Memorial Day for the Those Not Remembered

We long to be remembered. Sometimes going to great effort to be remembered. Create a legacy, we are advised. As we prepare for Memorial Day, let us consider honoring those who have no legacy side by side with those who do. Let us memorialize those who have no one who remembers them. The unknown soldiers. Soldiers we regard as enemies. Let us honor them too. Those with no headstones. Mass graves. The last of a line. The unidentified victims of crime or poverty. Nothing for metal detectorists to locate. The recently extinct tribes as well as the long list of extinct and vanished tribes and civilizations not remembered, some with no trace at all. The other species that have gone extinct, known, and unknown, recent, and ancient. We honor them as our fellows. We must not forget them as we honor those whose memories we easily cherish.

photo credit Nick van den Berg, Unsplash


The Need for Self-Vetting

A UC Berkeley scholar recently disclosed that she was not Native American after all. All her life she believed that she had some Native ancestry because she had been told so. Now she learned otherwise. Deeply apologetic, she acknowledged the hurt that such a claim causes indigenous people.

It is not only people who are knowingly lying who need to be vetted. We may believe something to be true about ourselves but not know it as a fact. Family lore is not always factual, nor is self-lore. Why make claims about oneself or one’s family if you don’t actually know them to be true, haven’t done the research to verify them? Many reasons. We want to believe it and vetting is hard work being two.

At a high school reunion, I wanted to share memories with a woman who had been in a one act play contest with me and another male actor. She told me I was mistaken, that she was not in that play and I must be confusing her with someone else. She seemed quite certain, which meant that my vivid memory would be inexplicably faculty.

I went and got the third actor and asked him in front of her who was in that play. He named her. She had been certain that I was wrong. But certainty, it turns out, is only a feeling. It is not an indicator that we are right. This is an important lesson on the short list of how to live. Don’t trust feelings of certainty. Vet anyway. My classmate could have said simply that she didn’t remember being in the play instead of asserting that she wasn’t.

Believing something and knowing it are not the same. To stick with what we have verified makes life a lot less interesting, but more ethical. No speculation, no conjecture, no just passing along what we have been told.

In some contexts, credibility is crucial. “I’ve never seen this document before.” “Well, you signed that you read it and agreed to follow it.” Why not simply, “I don’t remember reading this document. Let me check it out.”

This realization opens up a whole new practice of vetting ourselves, even the formative things we think we remember but may not be factual. The result may be a real trimming down of the self that we carry and present to ourselves and others. This includes stating our relationship to what we are saying. For example, “My mother told me that as a child I…, but I have no recollection of that myself.” Or, as some people do, “All I know is that is how I remember it.” That is the best we can do until we do what we can to vet it.


Justices Thomas & Roberts Reveal a High Court with Low Standards

Image: Dezeen

A recent disclosure by ProPublica about Justice Clarence Thomas reveals a high court with low ethical standards. When you become a Supreme Court justice, it seems, among the things you are given to join the club is a pair of ethical blinders to have in common with your colleagues. ProPublica revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has for many years received lavish gifts of travel and lodging, essentially free vacations he could not afford. Some carry a value of half a million dollars. This puts him in an asymmetrical relationship with a megadonor to conservative causes with numerous business interests.

Thomas says these are family friendships, not business relationships. But, really, does he think he would be invited along if he were not on the Supreme Court? And wouldn’t he be less inclined to make decisions, like in tax cases, that would upset the donor? These vacations also give extended access to the donor’s buddies to influence him along with regularly treating him to the benefits of income inequality.

Thomas says colleagues advised him that there was no need to disclose these gifts even though they were lavish and would naturally put a person into a position of indebtedness and create or reinforce the inherent bias that comes so easily with mega wealth. If so, his colleagues need retraining in professional ethics along with him. When you consult someone about ethics, you are best to consult with people who are least likely to tell you what you want to hear. Thomas also doesn’t think that he needs to recuse himself from cases where his wife, a conservative activist, has had a hand because he thinks he can be fair minded, which he should know he cannot be the judge of.

Displaying a disturbing lack of wisdom, Chief Justice John Roberts has said that the high court does not need ethical oversight because they are such good people. Right. Where has he been when all the research came out on self-serving bias and group think? Knowledge of those factors is now so widespread that he looks naïve or lame to think the average person would be reassured by what he says. Individuals and organizations cannot police themselves and certainly not without codes of conduct written by others. Human beings, however honorable, just don’t behave that way.

When I was the director of a private mental health clinic, I would never hire someone who was not a member of a professional association with a code of ethics that could expel them for violating it. It is just wise practice to put yourself in a position to be answerable like that. Furthermore, we had to refresh our knowledge and use of the code of ethics every two years and how it applies to difficult oor especially tempting situations. Believe me, we all drift. Even the Dalai Lama, as honorable as he is, was caught on video kissing a boy on the lips and asking him to suck his tongue, claiming he was trying to be funny.

Separation of powers should not mean no standards of professional conduct, though I heard enough licensed mental health professionals claim their license allowed them to operate independently without ethical accountability. A license to practice doesn’t mean that, nor should separation of powers mean that. The Supreme Court should be a role model for promoting and following ethical standards, not being above it all. We should not trust a person, an institution or a business that think they can ethically self-regulate.


Sacrificing the Truth Like Fox News

photo credit Gaspar Uhas Unsplash

Fox news couldn’t tell the truth about the election without losing its viewers. Try telling the truth in Russia and not getting imprisoned. Try being a teacher in Florida or Texas and not getting fired. Try being a minister and not losing members. Try telling the truth about your employer and not getting shut out of future employment, or a former employee and not get sued. Try landing major contracts or even meeting sales goals. Try telling the truth to your children and not getting alienated. Try getting a date, or a second date. Try staying married. Try getting hired or getting into an elite college.

So, when we decide to tell the truth should we just climb upon the cross and be done with it? Is truth telling an act of self-sacrifice? Some like George Santos and Fox News believe we can’t be successful without being dishonest and that everyone does it. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but nearly always it is an act of courage.  There is also an art to it that can increase the chances of success.

We can tell the truth harshly or skillfully, as diplomats learn to do. Some of that is a soft startup, as relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman call it. You prepare the listener to hear what they don’t want to hear. There may be a way to do that with election results people don’t want to hear. How hard did Fox try? You do that because you care about people and you care about the truth. Also, according to research by Mary Gentile at the Darden School of Business, we are more likely to speak truth and values when we learn the means to do so, which addresses the courage aspect. It could also be that Fox News could learn to be a true and honest news organization and have a healthy audience if that is something they aspired to. If not, closing shop may be the honorable thing to do. Losing an election due to a less impressive resume may be as well.

It may be the case that telling the truth will always carry some risks we must be willing to bear. We owe a lot to those who do. Dishonesty need not prevail. Self-interest at the expense of the truth is an assault on society we should not tolerate.


Child Labor in My Home Town

photo credit CBS

In my hometown of Worthington in southwestern Minnesota, the hog packing plant has been busted for violating child labor laws. The kids were cleaning dangerous equipment, some of which I knew intimately from using them in summer employment as a college student. I am appalled. Our town used to be idyllic, part of the empire of Lake Wobegon, a town that explicitly cared for her children. That is, until further reflection.

I now recall that parents let us kids run behind the mosquito fogger truck that sprayed pesticides in our neighborhoods. The city’s giant toboggan slide into the lake was notoriously dangerous and unsupervised. Kids growing up on farms would be injured or killed by farm equipment. We wrenched our backs weeding fields of soybeans and detasseling cornfields.

