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Category: Faith in a Wounded World

The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

I want to reflect on the healing of the paralytic in the next few posts. One of the intriguing features of Mark’s narrative is the connection between the forgiveness of sin and the physical restoration of the man that was carried to Jesus by his friends. This passage represents the only time in Mark when Jesus explicitly tells someone that they are forgiven and released of their sins.

The pronouncement of forgiveness is controversial here because Jesus acts with the direct authority that belongs only to God. The scribes in the audience are outraged and harbour accusations of blasphemy. This crime would be punishable by death. In fact, Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the trial that leads to the crucifixion. It is also controversial because there have been no signs of repentance and no indication that sacrifices will be offered by the paralytic in the temple.

I want to make two points here for preachers, Bible study leaders, and lay theologians.

First, even in our modern secular society the burden of guilt can be a destructive force. Unresolved guilt impacts on spiritual, physical, and emotional health along with networks of relationships. The pronouncement of God’s forgiveness gives individuals the opportunity of a new beginning.  In the case of the paralytic, the experience of forgiveness is part of the healing process.

Second, forgiveness can be controversial. We are most comfortable in a world where people get what they deserve (ourselves being the exception). We are uneasy when the church pronounces the unmerited grace of God’s forgiveness to people that have harmed others through violence or deception.  Forgiveness without punishment can seem scandalous.

Perhaps the best route to understanding the controversial nature of forgiveness is through human stories that can serve as representations of the greater miracles of God’s grace.

  • Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. The trial judge was Percy Yutar. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He was released in 1990 and was elected president of South Africa in 1994. He invited Yutar to have lunch with him in the president’s office. Mandela stated that he was trying to model the reconciliation that his country needed. Yutar, after the luncheon, described Mandela as a saint. The lunch meeting was severely criticized by people associated with Mandela that wanted some measure of justice rather than forgiveness.
  • In Rwanda, a woman went to a prison to witness the baptism and offer forgiveness to a young man who had killed her husband (an Adventist pastor). She invited him, after his release, to come and live with her and her children so that he could study at an Adventist Secondary School. She was criticized by people that felt she had dishonored the memory of her husband and disrespected the fundamental standards of justice.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote that his faith was renewed by Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg. Derksen’s daughter was murdered in 1984. Wilma Derksen drew deeply on her faith and the Mennonite tradition of meeting violence with love. She forgave the man accused of her daughter’s death and was able to experience her own release and healing. Gladwell compared Wilma Derksen with other families that have lived with bitter wounds and the unresolved desire for justice.
  • Anthony Berry, a British MP, was killed in the Brighton Bomb blast of 1984. The man responsible was the IRA master bomb maker Patrick Magee. Jo Berry went to a church to pray when she learned of her father’s death. She realized that she was being called to work for understanding and peace. She made several trips to Northern Ireland and entered the alienation and resentment felt by Irish Catholics. Sixteen years later she met Patrick Magee. They went on to work together to promote peace, understanding, and reconciliation. Jo Berry received death threats and was accused of being a traitor to her nation and the memory of her father.
  • On 17 June 2015 Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, entered a Bible study in an African American church in Charlestown, South Carolina. He took out a gun and killed nine people in a racially motivated crime. The situation, which could have erupted in violent confrontations, was defused by family members that offered forgiveness in their pain. One woman spoke of her deceased sister: ” she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

We live in a broken and wounded world. The road of the cross requires us to be people that proclaim and demonstrate forgiveness for the healing of individuals and our communities.

 

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Revised Posting on the Dimensions of Health

Revised Posting on the Dimensions of Health

My friend Sharlene Craig helped me think through some of the content of the last post on 8 dimensions of health. I have reduced the number of dimensions to seven. I have also tried to show that a problem of specialized care is that we concentrate on one dimension of well-being to the exclusion of others. Trusted friends and spiritual advisers play an important role in helping us to redefine and reshare our expectations of what it means to live fully and meaningfully during different chapters of our lives.

I appreciate further comments. This reflection will hopefully serve as an entrance point to understanding the healings and miracles stories of our faith.

Revised version:

Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the ministry program of many churches. In preparation for a time of shared prayer, group members often talk about the health concerns of people in the congregation before lifting them up to God for his grace and healing. We want to make three observations; (1) there is a common concern for biomedical issues (diseases and injuries) that affect people of our congregations; (2) people of faith sense the need for God’s intervention in addition to the assistance of paid professionals; and, (3) other issues related to the health of individuals and communities are often neglected in conversations and prayers.

We submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Well-being is a broad concept that has several dimensions. Yet when we discuss health, often our default option is reduced to biomedical considerations. We may fail to engage in broader conversations, prayer, and pastoral care that encompasses other dimensions that are integral to living a full and abundant life.

The limitation of this fixation on biomedical health can be illustrated in the following example. Bradley is a robust middle–aged man. He works out regularly in a gym with the advice of a personal trainer. His blood and heart tests are normal. He has not missed a day of work in the past 10 years. However, things are not as good in other areas of Bradley’s life. At work, where he is a manager, Bradley has trouble with employee retention and morale. He is officially on a work improvement plan. He has lived on his own since his marriage ended five years ago. His children avoid him. His neighbors think he is angry and overbearing. He has no significant friendships. Most of us would acknowledge that someone like Bradley is not healthy notwithstanding his physical strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us to broaden our working definition of health.

Seven dimensions of health

It may be timely to open discussion about multiple dimensions of health. There is general agreement that our well-being is a complex and multi-faceted concept. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, we wish to propose a working model that has seven health dimensions that together play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. Each dimension relates to the other six in different ways to form a pattern of intersecting lines.

The biomedical functioning of our bodies can be considered as the first dimension of health. In times of crisis, we seek assistance of doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.

In recent years, people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that individuals struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Mental health specialists include psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors with diverse products including psychoanalysis, self-help books, and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals.

The third dimension of our proposal is supportive relationships with family and a broader community of people. Well-being requires a balanced sense of belonging and independence, participation in the lives of others, trust, and acceptance. When there are relational dysfunctions in families or social networks, professional assistance may be sought from social workers, therapists, and other counsellors.

The fourth dimension of health is security. A sense of well-being requires relative confidence that needs for food and shelter will be met in an adequate manner. Security also includes access to education, health care, and public safety without fear of prejudice or oppression. In countries like Canada and the USA, we depend on governments and the business sector for fair employment, social policies, and the protection of citizen’s rights.

We propose that intellectual well-being is the fifth dimension of health. This category is concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to learn, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions. The professionals generally associated with intellectual health are teachers, librarians, poets, artists, and authors.

The sixth dimension of health is concerned with the ways that we individually and corporately relate to God’s creation. Human well-being depends on the quality of air, purity of water, preservation of bio-diversity, and maintenance of soil nutrients. The abuse and exploitation of the environment is a threat to our existence. The list of professionals concerned with creation care include scientists, conservationists, farmers, certain politicians and activists.

The seventh health dimension is spiritual in that it concerns our relationship with God the Creator and Sustainer of all life.  The spiritual dimension probes the big questions of the purpose of life, morality, forgiveness, and eternal life. The professionals in this area are people like pastors, rabbis, and imams.

Reflections

Our bodies were made in such a way that we would recognize our finite and vulnerable nature. We are endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. Every human life ends with death. This commonality explains, at least partially, our concentration on the biomedical dimension of health. We have the desire to extend life as far as modern science makes possible (and even to have the right to use science to end our lives).

This singular focus has restricted our understanding of what it means to live in ways that are full and meaningful. Well-being is a thick concept that is not restricted to the biomedical or mental health dimensions. People that enjoy well-being have a realistic self understanding, thrive on supportive relationships, participate in their communities, appreciate basic securities, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. We have tried to express this broader view of health through the seven dimensions.

We deliberately included a list of qualified professionals associated with each dimension to make the point that specialists may perpetuate a narrow focus that fails to consider other components of well-being of individuals within their communities. As a result, we must rely on trusted family members, close friends, and spiritual advisers to help us to navigate and balance our needs and desires regarding how to live well.

A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist understood wisdom in a practical manner. I am attracted to Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Teach us to live wisely and well.” I propose that congregational leaders have an important role in helping people to live fully and meaningfully through different life stages. The seven dimensions of health require us to be attentive to the well-being of individuals and communities including the quality of relationships, social equity, opportunities for intellectual growth, respect for creation, and spiritual nurture. Our dialogue, pastoral work, and prayers should be grounded in a broader definition of health.

 

Gordon King lives in Calgary, Canada. He is author of Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus (2016),

Sharlene Craig is director of Human Resources and Member Care for Canadian Baptist Ministries.

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Biomedical issues are only one dimension of health

Biomedical issues are only one dimension of health

Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the life of many churches between Sundays. In preparation for a shared time of prayer, group members often talk about health concerns of individuals and lift these people up to God for his grace and healing. Three observations may be made; (1) health issues are a common concern of people in a church community; (2) the working definition of health is often limited to bio-medical dysfunctions or injuries; and, (3) there is a sense that God’s involvement transcends the work of medical specialists.

I submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Our default option, when considering health, is the biomedical dimension. We may overlook the example of robust individuals who are wounded people that inflict damage on themselves, others, and the created order. Yet most of us would acknowledge that such people are not healthy notwithstanding their strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us in our reflections, prayers, and pastoral work to move beyond the well-being of physical bodies and to consider other dimensions of health.

Eight dimensions of health

As indicated above, our working definition of health often has a select group of themes related to the biomedical functioning of our bodies. I call this the first dimension of health because of the immediate association of modern medical practice with individual well-being. In those times when we are unable to function at an acceptable level, there is a general tendency to seek the assistance of medical specialists in designated locations. The sense of need intensifies both in times of crisis and in the long-term process of watching our strength decline due to age. We turn to doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.

In recent years, some people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that people struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Accordingly, mental health concerns now have a place alongside bio-medical matters as people are helped in the process of restoration to functional levels of health.

However, it may be timely to open discussion about other dimensions of health. In a general manner we would all agree that human life is complex. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, I wish to propose that there are eight health dimensions that play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. The reader will note that in opposition to the hyper-individualism of our time, I hold that personal health is related to the collective health of one’s community.

 

Dimension Description Typical Professionals
Biomedical Concerned with the functioning of the physical body, disease, and injury. Doctors, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, personal exercise trainers etc.
Mental and

Emotional

Concerned with self-knowledge, stability, and positive attitudes. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, diverse counsellors and pharmacists.
Family relationships Concerned with the quality of relationships in the immediate and extended family. The goal is a balanced sense of belonging and independence in a warm and supportive environment. Families members generally seek to resolve their own issues. Outside professionals may include social workers, counsellors, police, and lawyers.
Community Networks Concerned with functional communities that offer employment, education, recreation, and a sense of belonging. Optimal community networks are dependable, just, accessible, and non-discriminatory. Politicians, employers, public servants, and leaders of civic organizations including places of worship.
Security Concerned with people’s confidence that the basic needs of human dignity will be met. These include shelter, food, transportation, primary medical care, and protection. Reliance on government and family may be detrimental to one’s sense of self worth. Social workers. People that address chronic poverty in the charitable sector
Intellectual Concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions. Teachers. Community librarians. Youth works. Poets. Artists.
Creation Concerned with the well-being of the planet including clean air, pure water, biodiversity of ecosystems, and the health of soil and oceans. Environmental scientists and activists.
Spiritual Concerned with the big questions of God, the purpose of life, morality, and eternal life. Pastors. Rabbis. Imams.

 

Reflections

We recognize the painful reality that our bodies were made in such a way that we are constantly endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. No one escapes death as we experience it during this life. This commonality explains, at least partially, our concentration on the biomedical dimension of health. We have the desire to extend life as far as modern science makes possible (and even to use science to end our lives in ways that we choose).

This singular focus has restricted our understanding of what it means to live in ways that are full and meaningful. Well-being is a thick concept that is not restricted to the biomedical or mental health dimensions. People that enjoy well-being have a realistic self understanding, thrive on supportive relationships, participate in their communities, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. I have tried to express this broader view of health through the eight dimensions.

A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist would have understood wisdom in a practical manner. I am attracted to Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Teach us to live wisely and well.” I propose that congregational leaders have an important role in helping people to live well at every life stage, including those troubling times when our bodies are weakened and the shadows of death lengthen around us. We are challenged to redefine “health” in a broader way for people in our congregational communities.

 

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Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

There is dramatic showdown between a prophet and state religion supported by the royal palace narrated in the Old Testament. 1 Kings 18 tells the account of a faithful person of God in conflict with the 450 representatives of Baal on a mountain of Israel. We need to remember that the worship of Baal was promoted by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The royal palace issued orders to seek and kill prophets of Yahweh.

The Biblical account narrates that God responded to Elijah’s prayers in a way that was decisive, powerful, and political. There was no doubt that God had triumphed over the forces of evil.

The fire on Mount Carmel matches our longing that God will reveal himself in power and strength in our own time. I find that prayerful desire expressed in Isaiah 64.

 

Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

So that the mountains would quake at your presence….

To make your name known to your adversaries,

So that the nations might tremble at your presence.

 

I read these words from Isaiah as a statement of despair about the world coupled with faith in God. The prayer comes out of a context of confusion and disappointment. It was uttered during a time when public and individual morality were on shaky ground. There was little confidence in national leaders outside their tight circles of sycophants. People of faith felt marginalized and weak.

