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Archive for November, 2016

A MORAL CLIMATE. . .

A ‘Moral Climate’ is not the same as a ‘moralistic’ one.  Consider that one of the indicators of a moral climate is that it is not accepting of – it does not embrace – ‘moralizing.’  The first moral climate is the one that resides within each of us.  Those who wrote the Upanishads, or Confucius, or Plato, or the ‘founders’ of many faith-traditions were/are concerned with the state of one’s ‘inner life’ (think: soul if you will).  Is our inner life rooted in love, compassion, justice, harmony, mercy, forgiveness and healing?

A ‘Moral Climate’ also permeates a nation.  A ‘nation’ is simply a collection of individuals and relationships writ large.  Plato noted that there could be no just political order except one populated by just citizens and in order for just citizens to thrive the nation must also be just – a ‘both-and’ paradoxical scenario.

Today, it seems, we think that modern constitutional democracies are fine regardless of the private vices of those who are chosen to lead.  To talk about the inner moral life of our leaders is at least elitist and at worst undemocratic.  Is this ‘denial’ or ‘protection’ or an ‘indicator’?  Our leaders’ private lives are none of our business – we think.  We seem to deny that who a person is and who a person is choosing to become will directly impact his or her behavior – will directly impact what he or she chooses; how he or she chooses to lead.  We support our elected officials when it comes to hiding their inner moral environment; or we say, via our votes, that one’s inner moral environment does not matter.  We live in denial and history reminds us over and over that a nation that does so will pay ‘the piper.’

Once in a while, however, we – the ‘nation’ – will be jolted awake and the better angels of our natures (individual and collective) will emerge and respond.  For example, a single photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all of the writings and speeches and marches of the moralists.  My heart still aches when I look at the photo and ‘see.’  As a reminder: Here is Hung Cong Ut’s 1972 photo:

ONE TIME USE ONLY (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Individually and collectively, we do not like being told what to do.  We want to enjoy our lives and we want to enjoy them with an undisturbed conscience.  Those folks who disturb us are not welcomed – they are uninvited guests to the feast.  We have developed a multitude of defenses in order to fend them off (ignoring, intimidating, attacking, blaming them, etc.).

As individuals we are quite adept at this.  For example, the owner can live upwind of his chemical factory, and the logger may know that the trees will not give out until after he is dead.  Each of us can seek to insulate ourselves from a depleting moral environment – or profit from it.  Just as some trees flourish by depriving others of their due.  How often has the American white male (and I am one of these folks) flourished because of the inferior economic or social status of people who are not ‘white males’?  To the extent that I am one of ‘these folks’ – to the extent that another is one of ‘these folks’ – I/We do not want to be exposed.  Some are responsible – ALL are accountable.

We ‘justify’ the ‘market’ and the ‘high prices’ and ‘low wages’ as ‘this is the way the real world works.’  ‘Racists’ and ‘Sexists’ tell themselves a story that justifies who they are – that justifies their system.  We end up equating ‘ethics’ with ‘morality’ (think: ‘It’s legal so it’s ethical and hence it is ‘moral’).

An individual and collective morality that has gone wrong is, history again informs us, an essential preliminary to the concentration camp, the death march, or, today, to the ‘wall’ (symbolic and real).  Are we human beings good students of history?  Have we learned?  As I type these questions it seems as if the answer is ‘NO.’

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TWO ENVIRONMENTS. . .

It appears as if most of us have become aware of and sensitive to the Physical Environment.  The physical environment begins with our own physical dimension and ends with the cosmos (which appears to be infinite).  We seem to know that we depend upon this environment, that it is fragile, and that we have the power to harm it – to destroy it.  We also have the power to hold it in trust; to sustain it in healthy ways.  When we harm our physical environment we not only harm it for ourselves, we harm it for those who follow – future generations.

There is another environment that exists – the Moral Environment.  It seems that not as many of us are sensitive to this environment.  The moral environment is composed of the surrounding culture, sub-cultures, and climate of ideas about how to live.  The moral environment determines a number of things: it determines what we deem to be acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible.  It determines our conception of when things are going well (they are healthy, they are nurtured, they are sustained) and when things are going poorly (they are dis-eased, they are depleted, they are deprived).

