Many authors today have often contrasted the power-to do things for people with power-over other people. Indeed, there is deep contrast between the use of our power in service of others and the use of our power to gain status for our selves or as a means of oppressing others for our own benefit and sense of worth.
Nevertheless, power-over is not in itself evil. Parents have power-over their children. This benefits the children, if such power is well used. Our political leaders (however they are selected) are granted power-over a wide scope of citizen life. Such political power can also be used in service of the citizenry, and such power can be misused very badly.
Power is an important factor in all social actions. As Paul Tillich spelled out in one of his most creative books, there is no Justice without Power and there is no Justice building Power or empowered Justice without Love (Tillich, Paul; Love, Power, and Justice).
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The traditional model of Christian sainthood goes all the way back to Abraham. Actually, it goes all the way back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah. The fragment of historical truth beneath those stories refers to ancient migrations from what is now Iraq to Palestine—events that happened centuries before these biblical stories were written down.
Central within the Abraham and Sarah stories is a story about Abraham’s journey to the top of a mountain to sacrifice Isaac—his only son, the son miraculously given to him and Sarah in their advanced age. In this strange story, Abraham is giving back the gift of Isaac, who was Abraham’s only evidence for a promise made to Abraham by the Giver of Isaac—a promise to make the descendants of Abraham and Sarah as numerous as the sands on the sea shore.
Centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, when these stories were being widely told, written, and read, this promise to Abraham was still not realized. The Hebraic people who claimed Abraham as their forefather were not yet numerous. Today, we might assume that all the Jewish people, all the Christian people, and all the Islamic people are somehow descendants of Abraham. If so, then Abraham’s descendants are indeed in the billions. All these people are not biological descendants, but they are at least people who remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. Only a few of these billions, however, embody Abraham’s model of sainthood.
Why should we honor the Abraham stories or his model of sainthood? These stories are fiction after all, and rather gross fiction as well. And especially, why all the fuss over this strange story about human sacrifice? Why did a fully sane and renowned 19th century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, write a whole book about this story?
This essay will be much simpler than Kiekegaard’s book. I am going to reflect on one idea: “Giving back to Reality all that Reality has given to us.”
Continue reading Giving Back our Gifts
All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.
Continue reading The Depth of Christian Social Ethics
Freedom is a component of our essential nature along with trust of Realty and care for self and neighbor. Yet we flee from this freedom, just as we distrust Reality and neglect care for ourselves and others. Flight from freedom is an estrangement from realism.
The Primal Merging with Freedom
When we have been blessed to see beyond our self images, personality structures, and social conditioning, we discover our intentionality, our initiative, our freedom to act beyond those self-inflicted boundaries. Too easily, we tell ourselves that we can’t do what we can do. The truth is we don’t know what we can do. We think we are determined where we are not. For example, if I am by habit a shy person, I can still discover my freedom to risk myself in gregarious contact with others. If I am by habit a boisterous person, I can still discover my freedom to calm down into being sensitive to others. Personality impulses exist, but so does freedom, unless we have squelched it.
Our essential freedom does not control the future—almost always he future comes to us as a surprise. Our freedom is not absolute control, but a participant in options. And this freedom is a gift—a gift that must to be received and enacted by us. Freedom is our profound initiative to make a difference in what the future turns out to be. Our free initiatives mingle with massive forces beyond our control to form a future that is both a surprise to us and a result of our initiatives.
Continue reading The Flight From Freedom
ISIS-type Muslims and KKK-type Christians hate one another. They also hate Jews and any other group that seems to reject or despise their particular religious fanaticism. And a whole lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are laking in the awareness that these three religious, when true to their origins, have more in common than they differ.
The differences between these three religions are important, and their historical battles in previous centuries were seriousness conflicts that smoked out deep truths and social benefits for the future of our species. But today, the overriding imperative is to honor our common humanity. This honoring includes making allies among the true followers of the Exodus revelation of realism, the Jesus as Messiah revelation of realism, and the Mohammedan revelation of realism. We can picture this companionship as three different spirit explorers staring into same deep pit of Mystery—each one telling us in a different language what they see. Like blind persons touching different parts of the same elephant, these and other vital religious heritages present different pathways to the same overwhelming, inexhaustible Mystery.
Continue reading Interreligious Relations
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.
Continue reading Innocent Suffering
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.”
Continue reading Mono-devotionality
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.
Continue reading So What is Morality?
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