on:

          Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

As I have aged, I have come to appreciate the importance of hope in human life.  There is nothing like death and mortality to arrest the normal satisfaction of life itself. 

The Scripture readings we have heard this morning—about Abram, about the unnamed psalmist being falsely accused by enemies, and about Jesus threatened by Herod Antipas—have much to say about hope.  But they have even more to say about how hope can be transformed in human life, transformed in unexpected ways.  Our problem with hope is that we frequently confuse it with optimism.

Two things I read in media recently have brought home to me just how different hope and optimism may be.  One was the release of a book by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who along with another young man perpetrated the worst school massacre in U.S. history.  Ms. Klebold was just a normal mother, with what appeared to be normal interactions with her son.  She had no idea what her son was up to, and she has spent years asking what she missed.  Her optimistic beliefs about the future of her son were utterly destroyed.  She spent years recovering from the shock, as well as from the death threats from others.  In the end, she was transformed and began to focus on helping others who have been similarly affected by such tragedies.  Proceeds from her book will be donated to charitable causes.

In a somewhat different vein, Kate Bowler, a 35-year old academic studying the rise of the prosperity gospel and its influence on some Mennonite congregations (Bowler married a Mennonite), was suddenly presented with the news that she had stage 4 stomach cancer.  As you can imagine, her own fate made her question the prosperity gospel with renewed vigor.  I do not know whether she experiences any hope with regard to the progress of her disease, but her essay which appeared in the New York Times just a few days ago raises an important question about certain brands of Christianity that champion self-realization.

On the surface these two stories from the media would seem to have little to do with the Scripture readings we have heard today.  But as I want to suggest, there is much to think about here, both about the nature of hope, and about the kind of transformation of hope that one experience in the light of faith.

Today we read of three responses to hopelessness:  Abram; the unnamed psalmist, and Jesus himself.  Each response provides a partial clearing to think about how God leads his chosen.  And the responses become more involved with time.  They force us to ask the question: have we really come to terms with the original response?  Are we guilty of not looking much further than the end of our noses as it were?  Are we aware of the way in which God’s message is transformed and even changed over time?  If we have never thought about this, it will be puzzling that the land promised to Abram of old, would be abandoned to itself and become desolate with the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is at least irony in this outcome.  But that is only at one level. There is a transformation of the message, which I want to speak to in time.

Each reading presents a call and response.

In Abram’s case the call from God takes place within a context of an uncertain future, both with respect to permanent geographical residence, and more importantly with respect to his lack of children.  Having no children and being beyond the age when it was likely that his wife could have a child was a genuine curse in ancient societies.  Into this situation of uncertainty, God—el Shaddai—announces a promise, a covenant, with Abram, that Abram will have not only progeny as numerous as the stars, but also the land of Canaan, a promised land.

Abram’s response to the problem of childlessness turned out to be a bit complicated.  At first his wife did the utilitarian thing and provided a concubine for him, and he had a child by her named Ishmael.  For years this seemed to be the appropriate response.  But in fact, God promises to Abraham’s wife that even though she is 90, she will have her own child, and that child—to be named Isaac-will be the one through whom Abram’s progeny will arise.  As unexpected as this might have seemed, it was even more unexpected when God told Abram to take his only son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice. 

I can imagine Abram’s silent response to this as: what???  How exactly is this the outcome of the promise given earlier?  Is God serious?  But whatever Abram may have thought, we are told only of his deep faith.  He made preparations for the journey to do the very thing that seem totally opposed to God’s earlier promise.

We know the outcome of the story: Abram’s faith was tested and he became the father of faith as a result.  But we cannot forget that along the road to faith he encountered signs that seemed to turn God’s promise upside down.  This first transformation in hope was to deepen faith in God’s promise, appearances notwithstanding.

One of the ironies of the prosperity gospel folks is their use of this story to emphasize that God’s promise is about very material things—children and land.  So they conclude that Christian faith includes these things as well, since God does not renege on his promises.  On the surface that looks like it might have some truth to it.  But surfaces hide much.

