Safe, not sterile: discussing sex at church

by Amber Belldene

Recently I was at a clergy conference where I got to have conversations I’ve been longing for. We talked about sex. Not as a part of a plenary, or even a formal small group meeting, but around tables at meal times, and over glasses of wine. We touched on the complicated ethics of sex in the modern world, and what to say when it becomes a pastoral issue. We laughed, we argued, we blushed and fanned ourselves. It was holy.

But even at that gathering of priests, where we were all ostensibly peers, occasionally someone would say, “Well, this conversation doesn’t sound like safe church.” Those comments gave me pause. Our conversations might have made some people uncomfortable, but that’s not the same as unsafe. When we talk about sexual abuse in the church, or even sexual harassment in the church, we are talking about an abuse of power, where someone uses his or her institutional authority inappropriately. It’s a terrible thing, and something the church has a grave history with, but it doesn’t mean sex itself is unsafe, or that is should be off limits as a subject of discussion.

One of the greatest blessings of my ministry has been the duty to talk about sex with adolescents. I’ve blogged about it before. Here it suffices to say that kids are hungry for honest conversations about sex, and ethics. What they glean from popular culture is confusing, astonishing, and often rather exciting to them. I’m in my thirties, and TV and music are radically more explicit than they were even just fifteen or twenty years ago. I’ve had middle school boys make jokes to me about Fifty Shades of Gray. I’ve had parents tell me their high-school aged daughters read that book without them knowing. I am an avid reader and enthusiastic writer in the genre of sexy novels, but I wouldn’t want a teenager reading one without an adult to help contextualize it.

The problem is, many parents don’t know how to talk about sex with their children.
Maybe that’s because many of us adults are fine with a dirty joke between friends or a sexy T.V. show, but we struggle to talk honestly about sex—what’s hard about it, what’s amazing about it, what’s ridiculous about it, and when it is holy.

The Episcopal Church, with our moving sexual diversity and our incarnational theology has invaluable things to say about sex as sacramental. And the truth is, we collectively have a darn good sense of humor about the subject. But we haven’t figured out how to bridge our jokes and our abstract theology with the practical conversations both kids and adults need to have—and which many like me might be longing for.

It’s not that hard. We need to start by claiming the safety and the importance of the conversation. The more we neglect conversations because we fear abuse, the more sex takes on a secret and shameful power that leaves all of us more vulnerable.
Then we need to have the conversation, which is very different from a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Here’s what works for me: I offer adolescents, or couples in pre-marital counseling, or friends with dating dilemmas, the framework of right (versus sinful and distorted) relationship from our catechism. From there, we can begin to talk about what that means in practice, not by extrapolating rules, but values like honesty, intimacy, mutuality, and respect.

There are so many good resources out there, and perhaps readers will mention ones they like in the comments of this post. I know I really admire how the Journey To Adulthood Curriculum tackles this subject.

The Episcopal Church has helped to form me into a person who believes human sexuality is a blessing. I’ve been further blessed in my ministry, by getting to have honest, heartfelt, humorous and holy conversations about sex. I want to keep having them and I hope you will join me here, or on social media, or when we have the chance to meet face to face. I trust God will bless those encounters too.


Amber Belldene is a romance writer and her real life alter ego is an Episcopal priest. She believes stories are the best way to examine life's truths, and she is passionate about the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. The first two books in her debut vampire series, Blood Vine and Blood Entangled, are now available from Omnific Publishing. She loves Jesus, wine, history, heirloom tomatoes and erotic novels. Connect with Amber: Website | Blog | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Boycotting Walmart. Because Christ is King

By Noah H. Evans

It all began at a Thanksgiving Day clergy family meet-up at the local playground in Medford, Massachusetts. We all talked--three Episcopal and two Unitarian Universalist clergy families--as our kids played. We talked about our congregations, families who were visiting for the holidays, and about the awful commercialism of the coming season. Rampant consumption has led to environmental crisis as well as massive income inequality, the cost of which is suffered by some of our society’s most vulnerable people. Someone finally said, “Hey, want to Occupy Walmart tomorrow?” With facebook and tweeting started at the playground, the movement continued and by the time we all had sat down to our various Thanksgiving dinners, we had recruited six cars full of people to join us. Our group will include four kindergarteners and two preschoolers—offering them a vision for a world in which they know how to make themselves heard.

This year on Black Friday, we are standing with Walmart workers who are picketing at over 1000 stores across the country. On Friday morning, at 9:00AM, my family and I will join Walmart workers in front of the North Reading, Massachusetts Walmart Store. We will stand in solidarity with their cause, and help to give their suffering a voice and honor the courage of picketing Walmart employees. We will give the luxury we have been blessed with of an extra day off to help give rights to the 1.4 million Walmart workers in the United States right now.

Walmart is our nation’s largest employer, bringing in more than $16 billion in profits last year, mostly going to its corporate shareholders. Walmart workers struggle with low wages, positions without benefits, and negligible job security. Walmart has fought against efforts to unionize and is now taking action against picketing workers across the country. Because of its size and market strength, what happens with Walmart has ramifications far beyond the company. It will affect workers at other retailers and in other sectors as well.

By the end of the day Walmart will have made millions in sales and profits, but many Walmart workers will not be able to make ends meet, and many will go without the basic necessities of food and clothing. The call to stand for justice and in solidarity with those without a voice is throughout our sacred stories. This coming Sunday, we will proclaim that Christ is King, not corporate interests or shareholder profits. We will stand in the Walmart parking lot in hope of the world were justice rolls down like waters, and were the dignity of every human being is recognized. And hopefully, our kids will learn their own power to speak up and make a difference in the world. That will be something to give thanks for!

The Rev. Noah H. Evans is rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. He is on twitter at @NHEvans827

Bullying

by Ann Fontaine

Friday, October 19, was Spirit Day, when people were asked to wear purple to stand up against bullying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. It got me to thinking about bullying in general and our call as Christians to stand with those who are being victimized. Can people of faith stand up to bullies, can we admit our own bully nature and learn from times when we have bullied another? Following are a couple of real life experiences that someone shared with me about using the power we have to stop the bullying in our midst.

As a very young priest I learned the power we have as clergy. A single woman in my parish chose to have a child. Once her pregnancy became obvious, the ladies started talking. I don't know that anyone ever said anything to her, but she clearly overhead it because she brought it to me. One of the issues what that they didn't think the child should be baptized because it was conceived "in sin."

So after church I called a meeting of the core elders -- about six women of the congregation. I said I had heard this was being said and I needed their help. I explained that we were a Christian congregation and the most loving thing we could do was to support this mother and welcome the child -- who most assuredly would be baptized. And we would all be called to help raise up that child in the faith. So as future godmothers of the child, I needed them to help me stop this conversation because it was unChristian and unacceptable. I was sure that we were better than that, that all of our members would be ready and willing to "love our neighbors" no matter what. This was, I said, a spiritual disciple for us...and we, as the congregation's leaders, needed to help others see that we could and would model the same love Jesus showed people. Would they help me in that?

Absolutely, they all said....and that was not only the end of the talk, but they did it. They stepped up and when the child was born with a serious health issue and flown to a major medical center, they rang up the Prayer Chain, brought casseroles when the child came home and organized a baby shower. And ever thereafter, they did their best to support that mother.

What I learned is that if I stood up, as the priest, and flatly named what was not acceptable and what I expected....people would do it. I chuckle and I think about it now -- I was 28 or 29 and looked about 15 years old....and they were mostly in their 60's. But those women heard me and they followed my lead. Many years later as I was about to leave, the matriarch reminded me of that conversation. "That's when I knew you were our priest -- you made us become the Christians we we called to be."

Another story from the same person:

My sister married an African man and, fearing the family's reaction, never told us (although I soon figured it out). She was on a junior year abroad and he was there for the first couple of years. Then came to the US to do a Master's degree. My parents didn't like and they both but my dad, in particular, would make really snide remarks about them shacking up, and him just using my sister to get into America, etc. After several phone calls like that I finally had it. I told them that they had raised me to be a Christian and love all people, that mom taught Sunday School where I learned that "red, brown, yellow, black and white; they are precious in His sight" and I didn't think these comments were loving or Christian. And I didn't ever want to hear him say anything negative about my brother-in-law again. Period. There was a long silence and we ended the call.

A few weeks later my brother called. "Do you know what happened?" he asked. "Dad stopped crapping about him." I told him what happened....and neither of us heard it again. Many years later, mom told me that after the call dad went outside and was quiet for most of the day. Then at dinnertime he sat down and told mom, "She's right. It isn't the Christian thing to do, so we will stop doing it." And that was that.

Those two experiences taught me that I have more power to stop bullying than I imagined. I can often (not always...but often) stop it simply by saying, "stop." In my context, I frame that in Christian language, but that works without the religious piece. It is scary--but if you do it and it works, that's really empowering!

What keeps us from speaking out? Fear for our safety? Fear of losing social standing? When have you been a bully? What stopped you?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Bonhoeffer and chicken sandwiches

The Christian has to let grace truly be grace enough so that the world does not lose faith in this cheap grace. In being worldly, however, in this necessary renunciation required for the sake of the world--no, for the sake of grace!--the Christian can be comforted and secure in possession of that grace which takes care of everything by itself. So the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by grace! That is cheap grace as justification of sin, but not justification of the contrite sinner who turns away from sin and repents. It is not forgiveness of sin which separates those who sinned from sin. Cheap grace is that grace which we bestow on ourselves... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from "The Cost of Discipleship"

One of the more interesting phenomena I recently saw in the social networking world was the heated arguments and mass de-friendings that occurred over the question, "Should I, or should I not, buy a chicken sandwich?"

Yeah, I'm talking about that whole Chick-Fil-A thing.

Some people I knew made it incredibly clear they planned on boycotting Chick-Fil-A because of their CEO's habit of giving large sums of money to anti-gay marriage causes, got into arguments with their more conservative friends, and went on a de-friending spree when it got nasty. Others I knew made a big deal how they were going to buy all the Chick-Fil-A products they could poke in their mouths because they felt very strongly about heteronormative marriage, and proceeded to get into similar arguments, with similar results.

I live more than 150 miles away from the nearest Chick-Fil-A. I think it's clear I don't have a dog in this particular hunt. That said, no matter which side folks chose in this brouhaha, what disturbed me most was the absolute and self-righteous surety that some people displayed, standing behind whichever brand of "Christian" principles they chose to embrace. Whether they were claiming a literal, more conservative brand of Christianity, or a more liberal Christian theology, what disturbed me was the ones still standing after the smoke cleared sounded...um...a bit...uh...smug...in their convictions. They were doing God's will, and that was that, and if someone disagreed, well, that was just too doggone bad. It sort of seemed a little bit how I imagine the Crusades, only with processed chicken.

Now, mind you, I'm talking two ends of a very broad spectrum. I think a lot of people quietly chose their side and acted, and a few stated their opinion and didn't engage, and those of us who would not even be in the same town as a Chick-Fil-A any time soon simply watched it play out and said, "Well...I see where they're coming from but it's not my battle."

Watching it all play out from a distance reminded me for some reason of Bonhoeffer's discussion of "cheap grace" and "costly grace"--perhaps because when we make choices on what we will or won't purchase, what we will or won't eat, primarily on moral principle, and the act we choose is sufficient for feeling satisfied with one's morality in it, we run the risk of engaging in cheap grace. Costly grace demands that we look at the lives behind our decision or the lives affected by it.

Costly grace reminds us that in a successful economic boycott, yes, the CEO of that company takes a hit, but the larger consequence is the potential loss of jobs by those least able to afford it. Hurting the pockets of a man who runs a chain of chicken sandwich restaurants also means to hurt a sizable number of minimum wage employees.

There's costly grace on the other side of that coin too. Costly grace reminds us that if we support businesses whose CEO's donate to causes or organizations that we believe have damaging consequences with regard to human capital, our money might be indirectly contributing to the harming of lives we would never have intentionally harmed.

Costly grace demands we ask of ourselves, "Is what I am choosing b/c of my own wants building up or tearing down the Body of Christ? Does my wish for a creature comfort bring humanity closer to God's realm or does it tear it asunder?"

Furthermore, cheap grace requires considerably less of our own suffering. Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship at the height of Nazi Germany's rise to power (1937.) It's important to remember some facts of the times. After Germany's defeat in WWI, they were geographically punished by loss of acquired lands and economically punished first by the economic cost of that war, followed by the Depression. An emotionally depressive pall gripped the country. Hitler stirred a sense of identity in the people, and it certainly would have felt good. The consequences of maintaining that identity were lost on most people, partially because it was hidden to some degree and partially because a beaten, hungry populace didn't care to look. The people who did see it were most likely afraid. Bonhoeffer's writings were both a clarification that the Christian path required humility and suffering, yet an urging to "be not afraid." He was probably aware earlier than most what the cost of discipleship, at least in Nazi Germany, entailed. The cost of his own discipleship was execution.

The fact is, our economic choices based on principle alone don't cost us much.

However, if we desire to follow the more difficult path--the path of costly grace--we will discover that as we look behind the principle and directly at the people involved, more is required of us. What else will we choose to do for the sake of those people? What else is God asking us to do, or to give up, or to do without, for the sake of a broken world?

One of my favorite lines in the movie The Wizard of Oz is when Toto exposes the wizard and he says, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." Au contraire. May we always see the people behind the curtain, and may they be our prime driving force in our striving for a right relationship with God, rather than a sense of surety that our choices put us in favor with God.


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Occupy Wall Street and The Episcopal Church: a crisis of legitimation, or a movement of transformation?

By P. Joshua Griffin

Before I went to seminary my discernment committee gave me an assignment. I was relatively new to the Episcopal Church and they thought it would be a good idea if I interviewed several priests from different walks of life about their calling to ordained ministry. One of the priests I met with told me this: “I was committed to the Black Power movement. I had a full scholarship to law school and also to seminary. In the end, it seemed that my call was to the priesthood. It was the best way I could support the legitimate the grievances of the Black Power struggle—and to the extent that the Church was willing to accept that struggle as its own, legitimate the Church.”

Today our churches are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy. With our roots in an established State-church, whenever ‘power’ is in crisis, the Episcopal Church will be in crisis. Though we are concerned for ‘the oppressed,’ many parts of the Body enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege, remaining insulated from the lived experience of oppression, injustice, and violence. As an institution we enjoy a good deal of ‘spatial privilege.’ We have a lot of buildings where we worship and freely spread Christ’s Gospel of Love. We are often generous with what we have and we love to ‘speak out,’ but we are slow to take action toward those institutions that create the conditions we decry—poverty, injustice, and oppression. We focus a good deal on charity, but far less on addressing the power imbalances that render anemic the continued possibility of democracy in this fragile Republic.

