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                                             God's Politics

The Middle East Crisis and the Problems With Biblical Belief

Many Christian writers have written essays on the current crisis in the Middle East. While interesting, the one point that has been missed is that the current war between Israel and Hamas as well as the anti-Semitism that has followed from it both have their origin in silly and very dangerous biblical beliefs.

In Genesis 17: 1-8, we learn that God got into the real estate business and gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. I learned some interesting specifics about this gift from a trip to the Holy Land Lyn and I took five years ago. On our visit to the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem, our guide pointed out the sites where God formed Adam from the dust of the ground and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. I wondered where the site of Eve's first sin was located which gave birth to the toxic myth of original sin, but I was a good boy and never asked that question. I also remained silent when our guide told us that it was within the sacred grounds of the Temple Mount where God declared Jerusalem to be the eternal capital of Israel. I was wondering if God made such declarations and, if he did, why it took so long for him to deliver on his promise. From the end of Solomon's rule in the tenth century BCE until 1967, close to 3,000 years, Israel has controlled an undivided Jerusalem for less than 200 years.

We were next led to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Muslim world. While we were not allowed to enter either site, we learned all about them. Muslims refer to the Temple Mount as Haram esh-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad embarked on his famous night journey on the back of Buraq, a winged-horse, sometime around 621 CE. When he landed in Jerusalem at the Temple Mount, he led Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer. He then took off again and flew with the angel Gabriel to heaven where he met with God who he was able to convince to reduce required Muslim prayer from fifty times a day to five. Following the meeting, he returned to earth. This trip to heaven proved to Muslims that Muhammad had a unique status among all of God's prophets.

Our last stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site for Christians in the world. Two sites in particular are revered: the chapel which marks where Jesus was crucified and the chapel commemorating where he was buried and from where the resurrection took place. In sum, it was an interesting tour from which I learned that many years ago God was in the real estate business, that prophets can fly, and that 2,000 years ago a man physically rose from the dead. It was never explained where that resurrected body ended up. I guess most would answer heaven wherever that may be.

The problem with sacred beliefs is that they become firmly embedded in the identities of those who hold them with makes compromise on disagreements almost impossible to achieve. The result is distrust, hatred, and war. 

How do such dangerous ideas persist over time? I got an insight on this problem following our tour of the old city in Jerusalem. After visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were taken to lunch at a hotel in the new section of the city. That gave me a chance to corner the guide in private. I asked him if he was familiar with what many historians say about Roman policy toward crucifixions. Killing fields were set up outside of a city with crosses already in place. These fields were surrounded by Roman troops whose mission was to prevent family members from removing a dead body from a cross for burial. These bodies were left on crosses for animals to devour. The policy was designed to make crucifixions so horrible they would serve as a deterrent for potential political troublemakers. This policy made it likely Jesus was crucified outside of the city without burial, thus negating the story we learned at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"Yes, I am familiar with that history," the guide responded, "and I'm glad you didn't raise these issues during the tour. Christians on tour want confirmation of New Testament claims. My tip jar would be empty if I suggested it was possible the body of Jesus was left to be consumed by animals."

Not long after the Hamas' terrorist attack on October 7th, significant increases in anti-Semitic incidences were reported within the United Sates and throughout the world. Again, the scourge of anti-Semitism has biblical origins. The problem began with the evangelists spinning the Passion Narrative in such a way as to make "the Jews" responsible for the death of Jesus. The goal was to escape Roman persecution by convincing Roman authorities that Christians were harmless, that Pilate was not responsible for the death of Jesus, that Rome had nothing to fear from this new religion. Read the story of Jesus before Pilate in John 18: 28 through 19: 16. It didn't matter that crucifixion was a Roman punishment, that if the Jews had wanted to kill Jesus, stoning was their method. The Bible puts all the blame on "the Jews" for killing Jesus. James Carroll in Constantine's Sword makes a convincing case that this belief has been responsible for 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

Sadly, biblical beliefs have played a major role in fueling additional societal problems. The writings of Paul in Romans (1: 26-28) have been behind much of the discrimination against homosexuals and the LGBTQ community generally. Literal belief in the two creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis have cause considerable delay and made it difficult to pass legislation relating to the climate crisis. Many evangelical Christians believe only God can cause global temperatures to rise. The writings of several New Testament letters concerning the role of women in the church has led to significant discrimination against women which persists today in most evangelical congregations.

The Christian Bible is a human book with many values and teachings that have no relevance to problems in the twenty-first century. The time has come for Christians to look for other sources of guidance when making decisions about how to apply their religion to politics. My suggestion is for them to learn to listen for and then to act upon the whispers that come from God.

