Sunday, September 27, 2009

Here’s a wonderfully revealing quote from the National Academy of Sciences:

Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

This is interesting; this is good.  
When I read it, though, it dawned upon me that I don’t remember taking the time to see what the Jews to whom the Genesis creation stories were originally given are thinking about this debate between those who support a rather literal interpretation of Genesis and who see themselves as creationists and those who do not buy into biblical literalism and who, in contrast, affirm evolutionary theories.  The Jews are not in agreement on
this issue!  I was shocked!
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents rabbis from the Orthodox end of Judaism--the most conservative Jews aside from Hasidic Judaism--said as far back as four years ago that evolutionary theory is not compatible with the teachings of ancient Hebrew scripture, notably the creation accounts in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis.  Eager, generally, to affirm the work and the findings of science, Orthodox Judaism tries to go the distance in affirming and benefitting from scientific findings.  In this case, however, no can do.  Evolution makes no place for a divine Creator.  Evidently, none of these Orthodox rabbis spoke with the National Academy of Sciences.
Reform Judaism, the liberal end of Judaism, spoke to the issue too:

Objective scientific processes and theories must never be subverted to serve religious, political, or ideological goals. As people of faith have long known, science and God are complementary. Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and physician, taught that an individual’s ability to learn was a key element of spirituality....Evolution deals with how life on earth has changed over millions of years; it does not address theological questions such as how the universe was formed nor does it deal with the issue of personal morality and faith. It is important to note that the Reform Movement is not completely opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools – rather, we believe there is a place for this concept in courses that deal with religion, theology, etc. We simply to do not believe it belongs in science class.

Karen Armstrong is one of the most highly respected and widely published scholars of religion, in its broadest sense, in the world.  She is British and a former nun.  She is a tireless student of humanity’s search for God, and while her own convictions about just who God is, from human perspective, put her clearly with the liberal crowd affirming that God is, she is not someone whom Christian conservatives embrace.  Her most famous book very well may be A History of God.  Armstrong’s view of God is that God is the wonder or mystery at the heart of life--that amazing core to which the only human response can be, “Ah,” or, “Wow!”  If anyone has completely let go of an anthropomorphic God, it’s Karen Armstrong.  
Richard Dawkins is also a Brit.  He is an evolutionary biologist who was Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.  Dawkins gave us the word, “meme.”  He is an outspoken atheist and a zealous advocate for evolutionary theories.  In his home country he has been called “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”  Widely published as is Armstrong, Dawkins’s most popular book is The God Delusion.  His most recent book is titled, The Greatest Show on Earth:  Evidence for Evolution; it is presently a best settler in Britain, Australia, and Ireland.  Dawkins’s personal website is called “a clear-thinking oasis.”  
Just over a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published the fascinating results of a little journalistic experiment.  The “Journal” asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to a respond to a question with no idea whatsoever of what the other would say.  The question was this:  where does evolution leave God?
It wasn’t that Armstrong and Dawkins were or would be worlds apart on the issue.  If they had wanted that, they could have asked that intellectual giant, theologically sophisticated Dr. Laura, to spar with Dawkins.  
While Armstrong believes that God is, in the way that I’ve described, her view of God hardly makes her the sweetheart of the religious right.  In fact, they may hate her more than they hate Dawkins.  At least with Dawkins, atheist that he is, no one can deny that he is hell-bound.  Convincing everyone that someone who believes in God in any kind of way is also hell-bound takes sooooo much more work.  
Here’s a little taste of what this brilliant ex-nun wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and don’t you know her former order will never come forth and claim that it is what she once left?  

Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

For Karen Armstrong, there is no real connection between God, who is something like mystery at the heart of life, and how life in all its forms evolved.  She doesn’t make God the Creator so there is no contradiction between a divine Creator and the ups and downs of how evolution has adapted life--and continues to adapt life.  
Dawkins makes no place for God at all.  Here’s a flavor of what he wrote late last week in the Wall Street Journal:

Evolution is the universe’s greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated....Where does that leave God?  The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must be at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

Since the creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis are at the heart of the controversy, I think some greater understanding of those passages is in order, and the first issue that I must acknowledge is that literalists generally don’t see, or don’t admit to seeing, two separate creation stories.  Ignoring the fact that there are two stories in Genesis, each with its own take on both the order of creation and the length of time it took God to complete the work of creation, literalists claim that nothing more than restatement is going on in the second story.  This demonstrates that few of those who appeal to Genesis 1 and 2 as the basis for their views on creation and evolution have read Genesis 1 and 2 for themselves.  
The first account of creation in Genesis chapter one and the first few verses of chapter two is a poem or a hymn.  The second account is prose.  The first account of creation describes creation as having taken place in six days with a little bit left over to do early on the sabbath before God the Creator took most of the day for rest. In the second account of creation, the whole thing happens in a one day.  By the way, the word translated as “day” in English there can mean an unspecified period of time, an era perhaps, just as easily as it can mean day. 
I do believe both creation stories in Genesis affirm that God is the Creator who was involved in bringing the world into being.  As far as having to believe literally, therefore, that God directly tended to every tiny detail of bringing the various aspects of the world into being toward the end of full functionality, no.  That is absolutely not necessary in the interpretive process.  The idea that God created can just as easily mean that God set in motion a process that led to the creation of stars and fish and vegetation as well as a heating and cooling system.  
Here is how the second account, the prose account, of creation begins in the book of Genesis:

