Archive for October, 2015

The Ethics of Killing Cecil

Father Larry

Like many people I have been disturbed by the killing of Cecil the Lion — not only for the softer sentimental reasons but also because of what it says about the moral reasoning of humanity at the very moment in time that a deeper wisdom and a higher level of ethical maturity is required for the survival of the planet. I am disturbed by the killing of Cecil because it is indicative of the larger general problem of a world in which immature human beings confronted by enormous planetary problems must make highly mature ethical and moral decisions for the benefit of all God’s good and beautiful creation.

Ethics is simply asking the question: “What is the best way for people to live?” and “What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?” In doing so it concerns itself with such concepts as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. This means, of course, that different people will have different beliefs about what is ethical in a given situation. And it can also mean that situations arise in which there is a conflict between what is legal and what is just or virtuous. Historically some of the world’s most famous and insightful philosophers have argued that because a dog does not reason like a person it can be beaten by its owner without the owner having done anything wrong, immoral, or unethical. However, and it seems to me that this contradicts such a proposition, if a person beats his or her dog, so say the great philosophers, it does say something about that person’s character and is predictive of how he or she may treat other people.

Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil, says he did nothing “wrong” and nothing illegal.” If he had known that this lion was a protected park lion who was a favorite of preserve visitors who had named it, then he would not have killed it. But because he believed the hunt was entirely legal he “took the lion.” Hunting, he said, “. . . is an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally.”

Palmer’s own actions call his veracity on this point into question. In 2008 he got into trouble in Wisconsin for killing a Black Bear forty miles outside the permit area, but falsely claimed the bear had been killed within the legal geographical boundaries. Similarly, he asserted he did not know Cecil was a protected lion wearing a collar until after Cecil was dead meaning, I suppose, when they cut his head off and skinned him. One must wonder why if Palmer and his  “guides” (actually by definition “poachers”) were acting responsibly and ethically Palmer did not say, “Wow guys! Look at this! A collar! We had better call the authorities and tell them we have made a terrible mistake.” But instead they attempted to hide their contemptible act.

Sabrina Corgatelli, another U.S. trophy or tourist hunter, has defended Walter Palmer declaring that Palmer did nothing illegal, and that there is nothing unethical about trophy hunting. To make her point she posted a photograph of a giraffe she killed claiming that it was old and that locals had asked her to kill it because they were hungry. Corgatelli quoted, obviously out of context and missing its point, Genesis 9:3, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” She did not tell how she verified the age of the giraffe or anything else she was told by these people. But if she was really concerned about providing for the hungry she might have donated the money she spent on her self-indulgent Africa hunting trip to provide them with food. But maybe she was more serious in quoting the Bible than what I think. Maybe there is a big slab of giraffe meat in her freezer.

On-line Ms. Corgatelli commented beneath the photo of herself and the dead giraffe, “I have so much love and respect for this animal. It was the most ethical shot I have ever made!!! I have such a disbelief that I got a giraffe.” Notice the language of both Sabrina and Walter. Sabrina “got a giraffe.” Walter “took the lion.” Their language reveals their ethics — the ethics of the taking mentality. The taking mentality is antithetical to every spiritual and every wisdom tradition of every religion as well as philosophical humanism in that it is essentially manipulative and self-absorbed. It is an ethic based on how what “is” can be used for my pleasure, for my benefit, for my ends, and my purposes.

Tilden Edwards. author of Living Simply Through the Day offers a pertinent and wise perspective as he describes “Five Responses Upon Seeing a Flower:”


Oh, beautiful; I can sell it.

Oh, beautiful; I’ll take it.

Oh, beautiful;I want it; but I will let it be.


Sabrina Corgatelli’s  and Walter Palmer’s was clearly the third response. Of course, Walter did not “take the lion” and Sabrina did not “get the giraffe.” The vital essence of each of those animals, the soul or what Genesis calls the nephesh, if you are a believer, flew into the hands of the Creator; or, if you are an atheist into an indifferent oblivion, but they did not get or take anything.

