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Month: September 2017

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics at Ambrose Seminary. Next week we will discuss ethical issues of political leadership. In preparation for the class, the students are reading an assigned excerpt of Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations ((1992).

Havel was a playwright, essayist, and dissident under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. He spent several years in prison. His movement, the Civic Forum, played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought communist rule to an end in his country. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). He was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. This summary simply shows that Havel was not a detached theorist or a critic from the sidelines.

The book Summer Meditations was written during a ten day holiday in 1992. It represents the unique reflections of a president during his term in office.

I asked my students to identify the virtues of character displayed by Havel and then compare them with current leaders, local and global. I will report on our discussions in my blog next week. Today I would like to share some of his thinking about his role as president at a critical time in its history.

Havel emphasized the moral nature of genuine political leadership. He believed, that as president, he should stress the significance of moral values in all spheres of life including the economy. He engaged in a deep reading of his context. Liberation from communism had unleashed “… an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” The new breed of politicians was hungry for power. “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” Havel was particularly pained by the imminent separation of the Slovak population to form their own country.

Havel remained convinced that politics itself was not a disreputable business “… and to the extent that it is, it is only because disreputable people make it so.” “Those who enter politics “… bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society, and to develop and strengthen it.”

Havel wrote of three personal convictions that guided his work.:

  1. He felt that his public speeches should repeatedly and regularly draw attention to the moral dimensions of social life. He sought to stir the dormant goodwill in people and emphasize the importance of placing the shared good above personal interests. “… people want to hear that decency and courage make sense ….”
  2. He felt that the office of the president should act as a positive influence on the government and the country creating “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.”
  3. He felt that his ideals and values should be injected into the decisions that he was required to make as president: “… my longing for justice, decency, and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call the moral state.”


As far as I know, Havel never fully identified with the Christian faith. In an interview he once stated that he tried to live in the spirit of Christian morality. The excerpt my students will read displays his belief that a higher power stood over his life: “… we are observed from above … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten …”

I hope the students benefit from reading Havel. I feel that his reflections provide a helpful place from which to evaluate the moral qualities of political leadership in our own time and context. It means little to call oneself a Christian. It means a great deal to act as a follower of Jesus. Havel helps point the way forward.

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

Part 3: Jesus and the WOA Principle

The WOA principle drives the mission of Jesus. He constantly moves to meet people on the margins of the social world of Galilee and Judea. The lack of direct references to widows, orphans, and aliens as vulnerable social groups does not negate our premise that the ethics of the gospel requires us to consider moral issues from the perspective of people in the borderlands.

The following examples show the two features of WOA ethics. First, Jesus moves to the margins to meet people. Second, he acts in ways that offer transformation and restore dignity. The examples below are drawn from the different streams of the synoptic tradition. A more comprehensive list is provided at the end of the article.

The Markan tradition provides the example of leper who takes advantage of a deserted space to approach Jesus Mk. 1.40-45). Jesus has the moral right to send him away with a blistering censure for threatening to spread the dreaded disease. Instead, Jesus touches the man and cleanses him from his impurity. He instructs him to show his healing to the priest and to re-enter into the life of his family and community. The transformation is physical, emotional, and social.

The shared material unique to Matthew and Luke, commonly called Q, is composed largely of sayings of Jesus. From the prison of Herod Antipas, John the Baptizer sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the expected deliverer. Jesus sends them back to John with the report that he has restored sight to the blind, healed the lame, cleansed lepers, given hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and proclaimed good news to the poor (Mt. 11.5-6 par.). These kingdom actions allow people to re-enter their communities as active participants.

Matthew’s special source includes summary statements of healings, exorcisms, teaching, and proclamation (Mt. 4.23-25; 8.16-17; 9.35).  Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who would take up the infirmities and heal the diseases of the weak and marginalized (Mt. 8.17). He feels compassion on the crowds that are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd ((9.36). The Lucan special tradition includes an emotionally charged narrative in which a woman from beyond the margins of respectability intrudes into a Pharisee’s home to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears (Lk. 7.36-50). She experiences the hostility of the host and his other guests. Jesus treats her tenderly and responds with firmness to the others in the room. Her faith has saved her and she may go in peace. Her dignity is restored.