The unnamed author of Psalm 27 begins with a profession of faith in the Lord as his light and salvation.  And so he asks, perhaps rhetorically, of whom shall I be afraid?  Fear is the underlying emotion of this psalm—fear of real enemies, perhaps political enemies.  The enemies are said to have brought false accusations; they “breathe out violence” and like predatory wild animals seek to devour the flesh. 

Against these enemies the psalmist says that the Lord will hide him in his shelter, where he will sing and shout with joy.  His heart says it wants to seek and to see the face of the Lord.  Seeing the face of the Lord is another way of being close to the Lord, more particularly in the sanctuary of the temple.  The temple is a shelter even if the psalmist’s own mother and father forsake him.

The psalmist concludes with words a little reminiscent of God’s promise to Abram: that he will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  So one must wait, but the waiting is filled with strength and courage.  The strength and courage are not merely the product of an individual with a strong will; they presuppose an abiding faith in a God who shelters his people from enemies and adversaries.

The centrality of the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem is the sacred place that dominates this prayer.  We know from history that Israelites never really forgot their temple or their “city of peace”, Jerusalem, even though they were driven into Babylon for a period of time.  Not only Jerusalem itself, but the temple in the city itself was the sign of hope to Israelites.

After a dispiriting exile in Babylon for half a century, the Israelites returned in the late 6th century B.C., and subsequently the temple of Jerusalem and its centrality to the faith were strongly reaffirmed.  But in time the independence of this city and its temple was compromised by foreign conquerors and emperors, notably the Greeks and later the Romans.  By the time of Jesus, the temple of Jerusalem was still very central to the Jews, but the political climate had become more than a little toxic. 

The passage we heard from the Gospel of Luke is one of the most striking.  In the first place, instead of the Pharisees playing the usual role of the enemies of Jesus, they come to Jesus ostensibly to warn him to get away from Jerusalem where he had been heading, because Herod Antipas, who had just recently had John the Baptist beheaded, was gunning for him. 

Jesus tells these Pharisees to tell Herod the fox (probably meant as an equivalent of vermin, with no emphasis on craftiness), just what it is that Jesus is doing: he is casting out demons and performing cures, and will be on his way to Jerusalem in a few days. 

I suspect we might listen to this today and think, gosh what a good man; why on earth would Herod have a problem with this?  The answer is that the leaders of that time were very disturbed by prophets who might be leading any kind of movement that would promise the coming of a Kingdom of God, not just in heaven, but on earth, as is said in the Our Father.  Such a kingdom is a direct threat to the powers of the time centered in Jerusalem. 

As we know Herod had John the Baptist beheaded because he was one of those prophets who stirred up the people and created trouble for the leaders.  Jesus, many suspected, would be next.  Jesus insists this will not stop him from entering the holy city, because as he says, “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”  That is an incredibly damning indictment of what was once the city of peace at the heart of the land promised to Abram, and the temple which was the place where the psalmist found the face of God unhidden.  The temple is a house forsaken and abandoned. 

Jesus concludes by saying that when people in Jerusalem see him they will say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.   But there is more than a little irony in this, since they will shortly turn on him and urge his crucifixion.

It is at this point the emptiness of the prosperity gospel becomes very clear.  Crucifixion is not on the list of human goods that we need in order to actualize our best selves.  Neither is having your son emerge as one of the worst mass murderers in American history.  And neither is learning at 35 years of age that you have stage 4 cancer.

To return to the passage from Luke:

In this short passage we get a glimpse of another startling transformation of faith in the promise of the Lord.  A promised land has its heart in a temple where God’s presence is fundamental.  But the leadership of the temple in time has made it a den of thieves and turned the people against any prophet in the interest of preserving social and political order and taxing the poorest of the poor.  Jesus cleanses the temple of the money-changers and in doing so shows that he is not just about the well-being of the upper classes of that time, and shows as well that he is not simply preaching a spiritual message whose implications remain fuzzy.

The reaction to Jesus was swift and predictable.  He is sentenced, like many other religious teachers of that time, to death by crucifixion.  This story, his story, would seem to come to a tragic end, unlike either the story of Abram, or the unnamed psalmist.  His disciples abandoned him and went into hiding.  Everything seemed to have been lost, most of all hope.

