The Homeless, Brentwood, Tennessee, and the Arrogance of Wealth

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If the sin of the poor is envy, the sins of the rich are arrogance, snobbery, and a lack of compassion for those less fortunate. No where has then been more in evidence recently than in Brentwood, Tennessee‘s treatment of the homeless from the Nashville area. The Nashville homeless have an innovative program in which the homeless sell a newspaper, The Contributor, produced by the homeless and formerly homeless. The paper costs a dollar and the vendor can keep most of that dollar plus any tips. Not only has this initiative empowered the homeless, it has led to many of them finding homes and jobs. In Nashville, most people have no problem with the homeless selling papers at intersections.

Not so in Brentwood, Tennessee, a community known for its wealth. The town of Brentwood has given tickets to several homeless vendors, claiming that their actions violate city law. The ACLU is supporting a lawsuit against the town of Brentwood. Even though the legal issues are an interesting topic, I would rather focus on the ethics of the rich who do not want their community “stained” by the poor and less fortunate. People who are taking responsibility and engaged in a legitimate business are banned because Brentwood believes such will lower the quality of life within its sheltered community. The upper middle classes and wealthy are becoming more isolated from the rest of their local communities, often living in self-contained gated communities with their own shops for groceries and consumer goods. They are, in effect, hiding from the real world. But no one can ignore poverty except at great moral cost. Too often the rich, like those rich condemned by both the Old Testament prophets, Jesus Christ, the author of I and II Timothy, and the epistle of James, either exploit the poor or ignore their plight, desiring to hide behind a facade of wealth and McMansions. Such a denial of reality has gone to the extreme in the past of one North Carolina town banning death–the town passed a law that no one could die in the city, and the body was taken out of the city before death was pronounced. While this law was later changed, it illustrates the unnatural desire of some of the wealthy to ignore unpleasant facts of life–poverty, disease, and death. The latter is the lot of all people–but the rich can at least reach out to help those who are poor and homeless. Surely paying a dollar to a homeless person for a paper is not a blight on Brentwood’s quality of life. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to go to Heaven.” Jesus’ statement does not absolve other classes of moral responsibility, but it does point out that with greater blessings come more, not less, responsibility to reach out to the less fortunate. This is not to say that every person in Brentwood lacks compassion for the homeless, nor am I claiming that Brentwood has no programs for the homeless. But banning sales of The Contributor cannot but reflect an underlying attitude in at least a good portion of Brentwood.

Bloodthirsty Evangelicals

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A sad fact of contemporary American Christianity is the open-ended support many Christians give to war. Among the most fervent supporters of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan have been conservative, Evangelical Christians. This is not to say that all Evangelicals support the wars–as with any group, there are exceptions. However, Evangelicals, who are mostly politically “conservative” (though I fail to see what is “conservative” about waging war) have tended to support U. S. military intervention abroad. Many Evangelical churches will have special services to honor our “heroes,” the troops returning from Iraq or from Afghanistan. Evangelicals in general are the most zealous supporters of “American Civil Religion,” with a U. S. flag prominently displayed in church and with patriotic songs sung at services on or near the date of national holidays such as July 4. Christians who protest the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are labeled as “wimps,” “liberal peaceniks,” or worse. Sometimes the rhetoric comes across as saying that a person who opposes these war is less of a Christian than those who support the wars. And some Evangelicals I have heard are bloodthirsty–there is no other accurate description. They will talk about nuking all “enemies of America” with an expression of sadistic glee.

Even if a Christian supports the notion that war is sometimes necessary, that does not imply that the Christian should accept the justness of any war a nation wages just because he is a citizen of that nation. Some advocates of just war theory opposed the Iraq War in particular–Iraq had never invaded the United States and was not a threat to the United States. “Preemptive war” is nowhere a part of just war theory. Yet millions of traditional Christians naively supported Dubya, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in their execution of an unjust war that killed many thousands on  both sides.

Even if a war is necessary, no Christian should support it with glee, nor should the Christian rejoice at enemy deaths. Such a message is contrary to Christ‘s command to “love one another” and to “love your enemies.” A bloodthirsty attitude toward killing is incompatible with Christianity. Such an attitude is so contrary to the message of Jesus that, from a traditional Christian point of view, it is difficult to see how one who accepts that attitude could live in the eternal presence of God. Hatred of others and joy in killing and in war are products of Satan, not of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps Evangelical Christians, who are so literalistic on other parts of the Bible, should follow this advice literally.