Each of the narratives and sayings contained in the appendix could be analyzed in depth. We believe that they illustrate the feature that Latin American liberation theology called the preferential priority of the poor. The point was not that God loved the poor to the exclusion of those that enjoyed wealth and security. Rather, the God of the Bible expresses his redemptive love and concern for the most vulnerable members of the community. Their needs are to be given importance. We see this in a narrative contained in all three synoptic gospels. Mark 5.21-43 contains two healing accounts. Jesus is approached by an elite member of the community whose twelve year old daughter is critically ill. Jairus is named in the story and is described as a ruler of a synagogue. As Jesus moves toward the home of Jairus, his way is impeded by a crowd of people. An unnamed woman in the midst of the crowd has been ritually impure for twelve years because of uncontrollable vaginal discharges. Anyone who makes contact with her will share her impurity. The woman is desperate and destitute. She touches Jesus and is immediately healed. In spite of the urgency of Jairus, Jesus stops to meet the woman who with fear tells him her whole story. Instead of censuring the woman for breaking the laws of purity, Jesus pronounces a blessing on her. Jesus does not neglect Jairus and his daughter. However, priority is given to this poor woman who has been marginalized in her community.


Part 4: Defining the WOA of Our Age

An ethical challenge of our time is to identify those people that are vulnerable, marginalized and powerless. Each context will be different. Strident voices are not always a reliable indicator. Often those who live in the borderlands are without voice and representation. Zygmunt Bauman (2011) uses the expression “the underclass” to describe people that are viewed as a social problem and deprived of meaningful roles in their communities. They live in a “horrifying wilderness” in communities where they are silenced, excluded, and humiliated. The words portray the painful experiences of people that struggle on the “outside,” with few prospects for moving into a life of dignity, stability, and security.

The horrifying wilderness of the vulnerable exists in our local communities and the nations of the world. The WOA of our time include:

  • People that flee their homelands for reasons of persecution, poverty, or environmental degradation and live as aliens in another land.
  • Minimum wage workers trying to balance two or three jobs.
  • The sick, and in particular those without medical insurance.
  • Victims of racial or religious prejudice.
  • Indigenous people that hold on within a dominant settler culture.
  • Women that live in fear of violence.
  • People that depend on food banks for their nutrition.
  • Hungry people in South Sudan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, and the Middle East.
  • Survivors of mass violence that can never find freedom from the trauma of abuse, torture, and the loss of loved ones.

This list is, of course, partial and incomplete. Each context requires analysis and discussion. The voices of those in the borderlands need to be heard so that their experiences enter into public discourse.

The WOA approach to ethics requires that we move deliberately into the borderlands to meet with those who are vulnerable and excluded. The new relationships that we establish will enable us to see the world from the perspective on those who live on the underside. Through the challenge of sharing friendships, meals, and prayers we will engage in mustard seed projects that give hope and dignity to the poor. Our ethic approach seeks to restore the dignity of people created in the image of God and to enable them to contribute to the shared life of their communities.

In a subsequent article, the authors will offer a criterion for ethical actions in the borderlands based on the virtues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23.23).

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

Part 2: Defining the Widow, Orphan, and Exile 

 The traditions contained in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures span a period of almost 2000 years.[1] The mega-narrative has stories of creation, the early patriarchs, delivery from slavery in Egypt, settlement in the new land, the monarchy, a divided kingdom, exile and national humiliation, the return to Palestine, the domination of Greece and Rome, the mission of Jesus, and the birth of the early church. Life is contested and fragile at every turn during these two millennia. At one end, Abraham is forced to reside as an alien in Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12.10). Near the other end of the mega-narrative, the apostle Paul organizes a collection of funds from churches in the Roman Empire to alleviate a famine in Palestine (2 Cor. 8-9). He has accepted the ethical standard of remembering the poor (Gal. 2.10).

