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Author: Gordon King

Utilitarian Ethics Part 2

Utilitarian Ethics Part 2

The Alberta Carbon Tax.

A current issue of public morality in Alberta, Canada is the carbon tax that was implemented in January 2017. This tax requires payment by industry and individuals for the carbon dioxide we place in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. The rate has been set at $20 per tonne, meaning that gasoline prices rose by 4.5 cents a litre (about 20 cents a gallon in the US).   The government objective is to raise $9.5 billion over five years for renewable energy, public transportation, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, and rebates for families earning less that $95 thousand annually. The carbon tax is part of the government’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and take responsible action on climate change. The inevitable pain is that a family with two children will pay about $500 in additional taxes in a year. In addition, industry complains that the carbon tax will negatively impact economic growth in Alberta given Donald Trump’s opposition to the Paris Accord on Climate Change.

A utilitarian ethical analysis would need to take into account the “pain” or negative consequences of the carbon tax including the loss of discretionary income. The other side of the equation would need to quantify the manner in which the environment is related to the long-term happiness of Albertans. The unprecedented floods of 2013, the forest fires around Fort McMurray in 2016, and the record heat wave of 2017 suggest that we face a mounting crisis. I wish to draw attention to the subtle danger of allowing ideology and self-interest to intrude into the difficult task of analysis. Furthermore, in the carbon tax debate, the Biblical virtue of creation care never enters into public discourse. Christians might choose to have a voice based on virtue rather than attempted quantifications of happiness.


Reflections on Utilitarian Ethics

The utilitarian approach to ethics is important for its commitment to equality. There are no special interest people or groups. The happiness of each person is measured in an equivalent manner. This characteristic appears commendable in giving voice to the voiceless and addressing the disproportional influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. The example I cited above illustrates that the integrity of the analysis requires social actors to recognize potential biases of ideology and personal interest.

The commendable principle of equal value may require some qualifications in its implementation. For example, in a time of crisis, there are moral expectations that parents will give priority to the safety and well-being of their children (while bearing in mind the needs of others). The same ethical responsibility has daily implications for families.

Furthermore, there is a moral question about the happiness of minority groups that have been marginalized because of past events and social forces. Such groups may need special assistance that recognizes a history of injustice and offers prospects of gaining dignity and hope. The “happiness count” of people in the borderlands may not register as particularly significant in the larger context of a city or region. However, a biblical ethic always moves us to meet the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the margins of our social locations.

Many Christians will be troubled by the absence of considerations of virtue and character in utilitarian ethics. Using the “end” to “justify the means” can feel dangerous. Slavery was used to justify an economic system based on oppression. The Indian Residential Schools in Canada were justified as a means to “take the Indian out of the child” and facilitate social integration. Every regime that practices torture has articulated a moral justification. The utilitarian approach to ethics, when used exclusively, can be perverted by personal ambition and abuses of power.

Finally, the quality of the heart seems to be an essential aspect of morality. Many of us are reluctant to separate motivations from actions. We would praise someone that risked his life to save five children that were held hostage. Our admiration might be tempered if we discovered that the rescuer had been offered $1 million payment per child. The action might seem more mercenary than moral in nature.

In the parable of the sower and the seed, the people that bear abundant fruit hold fast to the word with honest and good hearts (Luke 8.15). After a grievous moral failure, a psalmist of Israel seeks from God a clean heart and a new spirit (Psalm 51.10). These texts, along with the weight of personal experience, lead us to conclude that faithful living requires the difficult inner journey of the heart.

In conclusion, the utilitarian approach to ethics should be part of our tool kit for the task of analyzing moral dilemmas. This perspective will help us to rise above personal and in-group interests in order to consider the general well-being (happiness) of our communities. However, we should balance utilitarian ethics with other approaches to morality so that we avoid inflicting injustice and pain based on dubious arguments that the end justifies the means.

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Utilitarian Approach to Ethics Part 1

Utilitarian Approach to Ethics Part 1

Utilitarian ethics approaches a moral dilemma by asking a critical question: What action will result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people?

This first part of my article will describe utilitarian ethics and provide a biblical example related to Torah regulations of land ownership. Part 2 will offer a brief perspective on the public issue of a carbon tax in Alberta, Canada and some reflections on the use of utilitarian ethics by followers of Jesus.

My presentation began with the defining question posed by the utilitarian approach to ethics. We can make several initial observations:

  1. Attention is focussed on the result or impact of an action.
  2. Considerations of personal benefit (ethics of egoism) are replaced by a concern for the majority of people.
  3. There is no deliberation about moral values (virtue ethics).
  4. The motives of key actors or decision makers do not enter into the analysis.