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Woman would be created later, after God saw how lonely the man was with only animal and plant companionship.  In the poetic account, however, man and woman are created at exactly same time, through a single divine act.  Not so in this second account of creation.
Those who insist that these two creation stories must be affirmed as true by anyone who wants to have a personal connection to God also believe that none of the ancient Hebrews had any skill with understanding symbolism, poetry, and figurative language.  In fact, the ancient Hebrews were masters at devising poetry and metaphor and symbols.  This is very important because aside from affirming that God was behind the process, which is what conservative and liberal Jews affirm and what many Protestant and Catholic persons of faith also affirm, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that all ancient Hebrews believed God whipped up this vast complex world order is six days with just a little more to take care of on the morning of what became sabbath.  If the ancients who created the literature had no necessary compulsion to read it literally then those who use the same scripture today are not under obligation to do so.  
I want to stress that there are numerous legitimate reasons for not reading these parts of ancient Hebrew scripture literally.  The fact that those who preserved the stories orally for hundreds of years probably didn’t think of them as literal recountings of precisely how the world had come into being is just one of those.  
I find it interesting to keep in mind that these celebrations of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 were pulled into relatively final form not as the earliest reflections that would eventually become “scripture,” but some 600 years before Jesus was born while the Hebrews who told these stories and preserved them were at a very low point.  They were in exile imposed by Babylon--torn from their homes and their means of working to provide for themselves and their families; torn from their places of worship, their freedom, and the way of living with which they were comfortable.  In that sad state of hopelessness, someone pushed, as an antidote to despair, remembering that they were the people of the God who had so carefully created it all.  From the get go, the poetic and the prose creation celebrations were theological reflection--not a handbook or a historian’s timeline.  
It’s worth noting that the book of Job has a completely different structural conceptualization of the universe than either of the Genesis accounts--not to mention a sense that creation was essentially an instantaneous process.  These words are presented by one of the writers of Job as the words of God Godself:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:3-7 NRSV).

This is quite a different plan than Genesis offers us isn’t it?  A cornerstone is laid somewhere in the foundation of the universe.  Job thought of the fact that there had to be bases somewhere on which the earth sat.  Furthermore, everything came together on a single morning while the stars were singing, and while the heavenly beings--those who, among other things, did the grunt work for God--were shouting for joy.  Now, which is the correct description of how it happened?  So far, we have two differing accounts in Genesis, and here’s a third from Job.  And there are more.
The debate between those who believe in creationism and intelligent design over against those who are one hundred percent evolutionists is a great waste.  Even if the claims of the biblical literalists could be affirmed by some set of tools yet to be devised, most of those who affirm evolution would keep on affirming evolution.  Conversely, if there could be a set of evolutionary principles affirmed by all or almost all scientists across the board, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the biblical texts are wrong in terms of details, those who believed in literal interpretation of scripture might make an exception for how they read Genesis but would go right along interpreting the Bible literally everywhere else.  
Framing these differences as a debate, therefore, is a worthless undertaking.  What is more worthwhile is finding people in both camps, as the National Academy of Sciences did, and finding informed people confirming aspects of the claims made by those who embrace the teaching of scripture properly interpreted and those who embrace scientific discoveries.  Extremists might listen to the middle of the roaders--which is no promise or guarantee that the centrist positions are true or are correct, but there are more possibilities of getting a broader hearing that way.  
I am in the group that believes that God had some role in creation though I think it’s absolutely impossible to know which one or ones.  I also think evolution is undeniable, but to affirm with science that evolution is verifiable as to function--even though its initiation can’t, without doubt, be traced back to God--isn’t necessarily a faith statement.  The facts, as Karen Armstrong pointed out, that often evolution is untidy is for me no deal breaker.  I still think God was and is involved in creation.  The title of the hymn by Jane Huber Parker gets my attention:  “Creator God, Creating Still.”
Having said that, I must also confess to the fact that how God existed if and when there was ever nothingness in the cosmos makes no sense to me.  If God is somehow connected to whatever life is, then did God show up on the scene when there was life, when there was somethingness rather than nothingness?  One Christian preacher wrestled with all of this and came up with his assessment:  “There is little or no reason to believe that this universe we all know and live within was created by some forces beyond the universe itself.”
No forces beyond the universe itself.  Wow.

