Category Archives: Existential Ethics

October 2017

Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

And this was only the beginning of the innocent suffering inflicted upon our first black president—falsely accused of not being a citizen, irrationally opposed by Republican leaders, assassination threats beyond the norm. And even all of Obama’s sufferings are less than the innocent suffering faced by every black inner city boy who is often instructed by his parents on how to avoid getting killed by the police or vigilantes walking home from school. “Black Lives Matter” is indeed a slogan that speaks to this innocent suffering.

There is no fault involved in being born black or brown or tan, so this is properly called “innocent suffering.” Women also face innocent suffering: their opportunities are still restricted compared with men of equal qualification; our culture also allows various dangers to their person (and life) that exceed those of most males. Innocent suffering is certainly endured by the poor: their pathway to success and prosperity is becoming more, not less, restricted. Gays, lesbians, and transgender citizens face innocent suffering of a most insidious form. Innocent suffering is likewise endured by the mentally ill. And we must not overlook the worshipers of a religion that is not typical in the general society. This list of innocent suffers goes on and on. Suffering of all sorts is unfairly distributed in every society, and this unfair distribution tells us much that we need to know in order to prioritize our fight for justice.

Yet, there is a problem with fully understanding the concept of “innocent suffering,” for all people suffer and no person is wholly innocent. If we view “innocence” from the perspective of not being estranged from our profound humanness, then in terms of this baseline, we are all guilty of being less than human. We are all on a journey either forward toward more authenticity of living, or on a journey backward toward more debauchery and other escapes of our essential being. “Innocent” is not the whole story about suffering.

Guilty of Despair

Innocent before some law can be fairly cut and dried. That is why we have courts and judges and juries—to figure out that sort of innocence or guilt. But on the more profound level of our being human, “guilt” means something far more basic than violation of a law. The deep refusal to live our real life is a guilt that we do not get away with, Reality catches up with us and casts us into some form of despair. We are all guilty of the suffering of despair.

Also, no one avoids the temporal sufferings of ordinary living. It is often true that suffering is about half of our lives. Pain and pleasure are both experienced by all of us. Success and frustration are both there in our lives. Both approval and disapproval come our way. Both beauty and ugliness happen to us. Our lives includes many “little deaths” to our living, as well as that final ending in total biological extinction.

And in addition to all these qualities of our temporality, we add suffering to our lives by our attitudes toward our temporal ups and downs. By clinging to these impermanent realities, we create a suffering that need not be. By hoping for things that can never happen, we create a suffering that need not haunt our lives. We can needlessly despair over anything, both our so-called “ups” as well as our so-called “downs.” Mostly we despair over our “downs”—over our loss of a mate we wanted but did not get, or had for a time and then lost—over a job we loved but cannot no longer perform—over a discovery about our own person of something we abhor. Despair is the most intolerable of all sufferings, yet most of us are trapped in some form of despair most of the time.

Despair is a suffering that Buddhist practices can assist us to heal—making us ready for the “accident” of liberation from our despair. Despair is a suffering that Christian practices also assist us to heal: this heritage calls this “accident of liberation” the “grace of God.” Grace is a happening that enables us to trust in Reality, a trust that leads to the consequences of freedom, hope, love, peace, and joy. These two religions and others have come into being because humans all face the need to heal from the sickness of despair. In spite of the fact that we all tend to avoid the whole topic of despair, we all need means of healing our despair — of getting loose from the trap of despair and finding release for our true human potentials.

And our despair is basically needless, for it is not built into the structure of the cosmos. Despair is an accomplishment of human beings. It is possible to give up hoping that our temporal lives will cease to be temporal and become lasting in the ways we wish to be “lasting.” However, that deep possibility of being reconciled with our real, authentic, essential lives is not so easy. Our despair is caused by attitudes that are deeply entrenched. If fact, most of the time we have no idea why we are in despair or what it might be that we are in despair over. Even when we do have some insight into the causes of our despair, we may still be strongly bound in clinging to whatever it is that is passing away. Such clinging makes us slaves, bound and groveling in some state of despair. And despair can be very dangerous, for it can seem to us so bad that we can choose not to live at all, rather that go on with the pain of our despair or even the humiliation of its admission and healing.