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On the Taming of White Christian Nationalism

        The rise of Christian nationalism is a worldwide problem. In the United States, it begins with the idea that God chose America, that we as a nation are especially blessed. Because we have been chosen, we are exceptional when compared to other countries and as a result have a sacred mission to bring our values to the rest of the world.
With regard to domestic politics, the goal is to have government policies reflect Christian values. These values include the importance of opening public schools with prayer and Bible reading, strict anti-abortion laws, the display of Christian symbols on the public square, and religious freedom from government interference. In this latter case, it is among other things about the right of store owners, for religious reasons, to deny customers the right to use their store. White Christian nationals work politically to create a nation that is Christian, white, heterosexual, native born, English spoken, and patriarchal.

        In terms of numbers, these proclaimed Christians represent a minority of U.S. citizens. The problem is that they have a passionate interest in governing; and, because they are a minority, they have employed anti-democratic means to achieve their goals. Politics is war, and many of the most extreme members of the movement are now talking of the need to use violence to achieve their aims. As Sarah Palin recently was quoted as saying: "We need to rise up and take our country back." Credible threats of violence are being made daily against politicians standing up to these anti-democratic forces, forcing them to use their own hard-earned money to protect themselves and their families. I never thought in my lifetime the fundamental legitimacy of  American political institutions would come under challenge, but such a challenge is happening before our very eyes. It's a dangerous time for democratic rule in America.

        White evangelical Christians make up an important part of the base of the Republican party. Because the party has a decided disadvantage when it comes to registered voters, Republicans have done everything in their power to restrict voting among minorities and the young. The problems for them began in the 1960s with the passage of two voting rights acts by Congress. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination for voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the Department of Justice to supervise voting registration and districting. The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993 which made it far easier for voters to register. As a result of these voting rights acts, Republicans started losing elections. From a white evangelical perspective, this meant that white males could no longer dominate government decision making. Republicans have responded to this looming threat in two ways.

        In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down Shelby County v. Holder which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act by ending Department of Justice supervision of elections. Since then 29 states have passed laws restricting the right to vote. There is a bill currently before Congress submitted by House Republicans which would limit mail-in and drop boxes and make it illegal to bring food or water to those waiting in line to vote.
The second response of Republican candidates who lose an election is to claim voter fraud and the idea that the election was stolen. Of course, the best example of this practice is Trump's "Big Lie" that he did in fact win the 2020 Presidential election and that Biden Democrats stole it from him. He persists with this lie despite losing more than 60 legal cases challenging the results. The long-term survival of democratic government is placed in grave jeopardy when the sanctity of the election process is questioned.
Because our politics have become tribal, we have developed what Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump aide during his White House years, describes as alternative facts. Each tribe has their own set of facts to explain a political event. A good example is President Biden's response to the tragic wildfires that recently swept through Maui Hawaii on August 8 and 9 of this year.

        On August 9th President Biden issued a touching statement to console the family members of victims and to praise firefighters and first responders for their heroic efforts to deal with the problem. On August 21st the President and Mrs. Biden visited the devastated area in person. More importantly, Biden ordered federal aid be directed to support local efforts. He further ordered all relevant federal government agencies to offer assistance. This led FEMA to provide temporary shelter and food, the Small Business Administration to make low interest loans to help small businesses get back on their feet, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a health emergency making it easier for victims to receive health care, the Army Corps of Engineers was sent to clear roads, the EPA was sent to remove toxic waste, the U.S. Forest Service was sent to help put out the fires, and the Department of Defense was ordered to help move supplies where needed. These actions of the federal government followed almost immediately when news broke of the horrible tragedy.

        When the President switched his focus to a pre-scheduled summit at Camp David with South Korean and Japanese leaders, Republicans created an alternative narrative. They blasted the President for doing nothing to help with the Hawaiian tragedy. Representative James Comer, Republican from Kentucky and chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, announced that he would lead an investigation into Biden's response in an effort to further this alternative narrative. Far right members of the House of Representatives falsely claimed that the President was funding the war in Ukraine at the expense of domestic emergencies like the Maui fires. The central problem here is that democracy can't exist unless it is possible to have a healthy debate over agreed upon facts.