My parents, who both grew up on farms, while we were raised in town, had the philosophy that as soon as we kids could physically do a task, it was ours to do. We cleaned with dangerous chemicals, we ironed clothes with an iron a bit too heavy for us to comfortable control. We ran a steam roller that pressed sheets and linens. When we could reach the lawn mower handles and push the beast, we were expected to do it, despite the fact that they sent people to the Emergency Room with leg injuries. Kids were kicked by cows and horses. We pushed stuck cars out of ditches. We delivered heavy Sunday newspapers during blizzards.

While children naturally want to help their families, and parents may need their help, children lack the capacity for fully informed consent, or knowledge of what is dangerous, among other problems inherent with child labor. And adults under financial pressure or greed have their judgment impaired about what to require of children. This is why the objective oversight of distant government, for all its faults, is required to keep us all in line. We can’t trust our own judgment or our own perception as to what is reckless or what is simple exploitation.

Here is where the philosophy that something is only wrong if you get caught crashes into moral reality, like a toxic train wreck in Ohio.


Should We Increase the Birthrate?

Businesses need workers and consumers. Governments need taxpayers. Churches and other such organizations need a critical mass of members and contributors. And so, we get warnings from the Japan’s prime minister that they simply must increase the birth rate. Economists have made such warnings also for the United States and China. So, it is the duty of women to have more babies to support the economy?

What is the spiritual future of that? Children can’t be told the lie that they exist because of their parents’ love or that they exist because God loves them. No, they exist to serve the economy.

Of course, this is totally backwards. The economy should serve the people, not the people the economy. And no one should have more children than they really want. If the economy will suffer, and social institutions, then the economists must invent new forms of economy. Not only is it inhumane to call for more workers to be conceived, the future of ever-expanding economies will deplete what our host, the earth, can supply. And to simply allow more immigrants in because we need more workers and consumers, while that should be done, it is not the right reason. Motivation matters in how we treat people.


Be sure to Thank Fortuna This Thanksgiving

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Be sure to thank chance (Fortuna) for what you have to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. We tend to overlook the role that chance plays when things go well for us. The Greeks and Romans did not. Back in the days of polytheism, chance was separated out as a goddess in her own right. Fortuna was her name.

Chance has been secularized as Lady Luck, but this is in situations, like gambling, where we know that chance or luck are at play. Even though people superstitiously try to influence chance (cross my fingers, knock on wood) there is no way to do that.

Many people in a monotheistic belief system operate as if there were no meaningful chance. When good things drop in their lap, they thank God, when they should be thanking Fortuna. When misfortune happens, they get conflicted about God, when God has nothing to do with it. No, Professor Einstein, God does not roll dice, Fortuna rolls dice.

One might wonder why a creator God would have things operate by chance or probability rather than merit. For Christians, there is the Parable of the Sower. Jesus told about the farmer who cast his seeds randomly, so seeds fell on good soil and bad. We can see this as a parable about Fortuna, who does things blindly or randomly. Some statues of Fortuna show her blindfolded as riches spill out of her cornucopia. Consistent with that, Jesus said that rain falls on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45) This is important to remember. Why? Chance may be as fair as it gets.

For people who operate outside monotheism, they can easily say that “shit happens,” and that’s that. It happens to good people and bad. Nothing to get hung up about.

So, we can look at ways we’ve been unlucky this year, like living in a place that had historically devastating weather or getting COVID despite being very cautious. But Thanksgiving is the time to identify how luck has come down in our favor, however that might be, big or small. This is important so we don’t think that we have somehow deserved the good fortune that has come our way. This makes us more considerate toward those whose luck has not been so good.

Some think chance is unfair, that what happens in life should be based on merit. Some believe that everything is based on merit, like karma would suggest, that we somehow deserve whatever we get in life, good or bad. But this ignores the huge role chance plays, even in the circumstances we were born into and the opportunities that follow from that. And it sets us up to treat others unjustly.

So, let’s not forget Fortuna and notice where good luck is operating.

We don’t want to be like the person Coach Barry Switzer described, the one who was born on third base and goes through life thinking they hit a triple.

Thank you, Fortuna, for whatever good luck has come my way!


Speculation & Power: The Case of Paul Pelosi

Scientists make speculations to generate ideas to test empirically. Their speculations are within the bounds of what is already known. The rest of us, not so much. Our motives are generally not to seek the truth of anything.

Now there are people making public speculations on why Paul Pelosi was attacked in his own home. Why would they do that?

Speculation is a form of motivated reasoning.    

  1. Public speculation hurts people we want to hurt. We care more about that than about the truth. “I’m just saying….”
  2. One motive is to exert power. It sends the message that I can do the same thing to you, so don’t get out of line.
  3. Public speculation demonstrates how smart we are, that we don’t just accept the official word about something like the sheep do. So, if you want to know what is really going on, listen to me, not to them.
  4. We speculate to avoid feeling stupid, that we don’t know the answer to something. We can catch ourselves in this when we hear ourselves saying, “I don’t know, but….” The ethical alternative is to just say, “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. Better to feel stupid than to hurt someone.

We could identify others, but you get the idea.

So why would the likes of Elon Musk, Donald and Donald Jr. publicly speculate on why someone was attacked when they are in no position to actually know anything about it?

I won’t speculate.     


Racist Names

Etching by G. Scotin and J. Cole after H. Gravelot and J.B. Chatelain, 1743.

The License to Name

“ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  -Genesis 2:19, New Revised Standard Version, updated edition

Now, the U.S. will rename hundreds of mountains, rivers, and other natural features to remove racist name’s they were given by colonizers.

The Power and Trauma of Naming

“Things die a little when we name them.” -Ben Okri in Astonishing the Gods

From naming flows claiming and taming.

The bald eagle is not bald. Devil’s Lake is not demonic. To name Ukraine Russia does not make it so.

When colonizers gave their own name to Indigenous peoples and their sacred sites, they lost their capacity to know who those people and places truly were, while revealing who they, the colonizers were. By naming, they were making claims of dominance and ownership.

When Donald Trump gives someone a disparaging nickname, he loses all capacity to see them for who they are, while revealing who he is. One who relishes asserting power over others.

And so, it has been learned, ask of every living thing and every place you encounter, “Do you have a name? How do you prefer I refer to you?” Listen carefully. Respect what you hear and when there is nothing to hear.

Naming obscures all but the namer, whose heart it reveals.


Christian Nationalism: Bible as Playbook

Photo by John Rudoff / AP

“Without the Bible, there is no America.” -Sen. Josh Hawley (NBC News, Allan Smith, Sept. 23, 2022)

Sixty-one percent of Republicans and 17% of Democrats think the US should declare itself a Christian nation, according to a recent U Maryland survey. This, despite many recognizing that it would violate the Constitution.

Why would Christians think their religion should dominate a nation? Hawley is right that much of it is derived from the Bible, which has functioned as the playbook for Christian nationalism. While liberal Christians choose to think he is wrong about that, the American myth may not have the qualities discussed below if it were not for the Bible.

Christians get to judge

In the Gospels (Matthew 18:18), Jesus told his followers that whoever they condemn on earth will be condemned in heaven and whoever they forgive on earth will be forgiven in heaven. So they have gone around the world taking it upon themselves to be the judge of others, as if their judgment is God’s judgment. Considerable outright condemnation of others has followed, as if with Godly authority.

Enemies of Christ

Jesus also said that whoever is not for him is against him. We now know this to be a toxic binary. It has motivated war against all non-Christians, whom the popes declared “enemies of Christ” in the Doctrine of Discovery. If you are not a friend of Christ, you are an enemy of Christ – a toxic binary if ever there was one.

