Archive for May, 2017

For more than fifty years I have held, embraced, reflected upon, struggled with – and I have had the privilege of helping others struggle with – a question: “Is it morally permissible?’   Given all that continues to unfold at the Executive and Congressional Levels of our Government I have found myself, once again, holding this question.  In order to engage the question with you, gentle reader, I have decided to use two classic scenarios.

Scenario #1:  A surgeon enters the hospital through the emergency room.  A nurse rushes up and says: ‘Doctor!!! Two ambulances just pulled in.  There are three people in one and two in the other.  Each person is in critical condition.  Two have damaged kidneys, one has a damaged heart, one a collapsed lung, and one a ruptured liver.  If they do not get an immediate transplant they will die.  Luckily a young man just walked in; he wants to donate blood in order to help.  We can save ALL FIVE accident victims if we take the needed organs from the young, healthy man.  Of course, he won’t survive but he will save the five.

 A Question: Is it morally permissible for the surgeon to take this young man’s organs?

 Scenario #2: An express train is speeding along.  The engineer gets a warning signal that the brakes might be failing.  The engineer looks up and there on the tracks ¼ mile ahead are five people walking on the tracks.  They are walking away from the speeding train and are not aware that a train is rapidly approaching them from behind.  The engineer also notices that there is a fork in the tracks ahead and that the train can be diverted to the side tracks.  Walking on the side track is a person; this person is also not aware of the train.  The engineer has to make a split-second decision.  The engineer can continue on its current course and five people will likely be killed.  The engineer can also redirect the train onto the side track and likely kill one person.

A Question: Is it morally permissible for the engineer to take the side track?

Gentle reader, what is your response to each question?

If you said ‘NO’ to the first question and ‘YES’ to the second, you are like thousands of others who responded to these two questions (the ‘thousands’ comes from the research done by moral psychologists).  My sense is that you also quickly answered these questions – you gave the questions little thought.  So, here are three additional questions: What determined your answer?  What underlying/guiding principles guided you?  What ‘facts’ influenced your answer?

What ‘makes sense’?  In the train case it makes sense (think: it feels right) to kill one person in order to save five.  In the hospital case it doesn’t make sense (think: it feels wrong) to kill one person to save five.  Students in my Ethics Classes explained the hospital case by saying that it is illegal to commit intentional homicide – if you are a ‘responsible doctor.’  In our culture, this is what we have been raised to believe (this is probably true for the majority of cultures).

Our culture inscribed this in our minds when we were quite young (ask a three year old if it is wrong to kill another person and he/she will say it is).

Now apply this legal perspective to the train scenario.  Here, we are willing to kill one person in order to save five.  We are, it seems, willing to do something in the second scenario that we are not willing to do in the first.  Why the mental twisting?  Given our mental twisting, how challenging is it for us to articulate our reasons?  We will explore this and other questions when we continue next time.


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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  Today, we will finish our reflection as we explore the third way: Amicable Separation/Divorce.

I personally prefer, Compassionate-Generous Pluralism, and will embrace Amicable Separation/Divorce rather than War.  Christians are, first of all, fully human-imperfect beings and, as research continues to affirm they are, like all of us humans are, primarily rooted in emotions, not in logic/reason.  Therefore when emotions run amok and trump reason/logic then it might be time for an ‘amicable separation/divorce.  At minimum a separation/divorce will spare the Christians – and the rest of humanity – from another ‘Christian War’.  A separation/divorce will spare all from another spectacle that demonstrates just how nasty ‘those Christians can love one another.’

During the past 40 years I have had the opportunity and privilege of serving two different Christian denominations as they were struggling with powerful internal religious/theological struggles.  The potential ‘war’ was concretized in ‘buildings, property and pensions.’  ‘Cool heads’ (think: emotions tempered with reason/logic) wanted to avoid the lawsuits and embrace a ‘no-fault separation/divorce.’  ‘Hot heads’ were willing to ‘burn it all down’ (think: emotions run amok and hence, not tempered with reason/logic).