Most often we find ways of burying our feelings of despair in some form of drunkenness or debauchery or busyness. Even our most noble living may provide a way of escaping a full experience of our despair-dominated lives. But such escapes from despair do not last. Eventually we become exhausted, numb, burned-out, and thereby brought home to an even deeper awareness of our despair.

Most tragic of all, we are capable of taking on a very advanced attitude toward despair—the notion that despair is all there is to living a human life. We can simply resign ourselves to despair and thereby embody some sort of firm hatred toward human living that our despair reveals, making ourselves into a demonic force that lacks all genuine love for others or even love for ourselves—a spirit that hates the cosmos for being the cosmos, and that hates the cosmos for working in the ways the cosmos does in fact work. Such despair-sick lives take on a sort of purpose, the purpose of hating reality and evangelizing others to hate life along with us. This horrid state can endure as a sort of grim fun, until we get tired of it. We know that we can always kill ourselves when we want to quit this weird project of hate. We need not be so surprised when people actually do kill themselves and take a bunch of others with them.

Seeing clearly these consequences to which despair may lead, let us ask further about the possibility of healing despair. Paul Tillich has given us a formula for noticing this path of transformation. First, we look our despair in the face and acknowledge that we are the cause of it, that we are guilty of despair. Second, we notice that the cosmic truth of Final Reality is an acceptance of us—an acceptance of us just as we are, in spite of our self-inflicted despair. This cosmic acceptance offers to us a fresh start for our lives. And third, all we have to do right now is simply accept that fact that we are accepted. Transformation follows. However grim our despair has been, we can be and therefore act differently. We can be reconciled in our overall attitude toward everything.

“Everything” Includes
all Sorts of Suffering

There is suffering that is simply our finitude—the impermanence of every aspect of our lives—our bodies, our health, our peers, our thoughts, our feelings, our lives. This suffering of impermanence is neither innocent nor guilty: it just is. It is just part of our lives to which can be reconciled or needlessly fight against.

Policing Despair

The social role of policing might better be called protecting, for that is the positive meaning of police action, protecting us from the consequence of our despairing neighbors and protecting our neighbors from a despairing “me.” The Declaration of Independence referred to the task of policing with the poetry “domestic tranquility.” We have often developed antagonism toward policing, because we have experienced despairing police officers who are causing innocent suffering. Nevertheless, the true role of policing is to protect us, not cause us more suffering.

The laws of state power and their enforcement do not heal despair, but law enforcement can restrain the despairing from the consequences of their despair upon the rest of us. In love for ourselves and others, we can experience the call to restrain “evil,” where “evil” is defined by just law and by common-sense moral custom. We can restrain such defined “evil” along with promoting the accompanying works of love that have to do with assisting the despairing to be aware of their despair and to find the path of forgiveness that leads toward being healed of despair.

Such healing and such restraint of evil do not contradict each other: these two forms of love support each other. Healing the despairing provides society with persons who do the tasks of justice. And the application of justice can be a tutor to the despairing about their despair, which is the first step toward healing their despair.

Such a balanced understanding of the works of love protects us from seeing ourselves as guiltless avengers at war with the guilty criminals. We all despair. And we all need just applications of law to restrain us. A police officer confronts the delicate task of restraining the consequences of despair, while also noticing the humanity of the people they restrain, a humanity that always includes a potential for humanness, no matter how evil and dangerous that human may still be.

It is not a contradiction that we need to restrain criminal persons as well as treat them with the respect they deserve. Criminals deserve respect in line with the simple fact of their being born into the common life we share with them. The suffering that policing must cause a criminal is a suffering that is needed because of the sickness of despair in that criminal. No permission need be granted to the police to heap innocent suffering on the criminals they care for and protect the rest of us from.

Police work is an honest and needed profession—no less so than nurse or teacher. Each profession has its characteristic temptations. Our police need to be trained to watch out for their own need to be powerful over others, or to hate those it is safe in this culture to hate. This need for a seeming softness of spirit in our police does not contradict the need for our police to be clear, careful, and firm with the destructive consequences of the despairing. We can be thankful for our police as well as for our therapeutic and religious ministries that are aimed at making us ready for the healing of our despair.