We are familiar with government use of utilitarian ethics. The legal right to private property can be trumped through the legal expropriation of private land with the purpose of building a highway. In such cases, the perceived happiness of the majority is given greater weight than the pain or discomfort of a limited number of landholders. The approach of utilitarian ethics also has been used to justify the torture of a suspected terrorists with the purpose of eliciting information. The reasoning is that the happiness of the general public outweighs the pain and indignity inflicted on the individual. The contravention of international laws against torture is considered secondary to the need to protect innocent people. The basic principle of utilitarian ethics is easily grasped by most people although the implementation is challenging.


Biblical Example of Utilitarian Ethics.

The Torah’s instructions on property ownership and sale can be considered using the approach of utilitarian ethics. We recall that the Mosaic Law was given in the setting of the wilderness for the time when the former slaves would establish communities in the promised land. Modern readers must remember that the ownership of productive farmland was the main form of security in a pre-industrial agrarian society. Therefore, a landless person likely would be destitute and hungry.

The Torah principle, expressed in Leviticus 25, was that all the land belonged ultimately to God. Families simply held property as a trust. The Mosaic Law envisioned that calamity, crop failures, and other adverse circumstances could strike an family. As a consequence, affected people might be forced to sell their traditional property to survive. However, such a transaction was not to be permanent. The property was to be returned to the original family owners (or their descendants) in the year of Jubilee (celebrated every fifty years). The intent was to avoid creating a permanent class of landless peasants and to limit the economic disparity among community members.

The utilitarian approach to ethics, as mentioned earlier, seeks to ensure the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. In the case of ancient Israel, the freedom of a potential wealthy minority to expand landholdings was considered secondary to the common good (happiness) of the majority of people that would live in egalitarian communities. (My book Seed Falling on Good Soil shows how the economic elite in the time of Jesus used peasant debt with the purpose of enlarging their rural estates.)

Description of Utilitarian Ethics

The discipline of utilitarian ethics is usually associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 -1873). In our time, Peter Singer has become one of the most influential proponents of this approach to moral issues. Many readers will not be familiar with their written works but will feel somewhat at home in their process of reasoning. The basic principles of utilitarian ethics can be expressed as follows:

  1. Utilitarian ethics considers the common good rather than personal advantage. The perspective of self interest is not totally lost; the self simply finds its place among other people affected by a moral decision.
  2. In utilitarian ethics, each person is of equal importance regardless of social class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion.
  3. Utilitarian ethics attempts to quantify happiness and pain. The first is the desired consequence of a moral decision; the second is to be avoided.
  4. Utilitarian ethics distinguishes between happiness as an intrinsic good and those factors that are instrumental means in achieving happiness. Education, employment, adequate housing, and healthcare are instrumental goods that are generally related to the end goal of happiness.
  5. The analysis of options related to a moral dilemma will consider several factors: What people or groups will be directly and indirectly impacted? How many people will be happy as a result of an action? How many people will experience pain? What will be the intensity and duration of the happiness and pain? What is the probability of the anticipated impacts? How are short-term and long-term results to be calculated?

Based on these five principles, one concludes that the analytical work can be complex and somewhat speculative. For example, one might think of the challenges of a utilitarian ethics approach to the moral issue of ensuring basic healthcare for all Americans.


The second part of my presentation will provide an overview of an issue that is debated publicly in Alberta, Canada. I will conclude with a few reflections on how followers of Jesus might consider the utilitarian approach to ethical issues.

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Virtue Ethics Part 3

Virtue Ethics Part 3

What is distinct about a Christian virtue ethic?

As mentioned previously, Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue ethics. However, we should be confident that we have an important contribution to make to the broader discussion. We can be grateful for the work of scholars like Alasdair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jonathan Wilson in emphasizing the importance of the development of virtues for the life and witness of the church.

Here I will offer a few suggestions: drawing on the authors cited above:

  1. Christian virtues are not isolated moral principles or laws extracted from the Bible. Scriptural virtues are embedded in narratives of God with his people. For a follower of Jesus, virtues cannot be understood apart from the gospel narrative that leads us through Galilee and Judea to the crucifixion and resurrection. Stanley Hauerwas wrote: “… Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth.”[1]
  2. People, including Christians, are susceptible to delusions and distortions about their lives and morality. We want to believe that we are more virtuous than our actions and inaction might suggest. The story of Jesus forces us to examine our own lives. We enter into a space where we can face ourselves with honesty, confess our sins, celebrate grace, and be inspired by the story of the gospel.
  3. Christian virtues are related to the mission (telos) of God in the world. The purpose or meaning of each human life is discovered in relationship to the mission of God. The virtues are an expression of how people understand God, his calling, and their purpose in the world. At a minimum, faithfulness to the mission of God requires virtues like humility, service, and compassion.
  4. The process of the development of character or virtues can be likened to the metaphor of a journey. People are transformed by the pilgrimage with God as they face new challenges that test their faithfulness, integrity, and dedication.
  5. Individuals need a community (church) to encourage and nurture Christian virtues. A supportive community, living by the principle of grace, provides a fellowship of discernment and encouragement for the long journey.


