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Treating the Spiritual Wounds of War
And Why the Healing Efforts of the Military Are Inadequate
Fr. Larry

“War is Hell”

General Sherman, who knew more than a little about the value of shock and awe in waging war, was absolutely correct in declaring, “War is hell, and there is nothing you can do to refine it.” Of course, Sherman was thinking mainly about the fiery hell that the elderly, the sick, the pregnant women, the children whose fathers were away at war, or already wounded or dead, were about to find themselves in as he burned Atlanta to the ground –just as he had pillaged, ravished and slaughtered all the way there. But it is unlikely that Sherman thought much about the hell into which his own troops, in spite of victory, would descend as a consequence of carrying out his orders.

In countering the argument that the Iraq War would be a just and necessary war, there were voices questioning whether military action against Iraq met any of the criteria of a just war, including whether it would justify the costs – not only the costs in money spent and lives lost, but also with serious regard to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage it would do combatants. Sadly, the American people in their denial thought that if they applauded the men and women in uniform, that if they called them “heroes,” that if they “supported the troops,” all would be well in the end. This obviously has not proven to be true.

Distinguishing PTSD and Moral Injury

One cannot watch or read the news without being aware of the enormous suffering experienced by the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – not only the terrible ordeal of physical wounds, but also the psychosomatic anguish of PTSD; and, the hell of moral or spiritual injury. Actually, until relatively recently PTSD and Moral Injury, the Marines euphemistically prefer to call it “Inner Conflict,” were undifferentiated. However, although each causes intense anguish, and while in many cases a dual diagnosis of both is warranted, they are not synonymous.

PTSD is a physical response to prolonged extreme trauma. It is a fear reaction to danger. In fact, it triggers a bio-chemical process in the brain that affects the hippocampus which itself regulates emotions connected to fear and memory. The ability, then, to manage fear and process emotions is impaired by a traumatic event. And, a previous history of emotional trauma or brain injury will serve to exacerbate the most recent trauma. Recent studies suggest that blast concussions themselves may result in trauma to the brain which is then manifested with the symptoms recognized as PTSD.

Moral injury can be attributed more to the violation of one’s own basic beliefs and moral identity. For those who have experienced moral injury the world no longer can be regarded as orderly or trustworthy, or human beings as basically good. Killing someone, torturing, abusing dead bodies, failing to prevent such acts, or even handling human remains in the violent context of war can result in moral injury. Seeing a comrade in arms violate significant moral values, or feeling lied to or betrayed by those in authority, may be significant contributing factors. Violating one’s conscience, even if the act was unavoidable or seemed the right thing to do at the time, can have devastating consequences and lead to debilitating depression, profound remorse, excruciating guilt, and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Further, violating one’s conscious, or even unconscious, core values, precisely because they are at the core of our very being, throws any healthy or anchoring sense of self-identity into utter chaos.

In an open letter to President Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director John Brennan, four former drone operators told how they came to see themselves as complicit in the killing of innocent civilians. The four are Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis and Michael Haas. When he left the service Bryant was given a report of the number of killings he had been involved in – 1,626. What Bryant knew, and could not live with, was that in one study of a five-month period 90% of those killed were not the intended targets. He tells of one incident in which the drone team waited for five men traveling from Pakistan to Afghanistan with their camel to settle down for the night. And, then, without knowing who they were or what they were doing rained exploding fire down on them. “That,” says Bryant, “was cowardly murder.” What the military would do with Bryant and his three friends, is to help them in their rationalizations of the event – and that might even help for a while. But if the rationalizations begin to collapse, if as frequently happens the rationalizations, because they are after all only rationalizations, quit working, then hell returns.

Why the Military Cannot Heal Moral Injury

Sitting in a conference on ministry to the military, most of which dealt with the moral, religious, and spiritual aspects of PTSD, and how churches could be supportive of the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, I had an epiphany – a moment in which it became obvious just how incredibly difficult it is for anyone connected with and accountable to the military to be sufficiently helpful, not because they don’t want to help, or lack compassion or professional training, but because there are two simple propositions they cannot fully entertain.