The position of Christians declaring “as we judge you, so God judges you” is foundational to Christian nationalism. A clear statement of that is  Requieremiento(Requirement: To be Read by Spanish Conquerors to Defeated Indians). Written in 1510 by the Council of Castille, it stated that what the conquerors were doing was ordained by God, and that the Church was “the Ruler and Superior of the Whole World.”

Christians went on to condemn non-Christian Indigenous for such things as how and whom they worshipped to how they had sex. They judged Indigenous spirits to be demons. They even judged the Indigenous relationship with the earth to be sinful because they were not exploiting all of the earth for human use. This posture toward the earth continues today among Christian nationalists, based on passages in Genesis where God told humans that everything is here for our use. Causing environmental damage is then no problem. The sin is to leave valuable resources not extracted.  

Christian nationalism is a logical outgrowth of this posture of judging with godly authority The state, a large state, can function as the agent and executor of such judgement. While traditional conservatives favor small government, Christian nationalists favor the power and reach of large government.

False Attribution

What is denied here is that religion is the invention of humans. As such, humans must take responsibility for it. A part of that is that the sacred texts are human inventions. Again, human beings must take responsibility for their influence. When this is denied, we believe the words of humans are the words of God, an extremely dangerous proposition. My will is God’s will can follow. Like Genghis Khan, who convinced the religious leaders of those he vanquished that he would not have succeeded if it were not the will of God.

Bible as Rorschach

Then you add the Biblical narrative of a chosen people with a promised land that was adopted by Christians toward America. Christopher Columbus, the story goes, landed with the cross and the flag of his nation to claim ownership – Christian nationalism. Liberal Christians would prefer to believe that this is based on a misunderstanding or misuse of Bible passages. But this is not an academic exercise. Lives have always been at stake over it. The Bible is not only a human invention, reading it is like looking at a Rorschach. We can project all kinds of things onto it and believe they are there.

The bases for Christian Nationalism, and Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery before it, were seen in the scriptures by millions of ordinary Christians, as well as religious leaders. It doesn’t get us anywhere to argue about whose interpretation is correct. The alternative is to apply moral criteria. Criticize the Bible and say it is wrong about these things, just as we do with passages that support racism. The Bible is riddled with atrocities committed by humans but attributed to God or God’s will. But criticizing the Bible just isn’t safe in most parts of this country. Proof that our society is under the thumb of the hubris that a human invention is ordained by God.

Applying a Moral Standard

If we can lighten up a bit, perhaps we can apply the moral standard Jesus taught, to know them by their fruits. When a religious belief brings harm, question it on that basis. If a Bible passage supports doing harm, question it as lacking moral authority. The passages supporting Christian nationalism in any way just do not pass the test of moral authority.


Memorial Day for our Enemies

“We never thought to include remembering our enemies who died in our Memorial Day service. We have crosses for us, but not for them. It just never occurred to us.” -Vietnam Vet


(Jan Sibelius – 1899 / Words Lloyd Stone – 1934)


This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is,

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.

When we remember all those who have died in military actions and armed conflicts, perhaps our understanding of the cost of war will include the cost to other lands and peoples, not just ours.


Kirill’s War of Religious Misinformation about Ukraine

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is falsely claiming that the attack on Ukraine is needed to defend human salvation. (Daily Beast 03/22/2022) Further, in response to the head of the World Council of Churches request that he intervene to help bring peace, Kirill reminds the Council they are not to take issue with a member church, such as his. Krill refuses to be held theologically accountable for dangerous spiritual claims some hold to be toxically false. Separate from whether claims such as his are true or not is the test Jesus put: you will know them by their fruit. The fruit of Kirill’s theological assertion is death. He has no problem with that. We should.

Kirill has thus engaged his office in psychological/theological warfare with Ukraine, whose Orthodox clergy have been increasingly initiating separation from his flock. This is occurring elsewhere outside of Russia. So he is not an objective witness. To him, not only is this a just war, it is a morally necessary one. And he won’t engage in dialogue about it with religious colleagues. This suggests that the issue may really about power. But he is making it a war over human salvation.

“If we see [Ukraine] as a threat, we have the right to use force to ensure the threat is eradicated,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill recently preached to his church’s 90 million faithful followers. “We have entered into a conflict which has not only physical but also metaphysical significance. We are talking about human salvation, something much more important than politics….” As the patriarch sees it, Ukrainians are a threat to human salvation. (Daily Beast 03/22/2022)

A threat to human salvation? The fall is a myth. Its doctrinal offspring, original sin, is rightly contested. The other side of its coin, salvation, is likewise a contestable idea, though it rarely is. Regardless, in no way is it justification for invasion of another’s land and the slaughter of its inhabitants, not with Jericho, not with Kiev.

As Karen Armstrong points out, to love one’s enemy means to commit to protect them from harm. This goes for perceived religious enemies as well. If Krill really sees Ukraine as a spiritual threat, as a spiritual leader, he should extend his protection to Ukraine first and then go from there. Other voices need to be heard.


When is Oz Doctor? Why Does it Matter?

Arden Mahlberg

I recall a Sunday when someone came up to me in church and asked, “Aren’t you Dr. Mahlberg?” I replied, “Not today,” and told them they could call me Arden. In situations like mine, some people politely ask how I would like them to refer to me. When I am in my role, it is Dr. Mahlberg. When not, it is Arden.

Mehmet Oz complains that some news sources are not referring to him as Dr. Oz as they report on his campaign for office. They have rules against using such titles outside their context. When they report on him engaged in the practice of medicine, they refer to him as Mehmet Oz, MD, or Dr. Oz. When not in that role, they refer to him as Mehmet Oz. In doing so, they are treating him as they do anyone else. He is protesting that, thinking he should always be Dr. Oz.

Whatever egalitarian motives we have as a society are well served by not allowing people to have their professional titles be used as their social identity. It is all about status, and status brings deference and power. That is why they want it. But outside professional practice, it is gratuitous and works against an egalitarian society. Some people with titles understand and agree with that. Others object and push for their way.

Identity is very important, and people should be allowed to claim and assert their identities. But not when they claim a social identity that puts them above others. Respect for the person does not obligate us to comply with such wishes. Respect for the role does not either when the person is not in their professional role. This is what belief in an egalitarian society requires of us.

It is also good for individuals. The healthiest identities are those that create the greatest resilience. I’ve spoken with many people who have moved after they retired and complain, “No one here knows who I am.” In their previous location, they had successful careers and were given social status because of it, which they embraced. This did not serve them well in the long run. We need not contribute to this unhealthy practice for ourselves, for others, and for the sake of an egalitarian society.


“Armies of Certitude”

“Armies of certitude.” That is how columnist David Brooks describes what we will face when the Supreme Court’s makes its decision about abortion rights. (“Abortion: The Voice of the Ambivalent Majority,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2021) Certainty. What is it? Is it a good guide to being right? Unfortunately, certainty is no indication we are right.

I remember the feeling. I was struggling to figure out how to structure my dissertation research so I could answer the questions I had. Late one afternoon in the library, it came to me. I was excited to have finally solved the problem. It was clear. I wrote down a sketch of how it would work so I could fill it in the next day.

Certainty. As you might have guessed, the next morning I discovered that the idea I had been so certain about wouldn’t work at all. I was befuddled as to why it felt like an “ah hah!”