There is hope, however, because God transformed the cruel fate of Jesus, the rabbi and prophet, nailed to a cross like a common criminal.  The transformation came with his resurrection on the third day.  His disciples were initially uncomprehending and terrified at his visage. 

Was this visage a material reality or a ghost?  Behind that question was perhaps the question whether there really was any reason to hope Jesus’ message and person could survive.  That question which has kept theologians and skeptics busy for millennia was one that was answered by Jesus (Luke 24: 37-43): he was no ghost, but a real body, capable of eating a piece of fish in the presence of the disciples.  Other passages suggest that Jesus could pass through material walls, and that of course suggested something like a ghost.

I have no desire or ability to enter into this discussion.  What I want to draw attention to is the way in which the resurrected body of Jesus has come over time to dissolve the real historical causes of his death, and thus to some extent the real edginess of his teaching and his actions.  To some extent I have to blame Christians in later ages as well as St. Paul himself for the problem.  St. Paul, as we know, wrote his letters before any of the gospels were written.  He almost never quotes anything that Jesus said.  He certainly knew those things, but his letters often summarize Jesus in terms of his death and resurrection.

We have hope because of the resurrection of Jesus.  His is the face of God’s presence and promise.  It is in him that we are all gathered together; it is his presence in the temple of his resurrected body that sustains our hope through history.

If our hope is well grounded, our understanding of the meaning of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus is not always at the same level.  We can see that today especially in those Christian communities where the focus is on my sins being forgiven by Jesus.  My sins killed Jesus: that is an old idea and it is not at all wrong.  But something is missing in making that claim—just what kind of sin got Jesus killed?  Or to put it more succinctly, what is the connection between the rabbi and prophet who was crucified, and the Jesus who was raised from the dead?

How are my sins the kind that led to the death of Jesus?

We often work with a universalist vision of sin: sin is a violation of human nature or human reason that tells us to do good to others.  That comes in part from Greek thought, but it also is found in the New Testament.  But the real historical Jesus preached things and healed people in ways that were particular to people of his time, even though they have implications for every age.  But the place to begin is with the teaching and work of Jesus and look beyond to the universal implications, and not to begin with someone else’s idea of a good ethic and work back to Jesus. 

There is a recent cartoon posting on Facebook that seems relevant to this.  It shows Jesus and Buddha sitting together.  Buddha complains that people’s representation of him is always showing him as fatter than he really was.  Jesus responds by complaining that people always show him as a white dude with blond hair and blue eyes.  Changing the appearance of Jesus in art to reflect his likely appearance in his own time and society would not go down well with most Americans and Europeans.

Artistic depiction is not the same as ethics, but I would suggest the problem in people’s appreciation of the real Jesus is similar.  We have made Jesus into something that feels comfortable.  While the theologian Bonhoeffer spoke of cheap grace, I would argue that for some the problem may be “cheap hope”.  Hope that does not challenge one’s own assumptions.  Hope that does not require any transformation on our part, or at least fails to address any of the issues that Jesus addressed.

So what elements of Jesus’ teaching were so challenging?

In Luke 6, we are told that Jesus’ disciples were eating heads of grain while passing through the fields.  They did this on the Sabbath, which is against the law.  Jesus argues with the Pharisees on this occasion and others about the significance of the Sabbath.  In the end he speaks a transformative truth: The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.  In a further place he puts the question more pointedly: is it lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?

Those whose world was the law of Moses as handed down and interpreted by Pharisees and Scribes were challenged.  There are times when we may find ourselves challenged when we step outside the boundaries of our religious upbringing to do something that we believe the Lord wants.  When that happens, our faith is transformed from simple obedience to courage and strength in the Lord; faith is transformed into hope.

Another teaching of Jesus that may transform us against our own will and human nature: Jesus says Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. (Luke 6:27-29).

These teachings are well known and very much neglected today among some Christians.  Or perhaps I should say they are watered down into some more doable things such as: I’ll try to be nice to people, and pray quietly for those who persecuted me so that they may see the error of their ways.  And God surely wouldn’t mind a little revenge anyway. 