People of faith had felt this way during the time of Elijah. They were on the losing side in contests of power.  The civic religion of Baal had become dominant in the nation. King Ahab was corrupt. Elijah was forced into exile in Phoenicia during the purge of Yahweh’s prophets. He knew that Ahab had search parties in surrounding countries with orders to kill him.

Elijah kept his faith during the dark period of marginalization and threats to his life. I am attracted to his faith and his faithfulness. I am reminded that Jesus spoke about resiliency using the phrase steadfast endurance. I need this virtue in my life and witness.

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Stress

Stress

2017 has been a rough year for many people around me. I understand. It is hard to be optimistic about the world around us, and, at times, our own participation in it.

We all deal with different forms of stress. The tensions we feel may come from troubled relationships, employment demands, health issues, financial difficulties, and the general state of the world. Under stress, most of us function at a reduced level. We may find ourselves going through the motions of our vocation without being fully in the game. We show up as required, but our hearts are not engaged. We perform our duties but with the nagging sense that something is missing.

I gave attention to the relationship between stress and resiliency of international workers a few years ago. I have a respect for those people who answer the Spirit’s prompting to work in the borderland areas of our world. The communities of the poor face immense issues. Let me name a few; lack of food security, contaminated water, unstable employment, ethnic violence, gender prejudices,the prevalence of disease, inadequate housing, the education of children, and the oppression of the rich. At some point, community development workers may become discouraged and despondent. They may show up for work but retreat to their homes when the day is over. They prefer reports to relationships. Drug dependency, alcohol addiction, and family problems may add further elements of stress.

A chronic illness brought my international career to an end in 2011. I now live in Canada and have many opportunities to observe similar patterns of stress in our country. Pastors, social workers, and community agents seek to participate in individual and social transformation. At the same time, they must deal with their own stuff along with workloads that may seem insurmountable. The best of us go through dry patches. Some of us are worn out and emotionally empty. We wonder if we can ever regain what we lost.

Jesus taught his followers to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18.1). I have been wondering what that means for me and my colleagues called to vocations of service and witness. Please allow me to give a few thoughts that I am trying to apply to my own life:

First, prayer means something more than simply SOS calls that ask God to bless your to-do list for the day. Prayer involves locating yourself in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The intimacy with God allows us to share our emotions, our emptiness, and our confusion. God never looks at the clock on the wall and rushes his child away to work. Ruth Padilla DeBorst recently invited us to engage in lament with the Lord. She reminded us that we can lay before God the brokenness of the world and the wounds of our hearts. We can express a profound sense of grief and ask the Spirit to transform our broken hearts. We can ask God for new eyes through which to see his presence and work in the world around us.

Second, we can confess that we have lost heart. We know it. People around us probably sense it. God certainly holds us in sight and understands that we need renewal. The Spirit specializes in heart work. But finding heart again takes time and some deliberate decisions about priorities. One small suggestion that I have is to spend time with positive people. Last Sunday night, Regine and I had dinner with friends in Christian ministry. Each of us had personal struggles that were weighing us down in one way or another. The time together, with good food and laughter, made our hearts light. Each of us shared about a moment in which we experienced grace in the past month. We felt God’s presence through the testimonies that we heard.

 

Pray. Do not lose heart. I want to carry these words of Jesus into the last two months of 2017.

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When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

Racism and prophetic protests against racism are part of the Biblical message. I wonder why we hear so few sermons in our churches about this moral issue.

Perhaps Stassen and Gushee (2016) are correct that the dominant white culture (to which I belong) has taken a social evil and neutered it by reducing it to the level of individual relationships while protesting that we are nice people. That argument does not work in groups where we hear the stories of people and groups that have suffered from oppression and prejudice embedded in the structures of economics, law, education, and social relations.

In this blog I want to give two Biblical examples of racism and the protest against it for a higher ethic of justice, equity, and mercy.

The Good Samaritan

A well-known expression of racism is found in the gospel of Luke. Luke 9:51 marks a key transition in the mission of Jesus. He tells his followers that they will leave Galilee and begin the long journey to Jerusalem. The chosen route takes them through Samaria, a region with an ethnic population that has a troubled relationship with Hebrew people.

Jesus sends messengers ahead to request hospitality. However the elders of the community reject this traditional duty because he was traveling to Jerusalem. The Samaritans considered that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the legitimate place for the sacrifices stipulated by the Torah.

Two of the disciples request permission to pray for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the village. I read this as a genocidal petition with an appeal for God to utterly blot out the people of another ethnic group for a perceived offense. Jesus rebukes them and moves on to another village.