One would hope that the feeling of certainty would be strongly correlated with being right. Right? Imagine my disappointment years later when I reviewed the research on certainty and found that it has no relationship with being right. Certainty cannot be trusted. Certainty is just a feeling. It is not a sign of being right. Drat!

Not enough people seem to realize that. In a time of vehement polarization over so many things, the problem is not that people disagree. The problem is that too many people feel highly certain they are right. Their minds are closed. Dialogue is not possible. New information is twisted to support their beliefs. People who think differently are idiots, sheep, paranoid, or whatever dismissive term works. Then we are simply engaged in a destructive power struggle.

The one thing I have found that can soften things up is a four-step process, when that is possible. Let’s take abortion as an example.

Step 1: What are your thoughts about abortion?

“Abortion is wrong.”

Step 2: Why do you think that?

“Because it is murder.”

Step 3: How strongly do you feel about that?

“Very Strongly.”

Step 4: Why do you feel so strongly?

“I was an only child. I always wanted a brother or sister. When I was older, I asked my mother about it, and she told me that she didn’t want another child but had an unwelcome pregnancy and had an abortion. She was so matter of fact about it. It really hurt.”

The last ‘why?’ is a different one from the first ‘why?’. It is not a reason; it is the personal experiences that shape the position. Reasons are impersonal. The last ‘why?’ can be highly personal and highly charged. It feels like if you don’t care about those experiences, then you don’t care about me. You only care to have your way prevail.

When people feel compassionately heard about the personal and emotional parts of their position, they relax. Then, they may be open to hearing that depth in another person’s position.

Certainty is no indication we are right. Get the word out. Certainty cannot be trusted, and should not be respected.


For the Safety of our Enemies

Arden Mahlberg

Veterans Day 2021 – I just drove past a memorial to soldiers from our state who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The organizers placed a white cross for each of our citizens who died in those wars. I guess it is presumed that they were all Christians.

Several years ago, I spoke with one of the organizers of such a memorial to all the American troops who died in Vietnam and Iraq. It was a massive display of white markers, in this case, not crosses. I asked him if they included markers for the enemy dead and civilians who died in the wars. “We never thought of that.” But he wished that they had.

I have been in countless church services where we prayed for the safety of our troops. Never, “We pray for the safety of the enemies of the United States.” This despite Jesus telling us to “love” our enemies. As Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong clarifies, this injunction. It technically means that we are to treat our enemies to the benefit they would have if we had a peace treaty with them. At the time of Jesus, that included the “love” clause of protecting our enemies from harm.

This is an especially important principle to promote now. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have called for the punishment of legislators who voted for the infrastructure bill. They would have supported if it had been done by a President of their choice. People are harassing and punishing officials who uphold the validity of the last election.

In the current context, to pray for the safety of our enemies and vow to protect them from harm draws a clear line with the religious right. They believe they are contending with a cosmic enemy, Satan. From that point of view, to pray for the safety of one’s enemies and vow to protect them is to do the Devil’s work.

The same is true when Christian and Muslim communities protect each other from harm. To the fanatics, they are aligning themselves with The Enemy.

May we have the will to protect our enemies from harm!


The Natural Origins of Evil

Arden Mahlberg

The human immune system keeps us healthy and alive through violence against intruders who would do us harm. “Natural killers,” aptly named, are one type of cells in our immune system. Without the benefit of any prior exposure, they naturally seek out and destroy harmful cells. We rely on such violence within our bodies to be healthy.

Externally, our ability to be alive and healthy also depends on us doing harm to other organisms. Invasive species can make other species extinct. Insects destroy trees. Beavers destroy habitat that some species depend on while their actions aid other species. It is the nature of the reality we are in on planet earth that doing harm frequently aids in survival, and thus is rewarded by evolution.

In competing for resources, those with greatest power, technology and material resources, tend to exploit those who have what they want. While we can fault greed, it is true that the accumulation of resources tends to reduce existential stress, benefit survival and reproduction. European colonization of lands previously home to indigenous peoples is a case in point. It is easier to acquire wealth when you are willing and able to exploit others and the environment. Many wonders of the world and many grand economies were built with slave labor, for example.

Reproduction benefits from aggression. Many human beings play with this in sex games that involve domination and sadism. Being aggressive and violent can be exciting and pleasurable, which reinforces those behaviors even beyond their effectiveness in getting what we want. Rape and sexualization of power are so effective that in 2003 a study estimated that 16 million males had DNA traced to Genghis Khan, who ruthlessly built a vast empire characterized by rape and pillage.

Because we participate in these dynamics, Christian ministers frequently refer to us as “fallen” or in a state of “brokenness.” The obvious implication is that human beings were once “whole.” The Garden of Eden explanation has us beginning in a state where all that we needed was supplied by the environment. As they myth goes, our ancestors were safe, with no predators. Food was plentiful and easy to obtain. But there is no evidence that our ancestors ever lived in such a state of safety, with all their needs met by the environment itself.

Most species on earth live under threat of predators and under conditions where they must devote much time and effort to meet their needs for food and shelter.  It is not just human beings that live in stressful conditions. There are, however, birds that live in such ideal circumstances in Papua New Guinea that they are called Birds-of-Paradise. They have plenty of food at all times of year and they have no natural predators or diseases, hence the reference to Paradise. Reproduction, however, is not guaranteed. To reproduce, males must put on elaborate displays for the females, who routinely reject more males than they agree to have sex with. But sometimes a rejected male will simply not take “no” for an answer and will hop on the female and quickly impregnate her. Rape in paradise.

For aggression to succeed, it must be paired with effective power. When it is, it goes a long way in determining which individuals and which species will live and reproduce and which will not.  Aggression has reproductive value, so many successful species exhibit adaptive aggression. Even in extremes, it can be rewarded by survival and reproduction. But things we regard as virtues can also have survival and reproductive value. While Genghis Khan’s method of control and expansion was noted for its brutality, rape, and pillage, after gaining domination over a population, he used tolerance and generosity to maintain control. Social intelligence also has survival and reproductive value.

While the ability and willingness to do harm are evolutionary adaptations to the stressful conditions of life on earth, when they are activated without being suppressed by compassion, individuals and groups can inflict harm that is not necessary for their survival, which is evil. Typical suppressors of doing harm can be overridden by fear, delusion, and seemingly benign social pressure. Social conformity is also important to survival and reproduction. When people expect us to do harm, we are likely to comply. This is how isolated groups, like corporate cultures, can spin off into doing evil, like predatory business practices. Whole societies can also, like Nazi Germany. Outsiders are more able to see the evil insiders are doing.

Evil is done from a state of moral imbalance. Self-interest is not counterbalanced with concern for others. Twenty-six centuries ago, the Jain religion was formed around the realization that we cannot survive on earth without doing harm. They vowed to live as well as they could while doing the least amount of harm possible. The motivation is compassion for all sentient beings, including themselves. With such compassionate awareness, there can be the recognition that even altering the environment to benefit ourselves can make it unsuitable for other life forms who previously thrived.

Psychologically, we are more likely to strengthen our compassionate awareness when we are not faulted for major things outside our control, namely that life on earth requires doing harm. The guilt imposed by the belief that humans are at such fault (original sin) tends to only motivate us to relieve that guilt and secure our good standing with divine beings. The concept of original sin is an example of blaming the victim in order to deflect responsibility from where it lies, the objective reality life on earth evolved from. The concept of original sin also provides a means for the church to control others. Original sin does not motivate us to increase compassionate awareness of other life forms with concern for their wellbeing. Better to simply recognize that the roots of evil are in what it takes to survive and reproduce in the environment of this earth. We have the option, though, to commit to doing the least amount of harm possible and learning the self-discipline to do so. By counteract destructive needs with compassionate awareness of other life forms and the earth itself, we are less likely to exploit or do harm. Then we are more likely to sacrifice some fulfillment of our own interests for the sake of others.