The Occupy Movement is a radical-democratic movement, grounded in the principles of truth and justice, and direct action. It is the kind of movement that we venerate in history, yet many people who live comfortably fear it in the present. For my entire life, the last 30 years, our collective striving “for justice and peace among all people” has been modest because it has been divided. One church group works on racism, one on economic justice, one on climate change, one on immigration, one on Native-American wellbeing, and another one works against war—yet the struggle for justice is one. We have written letters, we have lobbied, we have voted. Ultimately we placed our faith in politicians above the Kingdom of God, and we were wrong.

Occupy is no mere ‘protest.’ The brilliance of the movement is its refusal to be reduced to specific policy demands. Occupy remains an insatiable movement of liberating creativity, an irreducible process for generating justice. Yet paradoxically, Occupy is also at it's best when it momentarily coheres into concrete demands—ie. liberating a particular foreclosed home for an unhoused family, reversing Citizens United, or closing the West Coast ports in solidarity with exploited port truckers. It is a replicable model for creating democratic space in a country and world dominated by unaccountable corporations.

We may remember from the Book of Genesis that creativity, to the uninitiated, may appear at times, as chaos. Occupy is not without its imperfections—but this is precisely why we as a church should embrace it and support it, as many have already done. Occupy Wall Street has presented Trinity Wall Street with a thoughtful, conscientious, and respectful blueprint for using a small parcel of property in order to reestablish their visible, public presence in the heart of global finance. The symbolic, or sacramental, importance of such a space cannot be overstated.

This movement is too important to be shunned to the periphery, or rendered invisible—especially with Congress’ alarming attempts this week to suppress political dissent through the National Defense Authorization Act. As Christians we have a responsibility to protect demonstrators from our governments’ reckless use of militarized policing—as evidenced by the brutal beating off a Methodist pastor in Seattle on Monday. Furthermore, it is only by embracing and engaging that we can help ensure Occupy’s commitment to nonviolence, as well as contribute our share of the spiritual resources needed for this transformational long-term struggle for justice. And finally, by providing safe-haven we can help insure participation from those communities who are so often terrorized by law enforcement—especially African-American youth and Latino/a immigrants.

Trinity Wall Street has a long history of supporting progressive dialog through its annual conference series. Over the years Trinity has used its extravagant wealth to support mission projects that serve the most vulnerable around the world. Charlotte’s Place has been a refuge for the Occcupiers even as they organize a campaign to compel Trinity to open its property to them! But let’s be honest. Like most of us, Trinity Wall Street is deeply dependent on the system that Occupy Wall Street is seeking to transform. To allow an encampment to be established on Trinity property may unfortunately require a greater depth of self-examination than the parish is willing to undertake.

This Advent, we remember a struggling migrant family who was turned away from the Inn, and a homeless infant King who was born in a stable. With Archbishop Tutu I invite Trinity to reexamine its position—there is far too much at stake. After he was ruthlessly beaten by Seattle Police on Monday evening, the Rev. John Helmiere, a chaplain at Occupy Seattle, had this message: listen deeply, get upset, and generate Love. The Episcopal Church is very good at listening, and pretty good at loving. Our ironic misfortune is that we may not have experienced enough suffering to always know when and how to get upset. Let there be peace among us, and may we not be instruments of our own, or anyone else’s oppression.

The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin is priest associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, OR, and a Ph.D. student integrating environmental anthropology and religious studies at the University of Washington.

The deficit debate

By George Clifford


As a Christian priest and ethicist, I found the recent U.S. Congressional debates over raising the debt ceiling deeply disturbing for two reasons. First, the deficit debates revealed the disturbingly rapid pace at which self-interest appears to be supplanting concern for the least among us in American churches.

The Christian path that I understand and try to travel encourages disciples to emulate Jesus’ example and teaching by putting others on a par with self, if not ahead of self. This especially connotes caring for the most vulnerable among us.

I’m thankful that I live in a secular, pluralistic nation. However, many of our elected politicians self identify as Christian and a growing number of them try to capitalize upon their personal faith declarations when campaigning for election. Voters reasonably expect these individuals, if elected, to express their Christian values in their speeches and votes – at least some of the time.

Collectively, these politicians failed to stand vocally and firmly against legislative actions that might endanger the well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, some of them adhered to campaign rhetoric and promises that are contrary to my understanding of Christianity. Others, who had voiced more compatible campaign rhetoric and promises, were publicly silent or attracted little media attention to their defense of the most vulnerable.

A cynic might suggest that the gospel of self-help draws bigger crowds than does emphasizing Matthew 25 and costly love. This perversion of Jesus quite probably represents a greater threat to Christianity’s future than secularism does. The deficit debates are a telling milestone of how far religion in America has moved in that direction.

Second, the deficit debates exposed the fragile and perilous condition of community in America. The tone of public discourse frequently lacked civility. More importantly, during the debates, I heard much dishonesty about important issues at stake, widespread advocacy of fiscal policies that would have had the unintended (or so I want to hope) consequences of further fracturing the foundations of our communal life, and explicit attacks on the integrity and good faith efforts of the vast majority of government employees. Demagoguery commonly masqueraded as reason, evoking too few objections. Individualism was ascendant and community on the wane. Mutual respect and trust yielded to mutual suspicion and animosity. These fault lines, unless healed, bode ill for the communal mutual interdependence to which God calls us and that best enables human flourishing.

Balancing the federal budget without increased revenues would require eliminating 40 cents of every dollar the government now spends. Thankfully, the U.S. government is not corrupt or ineffectual on that scale, even according to its harshest critics. In other words, eliminating the federal deficit without any tax increases will require substantial cuts or wholesale elimination of multiple programs. The Defense Department, Social Security, and three health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) each account for approximately 20% of the federal budget. Social safety net programs (14%) and debt interest payments (6%) are another 20% of federal spending. The other 20% funds the remainder of government operations (transportation, education, government retiree benefits, foreign aid, etc.).

One oft-heard sound bite during the debates asked, “Can you or the government do a better job of spending your money?” The speaker left the question unanswered, presuming that everybody agrees she/he can spend her/his money better than the government. I vehemently disagree. The federal government spends my tax dollars much better than I could. With my taxes, I buy, in no particular order of priority:

• One of the best, if not the best, highway systems in the world;
• Most healthcare for everybody in this country over age 65 and much of the healthcare for the poorest Americans;
• Pensions for the elderly;
• The assurance of generally safe food, drugs, consumer goods, air transport, etc.;
• The closest approximation to the rule of law, justice, and civil rights for all in the history of the world (not perfect by any means, but far better than in most countries);
• About 10% of the cost of educating children in the U.S.;
• More defense than I want or need.

You might list other goods and services the federal government provides that you especially value, no matter how imperfect they are. Whatever your list, if it’s honest, is well beyond what you could afford as an individual – unless perhaps you are a billionaire. Even then, I’m willing to bet that you get a decent bargain in return for the taxes you pay.

Can the United States federal government achieve a greater degree of fiscal responsibility? Absolutely. Is some government spending fraudulent, wasteful, or abusive? Without a doubt. Is every government program important for sustaining our communal life? No. We rightly debate those questions. Identifying optimal government policies, programs, and funding priorities – even if all citizens shared common values – is impossible because nobody has a crystal ball with which to predict future outcomes.

However, reductions in government spending will reduce employment when unemployment remains above 9.1% of the workforce and much, much higher for certain segments of the workforce (e.g., young black males). Underemployment remains a significant but unquantifiable problem. Indeed, a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that voters disapprove of Congress’ job performance at an all-time high, rate job creation more important than deficit reduction, advocate raising taxes to balance the federal budget, and believe politicians must compromise to make government work.

As Christians, we bring to public discourse about public finances a concern for the well-being of the least among us and for the strength of our community. The Eucharistic readings for Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome (August 10, 258), in Holy Women, Holy Men speak to the federal budget battles that will continue in upcoming months and years:
"He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." (II Corinthians 9:9)
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-26a)

Before executing Laurence, the prefect demanded that the archdeacon Laurence, responsible for the Church’s welfare programs, reveal where to find the Church’s treasures. According to legend, Laurence responded by assembling the poor and the sick and then telling the prefect, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The prefect then supposedly ordered Laurence roasted alive. The Greek root of the English word “martyr” means witness. The deficit debates make me think that we need a new generation of witnesses, holy women and holy men who will witness to the way of Jesus regardless of the cost to their pocketbooks.

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

The lessons of a cluttered life

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementoes, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house on Scott Street, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementoes made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon." That book, and a few others, I can't bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Are the "new Carnegies" investing wisely?

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Marshall Scott

I have been intrigued by the commitment Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have made to give away at least 50% of their wealth to charitable purposes either before or at their deaths, and by their efforts (their successful efforts!) to get other folks in similar financial situations to do the same. As a student of history, I found myself thinking of them as “the new Carnegies,” after Andrew Carnegie, so much of whose money went to libraries.

Interested as I am, I had to notice when I saw last week a commentator on one of the financial channels questioning their efforts. While he had several questions about such philanthropic decisions, one stood out. If these folks really wanted to help folks, shouldn’t they invest in businesses, and so create jobs, instead of distributing it for philanthropy?

Now, another commentator had good answers for that, mostly about the number of job training programs support by charities. However, I think both of them missed a much more basic point. You see, I think the Carnegies both new and old aren’t interested in just “distributing.” They really are interested in investing – just not in the ways that the first commentator would recognize. They’re interested in investing, not for individuals, whether shareholders or employees. They’re interested in investing in commonwealth – in investing in “us and ours,” instead of “me and mine.”

Now, I don’t want to make saints out of sinners. On the one hand, I think I can trust Jesus to take care of that. On the other, I know that the scions of America’s Gilded Age commonly had mixed motives in their giving. Carnegie certainly understood how education had helped him, and so built libraries and a university. He also understood that an educated workforce was in the long term interest of industry. Mining companies and major landholders built churches for their workers. However they might have thought it would benefit their own souls, they were also quite clear that they were providing a social outlet and a source of support that would keep workers functional, if not necessarily happy.

I will admit that as an investment, philanthropy won’t maximize resources. First, such investment is chancy. Human beings are irregular, unpredictable, and there’s no guarantee they’ll use wisely the resources invested in them. And then these are long term investments. The value of a child’s education won’t be known literally for decades, nor reliably measurable in less than a lifetime. So, these aren’t the kind of investments that work neatly in a world focused on quarterly statements and predictable profit. They’re much more long term.

However, they still saw those efforts as investments that would benefit them and their companies precisely because they would benefit all, the whole community. That is, they had a clear sense that investing in the community was worthwhile. They saw there was something to be gained – gained financially, true, but not just financially – by investing in people. Whether we attribute it to higher moral ideals or to a simple sense of noblesse oblige, they had a sense that the future, including their own future, would be better for the commitment in people. (Full disclosure: as an Episcopal priest in the Church Pension Fund, I am directly a beneficiary of the Morgans and others who helped establish the Fund.)

The “new Carnegies” also seem to have that sense. For good and ill, the concept of noblesse oblige seems to have been lost as we’ve swung so extremely into our individualism. They have challenged this with their commitment not simply to give here and there, but for each to give at least half of his or her substance for the good of others.

In my lifetime I have seen that sense of commonwealth, that sense that we are all connected and that we all benefit when the community benefits, fade. I have attributed it in part to Lady Thatcher, when she said, “And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour” (a comment I think marks the beginning of the fall of Western Civilization). Among her contemporaries, including President Reagan, that became the great individualistic articulation. After all, it sounds like a clarion call to personal responsibility; and how could one meaningfully invest in society if society doesn’t exist?

Well, there’s certainly something to be said for personal responsibility. It works with the idolatry of “rugged individualism” that so pervades our social and political culture (a phrase that is truly is in itself a refutation of Lady Thatcher’s statement). On the other hand, we are all clear, or should be, that “rugged individualism” is not a Christian doctrine, nor as near as I can tell that of almost any other faith community. If to love neighbor as self is essential to the Christian faith (and indeed to all the Abrahamic faiths), we can neither claim nor affirm “rugged individualism.” Certainly, here at the Café I need not reiterate the Summary of the Law or the Baptismal Covenant or the many sayings of Jesus calling us to be responsible one for another.

Still, to the extent that they discuss society, many of those embracing “rugged individualism” challenge programs of charity and philanthropy, not as bad ideas in the abstract, but as impracticable; not as ungenerous, but as subject to waste and fraud. They have a point, and they are invariably happy to offer examples, some of which are even accurate. We appreciate that in our fallen state there will always be those who will take advantage, who will take money and benefits for which they aren’t actually qualified. And the critics have a point that, if we do want to act socially or communally, that fraud wastes our corporate resources, thus injuring all of us and each of us individually.

Well, yes, there is always potential for waste and fraud; and that does cause us some injury, some additional sacrifice. One the other hand, if we’re idolizing “rugged individualism” and personal responsibility regardless of circumstances, there is also waste. It is true that if we maximize how many people we might serve, we will certainly waste some money. However, if we maximize our control of the money, our control of what we pretend we give as gift, we waste people. If our control on resources is tight enough to prevent any mistakes or waste, people who might be served will fall through the cracks – or the chasms.

Now, I know these positions are themselves somewhat abstract. Money wasted also limits the number of folks we might serve; and service without some sort of personal participation, of personal responsibility, can leave some people habituated to dependency.

That said, these positions remain in my consideration of social and political decisions. Is it more acceptable to invest in people, to work as hard as we can to serve all who need, even if we end up wasting some money? Or is it more acceptable to invest in resources, to work as hard as we can to prevent waste and fraud, even if we end up with some people falling by the wayside? Well, I know where I come down; and, looking at the Gospels, I think I know where Jesus will come down, too.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Should Christians have second helpings?

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Some years ago, I made a spinach and bacon quiche to serve for New Year’s Day breakfast. It was loaded with butter and cheese (not to mention salty pork fat—yum), and boy, was it good. Some friends were visiting from out of town, and as one contemplated whether to go for seconds, he wondered aloud which is the proper way to approach dietary indulgence as Christians. Should we exercise tight control, understanding that our body is a temple and that one does not smear temples with butter, cheese, and bacon? Or should we go for the gusto, knowing that this earthly life, the one we navigate from within these mortal bodies, is neither the whole story nor even the most important part of the story? If we’re all going to die and be with Jesus anyway, what does a few more grams of fat matter?