The trophy the hunter possesses is merely a chemically treated skin stretched over some sort of manufactured apparatus and then furnished with clay or glass eyes — just decorated Styrofoam. I have no idea what such a “trophy” is supposed to prove, or what happily posing for a photograph with a dead giraffe evidences. Well, I suppose the trophy is supposed to represent the accomplishment of something difficult and therefore virtuous. But Cecil was lured out of the park by meat tied to the back of a pickup and drug to the well prepared place of ambush where Walter ineptly wounded him with an arrow from a powerful scientifically designed compound bow. Cecil fled and was killed some torturous forty hours later when he was shot by a rifle. I grew up with guns and with men who hunted and sometimes as a young boy I played Big Game Hunter. Many is the time, imagining myself as a rugged mountain man, I was attacked by a giant Grizzly Bear with nothing but a Bowie Knife with which to fight to the death. But what child would want to imitate tourists hunters (luring might be a better word than hunting) armed with formidable compound bows, precision rifles, shooting special ammunition, telescopic sights, jeeps and every human convenience. I am well aware that killing can be addictive, but that it gives a certain “rush” proves no special prowess or virtue. My fourteen and sixteen year-old grandsons and granddaughters could have done what Walter did.

Sabrina speaks of her love and respect for this wonderful, exotic, and magnificent giraffe. But it is impossible to treat even a flower with awe and as an “it” at the same time. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, spoke of our experiences in terms of “I–Thou” and “I–It” events.  In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey says he went into the desert of Moab Utah because he wanted to learn to see and experience a tree, a rock, a cactus, a flower, a bird, or a desert animal as it was in itself — to grasp something of its essence in relation to himself — to experience, to feel, the “I–Thou encounter.” In talking like this Abbey is talking about some of the highest experiences, spiritual experiences, to which human beings can aspire. Albert Schweitzer, the brilliant theologian, concert organist, and medical missionary to Equatorial Africa in the early 1900s, rounded a bend in the river and as his boat passed through a herd of hippos he suddenly understood the deeper meaning of his work as Biblical scholar and theologian, as a musician, as a medical doctor, and as a human being in three word — “reverence for life.”

Ethics and moral reasoning are developmental. People like Lawrence Kohlberg have studied the stages of moral development in the same way Piaget studied the cognitive development of children. Mary Wilcox in Developmental Journey notes that in the earliest stages of moral development right or good is what is pleasant or exciting — it is what I like and want. “Oh, beautiful; I’ll take it.” With normal maturation children pass through the lower to the higher stages of moral and faith development to where ethical and moral decisions are based on universal principles, and where all creation is seen as a worthy end in itself rather than as the means to an end. Because of the rarity of people who exhibit the highest levels of moral reasoning and spiritual development there really is no definitive description. A description of the higher ethical plain is further complicated because it is best understood as an experience and involves an empathy with all things. Sabrina is most likely correct — at the lowest level of moral reason killing the giraffe was an ethical shot. At the higher ethical levels it was an act unworthy of a woman as intelligent and articulate as herself.

Ethics and moral reason are in a very real sense also socially, religiously, and culturally developmental. It would seem bizarre, for example, to hear someone in the United States today defend slavery, as was commonly done in the nineteenth century, as moral. Recently the Connecticut High Court abolished that states death row stating that capital punishment “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency.” In that one little sentence the Connecticut Supreme Court drug judicial thinking another step into the postmodern world. It seems to me the Connecticut Court was saying there has been a development, we might even hope a quantum leap, in societal ethics so that the death penalty can no longer be made to harmonize with the human quest for the true, the good, and the beautiful. In brief, men and women increasingly reject the notion that the death penalty is ethical; nor, as the outrage over Cecil’s killing demonstrated, can they find anything admirable in “tourist hunting.” Like some great river ethics moves and flows to a distant sea.

The killing of Cecil is not the most challenging problem to confront us of late — nor the most tragic. But it is sad, and it is symptomatic. I have no great insight into what is to be done immediately — other than to keep walking toward the light that often seems so  distant and trust that divine process of hope that will lead us ultimately to the Omega Point.

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My Descent into Kierkegaardian Madness

Lawrence Hart


What as a younger man I could be flattered into believing was the eccentricity of creativity or avant-garde thinking, I now, as an old man, recognize to have been early signs of an insidious disorder. As a “left-handed Okie” and “oilfield trash” I knew nothing of the lunatic Kierkegaard or his wild scribbling before a class in Christian philosophy where the passion of his lunacy was reduced to harmless academic categories and analyzed as sterile intellectual propositions – but no one talked about the enormous weight of suffering freighted by such madness.