“We’re Good”: When Forgiving is Unnecessary

Arden Mahlberg

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Forgiving Father, there is, curiously, no moment in the story when the father forgives his son. When taken as a parable of forgiveness, we may be seeing what we expect to see rather than something even harder to imagine – unwavering compassion, which is even more fundamental to the life of love.  

The purpose of forgiveness is to return us to a base of compassion when our bond with another has been damaged in response to an offense. Forgiveness allows us to return to full participation and collaboration with others in the work to be done, the work on the farm or the needs of love and justice. Because the father in this story is so consistently gracious toward his son, we assume it must be because he keeps forgiving him, offense after offense. We assume the father’s bond toward his son would be damaged by these offenses. But there is no evidence that it was.

When compassion does not waver, there is no need for the repair that forgiveness supplies even when an offense has taken place. One person’s bond with another can remain remarkably intact in circumstances where most people would experience great harm to their bond with the other. There are such events in this parable where we might expect the father’s bond with his son to falter or even break into disowning the son. but there is no actual evidence that it did. This points to a quality of love that results in more consistency in love of neighbor and love of self.

Let us explore the absence of forgiveness in the story and the unwavering compassion that it reveals. The son came to his father one day with the unusual request for his inheritance so he could pursue his own life rather than remain on the farm. There is no indication that the father was insulted or angry due to the request. The father simply carried out the son’s wishes. No emotions are conveyed in this exchange. No blessing and no curse, as there was with Noah toward Ham for a much lesser provocation.

It is commonly understood that the Prodigal Son’s request would have been insulting and hurtful to the father. He wanted his inheritance while his father was still alive. He wanted to leave his father, his father’s way of life and his father’s homeland. While most fathers might take this personally and be hurt, we see no evidence of that. The son’s decision would have brought shame to his father in the eyes of his community, but, again, while this may have occurred, there is no indication that the father internalized it.

Perhaps this is a father who knew his son very well and knew that he did not belong on the farm. Then the son’s request to have his financial resources and his freedom would have made sense to the father, and he would have responded empathically.

Compassion and joy are the only two feelings attributed to the father toward his younger son. When he saw his son coming home, he felt compassion and ran out to meet him. There was no barrier to overcome. This is not as remarkable as we might think. When a child brings harm to themselves and experiences failure, parents often respond compassionately. Their attention is focused on the feelings of the child. Their compassion helps the child recover and re-orient. Other parents respond with self-focused anger and shaming. “How could you do this to me! How dare you show your face!” Then the hole gets deeper for both child and parent.

In contrast, from seeing his son in the distance, the father’s compassion activated joy they could both experience when they met. When the son expressed how unworthy he felt, the father ordered the servants to clothe him in the finest clothing and shoes and even put a ring on his finger. From the point of view of unwavering compassion, worthiness and unworthiness are irrelevant, even meaningless. We are neither worthy nor unworthy of compassion.

The father’s actions conveyed to his son, “We’re good,” and moved the attention toward joy and celebration. Many of us have used this or similar expressions toward others when they expect our feelings toward them have been damaged by their actions. “We’re good,” relieves them of that concern, while “I forgive you,” tends to put attention back on the offense.

For the sake of completeness, the story also describes the effects of allowing our bond with others to be broken. This is when we need to engage forgiveness for the sake of repair. The setting of the story is a family farm with hired hands. Full functioning of the farm requires collaboration and cooperation among all involved. The older son must become able to work with his brother and his father. His inability to do so would be disruptive to accomplishing the work that needs to be done.

And so it is with God’s work. When a bond is damaged, we use forgiveness to return to being able to collaborate. Forgiveness, though, tends to be a transaction between apology and forgiveness. Worthiness easily comes into play, even when we believe it should not. Are you sufficiently remorseful? Do I deserve your forgiveness? We may even feel that with our apology the offended person is morally obligated to forgive us, and if they do not, we have the right to fault them for it. It is quid pro quo. While we may have been taught that forgiveness is a gift to be freely given, the ability to do so requires compassion. Even as a gift to oneself, forgiveness derives from the more fundamental quality of compassion.

From “We’re good,” it is much easier to avoid the quagmire of worthiness and unworthiness. “We’re good,” draws us away from self-focus. When someone tells us, “We’re good,” we experience it as a positive reflection on the other person, since they are focused on our wellbeing. It is easy to move on from there, in this story, to a grand celebration.

Relationships are not a two-way street. We each construct and alter our own street toward the other. Those constructions may have very different features. They may not be symmetrical. Love can be unrequited. Ill will may not be mutual. Parent’s often experience their child being upset with them, but they are not upset with the child.

Exceptions to symmetry are genuine mutuality, like mutual admiration, and mirroring. These have very different qualities. Mirroring can occur unconsciously, that we match how the other is treating us.  What is happening to one is also happening to the other. If you are upset, then I am upset. If you are not good with me, then I cannot be good with you.

As natural as mirroring is, it does not lead to living the life of love Jesus calls us to live. Many couples discover the helpful agreement that “only one of us can be upset at a time.” One must provide stability, preventing things from getting out of hand. Fortunately, when infused with the stable love of God, one person’s regard for the other becomes stabilized. And it can remain stable even when the other person’s interaction with them is agitated.

In this parable of unwavering love, we see both the benefits of it and the damage caused when good will wavers with conditions, as it did with the older son. He took his father’s joyful welcome and generosity toward his brother as an injustice to himself. He was unable to be happy for his father and his brother in their reunion. The father pleaded with him to join the celebration. This is a sensitive moment when we seek to share our joy with someone. This is when symmetry matters. When they do join in, it amplifies our joy. If they do not, our own joy is hard to sustain.

This story encourages us to be more like the father. It helps to recognize that we have the seeds of God’s unwavering compassion already within us. When we think we are lacking some quality, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to remember a time we did exhibit that quality, even to a small degree. In doing so, Wayne remembered his response to his daughter damaging the family car. After she got home, she went into the house, found her father, and told him she had done a bad thing. Tearful, she led him out into the garage to show him the wrinkled bumper. She was very upset with herself and expected her father to be disappointed with her, even angry. To her relief, he was neither. He was also relieved and grateful for his response.

Wayne’s gratitude immediately extended to his father, who had treated him with compassion when he was in his daughter’s shoes. He had once driven his father’s prize car home with a broken headlight and damage to the bumper and grill. Chagrined, he described to his father how, on a snow packed road on the edge of town, he had lost control and hit a rural mailbox and wooden fence. When the car slid on a curve, he hit the brakes rather than accelerating out of the slide as his father had taught him. He felt ashamed. He also felt sick as he looked at the damage to his father’s immaculate car, fully expecting his father to be angry. His father, however, was unphased and hugged Wayne, saying, “We’re good. We’re good. We’ll look at the damage together tomorrow and see what we can do. Let’s go have supper.”

Now, Wayne hugged his daughter the same way and told her the story of her grandfather’s compassion toward him. She was touched by how this compassion had moved from her grandfather down to her.

