Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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Ethics – its not just a theory


Introduction – What Comprises a Theology of Ethics?

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top

Living an integrated faith

It is easy for ethical models to be disconnected from real life. James McClendon is one of many who have worked on creating ethical models that exercise a theology of ethical decision-making. McClendon (1986) writes that to be truly distinctive as Christian ethics – talking about morality must correlate with the fact that we are “. . . (1) part of the natural order, organic beings, bodies in an organic continuum, God’s natural creation; but also (2) part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and (3) part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ (καινή κτίσις) established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”[1]

McClendon summarizes these three strands as:[2]

  • body– we live in a body and so its desires and needs are not in themselves a problem but a blessing and a way to interface with our surroundings.
  • social – life finds meaning both in its connection to others and ultimately in our share in Christ’s story
  • resurrection – makes it inescapably clear that the story is to be marked with incalculable surprises. It summons us to a deeper engagement with our context not on the basis of known rules but on an eschatological basis that looks for the work of God’s promise that is unconfined by the way things appear to be.

In thinking through his theology, McClendon seeks to avoid a compartmentalized view of ethical thinking that often characterizes the way Christians behave ethically. Hence his efforts at explaining the interconnectedness of body, social, and resurrection realities in ethical thinking. He reinforces his project noting that:

…Paul was not willing to reduce Christian ethics to the third strand by denying the contributions of nature and of the storied community to the Christian situation – he was not willing to reject strands one and two in order to capitalize on the Christian strand.[3](258)

McClendon desires a theology on ethics to serve as a mirror that can confront the church with her potential convictions to ask whether she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. In reading the case below, keep this challenge in mind. How would you answer the question raised by my former student? In what ways does my answer keep the recognition of how the church can be in body, social, and resurrection perspectives rather than simply recognizing how the Church is? What changes would you make to my answer? What aspects of the question did I not address?

The Case

Dr. Wheeler,

Sorry to reach out suddenly but I got some serious question that I just don’t know how to answer. A Friend of mine recently came to me and told me that his close friend (of whom he had feeling for but never expressed and grew into a brother sister love) came to him and asked him to sponsor her; meaning to marry her for papers. I don’t know how to answer this.[4]

He says that he’s only considering it because he wants to help her. He feels that as long as it’s done through city hall that he wouldn’t feel like it’s done officially under God and maybe they might grow to love each other seeing as they are close and if not he’s ok with it.

What are your opinions?

I feel that a marriage is a marriage and if he goes with it it’s under God. So, divorce shouldn’t even be an option, but I don’t know.

All feedback is very appreciated on this delicate subject.

Jerry.

An Analysis

Jerry,

Your friend is working under a false premise. An agreement founded on fraud Is fraught with multiple challenges.

First, he must lie to immigration about the true status of his relationship with his friend. The act is illegal designed to serve no good purpose. It can’t be justified in any ethical model.

Second, he must lie to himself by justifying his action – here by what you shared, his justification is the possibility of a healthy relationship. The odds are slim that a healthy relationship can be built on such a flimsy foundation. How does one build a foundation for the transparency, vulnerability, and repentance needed to build intimacy by working to maintain a lie?

Third he must lie to his friend. Does he desire sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and spiritual intimacy with his wife? Has he explained this desire to his friend? Or is he willing to forego sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy for the sake of her ambition? If he simply goes along with the plan he is lying to her. Or worse, will they simply hook up out of convenience? In this case they not only lie to one another about what they want, they violate a true covenant of marriage by passing off physical intimacy as irrelevant because they weren’t really married. Paul warned the Thessalonians against this kind of violation of others.

Fourth he must lie to his family or involve them in his deception. Either choice is a moral lapse.

Fifth, he must lie to the church by either declaring he is married or denying it.

Sixth, and most seriously, he must lie to God. His rationale that a civil marriage is not a real marriage before God is the first lie. How does one justify violation of law, family, friends, or the church?

So, agreeing to this action is illegal, he puts his own status at risk as well as hers. The act is unethical in that it is filled with deceit that only has caustic consequences in all his relationships not just the direct relationship with his friend.

So, I agree with your assessment – the idea isn’t just bad, it is spiritually, morally, and relationally destructive.

Ray

Conclusion

Why is ethical/theological reflection so important? McClendon cuts to the chase in his question of whether the church she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. The absence of ethical reflection and action by the church yields behaviors that contradict the hope and the message of the church and this results in behaviors that are destructive and toxic. The community around us has no reason to consider the hope of the good news found in Jesus Christ if there is functionally little or no difference between our behavior and the behavior of anyone else.

The questions and issues I raised in writing my former student are not exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that are theologically appropriate to ask. There are other ethical models that would ask completely different questions e.g., individual utilitarianism. However, the context of the question arose in the behavior of the church and as such demands an approach that considers the issues raised by McClendon.

How well have you thought through your ethical model?

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986, 66.

[2] McClendon 231-232.

[3] Idib 258

[4] In case this is not clear, this is a request rooted in the process of immigration.


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The Vulgarization of Leadership


There are times in history when the character of leadership takes on a vulgar quality. The vulgarization of leadership is not new. Plato, for example, rightly indicated that leaders armed with only with an untrained mind that naively accepts perception as real, whether that is the confused and contradictory messages of the senses or the equally inconsistent popular notions of morality are not ready for leadership. Yet, there is a sense in which the political and popular rhetoric evident in many discussions today fail to rise above this level of reasoning – Plato’s lowest level of cognition.[i]

Abraham Lincoln’s behavior in the face of the greatest threat to the union we have faced until now stands in stark contrast to the virulent monologs that characterize much of today’s political and social discussion. Lincoln made it clear that vengeance or spite could not function as the foundation of leadership. Lincoln wrote regarding Louisiana’s readmission to the union, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”[ii] Listening to today’s politicians on the threat of terrorism it appears we may have lost that lesson.