My friend’s question of how we are to view and treat our bodies in light of our Christian faith has stuck with me. It has stuck with me as I, who have a genetic bone disorder that has led to significant pain and limitation, figure out how best to care for my body and parent my three kids (one of whom also has the disorder) in a culture that celebrates athleticism and a narrow definition of beauty. It has stuck with me as I navigate the judgment-fueled arena of modern suburban parenthood, where some fellow parents view Capri Sun juice pouches as nearly equivalent to cocaine in their poisonous tendencies, and our schools subject parents to annual lectures on the evils of birthday cupcakes.

I’ve decided that, as with most significant questions of the Christian life, the answer is not this way or that way, not either/or. The answer is both/and. We are to honor our bodies as God’s gifts. Honoring our bodies means taking good care of them, fighting our tendencies toward sloth and gluttony. And honoring our bodies means recognizing them as imperfect and limited, and therefore as inappropriate objects for worship or an overly intense focus that considers everything in light of how it will make us healthier, thinner, or stronger.

Our culture has an odd relationship to food these days. On one side is the obesity epidemic, fueled by reliance on industrialized, portable, chemical-laden food requiring minimal cooking time or skill—or none at all. On the other extreme are those who see food as something to be feared and tightly controlled, who believe that non-organic produce, white flour, and sugar are evils to be avoided at all costs.

These two extremes have something in common. In both cases, food is simply a means to an end. It is fuel—something to be inserted into one’s body to achieve a particular goal, whether that goal is hunger relief or good health. America’s growing waistlines are in part the result of people eating on the go, at their desks, in their cars, and in front of the TV, grabbing food out of take-out bags or plastic packages and consuming the food quickly, alone, so they can move on to the next thing. Super health-conscious folks begin to see food as medicine, something we consume solely for its nutrients and health benefits, to stave off not only those dreaded extra pounds, but also cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even death itself. (Several years ago, I read about people who severely restrict their caloric intake because such diets have been shown to slow aging. The wife and daughter of one man reported that his diet made him flatulent and irritable. Sounds like just the kind of guy I want to have around for an extra 20 years.)

Food is more than fuel, and our bodies are more than machines that we manipulate to give us what we want, whether that be a caffeine boost to get through the afternoon’s work or a few extra years of life. When it comes to healthy eating that honors our bodies as both God’s gifts and mortal flesh, nutrients matter, but other things matter too. Context matters. Intention matters. Place matters. The same goes for all the other ways that we daily choose how to treat our bodies—our sleep, our exercise, our response to pain and illness. We can honor our bodies with both discipline and indulgence, with work and rest, with decisions to pursue experimental treatments and decisions to let illness take its course. The tricky part, of course, is figuring out which path honors God and our bodies most in the daily mix of temptations, opportunities, blessings, and burdens. This both/and stuff does not lend itself to neat decision-making flowcharts—if this, then do that; if that, then do this.

My friend decided to have seconds that New Year’s morning, which seemed the right decision for a holiday morning in the company of friends. There is a big difference between having a second piece of quiche on New Year’s Day and scarfing down a bag of Oreos while watching Law and Order reruns. I’m still working out the balance, particularly as a mother. We belong to a community-supported agriculture farm, so my kids are familiar with all kinds of greens and squash and fresh-picked berries (not that they’ll eat them all, except for the berries). And alongside the organic produce in my fridge you’ll also find superhero popsicles, bright blue and green yogurt and, yes, Capri Sun juice pouches.

We’re still figuring it out. But I am clear on one thing: Our bodies matter. And, thank God, they are not all that matter.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

The end of sex as we know it?

By Ellen Painter Dollar

A research team headed by an Australian veterinarian is predicting that, within a decade, human in vitro fertilization (IVF) success rates will near 100 percent, and that couples will choose IVF as their preferred method of reproducing, rendering sex a purely recreational activity. The predictions are based on assisted reproduction in cattle, which has achieved a nearly 100 percent success rate in producing viable embryos. Do these predictions about near-universal IVF usage, near-perfect IVF success rates, and the demise of natural conception (which the researchers deem highly inefficient) have merit?

A fertility expert quoted in the articles linked above is skeptical that human IVF could become efficient enough to replace natural conception. One hallmark of fertility medicine—despite the millions of dollars invested in procedures and the increasing numbers of patients accessing them—is how much of the IVF process remains a mystery even to experts. What leads to IVF success? Why do some eggs fertilize and some embryos implant, while others don’t? Such questions are far from having clear answers.

Besides the limits of fertility science, some experts argue that the grueling nature of IVF will prevent its widespread use. Last year, Mark Henderson, a science writer for the Times of London, named this reason, among others, in an article arguing that fears about becoming a culture in which parents can order up “designer babies” are overblown. In a response to Henderson’s article on my Choices That Matter blog, I argued that there are plenty of grueling, expensive endeavors that people willingly pursue because they perceive the desired outcome as worth short-term hardship. I don’t believe that the demanding nature of IVF is a strong enough deterrent to prevent its widespread use—especially when the intended result is a much-desired child.

It’s worth noting that many dystopian novels take place in societies where the connection between sex and procreation has been completely severed. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, sex is encouraged, even for the young, as a social activity, and children are manufactured in a process designed for efficiency (there’s that word again) and the propagation of traits that support a consumer society. Lois Lowry’s young adult novel The Giver portrays a culture in which women possessing certain qualities (namely, a robust body and relatively low intelligence) are housed separately from everyone else and given the job of bearing children. The children are then matched with parents and raised in what appear to be traditional nuclear families—except that parents have no biological ties to the children they raise, and infants who do not meet cultural standards are euthanized (even for problems as basic as difficulty sleeping through the night). These are fictional worlds, but the power of art lies in artists' ability to uncover truths that are obscured by the daily minutiae of human life.

The foundation of Roman Catholic opposition to contraception and assisted reproduction is the belief that God designed sex and procreation to go together. Even if you believe (as I do) that God intended sex to be about more than making babies, the fact that sex can make babies, and that until recently, sex has been the only way to make babies, hints at God's intentions for parents, children and communities.

As Protestant bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender wrote in his classic Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, "That the sexual union of a man and a woman is naturally ordered toward the birth of children is, in itself, simple biological fact, but we may see in that fact a lesson to be learned…A child who is thus begotten, not made, embodies the union of his father and mother. They have not simply reproduced themselves, nor are they merely a cause of which the child is an effect. Rather, the power of their mutual love has given rise to another…Their love-giving has been life-giving; it is truly procreation." Of assisted reproduction, which separates the process of uniting sperm and egg from the act of love, Meilaender asserts that, "In our world there are countless ways to ‘have’ a child, but the fact that the end ‘product’ is the same does not mean that we have done the same thing."

I'm skeptical of the prediction that we'll all be using IVF to conceive babies in 10 years' time. But I think the question of whether such a development would be a benefit or a disaster for humankind is worth pondering—now, before technology makes it possible. Reproductive technology has been progressing faster than our ability or willingness to consider the moral questions it raises. When faced with provocative predictions about where fertility medicine might take us, let’s take the opportunity for our ethical reflection to catch up with technological developments.


Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: Start talking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In this final post encouraging Episcopalians to learn about and discuss reproductive ethics, I will briefly review some major ethical questions related to Christians’ use of reproductive and genetic technology, and end with a couple of recommendations.

Major Ethical Questions

As is clear from the review of various faith traditions’ handling of reproductive ethics, the ethical questions that reproductive and genetic technologies raise are closely linked with how each tradition views sexuality, marriage and procreation. Christian perspectives on suffering and disability come into play as well, raising questions, for example, about whether preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is good preventive medicine that uses our God-given scientific knowledge to alleviate suffering, or a eugenic process that emphasizes secular values of perfection and achievement over God’s abundant grace. Sometimes, as I write about these questions, I feel like I’m in some tortuous maze—I go down one path only to find four more paths I could travel down in search of answers. None of it is easy. None of it is simple.

But I’m going to try to simplify it anyway, breaking down the ethical questions into several broad categories.

The Nature of Disability and Suffering: What do Christians believe about genetic disorders that cause pain and suffering? Are they part of God’s plan, the result of a fallen world, or the natural result of a God-given genetic code that relies on change and diversity for its success? What is the nature of the suffering people experience as a result of disability? Are social stigma and exclusion as much factors in how we perceive disability as physical pain?

Desire, Vocation and the Choice to Have Children: Why do many people have such a strong desire for biological children? Is adoption the best answer for those dealing with infertility or genetic disease? Can parenthood be a vocation? Do parents have a duty to protect their future children from suffering?

The Blessing and Burden of Having More Choices: How do assisted reproduction and genetic screening affect our perception of humans? Of God? Is there a “voluntary eugenics” or quality control at work in reproductive and genetic technology? How does increased use of these technologies change our culture’s perspective on disabled people? Can parents be held responsible for disabled children (e.g., barred from public support for their children) if they choose not to use available technology to prevent disability? How do assisted reproduction and genetic screening contribute to or benefit from our culture’s commodification of children?

Money, Medicine and Consumer Culture: How does the money-making side of assisted reproduction affect the relationship between doctor and patient? What values are promoted in the standard procedures followed by most fertility clinics? Is there a “slippery slope” of assisted reproduction (i.e., nearly impossible to stop once you’ve started)? Can genetic screening at the embryonic stage be classified as primary preventive medicine (i.e., a better alternative than therapeutic abortion as the result of prenatal diagnosis)? Is there any evidence that technological reproduction has adverse health effects for parents or babies?

The Status and Selection of Embryos: Given that natural conception often involves selection of healthy embryos and destruction of unhealthy ones (e.g., many miscarriages are attributed to genetic anomalies), whose job is selection—God’s, nature’s, ours? How do patients, doctors and Christians view embryos? Do embryos have rights? Is there a continuum of traits that are acceptable/not acceptable to select for—e.g., life-threatening disorders, non-life-threatening disorders, gender, traits? Because our knowledge of embryos is limited (we can’t always identify the severity of disease in utero, we can’t know what personality or skills the embryo will have as a fully developed person) can we justify making selection decisions based on one characteristic, such as a particular genetic mutation?

Why Episcopalians Need to Care About Reproductive Ethics

As I hope that long list of questions illustrates, reproductive ethics are not only about debating pro-life and pro-choice arguments (although questions of who gets to choose and why are involved), nor are they focused only on whether we think an embryo has the rights of a human being (although that is an important question). Reproductive ethics raise questions about who we are, who God is, our health care system, the nature of procreation and parenthood, and how our culture perceives children. These are big questions—questions no person or couple should have to grapple with on their own, especially if they are part of a faith community.

The most compelling reason for Episcopalians to care about reproductive ethics is that reproductive and genetic technology is getting more sophisticated and available. We can now not only identify genes for life-threatening disorders that will kill or seriously disable an infant, but also for adult-onset diseases with a genetic component, such as breast cancer. In vitro fertilization, originally designed for young, otherwise fertile couples who had some clear physiological problem (a blocked fallopian tube, for example) is now routinely used to assist women in their 40s to have children with the use of donor eggs. While genetic screening has traditionally been available only to couples who have family history of a specific disorder or are part of an ethnic group predisposed to certain disorders (such as Tay-Sachs in the Jewish community), a company called Counsyl recently developed an inexpensive test that allows any couple to be tested for approximately 100 single-gene disorders. It is now possible for a couple to pay for eggs from an anonymous woman, sperm from an anonymous man, a womb from a surrogate mother, and go home nine months later with a child who is genetically unrelated but legally theirs.

More and more people sitting in the pews of Episcopal churches, and more and more people you know—your friends, your siblings, your children, yourself—will face the question of whether to use reproductive and genetic technology to fulfill their dream of heaving a healthy baby. If and when they come to the church, to their fellow believers, for guidance and support, we need to have something to offer them.

What To Do

Avoid easy answers. Infertility is not easy. Living with genetic disease is not easy. Figuring out the right thing to do in light of the long list of major, soul-searching questions raised by new technology is not easy. Easy answers don’t help. When it comes to easy but unhelpful responses, my two pet peeves are: “Why don’t you just adopt?” and “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve written elsewhere about why I find these responses so unhelpful, misguided and even hurtful, and won’t go into it here. Just don’t say them, or any other easy answer that pops into your head. Please.

Learn and talk about reproductive ethics. There are lots of ways to do this at the congregational level. Sermons, adult forums and book groups are all places where questions raised by reproductive technology can be discussed. Invite an ethicist from a local college or seminary to give a talk or lead a discussion. My book (warning: shameless self-promotion ahead) is designed to be accessible to a diverse audience, and is written in a narrative, non-scholarly style. But it won’t be out until fall 2011, and there is lots of other reading material available: theological discussions, official church documents, memoirs, and short journal and magazine articles. I have developed a reading list of resources I have found inspiring or helpful; if you would like a copy, you can contact me through my Choices That Matter blog.

Thank you for sticking with me through all three parts of this series. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: What believers believe

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In Part 1 of this series, I told my story of living with a genetic disorder and choosing to have biological children with a 50/50 chance of inheriting the disorder. My exploration of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD—in vitro fertilization with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for a particular mutation) led me to focus on reproductive ethics in my work as a writer. Here in Part 2, I’ll summarize current ethical perspectives of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions.

The Roman Catholic Tradition

Catholic opposition to artificial contraception, abortion, and any type of assisted reproduction, from artificial insemination up to IVF, PGD and surrogacy, stems from several basic principles:

• Marriage, instituted by God to unite one man and one woman, has two necessary and complementary purposes: unitive (two people becoming one flesh) and procreative (producing children). Each conjugal act that takes place in a marriage needs to be open to the potential for procreation, even if each act does not (or even, in the case of an infertile couple, cannot) result in conception.

• Sexual intercourse and procreation, both God-given blessings reserved for marriage, cannot be separated. Sex should not occur without the potential for procreation (hence the objection to artificial contraception), and procreation should not occur without sex (hence the objection to any method of assisted reproduction in which conception occurs independently of intercourse).

• When people separate the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage, deciding when they are and are not open to having a child through calculated use of artificial contraception, children become a project to be achieved or a product to be obtained to fulfill parental desires, rather than a gift that arises naturally from the marital union.

• The temptation to view children as entitlements or commodities, rather than gifts, grows with the use of reproductive technology. Because IVF and PGD require embryos to be selected for implantation in the mother’s uterus, an element of quality control is introduced (i.e., choosing the “best” or potentially healthiest embryos). This element, again, transforms children from gifts of a loving God to products manufactured by medical personnel to parental specifications.