The Two Propositions

First, helping professionals in the military cannot entertain the notion, or perhaps more correctly, they cannot accept the possibility, that those sent to the wars may have gone riding on a lie. After a presentation on Christian pacifism, a former Marine officer asked me about the possibility of a “just war.” My response was that even if one accepted the possibility of a “just war” it was an irrelevant concept for the person in uniform, since even if he or she thought the conflict unjust there was still no choice but to go and kill. The Pope, and the bishops and leaders of every mainline denomination in America, declared that an attack on Iraq did not meet the criteria of a just war. But when the U.S. Commander and Chief lies about weapons of mass destruction, imminent danger, and torture, it is a lie that has to be accepted, or at least rationalized, by those in uniform. So how, if you are part of the system, can you treat someone for moral injury who believes he or she has been betrayed by what they believed to be an honorable system? How, when you must argue against the very possibility, do you help someone heal who believes he or she has been manipulated into acting in ways so dark that they are a denial of one’s essential humanity?

Once it is accepted that the individual’s perception that he or she has been lied to, and betrayed by those in authority, is a valid point of view the question becomes, in terms of Cognitive Therapy, what does this belief or sense of betrayal mean, represent, or signify to that person? Using the downward arrow technique of Cognitive Therapy, Socratic questioning, or the sort of wisdom probing Jesus often engaged in, it should be possible to uncover those interpretations of the betrayal that are “unrealistic” and at the source of the suffering. Once that is done the work of reexamining and replacing those beliefs with more “realistic” beliefs and functional interpretations can begin. That is, the therapist must be able to say to the morally injured soldier, “So, if in going to war and killing you have been betrayed by our own government, what does that mean, symbolize, or represent about you personally? Let me play the devil’s advocate, so to speak, and ask, if this is all true, so what?” Note, it is necessary to “accept” the assessment of the injured person before exploring the event’s meaning. Cognitive Therapy is not a matter of disputing the facts of the situation, but of processing the implications even if they are true.

For example, soldiers who believe they were manipulated into an unjust war of aggression, may make the discovery that at a deeper level this sadly means to them that there is now no one and nothing in the universe that can be trusted, not even their own judgment, that there is nothing to hold to, nothing and no one to give guidance, nothing but deception and chaos everywhere. Recovery can only come when they choose to replace that belief by one that is more realistic; such as, “People and situations cannot always be trusted but God can.” Or, “There is nothing reprehensible about having been fooled, if we choose to change, with God’s help, what we can about ourselves once we recognize the truth.” Notice, however, that once again it is not the fact of what happened that is disputed, but what it means personally for the individual that is questioned.
Second, helping professionals in the military cannot acknowledge, dare not think, that the guilt and self-revulsion experienced by the morally and spiritually injured is a wholly valid response to a violation of real and non-disposable values – a betrayal of the Imago Dei. When someone like former Marine Captain Timothy Kudo, a veteran of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, sees himself as a “monster” it must be taken with a depth of seriousness and understanding sufficient to the problem. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Psychology professor at West Point, in his excellent book, On Killing, engages in the very sort of denial he earlier decries as he writes: “Over and over again I have said. . . (Said to veterans), You did all that anyone could ask you to have done, and I am truly proud to have known you.” Grossman says of the veterans who have written of how they were “sickened” by killing, “I believe that as veterans write such narratives, they do not mean to say that the war was wrong or that they regret what they did, but that they simply want to be understood.”
The problem with Grossman’s intervention is that it lacks the therapeutic quality of appropriateness; and, is offered prematurely. “Appropriateness” refers to a response or level of thinking and imagination that is congruent with the seriousness or playfulness or intensity of the event. Telling a soldier who has shot to death a wounded Iraqi pleading for mercy that he or she has done nothing wrong, that he or she is a good person who was simply placed in a bad situation leads to a premature pseudo forgiveness that can do little to heal the anguish that tortures him or her day and night. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, the authors of Soul Repair, are correct in asserting, “Positive thinking denies moral truth, and inflicting harsh judgment on those who understand their moral transgression in war deepens the inner condemnation of conscience and steals the will to live.” Moral Injury needs to be understood as a normal reaction to an abnormal morality. And, although beyond the scope of this article, it should be further noted that some soldiers become addicted to killing. Leaving us to ponder which manifestation of injury is the more severe and tragic.