Evaluation of Virtue Ethics as an Approach to Morality.

I think most people would agree that people with strong sets of virtues will generally sort through moral issues and make good decisions. The emphasis on the long process of character formation matches our understanding of Christian discipleship and transformation. Pastors and teachers should be encouraged to emphasize gospel virtues in their preaching and classroom discussions. Those of us that serve in the broader marketplace are challenged to find ways of representing the virtues of our faith in social contexts of competition and affluence. We will have to be discerning in distinguishing between “cultural” virtues that will vary in different settings and “gospel” virtues that are essential for discipleship and mission.

I have one major concern about the virtue ethics approach that I can represent in a story. A former colleague was the child of a Jewish couple that had been saved from death in a concentration camp by Oskar Schindler (you may have seen the movie Schindler’s List). Few people would have described Schindler as a virtuous man. He was a member of the Nazi party. He was unfaithful in marriage. He used bribery to get ahead in business. He drank to excess and was addicted to a lifestyle of affluence. One assumes that many German Christians who served the 3rd Reich that would have been scandalized by Schindler. But when a Jewish concentration camp opened near his factory, Oskar Schindler used his money and influence to save over one thousand Jewish women and men. Let me pose the question: “If you were a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, would you have preferred to place your fate in the hands of Schindler or in the hands of a 3rd Reich soldier that maintained his marriage vows and personal piety?”

The story of Oskar Schindler raises uncomfortable questions about how we prioritize certain virtues and our vices in our historical situation.  We might ask: Is it enough to be a faithful husband and loving father in a world where 925 million people are hungry? I am struck by a recent poll that showed that 85% of Americans (and presumably Canadians) were unaware of extreme hunger in Africa and the Middle East. Is it enough to be virtuous in business dealings in North America while ignoring that the mass displacement of 65 million people is a new global reality. This means that 1 of every 113 people on the earth is on the move as a refugee from violence or environmental catastrophe, as a migrant looking for work, or as someone that simply hopes for a better life. What does virtue mean in the context of desperate people crowding into boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea?

I propose that the Christian church faces a challenge in rethinking the virtues that God requires for our mission and witness in today’s broken and wounded world. We need to bear in mind that the God of our scriptures always was concerned for the well-being of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Virtues should move us toward the margins and borderlands. The discussions and conclusions about virtue ethics will be important for the future of our churches and our nations.

[1] The Hauerwas Reader. Page 121.

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Virtue Ethics Part 2

Virtue Ethics Part 2

Christians have no sense of “ownership” on virtues and virtue ethics. When Paul penned his message to the Galatians, he was aware that four centuries earlier the Greek philosopher Aristotle had emphasized the importance of virtues. Aristotle distinguished between:

  1. Intellectual virtues: Traits that help us to think and reason well.
  2. Moral virtues: Qualities that help us to live and act well in community.

Aristotle taught that virtues required practice; they could not simply be learned in an academy. He introduced the relationship between virtues and the discovery of one’s purpose as a human. The virtues were important for the fulfillment of one’s personal mission or “telos.” Happiness was the product of the coherence of practice and purpose. The influence of Aristotle continues to shape current debates about the nature of a moral life.

Earlier than Aristotle, Confucius has lived and taught in China (561 to 479 BC). Confucius also rejected an approach to morality based on rules and regulations. He believed that people of good character would automatically exemplify good behaviour. He emphasized two main virtues that continue to shape Chinese culture. “Jen” represents compassion or humaneness. “Li” stands for good manners and decorum. Discussions of ethics and faith in modern China inevitably make reference to the ongoing influence of Confucius.

These two historical figures remind us of the importance of recognizing the importance of other perspectives on virtue and of the need to enter into dialogue with people that are sincere in their desire to be people of integrity.