While damaging your parent’s car is trivial compared to what is described in our parable, it is important to recognize that human bonds remain unwavering more commonly than we might think. Harmful actions do not always alter how the injured person relates to the one who did the injury.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there may also be some legacy effect for the younger son, having lived with his father for as long as he did. When asking for his inheritance and his freedom, the son shows no signs of ill will toward the father. When he returned having squandered his father’s wealth, he took full responsibility and had no expectations. When his father expressed joy in his presence, he was able to shift quickly from feeling unworthy to sharing in his father’s joy. He had either forgiven himself or his compassion toward himself was relatively stable.

Unwavering compassion can be cultivated. First, we must establish compassion as our base and then learn to keep it steady. I have helped many people connect with unwavering compassion through the following exercise. I begin by inviting the person to focus on the sense that they are loved, by the source of all love, fully and completely just as they are. When people object that they cannot sense it, I invite them to imagine what it would be like if they were experiencing it. Whatever little bit a person experiences it in this exercise, I encourage valuing it and enjoying how good it feels. This enhances the feeling. Then I have them notice where and how they sense this compassion in their bodies, their thoughts, and their feelings. Then I invite them to notice what this makes their bodies want to do. Very often, it is some joyful expression.

Then I encourage people to imagine doing ordinary things while in touch with this unwavering compassion, even just taking a walk, and noticing what is different about it. They usually report smiling, walking more relaxed and erect with more comfortable awareness of their surroundings, including other people.

This experience of compassion tends to generalize toward other people. We see them differently, through the eyes of compassion. A man with frequent road rage, for example, found that this spiritual practice changed his driving experience. Now, when other drivers disrupted his driving, he found himself making positive assumptions about them. When someone stopped quickly in front of him to turn left – “I guess she’s not familiar with this neighborhood.” To his surprise, the hostility was not there, nor was the need to forgive the other driver or forgive himself for his reactivity. Instead of the finger, now he gives them a wave and a nod: “We’re good.”

It is best to start this generalizing of compassion within easy situations and work up to the more challenging ones. When we get thrown off, as we will, it helps to take some time to explore your reaction with compassionate curiosity. One approach for digging down is to fill in the blanks: “When someone _____, I feel ______.” Say this aloud. Notice what happens inside yourself as you hear yourself and then adjust the statement accordingly. For a person with road rage, it might be, “When someone cuts me off, I feel like I have to teach them a lesson.” From speaking this aloud and hearing himself say it, one man noticed this come up: “When someone cuts me off, I remember how my dad ignored me when he came home from work.” Usually, going through this step five or six times brings a positive shift and makes it easier to sustain compassion in those situations in the future.

To live the life Jesus taught requires that this stable base of compassion be universally applied. We are not to approach people from a neutral stance. We are to welcome the stranger, without profiling, we might add. They should not need to earn our compassion. We are to sustain the base of compassion even when it is not reciprocated. Jesus taught such asymmetry when he said we should love our enemies, even when they are doing harm to us. This does not mean that we do not protect ourselves or that we tolerate ongoing harm. Far from it. The marriage vows do not read, “I will stay with you no matter how you treat me.” We can love and protect ourselves while having goodwill toward others, even toward our enemies. We can, as Karen Armstrong suggests, follow Jesus’ directive by vowing to not harm our enemies and to protect them from harm by others.

The suffering people Jesus cared for believed that their plight meant that God had turned against them. They did not believe there was unwavering compassion. Their suffering must mean that they were not in God’s good graces. It also meant that to others, who felt justified in mistreating them. Suffering people are easy targets for exploitation. They may not feel justified in standing up for themselves when they feel they do not deserve better. This is how being atheistic about unwavering compassion becomes a justice issue. Believing, experiencing, and participating in unwavering compassion leads to more just action toward ourselves and others.

In bringing his good news, Jesus campaigned to promote belief and participation in unwavering compassion. In his Sermon on the Mount, he informed suffering people that they were blessed by God, which would have been mind boggling. “God is good with you.” The Parable of Unwavering Compassion, as we might now call it, inspires us to learn greater constancy in our ability to live the life of love.


Conspiracy: Theory or Delusion?

Image credit: oonal | Getty Images

One person’s theory is another person’s delusion. Two people can falsely believe the same thing in very different ways. They diverge when faced with the facts. One will change their belief to fit the facts, which is the rational thing to do. The other will deny that the facts are real, even believing that someone has altered the facts to mislead people.

Very often, when people who hold a conviction are faced with contrary facts, they double down on their belief. If they believed something important would happen on a certain day, but it did not, like Donald Trump being restored to power, they just change the date, as evangelical Jeff Jansen has. Emotionally, there is too much at stake for them to be wrong. Despite relentless reality testing, 60% of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a shared delusion. It is not a theory because they will not allow reality to have any sway.

When fact finding and reality testing will not dissuade someone, it helps to follow these steps of inquiry:  1) What do you believe? 2) Why do you believe it? 3) How strongly do you believe it? 4) Why do you feel so strongly?

There are two types of ‘whys’ here. The first, why do you believe it, will consist of some facts or reasons. The last, why do you feel so strongly about this, will be more personal and emotional. There may even be an emotionally charged experience from the past that feeds it. When this is voice within a supportive context, the person may be willing to give up the false belief.

So why do so many Republicans still believe there was a conspiracy to steal the election from Donald Trump? It is deeper than the fact that he and media sources repeatedly pushed the claim. It is not just a lost election when you have demonized the other party and its leaders. Not when you have projected the worst you can imagine on them, like Trump was taken down by a secret ring of Satan worshipping pedophiles. Not when you believe that if he lost, you would lose your way of life. And since your way of life is what God wants, you believe, then the forces against you must be evil. Losing the election cannot happen, so it did not happen.

Social scientists have been reluctant to call conspiracy theories delusions because some conspiracies are true. But after the facts are in, VW conspiring to cheat emission standards has moved from being a theory to being verified. The claims that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump has been tested and tested and tested. To hold it now is no longer a theory, it is delusional.

You support a delusion by invalidating any source of information that might contradict you. For Donald Trump and these conspiracy beliefs, that includes bashing science so science cannot contradict him. One of the problems with science for someone like Donald Trump is that they refuse to believe what they can’t understand. Years ago, he said he couldn’t understand how the chemical he sprayed out of a spray can could possibly damage the ozone layer because it was so far away. The chemical was invisible, and the ozone layer was invisible. To a narcissist, “If it doesn’t make sense to me, it can’t be true.” And with the assault on science, truth and facts, the narcissists feel free to define what is true or not as it suits them. This is characteristic of repressive regimes. Remember Richard Nixon? “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Science and reality testing are exercises in humility. Believing what contradicts reality is narcissistic. To call such beliefs theories is to give them status they do not deserve.


Christian Justification for Racism: Cursing Messenger Ham

In Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson claims that Christianity and Hinduism both believe that social stratification by birth is divinely ordained. In Hinduism, social hierarchy is thought to have been structured into creation as the right order of things. While racism and caste are deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, in is not from creation itself. The Christian God did not create some people to be below others. In Christianity, the solidification of caste by inheritance came later. Oddly, it came from God’s chosen person Noah. While the Christian God had not created race and racism, Noah did. It is time to call him out as part of dismantling racism within Christianity.

The origin story of caste within Christianity is in Genesis 9, which begins by stating that God blessed Noah and his sons. This is important. No distinction is made among any of them by God. Then comes the account of how Noah came to create caste. Noah had planted a vineyard and made wine. One day he got so drunk he passed out naked in his room. His son Ham saw what had happened and went and told his two brothers. The brothers took a blanket to cover Noah, taking great care to not gaze upon his naked body. When Noah woke up, he got angry with Ham for seeing him naked and telling his brothers, thereby bringing shame to him. But Ham was only the messenger of Noah’s fallen state.