Poor Soren deteriorated to the point he thought he was a goose — a lean goose with strong wings capable of bearing him upward in heavenly flight. In his delusional thinking he came to believe that the “church” is a flock of geese – plump, delicate, and incapable of flight. Quite frankly I am afraid that this same eusebegenic malady (a disease you can only contract in the church) may consume me as it did Kierkegaard. My only hope lies in the fact that my spiritual imagination simply lacks the amplitude of power to plunge me into such depths.

Researchers who have done the most thorough examination of Kierkegaardian madness are fairly definite in their conclusions regarding its etiology. Those who look too long into the abyss of the institutional church lose their mind; their grip on sanity, and the prognosis for a complete recovery is poor – although not a few are able to maintain what passes for normalcy in our culture by either cutting the roots, submitting to lobotomies, or becoming prostitutes.

That one very occasionally meets men and women of immense integrity, profound spirituality, and purity of heart who see the institutional church mired in the sins of arrogance, injustice, selfish ambition, willful blindness, bureaucratic inaction, banality, and guided more by the politics of power and control than the Spirit; and, yet nevertheless, having looked into the abyss continue to love and serve with complete equanimity, only deepens my despair. Surely their ability to see what is with such clarity while remaining completely sane must be by sheer grace, pure gift, but why is it a gift reserved for so few – I don’t think I can endure it.

Whether it came from someone quite sane or entirely mad I don’t know, but there is a saying that keeps swirling around in the fog of my mind: “The simple church of Jesus went from Palestine to Greece where it became a philosophy, then it went to Rome where it became a government and an institution, and finally found its way to America where it became an enterprise.”

Eugene Peterson is one of those who has managed to hold on to his sanity in spite of anger and frustration with the “shop keeper” mentality of clergy and laity. The entrepreneurial church with which Peterson is so disturbed is about catering to select customers, and always anxiously watching the bottom line. It is about – well it is about “the golden calf” and all that sort of thing. The institutional church is about preserving itself – about protecting money and property and playing the politics needed to accomplish that end. It is about cliques and “in-groups,” and about seldom accepting the risks of love and service. With a wise nod of its head it speaks of “loving fearlessly,” but it is neither loving nor fearless. In his mad ravings Kierkegaard shouted that Christendom is infested with “twaddlers” – cordial, helpful people, institutional insiders, who show up with their little pales, basins, and squirts where there is a fire, but lack the requisite “seriousness” to deal with the crisis. “Superficiality,” goes the lament, “is the curse of our age.”

The church as a philosophy is the church in the grip of “sophists” – academics who grind and sift all the nutrients from Scripture. Like expert illusionists they dazzle and amaze with misdirection, brazenly advertising their work as objective science when it is neither. The truth is while Biblical scholars announce their conclusions as certainties their work is based entirely on conjecture and their reasoning is as circular as a dog chasing its own tale. Their theories, no matter what evidence to the contrary, are like zombies, no matter how many funerals are planned they cannot be put to rest. God becomes a concept, Christ an abstraction, and Scripture a self-help book.

What is to become of me? What am I to do? SK launched a foolhardy frontal assault against the “church” – fool hardy like the last desperate act of a kamikaze pilot in the face of unacknowledged defeat. Or to change the metaphor somewhat, Kierkegaard thought he could dismantle the whole apparatus by shining a light, so to speak, into the dark abyss. But unmotivated people cannot be changed by insight. It is said his early death was due to natural causes – natural causes if one thinks death due to a fevered spiritual imagination is natural. But I digress. Kierkegaard’s response offers no guidance. Perhaps I should flee to some desert hermitage, but my wife probably wouldn’t let me take the dog, and what of the innocents I have now led out into the desert. Should I tell them there is no water in the springs of Raphedim other than what can be squeezed out of the wet mud? Should I companion with other desperados in disparate places without stained class, without incorporation, without exemption, without “twaddlers,” lawless except for Yahweh’s law of love and compassion, and without authority except for the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit? Is there a hidden diocese somewhere, a kind of safe house, with a Kierkegaardian Bishop? Should I call Francis? Or might Francis call me?

I know! I know! You think I am joking, am the joke, or speaking gibberish, the language of Bedlam. Or, that I am either intentionally or unintentionally trying to be annoying. And I do remember a time when my first born declared himself to be “Son of Annoying Man.” But I cannot stop my raving. God help me. God remove this fire in my guts.

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