This month’s online issue of the newsletter for the Center for Progressive Christianity deals with, of all things, evolution versus creation.  Their timing couldn’t have been better for us!  
In the introductory words to this e-journal, there is the worthwhile reminder that progressive Christianity openly professes an affirmation of other faith traditions, multiple possible spiritual pathways, and scientific inquiry.  Without the clear and unmistakable affirmation of science, it’s safe to say that there would be no formal movement known as progressive Christianity. I like very much the reminder there that progressive Christians see religion as a path and not as a dwelling place.  Then, the question is asked, “As progressive Christians can we delight in the possibility of an amicable cohabitation of religion and science, an integration and interrelationship of the two, so that both paths are able to resonate with each other, challenge each other, rejuvenate and revitalize each other in ways that have never happened before?”  The Center for Progressive Christianity insists that science is more open to religion than ever.  How ready is religion across the board ready to embrace science?
A literal reading of any prescientific passage of scripture from any religion will not prepare anyone to embrace what is known and provable about this cosmos as it is.  There is no way, for example, that the writers of Genesis could have any notion that our universe is composed of vibrating strings of energy. Many moderns don’t even know that.  Yet, everything from the smallest particle to the largest formation in the universe is made from the same kind of ingredient.  Energy strings, piles of them, can create a multitude of forms and sounds too.
Here’s an interesting twist:  energy strings are related to all other energy strings, even those that define the makeup of some other kind of object or energy with which you thought you had absolutely nothing in common. Those who have been telling us about the circle of life and the interconnectedness of all of life have been correct all along--though they may not have and likely didn’t know the full extent of what they were attempting to describe.
Biblical literalists who deny evolutionary theories because they say the Bible refutes the possibilities may also be in that group who believes that the Earth and its inhabitants are all very young and, therefore, that evolution WAY overestimates the age of our planet.  There are those who believe that they can, with Bible in hand, compute the precise age the world was created.  
Perhaps the most famous of all efforts to establish an exact date for the creation of the world was one computed by an Anglican biblical literalist, the Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, which is in Northern Ireland.  Ussher's work, Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origins of the World, was his contribution to the long-running debate on the age of the Earth.  The Christians were no different than others of many faiths and no faith who wondered just how long the planet had been around; it was just that many biblical literalists thought they had the answer right in the Bible if they just took the time to read it diligently and thoroughly enough.   
Aristotle had said the Earth had always been, that there was never a time when the Earth wasn’t.  There once was a group of Chinese scientists who believed that the Earth was always less than  23 billion years old, since every 23 billion years it is destroyed and then recreated.  Some ancient Hindu holy writ proposes a big bang theory a little less than 2 billion years ago and a little more than 2 billion years to go before “Kalpa,” the eternal day that will bring the big crunch.
The Right Reverend Ussher said that God began God’s work on the first day of creation, which actually began at dusk on Saturday October 22, 4004 BCE.  He came to his conclusion by carefully dating every major biblical event, which is actually absolutely impossible to do.  An English churchman, John Lightfoot, disagreed with Ussher and thought Ussher overshot.  The time of year at which God began creating the world was about right according to Ussher, but the year was off; the correct year according to the Reverend Lightfoot was 3929 BCE.   Many Jewish scholars going back hundreds of years dated creation in the year 3761, and the Jewish calendar is based on this estimate.  The ancient Mayan culture, which is getting big press these days because of what seems to be a predicted end of the world in 2012, dated creation on February 10 in the year 3641 BCE.
Many scientists today date Planet Earth back about 4.5 billion years.  Parts of the universe, however, are much older--going back about 15 billion years.  Human-like beings existed some 4 billion years ago, but homo sapiens first showed up on the scene about 200,000 years ago.  These dates suit evolutionists, but not creationists.  Even so, there you have the scientific data.  
The Bible dates some events accurately, but it is not reliable as a history book precisely because it isn’t and doesn’t set out to be.  For most of the biblical writers who are trying to establish dates, approximations are good enough.  If those who put the stories of creation into final form, let’s say the two in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 specifically, had had any concerns about dating creation, don’t you think they’d have included that data in the telling of the stories, in what they passed down to their children as a great story of faith in the God who created the skies and the land, the heavens and the earth?  The beautiful creation stories are not, however, concerned with dates at all.  They are theological reflections.  They are confessions of faith. They are gentle polemics--I think I heard that designation used by Karen Armstrong; this is to say that while affirming God as the Creator, these stories were, at the same time, denying the stories of creation propagated by polytheistic cultures.  And there were as many theories of creation as there were cultures.  We know this because tons of these creation stories or myths have survived.  Those that involve the gods and the goddesses, and not all do, tend to have the world being created in happenstance manner or as an outgrowth of violence among the deities.
One of the beautiful aspects to the Genesis stories is that they credit their God with the will and the power and the creativity to bring such a beautiful world into being.  They reject randomness or violence, and instead see God has having planned every orderly detail of creation.  Nothing happened by chance; rather, everything came to be as a result of God’s careful planning.  
As important as these stories are theologically, they are of no value whatsoever in terms of either history or science.  If we try to make them primary sources for either historic or scientific purposes, we turn these beautiful theological reflections and affirmations and celebrations into utter nonsense. 
One more thing.  It isn’t necessary to have the Genesis accounts of creation or any other parts of the Bible that teach that God is the Creator of our world in order to believe that God was involved.  Literalists insist that they can only believe in God as Creator because this is what the Bible teaches.  I want to stress that long before there were either widely known or published stories about God as Creator, long before there was scripture of any sort, there were people who believed that the world in which they lived had been created by God, the one God.  Similarly, there are those who believe in a purely natural creation of the world--that is without the involvement of any deity or deities--apart from the support of modern scientific theories. There is no reason to try to knock either God or modern science out of the picture; though you should have the freedom to go with one or both or neither in deciding what you believe about the creation of humanity and our habitat.  What does not make sense in this discussion is trying to make any part of the Bible a science book.  It cannot be that.
So may science and healthy religion be friends and not enemies.  Science can never disprove the existence of God and can never squelch the drive in many a human heart to seek its source.  Religion can never disprove what science has proven, even if science discovers something unfavorable to dogma and wishful thinking.  We do not want a world where religionists of any type or stripe have either the audacity or the power to try to make science, or history for that matter, exist to serve the ends of religion.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The last time I addressed this congregation on a topic related to expressing opinions, I laughed at how needless such advice was in this congregation where opinions, perspectives, and points of view flow ever so freely.  Encouraging Silverside folk to speak up and say what they really think is like pushing rude Republican representative Joe Wilson to express his opinion about coverage for immigrants in proposals for a health care reform bill.  Former President Carter says that any elected official who would blatantly interrupt the President of the United States in mid-speech--and to top it off by calling the President a liar--is dealing with something besides disagreement.  Humanitarian Carter calls what’s going on the R word:  “racism.”  I won’t chase that rabbit today, but let me say that Wilson’s model is not the one any of us should follow if we want to speak our minds; it is a cowardly way to express an opinion even though his fellow confederates applauded the rude attempt to challenge the leadership of our nation’s first President of color.
Some people seem to have no trouble at all speaking their minds, telling you how they feel, making it known just where they stand on all or almost every subject that comes down the pike.  Other people appear to struggle with speaking their minds; we rarely hear them take a stand or express an opinion.  I’m thinking today of a number of reasons why people may not speak their minds.
Some kids are told by their parents and other adults influential in their lives, “Speak when you’re spoken to!”  They buy into that and grow up into a world where nobody much is speaking to them so they find it tough to express their views; the impetus they were taught to watch for and wait for is absent, and as a result there’s not an acceptable motivation for them to speak so they don’t.  
Though we may live in a society, like other democratic societies around the world, where free and open expression is encouraged, which is what we’d expect in a democracy, the fact is that not everyone’s opinion is welcomed in every situation.  One British mom, Heather Welford, wrote an article containing advice for parents like her who have a child with learning differences.  (Thank goodness, we’re getting away from calling them “learning disabilities.”)  Her article is titled, “Try to Speak Before You’re Spoken To.”  Her point is that if you have a concern about your child’s educational struggles, sitting back and waiting for a teacher to notice what you see is the wrong path to take.  Given most teaching contexts, a teacher with a room full of students needing various kinds and various levels of attention, the teacher may never see what you think you see.  So, Ms. Welford encourages parents to speak up in an appropriate way--not in a nagging or pushy way although she acknowledges that there are times, in order to be heard, that a concerned parent may have to risk be labeled “pushy parent.”  The old adage says it well, “The squeaky parent gets the grease.”
As a professor who teaches both speech and preaching among other things, I can tell you that the primary reason people in a democratic context don’t speak their minds is that shyness prevails.  Unless you’re shy, you don’t understand the pain a shy person endures, especially when called on to speak to a group.  Shyness is not a uniquely US American problem; there are people around the world in every culture who battle destructive shyness, and I term the worst of it “destructive shyness” because it can cripple some people.  Not only does shyness terrify some folks faced with the need to speak in public, but also it forces those stricken with it to refuse to speak up even in a small group or maybe in a one-to-one situation.  
Social psychologists refer to shyness as “diffidence,” and they talk about diffidence manifesting itself when someone troubled by it is in proximity to unfamiliar situations and/or people whom they do not know or know well.  Diffidence is the resultant awkwardness, lack of confidence, or feelings of apprehension under these circumstances.  
Dr. Bernardo Carducci works for the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.  He says that, foundationally speaking, shyness results from three causes, all working together against the person who is shy:

1) Excessive self-consciousness:  you are overly aware of every detail about yourself that could possibly be viewed as less than satisfactory by any person in the world.  
2) Excessive negative self-evaluation:  you see nothing about yourself in a positive light, especially if compared to any other person with whom you come into direct contact.
3) Excessive negative self-preoccupation:  you’re obsessed with concentrating about your real or imagined shortcomings.