This very brief overview and the content of Part 1 can lead us to make a few further observations:

  1. Virtues are contextual. It is in a particular context with its personalities and social tensions that a certain virtues become important for the individual and the broader community. To return to the example of St. Francis, the decision to make a virtue of poverty would have made no sense in a social setting of widespread deprivation and hunger.
  2. Virtues are role dependant. The virtues required of a teacher in Malawi will have important differences from the virtues of fire fighter in Toronto. The virtues demanded of aid workers in a time of famine will have some significant differences from those of a respected bank manager in New York. There is room to debate the possibility that there are gender differences in assigning priority to certain virtues.
  3. Virtues are influenced by culture. Precision with time is a virtue in Switzerland; It is not valued as highly in parts of Africa. Cross-cultural and international workers need to be attentive to different moral codes that emphasize distinct sets of virtues.
  4. Virtues are not learned in a classroom or by reading a book. As Aristotle taught, the development of a virtuous life requires years of practice. Virtues become personal traits only through a long road of dedication in which there will be inevitably moments of testing, personal failure, and success through stubborn endurance.

Part 3 of this series will deal with the distinct nature of virtue ethics for followers of Jesus.

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Virtue Ethics Part 1

Virtue Ethics Part 1

Virtue ethics offers a distinct approach to moral issues by concentrating on the character of social agents rather than an analysis of a particular dilemma. The foundational principle is that the actions of virtuous people will be morally sound and noble in nature. I will attempt to briefly outline and evaluate the virtue ethics position in three blog posts.

The Christian faith has emphasized virtue ethics through the centuries. A good example is found in the New Testament in Galatians 5.16-24. Paul is addressing a number of small Christian congregations in the Roman province of Galatia (now a region of Turkey). He is concerned to show that freedom in Christ should not lead to declining standards of moral conduct. The apostle offers a list of vices to be avoided: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. He then turns to virtues to be cultivated by the followers of Jesus in Galatia. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

We would better understand Paul’s moral advice if we were able to enter into the story of the city and the church. However, we are at least able to grasp that the fifteen vices are personally destructive and damage the newly formed communities of faith. The nine virtues are “fruits of the Spirit” in the sense that God works in the lives of his people to nurture and cultivate these traits.

Faith requires a movement from vices to virtues. The scriptures and church history bear witness to the challenges of living by virtues in settings of greed and violence. One might think of St. Francis who made a virtue of poverty in order to offer an alternate path in contrast with the affluence of society and the church. Similarly, Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Jesuit Priest, exemplified the virtue of courage during World War II. He provided refuge for Jews in his monastery and, after being imprisoned in Auschwitz, offered to die in the place of a Jewish prisoner. We could think of many other stories of virtue that inspire us to be better people and more dedicated followers of Jesus.

Virtue Ethics is a distinct approach to morality.

At this point I want to make five general observations about the approach of virtue ethics.

  1. Virtue ethics aims at personal development. We might say that this approach to ethics is concerned about the formation of character rather than the provision of rules.
  2. Virtue ethics does not begin with the kind of questions that we usually ask when facing a moral dilemma. What actions should we take? What outcomes would be ethically sound? What motives should guide our actions? These questions are secondary in the virtue ethics approach.
  3. Virtue ethics places primary emphasis on what kind of people we should be in the process of becoming? What character traits are noble and dignified in the context of a certain issue? A starting question might be: What values or virtues should I exemplify in relationship to others as we face this dilemma?
  4. Virtues usually go in sets. A particular virtue seldom standd on its own. A virtuous person displays multiple character positive traits in most situations.
  5. Virtue ethics distinguishes between satisfaction and pleasure. People that are content or at peace with their lives may well have made painful and unpleasant sacrifices in order to faithfully live by their code of virtues. In other words, virtues may lead us toward pain and conflict.


The second blog post on virtue ethics will offer further observations on this way of approaching moral issues.

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Two Approaches to Ethics – Egoism and Altruism

Two Approaches to Ethics – Egoism and Altruism

Each day we are required to make a variety of moral decisions. The way we analyse different options is often based on intuition shaped by experience, family backgrounds, culture, and faith traditions.  For Christians, ethics is part of our commitment to follow Jesus into a broken world. We live in an age in which the lives of most Christians are virtually indistinguishable from those of others in our broader culture. Accordingly, a focus on ethics is important if we wish to establish a vibrant witness in our communities.

An exposure to ethical theories can deepen our practice of Christian discipleship. In the following remarks I wish to concentrate on egoism and altruism as two opposing approaches to moral dilemmas. It is important to give attention to these two streams because the former is particularly prevalent in our social and political context. The church in North America has largely lost the active altruist ethic that made its witness compelling in the first two centuries (Rodney Stark). Additionally, I venture to propose that each of us struggles to live in the tension between egoism and altruism in our personal lives.