• Because intercourse and conception are inextricably linked with each other, and intended for an exclusive marriage relationship, any reproductive technology that introduces a third party into conception, such as with donor gametes or surrogate motherhood, is unacceptable.

• An embryo is fully human, with all the rights of a human being created in God’s image, from the moment of conception. Any use, destruction or manipulation of an embryo, including freezing, genetic testing, disposal, abortion or medical research, violates the embryo’s dignity as a human being.

Many Catholics argue that they are not so much against all these technologies as they are for a perspective on marriage and sexuality that is radically different from that of mainstream culture. For example, Catholics who advocate natural family planning (NFP) argue that couples can make wise decisions about family size and pregnancy timing while also being open to God’s design for sex and procreation within marriage. In NFP, couples avoid conception at certain times by abstaining from sex during the wife’s fertile period, which she determines through detailed observation of such factors as body temperature and cervical mucus. Those who practice NFP argue that by subordinating their sexual desires to the God-given fertility cycle and their sense of when and how God calls them to parenthood, NFP enhances marital intimacy and interdependence, bringing marriage closer to the way God intended it.

Mainline Protestant Traditions

Mainline Protestantism, of course, comprises a diverse group of churches, so there is no one perspective on reproductive ethics. There are, however, some common assumptions and values that inform many Protestant churches’ discussion of the topic, as well as some specific conclusions that several mainline Protestant denominations share.

• Mainline Protestant churches tend to value individual autonomy and choice, and assert that individual Christians can inform their own consciences to grapple with moral decisions with the guidance of the church, scripture, tradition and reason.

• Given the value of autonomy and conscience, many Protestant churches encourage both clergy and laypeople to educate themselves about reproductive technology and related ethical concerns. Pastoral and genetic counseling are held up as vital resources for church members dealing with infertility or family history of genetic disease.

• Protestant traditions tend to emphasize marital companionship more than procreation, and allow more leeway in how the purposes of marriage play out for individual couples. For example, some argue that while it’s important for married couples to be open to the possibility of children, such openness occurs in the context of a lifelong marriage relationship, not just when the couple engages in discrete acts of intercourse. Therefore, using contraception to limit family size and time pregnancy is acceptable (and some argue further that because Catholic natural family planning, or NFP, attempts to control fertility just as artificial contraception does, there is no moral difference between the two). It is also acceptable to separate sex and procreation in limited instances, by using assisted reproduction to overcome infertility within a marriage.

• Many Protestant churches approve the use of assisted reproduction techniques to help couples conceive children within a marriage. However, techniques that compromise the exclusive marriage relationship or that allow for childbearing outside of marriage (such as donor gametes and surrogacy) are viewed with concern or disapproved altogether.

• Genetic screening is generally acceptable for disorders that significantly affect health and well-being, but should not be used either for gender selection (except in the case of sex-linked genetic disorders) or screening for non-disease-related traits. Human cloning is unacceptable.

• Embryos have moral status and should be treated reverently, but their status is not equal to that of a more developed human life. Embryos should not be created for the purpose of being destroyed through scientific research. Donation of embryos left over from IVF cycles is viewed more favorably, but efforts should be made not to produce more embryos than can reasonably be used in an IVF cycle.

• Protestant documents tend to emphasize issues of justice, recognizing the potential for assisted reproduction and genetic screening to be used in ways that compromise the inherent dignity of every human being, such as by ensuring that certain types, classes or races of people are not born.

Evangelical Protestant Traditions

With their strong pro-life ethic, evangelical Protestants tend to have more in common with Roman Catholics than with mainline Protestants when it comes to reproductive ethics. Concern for the human dignity of embryos fuels evangelical opposition to reproductive technology, such as IVF, that leaves behind thousands of unused, frozen embryos, as well as to the use of those embryos in stem-cell or other medical research. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is problematic both because it requires discarding embryos testing positive for a particular genetic disorder, and because of its potentially eugenic nature (i.e., the potential for people’s worth to be judged based on their genetic history, leading to the breeding of people for certain traits perceived as positive and the elimination of people with traits perceived as negative).

There is also an emerging openness among younger evangelicals to the Catholic practice of natural family planning (NFP) and the vision of marriage and parenthood that it entails.

Jewish Traditions

Judaism emphasizes the procreative purposes of marriage—its role in fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply—to a greater extent than either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. Having children is one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments or rules) that Jews are to live by. Persecution of Jews has reinforced their emphasis on maintaining Jewish identity and community by having Jewish children.

Judaism tends to view assisted reproduction as a tool to help Jews fulfill God’s procreative purpose for marriage. In fact, Israel has an unusually high birth rate of babies conceived through assisted reproduction (about 5 percent, compared with about 1.5 percent of U.S. babies). Because the procreative purpose of marriage is valued so highly, Jewish authorities have few reservations about separating the reproductive process from the sexual union of married spouses. Because Jewish identity is passed down through the mother, however, Jewish authorities have expressed concern with third-party reproductive technology that uses donor gametes or surrogates, which might lead to confusion over the child’s Jewish identity.

Even though Jews have been targets of eugenic policies and prejudices for centuries, they have embraced the use of both genetic testing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to help eradicate disorders common in the Jewish community. For example, Dor Yeshorim is a Brooklyn-based organization that has helped lower the incidence of Tay-Sachs disease (a fatal genetic disorder that primarily occurs in Jewish families) and other recessive genetic disorders through a proactive screening process. Young, unmarried Jews consent to genetic testing to identify whether they carry genes for any of a list of recessive disorders. If a couple determines, early in their dating relationship, that there is potential for marriage, they can call a special phone number, type in a PIN, and find out if both the man and the woman carry any recessive genes in common. If they do—meaning their children would have a 25 percent chance of inheriting the disorder in question—it is recommended that the couple end their relationship. The program has been successful because many couples do just that.

The Need for More Discussion

My goal in this series, again, is not to argue for any one approach as better than the others. (Although, as a good Episcopalian, I do tend toward a moderate, nuanced view of what is acceptable and unacceptable. This may doom my work to failure because, as my husband remarked recently, our culture does not do nuance very well.) Rather, I am motivated by that fact that, though Protestant resources in particular recognize the need for education, prayerful consideration and supportive counsel for both congregations and individuals making reproductive decisions, many Protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church, have not engaged as fully as they can with the moral quandaries raised by evolving technology. In the final, third part of this series, I will briefly review what the major moral quandaries are, and suggest some steps that congregations and individual Christians can take to move the discussion forward.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: My story

By Ellen Painter Dollar

If the title of my post has you concerned that you will be subjected to a treatise on the politicized, polarizing topic of abortion, I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. Reproductive ethics go far beyond pro-life/pro-choice debates. They also address the rapidly expanding, increasingly accessible and highly lucrative field of reproductive and genetic technology. Beyond that—and the main reason Episcopalians and all Christians should pay attention to this topic—reproductive ethics touch on fundamental questions of our identity as human beings made in the image of God and loved by God just as we are, how our sacred and secular cultures provide (or don’t provide) hospitality to people made in God’s image, and how we welcome children into our families, churches and communities.

Still with me? Good! You may be wondering why I’m writing about this topic—who I am and my professional background. Pastor? Theologian? Ethicist? Doctor? Genetic counselor? Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. I am a writer who focuses on reproductive and genetic ethics on my Choices That Matter blog, and I am writing a book that will be published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2011. But though I have some skill at putting words to paper, I write about reproductive ethics primarily because I have a story—a story that led me to ask wrenching, sometimes unanswerable questions of myself and my God, and then led me to read everything I can get my hands on about how people of faith have answered those questions. So I’ll start there—with the story.

My 10-year-old daughter and I have had, between us, about four dozen broken bones. We have a genetic bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), which causes fragile bones, short stature, bone deformities, spinal curvature and generalized weakness. We have the mildest type of OI; babies with more severe types are often born with dozens of fractures, and one form is fatal shortly after birth. But even relatively mild OI is no picnic. In addition to about 35 broken bones, I’ve had more than a dozen surgeries to insert and replace metal rods to stabilize my leg bones, and now, at 41 years old, I live with chronic pain as my joint cartilage, worn down by years of my uneven gait, falls to pieces. My daughter Leah, who inherited OI from me, broke her first bone on her second birthday, and since then has had nine more fractures. Two resulted from a scooter accident, but the others came about in the most ridiculously mundane ways possible. She slipped on a piece of paper, fell while dancing in her sister’s room, even broke a leg mid-stride—the leg broke and then she fell, not the other way around.

Because OI is an autosomal dominant genetic disorder, any child of mine has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. My husband and I started contemplating having another child just as Leah was going through a cycle of six fractures between her second and fourth birthdays. She was encased in a series of pink fiberglass casts for an entire summer. So while we knew we wanted more children, we were intimidated and heartsick at the idea of having another child who would suffer as she was suffering (and, let’s be honest, we were suffering too, and it was no fun). We decided to look into preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is in vitro fertilization (IVF) with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for a particular genetic mutation.

In September 2002, three days after Leah broke her femur (thigh bone) when she slipped on a picture book left on the floor, I started injecting myself with hormones to launch our IVF/PGD cycle. About six weeks later, we learned that the cycle had failed. I was not pregnant. We planned to try another PGD cycle in a few months. But before we got the chance, I discovered in late January 2003 that I was already pregnant. Our second daughter, Meg, was born in October 2003, and we had a son, Ben, in 2006. Both were conceived naturally, and neither has OI.

But even before I discovered my unexpected pregnancy in January 2003, we were leaning toward abandoning the second PGD cycle. We were emotionally exhausted and financially drained. More important, I was increasingly uneasy with the ethical implications of our using reproductive technology to produce a child without my bone disorder. My brain was swimming with hard questions about using reproductive technology in light of my Christian faith: Was it ethical to spend thousands of dollars to prevent our child from inheriting a disabling but non-life-threatening disorder? By allowing embryos with my OI mutation to be destroyed, was I committing murder? By ensuring that my child would not be disabled, was I contributing to a culture that would eventually become intolerant of, and refuse to care for, children who are disabled? Was my sense that God was calling me to biological motherhood authentic, or just a way of cloaking my selfish desires in a spiritual mantle?

In my search for guidance and support, I discovered that the Episcopal Church, and Protestant Christianity in general, are not well-equipped to counsel someone like me. This is, of course, a generalization. There are certainly individual clergy who could provide excellent ethical discussion and pastoral support. Indeed, our own pastor asked some good questions of us. Though his knowledge of the ethical issues involved was limited, his pastoral concern and acceptance were abundant. But for the most part, the Protestant clergy and laypeople we talked with seemed uncertain of what questions we should even be asking about reproductive ethics, much less what the answers might be.

The progressive Religious Institute recently issued a report confirming that, due to lack of training and education, as well as discomfort with issues related to sexuality and the controversy they stir up, clergy and other religious leaders are often ill-equipped to engage topics of sexual justice and ethics, including reproductive ethics. In a 2009 report specifically addressing assisted reproduction, the Religious Institute noted that, “Unfortunately, these topics are usually not addressed in seminaries, and if they are, it is likely in the context of a medical ethics course that does not engage the pastoral issues that religious leaders will face.”

The exception to this is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, which has plenty to say about reproductive ethics. In the past 18 months alone, the Catholic Church has released two major doctrinal statements clarifying and expanding on their opposition to all forms of assisted reproduction and genetic screening. The 2008 encyclical Dignitas Personae came directly from the Vatican, while last fall, the U.S. Catholic bishops released their own document, titled Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology. Both documents provide extensive explanation of the theology, reasoning and ethical concerns behind the church’s position.

In contrast, the Episcopal Church has released three very brief, very general resolutions: A 1982 approval of the use of IVF to conceive children within a marriage; a 1991 resolution urging couples considering IVF to get counseling and consider adoption as an alternative; and a 2003 statement that genetic screening is appropriate for avoiding “clearly serious” disorders, and that human cloning is unacceptable. Well, I guess that’s something. But it’s not enough, given the complexity of reproductive ethics, and the fact that, as reproductive technology evolves, more and more people sitting in the pews of our Episcopal churches will be facing decisions about whether or not to use it.

As I research reproductive ethics for my book and blog, the most consistent and informed sources tend to be Roman Catholic. In fact, the person who ended up being most helpful to me and my husband in making our decisions was a good friend who also happens to be a Roman Catholic sexual ethicist. He and I disagree—vehemently in some cases—on the answers to some difficult ethical questions. But he, my other Catholic friends, and the Roman Catholic web sites and bloggers I follow have been my most valuable resource. I may not always agree, but because the Catholic Church gives priority to reproductive ethics, these resources are generally well-informed and thoughtful—two qualities especially important when discussing the emotionally charged questions of whether, why and how people should have babies.

In writing about reproductive ethics, I am not aiming to convince anyone of a particular position. In fact, I am still working out exactly what my position is. Rather, my aim is to convince people—especially my fellow Protestant believers—that reproductive ethics are worth talking about seriously so that people who have to make difficult reproductive choices do so with the guidance of their brothers and sisters in Christ, within a supportive community responding with common values.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll review the Roman Catholic position—whether you agree with it or not, their position lays out some important questions and provides food for thought—as well as summarize both Protestant and Jewish approaches to reproductive technology. I’ll finish up in Part 3, with a brief discussion of the major ethical questions raised by reproductive technology, and recommendations for moving the discussion forward in our Episcopal congregations. I hope you’ll stick around, because all of us, both clergy and laypeople, are vital partners in providing loving, supportive, knowledgeable counsel to people struggling with complex reproductive decisions.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Does this car make me look fat?

By John B. Chilton

Contrary to what you might think, people who drive to restaurants are thinner those who walk. But that result is a classic example of an omitted variable. Those who walk are more likely to be poorer and live in neighborhoods that lack an affordable restaurant serving healthy food that is within walking distance. (The thinnest people are those who don't drive and do not have a fast food restaurant nearby.) The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Urban Health: see this post at the LA Times blog, Booster Shots.

There are similar findings with respect to the availability of grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods -- the poor face lower access to healthy foods, and they pay higher prices. As Daniel Engber observes,

We know, for instance, that the lower your income, the more likely you are to inhabit an "obesogenic" environment. Food options in poor neighborhoods are severely limited: It's a lot easier to find quarter waters and pork rinds on the corner than fresh fruit and vegetables. Low-income workers may also have less time to cook their own meals, less money to join sports clubs, and less opportunity to exercise outdoors.