The transformation of Jesus’ teaching of love of the enemy can be seen most dramatically perhaps in the figures of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  Most Christians never felt called to live out Jesus’ words in so dramatic a fashion.  Many Christians resisted King’s actions, and Gandhi’s non-violent stances.  Yet both clearly stood in a tradition inaugurated by Jesus.

Today, I am afraid, many Christians imagine that love of the neighbor and the enemy is perfectly consistent with shooting them when you feel threatened, torturing them when they look like a terrorist, or condemning them to wander in the no-man’s-land of statelessness if they do not have the acceptable religious faith.  Jesus’ teaching about love of the enemy gives hope, but not before it wreaks havoc in the hearts of those who listen to his words.  Transformation of the heart is not always sunshine and roses; sometimes it is painful, not least because it seems at first sight to remove any vision of peace and hope.  But that’s only at first sight.

Another example:

 I heard the story of the good Samaritan countless times over the years, and heard many pastors talk about that story as an example of someone doing good.  The point of the story was to love your neighbor, which is exactly how Jesus concludes it.  But it was not until my adulthood that I came to realize through my studies that the point of that story is not merely about being a nice person, but about recognizing that goodness can come from people who are usually despised by society and the people you would think would be the first to demonstrate goodness are as cold as stone.  The story was not an exemplification of some timeless moral truth, but an unusual commentary on our moral expectations of other people, on our assumptions about who God may work through and with.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is transformative, but in an unexpected way.  The parable is a surprise.  God’s grace is likewise a surprise.  Finding hope sometimes comes in the wake of the pain of realizing our social expectations have been misplaced.

Hope is founded upon the promise of God, a promise given to Abram and to Jesus, and experienced by the psalmist.  But for each of them, hope was not an entry into some kind of utopia.  If anything elements of what was promised turned out to be more surprising and more problematic than expected. 

What is essential is to recognize that hope is not hope unless it continues to challenge the breadth of vision, the sense of reaching a final state of affairs.  To see the face of the crucified and risen Christ is to see both an assurance and a question mark.  The question mark has everything to do with how willing we are to be challenged by the death of a two-thousand-year-old prophetic rabbi.  The assurance is the hope that shelters us along a difficult journey.

Gene Bales


Pope Francis’ Visit to the U.S.

Gene Bales

Nov. 29, 2015

Talk given to members of Bethany Lutheran Church, Lindsborg


The Pope is both head of state and religious authority.  Popes have been both political figures as well as pastors, with those roles being not always very easy to balance.  Even before his visit to the U.S. he had been politically involved in reconciling Cuba and the U.S.  His visit to Cuba came not long before his visit to the U.S.

The Pope’s visit to the U.S. had external religious business: the meeting of the World Meeting of Families, an international gathering of families that John Paul II initiated in the early 1990’s.  This time the gathering was in Philadelphia, and the Pope spent a fair amount of time with that.

He also used the visit to celebrate Mass and canonize Fr. Junipero Serra, the patron of California.

Besides these two major religious events, he also was invited to speak to the U.S. Congress and to the U.N.  The speech to Congress was a first for any Pope.  These two speeches were perhaps the most important he gave while in the U.S.

He also visited the 9/11 Memorial, Independence Hall, the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility in Philadelphia, and the Little Sisters of the Poor.  And of course, he held a private meeting with Kim Davis, which probably got more press attention than anything else.

Pope Francis is a complex figure, with what is frankly a complex agenda.  More than once I had an idea for titling this little talk as “A Tale of Two Popes”.  One of the popes is a conservative traditionalist; the other is a very liberal spirit.  The first is well liked in the U.S.; the second is regarded with much suspicion and distrust.

This kind of analysis is probably not entirely fair.  I want to offer a few thoughts at the end of my talk about the Kim Davis issue, which I think actually illustrates something of the complexity of his commitments, this as a way of seeing just what he is trying to accomplish, which is less about changing doctrines and more about changing attitudes.

Pope Francis speech to the U.N. strongly emphasized themes from his recent encyclical Laudato Si, which is a very strongly worded document on the centrality of the environment as our common home as humans, and on the impact of environmental degradation on the poor.  In his speech to the U.N., Pope Francis said this:

. . .government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and all other civil rights.