The widow, the orphan, and the exile are social groups that represent extreme poverty and marginalization. Of course, not every member of these broad categories was destitute. However, in general these three classes of people lived at the edges of social and economic life in their communities. They came to represent the poor that struggled to survive deprived of dignity and security.  Accordingly, the prophetic tradition provided moral instruction that recalled the Torah’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

Render true judgement, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor. Zech 7.8


In the following paragraphs we will show how these three groups provide meaningful descriptions of poverty and vulnerability.


The Widow

Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) describe widows as the stereotype of all oppressed and exploited people.[2] More than half of the references to widows in the Hebrew Scriptures are in connection with orphans or orphans and aliens. Widows were characterized by their marginal social position, vulnerability to exploitation, and poverty.


Our brief presentation will concentrate on widows in Palestine while noting that there was greater freedom for women (including widows) in the cities of the first century Roman Empire. In Palestine, women were raised in the home of their fathers until marriage was arranged. At that point a woman entered into the patriarchal structures of the kinship group of her husband. A woman always lived under the authority of a man. The life of a married woman was often difficult. Child birth was precarious and infant mortality rates were high. It has been estimated that the average life expectancy of a woman during Biblical times was 34 years. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993) observes that a woman’s social position was just above that of a male slave in a household.

Women generally slid down the social ladder upon the death of their husbands. They had a right to stay in the family home, but could not inherit title to the property. In times of scarcity, their presence could be an inconvenience and burden for relatives and children. Widows could not defend their rights in legal tribunals apart from the intervention of a sympathetic male to represent them.

King David’s conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of “the city of David” (2 Sam. 5.6-12) was an important hinge point in the social and economic history of Israel. The nation rapidly made the transition from a federation of rural communities to an urban monarchy with an established elite class. The egalitarian nature of village life was eroded and replaced by a wealthy minority that increased landholdings, wealth, and power. The eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem criticized members of the ruling class that used their power to make widows their spoil (Isa. 10.2). The domination of the elite minority in Samaria in the northern kingdom likewise had an adverse impact on the well-being of the orphan and the alien.

The book of Job offers significant portrayals of the treatment of widows, orphans, and aliens.[3] In regard to widows, an unrighteous man hears the entreaties of a widow but sends her away empty handed (Job 22.9). He may even exploit her by taking her productive assets as a loan guarantee (Job 24.3). In contrast, a righteous person brings joy to the life of a widow (Job 29.13). Widows, and other people in need, can count on the generosity and counsel of those who are righteous in their community (Job 31.17, 21).

When we move to the New Testament, we find that Jesus spoke about Torah experts (scribes) that devoured widows’ houses – a probable reference to cheating a widow while pretending to represent her interests. The death of the only son of the widow of Nain was beyond tragic because she had lost her male family representative and protector (Luke 7.11-17). The persistent widow in a parable was forced to humiliate herself in public because no male would take up her cry for justice (Luke 18. 1-5). The early church in Jerusalem distributed food to widows (Acts 6.1) and the book of James urged congregations to care for widows in their distress (James 1.27).


The Orphan

Life was difficult for children in the ancient world. It is estimated that only about 50% of children lived past the age of ten years. The children of slaves were “assets” that worked from an early age. In rural areas, children were needed to assist in farm and domestic labor. Childhood ended with puberty when girls were married and boys were introduced to adult responsibilities. Unprotected children were objects of physical and sexual abuse throughout the Mediterranean world, although the treatment was probably less grievous in Jewish society.

The Hebrew term yathom actually means fatherless. A child without a father shared with the widow a social position of weakness, marginalization, and poverty. The danger for girls was even more acute than for males. They were particularly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and slavery. Daughters had inheritance rights only if there were no sons (Num. 27.8-11). Orphaned girls would be less desirable as future wives.