Those who have studied how to overcome destructive shyness make several suggestions for making necessary, healthful changes.  Almost any problem has to be addressed on the front end by acknowledging that what you’re dealing with is actually a problem.  Those who drink too much alcohol or who chain smoke tobacco products and who go merrily along with those habits often claim that they could stop any time they wanted to; they just don’t want to, they say.  Some of those who make such claims might indeed be able to stop at any moment they choose, but not all of them will be able to do so if they dare to try.  Some in that group are addicted to alcohol or tobacco, and they will not be able to stop on will power alone.  
In the last several days, actor Burt Reynolds has checked himself into an addiction recovery facility.  His publicist announced that after back surgery a few months ago, he became addicted to pain medicines.  Reynolds voluntarily made the decision to enter a recovery program because when he looked at his situation objectively, he realized that he had a problem. People who are shy and want to overcome it have to start by admitting to themselves at the very least that the shyness is controlling them and ruining their ability to live the way they want to live, keeping them from many of the joys of life, and preventing them from, among other things, daring to speak their minds.
If you’re going to overcome destructive shyness, you’re going to have to be able to affirm yourself along with your gifts and abilities.   It isn’t necessary to think of yourself as the best at any given skill among the people whom you know and encounter on a regular basis, but you have to be able to say that there are a few things you do well enough.  There will in almost all potential areas for achievement be someone who does something as well as we do and maybe a little bit better now and then.  This means nothing.  In fact, the whole business of seeing ourselves in competition with others is a silly thing--though educational and sports and business settings do this all the time.  
I’m one who believes that skills development courses should only be graded on a pass or no pass basis except possibly for students who are majoring in the discipline.  There should be ways to reward and encourage those who really have promise at this skill without giving them A’s and others who aren’t so skilled in comparison or not yet anyway B’s and C’s or worse.  
All doctoral students at my grad school had to take a course called “Research Methods.”  I think something comparable is required of doc students in most schools.  I recall when it was announced that this course would become a pass/no pass course; letter grades would no longer be assigned, and performance in this course wouldn’t be a part of one’s final GPA.
The professor who’d been teaching this course for a while bragged all term long about how progressive the pass/no pass option was.  When we got our final grades for the course, we laughed for hours.  Indeed there were no A’s or B’s or C’s; the grade basis was pass/no pass as promised; however, the professor had created a scale:  pass, pass plus, high pass, fail, low fail.  Living as if in competition with others will not help anyone overcome shyness. 

Another reason some folks hesitate to speak their minds is because they’re afraid that what they have to say, should the dare to speak, might hurt the feelings of the person to whom they speak.  No doubt about it; that could happen.  It happens all the time.  Hopefully, most of the people who have to risk passing along information to us that might hurt our feelings are people whom we know and trust, and most of us would rather get this kind of report from someone who loves us rather than someone who enjoys giving us news that hurts or embarrasses us or someone who doesn’t care one way or another.  
I’m a bit shy, not overly shy, but, yes, a bit.  The main reason I’d hesitate to speak my mind to someone about whom I care is uneasiness about the possibility of hurting her or his feelings with the information I shared.  I hate the thoughts that something I might say would cause someone whom I love emotional pain.  Yet, it’s nearly impossible to get out of that role from time to time.
  • What parent hasn’t had to say to a child something like this?  “Well, maybe that’s not your sport; it doesn’t mean you have to stop playing sports altogether.”
  • What adult with an aging parent is emotionally unscathed when this message has to be delivered?  “Mom and Dad, it’s no longer safe or practical for you all to live alone in this house you’ve loved all these years.  We want to help you make a move to a retirement center with some assisted living support.”
  • What skills teacher--music teacher, speech teacher, foreign language teacher, art teacher--hasn’t had to say something like this to a student? “You know, I hope you always keep your enthusiasm for this field, but I’d make this my avocation, not my vocation if I were you.”  I’d never say such a thing to a beginner, but I have had preaching students who couldn’t preach at all come into senior level courses just ahead of having a master’s degree conferred and being sent out into the world to preach.  Most of the time, students who can’t preach well know it, and they migrate to ministries that require less preaching of them than pastoral ministry.  There have been a few, though, who didn’t and one very late in the game whom I had to speak with directly.  I began the conversation by saying, “So, you’re not planning to make a living at preaching are you?”  I hated that it fell to me to break the bad news to him.  I’m happy to tell you that he became a great friend of mine and breathed a huge sigh of relief that someone had finally leveled with him.  Naturally, these kinds of conversations don’t always have happy endings, which is precisely why not many people want to speak their minds in this regard.
The Apostle Paul who could offend without batting an eye, whether or not he intended to, believed that in a church setting members had to be honest with each other.  He concluded that there would be less conflict and more community building if when we have news to share that we know someone doesn’t want to hear we, and this is his wording, speak the truth in love.  
I have to interrupt Paul here and throw in a word from David--not King David of ancient Israel, but yours truly.  People whom we have to converse with in a context of sharing unpleasant news such as, “Last Christmas was the last time we’ll be able to ask you to sing, ‘O Holy Night,’ at the Christmas Eve service; your voice is more suited to yodeling, it seems,” will be much more receptive to news like that if in many preceding conversations, trust has been built and many genuine compliments in other areas of church service have been offered.
OK, back the Paul.  Paul believed that the church sustained itself through helping members find, claim, and practice their skills, which he regarded as spiritual gifts.  In a sense, any gift you can use in a church setting is a spiritual gift.  You may not think of administrative skills as particularly spiritual, but without your skills in that very area, no money would get sent to world hunger relief or to Delmarva so that we can keep the lights and the computers and the heat or the air conditioner up and running.
All the gifts that have to do with speaking spiritual truths, along with those gifts that aren’t immediately recognized as “spiritual,” have one ultimate purpose, and that is to equip the faith community for the work of ministry.  We’re not here to indoctrinate although there is plenty of theological thinking that needs to be done on an ongoing basis.  Our main reason for being here is to equip each other, all those who call this their spiritual home, for the work they can do for and with those who need them--those in this congregation and those who will never darken the door of Silverside Church.
Those who have speaking gifts and opportunities to speak may have the most obvious opportunities to do this.  I’m talking about those who posses the gifts that make them apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers.  But so do those who comfort and encourage without words.  Their roles are vital in doing the work of ministry within and beyond any church.  Those who speak in any context within the faith community are called on Paul himself to speak the truth in love.  If we have news to deliver that the person to whom we speak will not want to hear, we can get through many of those uneasy times if we speak the truth in love and if speaking the truth in love is what we are known for.
There are those who don’t speak their minds because they’re not certain that what they are thinking is valid, and if it’s valid they’re not sure they can express it coherently.  This is a good caution, but because there can be problems here is no reason to refuse to speak your mind at all.
Without a doubt, not everything that passes through anyone’s mind is automatically valid--even if that person is our beloved Vice President, Joe Biden.  Most of us do well to think and rethink our messages to others to make sure they’re stated with the best possible words, the most positive emotional foundation, and the way that is least likely to hurt feelings.  Many of us have learned that email makes all of this impossible so this sermon is not about email!
One of my favorite all-time television shows was “The Golden Girls,” and who could avoid loving the character played by Estelle Getty, Sophia Petrillo?  She played the mother of one of the other characters, and Sophia was given to saying things without any thought whatsoever to possible outcome.  She was blatantly honest regardless of who got upset and regardless of what anyone thought of her for having told it like it was.    The late Ms. Getty played the role masterfully, and though the absence of a mental filter was attributed to age, it seemed evident that this had been a life long pattern.  What was charming in TV land isn’t so charming in real life.  
Next to a politician, a pastor may be the person in American society most likely to be criticized by her or his own constituents.  I’d think a college professor would run a close third.  The President and the professor do not routinely visit with the Sophia Petrillos of the world as a part of their professional responsibilities.  Pastors usually do, or many pastors do.  As the brain filter wanes with age, the pastor can be challenged on the spot for everything from how she or he raises kids to a bad hairdo to a wrong decision in the domestic department.
A brain filter isn’t a bad thing, but unless you’re Sophia Petrillo your brain filter shouldn’t be a permanent filter.  Not everything you want to say should be filtered into silence.