Pannenberg on Christianity and Science

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Wolfhart Pannenberg

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If a theologian told a physicist or biologist, “Your science will be more successful in understanding nature if you accept Christianity,” the scientist would most likely label the theologian as a Creationist or as kook. But that is what the contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has affirmed. Pannenberg is neither a Fundamenalist nor a Young-Earth Creationist. Rather, he is one of the most significant mainline Lutheran theologians of the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He was already well-known for accepting the bodily resurrection of Christ which had been rejected by theologian Paul Tillich and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann–and their view was the majority opinion among German mainline theologians. In this sense, Pannenberg is “conservative,” although he eschews labels such as liberal, conservative, or moderate.

Professor Pannenberg is thoroughly familiar with the literature of the philosophy of science as well as the literature on the relationship between Christianity and science. The most dominant recent model has been the “two realms view,” in which science stays in its world, religion in its world, and never the twain shall meet. Scholars as diverse as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould have affirmed this thesis.  But Pannenberg’s view is the polar opposite of a two-tiered view of Christianity and science. He opposes the methodological atheism with which science has operated since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and more explicitly since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Pannenberg argues that if God is Creator of the Universe, a scientist cannot adequately understand the universe if he holds to methodological atheism or agnosticism. Thus, a scientist who accepts the doctrine of creation in the course of doing science will be able to make discoveries that a scientist who is methodologically atheistic. It also follows that the theologian must bring the best insights of modern science into theology. This is something that Pannenberg puts into practice with his view that the Holy Spirit is a “force field” (Pannenberg has extensively studied field theory in science, beginning with the work of Michael Faraday).

I have never been comfortable with the position that science and Christianity are in two radically different realms. Such a view lends itself too easily to D. Z. Phillips‘ denial of the literal nature of key Christian doctrines such as the bodily resurrection of Christ, since he believes that Christianity does not make factual claims in the sense that science does. Christianity and science are playing, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology, two different “language games.” But even Wittgenstein does not accept a radical separation between language games–there are “family resemblances” of varying degree between language games. Christianity, like science, makes truth-claims about reality. To say that the truth claims of Christianity and science are sealed off from each other like an impenetrable wall does not even fit the history of science. Philosophical and religious systems have been an important part of the growth of science: Neoplatonism (Copernicus); the notion of the “music of the spheres” (Kepler); the Christian doctrine that since the world was created by a rational God, it can be understood through reason (about all the major scientists through Isaac Newton), and a Stoic-like deterministic pantheism (Einstein).

There are problems that must be resolved for a scientist to accept Pannenberg’s position. The scientist must take care to make predictions that are testable (in a very broad sense, not in the narrow sense supported by the Vienna Circle). The scientist must take proper care with data–nature constrains what the scientist can rationally say. To be published, the scientist must keep to himself any Christian or other philosophical/theological presuppositions that connected with his scientific work. I am not willing to rule out the possibility that a Christian scientist can apply his metaphysical/theological beliefs to the practice of science. There are dangers (such as those found with the Young-Earth Creationists) of holding positions dogmatically that do not fit the world of nature. Pannenberg does not give many specifics on how a contemporary scientist can practically operate with theological presuppositions included in his data set. But his proposal is an interesting twist in the long-standing debate over the relation of religion (Christianity in particular) to science.

The Arrogance of Heresy

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Fighting Heresy

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Heresy” is a dirty word to many Americans. It brings forth images of heresy trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the burning of Michael Servetus. Yet the concept of heresy is essential for Christianity unless one waters down Christianity to the point that it merely means, “Be nice to one another.” As I heard Stanley Hauerwas once say, “If all Jesus said was that we should be nice to one another, why the hell was he crucified?”

The word “heresy” has to do with division–a heretical doctrine is any false doctrine that, if taught, leads to division in the church. Heresy is dangerous in that heretical doctrines, if followed, can oppose teachings essential for salvation. For example, teaching that Christ was not raised from the dead implies, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, that “we are of all men most miserable…. and we are yet in our sins.” To deny the Virgin Birth leads to adoptionism and denies the full divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, how could He save people from sin and death?