I remember inviting these fine folks (they were, indeed, fine folks – they were not ‘evil;’ they were fully imperfect human beings) to consider two scenarios.  The first involved St. Paul.  Imagine St. Paul addressing the emotionally-laden Corinthians when he discovered they were taking their disputes to civil court (see: I Cor. 6:1-6).  St. Paul was not ‘gentle’ with his words.

Then I invited them to imagine Jesus-the-Christ standing at the door of their church and telling the dissenters (each side saw the other as the ‘dissenters’).  ‘Too bad, go away, good luck!’  Is this what Jesus-the-Christ meant by ‘you that are accursed, depart from me’?  Did his words not have to do with our ignoring the naked, hungry and imprisoned?

Then I invited them to think about how they have responded to their church members who were contemplating or seeking a separation/divorce (some of the most vocal in the room had lived this experience and had experienced the love, compassion, and forgiveness of the Community).

Do Christians truly believe that love means – at its root – doing good to the other?  Do Christians believe that they are charged with being faithful to Jesus-the-Christ and His lived message of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation?  All Christian say they pray to the same Jesus-the-Christ and all Christians claim that they are committed to being His followers (think: Follower = one who follows the example of the servant Christ).

Gamaliel’s prayer, I believe, is one that has and will continue to serve us well: ‘O God, if this is from you, let it flourish; if not, reveal its flaws.’ 


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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  Today, we will finish exploring the second, and for me, the most hope-full way: Compassionate-Generous Pluralism.

The Beatitudes make it clear that Christians are to seek and embrace ‘Unity in the Spirit.’  The Beatitudes remind us that this ‘Unity of Spirit’ consists in being humble petitioners for God’s grace, empathic mourners embracing the sufferings of others, collaborators for peace, role-models of mercy and forgiveness, and common ground seekers of God’s vision.

The ‘Unity in the Spirit’, as the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, seeks to cultivate a compassion that conquers condemnation and to nurture a love that trumps hate.  As Matthew reminds us, love is doing good for another, even for the ‘other,’ and love, not tribal solidarity is the Christian’s charge.

It is important for Christians to remember (or learn) that Jesus’ scathing prophetic voice is reserved for those who violate love and justice in their hearts and in their actions: arrogant, self-righteous hypocrites who oppress the poor and neglect the starving and who make their own traditions more important than compassionate-loving kindness in action (see Matt. 23).

As role-models, James and Paul, in spite of their differences, are both true to the ‘Unity in the Spirit.’  Both aim, via faith AND practice, for the same spiritual qualities Jesus proclaims.  The ultimate goal of ‘doctrine’ is Christ-likeness in attitude and action.

Christian history might have emerged in a quite different way if later generations of Christians had taken the first-generation paradigm to heart as they encountered their own differences.  Today, could making the practice of Christ-like humility, compassion, love, forgiveness and healing help Christians embrace one another and affirm, once again, the common ground that Jesus-the-Christ offered them two thousand years ago?

Would it be so difficult, for example, to adopt the ‘Gamaliel Principle’ that saved Peter and John as they stood at trial before the Sanhedrin?  The council debated and discussed the ‘threat’ posed by the new Galilean Heresy (think: Jewish-Christianity).  Gamaliel, the grandson of the great Torah teacher Hillel, advises them to wait and see whether this thing is from God or not (Acts. 5:26-40).

Since then, the question of ‘passing fancy’ or ‘new word from God’ continues to challenge Christians.  In the second century the question was whether to allow one to remarry after the death of a spouse (no kidding – this was a huge deal).  In the fourth century the question was whether to re-admit lapsed believers.  In the eleventh century the challenge involved the description of the Trinity.  Each century provided – and continues to provide – Christians with important challenges/controversies.  Gamaliel’s counsel will still to serve Christians well: Wait it out.  See what fruit it bears.  Don’t damage the garden by pulling up the weeks prematurely.