One thing that gets insufficient attention is that the clearest waste in the American health-care system, if you think of personal choices as part of that system, is primarily at the level of the personal health-care practices: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking, teenage pregnancy, violence. As the economist Greg Mankiw has observed, "For men in their 20s, mortality rates are more than 50 percent higher in the United States than in Canada, but ... accidents and homicides account for most of that gap. Maybe these differences have lessons for traffic laws and gun control, but they teach us nothing about our system of health care." And homicides also teach us lessons about poverty.

We know why we have become less responsible about exercise than our ancestors: the development of labor-saving devices at work and in the home, the automobile, the TV. Less obvious, but also true, we eat less responsibly because the price of food has fallen -- all foods - but especially yummy fatty foods relative to healthy foods. On the plus side, as the result of education, taxes on cigarettes and social pressure, fewer Americans are smokers today than in the past, and we should expect to see this pay dividends in the future.

John Tierney in his Findings column recently presented evidence that the longevity gap between the U.S. and other developed countries reverses if you take account of one major difference: until the 1980s Americans were exceptionally heavy smokers. He quotes medical researchers Samuel H. Preston and Jessica Y. Ho : "The health care system could be performing exceptionally well in identifying and administering treatment for various diseases, but a country could still have poor measured health if personal health-care practices were unusually deleterious."

In a related finding, in a new paper the economist Robert Gordon writes, "A continuing tendency for life expectancy to increase faster among the rich than among the poor reflects the joint impact of education on both economic and health outcomes, some of which are driven by the behavioral choices of the less educated." This could include everything from bad eating habits to teenage pregnancy to gun violence.

Health education in schools is one suggested remedy. And there are various things government might do to create incentives for better individual choices like helmet laws and taxes on sodas, liquor and tobacco. But see this level-headed post on the Food Police -- if we knowingly make bad choices and we bear the consequences, the higher health care costs, what business is it of the government's to intervene; if Americans are especially irresponsible that will make the U.S. look like an outlier in terms of health care costs, but it's not the fault of the health care system per se.

Pooling individuals into insurance exchanges will create a perverse, if perhaps unavoidable incentive towards irresponsible behavior, a perverse incentive that also exists under employer-provided insurance. (It is disingenuous to point out the flaw with the insurance exchanges proposed in current bills working their way through Congress without acknowledging the same is true of employer-provided insurance.) Some of us are lucky enough to have health insurance through our employer. Ultimately the insurance premium the employer pays comes out of our salary. But because I'm pooled with others my premium does not reflect my personal health-care choices which play a substantial, though not exclusive, part in my pre-existing conditions. As a matter of public policy we may not want to penalize those whose pre-existing conditions are beyond their control, but what about those whose pre-existing conditions are?

In short, once you follow the logic full circle, none of us bears the full consequences of our poor personal health-care choices.

If you're like me there's no excuse for not making more responsible personal health-care choices. I'm just taking advantage of the system. I would suggest, however, that some personal health-care practices are not due to freedom of choice so much as they are due to a paucity of options. The poor don't choose to be poor [or do they, in a way?], and many of their options are bad ones. If you can only afford to live in a poor neighborhood what fault is it of yours that your only choices are fast food? Or that you are exposed to more violence? Yes, life expectancy is increasing more slowly among the poor because the poor are more likely to make bad choices due to lack of education, but where is the choice in education if your schools are failing?

Health insurance reform is worthy. But it won't solve a root cause of waste in our health-care system: poverty.

John B. Chilton holds a doctorate in economics from Brown University. He has taught at the University of Western Ontario, the University of South Carolina, and the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates). He resides in Orkney Springs, Virginia, home of Shrine Mont, a Conference Center of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Shrine Mont is the location of the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration. He keeps several blogs.

Christians and killing

By Joy Caires

The sanctity of life was something that was drilled into me throughout my childhood. Dead was understood as, well, dead and we were very clear that something dead was gone for good. There were only a couple of rules (beyond the obvious bedtimes and being polite to grown-ups) which were sacrosanct. Rule #1: if you kill it you have to eat it. Rule #2: never, ever, point a gun at another human being.

For, in my family, guns were a way of life. We killed our own meat—usually wild goats and pigs. And, we all knew, that if you shot something you had to eat it—guns were to be used to get food. So, pigeons, goats and pigs graced our table and we all knew better than to point guns at something that we wouldn’t want to eat for dinner. Guns in our house were stored in a locked closet and the ammunition in a box beneath my parent’s bed.

I received my own gun as a twelfth birthday present, my dad traded five of his fighting chickens for the gun—a trade that filled me with an awareness of the importance of this gift. So I, my gun and my dad went to hunter’s education courses to learn the ethics of being a gun-toting pre-teen. And, just like at home, rule #2 was repeated again and again.

I don’t know if rule #2’s emphasis in our home started before or after my dad’s best friend was killed in a hunting accident. I was little, maybe 5 or 6 years old. I don’t know whose bullet shot him, or why he stood while the guns were still being fired. The details were not important--what was important was that he died because a gun was inadvertently pointed at him. In the months following the accident his son came to live with us—his grief and what could only have been my dad’s guilt were beyond my imagining.

But, then and now, I can imagine bullets tearing through flesh. And, to this day I recoil at the mere idea of pointing something gun-shaped at another person. When youth groups plead for paint ball warfare, when squirt guns make an appearance during vacation bible school, when video game guns are deemed a harmless, stress relieving pastime—all these things make me cringe. Guns are for killing. Dead is dead. And, mock violence is still violence. Rule #2 still holds…even when the ammunition exists only in cyber space and rainbow splattered t-shirts and equally rainbowed bruises equal kills.

So, I struggle, as a priest in a congregation that will be sending two of our own to warzones. Two sweet and dear young men who have a firm faith and grounding in a loving and peaceful community. Both of them will be missing the summer mission trip because of military obligations and both of them will be missed come fall when war takes them away from us. As their priest, I long to remind them that soldiers had to leave military service to become a Christian and that Jesus’ decried violence (let he who has not sinned…). But, now is not the time and as their priest, it is my role to love and support two young men who have come to the conclusion that the only means to peace might be war. I mourn my ideals and the world’s continued insistence that violence is an appropriate response to fear.

I struggle, as a pacifist, as a Christian and as a priest of a denomination that clearly states, “War is incompatible with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Lambeth Conference 1930). I struggle that for some young people the only viable means to an education is one funded through military service and I struggle that sometimes war can seem safer than a home.

The day that we prayed for our most recently deployed, one of the congregation’s seven year olds asked me what the prayer was about and why everyone was sad. I explained that we were sad because our friend was going to war. He looked confused for a moment and then he exclaimed, “but that’s awesome, he gets to be a hero!” Yes, a hero—but somehow he forgot rule #2.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Is celibacy the preferred Christian option?

By George Clifford

Elaine Pagels in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, insightfully observed that people who study Christianity’s origins are usually searching for the “real Christianity.” Instead, she noted, these searchers discover multiple early Christianities. Then unable to identify the one “real Christianity,” an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.

Sexuality is integral to human identity and therefore an inescapable element of spirituality. Many of the debates about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred Christian option illustrate Pagels’ observation, both sides claiming their arguments rest upon Scripture interpreted through the lens of primitive Christian practices. Based on such flawed analyses, Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage: Part I and Part II posted here in January. According to this view, only people unable to remain celibate should marry.

Human sexuality has acquired sufficient importance for contemporary ecclesial and moral controversies that reexamining the issues pertinent to the celibacy versus marriage debate may yield some clarity by highlighting differences and agreements. To keep this essay to a reasonable length, I intentionally ignore other questions about sexuality and sexual behavior that Christianity faces. These unaddressed questions include: identifying a heuristic for determining which sexual behaviors are appropriate within and without monogamous bonds; articulating the theological purpose(s) of sexual behavior; and assessing the import, if any, of in vitro fertilization and other non-traditional reproduction methods on sexual intimacy and moral standards.

Humans are inherently sexual beings, both from a biological and a biblical perspective. Humans, like most other animals, have a sexualized reproductive drive. The urge to reproduce, evolutionary biologists contend, drives all other behavior in a living organism. Freud correctly saw sex permeating every nook and cranny of human existence. From a biological perspective, intercourse, not celibacy, characterizes life. Concomitantly, humans’ long gestation and extended childhood help to explain the human tendency toward monogamy.

The strength of the human sexual drive is a constant theme in scripture, often negative but occasionally positive. David famously lusts after Bathsheba, for example. Conversely, the positive approach to sexuality generally receives less attention but is rooted in the creation myth in which God concludes that man being alone is not good and thus creates woman as man’s companion. The Song of Solomon celebrates physical love between a man and a woman, perhaps using that relationship as a metaphor to describe God's love for humans.

The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians. A brief and incomplete look at sex in the New Testament can clarify the conflict. First, one can read the gospel record of Jesus either way. On the one hand, Jesus graces a wedding with his presence and first miracle, deprecates divorce (or bans it, depending upon one’s interpretation), and affirms the goodness of the body through his enjoyment of food and drink as well as his healing ministry. On the other hand, Jesus teaches that in the resurrection humans do not marry, implying that perhaps sexuality may end with death or find a new form of expression in the resurrection. Jesus also exhorts his disciples to value loyalty to God's kingdom more than family, from which some Christians infer that celibacy is better than marriage (Luke 20:34-36). Gregory of Nyssa echoed this theme, writing that a Christian should abandon marriage for God's kingdom.

Incidentally, Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene has intrigued generations of artists and authors, most recently receiving tremendous attention thanks to Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. Was the relationship sexual or platonic? Before answering that question, remember that sexuality touches many aspects of human existence and behavior, a concept far broader than Bill Clinton’s facile, self-serving, and narrow definition of sex as intercourse. Did the fully human Jesus experience electrifying moments of attraction and pleasure in Mary’s presence? Did Mary find herself strangely warmed by Jesus? If so, how far toward intercourse did their relationship progress?

Second, reading I Corinthians and I Timothy in support of a preferential option for celibacy seems as misguided as interpreting the New Testament in support of an exclusively male priesthood. The mixed advice offered women differs from the advice given to men: 1 Timothy 5:14 advises that young widows are to remarry, 1 Corinthians 7:9 limits that to widows aflame with passion, and neither letter says anything about widowers remarrying. These conflicting, misogynistic passages lack the clarity of Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is neither male nor female, on which we base arguments for equal treatment of men and women.

The underlying assumption of these passages is that the flesh exists in tension with the spirit, a theme some exegetes contend runs throughout Paul’s writings. That theme contradicts modern biology’s understanding of humans as physical beings, the ancient Hebrew belief that humans are physical beings, and the Anglican emphasis on incarnation that underscores the fundamental unity of a human. Dichotomizing spirit and flesh may function as a useful metaphor but not as an accurate description of a human being. A human is his or her body; the body is the human.

Third, in 1 Corinthians 7:28 Paul advises people not to marry because he would spare them the suffering he associated with marriage. That view has also led many Christians to perceive celibacy as the preferred option. However, not all married persons experience substantial suffering in their marriage. Many find the companionship of married life far more valuable and enduring than any transitory suffering associated with their marriage (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Fourth, 1 Corinthians 7:7 implies that celibacy is a gift from God. Being male is a gift from God. Being female is a gift from God. Being straight is a gift from God. Being gay is a gift from God. None of those gifts is superior to any of the others – they are all simply gifts from God. So it is with celibacy, a gift from God. Many find the complexities of relationships that Paul wishes for us to avoid the most rewarding aspect of life.

Paul’s apparent antagonism to close relationships, whether the relationship is sexual or platonic and regardless of the gender orientations involved, seems more indicative of Paul’s personal issues than revelatory of the God who is love, the God whose love our relationships model and reveal. For example, Bishop Spong in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism suggested that the Apostle Paul’s mysterious thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) was Paul knowing he was gay. If so, then we must interpret Paul’s views about sexuality against the backdrop of his internal conflict between his gender orientation and the Christianity of his day. Thankfully, Christians have begun to discover that sexual orientation is God's gift, whether one is gay or straight, a gift that the Church should celebrate rather than deny or punish. Many persons receive gifts of both monogamy and celibacy, each in different seasons of his or her life.

The historic priority Christians have given to celibacy over marriage has partially contributed to sad distortions of the goodness of sex and life. For many years, the Roman Catholic Church taught that sex was evil, even with one’s spouse; the only moral excuse for intercourse was procreation. The Church viewed physical desire for or enjoyment of one’s spouse as sinful lust. The Christian rejection of sex is a component of a broader Christian rejection of the present world in favor of heaven, something for which Marx rightly criticized Christianity. Today, some Christians ironically (hypocritically?) level the same criticism at Islamicist suicide bombers who prefer paradise to earthly existence.

Theological and ecclesial conversations about sex and sexuality would do well to stop presuming that celibacy is the preferential Christian option and instead view both celibacy and monogamous relationships as equal good gifts from the one God, who created us as sexual beings and said, “That is good.”

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

The Gospel according to Dopamine

By Phyllis Strupp

Some time ago, a wealthy businessman made one of his rare appearances at church on a November Sunday and was treated to an especially heavy-handed stewardship sermon. It sounded something like this: You need to have LESS MONEY so we can have MORE MONEY. The negative energy rising up from the pews was palpable.

At coffee hour, he made a beeline for me. “Phyllis, I want to ask you something. Over the years I have heard repeatedly at church how bad money is. If money is so bad, why is it that every time I come to church they are trying to get some of mine?”

Well, the businessman asks a good question that many church leaders have not answered with clarity if at all.

The current global economic crisis offers a rich opportunity for clergy and lay leaders to offer up some inspired money talk in the church. Too often, Jesus’ teachings on wealth are ignored and it’s easy to see why. They are contrary to human nature.

When it comes to money, evolution has produced in our species a very strong gas pedal called “emotions” and a very weak brake pedal called “rationality.” Scientific findings indicate that the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, has been evolving in mammals for 225 million years.

Through the ebbs and flows of the neurotransmitter dopamine, our emotions motivate us to seek tangible rewards for ourselves and our families. Dopamine should guide us, but it often ends up controlling us. Logic and rationality hardly stand a chance in overcoming emotionally driven money habits mediated by dopamine.

Besides, the gospel according to dopamine’s teachings are so much easier to understand and live by than Jesus’ teachings.

For example, the golden rule of the dopamine gospel is “He who has the gold makes the rules,” whereas the golden rule according to Jesus is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You see what I mean, right? Speaking of right, dopamine says “Might makes right” and Jesus says “The truth shall set you free.”