Moral Questions and Recovery

So what if there is a “way” and a not the “way” human beings were meant to live? What if there is a way organic to our humanity? What if there is an essentially moral nature to being human – to reality? What if killing is not wrong merely because someone fancies it to be wrong, but because it is in reality an egregious sin? What if, “Thou shalt not kill” was etched not merely in stone, but somehow mysteriously written in the human soul? In that case wouldn’t it be incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to free people from the terrible grip of their existential suffering, by convincing them that they only imagine they have “sinned against God and their neighbor?” O. Hobart Mowrer, in his The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, is more than a little helpful here. Mowrer, a humanistic psychiatrist who offended his students by using the word “sin,” wrote: “But what is here generally overlooked, it seems, is that recovery (constructive change, redemption) is most assuredly attained, not by helping people reject and rise above their sins, but by having them accept their sins.” Mowrer was convinced that it is impossible for someone living with real unacknowledged sin, or in the fog of unexpiated guilt, to accept him or her self – “not if he or she has any character at all.” Every effort to reassure such people and to help them find self-acceptance through positive thinking is doomed to failure. “But,” argued Mowrer, “the moment they (with or without ‘assistance’) begin to accept their guilt and their sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up; and with this, the individual may legitimately, though not without pain and effort, pass from deep pervasive self-rejection and self-torture to a new freedom, of self-respect and peace.” Mowrer rejected what he referred to as “the theological baggage” of the Judeo/Christian tradition; and, yet, believed there are “eternal verities in that tradition with which we must come to terms or get hurt.” Those “eternal verities” constitute the insurmountable problem for the military in the treatment of moral injury.

Military Virtue and Spiritual Morality

In 2009 the Department of Defense invested $125 million in developing the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. The CSF program evaluates fitness in five different areas, including spiritual strength. The military sees spiritual fitness as those qualities that sustain a person in times of stress, hardship, and tragedy. If soldiers believe in something higher than themselves, then they are far more likely to embrace the sort of “higher values” inculcated by the military establishment: Never leave a fallen comrade. Never accept defeat. Place the mission first – all values which make a soldier effective in combat. At the beginning of the Gulf War a young, bright and articulate fighter pilot was asked by a television reporter how he felt about the civilians killed by his exploding rockets. He replied something like this, “Sometimes you just have to be guided by higher values and accept the collateral damage.” There can be little doubt he possessed a number of high virtues that made him an admirable person and resilient as a combatant – duty, honor, loyalty, courage. But CSF leaves out the highest values – empathy and compassion for every human being. The approach of the military to spirituality is mechanistic and amoral, so that the most spiritually fit are those who can best rationalize or ignore the deeper, often agonizing questions, posed by war.

The Final Word is Grace

Moral healing can only be effected by spiritually moral means. Corrupt or self-serving means always lead to corrupt and self-serving ends. But here, one must also question the end itself. People of faith believe, of course, that no matter what there is always, at every level, hope of redemption. There is no act we can commit so heinous that it is beyond the healing grace of God, but grace is never cheap, casual, or an easy short cut. Genuine “faith healers” know this.

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Faith and Politics 2016
Fr. Larry

I recently read an interesting article in the publication of a mainline denomination, interesting from the perspective that the author, an important leader in that denomination, was so careful not to endorse either of the two presidential candidates; or, to declare a position on any of the important issues, that nothing much was really said. Well the article did say we should be good people in the harsh political environment in which we live, and I guess that is something.

Many people think that the U.S. Constitution prohibits churches from all political activity, which is incorrect. It is not the Constitution but a little-known tax provision created by Lyndon Johnson that prohibits churches from endorsing or campaigning against candidates for federal elected office. The idea is that since churches are exempt from paying taxes they should not exert influence in the election of candidates.

I certainly would not want to get Saint Auggie’s, the faith community I serve, into trouble with the IRS by declaring my support for a particular candidate. Nor, do I want to offend any member of our little fellowship. However, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of life, nothing in the totality of our daily human existence, that is not inherently spiritual. Someone once asked Senator Ted Kennedy, “Where does all this concern for the poor come from?” Kennedy responded, “Haven’t you ever read the New Testament?” I feel it incumbent on me, therefore, as a pastor and priest to accept my responsibility to advocate for biblical justice. So, while I can’t say why you should or should not vote for Trump or Clinton, or Issa or Applegate,or anyone else I can say something about the issues:

  • The Jesus Way requires the unambiguous renunciation of violence in all its forms – physical, psychological, intellectual, economic, racial, and sexual to name just six. As for torture, it is a monster bred in the darkest depths of hell.To say that someone is both a professed Christian and an advocate of torture is a contradiction in terms. Neither of the presidential candidates embraces this sort of 1st century discipleship, so I look for the closest approximation. I look for the candidate least likely to go to war or to expand and escalate an existing war. Since I believe that the people of a nation may be basically good but that empire is by its nature evil, I look for the candidate who seems less interested in enlarging the military or its budget, and more interested in meeting the basic needs of the people, especially the most vulnerable. No man or woman, and certainly no child, should be hungry, or without shelter, or health care – or the opportunity for a quality education. I favor radical gun control, but reasonable controls would be a start. Guns are symbols. A symbol is something which points beyond itself to something else. A symbol not only points to something beyond itself, but it also participates in the reality to which it points. Guns are symbols then which participate in the reality of systemic violence, aggression, and hostility.
  • The Way of Christ is the way of self-sacrifice, “poverty,” generosity, mutual caring, humility, and fairness or justice. When 84 individuals possess as much wealth as 3.5 billion people combined, then something has gone terribly awry – mammon and what the Bible calls “sin” have become our master. Reality is, people don’t use money, money uses people. Consequently, I am for that candidate that is most for wealth equality, for a sustainable wage for workers, for taxing the rich who acquire and perpetuate their wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Reagan is the genius who came up with the idea of trickle down economics — the idea that the richer the rich get the more they will invest in enterprises that will financially benefit the rest of us. But the historical verdict is in – it just doesn’t work that way.
  • In 2001 I wrote an article for Episcopal Life under the title “Troubled by Simplistic Notions.” You can find it under the essays or reflections menu on my personal website (Father Larry’s Journal of Contemplative Living). In that article I drew attention to police brutality in Denver, Colorado – specifically in regard to two separate fatal shootings of young developmentally delayed black men. I was criticized as “a leftist priest who had lost his faith.” However, I can assure you that it is not out of an absence of Christian faith, but out of its presence that I look for that candidate who is concerned with the careful psychological screening, training, and accountability of police officers as well as their safety. The North Korean police are great at maintaining order – that doesn’t make them an admirable police force.
  • I have no idea how to solve the problem of illegal immigration – I don’t know that anyone does. I am not even sure what the problem is or if when all the numbers are crunched there is one. I have never seen a study clearly defining the benefits versus the deficits. So I just don’t know. What I do know is that the Christian path, going back to the Jewish Torah, requires that I treat “the stranger,” the alien, whether legal or illegal, with kindness, and respect, and with full regard for his or her human dignity and needs. As Christians this should be more important to us than whether someone can cut undocumented border crossings to zero. Our business, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of the New Testament, is to: “Let everyone we meet know we are on their side, working for them not against them.” It’s just the Christian way.

Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, said he would rather be ruled by a competent Moslem than an incompetent Christian. In our historical time and place, candidates cannot be evaluated by their religious faith – or lack of it. The fact that once upon a time Hillary Clinton taught Sunday school in a Methodist Church is, fifty plus years later, largely irrelevant. There is nothing to suggest that she has maintained a vital connection to her faith or faith community. And for Donald Trump to suggest that because he thinks he might possibly have been baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian Church, he is an Evangelical Christian is absolutely ludicrous. What we can do is to look at the trajectory of someone’s life and work and match that with the policies they articulate in order to get some idea of where they might go. And, to then pick the candidate whose destination is closest to our own. That shouldn’t be too difficult for you as a Christian if you have ever read the Sermon on the Mount.

Pulse: A Response

The Pulse: A Response
Fr. Larry

When I am asked what I think about the slaughter at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I don’t have much of an initial response. Like the killing of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora, or the heartless and deadly violence visited on that welcoming shared Scripture study in Charleston, I just feel the horror, the sorrow, the insanity that is too intense for words. Mainly I just hold the injured, and the dead, and the suffering, and the grieving and the people of our country in the silence of my heart without words or thought and hope, that in spite of my being a sinner God will hear my Saint Francis Prayer.

And sometimes, viewing the world through the lenses of an old man who has seen evil as it seems to grow exponentially in our world, I remember what E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist clergy person and five-time nominee for the Noble Peace Prize, wrote seventy years ago in 1946:

The outer arrangements of humanity are awry, because the inner arrangements of humanity are awry. For the whole of the outer arrangements of humanity rest upon the inner. The breakdown in international comity is due to the breakdown in something back behind the economic and political – a breakdown of the spiritual. . . The outer collapse is simply an outer expression of a more serous inner collapse.