What if all Christian proponents and Christian opponents prayed the same Gamaliel prayer: ‘O God, if this is from you, let it flourish; if not, reveal its flaws.’?  The second challenge would then involve choosing to be open to what is ‘revealed over time’ – even if what is ‘revealed’ is counter to ‘our’ position.  This, being open in this way, requires ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ in God.  This itself is no little challenge for Christians; especially for Christians rooted in surety.




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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  The second, and for me, the most hope-full, is Compassionate-Generous Pluralism.

Too often it seems, we forget – or we did not know – that early on in the Christian movement a crucial decision was made: to accept the reality of two different Christian peoples.  These two were separate and equal and quite different.  Jewish Christians (think: Peter and James) remained faithful to the Mosaic Law; non-Jewish Christians (think: Paul) were allowed a different practice under what Christian-Jews called the ‘Noachide Laws’ (the universal covenant for the rest of humankind).

In Judaism, God accepts the prayers and obedience of ‘righteous gentiles’ who live under the covenant of Noah.  These ‘righteous gentiles’ embraced the seven ‘Noachide Laws’: prohibition of murder, theft, idolatry, sexual immorality, cursing God, eating blood and the command to set up courts of ‘true justice.’  The ruling of the council in Jerusalem cited in Acts 15:20 alludes to these laws for the ‘people’ God was raising up from among the Gentiles.

The differences between the two Christian peoples included, among other things, understandings of the way to salvation, with Paul insisting that ‘no one can be justified by doing the works of the law’ and James, the leader of the Jewish-Christian Church, stating clearly that we are justified ‘by works and not by faith alone’ (see Gal.2:16 and James 2:24).

It is crucial to remember (or to learn) that the first church council, composed of Jesus’ original followers, family, and the earliest converts, set a precedent that there can be more than one way of being authentically Christian (see Acts 15:1-31).

These folks were being true to Jesus’ own example.  The apostles he called forth were truly diverse: ‘Simon the Zealot’ (the sword-bearer), James, a Pharisee in spirit and practice, some had been disciples of John the Baptist (his movement ran parallel to Jesus’ movement).  Jesus’ ‘Beloved Disciple’ had a Sadduccean background.  The ‘twelve’ represented the pan-Israelite harmony Jesus’ movement proclaimed.  His message: the Spirit of God’s reign is available to all.

As Christians know (or should know) that the basis of unity was JESUS himself – his spirit and his way of being in the world.  The basis of unity was NOT a neat ideological conformity.  True, they all strove to believe, one way or another, in God as revealed to Israel, and they, mostly, came to believe that Jesus was a man ‘sent from God.’  After Jesus-the-Christ left them, the heart of their unity – of their community – continued to be a ‘way of being in the world.’

The early Jesus Community was defined by how disciples treat one another and those they meet as they follow Jesus-the-Christ.  ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35).   [To Be Continued]

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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  The first of these three ways is WAR.

The first, and perhaps most important ‘War’ is the war that takes place within the Christian him or herself.  This is the ‘Jihad’ – the spiritual war within oneself against evil (think: sin).  This is each Christian’s private war; a war that leads to holiness.  Today, I will focus on the war that continues to lead to hellishness.

As a Community of Believers, Christians are more than a little familiar with ‘War.’  ‘War’ continues to be one of the default positions for the Christian.  For the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, Muslims), the first war was a religious war and the protagonists were Cain and Able.  This conflict was rooted in this question: ‘What is the correct form of obedience?’

It is also important for Christians to remember (or note) that Jesus’ disciples started choosing up sides even as they walked with Him.  Then Paul and James wrangled over ‘faith and works’ and managed (unlike many self-righteous Christians since then) to find a way, via common ground, to unity.

Throughout the following centuries generation after generation of Christians have honed (and continue to hone) the art of argument and schism.  Christians have also done (and continue to do) great grace-full deeds AND many of the ways Christians have condemned, excommunicated, and exterminated one another hardly begins to pass the test of Jesus-the-Christ who said, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.’