By the vulgarization of leadership, I mean that quality that is incapable of ascending above the ostentatious, showy, gaudy, and distasteful behaviors of the lowest common denominators of society. Such men or women become so enamored by the ability to exercise raw power in the manipulation of others that they mistake inciting the frustrations and fears of people as a vision for the future. Inciting rather than leading a trap described in part by James MacGregor Burns who warned: “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.” Incitement does not have the will to investigate the ethical implications of its claims and furies. Incitement languishes in fuzzy half truths and an accusatory tone that fails to either credit other’s good ideas or work toward a mutually beneficial public policy.

Examples of the vulgarization of leadership abound. Hillary Clinton rightly observed,

I really deplore the tone of his campaign, the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people and his going after groups of people with hateful, incendiary rhetoric,” she said after a campaign event in Fairfield Tuesday. “Nothing really surprises me anymore. I don’t know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign. And he has to keep sort of upping the stakes and going even further.[iii]

Yet, Clinton is not above using the inflammatory rhetoric of her own to incite popular support. This is perhaps most notably evidenced in her assertion that ISIS is “going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”[iv]

Donald Trump is a virtual cornucopia of examples of the vulgarization of leadership. Trump’s speeches have rendered so many examples that I prefer to avoid repeating them here. To find examples of Trump’s vulgarization of leadership simply Google “Trump” on any subject to find ample material to make the case.

Rubio and Cruz are also guilty of half-truths and falsifications all used in an attempt to strengthen their position in the eyes of voters. A quick check of www.politifact.com provides numerous illustrations.

So, what exactly is the problem? I venture that there is no leader who hasn’t stretched the truth in their presentation of themselves or their data. If the exercise of falsification is so common what makes it warrant my derisive title, the vulgarization of leadership?  In short the question is a postulate of my position. If vulgarization is behavior that meets the standard of the lowest common denominator then its commonality is the verification of my title and its consequences make my point. The vulgarization of leadership does not summon people to a higher vision that works for change but to a coarse vision that seeks to ensconce prejudice, fear, and isolationism as the core values of our society.

The vulgarization of leadership calls out the worst in people rather than the best in people. It calcifies ideologies rather than exploring ideas with a critical eye. It contributes to reactionary regulation rather than negotiated policy. The vulgarization of leadership is, as Burns insists, a reduction of leadership to mere management and technique – it looks only at the zero sum game of political brinkmanship and hence loses a sense of the common good in its periphery.

Like other critical periods in human experience, we need leaders today who are capable of instilling a commitment to change that mobilizes and focuses the energy of a diverse populace, who call people to responsibility in the formation of a different future. We need leaders capable of explaining their moral foundation clearly and who are then ready to rigorously explore how to work with those who hold different perspectives.

At its birth, the United States attempted to make assumed moral assumptions explicit,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness[v].

The Declaration of Independence assumed: (1) a transcendent moral foundation versus a utilitarian one (i.e., endowed by their Creator); (2) unalienable rights, which we have attempted to define within the kaleidoscope of culture and social difference ever since; and (3) the responsibility of people to design and sustain a form of governance that worked in harmony with this moral foundation and unalienable rights of every person. The United States has never gotten this perfect, the exclusion of women or the exclusion of slaves, or the exclusion of those who did not own property under its colonial beginning illustrate this. The biases against the Irish or the internment of Americans of Japanese decent are well-documented failures that illustrate our ongoing struggle.  But struggling to align behavior to the ideal is not a failure unless we learn nothing in the process. A failure to learn is a failure to exercise metanoia i.e., a shift of mind. As Senge asserts, “To grasp the meaning of ‘metanoia’ is to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘learning,’ for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind.”[vi]

So what is the escape from the pattern of vulgarized leadership I see in today’s political and social dialogue? First, it is a movement toward metanoia, some of our perspectives are wrong; we are stuck in the cave of Plato’s allegory blindfolded by biases and prejudices we can’t see to admit. Without this first step of change, we will only run deeper into the cave. Leaders must be open about admitting their lack of knowledge or miscalculations or faulty information. Fact checks should not be an afterthought but part of the process of learning especially for politicians.

Second, it is a movement of engagement that addresses difficult and complex issues of the day with the courage to admit our core convictions and moral foundations. Zero progress is possible without this kind of vulnerability and admission of our differences. No one has a corner on truth; even those who may claim perception of the truth have to admit they only “see through a glass darkly” rather than with clarity and comprehension.[vii] Every leader must start with a clear description of their core commitments and follow that up with a clear understanding of the core commitments of their opponents. This calls for true debates that remained disciplined enough to get at the positions without degenerating to school yard name calling and insults.

Third, it is an effort to create a culture of critique rather than cynicism, of investigation rather than accusation, of the will to act in the common good rather than pacing one’s step along the path of the latest poll. Encourage dialogue. Let people disagree but back their disagreement with reasons based on their own commitments. Then engage the conversation with awareness and vulnerability.

What kind of conversation do you contribute to the issues?  Are you caught up in the vulgarization of leadership or will you stand boldly out from the cacophony of noise to raise the questions and clarify the values that we need to wrestle with together? Let’s have the conversations that we need to engage.

[i] Plato. Republic 7.514

[ii] Donald T. Phillips. Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992, 58.

[iii] Hillary Clinton. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hillary-clinton-responds-to-donald-trumps-schld-insult; Accessed 23 December 2015.

[iv] Source: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/dec/19/hillary-clinton/fact-checking-hillary-clintons-claim-isis-using-vi/; Accessed 28 December 2015.

[v] Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.htmll Accessed 28 December 2015.

[vi] Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, 13.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.