Some people don’t speak their minds because they’re afraid of something; sometimes they know what it is, and other times they don’t.  They just know they’re afraid.  And why not?  Sometimes, telling the truth can lead to all kinds of complications.  You could lose your job.  You could lose a friend.  You could be rejected by your family.  You could lose your life.  
There are those in certain parts of the world who, if they convert to a religion other than the one in which they were raised, might be killed because of their new confession.  Sociologists are telling us that the continued growth of Islamic extremism in the Middle East is the primary cause for ongoing and, in some cases, increasing persecution of Christians in various Middle Eastern countries.  There is a comparable problem in Pakistan.  Being a Christian and ending up there somehow isn’t as much of a concern for the extremists as is rejecting Islam in favor of Christianity.  The extremists, and we must be careful to keep in mind that the vast majority of Middle Eastern and Pakistani Muslims detest this, the extremists consider conversation apostasy.  Though punishing “apostasy” with death became outlawed in most Muslim countries in the nineteenth century, it still happens unofficially in numerous places.  To tell the truth, to speak one’s mind about one’s changed faith commitments could cost a Christian her or his life.
I have known lots of lesbian and gay men through the years who weren’t afraid to tell anyone except their families about their sexual orientation.  Fear of family rejection, not just family disapproval, keeps hosts of lesbians and gay men if not in the closet then pretty close by.  And fearing family rejection isn’t a far fetched notion.  Plenty of families, often on religious grounds, believe that it is their faith duty to turn their backs on a child who owns her or his homosexuality.  Especially sad is the number of gays and lesbians who commit suicide because they’ve been rejected by their families who are often, by the way, spurred on in their presumed righteous indignation by their churches who, most Sundays, are preaching about the love of God--that is, except on those Sundays when they’re learning how to pray that the President will die.
Mark’s Gospel has a very haunting ending.  This is one reason the developing church went back and added quite an impressive ending, a much more palatable one; a much more victorious, you-wanna-be-on-our-team kind of ending.  But the original ending, as scholars of all theological stripes have consistently confirmed--though not universally, isn’t a happy a comfortable place to end a Gospel if you intend to use that Gospel to help build up the numbers of the growing Jesus Movement.
We now call this Mark 16:1-8:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This may not get all of you as stirred up as a Phillies game, but for some of us this is just mind blowing.  The angel--that is, the messenger--told them point blank to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead and where he would meet them.  Now, we don’t have many, none come to my mind, instances of a messenger from God telling someone to do something that she or he blatantly refused to do.  This is the most important story in Christian scripture, and somebody must have been red-faced that these women did not do any part of what the messenger told them to do.  Fear trumped fanfare.  Fear trumped protocol.  Fear trumped religious expectation.  “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Of what were they afraid?  
  • They were afraid that it had been a visionary experience and wouldn’t play out in the real world.  
  • Most of the men in that men’s world didn’t believe women when it came to really important details and facts; some specialists in the sociology of Jesus’ world believe that in legal situations the testimony of women was rejected because women, naturally, are unnecessarily emotional and given to exaggerating.  And men never get emotional, never stretch the truth, and always have perceptions of every situation that is flawless.  
  • They were afraid that the Romans who’d crucified Jesus might hear that his body was missing and blame them.
  • The women were afraid that what they’d seen and heard was too good to be true.
  • They were afraid that they didn’t have the words to report or explain fully what they’d seen and heard.
So they kept silent.  Perhaps the modern church should take its cues from the first witnesses to resurrection and not try to explain the unexplainable.
Before I get around to making a few suggestions about how to speak one’s mind, I want to mention the fact that there are people who seem to be able to speak their minds in any and all circumstances no matter what.  In fact, they’re known for speaking their minds--seemingly without hesitation or reservation.  I have wondered why that is, and I think it’s one, not all, of the following three reasons.
  • For some people, credibility or correctness don’t matter.  If the details they are spewing forth have no foundation in truth, they don’t care.  The governor of Minnesota keeps saying that President Obama’s health care reform plan has made a place for death panels who decide when people get no more care and must be allowed to die.  This is a lie, but it gets great press so Pawlenty babbles on
  • There are some who speak their minds or appear to because they believe that they must speak in all situations.  I don’t really notice this in my classes these days, but when I was a student way back when it wasn’t unusual to be in a class with someone who felt that she or he needed to speak at every meeting of the class.  The same thing happens elsewhere too.
  • Then, there are those who feel that the world just won’t be as well off as it could be unless they speak their minds; so they never miss a chance to speak their minds on any and every topic that comes along.
There are many factors to keep us from speaking our minds, and yet there are many reasons we need to speak our minds some of the time.  How can we dare to do that?  
  1. Believe in the truth of what it is you have to say; if you’re not convinced that what’s on the tip of your tongue is factual, then you shouldn’t say it or shouldn’t present it as factual at that moment.  But you can verify correctness of information and clarity of perception and speak at another time.
  2. Understand the appropriate level of urgency to your message.  Does your child really need to be scolded in front of the whole grocery store, or can the child be told, “We’re going to have a serious talk when we get home”?  I can tell you that the longest few hours of my early life was when I crossed some kind of line while with my mother in a department store.  She got right in my face and said, “We’re going to have a serious talk when we get home!”  I was completely preoccupied, and not in a good way, for the two or three hours before we had the talk.  The wait was worse than the talk, but the talk was plenty effective.  Few vital messages have to be spoken the instant they come into one’s consciousness. We need to keep in mind that speaking one’s mind doesn’t have to mean delivering an angry or confrontational message.  Often, what we need to say to someone is a loving and affirming word that for whatever reason we’ve not been able to say.
  3. Location, location, location.  I recently saw a film whose title I’ve lost.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman played a boyfriend who broke up with his live-in girlfriend on a sidewalk in front of their home, and he gave her a video for followup reflection.  A really important word deserves delivery in a proper locale.