Good Christians who also held the sword of the State in their hands did more to harm other Christians than any non-Christian ever did.  Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this Christian tendency that they insisted on a separation of Church and State (a separation that is now at risk of being compromised – the Self-Righteous Christian says ‘I am not like other people’ (talk about denial).

As in all war, the Christian who holds a different opinion from another Christian might well become the ‘enemy.’  In war, in order to guilt-free kill the other we must dehumanize or demonize the ‘other.’  Christians have honed their skills when it comes to demonizing other Christians (to say nothing about their ability to demonize non-Christians).

The dissident Christian will be labeled a ‘heretic’ which enables the good Christian to guilt-free reject or kill him/her.  Here are some other common labels attributed to Christians by other Christians: aggressor, barbarian, dog, vermin, enemy of God, tool of Satan, and Satan incarnate.  These self-righteous Christians move from acting in the Name of God to becoming God; they become what they condemn.

Christians claim to dislike war.  However the evidence (past and present) continues to show that Christians like war (see Chris Hedges book: ‘War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning’).  If we pay attention we know that Christians are really at war, hot or cold, when they imply (the subtle approach) or assert outright (the direct approach) that their opponents (think: other Christians) are not really Christians at all (the first step to demonizing the other).

Sometime in the mid-300s A.D., the Patriarch Athanasius encountered his childhood friend, Arius.  They held different views of Christianity.  It is told that when Arius approached Athanasius and said, ‘My old friend, don’t you know me?’ that Athanasius replied, ‘Yes, I know you; you are the first-born of Satan.’  Now there is Christianity at work and at war.

When Christians are waring with other Christians the only ‘unity of the Spirit’ that is possible is that unity we hold with our own partisans (who, are, by the by, the only ‘True Christians’).  The holiness that exists is a crippled holiness, endangered by the ‘quarrels, contentious temper,’ and ‘party intrigues’ which Paul calls desires of our ‘unspiritual nature.’

Jesus-the-Christ warns his followers (think: Christians) about this when He chastises those who ‘greet only your brothers and sisters.’

‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!’ 




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James 1:20 reminds Christians that God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger.  Yet, Christians continue to fight Christians.  This has been going on so long that we have almost become used to the fighting.  Disagreements, arguments, and conflicts occur when certain needs, wants, values, beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes and deep tacit assumptions encounter one another.

Even today good Christian churches/denominations are splitting as a result of the fights about sexuality, interpretation of Scripture and sources of ‘Authority’ (to name three of the many fights that continue to occur).  Here are some common religious terms that indicate the polarities present – these terms are thrown by both sides of the polarity just as hand grenades are tossed by the good guys and the bad guys: ‘Gospel Obedience’ was tossed across the aisle (how many of these grenades have been thrown while folks were sitting in Church) and a salvo from the other side contained ‘Genuine Discipleship.  Then the ‘Scripture and Tradition’ grenade was tossed and this was followed by the grenade from the other side, Guidance of the Spirit.’

Each side believed they were more in touch with Jesus than was the other side.  Every speaker on both sides believed that he or she was being obedient to the ‘Truth.’  These ‘either-or’ disagreements rooted not in ‘faith’ but in ‘human pride’ blinded each side to the common ground that exists (or potentially exists or that had existed).  ‘Paul’ had regressed to ‘Saul’ the ‘persecutor of the Church.’  The noise raised by each side made it impossible for any of the participants to hear the quiet whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit in which conflicts are engaged is, it seems to me, more important than the ‘contents’ of the disagreements.  For centuries now ‘radicalism’ and ‘reaction’ continue to threaten and divide the Christian Community (think: Christendom).  The pride of self-righteousness continues to infect the tap roots that are in place to nurture – not deplete – the Christian Community.  Christians continue to be blinded by the logs of arrogance residing in their own eyes and as a result they project these logs onto the ‘other.’

