Hate Speech, the Internet, and Edwardian Society

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Westboro Baptist Church members’ right to free speech, even at funerals, is by now old news. But I was interested in this piece at the BBC. Louis Theroux filmed a documentary of the group a few years ago but, strange in documentary-land, returned during the Supreme Court questioning to get an updated version. What he found were people who had left the church and he remarks: The family regard it as their duty to “rejoice in all of God’s judgements” – murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company). When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad. Though most of us would say that we are not “like that” and though I have never, ever met anyone from any political persuasion who liked what the Phelps do, their court case, their sadness should make us reflect on ourselves and our own use of language. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have been somewhat of a target of the Phelps’ vitriol. Back when...

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Till (Double) Lethal Injection Do Us Part?–Sliding Down the Euthanasia Slippery Slope

Here is a story about a Belgian couple who ‘couldn’t imagine living without each other’ and so asked for euthanasia together (hat tip to Wes Smith): You heard right, you don’t have to be terminally ill to get it…but why would you?  When a culture presumes that one’s choices about one’s own life and body are entirely up the individual, who is the state to get involved and regulate on what basis that individual can make a decision about such a deeply personal matter?  Quite logically, many Dutch are now calling for legal euthanasia when they are simply ‘tired of life.’ But when ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ are concepts simply floating about, untethered to any sense of ‘the good’ or other goal toward which such autonomy is directed, it does not produce liberation.  Rather, it simply papers over and even ensconces those deep injustices that already exist in a culture.  In the case of euthanasia in the secular West, among other things, this means an uncritical examination of a consumerist and youth-obsessed culture which sees older people as a burden and leading a kind of life that is not worth living. Nigel Biggar’s book ‘Aiming to Kill’ powerfully argues that any culture which attempts to legalize euthanasia, which also locates their primarily value in untethered autonomy, will be unable to stop a slide down a slippery slope to euthanasia on...

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Should shame make a comeback?

A colleague friend of mine who works in Second Temple Judaism once quipped that a sure mark of an established Old Testament professor is an inclination toward public shaming in the classroom.  He then related some legendary anecdotes from his own education that backed up his claim, all of which I have to say were quite humorous.  They were humorous, of course, because of their incongruity with contemporary academic decorum, and because of the parallel incongruity we often perceive between modern and pre-modern societies where shaming was prominent, societies such as those depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Contemporary culture generally assumes the experience of shame to be a sign that something has gone wrong in the realm of human interaction.  Shame is pathological, and its source can almost always be traced back to an oppressive (and likely hypocritical) imposition of moral norms by an overreaching communal authority.  Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet “A” is often the first image that appears to the modern mind when considering whether shame is something we should endorse or condemn.  Old Testament teachers notwithstanding, we remain highly suspect of any state of affairs that would cause shame in any regular way.  Some have even criticized sex offender notification laws precisely on this basis.  Indeed, if shame has any appropriate place in our liberal society, it is reserved specifically for those who cause shame in others. That being said, a recent Master’s dissertation here at the University of...

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The 411 on R2P

In her post on March 28th, Meghan Clark rightly brings up the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in connection with UN Resolution 1973 concerning Libya. Since there appears to be a lack of familiarity with R2P in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to outline its contours. In 2007 I was invited to participate in a consultation on R2P at the Academy of Arnoldshain near Frankfurt, Germany, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) as part of its “Decade to Overcome Violence” program, which will culminate this May in an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica. The March 2001 issue of the WCC’s journal, The Ecumenical Review, contains articles related to this topic (“Peace on Earth-Peace with Earth”), including one that I wrote on R2P. My brief comments here are culled from there. The phrase first appeared in a 2001 report by that title issued by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an initiative of the Canadian government to reflect on how to move beyond the moral and jurisprudential obstacles surrounding what was referred to as “humanitarian intervention” during the 1990s in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The United Nations subsequently studied this proposal, and at the 2005 World Summit, member states endorsed R2P. A report in January 2009 from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect” led to further debate...

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Praying and “Framing”

Why is prayer, liturgy, and studying the Bible important?  One reason is that these activities shape the way in which we make decisions.  Some recent work on “framing” from behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychology shed some light on how they do so.  Psychologist Amos Tversky and economist Daniel Kahneman were the first to establish the concept of “framing”:  people respond to situations differently depending upon how they interpret it.  Connecting this concept with research in neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, states that [framing] helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat.  And why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of their surviving instead of a 20 percent chance of their dying.  Dan Arliely, the behavior economist and author of Predictably Irrational, gives the example that high-priced entrées on the menu boost revenue for the restaurant—even if no one buys them.  Why?  Because even though people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish.  Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers into ordering the second most expensive choice (which can be cleverly engineered to deliver a higher profit margin). When my daughter flipped through the pages of her children’s picture Bible,...