 In this sentence, Francis links together environment, poverty, the family, and religious freedom.  This certainly sets the stage for many of his other comments.

While his speech to the U.N. had a very broad scope, his speech to the U.S. Congress was rather narrowly tailored to Americans.  He began by sounding a broad theme: the common good.

You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.

Immediately he ties the emphasis on the common good to those who are in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.

This general theme is fleshed out as he looks at four individuals in American history and religion: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  This is an unusual list, because while the first two names are familiar to most Americans, the last two are both Catholic, and even many Catholics today are not entirely familiar with them.  I think it is fair to say that his choice of these four was the stage setting for making various points that are near and dear to him.

First he takes the occasion of Lincoln’s assassination to condemn not only violence, but especially violence which stems from a simplistic reduction of the world to good and evil, a problem especially associated today with religious fundamentalism, and other kinds of ideologies.    What he appreciates about American society, however, is the way the diversity of denominations has built up American society.  (I note in passing how much a change in Catholic thinking may be found in this kind of comment: one hundred years ago the perspective was that all denominations were judged negatively for plunging the world into religious relativity.)

His positive appreciation of religious diversity leads to his comments on MLK.  But his concern here is not, somewhat surprisingly, with racial discrimination as much as with discrimination against foreigners and refugees.  He recalls MLK’s I have a Dream speech, and the importance of dreams for refugees and immigrants.  He notes the fact that he was the son of Italian refugees, and he makes a case for the positive impact of refugees and immigrants on the life of the nation.  In the middle of this he states very strongly the importance of the value of life, and in particular rejects all capital punishment, which, he notes, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have also rejected.

Pope Francis notes the work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and her concern for the poor.  He also discusses Thomas Merton the Trappist writer of the spiritual life.  Merton in particular addressed the issue of the violence within the human heart, a violence which he also opposed in the political and social affairs of his day.

While most Americans could relate to his references to Lincoln and MLK, even most Catholics might have a hard time with both Day and Merton.  The latter were acknowledged for their religious commitment, but both came under fire for their unpopular political stances.  While Dorothy Day was a deeply religious Catholic, she was also an unabashed defender of the poor against both political and religious authorities.  And while Merton wrote some of the great spiritual classics of the age, he also inspired an entire generation of Catholic radicals opposed to the war in Vietname.  This choice of American Catholics by Pope Francis says more about his own agenda than it does about these individuals.

Francis returned to theme of unity through reconciliation in his comments at the 9/11 Memorial.  If the terrorists of 9/11 wanted to impose a uniformity of belief, it is important by contrast that we accept both diversity and the process of reconciliation as an alternative to uniformity.  This same sentiment was also voiced in his speech at Independence Hall, where he especially singled out Hispanics and other immigrants and encouraged them not to be discouraged by the hardships they faced.

One of the more noted sermons Francis preached was at the Mass in which Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was canonized.  Junipero Serra was a Franciscan missionary who organized the system of missions in California to help bring native Americans into the faith.  While his approach was always to protect natives from the abuse of others, it is also true that his approach entailed making converts into members of Spanish culture.

The canonization of Serra was controversial because for some contemporary native Americans Serra was responsible for destroying their native culture.  Yet it is also true that some welcomed the canonization as an indication of the importance of native Americans in the church.  There was a recognizable ambiguity in Serra’s legacy, which is hinted at by the Pope in his sermon.

Pope Francis emphasized Serra’s missionary spirit, his willingness to meet people where they were to be found, and to protect them.  But Francis also noted that violence against the natives is still a problem today.  Whether this was enough to answer all his critics is uncertain, but it does make clear his own willingness to embrace the ambiguity of the past.

When Francis visited the Curran-Fromhold Prison, he extended his greetings to the prisoners, but at one point turned his attention to the prison in which they found themselves, and more particularly to those who had the care of the prisoners.  His message was a humbling one: it is not just the prisoners who are in pain, but those who may look down on them as well.  Jesus offers to wash the feet of others, and we must do the same to those who have been imprisoned.