The true source of heresy is arrogance, human pride, the primal sin. It is man wanting to go his own path instead of following St. Vincent of Lerin’s formula, “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.” It can be an intellectual arrogance–“I am too sophisticated and modern to accept miracles.” It can be an anti-authoritarian arrogance–“I am not going to accept what a bunch of church politicians said at a council 1500 years ago.” It can be an arrogance of someone wanting to live a life in opposition to traditional moral standards: “I know the church condemns abortion, but I think it’s okay in certain situations, and the church is just wrong on that issue.”

Now if a Christian holds heretical opinions but keeps them to himself, he is not a heretic–a person becomes a heretic when he teaches false doctrine. If that person, once warned, does not stop teaching false doctrine, the Bishop, if he so chooses, can excommunicate that individual. A heretical priest or bishop might be defrocked. One of my huge problems with the Roman Catholic Church is that it allows too often heretical teachers and churches to prosper. Why is John Dominik Crossan still a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church even though he denies the bodily resurrection of Christ? Hans Kuhn is a raving fundamentalist compared to Crossan. Why are priests who openly support practicing homosexuality allowed to remain as active priests? Why are Roman Catholics who openly espouse abortion allowed to take communion? That is for the Roman Catholic Church leadership to answer–they may have Jesus’ attitude that God will separate the wheat and the tares at the end of time. But what about the present when heretical teachers are leading sheep astray from the truth?

Mainline Protestantism, especially in its seminaries, is doing better than in the past–many younger professors are quite orthodox. It is oftentimes the older teachers who deny fundamental doctrines of the faith such as the bodily resurrection of Christ. Renewal movements in the United Methodist Church have worked wonders in taking it away from the liberal Protestant theology it had adopted from the 1950s through the 1980s. Thomas Oden of Drew University has been a leading voice for restoring a “catholic” (in a broad sense) orthodoxy to the Methodist Church. There are orthodox voices at some mainline Presbyterian seminaries now, something that was nearly unheard outside of Union in Virginia years ago. To his credit, Pope John Paul II did a great deal to reverse the radical trends asserted in “the spirit of Vatican II.”

I pray that these renewal movements will continue and that Christians will be humble enough to accept the wisdom of men and women over the centuries whose collective voice is wiser (and reflects the influence of the Holy Spirit) than anyone’s individual notions of what Christianity is. Only with humility toward God, toward Christ and His apostles, and toward Holy Tradition can one overcome the sinful pride that results in heresy.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian: Sincerity Does not Negate Moral Evil

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My student often with identify sincerity with truth, especially on matters of morality and/or religion. I remind them that Lenin was no doubt sincere in murdering hundreds of thousands of his political opponents. And he was sincere–unlike his successor Josef Stalin, Lenin really did believe in Communism and that killing people may be best for a greater good. Surely his sincerity does not make his actions morally right.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a sincere man. I do not believe, despite his rather expressive paintings of gruesome death scenes, that he was a psychopath or sociopath. He was well read in ancient Greek and Roman classics and was well aware that until Christianity came along, the vast majority of Greeks and Romans supported euthanasia–the Hippocratic Oath, based on the Pythagoreans’ high view of life, was the exception rather than the rule. Kevorkian used their arguments about a person dying with honor and dignity, arguments that were later revived by David Hume (1711-1776), to defend physician assisted suicide. Unlike the current Oregon and Washington State laws, which allow a physician to dispense a prescription of a deadly dose of drugs to terminally ill people who gave prior permission, Kevorkian went further. He built his infamous “suicide machine” which the patient could start himself, but Dr. Kevorkian had the set up in terms of inserting IV lines and arranging the correct drugs in each IV bag. The first bag released normal saline; the second a sedative to relax the patient; the third a dose of a deadly drug. Technically a patient could stop the process at any time; whether this always was the case in practice is a disputed point.