The good Christian’s arrogant self-righteousness takes the form of hostile rhetoric demeaning the ‘other.’  Other faith and humanist traditions look at Christians and wonder if Christianity is truly rooted in ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and ‘healing’?  ‘See how these Christians love one another’ is uttered with ironic honesty.  ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!’

Lest Christians forget: They are imperfect human beings.  Given this, disagreement and discipleship are twins, joined at the hip.  Given this, what are the alternatives to arrogance and hostility and demonizing?  This question is helpful if Christians believe that embracing disagreement with grace and open-loving hearts are two of the hallmarks of discipleship.  If Christians believe this, then this question comes next: ‘How do Christians maintain the unity of the Spirit when disagreement begins to escalate to revision, retrenchment, radicalism and self-righteousness?’

As I have been reflecting upon all of this for some time now, it seems to me that there are at least three ways open to Christians (I love the Quaker concept of ‘way opening’ and ‘way closing’).  Each contains different possibilities (‘seeds’ if you will) for moving to holiness or to hellishness: war, compassionate-generous pluralism, and amicable separation/divorce.  The movement and unity of the Spirit means something quite different for each one.



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In 1777, in less than a month, two men would make two different decisions – decisions that would dramatically impact our Revolutionary War.  Each man’s decision was powerfully influenced by his culture and traditions which impacted his view of ‘war.’

In 1777 the Americans and the British military generally fought in the European way.  That is, the soldiers would form long ranks, the leading rank would fire a volley then step back and the second rank would step forward and fire a volley.  It was necessary to fire in this way for the soldier’s weapon, the smooth-bore musket, was not accurate at all.  The in-line volley firing increased the odds that someone on the opposing line would be struck.

There also existed another firearm that a few men on each side carried.  This firearm was the rifle.  A rifle, by definition, has a ‘rifled-barrel.’  The rifled-barrel allowed the lead ball to spin and thus the shot fired was dramatically more accurate – at long ranges – than the smooth-bore musket.  Although the Americans had more riflemen than the British, the British riflemen were expert marksmen.

With this in mind, we now return to our story.

On September 11, 1777, an army of 12,500 British troops marched through Pennsylvania toward the patriot capital of Philadelphia. Covering their flank, a detachment of green-clad British riflemen hid in the woods along Brandywine Creek; they kept a lookout for American forces led by General George Washington. Suddenly a senior American officer wearing a high cocked hat rode into view.  He presented himself as a perfect target.

Captain Patrick Ferguson, a 33-year-old Scotsman reputed to be the finest shot in the British army, commanded the British marksmen. Ferguson had three men with him, they were about to ambush the American officers.  Ferguson had the senior American officer in his sights; the officer turned his horse around and presented Ferguson with his broad back.  Ferguson, hesitated and as the officer slowly rode away Ferguson lowered his rifle.  He could not shoot an officer in the back. Ferguson never took the shot.  The officer was George Washington.

Less than a month later, on October 7, 1777, Timothy Murphy, reputed to be the best marksman on either side of the Revolutionary War, was waiting in ambush.  The Battle of Bemis Heights was occurring (the Second Battle of Saratoga).  Murphy was sitting high in a tree.  As he looked out over the field of battle he saw a British General riding out in front of his men.  The General was a large man and even at 400 yards he presented a clear target for Murphy.

Murphy took the shot.  General Simon Fraser was killed.  The British fell back in disarray and the Americans won the day – and the Revolutionary War was dramatically impacted by Fraser’s death.  The War turned in favor of the Americans.

Ferguson had been taught that killing an Officer on the opposing side was inappropriate; it was not how war was to be waged.  Murphy had been taught that it was crucial to shoot and kill British officers for then the rank and file would be leaderless and would not be able to continue fighting.  Ferguson and Murphy followed their ‘learned’ traditions; they lived into and out of their ‘war-culture.’

The Shot-Not-Taken and the Shot-Taken dramatically changed the course of the Revolutionary War in America.

Gentle reader, what is a ‘shot’ that you have taken or one that you have refused to take that have dramatically impacted your life, the life of another, or the course of your life-journey?

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