  4. I think Paul read Jesus correctly when he came up with his “speaking the truth in love” philosophy.  Whether confronting or encouraging, Jesus said what he had to say in love.  Love requires not only concern, but also the courage to say what should be said.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I want to skate out on thin ice a little bit today, which as you know I rarely do, and suggest that there’s a sense in which it is inappropriate for modern adherents to a given ancient faith tradition to be “judged” if you will with the ancient out-of-date scriptures foundational in their tradition. All three monotheistic religions have scriptural segments of which they can simply not be proud in the contemporary world. We still read those parts of our holy writ, but we read through the eyes of moderns who have learned better than what some of those ancient mandates might advocate.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have some parts of their respective key scriptural literature--Hebrew Bible, Christian scripture, Koran--to be ashamed of when compared to what enlightened contemporary adherents to their tradition now know and embrace. Each of these revered collections of holy writ has passages in it, which modern adherents can only embrace as a stop along the way to where the religion at its best has come.
After laying that groundwork, I have a criticism to level against Islam--not from the point of view of someone who is a part of a perfect religious movement for, indeed, there is no such thing and not as someone who discounts the important contributions this religion at its best has made. The thing is, none of these religions has always been at its best, especially when set in the middle of a modern social and political, not to mention spiritual, context completely different from the ones that prevailed at the time these now dated and sometimes dangerous pronouncements were originally made. I also hate to say anything at all critical of Islam because its people have been so unfairly criticized and attacked, sometimes physically, because some outspoken terrorists claim it as their religion of choice.
Even so, the Koran, it seems, isn’t big on truth-telling across the board and makes some rather specific cases where a believer can justifiably lie. I don’t know that the other two religions are as tolerant of lying, but there surely have been plenty of liars among Jews and Christians!
There appears to be an accepted practice among some Muslims, certainly not all of them, that it’s OK to lie to non-Muslims. Essentially, in this strand of Muslim thought--again, not universally acceptable to all Muslims--it’s perfectly alright to tell someone who isn’t a Muslim anything at all, even blatant lies, in order to get whatever you want or need out of the situation. One friendly critic of Islam generalizes by saying, “Promises made to non-Muslims are distinctly non-binding.” The same critic points out that the Muslims who hijacked Flight 93 assumed most of their captives on that dark, dark September 11 eight years ago weren’t of the Islamic faith so it’s worth noting that they told their fellow passengers all would be well for them if they just did as they were told. I’m not sure that mass murderers of any faith are good examples of ethics in any area of life, but the charge of not telling the truth has been leveled against them in that context nonetheless.
It has been said that Muhammad himself expected Muslims to be honest unless they needed to be dishonest to further the cause of Islam or to protect themselves or their loved ones. At one place in the Koran, even Allah, God, is called a great deceiver when it comes to dealing with infidels.
Jump back with me about 600 years before Mohammad was born. The second monotheistic religion in world history was about to be born, and the fate or the destiny of two key people had everything to do with how that religion would evolve. They were Jesus of Nazareth and Judas Iscariot.
The main incident for which Judas is remembered was, in his mind, an end justifies the means kind of deal. It turns out that there was a lot of confusion about who Jesus was once his public ministry began, and Judas was one of many who were way off target in his understanding of Jesus’ identity.
Widespread misunderstanding about who he was by both friends and enemies was part of the reason he engaged his disciples in a long-remembered conversation in which he began by asking them, “Who are people saying that I am?”
They kind of laughed and said, “Some people say the craziest things! We’ve heard that some are saying you’re the prophet Elijah reincarnated. Some aren’t sure which one, but they insist that you’re one of the old-time prophets--any one will do. And quite a few others have said that you’re John the Baptist come back to life.”
“Where do people get this stuff?” Jesus wondered out loud. “You people know me better than anyone. Who do you think I am?”
Peter, whose spontaneous personality kept him from holding his thoughts and had him speaking before he thought, like classy Representative from South Carolina Wilson who claims this is his personality trait too, spurts forth, “You’re God’s anointed.” Jesus didn’t say, “You’re right,” or, “You’re wrong,” which is kind of interesting, don’t you think?
In most translations, Peter’s answer to the question gets rendered as, “You’re the Messiah,” complete with a capital M. Instead of translating the word, as “an anointed one,” most translators turn the word into a name or title, which I think there’s no justification for at all in this context. Well, that’s another discussion, but for now, let me use that conversation to emphasize the fact that there was widespread confusion and speculation--they often go hand in hand--about who Jesus was; and he himself had to wonder.
Judas believed more strongly than anyone that Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jewish people since ancient times, and he believed in that Messiah as a militaristic messiah, one who could attract the troops needed to overthrow once and for all those who made the Jews their captives. Judas’ stomach was turned when he heard Jesus telling his followers that they were supposed to figure out how to love their enemies and that they were supposed to pray for people who hated them and that if someone smacked them they were supposed to turn the other cheek. Judas believed that Jesus had it in him, appearances to the contrary, to become a powerful and effective military leader who would lead the Jewish people forth to kill all their enemies in God’s name. Judas believed that Jesus didn’t see his full potential.
Eventually, Judas decided that Jesus needed some serious help freeing himself from his meek and mild tendencies. That’s why Judas struck a deal with Rome to arrest Jesus. That’s why Judas agreed to tell the military police where Jesus was hiding out for a bit. He thought that when Rome came for Jesus and tried to arrest him, Jesus’ inner beast would be forced out. He would become a kind of incredible hulk and start at once calling the troops together, which would result in the freedom of the Jews conclusively.
The end--Jewish freedom--justified the means in Judas’ mind: “betraying” Jesus into Roman hands. The end--forcing “Jesus” to embrace his reason for being, his God-appointed mission--justified the means as Judas saw it: cooperating with enemy Rome just enough to have them hang themselves by pushing Jesus too far. But Judas had no intention to cause Jesus harm and no clue that Jesus would be hurt in this ploy. He was absolutely certain that, when cornered and threatened by evil Rome, Jesus would come out swinging and, given his powers and the backing of God Godself, would be the clear winner hands down. That Judas was secretly pro-Roman or that he would sell out his beloved mentor for a month’s wages are conclusions that seriously misconstrue the dynamics of this complicated situation. Of course, the tragedy here is that Judas miscalculated the facts, and in the end he trusted his perception of who Jesus was and what Jesus should be about more than he trusted Jesus’ own views on those vitally important matters.