Jones went on to write that, “People cannot get along with each other because they cannot get along with themselves, and they cannot get along with themselves because they cannot get along with God.

What more is there to say? Well one thing we can say without fear of Biblical contradiction, is that people like the Baptist Preacher who rejoiced in the Pulse nightclub killings, do not have a Christian experience of God – are not Christian. If you need, as the old brothers and sisters of the poor little church I grew up in used to put it, “chapter and verse,” then you might begin with a meditation on Matthew 7:15-16; John 13:34-35; or, Matthew 5:43-44.

When I look into the night sky what I see above me is a great darkness with little pinpoints of light scattered across that infinite expanse. And what I do know without a doubt is that not only each individual Christian, but also each community of faith, is called to be a light in the darkness by which “wretched humanity” in all its despair, to use Br. Mark’s phrase from The Cadfael Chronicles, has the opportunity to be guided to a better and living way.

Suspending the Episcopal Church
Fr. Larry

A number of people have asked what I think about the Episcopal Church “getting kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion;” that is, those churches throughout the world in fellowship with the see of Canterbury. I am no great expert on the subject, although I haven’t read anyone else who sounds like an expert either, but by simply being honest, and as someone who continues to love the Episcopal Church, I may be able to offer some clarification, and perhaps a somewhat larger perspective on what has happened and its significance for the future church, which includes, but is not limited to the Episcopal Church.

First, it should be noted that the Episcopal Church has not been expelled, ejected, or kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion. What has happened is that the Episcopal Church’s participation in those councils and events by which the Anglican Communion determines policy and doctrine has been suspended. There is obviously a big difference between suspension and expulsion. A high school youth may be suspended from school for a few days to consider his or her actions that are troubling to the school’s authorities, and given time in which to make some amends. If instead they decided to continue in the behavior that got them into trouble to begin with they may be expelled which is, of course, a more serious and permanent disciplinary action. The Anglican Communion has suspended the Episcopal Church for three years giving it time to change its mind primarily in regard to the ordination of gays and lesbians and performing same sex marriages. Bishop Curry, however, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has made it clear that the Episcopal Church is not going to reverse itself on this issue; nor is it likely that the Anglican Communion as a whole is going to reverse itself. I don’t think Bishop Curry is being the least bit obstinate – I think he is simply being realistic. So, I am neither particularly prophetic nor clairvoyant in predicting that in three years the Episcopal Church will very probably be expelled and that at some point thereafter those conservative churches which have coalesced into one of the new American “Anglican” denominations, will be admitted into the World Wide Anglican Communion in its place. This has in fact been the stated strategy of dissident “American Anglicans” for at least sixteen years.

For both sides matters of deep principle are at stake. For the Episcopal Church it is a matter of fundamental Biblical justice – to be in communion with God is to share God’s concerns, purposes, and desires of compassion, love, mercy and justice for all humanity. The majority of the Anglican Communion, interpreting the Bible far differently, believes the issue to be one of basic sexual morality – that there is a “sexual holiness code” to be found in Scripture, which if violated leads to eternal perdition – torment in a lake of fire for ever and ever. Who knows whether ages and ages hence this fracturing may be healed, for now it seems highly unlikely that the two sides will find a way to simply agree to disagree and continue on as institutionally one.

There are, course, many other factors in play so that this is far too simplistic an assessment. One of the major complications is that the field of Christian influence has shifted from the Global North to the Global South. A century ago four times as many Christians lived in the Global North (Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and North America) as in the Global South. Today 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South – 61%. About one-in-every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa and about one-in-eight in Asia and the Pacific. Nigeria has more than twice as many Protestants as Germany – the birth place of the Protestant Reformation. Brazil has twice as many Catholics as Italy. The American Physics Society compiled a list of those countries that would have no religion by the end of this century. They include the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Estonia, and Britain. Note: If there is no religion in Britain will there be a Canterbury Cathedral, a Lambeth Palace, or Archbishop of Canterbury? Even if there is the “polar” shift of Christianity to the Global South will mean, and already means, that fewer and fewer Anglicans will see any reason for their Communion to be centered in Canterbury England. African Bishops are already asserting, “The way to heaven does not necessarily go through Canterbury.” And what, in a hundred years, will all this mean for Rome as the center of Western Catholicism? Pope Francis who is so obviously a part of this movement to bring the Roman Church into the postmodern world is, after all, Argentinian, not Italian.