        Recently Republicans have begun attacking the legitimacy of several institutions of the federal government. Because the FBI and the Department of Justice have been prosecuting participants of the January 6th insurrection, Republicans are trying to reduce funding for these agencies. They are also attacking the rule of law with similar efforts to defund those prosecuting former President Trump for his alleged crimes while in office.
In an unprecedented move, the George W. Bush Institute on September 6th of this year along with twelve other presidential foundations issued a joint statement expressing their concern for the health of American democracy. The statement called on Americans to engage in politics with civility, respecting the rule of law and the integrity of American institutions. It called on all Americans to uphold safe, secure, and assessable elections. The statement was extraordinary because of the long tradition of ex-presidents to refrain from commenting on politics.

        This anti-democratic agenda is driven by a passion fueled by anger and hatred stemming from what evangelicals believe to be a fifty-year attack on everything they hold dear. Liberal elites from government, science, large corporations, higher education are all to blame. In order to understand how it might be possible to heal this gigantic cultural divide, it is necessary to examine what is causing these grievances and sense of victimization.

        Let's begin with science. Darwin's theory of evolution has been particularly difficult for evangelicals because it directly challenged the historical validity of the two creation stories in Genesis. The inerrant truth of scripture is perhaps the most central belief making up their religious identity. This situation was made so much worse by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, the first satellite to fly into space, in 1957. As a result, the U.S. government panicked seeing it as a major threat to national security which led to a huge investment in public education. The focus of the investment was on the teaching of science. Textbooks were rewritten to reflect Darwin's theory, and creation science which focuses on God's central role in the creation of the universe and human beings was marginalized. Evangelical anger exploded. It didn't help that other findings from science as well as mainline biblical scholarship were also challenging the inerrant truth of scripture.

        During the fifties and sixties there were several Supreme Court decisions that created a passionate hatred of federal government intrusion in their lives. With Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, racial segregation in public schools was outlawed. Evangelicals viewed this decision as huge government overreach. Engle v. Vitale (1962) outlawed school prayer, and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) made it illegal to begin the school day with Bible reading. For evangelicals, these two decisions were seen as an attack on Christianity and a grave violation of their religious freedom which caused deep resentment. Finally, 1973 brought Roe v. Wade which gave Constitutional protection for a woman's right to an abortion. The right to life movement was born.

        A similar challenge was presented by the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution which would ban discrimination based on gender. The amendment was seen as an important tool to end discrimination against women. Although it was never ratified, it became a symbol of the women's movement. Evangelicals deeply resented this movement because it violated the spirit of the Bible which made clear that women were subservient to men. The traditional family home led by the man of the house was under attack. The movement also created a climate of opinion that enabled women to successfully compete against men for jobs.

        In his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity which was designed to administer federal funds to reduce poverty. With this speech, Johnson launched his War on Poverty. Eventually forty programs and a huge federal investment in dealing with the problems of poverty became a part of the War on Poverty. Many white evangelicals viewed this effort as godless socialism, the taking of their money and giving it to undeserving minorities.

        The period following World War 11 was marked by rapid globalization and the lowering of trade barriers between nations. I was a big advocate for this new world order. I told my International Relations students that an interdependent economic world would make for a far more peaceful one. What I failed to see, along with many others, was that this trend would have a devastating impact on middle class incomes.

        Evangelicalism is a populist religion of the working class. As industrial plants moved overseas, wages for working class people suffered and unemployment rose. The standard of living for working class people has stagnated over the last twenty-five years while incomes for the top ten percent of the population have skyrocketed. Evangelicals came to bitterly resent corporate and government elites for pushing this trend toward globalization.

        Finally, white evangelicals are threatened by immigration and demographic change. The immigration of nonwhites into the country is seen as a conspiracy by Democrat politicians to marginalize them. The fact that whites will soon no longer makeup a majority of the population is terrifying. White Christian nationalists are convinced that a multi-racial democracy will be at their expense.

        For many years I have held Jerry Falwell responsible for triggering the cultural wars with the launch of the Moral Majority in 1979. This organization was designed to organize evangelicals to wage holy war against godless secular humanism. An honest reading of the several points made above suggests a different conclusion. The Moral Majority did not launch the culture wars, but rather this movement came about as a response to what evangelicals perceived as a war that was launched against them.  
This is an important point because it suggests that the liberal coastal elites evangelicals loathe bear some responsibility for the toxic condition of our current politics. I'm a sixties guy. I approve of all the tumultuous change that took place in the sixties. The Supreme Court justices of that period are my heroes. I applauded Johnson's anti-poverty program back then and have called for a similar one today. I had a privileged job as a university professor. All these changes supported my values. I was a winner with regard to these culture wars. I wasn't fighting a defensive battle to preserve my identity. My worldview was not shattered, my religious beliefs were not called into question, my job was not sent overseas. Seeing white evangelicals as victims and creating some empathy for them is important for two reasons.