The Egoist Approach to Ethics:

The egoist approach is based on the criteria of self-interest, personal benefit, and happiness. Egoists evaluate each moral decision on the basis of advantage for self, family, and social group. Ethical egoists maintain that people are responsible for their own happiness and well-being. Consequently, individuals bear the moral obligation to look out for themselves. We are fully justified placing self-interest above the needs of others. People that require external assistance to maintain themselves are characterized as weak and dependent. Ethical egoists generally disdain welfare, food banks, and socialized medical programs. They are likely to endorse unrestricted capitalism believing that this economic system rewards those that work with diligence and creativity. They have faith in Adam Smith’s invisible hand of capitalism to guide individuals and nations.  They are more likely to speak about individual than collective rights. They recognize the need for enforcement agents to protect from others in society that break the law for reasons of personal advantage and profit.


It is important to note that the egoist approach to ethics does not invariably produce people that lack moral restraint and oppose all forms of cooperative action. The ethical egoist understands that long-term goals of family, home, career and financial security require sacrifice and effort. Furthermore, there can be personal benefits to community organization and taxes to support certain government services. For example, the payment of taxes for the supply of safe water is valuable for each tax payer. Speed limits in neighborhood school zones restrict personal freedom but protect their children. It is more difficult to make a compelling case for financial support to improve the quality of education in marginal zones of a city because the benefit is further removed. Accordingly, the egoist willingly enters into certain social contracts provided that there is personal benefit and all people give up similar freedoms. These social contracts are not rooted in motivations of concern for others. The criterion is always a sense of self-interest.

The important point to note is that ethical egoism proposes that people should act consistently with motives of self-interest and personal happiness. This approach to moral dilemmas is foundational for this ethical current. Ethical egoists argue that they are morally responsible because they take responsibility for themselves and their families, obey the law, and do not depend on the state.

The Altruist Approach to Ethics

The altruist stream of ethics, in contrast, works with the moral criterion of the common good or the well-being of others. This approach to ethics goes so far as to place a value on personal sacrifice for the sake of others. Personal advantage and happiness are less important than the well-being of diverse people in the community.

I sometimes wonder if the altruist approach to ethics finds some nourishment in collectivist rather than individualist cultures. Let me give an example. A prolonged drought produced a famine in southeastern Kenya in 2006. Canadian Baptists ran a year-long project of food assistance with the help of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. 42,000 people benefited from monthly supplies of beans, rice, cooking oil, and other necessities. The beneficiaries had been identified as severely food insecure and, therefore, vulnerable to starvation. Each beneficiary was given a ration card in order to make sure that we targeted needy families. During the program, aid workers reported that most people immediately shared their food supplies with others in the community.  Evidently, there was some sort of a moral issue about receiving a benefit without giving to others. Their actions clearly ran counter to their personal interest in a time of famine. Altruism trumped egoism.

The ethical altruist approach should not be characterized as “a bleeding heart” orientation to morality. Few altruists eat beans and rice each day so that they can send financial donations to feed the hungry. However, their analysis of ethical problems consistently poses the fundamental question of the common good of the community and the world. Ethical altruists are suspicious about policies and actions that benefit some people at the cost of others. There will be particular concern when a minority profits while the majority are excluded. Altruists are prepared to make decisions for the benefit of others when it is not in their best interest. One might consider the case of Warren Buffett, an respected American investor and multi-millionaire. He has argued that it is morally unacceptable that rich people like himself pay less in federal taxes, as a proportion of total income, than people in the middle class. He has gone so far as to propose a new level of tax on the wealthy. This position clearly expresses an altruistic ethic that opposes tax policies that personally benefit him and his family.



Both ethical streams, the egoist and the altruist, are found in the Christian scriptures. Allow me to give a further example regarding food. Paul responded to an ethical dilemma in 2 Thessalonians 3.3-13. A group in the Christian community had given up work and expected to live from the handouts of others in the congregation. Paul first points to his own example of manual labor to pay his own way. He then lays down the following principle: Anyone unwilling to work cannot depend on the generosity of the community. This could be considered an application of ethical egoism – individuals bear the responsibility for their own well-being. The apostle faced a different moral issue when a famine struck Palestine. The marginalized Christian community in Jerusalem was particularly vulnerable to hunger. Paul organized a collection of funds from the churches in Asia Minor and Greece to provide relief. Three ethical principles are particularly noteworthy in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

  1. Each person was to participate in this altruistic intervention according to their means. No one was exempt.
  2. The model for generosity was the altruism of the Lord Jesus Christ who, being rich, chose to become poor so that we might be rich.
  3. The goal of altruism is some sort of a fair balance between those that suffer from poverty and those that live in security.


