Center for Ethics and Leadership

Friday, January 15, 2010

Contemptible Christianity

Working with my students in the introduction to theology last fall, I decided to assign them a few passages from Revelation. Chapter 19 speaks of the enemies of God being cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. This is the beginning of Christianity's argument that God's judgment is terrible and swift for those who align themselves with the devil.

For centuries the church has wrestled with these texts, at times embracing them, and at others providing softer interpretations of them. My guess is that most Christians do not know that the inclusion of Revelation in the New Testament was hotly disputed in the fourth century as the canon was being closed.

The question of whom God judges and how was raised again in the worst way by politican and pastor Pat Robertson yesterday. Robertson has a track record in spiteful Christianity. Readers may recall that he and Jerry Falwell suggested that 9/11 might have been God's punishment for America's sins. Those of us with a special attachment to New Orleans will not forget his attributing that disaster to the Crescent City's unique ambiance.

Robertson has now crossed over into territory that is beyond reprehensible for a Christian pastor. Citing a Haitian legend from the late 18th century that claims that slaves made a pact with the devil to free them from French colonialism, Robertson has located the source of this week's earthquake in divine retribution.

Many have already called Robertson's remarks stupid and racist. Let me call it like it is: contemptible Christianity.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Here’s to Whimsy – Especially at Christmas


Wandering through my mind looking for something to contribute to the holiday fun . . . Nathan Thomas and I were talking yesterday about working as an actor. If you want to work as an actor, the saying goes, you can always find work. We got to talking about character actors. Like Walter Brennan, who played a crotchety old man from the time he was young and always worked. From there the conversation moved to two of your favorites, I’m sure – Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers. That’s Uncle Billy and Clarence the Guardian Angel from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. They were not particularly attractive any of these men, and they had funny voices. They certainly were not leading men. They played characters, just characters. Can an actor like that work today? Not as easily. The roles aren’t being written as they once were. We left it at that.

Then it was time for me to think about my Christmas wish list. I had not been able to come up with a story line for my Alvernian column, so I decided I might as well tell my wife what I want for Christmas. The Incredible String Band. Was their vinyl ever converted to CD? Yes and yippee!

Yippee for the group that was among the first of the flower children. The Incredible String Band made Donovan, he of Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow fame, sound like Lawrence Welk, and they did it entirely acoustically with about a dozen instruments ranging from flute to sitar to, well, you name it. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, and a few others here and there. I loved them. They were whimsical:

Oh ah ee oo there's absolutely no strife
living the timeless life
I don't need a wife
living the timeless life
If I need a friend I just give a wriggle
Split right down the middle
And when I look there's two of me
Both as handsome as can be
Oh here we go slithering, here we go slithering and squelching on

The above, from The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, released in 1968, was a welcome daydream, a tonic coming in the same year that The Rolling Stones asked Lucifer to introduce himself as a man of wealth and taste.

And then it hit me. Who would listen to ISB’s silly lyrics today? What scriptwriters would provide a multi-decade career for Brennan, Mitchell, or Travers? Where has the whimsy gone? Lost perhaps in our self-serious search for leadership. Fortunately, it’s still here at Christmas, a season so joyous because of its very whimsical truth claim – that God wanted to become human rather than the other way ’round -- that flights of fancy are often thought of as the perfect way to capture the Christmas spirit. So here’s a Christmas column dedicated to Clarence, Kris Kringle (for which Edmund Gwenn won a Best Supporting Oscar), Buddy the Elf, red-nosed reindeer, and of course The Waitresses singing Christmas Wrapping. From Robin, Mike and me:

May the long time sun shine upon you
All love surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way on.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm Trying to be Ecologically Responsible, but I Can't Afford It.

Honest. When I bought my Toyota Corolla more than 200,000 miles ago, I wanted a Prius, but it was 1/3 more than the Corolla. And now Toyota has reworked the Prius, and fully loaded it comes in at about $34,000.

I wanted to put solar panels on my house about five years ago. I think BP, working through Home Depot, wanted 20 grand. The federal rebate made no real difference at that price level.

And did you ever compare the price of organically grown produce with the regular stuff at the supermarket?

I'm trying, honest.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Left/Right Divide over Catholic Bishops' Campaign


The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), celebrating its fortieth year, is once again under attack from the Catholic right. It is an old story. Twenty years ago, William Simon called CCHD "a funding mechanism for radical left political activism in the United States, rather than for traditional types of Catholic charities" (as quoted in F. Kammer, Doing Faithjustice [Paulist Press, 1991]). Twenty years later, a group called Reform CCHD Now (RCN) has again asked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to closely review the grant awarding activities of CCHD.