        First, we can avoid a mistake of the past in which no attention was paid to the effect of globalization on working class people.  Policies to fight climate change are going to destroy the coal industry. What will happen to unemployed coal miners as a result? They are innocent victims. Many additional innocent victims will be created as artificial intelligence along with other digital innovations work their way through the economy all of which are designed to increase productivity. These new technologies will create job loss.

        The Biden administration seems to understand this problem. "Bidenomics," as the President is proud to proclaim, is designed to build the economy from the middle class out and the bottom up. It is designed to educate and empower American workers, raise their wages, strengthen the social safety net, help small businesses, and bring manufacturing home. Several important legislative acts were passed in the last two years to implement this vision—the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act with its focus on combating climate change, and the Chips and Science Act are among those pieces of legislation. It's a good start because it will give working class people a stake in the system. It's easier to treat minorities with civility and women with respect when you have a good job and feel good about yourself.

        The second reason for acquiring empathy for working class evangelicals is that we need to spend massive amounts of money to improve education at all levels. Public education has declined precipitously in the last twenty-five years. It's a conclusion that most well-meaning people agree with. The failure of our schools is particularly damaging for the children from working class families because without a good education they stand little chance of improving their situation and achieving the American dream. Lifting them up will be expensive, but they are our neighbors and they are in need.

        Finally, if America is to succeed as a multiracial democracy, integration is a key component for success. All facets of society need to be integrated—schools, neighborhoods, places of work, clubs, churches. Why? Because integration works.

        My grandson Landon has grown up in white neighborhoods and has attended predominately white schools. Five years ago his parents discovered he is a gifted basketball player with a healthy ambition to succeed. This has led them to sign him up to play in several leagues outside of school. One unintended consequence of his participation in these leagues is his new black friends. He now has many of them; and they are good friends, spend the night with friends. Landon is a good Christian, who because of his many friends from different backgrounds will never be attracted to embrace white Christian nationalism.

        There may be other solutions to the problems posed by white Christian nationalism; however, as a Christian myself, it seems quite evident that the best approach to taming their ranks is to apply the teachings of Jesus to the world of twenty-first century America.  The central image of Jesus' teachings is that of bringing the kingdom of God to earth. This would happen when politics was based on love for neighbor, when people reached out to reconcile with their enemy, when the last became first. Many of those who are last at this time in twenty-first century America are working class evangelicals who accept in varying degrees the toxic ideology of white Christian nationalism. While we can reject most of their values, we cannot reject them as human beings, as fellow travelers on this precious planet.  As the real victors of the culture wars over the last fifty years, we need to show a little magnanimity by searching for areas of common ground. In doing so, we need to make an honest effort to listen to their grievances and to enact policies to alleviate them so that they might gain a real stake in the new world that is emerging in the twenty-first century. Such a stake will only be achieved when liberal elites decide to surrender some of their enormous wealth so that the losers of the last fifty years can finally join the party.

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Tuning Into Whisper Ethics

Whisper Ethics is a way of approaching political decision making from a Christian perspective. It is intimately related to process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians.

Process theology posits that humans are decision makers who make decisions in response to different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity.

When approaching a political issue, different messages may float through your awareness. Messages from your reptilian brain to decide in terms of self-interest may be prominent. These messages may drown out the messages of goodness and love that come from God. The question addressed in this essay is how one can become better able to hear the voice of God which gently calls us to move beyond self-interest. In other words, this essay is about how one tunes into Whisper Ethics.

The best approach I have discovered comes from the practice of mindful meditation. Mindful meditation is designed to help the practitioner move beyond ego-centric thoughts. The ego is a personality structure organized around our insecurities and demons. It is based on the assumption that we need to be defended, that we are separated, isolated, alone to face the world and thus in need of protection. In pursuit of our defense, the ego generates thoughts that tell us to win, to succeed, to compete. Ego generated thoughts condemn others and thoughts that seek revenge when the ego perceives we are threatened. Because of such thoughts, we become self-absorbed, obsessed with our own self-centered concerns which creates a dense smokescreen making it very difficult to hear God's messages of goodness and love. 