I propose that these two examples help us to see that people of faith always live in the tension between ethical egoism and altruism. The problem is that egoism is more prevalent than altruism. The individualism and consumerism of western societies throws cold water on the ideals of self-sacrifice for the common good.

I would like to conclude with a few additional points of reflection:

  • We will always live with the tension of ethical egoism and altruism.
  • A social world in which morality is based on personal advantage would require you to protect yourself in every relationship and encounter with other people.
  • The law of the jungle inevitably creates losers as well as winners. A compounding problems is that both wealth and poverty often are passed on to other generations unless there is some form of equalization of opportunity.
  • Humans have a tendency toward self-deception. It is a challenge to assess our own motivations and even more difficult to discern the motives of others. Ethical egoists may present themselves as altruists in order to gain an advantage, build an image, or advance in their career. Each of us needs to engage in regular gut-checks to recognize and purify our motives. Public figures must be judged by their actions rather than their words.
  • The road of ethical egoism does not guarantee well-being and happiness. The current level of consumer debt in Canada and the USA illustrates that egoists will compromise the future because of weakness of will and lack of knowledge. Paradoxically, personal satisfaction is often the by-product of a life of service to others.
  • Our response to the environmental crisis is dampened by the current of ethical egoism that mitigates against personal sacrifice for the collective good. As a result, it is convenient to question the science of global climate change.
  • Politicians and preachers generally appeal to our inherent egoism by emphasizing personal advantages of their platforms or religion. There is an overwhelming silence about the virtue of sacrifice for the common good and, in the case of the discourse of pastors, for the rule of God.

I propose that the witness of Christians will be strengthened by a renewed emphasis on an altruistic approach to ethics based on our reading of the New Testament and Hebrew prophets.


The author wishes to acknowledge his debt to Barbara MacKinnon and Andrew Fiala, Ethics Theory and Contemporary Issues (2015)

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Ezekiel 34: A Message for Leaders

Ezekiel 34: A Message for Leaders

Regine and I have moved from Winnipeg to Calgary last week. The movers are delayed in delivering our furniture. We are living in a house that looks attractive from the outside but is cold and empty on the inside. There are none of the usual things that make a home feel warm and inviting. I wonder if this is a symbol of what is happening in our communities, regions, and countries. There is a strong current of withdrawal from public life and a reduction of vision to simply caring for ourselves and our families. The outer walls remain intact but we are losing the warmth of communitarian values and compassion for those who are different.

The current period is difficult to navigate for those in leadership positions. Many pastoral leaders struggle to understand declining congregations and changing values in the post-Christendom age. They recognize that their church communities must find new models of worship and witness in a fragmented social context. However, the way forward is anything but clear. International mission leaders are working with reduced budgets and increased pressures to respond to massive population movements, civil violence, areas of hunger, and environmental destruction. Those who lead service ministries to people on the margins are discovering a growing mean spirit in our social networks. We blame the poor for their poverty and immigrants for their desire to build a new life in our neighborhoods. There is more than a mistrust of local and national governments. There are also suspicions about anyone who articulates a message of compassion, justice, and creation care.

The words of Ezekiel 34 were addressed to political and religious leaders in Israel. The historical context was complex, contested, and confusing. The prophet reminded leaders of their responsibility to be shepherds dedicated to the well-being of the sheep under their care. In all probability, these leaders would have rejected any comparison of their positions with those of humble farm workers that lived in the fields with their animals. Ezekiel reminded these leaders of the outcomes that were important for God:

  • The weak are strengthened.
  • The sick are healed.
  • The injured receive medical care.
  • The strays are brought back into the community.
  • The lost are found.

We can re-phrase these description expressions for our own time and places. I think it would be a good exercise for leadership groups and boards. The text invites us to re-center our leadership goals on building stronger communities in which wounded and vulnerable people are welcomed with compassion and care. God holds us accountable to move our organizations in these directions.

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Spiritual Disciplines of Boards and Committees

Spiritual Disciplines of Boards and Committees

Spiritual practices can nurture groups as well as individual followers of Jesus. However, when it comes to boards and committees, it often seems that “the devotional moment” is a formality or a distraction before we get down to the real work. Accordingly, we may rush through a reflection and prayer with a certain impatience waiting for the time when we can deal with the real reason that we are gathered.