I imagine that many of you have seen the film, “Valkyrie,” by now. Maybe some of you also saw the first film effort, several years ago, to tell the story of the plot to kill Hitler called, interestingly enough, “The Plot to Kill Hitler.” Well, “Valkyrie” was a good film, a powerful film, despite the fact that Tom Cruise was its star. Since then, our Office Administrator, Stefan Guenther, has recommended to me the memoir of one of Hitler’s private secretaries who actually lived in the bunker with him and Eva Braun, and his staff through the time of his own suicide. The memoir is called in English “Blind Spot.” I haven’t read it, but I did see the filmed interviews with this secretary, Traudl Junge, filmed in the last months of her life. It is very compelling--tragic that she felt in any way responsible for Hitler’s horrors though she did.
Well, “Valkyrie” and the earlier film chronicle a true story about a plot to kill Hitler. At the height of World War II, some of Hitler’s higher ups in his inner circle decided that for the good of Germany and maybe to a lesser degree for the good of the remaining Jews they had to stop Hitler even if that meant assassinating him, which they decided it did. A very intricately conceived plan had Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carrying a bomb in a briefcase directly into the presence of Hitler and leaving in the nick of time to be out of range of the explosion. The Colonel is successful in delivering and planting the bomb, and it goes off near Hitler, but barely has any affect on Hitler at all. Others around him were more scuffed up, but no one seriously hurt as I recall--least of all, Hitler. Not only did the plan to kill Hitler fail, but also it empowered him to be more diligent in keeping his course. He addressed the German people and told them that the fact that he lived through such a scare was a sign the providence itself wanted him to live so that he could fully implement his plan.
In times of war, military personnel must routinely determine which enemy leaders must go if at all possible. The striking thing about the Hitler story is that despite the absolute loyalty he demanded, it was some of those who had, at one point, been the most loyal to him who decided that he would have to be exterminated for the common good. It wasn’t an easy decision for those who had trusted him and followed him as extraordinary loyalists.
That is difficult for many of us to imagine, but even more difficult to grasp might be the decisions of a group of Christians who decided that for the sake of the Jews, much more than for the sake of Germany, they would develop their own plot to kill Hitler and that it would somehow be justified or at least tolerated by God. The most memorable name from that list of Christians willing to kill Hitler was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor.
There’s a teaching in Christian scripture, and it’s from the hand of the Apostle Paul, that conceives of life for a Christian as a matter of dual citizenship, we could say. Every person of faith is a citizen BOTH of a heavenly realm, even before we dwell there, and of some, earthly sociopolitical realm. If we are persons of faith, our primary allegiance is to the heavenly realm where the only rule is the rule of God; however, the practical reality is that we have no choice but to live in this world in a context that makes secular demands of us. We must pay taxes. We must adapt our public religious activity to the expectations of the state, and we must show the proper respect to the leaders of the land in which we live--unless our name is Joe Wilson or unless we belong to a church where our pastor praises us for carrying weapons to our president’s speech sites.
Paul was very pro-state. At once point he made the bold assertion that no one was in power anywhere in the world unless God put that person in power. Rome was very good to Paul until it imprisoned him and executed him, but by then it was too late for him to undo his widespread claims that all earthly rulers were put in place by God Godself. Not only would Paul’s runins with Rome challenge that ridiculous claim, but also in thirty-something years from the time Paul wrote Rome was persecuting Christians mercilessly, and very few Christians in the world believed that God would have been crazy enough to put Emperor Domitian in power so that he could murder Christian after Christian after Christian. Bonhoeffer believed Paul’s dual-citizenship theory though not with the blind love for his political leaders that Paul had early in his ministry. To Bonheoffer’s way of thinking, every person is a citizen of two distinct realms.
One, the spiritual kingdom, which someone called the “right-hand kingdom,” where gospel, grace, faith, forgiveness, and the church prevailed; this is where things go exactly as God wants them to go. There is also this “left-hand kingdom,” no offense to you southpaws, where God is certainly around and involved, but disguised or hidden. Law prevails in this other kingdom, law over gospel and grace. Human beings in such an imperfect setting are almost certain to botch it now and then. Natural reason takes precedence over divine directives. It’s not an ideal arrangement, but this is the way life is for everyone. 