It is important to note that the story says nothing about Ham having any disrespect toward his father. It is simply assumed from Noah’s reaction that he must have. Ham’s reaction, however, may have been one of concern for his father’s state. How often was Noah getting drunk like that? Rather, it is assumed that Ham told his brothers for them to have some fun at Noah’s expense. But that is impure speculation. Speculation is unfair to people. The content of our speculation says more about us than about them. The story only states the facts. But somehow tradition has it that Ham deserved Noah’s wrath. No longer.

Now, we can see Noah’s reaction as being abusive. He got angry with Ham and put a curse on him as well as his son Canaan and all their descendants, forever. He condemns them to the lowliest status among humans. It is thought that Ham and Canaan, in their banishment, went to Africa and became dark-skinned.

Many Christians have taken this curse to be real, and even of divine origin, which is not in the story. While Wilkerson gives this story as an example of divinely ordained stratification of society, it is not. It was Noah, not God, who put a curse on Ham, Canaan, and their descendants. After that, Noah does invoke God to elevate the status of his other two sons. But they had already been blessed by God, so what Noah was asking for is for them to have power over others.

This incident is simply the punitive action of an abusive father diverting attention from his shameful drunkenness by spiritually attacking his son. When an alcoholic is exposed, watch where the attention goes from the drunk to the messenger. Noah disowns and condemns Ham in the strongest possible way, feeling justified in doing so. Also typical of an abusive attitude.

So why has Christianity been fooled by this misdirection? Why not rally to defend Ham, his son Canaan and all their offspring? Do we believe that Noah’s curse of Ham is greater than God’s blessing of Ham that preceded it? While this might all seem inconsequential today, it is not. As David M. Goldenberg points out in The Curse of Ham: Race Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this curse has been widely believed to be real and is still so by some white people today. The enslavement of people from Africa was justified by belief in this curse. Why believe it? When given the lamest of justifications, we will assume power over others.

Until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not allow Blacks in positions of leadership because they believed Noah’s curse. Christian colonizers of Turtle Island equated the people here with descendants of Canaan, meaning it was right to take their land and treat them poorly, in the tradition of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites that is celebrated in a children’s song.

This is all like some giant conspiracy theory that has somehow persisted for millennia. It has served to benefit masses of white Christians, after all. Drunk from being chosen by God, Noah may have believed he had the power to curse Ham, Canaan, and their descendants to be the ‘lowest of slaves.’ But why would anyone else believe it except that it serves their self-interest? The curse only has power if we buy into it.

It is time to call out Noah for the abuse of his precious son, Ham, who was blessed by God, and his son Canaan. If Ham were guilty of anything, of which there is no evidence, the punishment far exceeded the crime. For all we know, Ham went straightaway to his brothers out of concern for his father’s drinking. Rather than cover him up, and cover up the problem, Ham wanted his brothers to know how bad it was. As the righteous man he was supposed to be, Noah should have apologized to all of them for what he put them through and done what was needed to stay sober.

We should feel only compassion toward the descendants of Canaan, whoever they are. We should only feel compassion toward the people of African descent who have been and continue to be mistreated from the fallacy of the curse of Noah. With that curse exposed as a ruse, the last may finally become first.


In the Face of COVID Mutation, it is Time to Honor Chance

Arden Mahlberg

Randomness produces the beauty of the snowflake, the security of encryption, the method of evolution, and now, the deadly COVID variants. Randomness is both neutral and powerful. It shapes our universe, our lives, and our deaths.

Randomness threatens many parts of our lives. Fear of randomness is currently active in the collective mind due to the real possibility that random mutations of COVID-19 will not be controlled by the vaccines that have been created. Many individuals in cancer treatment live with the real possibility that at any moment random mutation will produce cancer cells that are not controlled by their treatment, killing them, and devastating their families. Some heavily populated parts of the world have been thrown into chaos from the increase in unpredictable and extremely destructive weather events that come with climate change.

It matters how we relate to chance and uncertainty. To start, we need to be able to simply tolerate the reality of chance and what it does, both to ourselves and to those we care about. Unfortunately, when people we care about respond to uncertainty with anxiety or anger, many people, including ministers, deflect attention away from it, trying to reduce the distress that came with misfortune rather than aiding in facing it. They deflect attention away from chance to what they believe to be certain. If that helps at all, the results are usually temporary and contingent upon how events proceed.

Some deny chance and randomness because they fear, wrongly, that chance makes things meaningless. But where does meaning reside? To look to external events for meaning makes us dependent on them. We do not need to believe that chance happenings are somehow purposeful, like “everything happens for a reason.” This is false attribution. Looking for reasons behind chance events can be painfully futile, as it was for Job. And failing in that search for a reason evokes feelings of inadequacy. Of course, it is adaptive to look for opportunity in any kind of situation. But finding one does not mean the event happened for that reason. That is reasoning backwards. Similarly, saying that God uses randomness in evolution disregards the overwhelming number of species that have gone extinct, due to no fault of their own.

Unhampered by the constraints of monotheism, the Greeks and Romans integrated chance by recognizing its importance and its integrity. This allows for correct attribution. Weather events are not acts of God. They even gave chance the status of a goddess, Fortuna to the Romans and Tyche to the Greeks. The importance of this is that it cuts down on false attribution, where we put blame or credit where they do not belong, on ourselves, others, and, frequently, God. This is a problem for both blame and credit.

Fortuna was closely tied to Virtus, the virtue of courage. Courage is the best way to face uncertainty, much better than hope. Hope is more fragile than courage, too easily shattered by external events. Courage connects us with strengths that are internal as well as beyond ourselves. Courage carries people who are in hopeless situations.

Chance, or probability, also provides a better explanation for some things than causal explanations do. This is the case for things like personal success or failure (right place, right time), which we prefer to take credit for. Randomness also is required to understand the behavior of subatomic particles.

But for all it helps to explain, chance is disturbing. We prefer certainty and predictability. “Leave nothing to chance,” as if that were possible. When Einstein’s colleagues were finding great value in developing probabilistic theories, he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe. He was wrong about that and his analogy was biased. Chance is not a game, even though there are many games of chance. Chance is a method for how many things work, both in creation and destruction.

Chance is also morally disturbing. Chance violates our sense of fairness. Some depictions of Fortuna show her blindfolded. Her actions are not selective. We hate this! We prefer to believe that the universe is guided by merit, not neutrality. This gives us some semblance of control and deserving. We want good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen only to bad people. We protest when bad things happen to good people and when good things happen to bad people. As a result, many people all over the world believe in karma as a law of the universe. As commonly understood, karma includes the idea that people somehow deserve the circumstances they are in, even at birth, even genetically. This makes the denial of chance a justice issue.

In Jesus’ campaign for compassion, he had to contend with false attribution in the belief that fortune, and misfortune reflect merit. Life circumstances were thought to show how God regarded a person. Good fortune meant the person was blessed by God while misfortune meant the absence of God’s favor. When Jesus encountered a man blind from birth, for example, those with him asked whose sin he was suffering for. This was the worldview that threw Job and his friends into agonizing contortions. How can you explain his misfortune if not by faulting him or God? Chance, of course.

Jesus recognized this attitude toward chance happenings as a justice issue and addressed it. If he let it stand, people would continue to believe that those in power are so due to God’s blessing. The rich are blessed by God and the poor are somehow unworthy. This belief in life as a merit-based system directed by God results in widespread acceptance of injustice. Jesus countered this philosophy by proclaiming that the poor are blessed. This is incomprehensible without the acceptance of chance and the total independence of the consequences of chance from God’s love and blessing.