I submit that too often the inadequate content of the quiet period before God is to blame for the feeling that we are spinning our wheels before dealing with the issues of the day. The words and prayers may feel disengaged from the reality of the challenges we face and the emotions of our hearts. And so we waste an opportunity to collectively stand before the Lord, to listen, to confess our sins and limitations, to ask for a renewed vision, and to offer our lives in service. We miss the chance to pray for one another and for those whose lives our touched through our work. We fail to invite the Spirit to guide and direct our motivations, our deliberations, decisions, and actions.

This week I was privileged to participate as an observer in a board meeting with 30 representatives of fifteen Christian denominations. At least 25 other people were present drawn by the common concern for hungry people in the world. The board members and other interested individuals were connected in one way or another with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The group members represented diverse professional backgrounds, a common faith commitment, and a shared passion for vulnerable people in areas such as South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Northern Nigeria.

The official agenda had urgent matters for discussion and decision. Board members had been given over 250 pages of reports and other documents. Budgets. Auditors Statements. Convergent Level 3 Emergencies. Rick Factors. Local Capacities. Field Reports. Global climate change. Conflict zones. Gender and Development. Changing government policies. Public opinion surveys. Fundraising and Communication options. People in the room were aware that human lives were at stake. Two days of meetings did not seem like enough time.

I was struck by the fact that over one hour was given to Biblical reflection and prayer before the items on the agenda began to be considered. James Astleford, an Adventist leader, drew attention to a Biblical passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 2 Kings 6 soldiers from a foreign army are captured and brought into Jerusalem. The ruling monarch is keen to kill them as an example of what will happen to the nation’s enemies. However, the prophet Elisha demands that they be invited to a banquet and then sent home to their families. These actions lead to a time of peace. Astleford encouraged the group to consider that generosity with food and nutrition is a way of building peace without the violence of bombs and armies. Feeding the hungry is an alternative foreign policy of the church.

Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Foodgrains Bank, used his report to lead us in a reflection of Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” He reminded the room that millions of hungry and desperate people today are screaming similar words to God and to the world. They feel forsaken and abandoned. Cornelius noted that the spirit of our age is to withdraw into the safety of baseball scores, barbeques, and times at the pool. The cross of Jesus stands before us as a symbol of a radical and sacrificial love of the world.


The vocation of caring for hungry people exposes the organizational limitations and vulnerabilities of each of the fifteen denominations of the Foodgrains Bank. There were hard discussions ahead. Astleford and Cornelius brought us together before God and established a context in which our business could be considered.

Other groups have their own unique mission and purpose in the world. I think of local congregational councils, youth groups, urban ministries, refugee organizations, and seminary boards.  Together they bear witness to the wide nature of God’s love and grace among those who feel wounded and abandoned. Our moments of reflection and prayer before moving into the agenda of a meeting have the potential to create a context in which God can speak to our hearts and minds. We dare not waste them.

Here are a few quick suggestions:

  1. Do not rotate the leadership of the opening reflection and prayer. Choose someone who will have a word from the Lord.
  2. Keep it real. The “devotional moment” should capture something of the agenda, the mission, and the people who are served. The challenges ahead should be brought into the content of the reflection and prayer.
  3. Invite God’s Spirit to speak to each participant and to guide the discussion. Later, do not be hesitant to stop at certain point in the agenda and offer the problems and challenges to the Lord.
  4. Keep it tight. Do not waste the time of others with stories and comments that are unrelated to the task ahead. Astleford and Cornelius commanded the moment because their words and prayer were related to the mission of the people gathered in the room. There were neither jokes nor cute tales.

I find that many meetings drain my energy and passion. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank Board Meeting provided a setting for God to speak to the room in a way the renewed our faith and vision.

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A Canadian’s Perspective on America

A Canadian’s Perspective on America

We deal with personal issues in the larger context of our particular community, nation, and the world. The violence of terrorists, the crisis of hunger, the tragedies of addictions, the mass movements of people, and the uncertainties of political leadership create unease and anxiety on the big stage of the world. As a response, there is a constant temptation to focus attention on personal well-being, family, and friends. These more immediate relationships provide most of our joy and meaning. Among family and friends we can make a difference.

But our small lives are lived in corners of the bigger stages – our communities, nation, and the world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. He did not reduce the scope to our kinship groups and close acquaintances. Jesus also told us that more is required of the ones to whom more has been given. This teaching is a constant reminder that, because of our privileged position, many of us bear a larger responsibility in addressing issues of global injustice and suffering. These gospel sayings can be used to shape the way we view the issues of our day and bear witness to God’s love and grace.