The gospel according to dopamine encourages us to use money to enhance our status and control over people and decisions. That’s the allure of wealth: power. Any chimpanzee in the jungle could teach you that.

When we live by dopamine’s teachings, the richest people call the shots. Profits receive more attention than prophets. Sunday bible readings about the hazards of wealth are quietly ignored in practice, especially by the clergy. Stewardship season is a nagging, whining ritual, awkward and uncomfortable. Tithing is pitched as a solemn duty to God to wrench the cash out of tightly clasped hands.

Today, people are looking for a new set of values around money. The gospel of dopamine has led them astray to disappointment and despair. The time has come to take another look at the Gospel and find a way to make Jesus’ teachings manifest in us.

First, for those who are hoping to have both spiritual wealth and a large net worth, this is the most important line in the Gospel:

“This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
—Luke 12:21

In this passage, Jesus points out that it’s OK to have money—if it helps you grow rich toward God.

So how do you grow rich toward God?

It’s easy—just remember the color green.

Green is the color of money and the color of life. God is the author of life. Money isn’t for picking fights and wielding power over others—money is for affirming the life that God has created in you, other people and all the living species that share the Earth.

Secondly, the gospel of dopamine says you can’t take wealth with you. However, Jesus teaches us that there is such a thing as permanent wealth:

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself, so when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
—Luke 16:9

You have the power to help or harm people through your use of money. Turn worldly wealth into the permanent wealth of kindness and friendship—and then you can take it with you!

So next time I see the wealthy businessman, I’ll tell him that money isn’t bad when it is used to affirm life, show kindness, and make friends.

Kindness is associated with a different neurotransmitter called serotonin. If serotonin outweighed dopamine in parish life, maybe our spiritually hungry friends and neighbors would be more interested in worshipping with us.

Why spend your money on what is not bread,
And your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
And your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
—Isaiah 55:2

Phyllis Strupp is a brain fitness coach, author, recovering MBA, and Chair of the Nature and Spirituality Program for the Diocese of Arizona.

Christmas and the ethics of celebration

By Lauren R. Stanley

New York City is a lovely place to be this time of year. Decorations everywhere, lights, lights and more lights, big, colorful signs, special displays in store windows (and special areas set aside on the sidewalks so you can move slowly from window to window) …

It’s fascinating and delightful and designed to bring a smile to your face.

And, like so much else about America, it’s overwhelming and comes with completely unintended consequences.

I love the decorations, truly. I love driving down streets in Virginia and seeing them; coming to New York City at the height of the season is a special treat.

But every time I see the lights, the decorations and the special window displays, that one part of me that is grounded in dirt-poor, dirty Sudan rebels. I wonder at all the money that is spent, all the electricity that is being used (do stores have to put special money in their budgets to cover the added electricity for all those beautiful lights?).

Every time I have this feeling, I realize how much I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be one of those people who live overseas in poor lands who rant and rage at all the excess that is America. After all, I am an American. I’ve lived the majority of my life in this country. I’ve put up the lights and decorations myself; granted, never to the extreme I am seeing on this little trip to New York, but still … this is part of my heritage, my culture, my history.

I remember stringing the lights myself. I recall wonderful nights spent trimming Christmas trees. I’ve decorated my own home and the homes of others. This is part of who I am.

But now my circumstances are different and I live in a small town in South Sudan, where we only have electricity a few hours a day at most, and would never dream of using it for tiny colored lights flashing on and off, changing colors …

Never mind the fact that I am an Episcopal priest, with a current theological focus on Advent, not Christmas. I’m not ready for Christmas yet, because I need this time to move through this season of waiting and watching faithfully.

So in the middle of the wonderful, bright, flashy displays that I see while walking the streets of New York, I struggle. I want to find a place within myself to enjoy that which I see, the gifts that are being offered to me, without forgetting the other part of my life, the one grounded in serving Christ in a faraway place where we don’t have enough of anything, much less the extra needed to decorate lavishly.

Alas, I haven’t yet figured out how to find the balance I seek. I still don’t know how to feel the joy of the season, accelerated as it is by this society, without feeling the angst at the wasted money that, to be honest, we all know could be put to better use.

It’s not that I don’t want to figure this out. I really do want to go Christmas shopping for the children in my family and in my friends’ families, wee ones who expect to get something and for whom a “donation has been made in your name” card isn’t going to cut it. I want to search out the toys, the books, the gift cards for music, and wrap up those gifts nicely and see the joy on the kids’ faces when they find that something special under the tree.

At the same time, I want to make sure I raise enough money to help those in need in Sudan, to take care of my “family” there, to be able to buy medicine for the sick and food for the hungry and clean water for as many people as possible.

But the balance that allows me to enjoy as well as serve – to serve as well as enjoy – still eludes me.

This feeling of being out of balance isn’t limited to New York or Christmas lights, either. It pervades all portions of my life, and is among the biggest struggles I have.

Recently, I watched a TV show in which a doctor/humanitarian in Africa returned to the United States and fell ill. He was ranting and raging about how we actually have all the money we need to care for the sick overseas, how we have the medicines stockpiled in this country, but won’t share them at a cost that poor Africans can afford. When this character took ill, he used his illness to call attention to the poor and needy overseas. He was grandstanding, and knew he was grandstanding, and he was willing to do whatever it took for this cause in which he believed so passionately. Even I was at least a little bit offended by his tactics. He was, I thought, going too far, turning himself into too much of a celebrity.

But part of me worried as well: Am I like that? Do I push too hard (this character truly engaged in ethical emotivisim to make people do what he wanted them to do)? Am I perceived as too “one-track,” unable to see the need elsewhere in this country and around the world?

By the end of the show, I decided that I wasn’t quite like this character, that I have a bit more balance, that I talk more about hope than despair – that I am not “just like him.” That was a comforting thought, but I realize I may have come to that conclusion simply to salve my conscience. Perhaps I am avoiding truths I don’t want to look at too closely.

All these thoughts swirl through my head as I wander the streets of New York these days. I see the displays and smile in wonderment, both at their beauty and at the complete waste of resources that could be much better used for those in tremendous need. And I wonder, too, at how to balance my need for beauty and joy in my life with my need to help those in greater need. I have no answer for this dilemma, not yet.

If nothing else, I do know this: My emotional struggle isn’t going away any time soon.

Which might not be a bad thing after all.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Against capital punishment

By George Clifford

The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, in his majority opinion in Baze v. Rees, No. 07-5439, the recent Kentucky death penalty case challenging the constitutionality of execution by lethal injustice, wrote:

Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual [under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].

A premise underlying Roberts’ comment – that the death penalty is not a kind, gentle act – seems commonsensical to me. Unfortunately, modern culture often lacks an adequate supply of the precious commodity we call commonsense. Why would anyone think that capital punishment, however administered, is not painful?

Societies impose the death penalty on convicted criminals for three reasons. First, a society may intend the death penalty to deter people from committing crime. Deterrence obviously proved ineffective with respect to the criminal justly convicted of a crime. Both death penalty proponents and opponents point to research that supposedly supports their argument that the death penalty deters, or does not deter, crime. From my ethical perspective, the research is irrelevant. My ethical problem with justifying the execution of one individual to deter other persons from committing crimes is that this reduces the one executed to a means to an end, thereby denying that person’s inherent dignity and worth as a child of God. Christians should never view a person as simply an instrument for achieving a goal, no matter how laudable the goal. The Gospel of Luke’s account of the crucifixion portrays Jesus assuring one of the criminals crucified with Jesus that the two of them, that very day, will be together in Paradise (23:39-43). Jesus clearly regarded the criminals crucified with him, who both acknowledged their guilt, as persons worthy of dignity and respect in spite of their crimes. In Luke’s narrative, one criminal experiences transformation, the other does not.

Admittedly, Scripture’s witness on the issue of deterrence, like the research on deterrence, is inconsistent. Some Biblical passages recognize the value of deterrence:

• “Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” - Deuteronomy 13:10-11 • “All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.” - Deuteronomy 17:13 • “The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.” - Deuteronomy 19:20

Other passages suggest that retribution belongs to God, undercutting the rationale for deterrence:

• “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people…” - Leviticus 19:18 • “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” - Romans 12:19 • For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’” - Hebrews 10:30

I discuss retribution, the third rationale for the death penalty, below. Suffice it to say, the Deuteronomic passages supporting deterrence reflect a more rigid legalism and less robust understanding of personhood than I find in Leviticus and the New Testament. These latter passages point to a developing awareness of the demands of loving as God loves. Not surprisingly, the Baylor Institute of Religion survey, American Piety in the 21st Century, published in September 2006, confirmed that individuals who have an authoritarian image of God are more likely to support the death penalty than individuals who have a benevolent image of God.

Second, society may impose the death penalty intending to prevent a person convicted of a serious crime from further harming anyone else. As a Christian, I have two ethical problems with this rationale. Capital punishment is a final solution that allows no second chance. What if new evidence becomes available that the person executed was, in fact, innocent? Worse yet, what if the executed person is innocent but nobody ever finds the exculpatory evidence? At least in the first instance, society can release and compensate the convicted person discovered to be innocent. No evidentiary standard, no matter how high it is set, can guarantee that absolutely everyone given the death penalty is in fact guilty.

Even more morally troubling to me, the death penalty makes a large number of people – legislators, police, judges, lawyers, jurors, prison officials – complicit in the death of each person executed. William J. Wiseman, Jr. was a member of the Oklahoma State House of Representatives from 1974 to 1980. He admits that for six years his highest priority, like that of every legislator he has ever known, was retaining his seat. Everything else was in a different category of regard and concern. Philadelphia Quakers had educated Wiseman and he opposed the death penalty. He believed that at best it was unjustified and at worst was immoral.

When a bill came before the legislature to re-write Oklahoma’s death penalty law, Wiseman found himself in a difficult position. Ninety percent of his district, as measured by a poll that he had commissioned, supported the death penalty. He was afraid that if he voted against the death penalty he would not be re-elected. Wiseman attempted to rationalize supporting the death penalty by seeking a more humane means of execution. Working with the state medical examiner, who sought out Wiseman after learning of Wiseman’s quest for a more humane method of execution, they drafted what became the nation’s first legislation authorizing capital punishment by lethal injection. Over thirty states have copied that groundbreaking legislation.

Today, William Wiseman lives with the knowledge, the guilt, that he is morally responsible for the execution of many criminals. He sacrificed his principles for political expediency. (William J. Wiseman, “Inventing lethal injection,” The Christian Century, 20-27 June 2001, pp. 6-7) I do not believe that I have the moral right to ask others to kill another person to prevent that person from committing additional crimes when at least one viable alternative exists, e.g., life in prison without parole. This belief mirrors Christian Just War Theory, which requires any potential war to satisfy a number of criteria, one of which is that war is truly the last resort, before waging war with the attendant use of lethal force is morally justifiable.

Third, society may impose the death penalty as retribution against the criminal for the crime committed. The gospels report in several places that Jesus taught his disciples, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31). Jesus’ teaching echoes the Torah (Leviticus 19:18) and the New Testament repeats it several times (Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Pretending that Jesus thought that anyone involved in imposing the death sentence on him or in executing him acted out of love for him mocks the brutally cruel reality of his crucifixion. Similarly, no amount of thought or imagining allows me to construe legally executing a convicted criminal as loving that person.

Some death penalty proponents argue that executing the guilty individual somehow expiates, atones for, makes amends, or compensate the victim or victim’s loved ones. Executing the guilty, from this perspective, becomes an act of justice, if not love, for the victim or victim’s loved ones. This entails, as with the first rationale for the death penalty, reducing the executed to a means to an end. In other words, the way to set the first wrong – the crime(s) that led to the imposition of the death penalty – right is a second wrong – the dehumanization of the criminal. Two wrongs never make a right.

Capital punishment is obviously painful. Its principal pain stems not from the method of execution, no matter how agonizing. Prematurely extinguishing a human life causes the real anguish of capital punishment. The executed criminal experiences that pain most intensely. The rest of us are diminished by the loss of a brother or sister and because we ourselves become a little less human every time our society executes one of its members. The time has come to declare loudly, emphatically, and decisively through our political process that capital punishment is inimical with whom we believe God has called us to become. Capital punishment should end, regardless of constitutional issues, because capital punishment is morally wrong.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

Abortion, embryos and what it means to be a "person"

By Marshall Scott

This Lent I led a five-week adult class on ethics and moral theology. My point was to encourage those present (as I would encourage all of us) to approach moral questions as issues for theological reflection. I contrasted a theological reflection model with one that was not theological (or at least not explicitly so; but perhaps that's a topic for another day); and because it was the one most familiar to me, I used the model most common in health care. We discussed "the Georgetown Mantra," and its principles of Autonomy, Non-maleficence, Beneficence, and Justice, all under the umbrella principle of "Respect for Persons," as well as the "technological imperative" ("Because we can do something, we must do it>").

Eventually (I think perhaps in the last session), we found ourselves bouncing among a variety of issues, and I noted that they all had something in common. I said, "They all push us to the question of what it means to be human." We went from abortion to embryonic stem cells to medical futility and health care at the end of life. We touched on the rights of the mentally or developmentally disabled, and possible future issues of simian rights (and I fully expect our children or grandchildren will be faced with them). They all had some connection, I said, "to what it means to be human:" what is human life, what makes human life meaningful, how much like me does another have to be to be meaningfully human. And when I got home and was discussing this with my wife, she said, "You know you put that wrong."

And to an important extent she was correct. All of those issues are more often, and perhaps more productively, addressed not as what it means to be human but what it means to be a person. The two questions are related, but they aren't identical. For example, we don't argue whether a fetus is human, but we argue long and hard about whether the fetus is a person. We often describe the consequences of severe, unrecoverable brain injury by saying to a grieving family, "The heart still beats, but the person you love is gone." (Interestingly enough, that's what we say when the injury is the result of sudden traumatic insult. When it's due to the gradual deterioration of Alzheimer's, it's what families say to us.)

We can see the questions aren't identical when we ask what we mean by "human rights": do we mean rights inherent in being human, or rights inherent in being a moral agent. Another way to put the question is to ask how a right applies if the holder of the right can't freely exercise it. So, even when we disagree on whether a fetus is a person we do agree that a fetus can't, on its own, exercise a right. And before we start jumping up and down, remember that we make calculations, gradations of moral agency, and so in some sense of personhood, all the time. A child has limited capacity to exercise rights, and how to exercise those rights becomes the responsibility of parents, who are considered the appropriate surrogates. Prisoners can't exercise rights with the same freedom as the rest of us, and so (interestingly, like children) they become a "protected class" who can only be included in medical research with the greatest care to prevent coercion. In some senses, the state becomes their surrogate. Even after serving their time, most prisoners never regain such rights as the vote. Some prisoners have committed crimes so repugnant that the state claims they lose the right to life altogether.

