The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Ethics of a Democracy

What one word would you use to describe the government? Think about it.

Do you see that word as positive or negative?

In a recent poll, people were asked to come up with one word to describe the government. Most people came up with a similar answer to my own: Government is Big. And we don't usually use the word "big" here in a positive sense. I have seen a lot of rhetoric lately that places "Big Government" as the cause of many of our problems. Politicians on both sides have talked about deregulation of the private sector as a good thing, and it seems every person who has an opinion is pushing for smaller government.

But is smaller government better? I'm speaking here, ethically, of course. I am a no politician.

What I am is a concerned minister. I search for ethics in a world that desperately needs them. And although I'd shy away from calling myself an "expert" on ethics, I am most definitely in the business of ethics. 
Enter Kohlberg, who says that most people think at a stage 4. The government runs at a stage 5. Those of us who see universal ethics as the key to a better future, are operating at a stage 6. Kohlberg is concerned with our moral reasoning, not necessarily our moral action. It is our moral reasoning- regardless of our moral action- in which we participate in politics. After studying Piaget's stages of development, Kohlberg adapted them and then tested them. For reference, you can use the chart below:

 As you can see, we work our way through these levels. Kohlberg says that most people never get out of level four. Which means that most Americans are probably fours. Above you can see that for fours, rules are paramount."Fours" tend to they take care of and prefer their own family to others and to view ethics as belonging to "the group". Because of the group mentality, "Fours" tend to root for the sports team from their city exclusively and conveniently think their opinions are the only right ones. "Fours" are likely to think that the Bible is perfect and unquestionable, that authority is authority and that breaking rules and laws should have far-reaching consequences. Because of this, "Fours" tend to push for their beliefs/opinions to become laws.

The next step up the ladder is Stage 5.
From Wikipedia:
In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. This is achieved through majority decision, and inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

Indeed, I mentioned that the U.S. Government runs at a level five, according to Kohlberg himself. Simple majority almost never runs our country- just ask Al Gore. We have an electoral college because it is more fair to represent the country than a simple majority. Most votes in Congress require more than a simple majority to pass. We have rights that protect minority groups, such as Affirmative Action and Title IX.

So here we are: Stage 6.
(universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Legal laws are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.

The belief for many is that deregulation and free economy is more free and natural. But is it more ethical? 
The idea is that if people are given the freedom to choose for themselves, then people will make the right decisions for themselves. I know- wretched man that I am- for that not to be true.Tell churches that are trying to worship God that they are the only ones left to feed the poor and hungry with their limited resources and see how that works out. Give individuals money that should be saved for my retirement or health care, and see where that money ends up. Put me in a room with fried chicken and sweet tea- things I know to be bad for me- and see what happens. How long can we 
 allow people to harm themselves and others        in the name of freedom?

So should the government be big or small? I don't know.  But what I do know is that most people operate in stage 4 and our democracy operates in stage 5.

There is something else, something obvious. Kohlberg believed that showing people the steps to take could actually improve their moral reasoning; meaning, people are not destined to stay in the level where they currently find themselves.

Remember, there is no need for big government at Stage 6. Think of Stage 6 Icons such as Jesus, Ghandi and MLK. Each of them worked against an oppressive government. Each of them acted because the action was in tune with their moral compass. And, each of them protested nonviolently.

 If you want smaller government, the simplest answer seems to be to raise your self up by your own ethical bootstraps. Become more ethical than the government. Now wouldn't that be radical? 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sermon: Change your Mind

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Changing one’s mind is not a popular idea in American culture. 

Especially for Politicians. We call them flip-flippers and waverers.

 I know as a Parent, changing your mind is seen as a weakness. If my children see even the slightest notion in my eyes that I might change my mind about something, they pounce on me like a wounded animal on the Serengeti.  
Changing your mind is not widely appreciated in our politicians, our judges and juries, military leaders, our clergy people, or basically any leader in our culture.