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Rowan Williams on Listening and Speaking

That vision of Christ which thou dost see Is my vision’s greatest enemy –  William Blake One of the greatest joys of my time as a graduate student has been monthly gatherings at our professor’s home where each of us has taken turns leading a reflection/discussion on the vocation of being a theologian.  Last night our friend and colleague, Angela Carpenter, led us in reflecting upon two homilies by Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury.  The texts are here, and are both very short: Presence and Engagement and Different Christs-1? There is much worth pondering in these homilies, but I wanted to share two thoughts.  First, he reminds us that most people have struggled to come to terms with what they believe, and that when we criticize them for it or treat their beliefs as either trite or unenlightened that we are actually attacking not just their beliefs, but the whole body of Christ.  He reminds us that It’s my life you’re threatening, my sense and my judgment, my meaning, the way I painfully struggle to understand myself in the light of God and the gospel. Secondly, he admits that although we must interpret Christ and the Scriptures, and therefore we must form opinions and speak, that this is always to be rooted in listening (a very Benedictine insight I might add!): listening not only to what others...

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Ethics and Eating Disorders

More than 10 million women in this country are suffering from some form of eating disorder. Although we tend to think of anorexia and bulimia nervosa as adolescent and young adult problems, more women are suffering from these conditions in mid-life or later. From today’s New York Times: Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that though it was initially aimed at adolescents, since 2003 half of its patients have been adults. “We’re hearing from women, no matter how old they are, that they still have to achieve this societal ideal of thinness and perfection,” she said. “Even in their 50s and 60s — and, believe it or not, beyond — women are engaging in extreme weight- and shape-control behaviors.” For middle-aged and older folks, eating disorders often begin with a desire to “get healthy” which becomes an excessive habit of self-starvation and exercise: A 58-year-old yoga instructor in St. Louis, Ms. Shaw says she was nearing 40 when she decided to “get healthy” after having children. Soon, diet and exercise became an obsession. “I was looking for something to validate myself,” she told me. “Somehow, the weight loss, and getting harder and firmer and trimmer and fitter, and then getting recognized for that, was fulfilling a need.” . . . And though one doctor suggested that Ms....

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Why Lectionary & Liturgy on a Site by Moral Theologians?

Why does a website about Catholic moral theology include a tab about lectionary and liturgy? I thought I’d offer a couple of reasons for anyone who is wondering about this question. First, the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on Priestly Formation suggested that the discipline of moral theology “should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching” (no. 16). Moral theology, prior to this, had come to focus mostly on natural law, with a focus on actions and rules. While these remain important, attention is now also given to character, virtue, and discipleship—indeed, on the person and work of Jesus, too. The Bible, therefore, is essential for moral theology. In his book, The Making of Disciples: Tasks of Moral Theology (Michael Glazier Publishing, 1982), Irish Catholic moral theologian Enda McDonagh writes that by “adopting discipleship as one dominant theme of their reflections and explorations, theologians…are compelled to address the Scriptures in text and context more directly and seriously than some doctrinal and moral traditions of the immediate past” (4).  As for liturgy, in his book, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship (Brazos Press, 2002), Catholic moral theologian Paul Wadell shares a story about a question Methodist theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas once raised: “You Catholics go to Mass all the time,” Hauerwas observed, and then he asked, “What do all those Masses do for you?” If,...

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Building a Healthy “Civil Society”

Part of the inspiration for this blog derives from a shared vision to create a space to dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and charity, as an alternative to the “culture wars“.  In light of this, I have been thinking back to a distinction that Jacques Maritain makes in Man and the State between “the Nation, the Body Politic or Political Society, and the State.”  The most caustic forms of rhetoric seem to emerge from attempts to control the power of the State, mostly through electoral politics.  And, as my wife likes to remind me, I can get quite caught up in and heated up over these kinds of battles.  But is there something about focusing on this realm, especially as Christians and/or theologians, that misses the point? Maritain writes: Political Society, required by nature and achieved by reason, is the most perfect of temporal societies.  It is a concretely and wholly human reality, tending to a concretely and wholly human good – the common good…Justice is a primary condition for the existence of the body politic, but Friendship is its very life-giving form. Focusing on Political Society, or “Civil Society,” as the area of culture or society where the virtues of friendship and trust  are needed to sustain the collective endeavor to seek a distinctively human, common good has much to recommend it, I believe.  Here, we...

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Initial Response to Obama’s Libya Speech

In tonight’s speech,  President Obama had a steep mountain to climb. He needed to explain the United States role in enforcing the United Nations  Libyan No-Fly Zone to the American people.  Did he accomplish this goal?  There will be no clear or single interpretation of this speech. I am confident that if you questioned each of the 15 moral theologians on this website – you would receive 15 different interpretations and readings of both the text and the intervention in Libya itself. And so, to begin discussion – I would like to highlight  one section that jumped out at me in tonight’s speech: It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground. A few years ago,...

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