At the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis strongly emphasized the importance and centrality of the family, which he called “the factory of hope” in society.  And the family is not just the children but grandparents as well:

A people that doesn’t know how to look after its children or grandparents is a people that has no future. Because it doesn’t have strength or the memory to go forward.

It is easy to get into the habit of thinking that if someone is not “with us” on the centrality of the family or other concerns Catholics emphasize, they are “against us”.  But this is exactly what Francis warns against.  Faith is about opening windows to the spirit, not closing them.

To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group”, who are not “like us”, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith! Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit.

There are two other events on Pope Francis’ visit that have to be mentioned, in part both turned to be as politically sensitive as anything else he did.  The first was his visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor.  His concern was to voice his support for their work and for their defense of their religious liberty.  Their case, of course, will be decided by the Supreme Court.  The pope did not take any position on the legality of the issue, but he was adamant on the importance of religious liberty.  His encouragement of the Little Sisters should also, however, be seen against the backdrop of the Vatican’s years-long investigation of American nuns, which Francis had brought to an end.  His support for their work was more than just a political stance, though that is largely how it was read in the media.

The second event was his meeting with Kim Davis, whose refusal to sign off on gay wedding licenses created a legal issue.  That meeting was arranged by the papal nuncio, Cardinal Vigano, not the Pope, though Kim Davis and her attorney did not have that understanding.  Whatever was said, Ms. Davis came away feeling that the Pope gave his support to her, while the Vatican distanced itself from any particular judgment on the legal issues at hand.

Some conclusions about the Pope’s message on his visit:

  1. He gave lots of evidence of wanting to promote a religious understanding of the environment, consonant with his recent encyclical.
  2. That understanding is tied in with the impact of environmental degradation on the poorer people of the world.
  3. He emphasized service to the poor, the missionary spirit, as a spirit open to the world, to meeting people as they are, not as we want them to be.
  4. He praised religious and denominational diversity as a force for the common good.
  5. He insisted on the importance of dialogue, reconciliation, as responses to conflict whether religious or political.
  6. He stirred up controversy among both liberals and conservatives with his canonization of Junipero Serra and his apparent support for the Little Sisters of the Poor and Kim Davis.

In the end, I think one must be cautious about reading too much into Francis’ support on the political level.  While conservatives have seen nothing in him but a socialistic environmentalist, liberals have been taken aback by his association with causes they don’t agree with.

But here’s the thing: Francis is not just preaching secular environmentalism, but an approach to God’s creation through the impact we are having on the poorer peoples of the world.  It is a deeply religious message, even if its clothing is distinctly modern.

And if it is true that Francis defends religious liberty for people holding conservative positions, it is also true that he gives much emphasis to the need to avoid the “us and them” mentality, to the need for dialogue between conflicting positions.

As always looking at the whole variety of his comments gives a more balanced view of his approach than trying to stuff him into certain political boxes.

All the same I would be the last to suggest that anyone serving in the role of  bishop of Rome is perfect or without flaw.  The history of the papacy should cure anyone of that delusion.  Pope Francis has his flaws and his blinders, but I think in all fairness he has had much good to say to all of us.




2016 Lindsborg Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reading: 2 Timothy 2: 20-25a

I was asked to speak a bit on the importance of community—a topic which is certainly worthy of our consideration, but which I also realize is not entirely easy to address.

Community is the kind of word that tends to make our eyes glaze over.  We are all part of one, and we tend to think that it is a good thing for the most part.  But we don’t always think too carefully about what makes community a good thing for us.  And in some cases we may feel it is mostly a nuisance, an impediment.

The original Latin word from which we derive “community” had the sense of something that bound people together; something that was either internal to individuals, or an extrinsic factor like a location.  An aggregate of people who have never met is not a community, though it can become one rather quickly under the right circumstances.  Bystanders to an accident or bombing can become bound to one another in the desperation of immediate circumstances.

But the experience of community in these circumstances is only possible because of prior experiences of community in a much more positive vein.  Perhaps the quintessential positive experience of community is the annual Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa celebration when people get together with their families.  The experience that many have (not all, I hasten to add) is a feel-good sense, a sense in which each of us is reminded of the important way in which others validate us and we them.