Mindful meditation provides a simple technique to quiet this self-centered, ego-driven noise. With regard to my practice, I begin by sitting in a comfortable chair, closing my eyes, and focusing on my breathing. I center my focus on the process of breathing, one breath in and one breath out, as a way to quiet my mind. Once my mind is quiet and I am at peace, I imagine myself sitting in a tree looking down objectively at my life. I examine my insecurities, what motivates me, what causes anger, situations that create anxiety, the people who bother me. This examination is conducted with honesty but without judgment. The goal is to understand what lies behind this darkness and then to reject it as not representative of my best self. Over time I have come to see that these less attractive parts of my character are part of an invented self that seeks to protect me, but I have learned that I don't need that kind of protection. When you look at your insecurities and demons directly in the face and refuse to identify with them, they lose their power. The smoke lifts.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha argued that the purpose of this type of meditation was to clean the windows of perception. With clean windows, we tune into the voice of God. To be a follower of Jesus means to listen to this voice and then to act on it.

Sadly, critics will jump all over this conclusion. It's too simplistic they will say. Lots of people hear the voice of God and act accordingly. The Russian Orthodox church is mostly united in its support of the war in Ukraine. Priests are telling their congregations that God is calling on Russia to bring all Orthodox Christians under the benevolent umbrella of Mother Russia.

Soon after President Biden's election, Christian nationalist pastors called on their followers to wage spiritual warfare. Their crusade began in a nondenominal church in Phoenix Arizona two weeks after the November 2020 election. God was telling them Trump was his chosen instrument to bring moral government back to the United States and that they should do whatever it takes, including the use of violence if necessary, to achieve God's will. This rhetoric played a prominent role in the January 6, 2021 attack of the United States Capitol. (See Jon Ward, Chief National Correspondent, Yahoo News, February 16, 2023)

Life is complex, humans have limits, and messages that float through our awareness are often ambiguous. I take inspiration from the Prophets, Jesus and Paul. They all claimed to hear God's voice; and, in all cases, this voice called them to act in ways that transcended their narrow, self-interest. This voice called on them to work to achieve economic and social justice, to resolve disputes nonviolently, to be inclusive, and to forgive those who have injured them in some ways. Because of our limits as humans, we can never be sure whose voice is floating through our awareness, but when I receive messages that match those received by the Prophets, Jesus or Paul, I am confident that I am hearing the voice of God.

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The Political Brain and the Workings of Whisper Ethics

In the last several essays, I have written about looking at political theology through the lens of whisper ethics. Whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God.

As I have also pointed out in the past, every individual has a unique base outlook, a worldview that comes from parental instruction, core adult experiences, genetic inheritance, and a host of psychological factors. It is through this unique worldview that we process the messages of God's goodness and love. Understanding this worldview is important because it explains how we see the world and act politically. Today I want to examine genetic inheritance in more detail and more specifically to explore some ideas of how the political brain is formed out of it.

I am a political liberal. Science tells me that approximately fifty percent of my political orientation can be explained by the workings of my genetic inheritance on my political brain. Brain tissue is made up of more than ten billion neurons. These cells are organized into circuits, thousands of miles of them. When neurons become active, they fire an electrical current, which travels along dendrites that function as tiny wires. Synapses are spaces along this highway. There are more than ten trillion of them. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that flood these spaces and function as a bridge. These chemicals slow down, speed up or change the direction of the traveling neurons which effect how one sees and experiences the world.

High levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are known to lower aggression as are low levels of the hormone testosterone. High levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are linked to positive emotions and an optimistic view of the world. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that rewards circuits in the brain connected to inhibition and avoidance. People with high levels of norepinephrine organize their lives around preventing unpleasant events from happening. People with low levels seek novel and exciting experiences.

Though my brain has not been tested for neurotransmitter levels, my personality fits the pattern of low levels of testosterone and norepinephrine with contrasting high levels of serotonin and dopamine. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt demonstrates through a series of impressive statistical studies how such a brain chemistry would predispose me toward liberal political values. As I stated above, genetics explains about half of our political orientation. The inheritance of a different brain chemistry would have predisposed me toward a conservative political stance.

The above analysis suggests that our brains create a worldview that affects the way we see politics. This worldview is the product of genetic inheritance, parental messaging, and core adult experiences among other things. The three factors mentioned in the previous sentence are key ones and result from chance.  They are random. Reroll the cosmic dice as it relates to genetic inheritance, parental socialization, and core adult experiences and each one of us could see the political world very differently.