Dr. Kevorkian was not insane, but he was really, truly, sincerely wrong. He believed that he was easing the pain of terminally ill patients (although one woman he “assisted” had fibromyalgia, which is not a terminal illness). Error often contains partial truth, and the partial truth in Dr. Kevorkian’s stance is that a doctor’s sole duty involves more than preserving life. Sometimes it is best for a physician to allow the disease process take its course and withhold or withdraw burdensome treatment such as a ventilator or artificial nutrition and hydration. But to go beyond that and allow physicians to actively help a patient kill himself by a deadly drug that is in no sense a treatment for illness violates the fundamental end of medicine to “first, do no harm.” Kevorkian and his defenders might say, “But we euthanize animals who are hurting.” That is true, but animals do not have the level of understanding of the pain they feel compared to human beings. Human beings can understand what is going on and realize why they are in pain–and they can take steps to get medical treatment to stop the pain. Many physicians are not aware that most pain can be controlled with the proper drugs.

My best friend, during the final month of her life, was in hospice, where she received drugs to control pain and nausea. While the drugs were not by any means perfect, she did feel better, and I and her other friends were able to spend precious time with her and say goodbye before she peacefully passed away. If all terminally ill patients in pain received better palliative care, most of the clamor for physician assisted suicide would most likely go away.

Dr. Kevorkian represents the contemporary view that severe pain is the ultimate evil that can happen to a human being. Don’t get me wrong–I hate pain and have a very low pain threshold. I could not imagine the agony of being in constant, severe pain. I would want the best treatment for pain available if I were in severe intractable pain. In an earlier world that began to dissolve in the fourteenth century, pain was not considered to be the worst evil. Dying without salvation was. Today society is secular, and even many Christians are Christians in name only–they never accepted the world view and view of human nature that comes with Christianity. So they go back to the old Stoic view that suicide can be acceptable in some circumstances. Yet even the Stoics believed it was normally best to suffer misfortune and pain; suicide was a last resort to protect one’s honor and dignity. The modern world does not understand fortitude through pain, using illness to draw closer to the transcendent, or using a long, drawn out dying process to adequately prepare for death, both in secular and in spiritual matters. Today people want a quick death–in their sleep, of a sudden stroke or heart attack. There are times I feel that way, too, but when I use my reason, I realize that knowing one is dying, even if it involves great pain, gives one time to prepare, to say goodbye, and to draw closer to God. None of that would have made sense to the atheist Dr. Kevorkian. Yet a secular case can be made against PAS as well.

Not only does PAS violate the fundamental end of medicine, which is to help a person in need, doing no harm, but wide scale legalization would take away the psychological barrier to including more classes of people as candidates for PAS. Professor Margaret Battin once said at a talk I attended that she believed that someone with intractable chronic depression that could not be treated with drugs is a legitimate candidate for PAS. Most of the audience of physicians and philosophers seemed to agree. What about the person with chronic back pain that is not helped by drugs? What about the woman with fibromyalgia? To how many groups of people will PAS be extended.

In the Netherlands, where PAS is legal, thousands of patients have been actively killed by their doctors–without giving prior permission and without a family or friend as proxy giving prior permission. The doctor makes a judgment about the patient’s quality of life–and if the patient’s quality of life does not measure up to the physician’s standards, the physician kills the patient. A recent attempt to formalize a quality of life standard, below which a physician could kill a patient, was defeated in the Netherlands. But with some physicians already crossing that barrier, it may be just a matter of time before the law reflects practice.

Doctors already have a great deal of power over the patient. The patient comes to the doctor for help, and the doctor has the knowledge and the power to diagnose and treat the patient. Given that amount of power, would someone really want to agree with Dr. Kevorkian to give the physician the authority to help a patient kill himself? Once power crosses one barrier, historically it has tended to cross others.

Dr. Kevorkian meant well. But history shows that some of the worst tyrants in history “meant well.” Pol Pot really believed that by killing the educated classes and moving the rest of the urbanized population of Cambodia he could create a classless society. Instead he murdered over a million people. Dr. Kevorkian only was involved in helping a few hundred people kill themselves. But multiply that by hundreds of other Dr. Kevorkian’s along with a racially individualistic society that affirms that a person “has the right to determine the time and manner of one’s death.” Such hubris feeds Dr. Kevorkians and feeds physician power over life and death–and this in turn feeds Death itself. God help us.