While the family is a very important kind of community, it is hardly the only one.  A school or a college is another kind of community, as is a city council, or political party, or various organizations.  In religious terms, the community is said to be the congregation, or more generally the church.  Jesus spoke more of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a bit like a family, but Jesus made clear his brothers and sisters were his followers, not his biological family.  I will come back to the theological meaning of community a little later.  For the moment I think it is important to look at the human significance of community, and the challenges to it that have emerged in the modern world.

As a fact, no community is perfect.  We fail one another in a wide variety of ways.  And, worse, we sometimes take individual failure as inevitable because we believe we don’t have the strength to do better than members of our society.  It is in the face of an imperfect community that individualism can arise.  Individualism is the response to failure in the world, but it is a response that turns either toward self-loathing or in the end despair; or it is a response that grows in a seed-bed of anger and resentment against the world and the larger community.  Despair and suicide/ anger and rage are key indicators of the prevalence of individualism over a healthy community life.

Individualism is part of the American spirit—the belief that individuals, not communities, made this country great, that individuals, not teams or groups, created new entrepreneurial opportunities, that individuals opened new political doors of thought and action.  At the opposite pole, it is society that imprisons us, it is government that takes away our freedom.

I have been reading the popular science fiction novel The Martian,[1] on which the recent movie is based.  It is very engrossing because it puts the individual (a fictional character named Mark Watney) and his survival front and center in a situation in which he is desperately alone and doomed.  How he survives is amazing—he has a good background in the sciences and has a good knowledge of the atmosphere of Mars and the physical properties and capacities of his equipment.  The character of Mark Watney is, if anything is, a triumph of the individual.  He is not unlike Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s fictional character created back in the early 18th century who lives for many years on an island by himself, and survives through his own wits.

The entrepreneurial businessman is not unlike these strong individualists.  The businessman uses his own talents and vision to create, produce, and market new products that enlarge the consumer paradise of the market place.  I think especially of someone like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

But great individuals are never entirely self-made.  The Martian had the help of many people who provided the education he needed to do any of the things he did.  And Steve Jobs, who was by all accounts an ill-adjusted child, benefited from the devotion and support of his parents, from his friendship with Steve Wozniak, and from many other engineers whom he befriended in his younger days.

I think most of us recognize the indebtedness of individuals to the various communities that make up what we call “society”.  The family, teachers, friends, bankers, doctors, nurses—the list goes on and on.  This kind of individualism is what I would call the “soft” view of individualism, the kind that puts its emphasis on personal character, talents, and abilities, but never denies the importance of the surrounding social community.

But there is today, a much stronger view about the individual, what I would call a “hard” view of individualism.  This view takes the individual as having absolute moral rights without any attendant responsibilities, whose goal in life is self-love and freedom, with a contempt for human love and social and political claims.  Some of this can be seen especially in the views of Ayn Rand and her various apostles.  Rand is notorious for insisting on the evils of altruism, love of the other.  The only person that counts for her is the individual and his accomplishments and property.  On this view, a community exists only as a drain on the individual of energy and rights and property.

While Rand’s perspective is popular among conservative politicians, there is another kind of lived individualism not resting necessarily on philosophy.  Such lived individualism may stem from a sick community of some kind, and that community may be either one of social privilege or social disadvantage.

Both the rich and the poor can create such communities.  I think of Mr. Ethan Crouch, the troubled young man whose defense after killing four people while driving drunk, was “affluenza”, a disease marked by the absence of appropriate moral norms caused by rich parents and friends who lived in a cocoon where “responsibility” was a four-letter word.  I think also of Jean Valjean, the fictional hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who was originally sent to prison for five years for stealing a loaf of bread for members of his family who were starving.  Someone might say we don’t do this kind of thing anymore.  But in places like Ferguson, Missouri, we do something like this, according to a February, 2015 report in the New York Times.[2]   In Ferguson poor blacks often get arrested and fined for minor traffic violations.  Because of their poverty, they can’t pay the fine, so some end up going to jail, and when they do their family life is disrupted and their employment opportunities and income are severely affected.  All it takes in some cases is a $50 dollar fine to set the dominoes in motion.  And the effects have gone on for years in the lives of some members of that community.