To be sure, there have been concerns, most notably with CCHD's funding groups who do not agree with Catholic public policies or have been guilty of corruption themselves. The USCCB has been addressing those problems.

That said, Bishop Roger Morin, chair of the USCCB's subcommittee on CCHD called the allegations outrageous and untruthful. In addition, he said at the November meeting of the USCCB that some of these attacks were motivated by ideological or political agendas. In fact, RCN's web page on CCHD seems as angry over its alleged "radical politics" as its violation of Catholic doctrine. RCN of course called for a lay boycott of the CCHD collection taken last Sunday in most dioceses. Eighteen years ago in Doing Faithjustice, Fr. Fred Kammer pointed out that the attacks on CCHD represented the rejection of wealthy and powerful Catholics of the Church's attempt to side with the poor "by threatening cutbacks on financial support. That would be a traditional exercise of economic and political power."

The American Catholic (Politics and Culture from a Catholic Perspective) took matters a step further. Using a headline to call Bishop Morin a liar, it closed its article with a quote attributed to both Athanasius and John Chrysostom, "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." Both were very powerful bishops in the fourth and fifth centuries, by the way, and both are much revered saints.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It Must Be Good. It Has Upset Left, Right, and Center.

A bill for health care reform has passed the House of Representatives. The most surprising turn of events was Speaker Pelosi's agreement to remove federal funding for abortion from the House version. Three newspapers, the liberal New York Times, the conservative Wall Street Journal, and the centrist Philadelphia Inquirer, all complained about it for different reasons.

The Times was incensed about the eleventh-hour agreement between Pelosi and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to exclude federal funding for abortion altogether from the bill. It editorialized that the action of the USCCB led to the rejection of a compromise that would prevent federal funds for paying for abortion. The USCCB has argued precisely the opposite and claimed that the proposed compromise would have been a mere dodge. (As I write this blog, I still don't quite understand the financing differences.) The Times continues to argue that a woman has a right to abortion services, as does the left. As I wrote three weeks ago, that a woman has a right to have an abortion (current law) does not mean that she has a claim on the government to pay for the procedure. The Times also rejected the idea of independent riders on insurance policies and argued that no one would buy them since "nobody plans to have an unplanned pregnancy." The logical circle (planning the unplanned) notwithstanding, no one plans on getting sick, period.

The Journal ranted along the far right's talking points and argued that this was part "of temporary liberal majorities that are intent on fulfilling their dreams of a cradle-to-grave entitlement state." I wondered when the once-noble Journal began sounding like Fox News and then looked at the masthead and was reminded that Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, has purchased the paper. Shame on you, Rupert. You are ruining one of America's great journalistic voices.

The Inquirer rejected the bill on the grounds that it will be too costly, especially for small business and the middle class. Interestingly, freshman Democratic representative John Adler from Philadelphia's New Jersey suburbs, voted against the bill on the same grounds. Adler, however, won a seat that had been Republican for more than a quarter-century, and the governor's seat has just switched parties. Costs come in many forms, not the least of which are the drag that current costs place in hidden ways on the economy.

So there they are, complaints from left, right, and center. Perhaps some political sausage is best made when it does not satisfy any constituency completely.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Health Insurance Again

I was all set to write about the exemption of health insurance companies from anti-trust legislation when the Associated Press published a story stating that health insurance generates a very low profit margin, rarely 5 percent. Someone had told me that about 20 years ago, and it was one reason I was befuddled by the insurance companies' attempt to defeat President Obama's health care reform bill (and Bill Clinton's before that). Over the weekend, I saw a statement that said we do not have a healthcare problem, we have a healthcare insurance problem. What we need are more facts and debate.

Go Phillies! A Lesson in Positive Leadership

For several weeks now I have been thinking of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel as a model of excellent top management that can truly be called leadership, positive leadership.

Oh, Charlie can make the tough decisions when necessary. This year's Brad Lidge story should find its way into every management and leadership text. For those of you who don't follow sports, Lidge had one of the best year's in baseball history for a man at his position last year, and this year he had one of the worst. Manuel removed him from the most critical moments, but never lost confidence in him and now Lidge is nearly his old self. There are many more examples.

So I was surprised and pleased to see a front-page article on Charlie's leadership style in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer in which a Wharton professor and an important Philadelphia-area CEO talked about what exceptional leadership and management skills Manuel has. Leaders who stay positive can accomplish much. Charlie's team is the current world champion that now is the first National League team in more than 30 years to return to the World Series the following year to defend the title.