The age of traditional imperialism and colonialism is over. Whether we of the Global North like it or not, whether we like the conservative hermeneutics of the Global South, or find their attitude towards homosexuals reprehensible, or even diabolical, the reality is that they have, for a very long time, found Episcopal bishops condescending, rude, offensive and arrogant so that the relational or process issue is now deeper and more complex than the content question of homosexuality alone. No. It’s not likely that the World Wide Anglican Communion will hold together. I am not at all suggesting that one may not legitimately choose to enjoy its quaint beauty while it lasts, only that neither the beauty nor the enjoyment are infinite.

Welcome or unwelcome we live in a time of global cultural revolution. The conflict between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is but a small manifestation of the radical changes which have already occurred, are occurring even now, and others that will soon come to pass. The era of denominational Christianity is at an end. What the World Council of Churches could not accomplish mechanically (the organizational unity of denominational churches) ordinary Christian men and women have achieved — an ecumenical Christianity created organically by simply dismissing denominational lines as irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that denominations will disappear tomorrow, but that their relative importance drops further and further all the time. In the small congregation I presently serve people identify themselves in all sorts of ways — Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Anglican, Ecumenical Catholic, and frequently we enjoy the gentle presence of a Hindu. Denominations that continue to function primarily as permission givers and financial institutions will simply become irrelevant at an accelerating pace. Congregations will increasing ask why they need hierarchies that provide nothing but a bottomless pit in which to cast their valuables. Those denominations that function as resource centers for congregations doing contextual ministry, for the work of spiritual formation, and for the skill development, certification, and deployment of clergy will, obviously, lengthen their existence by their relevancy.
Christians of the Global North do not care much, then, about the doctrinal distinctions that once seemed so important to church members. At one time if you knew an individual’s denominational preference you knew an awful lot about what that person believed. Today Protestant fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have more in common with Catholic fundamentalists and other Protestant conservatives whatever their denomination than they do with more progressive believers, even where they are members of the same denomination – or the same congregation. And those who are drawn to something more like what Marcus Borg referred to as the emerging paradigm of Christianity, have far more in common with each other than they do with conservatives regardless of formal denominational ties.

The church emerging in the postmodern world is less institutional than medieval and modern expressions of the church; that is, it is less concerned about protecting its physical existence as an organization, less entranced by money, power, and status; and, less inclined to give unthinking “obedience” to leadership based on authoritarian demands and threats. Instead, it understands that the heart must be consecrated to Christ alone, that leadership must be based on wisdom and service. The future church will be more focused on Christ’s work of compassion, peace, and justice, than with “personal salvation” in the fundamentalist sense. Biblical interpretation will be based less on superficial, literal, and intellectually incomprehensible readings, and more on underlying spiritual principles capable of transforming individual human lives and the world we live in. There are indications that the connection with classical liturgical worship and spiritual disciplines are being rediscovered, but practiced in a more relaxed and contemporary setting. In time the postmodern church that is now emerging in the Global North will very likely arrive where it begun – as a community of faith very much resembling the Jesus people of the first century.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one cultural era ends neatly with smooth ends as another begins – or that all the people of one generation think quite differently from all the people before or after it. Sometimes I hear people arguing anecdotally about things like church music. The fact that someone has a seventeen-year-old who prefers traditional hymns doesn’t prove anything more than does the seventy-year-old grandfather preferring Christian rock. What we know for certain is that regardless of their pace “the changes, they are a comin’.” And it is this to which the most recent rupture in the World Wide Anglican Communion is but one small pointer.

The real question is how you choose to love and serve Christ in an age of change. It may be that you feel called to be an agent of God’s goodness in a rigidly traditional and institutional church, and that doing so is just good for the health of your soul. If so, then I say as sincerely as I know how, “May God bless you, and in that setting work with you in accomplishing the Holy Trinity’s great eternal purposes.” Or, it may be that you have a vision, or at least an inkling, of what the future might promise. Like Robert Kennedy you may see things as they never were, and wonder “why not?” If so, may God bless you on your journey to the future church.

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:”

So?

Oh, beautiful; I can sell it.

Oh, beautiful; I’ll take it.

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

Ah!

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.

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.