The Torah made certain provisions for orphans, along with widows and aliens.

  • The harvest of crops was to be done in such a way that some production was left for orphans, widows, and aliens to glean (Dt. 24.19-22).
  • A tithe of production was to be collected every third year for the benefit of orphans, widows, aliens, and the Levites (who were landless) (Dt. 14.28-29).
  • Provisions were to be made so that orphans, widows, aliens, and Levites were included in the celebration of annual festivals in communities (Dt. 16.11, 14).


The previous observations about the monarchy, the urban elite, and the loss of patterns of rural life apply to the vulnerable position of orphans. The prophet Isaiah publicly criticized powerful men who made legal decrees for preying on orphans (Isa. 10.2) and called on the general populace to defend their cause (Isa. 1.17). The portrayal of righteousness in the book of Job includes feeding orphans and rescuing them from oppression (Job 31.17, 21; 29.12). The book of Sirach, containing traditions from Jerusalem in the second century BCE, encourages adult males to act as fathers to orphans (Sir. 4.10). Sirach’s words mean that males should embrace the duty of providing protection from predatory enemies and assume responsibility for the needs of fatherless children.

It is surprising that the Greek word orphanos is found only twice in the New Testament. In the fourth gospel, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples as orphans, a description that implies that they will lack his protection, guidance, and care (Jn. 14.18). The letter of James encourages the church to seek the welfare of orphans and widows (Jas. 1.27). The compassion of Jesus for children in general is well attested in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Mk. 9.33-37; Mt. 18.1-5; Lk. 9.46-48; Mk. 10-13-16; Mt. 19.13-15; Lk. 18.15-17).

The  Alien

The Hebrew term ger can be translated as alien, sojourner, stranger or even refugee. In rural patriarchal societies, aliens were forced to leave their homelands and kinship groups due to adverse circumstances. The factors included famine, disputes, and violence. The alien is an ethnic outsider, landless, vulnerable, and poor. Das and Hamoud (2017) emphasize that aliens suffer from residing in a social location where they do not belong.  The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20) provides insights into the vulnerability of aliens in places dominated by other ethnic groups. The couple and their band leave the Negeb region because of a famine. Abram realizes that he is vulnerable because Sarai is a desirable woman. He feels compelled to lie by referring to her as his sister rather than his wife. Court officials force her to enter the royal palace as a concubine of Pharaoh and Abram is unable to defend her. God’s intervention is required to save the couple.

While other ancient near eastern cultures showed concern for widows and orphans, the Hebrew Bible is unique in elevating the just treatment of aliens as a sacred duty. The previous section showed how communities were to make provision for widows, orphans, and aliens by leaving some crops in the field, collecting a special tithe every third year, and including these groups in community celebrations. In addition, the Torah accorded aliens the same legal protection and obligations as enjoyed by ethnic Hebrews (Ex. 12.49; Lev. 24.22)). Aliens were to participate in the Sabbath rest along with Hebrew (Ex. 20.10; 23.12) The wages of aliens (along with other poor laborers) were to be paid before sunset and the community bore responsibility to ensure that they were not deprived of justice (Dt 24.14,17). Hebrew community members were to embrace them with love and to recall their ancestors had been aliens in Egypt (Lev. 19.34).

The book of Psalms reveals that aliens, along with widows and orphans, lacked protection from violence (Ps. 94.6). God watches over aliens and brings down those who exploit them (Ps. 146.9). The book of Job is instructive once again about the virtue of righteousness in regard to marginalized people. The righteous champion the cause of aliens ((Job 29.6) and offer hospitality in their homes (Job 31.32). The latter theme reappears in the gospel tradition where Jesus self-identifies with aliens and commends hospitality (Mt 25.35, 38, 44). St. Paul writes about a Christian communities that overcome the boundaries of ethnicity and social class so that no one is marginalized as a stranger (1 Cor. 12.13; Gal. 3.28).