“Put America First” and “Make America Great Again” are slogans that contest the teaching of Jesus. Under Donald Trump, they point to the consolidation of power and wealth in the USA to the exclusion of those on the margins in the global community. Trump stands for the abdication of the kind of global leadership that many of us have come to expect from the best presidents of America.

The rejection of the Paris Accord on Climate Change surely caught no one by surprise. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and thereby entered into a strange alliance with Nicaragua and Syria as non-participants in this global action to preserve creation. There was no contrition that the USA was the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Neither was there recognition that coal fired generators are particularly harmful to the environment nor that more employees work on solar energy projects that in the coal industry in the USA. Likewise, there was no concern expressed about the rapid loss of biodiversity in the USA and the world (think about songbirds and butterflies). Many of us were outraged by Trump’s rejection of helping countries in tropical and semi-tropical areas to adapt to climate change. He characterized this assistance as giving money to competitors rather than of offering assistance to poor people threatened by rising oceans, intense storms, and prolonged droughts. Few people will have confidence that Trump and Scott Pruitt (chief of the Environmental Protection Agency) will provide leadership for a higher standard of creation care. Actions to date point in a different direction.

Over the last months, Americans have watched Trump insult their traditional allies including Angela Merkel (Germany), Sadiq Khan (mayor of London), and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“the worst president of Canada”). Strangely, Vladimir Putin has escaped criticism and angry invectives. America’s strong tradition of a free and independent press is under attack by accusations of false news and the offering of “alternative truths.” Lies and half-truths seem to be acceptable. I had developed almost an addiction to news about Trump because it is so bizarre. It seems like a fictional drama.

Many Canadians are now reluctant to travel to the USA. Our neighbors to the South seem less hospitable and friendly. Some fundamental change is taking place in America that we do not understand. We also fear (not respect) Donald Trump. I expect that less Canadians will spend time in the USA.

I am perplexed that the so-called evangelical voters have not called America’s leadership to a higher standard. I think that they have retreated into the small world of families and friends. I hope that they will attend again to the teaching of the gospels. Before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah engaged in symbolic acts of protest against her monarchy, the elite, the priests, and false prophets of his time. Like many others, I pray that Christian leaders in America will find ways to protest and to demand that the mantle of leadership pass to people that are wise, just, and compassionate. Congregations will need to become places where people can learn again to openly discuss issues and embrace a faith community that allows for respectful differences in engaging with the world. Those of us outside of America should be praying for Christian leaders that offer a prophetic critique of Donald Trump and a new vision of righteousness.

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Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

I shared with my spiritual director that I was finding that some of the Psalms resonated in a new way with my heart. She suggested that I go a step beyond my reading and reflection. She advised me to re-write certain Psalms in my words in order to express personal emotions of anguish, anger, joy, and gratitude. Over the past weeks I have tried to incorporate this spiritual discipline into my times of contemplation.

My approach is guided by a few principles:

  • Find a quiet time with a good pen and pieces of paper.
  • Select a Psalm that speaks to me.
  • Identify the main emotion of the Psalmist (e.g., fear, despair, confidence, happiness).
  • Underline the key verse or phrase that connects with my heart.
  • Allow myself the freedom to change the order and flow of ideas in the Psalm. I do not feel obligated to include every phrase of the text in my personalized version.
  • Express my faith and vulnerabilities as boldly as the writer of the Psalm. I try to reach into my heart.
  • Read it aloud and revise several times. Then offer it to God as a prayer and a poem.


Psalm 83

I wrote a personal version of this Psalm while praying for hungry people in South Sudan and preparing to speak about them at a fundraising banquet.



We long to hear your voice.


People are crying out to you

Pleading for action.

How can you look down detached and distant

From the violence and hunger in South Sudan

And the broken lives on the streets of Winnipeg?


I can theologize with the best of them.

I can explain free will

And the nature of evil (at least on a theoretical basis).

But here on earth

Your enemies craft plans

Against innocent people.

Nothing can stop them.


Some of us pray from our protected cloisters.

Others are crying out

From refugee camps.

From bombed out buildings.

From hospitals that treat the wounded.

From homes without food.


You have no obligation to listen to our prayers

Uttered in comfort.

But would you listen to the victims?

Would you act on their behalf?


Powerful God,

Take these men of violence

The authors of war and destruction,

Reduce them to whirling dust

And straw before the desert wind.

With a raging wildfire

Destroy their armed villas,

Their offshore bank accounts,

And even the memories of their deeds.

Terrify them with the hurricane

Of your judgement.

Let them be put to shame

And die in disgrace.



We your people need to know

That the God of justice and mercy

Rules over all the earth.

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