The protest is found when a lawyer asks Jesus to define the term “neighbor” (Luke 10.29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which a despised foreigner is faithful to God’s law.  The story is meant as much for the disciples as it was for the lawyer.

A House of Prayer for All the Nations

I submit that there is an earlier example. After the Babylonian exile, there were tensions between the returnees and the people who had remained in the land. The former exiles had the advantage of political power through their connection with the Persian Empire under Cyrus. The Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah show concern for a pure bloodlines. Marriages between former exiles and the daughters of the people of the land had contaminated the holy seed according to those in positions of power (Ezra 9.2). The solution was to send away wives and children of these intermarriages.

The protest is found in the third section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66). The prophet speaks into the social situation of post-exilic Jerusalem and the surrounding area. He encourages his listeners to maintain justice and do what is right (Isa. 56.1). He advises that the temple will be a house of prayer for all the nations (56.7). Foreigners joined to the Lord will be admitted to the temple and eunuchs will be welcome in the house of God (Isa 56.3-8). At the close of Isaiah, God speaks that he will gather people from all the nations and that some from these foreign ethnic groups will serve as his priests (Isa. 66.21). There is an inclusive prayer in Isa. 64.8-9.

O Lord, you are our father;

We are the clay, and you are our potter’

We are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

And do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Embedded racism is such a destructive force in the USA and Canada. Surely we do not need to be convinced. We need to ask questions about doing justice and loving our neighbor across boundaries of race and ethnicity? I don’t think we can leave the protest up to professional athletes!

I am bold enough to make a few suggestions for pastoral leaders.

  1. Confession is important. Can we confess before God that we live in social settings with a history of racism? Can we ask God for forgiveness and for direction in living by the standard of his kingdom?
  2. Can we expose our congregations to stories of people whose experience of life is different from our own? My seminary ethics class listened to a Youtube speech of Dr. Cornell West speaking about racial justice. We realized that our tendency was to evaluate social issues from our personal perspectives rather than from those who have suffered from the oppression of the dominant culture.
  3. Can we seek to build relationships with other people in order to enter more deeply into their experiences. In Canada, the challenge is to build relationships of equity and repentance with Indigenous people. Majority caucasian churches in the USA are challenged to share their congregational life with African Americans and Latinos in particular. We should expect suspicion and questions about our motives. People from other groups will be looking for attitudes that are patronizing and bear messages of superiority. A contrite heart and broken spirit are more compelling before God and before those who feel pushed to the margins.
  4. Can we discover some shared projects in which caucasian people serve in secondary roles? We do not always have to be the leaders.

Racism is offensive to God who created every human in his image. Let’s do something about it.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

Students in my Christian Ethics class at Ambrose discussed an excerpt from Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations (1992) on Monday.

I was not surprised that no one had previously heard of Havel. The relative lack of public recognition of is not surprising. We do not pay much attention to political leaders outside of North America unless they threaten us or represent a major power.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). Subsequently he was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Prior to entering into the political life of his country, Havel had been a dissident who was imprisoned by the communist government. The Velvet Revolution, which he led, was credited as a major factor in bringing down communism is Czechoslovakia.

It is important to know his background. Havel’s reflections on political life were forged in the heat of the furnace of experience.

I have listed below some of the things that impressed the students in my class as they reflected on his writing.

  1. Havel believed that there was a moral nature to politics. He attempted to nurture a sense of “higher responsibility” in conducting his duties as president. One aspect was to cultivate goodwill, decency, and respect for others.
  2. He recognized evil in the way political candidates displayed “… an extravagant hunger for power.” “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” He also understood that he had the same inclinations and was required to begin the work of moral renewal in his own heart. “As in everything else, I must start with myself.”
  3. He had a lifelong commitment to non-violence. “Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.” “Violence only breeds more violence.”
  4. He tried to use the office of the president to as a model for the larger government. He encouraged “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.
  5. He saw himself as a servant who had moral duties to the community and to future generations. Although not a professing Christian, he understood that he would answer to a higher power. “… we are observed from above, … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten…”
  6. He displayed what the New Testament calls steadfast endurance in times of discouragement. “I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”

We spent class time reflecting on two questions:

  1. How does the political morality of Havel compare to Jesus’ teaching about the virtues of leadership that were to guide his followers? The context of a European president is, of course, very different from a Galilean rabbi and his disciples.
  2. Is there one thing that each of us could learn from Havel for use in our own context where we are leaders by position or by influence?

I leave those questions with the readers of this blog post.

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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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