In the final paragraph of this overview, we wish to make a further observation following Donald Gowan (1987). There are certain characteristics to the social vulnerability and isolation of these three groups:

  • Widows are poor and powerless because of an unexpected event (the death of their husbands) and their gender.
  • Orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of an event (death of their fathers), their age, and gender in the case of girls.
  • Aliens are marginalized because adverse circumstances forced them to relocate outside of their ethnic and kinship groups. Gender may be an additional factor of their vulnerability.

These different factors are suggestive as we seek to apply the WOA principle to ethical issues of our own time.

In Part 3 we will examine how the mission of Jesus moved him constantly to the margins of communities to meet with and care for vulnerable people.

[1] Abraham probably lived in the middle bronze epoch (around 1850 BCE). The last books of the New Testament were written around the end of the first century CE.

[2] 1992, page 368.

[3] The dating of Job is challenging. The traditions seem rooted in the time of the monarchy although the final form may be post-exile.

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

The WOA Approach to Ethics

Gordon King & Rupen Das

Rupen Das and I have have been colleagues at World Vision Canada and Canadian Baptist Ministries. He is one of Canada’s leading experts in humanitarian relief and international development. Over the past eight years Rupen has worked in the Middle East with the Lebanese Baptists and, most recently, with the European Baptist Federation based in Amersterdam. We share a mutual concern for people that live on the margins of their communities. The WOA approach to ethics seeks to express their conviction that God moves us into the borderlands to bear witness to his transforming love and grace. We intend to develop this approach in further writings and speaking over the coming months.


Part 1: Introduction to the WOA Approach to Ethics

WOA is an awkward acronym that represents the Biblical triad of widows, orphans, and aliens. These social groups represented women, men, and children that existed on the margins of their communities. They struggled for dignity and survival. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the quality of care provided for widows, orphans, and aliens was a criterion for evaluating the morality of a community or nation.

We propose that the biblical WOA approach to ethics offers an important perspective that can be used to analyze current social issues. This way of doing ethical analysis demands that we consider moral dilemmas based on the needs of people whose lives are impacted by poverty, discrimination, hunger, and violence. Do our actions give priority to addressing the hardships and isolation of those who live in the borderlands looking over the fence at those who live with relative security and dignity? In a latter article we will suggest that the Biblical virtues of justice, mercy and faith can be used to shape the ethical positions we take and the nature of our actions on behalf of the people we meet at the margins of the economic and social life of our nation and the global community.

 Ethical Approaches and the WOA Principle

An ethical approach provides a vantage point from which to analyze moral issues and evaluate proposed actions. The utilitarian approach gives priority to results that bring happiness to the largest number of people. The ethics of egoism emphasizes personal responsibility and agency for one’s own well-being. The virtue approach enquires about character and values required to face moral dilemmas. Duty ethics concentrates attention on wholesome motives and social obligations that are inherent with responsible citizenship. The altruistic approach seeks the common good of all people.

We submit that there is need for another approach to ethics that will cast light on some of the most pressing moral issues of our time. Poverty, hunger, racism, violence, and disease are social evils that drain and extinguish innocent lives. The model we propose is inspired by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in particular by the story of the gospels.   We use the somewhat clumsy term “the WOA principle” because the Bible brings these three groups together in a manner that emphasizes the community’s obligation to care for its vulnerable members. The Hebrew Scriptures identify God as the protector of the widow, orphan, and exile.

For the Lord, your God … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the aliens, providing them with food and clothing. (Dt. 10.18)

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Ps 146.9)


We suggest that the WOA principle requires us to examine every ethical issue from the perspective of the poor who are unable to participate meaningfully in the economic and social life of their community. These people are found in Juba, South Sudan and New York City, USA. Every city and rural village has its borderlands.

Tomorrow our post will examine the social identity of widows, orphans, and aliens in the Biblical world.

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