Unquiet Musings in an Age of Unreason
Father Larry
In the debate between Carl DeMaio and Scott Peters in the 2014 52nd Congressional District Race, DeMaio sought to position himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. In spite of my own kin making the same claim, it is a position that makes absolutely no sense to me. To be an advocate of peace, justice, and compassion is not without costs – including financial costs. Social liberalism and financial conservatism are mutually exclusive. “No one can serve two masters.” That’s precisely why Bill and Hilary Clinton have always been denied liberal credentials.

We cannot afford the rich. Over 3 billion people attempt to exist on $2.50 or less a day. The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world. No, humanity cannot afford them.

The report of the UN Committee Against Torture found the United States not to be in compliance with international anti-torture treaties. And, the report compiled by the bipartisan United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and its use of various forms of torture details confirms what we already knew – the United States of America engaged in the systematic torture, sometimes resulting in the deaths, of detainees. What the report reveals is – well sickening. The fact that the CIA Director and former Directors or fellow conspirators in this evil, like Dick Cheney, use the same euphemisms and rationalizations (Vershharfte Vernehmung, is well translated as “sharpened” or “enhanced interrogation”) as their World War II Nazi counterparts on trial at Nuremberg for war crimes does nothing to curb the nausea. Neither is it surprising. For Bush, Cheney, or those employed by the CIA to admit the reality would be to confess themselves as war criminals.

The UN panel was also critical of police brutality and the excessive use of force by police officers in the U.S. When we lived in Colorado two young black men in two separate incidents, both suffering from cognitive impairment, were shot and killed by the police — I believe by the same officer — who like Daniel Pantaleo had absolutely no business serving on any police force. In one case a young man, just a kid to me, was standing in his yard holding a knife. Because he was within twenty feet of the officer the law said it was legal to shoot him to death. Of course, what is legal and what is just and right and good are often two very different things. Obviously our society needs and will always need competent police officers, but law enforcement officers with overwhelming power and control issues, or prejudices that interfere with their ability to function thoughtfully and equitably contribute to a systemically violent society. I am entirely supportive of what I hope becomes a sustained effort to eliminate sanctioned violence. I also think such a movement can be helped by keeping in mind that the strength of the protest is in direct proportion to the purity of the victim.

I am not much disturbed by the possibility of Obama Care being dismantled, maybe then we can work toward universal single payer health care and move beyond the Wal-Mart level of development to become a civilized nation.

I used to wonder how the Republicans could be so wrong about just nearly everything. Ronald Reagan argued that because of the economic boom that would take place there would be no growth in the federal budget deficit, but budgeted federal revenues dropped creating a huge fiscal hole. In the early 1980s Republicans worked for the deregulation of the savings and loan industry. Within seven years the federal government lost $125 billion dollars in payouts. There are plenty of other fantasies: Abolishing bank regulations will help the economy, Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction and was a front for Bin Laden, and Obama Care actually hurts people. I used to wonder how Republicans could be so wrong about so much, and then I realized they are not wrong they are right! They do indeed know how to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

A nation that is unable or unwilling to recognize its own complicity in the oppression of the poor or in the violence of global terrorism is simply incapable of producing solutions adequate to the problems it faces. Substantial and long-term answers only come, as they have always come, from the highest aspirations of the human heart espoused by all the great faith and wisdom traditions of the world — compassion, justice, peace, mercy, faith, and some sort of reflective repentance.

The Republicans have accused the President of misleading all of us by asserting that progress is being made against ISIS. That leaves me puzzled as to what to make of the almost daily reports of towns and villages being taken back from ISIS. It may just be that because of my commitment to pacifism I have terms like “winning” and “losing” all confused.

What do I think of American Sniper and Chris Kyle? Well it makes me think of the 1964 film “The Americanization of Emily” — an American comedy-drama war film starring James Garner and Julie Andrews. Garner’s character argues both humorously and dramatically that the way to end war is to get people to see the simple reality that the wounded and the dead of war are victims rather than heroes. It makes me think on what Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, former army Ranger, paratrooper, and Psychology Professor at West Point, says in his book On Killing — how killing in combat can become addictive. It makes me think of the “Fargo” television series in which the Gus Grimly character kills the evil Loren Malvo but in doing so is somehow himself diminished. And Chris’s real life assertion that “violence can be a solution” is so mind numbing and heart numbing that I don’t think at all.