The moral environment also determines our conception of what is due to us, and what is due from us, as we relate to others.  It shapes our emotional responses, determining what is a cause of pride or shame, or anger or gratitude, or what can be forgiven and what cannot (think: Our recent Presidential Election and the results and how it revealed just how culturally polarized we are).

The moral environment provides us our standards – our standards of behavior — and it gives us permission to act in accord with our standards (e.g. after our election at a gas station four white supremacists can openly intimidate a young black mother and her two young children and no one intervenes).  The moral environment actually shapes our very identities (or affirms them or questions them).

What is the moral environment that permits white supremacy to return to center stage?  History provides us an example: Consider Hitler.  Hitler remarked: ‘How lucky it is for rulers that men cannot think.’  In saying this Hitler himself was blind to the moral climate that enabled his own ideas, and hence his power, to flourish.

Germany’s moral environment/climate included images of the primordial purity of a particular race and people.  It was permeated by fear for the fragile nature of this purity.  Like the United States in the post-war McCarthy era, it feared pollution from ‘degenerates’ from outside or from within.  It included visions of national and racial destiny.  It included ideas of apocalyptic transformation (the Jews, the Catholics, the Homosexuals, the Liberals, the Moderates and the Communists would continue to take over).  Germany was hospitable to the idea of the strong-man leader.  Many of these ideas had roots in the misunderstanding of and misapplication of Judaism and Christianity.

In short, Hitler could come to power only because people DID think – but their thinking was poisoned by an enveloping climate of ideas, many of which may not even have been conscious – they were rooted in deep tacit assumptions.  As was demonstrated in Germany, folks might not be awake to and aware of the ideas and deep tacit assumptions that motivate them.

To what extent are we truly awake to and aware of our personal and national Moral Environment?  What is our current Moral Environment engendering and supporting and calling forth?  Would Lincoln affirm that our current Moral Environment is calling forth the ‘better angels of our nature?’  I am a follower of Jesus-the-Christ.  Would Jesus affirm that our Moral Environment is rooted in love, compassion, forgiveness and healing?  Would Jesus affirm that we are living into and out of his Commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you?’

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This morning gentle reader I will conclude my postings from Washington’s ‘Farewell Address.’  I refer you to Part I for the context of these postings.

Washington writes: Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.  But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand: neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce but forcing nothing; establishing with powers so disposed—in order to give to trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them—conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view, that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another—that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character—that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.

 In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish—that they will control the usual current of the passions or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good, that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism—this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare by which they have been dictated.

 How far in the discharge of my official duties I have been guided by the principles which have been delineated, the public records and other evidences of my conduct must witness to you and to the world. To myself, the assurance of my own conscience is that I have at least believed myself to be guided by them…

 The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations…

 Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love towards it which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat, in which I promise myself to realize without alloy the sweet enjoyment of partaking in the midst of my fellow citizens the benign influence of good laws under a free government—the ever favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.

 GEO. WASHINGTON   UNITED STATES   19th September 1796

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For the context of this post please read – or reread – Part I.

Washington writes: …a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils.  Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification.  It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions, by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

 As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.  How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

 Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign  nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.

 The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

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For the context of this post please read – or reread – Part I.

Washington writes: The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power…has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern…  To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.  If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates.  But let there be no change by usurpation…it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. 

 …reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 

 Promote…as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.  …it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

 ….remember, that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it…

 …avoiding, likewise, the accumulation of debt…by vigorous exertions…not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.  The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives…to facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes…

 Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all; religion and morality enjoin this conduct…and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? 

 It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.  Who can doubt that in the course of time and things the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? 

 The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature.  Alas – is it rendered impossible by vices?

 The nation which indulges towards another and habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.  It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and interest.  Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.  Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests.  The nation prompted by ill will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.  The government sometimes participates in the national propensity and adopts through passion what reason would reject…the peace, often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations has been the victim…

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