This understanding of the human condition humbles me. It tells me my view of the political world is partial, limited, imperfect. It tells me I don't have all the answers. It tells me I have no right to judge. It tells me to listen. It helps me to see my political opponents not as enemies but as fellow travelers.
Such an understanding is not easily achieved. My self-righteous ego screams out that I am right, that my opponents are consumed with self-interest and have no concern for what is good for the country. When I am at my best, however, I search for win/win solutions through dialogue. If you want to get God involved, honest discussion of political issues with people holding wide-ranging perspectives can often produce results. The key is to listen to others with an open mind and a genuine respect for their dignity as human beings. While undergoing such a discussion, you may be amazed at the creative solutions, God's messaging,  that float through your awareness.

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Abraham Lincoln and the Workings of Whisper Ethics

        Abraham Lincoln was a progressive Christian. While being raised in a small fundamentalist Baptist church, Lincoln rejected the Christianity of his parents. He questioned the Bible as the literal word of God, the miracle stories as historically valid, and the belief in Jesus as a divine being. He never became a member of a church. On the other hand, he had a deep sense of the presence of God, a faith that deepened during his presidency.

        Lincoln's life was also a testimony to the workings of whisper ethics. As I have stated in previous blogs, whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God.

        As I have also pointed out in the past, every individual has a unique base outlook, an outlook that comes from parental instruction, core adult experiences, genetic inheritance, and a host of psychological factors. It is through this unique base that we process the messages of God's goodness and love. In the case of Lincoln, he was raised by anti-slavery parents in Kentucky and Indiana. He also attended as a child small Baptist churches that were anti-slavery. These childhood influences helped to create a psychological disposition that was open to divine messages opposing slavery. (1)

        On the other hand, his birth was in dispute. He wasn't absolutely sure who his father was. He also grew up in a small, dirt floor cabin in rural Kentucky with no formal education. His elusive sense of identity and embarrassment over his impoverished childhood caused him to doubt his place in the world. This deep insecurity created within Lincoln a tremendous drive to prove himself which was played out in the political arena. This drive to succeed functioned to diminish the voice of God within.

        Over the course of his life, Lincoln had several encounters with slavery which led to messages from God. As a child, he lived along the Louisville-to-Nashville Cumberland Road upon which the slave trade traveled. It was highly likely that he witnessed slaves being herded in chains along this road as a child. He often spoke of a river trip he took in 1841 where he witnessed ten to twelve slaves on a barge in shackles. The sight continually tormented him.

        Because of such encounters, Lincoln came to believe in the existence of a transcendent moral order communicated to humans via conscience. He believed he was acting in accordance to messages received from God in his opposition to slavery. This opposition was nonnegotiable. He remained steadfast in his opposition to slavery despite intense pressure to compromise with the South in order to end a war that was producing horrific casualties on both sides.

        Lincoln the politician with deep insecurities about his place in the world could also act in ways that diluted God's messages of love. He refused to get too far ahead of public opinion which was deeply racist even in Northern states. As a result, he advocated gradual emancipation throughout most of his career with compensation paid to Southern slaveholders. Once freed, the former slaves were to be sent abroad to live in colonies. He believed that a multiracial democracy based on true equality between races was not possible in America.

        Abraham Lincoln was a great man, a highly successful political leader, and a human being. Part of Lincoln's greatness was that he had a deep sense of his limits as a human being. Lincoln the political realist often conflicted with the man who believed it was his duty to implement God's vision of goodness and love in the affairs of the nation. He sensed this conflict and was often uncertain about whose will he was acting upon.

        Lincoln's example presents a good case study of how God works in the world. God sends messages of goodness and love which are processed by individuals with unique psychological dispositions. Theodore Parker, a minister and writer who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, had an important influence on Lincoln's thinking about religion. Parker spoke about the voice of conscience being processed through limited human beings. Like Martin Luther King after him, Parker taught that this voice, through small steps taken over time, would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Lincoln believed that his steadfast opposition to slavery was doing just that.

(1)   The historical data for this essay was taken from And There Was Light, Jon Meacham, New York: Random House, 2022.

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Why I Support the Ukrainian War Effort: The Workings of Whisper Ethics

The current war in Ukraine presents a dilemma for Christians. Support for innocent victims resulting from the Russian invasion is a no brainer. They are our neighbors. But what about the Ukrainian military effort? To support that effort only feeds the violence.

The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament are quite clear. He strongly opposed the use of violence in first century Palestine. This tradition of Christian pacifism has seen considerable support over the 2,000 years of Christian history. Stanley Hauerwas argues that the church is separate from the state. The duty of a Christian is not to solve the problems of the world, but to live the teachings of Jesus. The use of violence opposes God's love even when good things can come from it.