Bonhoeffer had earned his Ph.D. in theology at the age of 21, and he and his supporters believed that he was operating in the left-hand kingdom when he became involved in plans to assassinate a Jew-hating tyrant. He was not functioning pastorally, they thought. He was functioning politically when he joined with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Major General Hans Oster, military intelligence types, to try to put a stop to Naziism. That said, there was no way he could do anything he did as if divorced from his faith and his Christian ethical commitments and responsibilities. Regardless of how one told the story, Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister willing to do whatever was necessary to kill the leader of his country.

He busily smuggled Jews out of Germany and traveled to Norway to build anti-Nazi sentiments. He asked congregations not to pray for him publicly, as the growing national sentiments against him could endanger them. He opposed the pro-Hitler German Christian movement whose leaders, Bonhoeffer insisted, were trying to convince Christians that they had no Jewish roots after all and whose anti-Semitic perspectives ultimately had them getting rid of any pastors in their number who were Jewish ethnically though they had professed Christianity. In appreciation for his opposition to them, the German Christian movement’s leaders, who had Hitler’s ear, saw to it that Bonhoeffer could no longer, within Germany, teach, write and publish books, or preach. 

In time, to no one’s surprise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. He had broken the laws of the state, and the state said he had to be punished.
This gifted German theologian and pastor did not resist what came to him in this left-hand kingdom. He described his resistance to Naziism and the extermination of Jews as throwing himself into the spokes of an evil carriage to bring a halt to its evil journey. The possible end--ridding the world of Hitler--justified the means: assassinating Hitler. 

Talented young man that he was, he could have insulated himself from all harm. He had a sure fire way to dodge his fate. He was here teaching in the United States--just up the road in New York City at Union Seminary. His students and colleagues adored him. Had he stayed put, which many of them begged him to do, he might well have lived to a ripe old age, but he said he couldn’t do that regardless of this opportunity that he loved. One of his colleagues was revered theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr about his struggle:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. Christians in Germany have the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that the Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.

Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, and finally he was hanged. On April 9, 1945, in Flossenb├╝rg, a few days before the war ended, Dietrich Bonhoeffer died. A martyr.

The issue of the extent to which interrogation may be carried out before it becomes torture is back in the news, and it should be. The argument by those who favor torture, like Dick Cheney and cronies, is that it’s the only thing that gets the information out of our country’s enemies we need to protect the citizens of our nation. Opponents of torture say that it’s unethical from a humanitarian perspective on the one hand, and on the other helpful intelligence has been gathered without going to such extremes.
When Delaware’s Joe Biden was Senator Biden and not Vice President Biden, he was chairing a session of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and he told someone on a panel expressing approval of torture that the main reason we shouldn’t torture prisoners of war was a very pragmatic one--so that hopefully, they will return the favor when holding one of our citizens as a prisoner of war. So we have citizens on both sides of that issue. Some say the possible end--namely, otherwise unavailable intelligence--does not justify torture; others say, it absolutely does.
A competent and caring therapist will walk a client gently back into a painful past when there is unfinished business there. The client may have to revisit sadness or fear again, and the reason for those painful emotions may cause exactly the same feelings all over again, but without at least one more visit back to that place, the therapist knows healing will never take place. So the end, which is greater health or wholeness, justifies the rekindling of pain the client had tried to put away permanently a long time ago.
The possibility of health care for all Americans could become a reality; that’s a possible end. The means may be dealing with an untried system that will need several quick repairs as it gets going. Imagine having to deal with a health care system that is imperfect! We don’t know what that would be like! The means may be a price tag we’d rather not have to deal with. The means may be having to deal with opponents who are so opposed to the idea that they are willing to lie, hoping other folks will believe their lies and oppose the mere possibility of health care for all. Still, the end may well justify the means if all citizens have access to quality health care.
The ancient Hebrew law, still supposedly binding in the time of Jesus, insisted that there was absolutely no work to be done on the sabbath unless it involved the preservation of life. Over the years, the definitions of work had gotten to be so involved and extreme that if you walked across the room wearing a robe that was too long and the hem was dragging across the floor, that was considered work because the garment’s hem made a furrow in the dirt floor or its dust coating, which is the precise definition of plowing.
Jesus honored the ancient laws of his beloved Judaism, and he went to synagogue on sabbath and refrained from doing any carpentry work. He did ministry on the sabbath, though. Once when he and his disciples had been out ministering on a sabbath, they were returning home, and they were hungry. Walking near a cornfield, some of the disciples picked off a few edible bits of corn to nibble on until they could get real meal. Why in the world Jesus’ enemies were out in such places watching for reasons to criticize, we don’t know, but they were there; and immediately the charges of not obeying sabbath “no work” laws were leveled against Jesus and his companions. He was tired and hungry himself so he didn’t give his critics the benefit of a good fuss. He cut them off with a quick reference to a story out of the ancient Hebrew world where there was a notable exception to a law so that hungry people could, eat and then Jesus issued a stern reminder that the sabbath, a day of rest to focus especially on God, was established for the well-being of humanity and not the other way around. God didn’t create human beings so there would be beings around to honor the sabbath since it was such a nifty creation.
Philosopher Mortimer Adler was a really smart guy and probably still is wherever he now dwells. He died to this world in 2001 when he was almost 100 years old. I like his take on this ethical puzzle. He says that the place we have to begin is with the word “justifies,” and we have to understand that when we use that word what we trying to talk about is whether something is morally right or not. So, does an end make right any means to get to it? Let’s stay with Dr. Adler a minute and benefit from his take on the challenge.
He says that we are ALWAYS--now there’s a word you won’t hear philosophers overusing--ALWAYS in trying to achieve good ends, ends that benefit someone or some group, doing right. Nothing much to argue with there, but his next question will raise some eyebrows. If trying to achieve any good end is the right thing to do, are we morally justified in using any means to that end? The key word in the question is ANY, and Dr. Adler answers, unequivocally, yes. In his words,

If the end is really good, and if the means really serves the end and does not defeat it in any way, then there can be nothing wrong with the means. It is justified by the end, and we are justified in using it.

Being the good philosopher he was, trained to think on so many levels, on the way to making his bold claim there were some common sense issues that had to have been settled. Here is the primary clarification. If any action is evil, truly evil, it can never serve a good end, a moral end. Quoting Dr. Adler again:

...since the good society involves justice for all, a government that employs unjust means defeats the end it pretends to serve. You cannot use bad means for a good end any more than you can build a good house out of bad materials.

Same thing for individuals, families, businesses, communities, and churches.