Most of us would say that, in one way or another, some sense of personhood applies to all human life. At the same time, there are some who would say that full rights of personhood apply to all human life, and to any instance of human life. For them the important question is not whether the full rights apply, but who should be the appropriate surrogate to protect and exercise those rights. While it's not the only issue in which this difference is highlighted (between those who apply some personhood, but not full personhood, and those who apply full personhood in all cases), the best known is the issue of abortion. More recently, and to no small extent related to abortion debates, is the issue of embryonic stem cell research.

It is the latter issue that is currently exercising our Anglican brothers and sisters in the United Kingdom. In the UK issues of the uses of embryos, whether for human fertility or for embryonic stem cell research, have been governed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. A proposed revision has been passed in first reading in February, and according to a release by the National Health Service: "while no date has been set for its second reading or approval in principle it is viewed as a key piece of legislation on the government's agenda."

The proposed revision would allow for procedures far beyond what is currently permitted (and farther beyond what is currently permitted in the United States). In one matter of special concern, the revised law would permit the creation of "human admixed embryos," also described as "cytoplasmic hybrids," or "cybrids." They would be created by removing nuclear DNA from an ovum from an animal and replacing it with nuclear DNA from a human being. The ovum would then be stimulated to divide, and the resulting embryo could then be studied. The goal would be to study specific genetic diseases (Parkinson's and Alzheimer's have been suggested) and how they develop in the earliest stages, in hope of suggesting new therapies.

As part of their own culture and context, our Anglican siblings are certainly involved in this. Archbishop Rowan Williams has commented. Bishop N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and Biblical scholar, worked it into his Easter sermon (blessedly, as illustration and not as central theme). Perhaps the best reflection is this blog post from Bishop Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, who has laid out important questions for reflection. All of them agree that central to this issue is the question of what it means to be human, and just how far we can go in seeing that which is human (whether person or not) as a means to an end, however good the end might appear.

While we have not spoken in General Convention to this specific issue (but 2009 is coming fast!), there are places where we might look to see how General Convention has considered this human/person distinction. We have repeatedly, and in relation to several different issues, affirmed that "all human life is sacred." Life is, after all, God's gift, raised especially when God chose to share human life with us in Christ. At the same time, Christ was a person, making and calling us to moral actions; and we have also made distinctions pertaining to persons as moral agents. For example, in resolution 1988-C047 (reaffirmed in resolution 1994-A054 with the language virtually unchanged) we affirmed, " All human life is sacred from its inception until death," and acknowledged that "We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension...."

However, considering the difficult decision of abortion we "acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion...." We speak of "the person or persons seeking advice and counsel [on abortion]," and express "unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action... that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision... or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision." Regarding research on the earliest human tissues, we have rejected "for the purpose of providing fetal tissues for therapeutic or medical research usages; and... the use of fetal tissues aborted for financial profit for use in therapy and medical research...." (1991-A096 ). On the other hand, we have agreed to:

(A) Support the choice of those who wish to donate their early embryos, remaining after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have ended; and

(B) Urge that the United States Congress pass legislation that would authorize federal funding for derivation of and medical research on human embryonic stem cells that were generated for IVF and remain after fertilization procedures have been concluded, provided that:
1. these early embryos are no longer required for procreation by those donating them and would simply be discarded;
2. those donating early embryos have given their prior informed consent to their use in stem cell research;
3. the embryos were not deliberately created for research purposes;
4. the embryos were not obtained by sale or purchase....
(2003-A014)


In essence, we make a distinction between tissues conceived with the possibility that they might be born, and so become persons, and those tissues conceived with no possibility for personhood.

Here in the middle of America where I find my ministry, these issues are quite current. The topics of embryonic stem cell research, the therapies that might result, and the research dollars that might come to it, are matters of ongoing discussion. Abortion continues to be a matter of debate as much or more here as anywhere. With them both, we find ourselves wrestling again with both questions: what does it mean to be human; and do rights obtain to all instances of human life, or to persons. As our UK siblings are experiencing again, for us as Christians these need to be matters for theological reflection, and not simply of academic or clinical ethical discussion. As a Church, we have in the past sought to balance the sacredness of all human life with the importance of the rights of persons. However, as technological capacities change and cultural dynamics change, we must return to the question again: just what does it mean to be human, and how are we as Christians and specifically as Episcopalians to proclaim that in our time and place?

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Making decisions as a Church

By L. Zoe Cole

During the day, I write ethical dilemmas that are used as part of a web-based simulation that teaches ethical decision-making skills. One of the things we teach is that more often than not ethical dilemmas are choices between competing goods rather than between right and wrong. The other thing we teach is that although there is often more than one "right" answer, some answers are better than others. Virtually everyone does in fact have a personal value system, although most can't articulate it and to the extent that we make "good" choices, we do so by accident rather than a reasoned and replicable process.

In popular debate, those arguing for the maintenance of traditional notions of morality often posit the "anything goes" straw man as the only alternative to tradition. However, to reject traditional notions of morality (which are often simply about maintaining the power and privilege of one group over another) is not to reject all notions of morality or the value of morality. It is simply to suggest that a different set of criteria or understanding of the same tools (e.g. different interpretation of the same Biblical texts) be used to determine what is moral, ethical and why some choices are better than others.

As Episcopalians, we are sometimes criticized for a dearth of "official theology," but we do have lots of information about how to make choices that are life-giving, or proclaim the Good News or spread the Kingdom - or however one describes the end results that are desirable for Christians. We have a catechism that tells us what sin and redemption are (sin is "the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation" and redemption is "the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death" BCP p.848-849); we have Eucharistic prayers that tell the same story of creation, sin, judgment and redemption in different ways; the Easter Vigil which goes through the same history using various passages of Scripture; the baptismal covenant; the Prayers of the People—oh! and then there is Scripture itself!

All these provide tools for discerning whether one set of actions or values or politics is better than another. They also provide a common language, and, to the extent we take responsibility for learning, a shared teaching. Some choices are a matter of individual conscience, but if we are the Body of Christ, then we are not free to operate only from a position of individual choice. We have responsibilities as members of the Body to fulfill the vocations given to us. I am an elected deputy to General Convention and therefore have a responsibility to consider what common choices and commitments are appropriate and/or necessary for this part of the Church (The Episcopal Church) to do the work God has given us to do (as distinct from the Church of England or the Anglican Church of Nigeria), as the Church (as distinct from what I am called as an individual to do).

Some complain that the fact that different members of the Church come to different conclusions using the same tools means that we have no standard or shared language by which to justify one practice over another - in fact, we use similar standards and shared language all the time, we just don't use it to justify the same practices. The fact that we understand these tools to point toward different decisions for different people at different times does not leave us to the "arbitrary rule of the majority," whatever that means. Presumably those who complain of such a standard are making some distinction between the way we currently make collective decisions and the way other Christians do or did in the past. Are those decisions somehow less arbitrary or less the will of the majority?

Although I hope TEC lives out the Church’s vocation to be prophetic, and know that some congregations are profoundly and transformatively so, my guess is that in reality we are no more nor less prophetic overall than any other group of Christians. I think the only thing we can be is true to our own experience, even when, or perhaps especially when, that experience is not the same as others. I suspect based on what I read and hear from both the conservative and liberal sides that many see the parallels between our current religious debates and problems and Jesus' criticisms of the religious leaders of his own day. For those who are called to live in the light, we still spend a lot of time in darkness of our own making.

Some complain that we merely mirror a liberal American culture in our insistence on full inclusion of all God’s children, regardless of gender, race, ability/disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. They argue either that these values are not intrinsic to the Gospel, or perhaps that our adoption of them is not theological, but a mere acquiescence in the questionable values of American liberalism or post-modernism (that dreaded and maligned antithesis of “orthodoxy” and traditionalism). While the claims are often over-inflated, the essential question is legitimate: we have no business as the Church in simply mirroring culture, even where cultural values are consistent with the Gospel. But often the claims themselves are not understood as a call to theological integrity, but simply reveal the critics as feeling out of sync with both the actions of General Convention and their experience of contemporary society.

I am frequently inspired by the thoughtfulness and learning of my sisters and brothers in Christ, especially my fellow deputies, in their approach to the issues facing the Church. They inspire me to work against my personal shortcoming of too often seeing those who disagree with me as taking unreflective positions. Often I find myself and witness others being pleasantly surprised by shared understandings among those of different theo-political positions. Therefore, what I experience as true of those with whom I find myself in alignment, I assume is true of those with whom I do not find myself in alignment: we are all seeking to serve the same God and we accept the responsibility as leaders to discern the will of God for the community, as well as for our individual lives; and even though we won't always get it right, we trust that God is working with us to accomplish God's purpose.

In the end I can trust God even in the face of the differences of others and my own fallibility because I know that (as former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said): when we chose wisely, God reigns; when we chose foolishly, God reigns.

L. Zoe Cole is a lay member of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Denver, CO and active in the Diocese of Colorado. Currently, she is a part-time municipal court judge and a full-time writer for EthicsGame.com, producer of web-based ethical decision making tools and training materials.

The lure of luxury

Do not revel in great luxury, or you may become impoverished by its expense. Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money, when you have nothing in your purse. Ecclesiasticus 18:32-33

By George Clifford

The Christmas shopping season started weeks ago even though Christmas is still almost two months away. Shopping is a passion for many Americans, as slogans like Shop til you drop, Born to shop, and Retail therapy remind us. No holiday, no matter how minor, is now complete without multiple retail sales. Retail purchases comprise almost half of all consumer spending. Credit card debt, home equity lines of credit, and other forms of borrowing finance much of that spending.

With the approach of Advent, Christian rants about self-indulgent spending are as tiresome as predictable. At the risk of falling into that tedious trap, a couple of recent experiences have prompted some reflections.

First, a daily feature in my local newspaper and a seemingly weekly fixture in my mailbox are advertisements for products and services to help me organize my clutter. TV shows intended to help people to sell their house invariably emphasize decluttering. When strolling around my neighborhood in the evening, most garages with open doors reveal piles of stuff, often so much stuff there is no longer room to park vehicles in the garage. Long after the Depression era, many cling tenaciously to every item they own.

How much stuff does one really need? I want, unlike what Jesus had, a place to lay my head at night. I also like clean clothes, comfortable furniture, books, music, and a laptop. But I do not need family business records from the previous century, old photographs in which the people are unidentifiable, a collapsible boat that sinks rather than floats, miscellaneous kitchen and household items that might help in the emergency that never comes, etc. That is not a random list of items. My family of origin inherited all of that and much, much more, enough to fill a large fourteen room colonial with large attached barn. We had so much stuff that one could not enter some of the rooms or use some of the stairways. As a young boy, I watched my parents sort through the legacy and detritus left by the four prior generations who had lived in that house and I decided that I did not want to live that way. My ancestors had so much stuff that it got in the way of living.

I want my stuff to enrich rather than to impoverish my life. Pragmatism is good for the wallet and the soul. Moving every couple of years during my Naval service, I cultivated the habit of getting rid of anything that is no longer serviceable, no longer used, and unlikely to be used in the next year. This not only simplified moving, unpacking, and getting settled but also made for a more spacious, freer lifestyle. An incredible number of military families have boxes they move from one home to the next, boxes that remain unopened and take valuable space in an often too small house. People usually have no idea what these boxes might contain. I have wondered what ties bind people so strongly to these unopened boxes; surely, it is more than simple greed. Whatever the ties, many civilian families also have similar issues given the quantities of stuff and clutter that seem so much a part of contemporary life.

Second, Fortune magazine identified their September 17, 2007 issue as their luxury issue. Some of the articles focused on businesses, like Guicci and Polo, that cater to the luxury market. Thankfully, I have sufficiently strong ego that I do not take my identity from brand names. I was feeling pretty smug until I read what Columnist Stanley Bing wrote:

Now, this topic, while of intense interest to virtually everyone in any economic stratum whatsoever, leaves those of us without even a plan to acquire a yacht or a polo pony in a discursive state of mind. On the one hand, it is great fun to fantasize about owning your own island, driving an automobile whose hood ornament costs more than your brother-in-law’s house, or flying in a plane with your name on its tailbone. On the other hand, the fact that each of these things seem out of reach may leave many feeling covetous, angry, or just plain sad.

Do I find luxury a subject of intense interest? Do I want luxury? Unsure about the meaning of the word luxury (like others, including my former Commander-in-Chief, I sought some maneuvering room!), I consulted the Concise Oxford Dictionary (maneuvering room, not an ocean of choices). The Dictionary provided two definitions:

1. the state of great comfort and extravagant living. 2. an inessential but desirable item.

The first felt vaguely unchristian when I am daily reminded of people desperately in need of life’s basic necessities. I, with complete honesty, can disavow any desire to own my own island or polo pony. However, I do want nonessentials. Indeed, I think that God wants us to enjoy nonessentials because they enrich life, e.g., a good wine, aesthetically pleasing homes, and art. Poverty, thanks be to God, is not the life to which I was born nor is voluntary poverty a lifestyle to which I feel called.

Yet, an issue with which I continually struggle is how to balance my desire for a good life with my neighbors’ rights for the same. To the extent that I can only spend my money once, this is a zero sum game. I either spend my money on myself or on others (whether directly or as a bequest at my death). The Christian wisdom literature captured this moral dilemma with a good measure of irony (Ecclesiasticus 14:15-16):

Will you not leave the fruit of your labors to another, and what you acquired by toil to be divided by lot? Give, and take, and indulge yourself, because in Hades one cannot look for luxury.

Maybe one day, in the remembrance of a birth both simple and beautiful, I will find my answers.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains. He taught philosophy at the Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.

Climate Change, Hunger and Industrial Animal Agriculture

By Christine Gutleben and Lois Wye

Climate change is receiving increasing attention among faith communities, especially The Episcopal Church. As people of faith, we are becoming more aware of our roles as stewards of creation, while developing sensitivities to our consumption habits and our carbon footprints. The Episcopal Church has also put the U.N.’s Millennium Develop Goals on the front burner, recognizing the religious communities’ critical role in reducing world hunger and improving the lives of our brothers and sisters around the globe.