Christian realism takes a different position. It looks at the world and asks how can we use our power to achieve peace and justice. It argues that pacifism ignores the evil in the world, an evil from which neighbors often need protection.

The arguments from both camps make sense to me, but I don't join in the debate. Instead, I listen to the voice inside my head urging me to act in ways that support love and justice. In March of 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, the first thought that came into my head was "so many innocent people will die. We can't do this again." In February of 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, my first thought was "Putin is evil. We must do all we can to defeat him."

As I have pointed out in the past, whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God.

With regard to whisper ethics, context plays a major role. God does not make universal commands, although many conservative Christians believe that is exactly what God does. They want a moral system that is unambiguous. Their favorite source of commands from God is the Ten Commandments. They use the sixth commandment, "You shall not kill," (Exodus 20: 13) to justify their pro-life position in the abortion debate.

What these Christians ignore is Chapter 34 in Exodus. As you will recall, Moses is away for a long time on the mountain where he receives the Ten Commandments. During that period, the people of Israel construct a golden calf as an aid to worship. When Moses returns and sees the calf, an idol forbidden by the second commandment, he explodes with anger, throwing the tablets which contain the Ten Commandments at the calf which destroys both the calf and the tablets. God is angry too, and wants to end his relationship with the people of Israel. (Exodus 32: 1-24)

Over time both God and Moses calm down, and God invites Moses back to the mountain to receive new tablets. In Chapter 34 of Exodus, God promises to inscribe the exact same ten laws onto new tablets, and then for some reason changes his mind. God ends up giving Moses ten different laws as his Ten Commandments. I can just imagine conservative Christians dismissing these news laws as unimportant when compared to the original ten, but that is not the case. The new laws are about how God is to be worshipped, a very important consideration for ancient Jews. Most Old Testament scholars argue that both sets of commandments are human creations, not divine commands.

By contrast, whisper ethics is about listening within for the most loving response to a specific situation, but it can be misleading and needs to be approached with humility. Competing voices within the individual's awareness can drown out the messages from God. These messages also come to limited human beings who may not interpret them correctly. Finally, these messages come in a whisper because God seems to want to protect human freedom to make independent decisions. As a result, the sense of goodness and love comes without content. This sense filters through an individual's awareness made up of their unique experiences and perspectives. Humans then add their own content to the messages.

The idea of different experiences and perspectives is an important one. Each person is made up of a unique base outlook. This outlook comes from parental instruction, genetic inheritance, core adult experiences, and a host of other psychological factors. As a result, the sensations of goodness and love from God can be translated differently for each individual on the receiving end of the message. Every time I hear of a new Russian atrocity I see Ukrainians as neighbors who are in need of military assistance in order to defend themselves. Other Christians may be deeply saddened by all the violence and think a better approach would be for the Ukrainians to surrender to the Russians and to resist nonviolently by refusing to cooperate with the puppet government the Russians install.

Because of these limitations, one must be careful never to proclaim God is commanding such and such a response. The human condition prevents such clarity. One must always act with a sense of humility and respect for the views of others which may be different. Our hope is that, over time, in the words of Martin Luther King "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." If Dr. King is correct, the sensations of love and goodness from God will win out in the long run.

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A Beautiful Mind

        One of my favorite books is A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., the mathematical genius and inventor of the theory of rational behavior. The fields of economics and game theory were fundamentally changed because of his work.

        Sadly, underneath the brilliant surface of his life, chaos reined. Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age thirty. According to Nash, there were two voices in his head, both equally valid: the voice of reason and the voice of aliens.

        The voice of aliens produced persistent, scary, debilitating delusions. At one point he saw men at MIT running around in red neckties signaling him. He came to see himself as a religious prophet of great importance with an alternating sense of megalomania and impotence. This voice was extremely disturbing, creating within him a sense of apathy, persecution, and social isolation.

        To cope with the problem, he tried psychotherapy. He was hospitalized six times, often involuntarily. He received all sorts of drug treatments, shock therapy, and insulin coma therapy where he was placed in an insulin induced coma. Nash described this last treatment as torture.

        None of these therapeutic approaches worked. The voice of aliens was sometimes temporarily reduced, but it kept coming back. This horrible disease ruined his career and marriage.

        But there is a happy ending to the story. In 1970, Alicia, his divorced wife, took him back. Because stress often triggers schizophrenic attacks, she offered him a normal life in the academic community of Princeton University, which was relatively stress free. Nash did the rest. Over the years he had come to understand the processes of the disease, which enabled him to recognize the voice of aliens and to reject it. He decided not to listen to this disturbing voice in his head. It was a constant policing operation. His mind was beautiful because he was able to will his own recovery.