For more reflections on these and other slippery topics see our web site:


In both contemporary physics and contemporary religious writings “time” remains a mysterious topic. Nothing is more obvious than time to an elder who has watched babies grow into adults. “How time flies!” is almost an automatic exclamation. Nevertheless, in both our scientific quest for truth and in our interior or contemplative quest for truth, “What is time?” arises as an unusually profound topic.

Contemplative Time

When we look within our own conscious being, we see ourselves living in an ongoing quality we call “now.” Time seems to flow through this now. The past is just a memory taking place now as content in our memory banks. And the future is only an anticipation, taking place now in our guesses about future nows that have yet to “happen.” In our experiences of contemplation or art participation or solitary brooding, “now” continues to be our core experience of time

Continue reading Time?

The Road and the Retreat

Your vision of the world is your world,
until you find a better vision of the world.

In the four years preceding 2011, five unknown visionaries, Ben Ball, Marsha Buck, Ken Kreutziger, Alan Richard, and myself, wrote a book entitled “The Road from Empire to Eco-Democracy.” This book named ten positive trends toward a viable and promising future for humanity on planet Earth. Trumpism manifests the opposite of all ten of these trends. If there were a Trumpite book on such topics, it might be titled “The Retreat from Eco-Democracy to Anthropocentric Empire.”

I am going to name those ten trends examined in The Road and give names to Trumpism’s ten retreats that are reversing those positive trends.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

Continue reading Prayer Always Works


The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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So What is Morality?

The essence of morality is not a gut response, but a social construction. Morality is like the custom of stopping at stop signs. At some point our society simply decided that stopping at red lights is the thing we are supposed to do. All morality is like that. If our morality is about marriage being only between a man and a woman, that is just a custom some social group constructed. It has no more authority than that. If morality means not killing people, except in circumstances of self defense, appropriate police action, or declared warfare, that is also something that a society has decided.

We can have gut responses to our moralities. We like them. We don’t like them. We are nauseated by people to violate them. We enjoy seeing people violate them. These gut-responses are not our moralities, but attitudes we ourselves take toward the familiar moralities that our society, community, parents, or peers have taught us. Our superego, as Freud called it, is nothing else than our internalized social moralities, plus the various attitudes we take toward those moralities.

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The Cry for Equity

One of the lessons I have learned from the Old Testament prophets is how poetry is more powerful than prose to uncover the depth of our social ills. So I have attempted to write poems on social topics. I have called these “teaching poems,” for I do not pretend to specialize in the art form of poetry. Here is a poem on a topic that still characterizes the current news media.

I Love Politics

Ronald Reagan was wrong
to make “regulation” a curse word
and create disdain for government,
politics, and politicians.

I say, let us love politics
and piss on the private sector.

Let us make business obey the rules.
and let us create better rules—
stricter rules—and enforce them

Continue reading The Cry for Equity

The Glory & Tragedy of Projection

Projection: noun (1) an estimate of what might happen in the future based on what is happening now, (2) the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially: the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety, (3) the display of motion pictures by projecting an image from them upon a screen.

It has happened that human beings have projected the quality of human consciousness onto a tree or mountain. In these cases it is relatively easy to understand that such projections are projections, not facts. But let us notice how often we stub our toe on some inanimate object, and then take out our wrath on that object as if it had intended to hurt us. We also project the human form of consciousness upon our pets – a type of consciousness that they do not actually possess. Our dogs and cats are conscious beings, and we humans share in the type of consciousness they have, but these other intelligent, mammalian species do not manifest the uniquely human symbol-using, art-creating, language-forming, culture-building form of consciousness.

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Radical Pedagogy

Our job as prophets of Reality, as teachers of religion and ethics, as aware persons of our profound humanness is to tell the truth.  We just tell the truth as we see it, the truth we genuinely believe has been shown to us by that Final Reality that baffles us as it also informs us.  We begin such radical pedagogy from within our own awareness of how Final Reality has revealed to us some measure of truth.  We do not know the whole Final Truth, we only know what has been revealed to us – a measure of truth that makes real for us our commission to speak truth to our times.

As radical pedagogues, it is our assignment to be as clear as we can, honoring all sources of truth – scientific, contemplative, and socially practical,workable ethical insight.   Radical pedagogues just tell the truth, live the truth, keep learning the truth, and stick to doing so.

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