It is because we view changing your mind as a sign of weakness.
And yet, the more I read scripture, I wonder about God. Does God change God’s mind?
Whatever the answer is, this is a problem!
If God doesn’t change God’s mind, then we have a problem. If God is immovable, then what’s the point in asking God to intercede on our behalf. I believe in intercessory prayer. When I got to visit people in the hospital, I pray that God may intercede, that God may offer healing and mercy for the person in the bed.
But if God does change God’s mind, then we have a different problem. Then, it seems like God can be manipulated. It seems like if I pray the right way, then I can get that sports car. Or, if I dance a certain way, then I can make it rain. Somehow we need a God who is flexible but not too flexible.
One thing is for sure, the God of the Old Testament isn’t afraid to change his mind.
In the 18th chapter of Genesis, we Find Abraham pleading with God to save the righteous people of Soddom and Gomorrah.
Abraham asks God, “Suppose there are 50 righteous in the city, will you destroy it?”
And what if 5 of the 50 are lacking?
What if there are only 40 faithful, will you still destroy the city?
Eventually Abraham haggles with God to save the city if God finds 10 righteous people there. As the story goes, indeed the only people who are found righteous there are Lot and his family, and God intercedes on their behalf.   
Even earlier than that, in Genesis chapter 3, God indeed changes God’s mind. He tells Adam and Eve that if they eat from the tree of knowledge they will die. We sometimes interpret this to mean that God meant that he would make them mortal and kick them out of paradise. But that’s now what the Hebrews meant. The story goes that God said they would die if they ate, and after they ate, God saved them from death and instead exiled them. This is a God who changes his mind.   
In our Gospel lesson today, God the Son makes a trip far way to Tyre. He goes out of the way, perhaps for some rest and relaxation, to find a place where no one knows who he is. But his reputation precedes him, and this woman comes asking for help with her daughter who is dying. Jesus says:
27 He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
This is a grave insult, in any culture.
And she answers: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
This is Mark 7. Earlier in this gospel, Jesus has already preformed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 where there was food left over. Apparently this woman believes that Jesus has salvation in abundance.
Jesus says, miraculously, “"For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter."
She gets him to change His mind and convinces him that she was capable of receiving his grace. The word “table” shows up twice in Mark’s gospel, here, and when Jesus is turning over the tables in the temple. There is a parallel to that scene here, whereby the woman is “turning the tables” on Jesus.  
After that, Jesus continues his journey to the Decapolis, another Gentile area.
He goes there in hopes of R and R. Again his reputation precedes him.
A man is brought before him who is deaf and mute. Jesus speaks the words to open the heavens, and the man is healed.
Jesus puts up no fuss this time. Is it that Jesus was in a better mood this time, or did that woman in the previous story change Jesus mind about all gentiles?
Think back again to that phrase from last week’s text, “It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them unclean, it is what comes out of it”
The woman’s tongue changed Jesus’ mind, just as this man’s tongue, which was unusable previously, can now go and preach the gospel. What comes out of the mouth in both stories is profession of faith in Jesus.
The heavens have opened up, and God has expanded his chosen people to all people, even the most marginalized because of nationality, gender, or handicap.
By healing this man, Jesus has fulfilled the promise read in the Old Testament lesson of Isaiah and guaranteed that he represents the same God of the Old Testament.
The God we worship today is the same God willing to change his mind for Adam and Eve, for Abraham and Lot, for the Woman and her Daughter, and this man and his friends.
Because the one thing that has never changed about God is God’s willingness to go to great lengths for us.
But make no mistake about it- God does Change.
He started with a covenant with Israel, a covenant which they broke. So God did a new thing, he sent his Son to save us. You could say, if you wanted, that that was the plan all along, that God doesn’t change.
But throughout scripture, God listens to his people and reacts out of love for them. God listens to us, because, well, that is what a relationship is.
Being in a relationship is about , making room, making time, making space for the other. God made time. God made space. Literally.
And remember this:   
Once upon a time, God changed his mind about you. You were a condemned sinner, a gentile unacceptable for salvation. But by the grace of God you were saved, not because you deserved it, but because God interceded on your behalf.
So today, let’s take a lesson from God.
Being willing to change your mind is not a position of weakness. It just means that you are in a relationship with other people. And that’s a good thing.
How many of us men would go unloved if we hadn’t convinced a good woman to change her mind about us?
Let’s face it. You’ll do crazy things for the people you love.
Just ask him.