        I love this book because Nash's story is my story. I too am a prisoner of two voices in my head—a voice of love and goodness and a voice of ego focused self-centeredness. My goal in life has been to live the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The problem is my ego focused voice has often gotten in the way.

        I have tried prayer. I have asked God to quiet this voice, but it hasn't worked. You would think  this would be the type of prayer God would answer. I'm not asking to be rich, but to live more like his son. But God has not listened, and I have stopped praying.

        Thankfully, there is also a happy ending to this story. Like Nash, through a constant focus on the problem, I have come to recognize and understand how ego operates in my life. Inspired by the great mathematician, I'm learning to ignore and reject it. When I succeed in this effort, a voice of goodness and love becomes more clear and insistent within my head. Though there is no way to provide absolute proof, I assume this voice of goodness comes from God. Responding to this voice, puts me on the side of God. It enables me to work with God to make the world a better place. That's a really exciting prospect.

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Religion and Politics: The Mysterious Link

       The starting point for understanding how religion relates to politics is to determine how God functions in the world. Like many of you, I attribute the word God to experiences of beauty, love, and goodness that have no logical explanation. These encounters have depth. The reality of the experience is so much greater than the parts making it up.

        I have friends who have told me that music brings joy and a sense of peace into their lives, that it often takes them to another place. I also have friends who find a depth of meaning in church liturgy. During my tennis teaching days, I befriended a gifted artist. I taught his kids. At one of our many conversations together, he talked about the process of painting. He told me he often has no idea where he is. Time stands still. Images appear on the canvas from a place he sometimes can't explain. The point of these examples is that they all suggest a sense of something more.

        Abraham Heschel and Matthew Fox have created theologies centered around mystical encounters with nature. For Heschel experiencing nature in a deep way creates a sense of awe and wonder. This sense points to the beyond which I have encountered often while hiking or sitting quietly outside observing the beauty of all that surrounds me.

        Forty-five years ago our daughter Molly exploded onto the scene. I was there. The experience of witnessing her birth shook me to the core. It all started nine months before when sperm met egg which generated billions of cells that knew just where to go. She came with ten fingers and ten toes, and a brain with billions of nerve cells with the capability of making 10,000 connections a second. I left the hospital with a sense that life is sacred, beautiful, and essentially good. My heart was overflowing with love for my wife and new daughter.

        Finally, when I look at my adult life over the last fifty years, there is a direction to it. My path hasn't been perfectly straight, but there are times when I sense I am being directed by a wisdom greater than my own.

        According to Alfred North Whitehead, none of the experiences described above, the experiences of others I report, my encounters in nature or the birth of Molly prove the existence of God, but these experiences allow the possibility of God to make sense.  Whitehead was very humble concerning his ideas. There is no dogmatic certainty regarding the existence of God, but it makes good sense to think of God playing a role in creating and sustaining the universe as well as being behind our encounters of love and goodness.

         Whitehead's philosophy applies to both the macro level of the universe and the micro level of subatomic particles. What is important here is what Whitehead says about the functioning of human beings. According to Whitehead, humans are decision makers. We make decisions based upon different messages that float through our awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, hopes. There are messages from our biological need to survive—fear, greed, lust are among them. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, creativity, justice, and harmony, a sense that mirrors the experiences I describe above.

        Humans are free agents. We can decide based on a past influence, our needs relating to survival, or we can decide for God. This stark choice is present in every situation. Evil results from decisions that ignore God's vision. When we choose for God, however, we join with her in helping to make the world a better place. That's an awe-inspiring thought.

        If that's how God works in the world, how do we as Christians respond politically. The answer is quite simple. Study the issue in question, look at it from all sides, and then sit quietly reflecting on the messages of goodness and love from God that relate to the issue. It may take a little practice; but when you learn how to listen, the messages will come. The blogs that follow will illustrate Whitehead's approach as I apply the messages I receive to the political issues of the day.

        There is one important advantage to understanding the relationship between religion and politics in this way. It avoids needless controversy over the interpretation of scripture. The truth is that one can find a biblical passage to support any position one chooses to take. Wayne Grudem in Politics According to the Bible finds a biblical passage to support every position he takes in promoting his right-wing political agenda. In contrast, Jim Wallis in God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong illustrates his left-wing positions with biblical passages. Such passage picking in support of political policies is nothing more than a ploy to suggest God is on your side. We can do better. This blog will make suggestions on how that can happen.


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