Our Presiding Bishop, Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, has recognized that climate change and world hunger are inexorably intertwined. Testifying before Congress in June of this year, she said, “We cannot triumph over global poverty . . . unless we also address climate change, as the two phenomena are intimately related. Climate change exacerbates global poverty, and global poverty propels climate change.” Bishop Jefferts Schori’s testimony is significant; however, a third critical element is missing from the discussion. Unless we take an honest look at industrial animal agriculture and the food choices that support this system, our progress in mitigating world hunger and climate change will be significantly hampered.

Nearly one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock agriculture – more than the contribution of all transportation systems combined, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report, Livestock’s Long Shadow. Moreover, the report states that thousands of acres rainforest are cleared to make way for farming—to raise grain not for people or pastured animals, but for feedlots. In many parts of the world, small farmers are forced out of business and into poverty when they are unable to compete with large industrial farming practices. In short, if we want to have the strongest impact on combating both climate change and world hunger, we must do more than turn off the light switch or trade in our SUVs for hybrids; we must change the way we shop and the way we eat.

The problem is one of increasing urgency. The contribution of factory farming to environmental problems, world hunger, and untold animal suffering is rising rapidly. In 1961, the average American consumed 195 pounds of meat per year, by 2001 this figure rose to 272 pounds per year—a 77 pound increase in the last 40 years, according to the FAO. This illustrates that the continual growth of industrial animal agriculture in the United States is not simply a result of having to feed more people, it is also a result of Americans eating more meat. And the problem doesn’t stop there. As our western, meat-based diet is exported around the globe, per person meat consumption is exploding in countries like China and Brazil. The average person in China is consuming an increase of 110 pounds of meat per year, up from 40 years ago; similarly, in Brazil, the average person is now consuming an increase of 113 pounds of meat per year. At this rate, in just 20 years, we will need to produce 5 times more meat than we are currently producing globally, according to the FAO.

Factory Farming and Climate Change

The industrial livestock industry is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent. This accounts for animal agriculture’s direct impact as well as the impact of the resources required for feedcrop agriculture. Methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions, all of which have a more significant global warming potential than carbon dioxide, are also produced in high quantities on factory farms. The U.S. produces the largest portion of methane emissions from farm animal manure in the world, totaling nearly 1.9 million tons annually.

A 2005 report from the University of Chicago entitled Diet, Energy and Global Warming concluded that the average American diet, which includes meat, dairy and eggs produces 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide more per person per year than a plant-based diet yielding the same calories. The study notes that producing a calorie of meat protein means burning more than ten times as much fossil fuels and ten times as much carbon dioxide than a calorie of plant protein. The emissions difference between an omnivorous diet and a plant-based diet is roughly the difference between driving an SUV and a compact car. Indeed, however much energy we save through switching light bulbs or driving hybrid cars, we will sooner or later have to address our diet and reduce our consumption of factory farmed animal products if we are serious about mitigating the effects of climate change.

Factory Farms and World Hunger

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), a non-governmental organization headquartered in the United Kingdom, has produced an excellent, 17 minute video entitled, “Eat Less Meat.” This video illustrates the impact of a meat-based diet and factory farming on human health, the environment, world hunger, and animal welfare. According to CIWF, the growing global popularity of meat as a dietary staple and the increasing middle class in many countries has encouraged intensive industrial farming methods in developing countries. This is usually undertaken as a joint venture with western companies, and meat is produced both for export and the local middle class. Local small scale farmers cannot compete and lose their farms. They tend to drift into cities and move from being self-sufficient farmers to landless urban poor.

Moreover, the rise of factory farms worldwide encourages the development of monocultures, wherein farmers are encouraged to grow a single crop solely to be exported for animal feed. Thus, local economies become less diversified and more fragile, affordable food is removed from local economies, and land which could be used to raise food for people is instead used to raise food for animals.

According to the World Health Organization, a hectare of land used to raise crops for livestock can feed only two people, while a hectare of land used to grow rice or potatoes for people can feed approximately 20 people. If everyone in the world were to eat as much meat as the average American, by mid-century it would require four planets the size of earth to grow the grain to feed the animals. Conversely, according to the International Food Policy Institute, if people in the west halved their consumption of meat, and the land used to feed those animals was used to grow crops for people, 3.6 million children in developing countries could be saved from malnutrition by the year 2020.

Factory Farms and Animal Welfare

After World War II, the process of raising animals became largely transformed into one of producing high quantities of meat as cheaply as possible, at the inevitable expense of animal welfare. Animals have been moved from pastures to feedlots and warehouses. Some of the worst abuses of factory farms include battery cages for egg-laying hens, where hens are crammed row upon row into cages so small they cannot spread their wings, and gestation crates, where 400 pound hogs are kept in cages so small they cannot turn around. Most factory farmed animals spend their entire lives without feeling the earth beneath their feet or the sun on their backs.

In the United States alone, ten billion animals will be killed this year for our consumption. Most of these animals will spend their lives inside factory farms. These are God’s creatures, entrusted to our care. They live their lives and go to their deaths without one gentle touch, one act of mercy, from human hands.

We live in a culture where few of us have any idea how food gets to our table. There are rumblings of change within the faith community. In May of this year, Barbara Kingsolver spoke at the National Cathedral about her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, regarding the importance of eating mindfully. In August, The New York Times published, “Of Church and Steak: Farming for the Soul,” which addresses the need recognized by some in the faith community to treat farm animals more humanely and to practice more sustainable methods of agriculture. These rumblings need to become a roar.

Where do we go from here

Farmer, author and teacher, Wendell Berry, offers this critique of the way we purchase food products without concern for origin. Berry explains that our food choices are critical not only for our own spiritual integrity, but for the health and well being of the earth and all its inhabitants:

We can [not] live harmlessly or strictly at our own expense; we depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration…in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.

Deliberate, selective, intentional and compassionate food choices that align with our spiritual principles are, in part, what makes food a sacrament – a material reality that conveys the divine. We have the choice to experience the sacramentality of creation or its destruction when we purchase, prepare and eat our food. Berry also reminds us that we are not the center of God’s universe. We exist as dependent creatures within diverse and intricate ecosystems and should consider food choices with this in mind.

It is time our food choices enter into the “carbon footprint” equation. These choices have a far greater impact than has been accounted for thus far and it is time our religious communities consider the ethics of eating as part of any serious work on climate change and the fight against world hunger. As The New York Times noted in its recent article, “If this nascent cause [were to be] taken up by large numbers of churches and synagogues, the economic effect alone could be profound.”

In 2003, the Episcopal Church took the first steps in recognizing this need with GC Resolution D016. “Support Ethical Care of Animals,” condemns the suffering caused by factory farms and calls upon the church to encourage its members to adhere to ethical standards in the treatment of animals and to advocate for legislation protecting them. Farms with stricter animal welfare standards benefit animals, humans, and the environment.

The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) Animals and Religion program is reaching out to congregations and religiously affiliated organizations to join with it to work in partnership for a more just, sustainable and humane food system. The collaboration between HSUS and the religious community could form a powerful coalition to return industrial agriculture to a more appropriate scale and address the problems inherent in the factory farming system. The HSUS commends The Episcopal Church’s resolution on animals and suggests reducing the consumption of animal products, refining the selection of these products to more humane alternatives and replacing them with sustainably produced fruits, vegetables, grains and legume as important steps in enacting the resolution, reducing one’s carbon footprint, combating world hunger and being better stewards of both the earth and all its inhabitants.

Christine Gutleben is Director of the Animals and Religion Program at the Humane Society of the United States. Lois Godfrey Wye is an environmental attorney at the law firm of Holland & Knight, a student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and a parishioner at the Washington National Cathedral.


Links referred to in this article:
Livestock's Long Shadow Executive Summary (FAO)
Diet Energy and Global Warming (University of Chicago)
Eat Less Meat Video (CIWF)
Factory Farms
Battery Cages for egg laying hens
Gestation Crates
Of Church and Steak: Farming for the Soul (NYT)
Support Ethical Care of Animals (TEC)
The 3 R's


The economics of life-saving research

By Marshall Scott

I'm paying attention to the thimerosal trial that began last week. The issue is the alleged causative relation between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in vaccines, and autism in children. Some parents of autistic children believe profoundly that their children's symptoms began with and were caused by childhood vaccinations.

This has come, after some years in process, to the U. S. Vaccine Court. If you're like me, you didn't know there even was a Vaccine Court. It is, it turns out, a division of the U. S. Court of Federal Claims.Congress established the Vaccine Program “as a no-fault compensation scheme whereby persons allegedly suffering injury or death as a result of the administration of certain compulsory childhood vaccines may petition the federal government for monetary damages.” Congress intended that the Vaccine Program provide individuals a swift, flexible, and less adversarial alternative to the often costly and lengthy civil arena of traditional tort litigation.” Of course, in addition to offering possible victims monetary damages in “a swift, flexible, and less adversarial” context, the Vaccine Program also offers some protection to the pharmaceutical companies by virtue of being “not fault.”

For the families involved, of course, this case and the issue of alleged harm caused by a vaccine preservative is very important in and of itself. However, it also brings up a corollary issue: whether a health care system based primarily in private industry can adequately provide for us.

My point is not a general condemnation of free market capitalism. But we need to recognize the limits of the free market in providing for general welfare. While no company or corporation can survive unscathed by knowingly mistreating customers, the first responsibility of the company or corporation is to the owners and investors. We acknowledge that in a meaningful way when we distinguish in law and ethics between for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. The not-for-profit needs to come out ahead at the end of the year just as badly as the for-profit; but we allow some tax benefits and social approval for a not-for-profit because it reinvests all of its surplus in maintaining and perhaps expanding the work of the organization. The for-profit organization will return some surplus to reinvestment, but a significant portion is distributed to the owner or owners. That’s not a bad thing; but we need to remember that it’s integral to their nature.

And in health care that can be a problem. The pharmaceutical industry is a case in point. There are a number of areas in which we would benefit from more pharmaceutical research. New and safer vaccines, and new processes for delivering them faster is one. We have yet to see a vaccine for HIV, for example; and public health officials around the world worry about how long it would take to develop a vaccine for a rising pandemic influenza. Another area is development of new antibiotics. The recent story of the American traveler with extreme drug resistant tuberculosis (XDRTB) has raised again that concern. Finally, there are orphan drugs for orphan diseases. Orphan diseases are those that affect statistically small numbers of people. Orphan drugs are those that might treat them, but aren’t available, or are only available at very high prices, to treat those diseases.

These are all areas where many if not most of us face real risks, and where some experience severe suffering. However, they are not the major areas of research for pharmaceutical companies because they won’t be major sources of profit. Orphan drugs serve too few people to be financially viable. Vaccines prevent disease, and it’s been well documented that preventing disease is much cheaper than treating disease – the flip side of which is, of course, that is also generates much less cash flow. Antibiotics are prescribed ad hoc, as needed for a specific infection and only for a limited period of time. All of those are, if you will, natural limiters of profitability.

On the other hand, we all know some drugs can be quite profitable. They tend to have two characteristics. First, they are chronic medications for chronic concerns. For example, while you might take an antibiotic for a week or two, if you’re on cholesterol medication you’ll probably be on it for the rest of your life. Some folks will successfully change their lives sufficiently to eliminate the need for blood pressure medicine, but probably not that many. A company can make a lot for a long time, or at least for the life of the patent, with a drug taken daily for life.

The second characteristic is that the medications treat concerns that affect a lot of us, or that we fear will affect a lot of us. As we age as a society, that becomes even more of an issue. We baby boomers, wanting to fight off our own perception of our age as long as possible, are driving a lot of that. It’s no accident that there are so many advertisements these days for medications, both prescription, and “natural” (over-the-counter) for “erectile dysfunction.” Many of us men aren’t aging well, at least in our own minds, and we’re willing to pay a lot for the drugs that will help us, and for the research that will produce them.

Unfortunately, that leaves the small but significant gaps – and how small they are depends on whether or not you’re in one of them – that I’ve described. The benefits of new and safer vaccines, and new antibiotics, and specialized drugs are clear. The economic feasibility of the research to produce them is not clear at all.

Again, this is not to say that corporations, including pharmaceutical corporations, are evil for needing to make a profit. However, it is to raise a question for us as consumers (and investors), and as members of the body politic, and as Christians. Jesus has called us to be in the world but not of the world (as in John 17); and to be "wise as serpents and innocent at doves" (Matthew 10:16). As Episcopalians and as Anglicans we have long understood that to mean being engaged in the world, actively participating in God's compassion (as in Matthew 25). The Millennium Development Goals are one expression of this. Our own advocacy as individuals and as a Church for a health care system, including pharmaceuticals, that serves all people is another.

That’s why, you know, the Episcopal Church maintains the Office of Government Relations. It is, to put it simply, a lobbying office, working to bring the moral statements of the General Convention to the attention of our elected and appointed officials. By lobbying themselves, and by involving individual Episcopalians through the Episcopal Public Policy Network , they make known the positions that we have taken in Convention on social concerns.

General Convention has not spoken to these specific pharmaceutical concerns. We have, however, spoken repeatedly of a need for “appropriate levels of cost-effective health care for all persons,” (1988-D108) and of “the right of all persons to medically necessary health care... to include... prescription drugs” (1991-A010). We have called for a system for universal access to health care (1991-A099), and have articulated principles for “quality health care” (1994-A057). In our last General Convention we adopted a Comprehensive Children’s Policy that includes the assertion that “Every child and family has a right to guaranteed quality, comprehensive health care” (2006-B018). All of these are based in the Baptismal Covenant, where we commit to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self.

So, while we have not spoken explicitly about vaccines or antibiotics or orphan drugs, we have spoken consistently about appropriate health care, including pharmaceutical care, for all, including those who won’t generate a profit. For us as Episcopalians, these are opportunities for us to show our faith in the world in concrete ways. What do we expect of the officials we vote for, both in terms of programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and in terms of paying for basic research? With most health insurance provided through employers, what do we call for in the health plans of the companies we work for – of the companies we lead? How do we support health care institutions, whether with money or volunteer hours? All of these are ways that can directly or indirectly affect the availability and affordability of health care, including appropriate drugs, for all people.

And they’re all ways that are in our hands. Our free market, for-profit health care and pharmaceutical industries have indeed brought us significant benefits, but we can’t consider them sufficient to meet all needs. We have to act ourselves, both as individuals and as active, voting citizens, if we want a health care system that serves “the least of these” – including those who will never generate a profit.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains. He keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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