Communities that produce moral irresponsibility or impoverished despair are not producing a future. They are producing mal-formed individualists who come to resent and hate the various communities that have robbed them of a future.  So Mr. Couch fled to Mexico, and a large number of poor people are imprisoned for failure to pay minor traffic tickets.

Poor communities and wealthy communities each have their own moral and religious challenges.  So how does a follower of Jesus think about a community—a family, a city council meeting, a board of education meeting, a faculty meeting, a business meeting?

In a passage a little later in the letter to Timothy, the author of that letter lays out what will happen in the “last days”.  He says that people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents. . .” (3:2)   Just about everything becomes unholy when it becomes something pitted against the love of God, and especially against the power of God.  Sometimes passages like this can be interpreted as a rant against love of self, love of money, etc.  But Jesus himself insists on the commandment that we love one another as we love ourselves.  And he seems to praise the wise servant who invests his money wisely.  The issue is the openness to the love of God in and through all of our other loves.

The Christian’s standard for a good community begins with the recognition of the diversity of gifts and talents, some of gold and silver, some of wood and clay, and some of special use, while some for ordinary use.  But just as important as the diversity of gifts and talents is the fundamental openness to the spirit of love and hope, which raises up each talent and gift to a new level.  The character of a community is to be seen both in the diversity of individual gifts, as well as in the light of the individual’s openness to the faith, love, and peace that mark the servant of the Lord.

Our communities may have the appearance of being faith-filled, and loving, but limits to that are frequently encountered.  For one thing our love sometimes ends at the door of those who are different, who are lower in social class or education, or who are the object of our hatred. We do not lack for that category of people who challenge the character of every community—the other, the one who is different.  Sometimes we surround ourselves with those who love us and whom we love, but put at arm’s reach those who do not share our basic beliefs or usual practices.  Further, and perhaps just as problematically, we engage in what the writer of 2 Timothy calls stupid and sense controversies, breeding quarrels.  It may be part of the human condition that we do this, but the servant of the Lord is the one who mends conflicts, builds bridges, defuses antagonisms, and brings the promise and reality of peace.

One of the ways peace is achieved is by coming to accept responsibility for especially the evil or the wrongs one has done.  But peace is also achieved by acknowledging and celebrating the love of others, the love which has made each of us a special utensil in the hands of the Spirit.  The challenge with the more extreme versions of individualism in our society today is that they clearly put aside the work of the spirit.  I add that these forms of individualism are very often in the service of the making of money, and want to do so at the expense of others.  Peace demands love of the neighbor and love of the enemy, but it also demands justice–justice for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger in a strange land, the prisoners, widows and orphans.

Each individual has been given gifts and each gift may be refined by the Spirit of love in Christ.  Against a vision of the individual as an isolated atom of free irresponsibility, the servant of the Spirit of Jesus sees an individual as living and expanding cell of growth, developing natural talents and abilities in the Spirit of Love toward others with different talents and abilities.

Perhaps the best description of a community is that set forth by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of ervices, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (12:4-7)

This may seem entirely idealistic, and perhaps it is.  We live with others with whom we strongly disagree, and sometimes who we struggle not to hate.

Anger is a legitimate emotion in the individual and community.  But servants of the Lord always must resist the temptation to rage, the temptation to reject forgiveness once and for all, the temptation to assume that my truth is the truth.  Truth is with the journey of the spirit.  It is not the prerogative of the individual or the community.

I close with this prayer from Boethius:

O Father, give the spirit power to climb

To the fountain of all light, and be purified.

Break through the mists of earth, the weight of the clod,

Shine forth in splendor Thou that art calm weather,

And quiet resting place for faithful souls.

To see Thee is the end and the beginning,

Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,

Thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.[3]



[1] Andy Weir.  The Martian.  New York; Crown Publishers, 2011.

[2] See the article by Monica Davey in the Feb. 8, 2015, edition of the New York Times.

[3] George Appleton, ed.  The Oxford Book of Prayer.  Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 7, #14.

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.