Jesus taught about Fortuna without naming her when he said of God, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45) Here he is saying that God is like Fortuna in not playing favorites.

We can also see Fortuna in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. In this parable, a farmer broadcasts seeds everywhere, regardless of where the seeds will land. Like the sun and the rain, this farmer is not selective. He did not choose to seed only fertile soil and avoid sending seeds to places where they would not germinate. What he was doing was random, like Fortuna blindfolded. The parable is is a demonstration of fairness based on chance, not merit. It is not the grace of God that keeps us from misfortune that is outside our control. It is luck.

The luck of the circumstances of our birth is not based on merit, nor is merit gained or lost from those circumstances alone. Which caste we are born into is not based on merit, nor should privilege be derived from it. The luck of our genetics, the supportiveness and connections of our families, the occurrence of trauma or unusual opportunity – none are based on merit nor is merit gained or lost because of them. We are all subject to falsely internalizing our life circumstances. If the victim of trauma, we feel unworthy. If the recipient of good fortune, we feel deserving. This creates and sustains injustice.

Acceptance of chance makes it easier to consistently love God, neighbor, and self. The distressing question of “Why?” that hampers recovery is not activated. Our relationship with God is not conditional, not conflicted by false attribution. There is no vacillating between blame and praise. Accepting chance also makes it easier to love neighbor and self, as blaming and shaming do not occur. Being a victim of something reasonably outside our control does not alter our sense of self or other, no damaged goods. It is easier to stay with compassion. And when good fortune is freed from judgments of worthy or unworthy, fair or unfair, it is easier to enjoy it ourselves and share in the joy of others.

With COVID mutating, the time is ripe for us to acknowledge the reality of chance and make our peace with it on its own terms.


Ted Cruz & the Moral Blinders of Power & Wealth

Arden Mahlberg

Let me be clear. As all of us gain wealth and power to any degree, we become less aware of and concerned about other. This is what the research tells us. We would like to think we are exempt from this, but it doesn’t happen that way. With more resources we can apply to our self-interest, the more the compass of self-interest overshadows our moral compass. This isn’t just Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas and his daughters and their friends going to Cancun when their communities are in crisis.

Ted Cruz said he was just “trying to be a good dad.” His daughter wanted to flee having to live in a “FREEZING” house. Schools were cancelled from the power outage. So, recognizing her resources, she had the idea of going to Cancun with her friends. Ted, supportive of this, thought he should go along.

This, while other parents in Texas were being good dads and moms by teaching and modeling civic mindedness, taking inspired initiatives to help others. As with the pandemic, in response to the dangerous weather, power outage and inability to get clean water, people in Texas moved in two different directions, depending upon which compass had priority. Many found ways to help their neighbors and their community. Some organized phone trees to check on the most vulnerable.

In response to the same conditions, others, like Ted Cruz, move to protect themselves, leaving their communities to fend for themselves. Early in the pandemic, New Yorkers with second homes fled the dangers of the city, leaving others behind to deal with it. Back in the gas shortage in the 70’s, while people were waiting in long lines to fill the cars they needed to get to work, John Denver had a large gas tank installed on his beautiful mountain property and found a way to fill it.

The cliché “We’re in this together,” does not apply to everyone. While in a widespread state of emergency throws many people into the same life raft, there are some who have their own yacht. All there is to counteract this is universal identity and morality, both of which need ongoing strengthening.   Native Americans refer to “our people” as the subject of a sentence. Others think of the divine in everyone, or that spiritually we are all one, while our senses tell us we are separate beings. It takes discipline.

Civic mindedness is also learned and reinforced through modeling, as in parent to child, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor. This is my greatest sadness for Ted Cruz’s children and their friends. We can only hope that the pushback touches their hearts. We all do need the mutual accountability that comes with pushback.


Was This Land Really Made for You and Me?

At the inaugural ceremony for President Biden and Vice President Harris, Jennifer Lopez’s beautiful vocal tribute to America included the line: “This land was made for you and me.”

But was it? Really? Does anyone still believe that? Christian colonizers certainly believed that God made this land we now call America for them, specifically. Woody Guthrie’s song could have been their anthem, the anthem of Manifest Destiny.

Christian colonizers came to these shores with a declaration for the people who were here from time immemorial: “This land now belongs to us. God is giving this land to us.” Popes had said so, in bulls now called the Doctrine of Discovery. The colonizers could turn to each other and declare that this land belonged to “you and me.” That “you,” however, did not include the Native Americans. They were relegated to land the colonizers did not want.

The narrative that God made this land for the Christian colonizers remains deep and broad. The Episcopal Church, who in 2009 renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, still perpetuates the entitlement narrative in their Book of Common Prayer. Their prayer “For our Country,” begins with “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage….” And, even more impactfully, those of us who are descendants of Christian colonizers continue to live as though we believe the land we legally own, that our ancestors participated in taking from the Native Americans, really does belong to us also in some moral sense. And so, also, with the wealth and opportunity that was derived from that land.

This may be changing, ever so slightly. There are some descendants of colonizers and some churches that are returning land or wealth derived from its sale to the Native Nations for whom it was their ancestral home.

Another sign of a shift in perspective is that statues glorifying colonizers are starting to look different to more descendants of colonizers. Statues and monuments that previously seemed innocuous are now seen as expressions of Christian domination. Statues of Junipero Serra are an example. While some of us may not have seen the superiority and domination those statues conveyed, the Native Americans always did.

Now we can see the moral blindness of our ancestors, Christian colonizers who followed the lead of their religion’s teaching of chosenness and laid claim to this beautiful land that was already inhabited by wonderful people. But even deeper in the Christian narrative is the belief that God created the world for us human beings. Of all creation, we are the chosen species. The world and all other living things are here for our benefit. This starting point, we can now see, leads to the doing of great harm to other living things and to the earth itself. Then you add to this the narrative that God chose certain people above others, a narrative that Christianity adopted for itself, and we can now see how Manifest Destiny would result. What these examples have in common is that whomever is dominant is so because of God’s choosing. This is the foundation of Christian Nationalism.

If Woody Guthrie were with us today, with his sensitivity to injustice, I don’t think he would write such a song laying such claims to ownership over a land that was already occupied. When he wrote it in 1940, he was tired of always hearing “God Bless America.” So he wrote something new, a song honoring America that even addressed its injustices in its later verses. But this he did not apparently see that he was perpetuating the colonizers’ claim that this land was made for them, from California to the New York Island. “God blessed America for me,” he even wrote.

This is how moral blinders work, and how moral progress is made. The blind spots of people from former times who we rightly respect are now revealed. May we all have the grace to willingly have our blind spots revealed to us as well. The sooner the better.

Related posts by Arden: Decommissioning JoshuaWas This Land Really Made for You and Me? The Serpent Constantine & The Fall of Christianity: A Myth,


A Christian Coup Attempt, 2021

Among the flags and symbols brandished in the recent attempted coup was the cross, with flags declaring “Jesus 2020” and “God wins.” While many faith groups are condemning the attempted coup and are calling for Trump’s removal from office, the long-term question for Christians is what they will do to excise the theme of supremacy and authority within Christianity’s narrative, theology and scripture.
            This strain of belief, which some call Christian Nationalism or Christian Supremacy, is authoritarian, not democratic. Senator Josh Hawley, a leader in the attempt to overturn the election, has publicly declared that his charge is to “Take the Lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm, and to seek the obedience of the nations. Our nation.” (Katherine Stewart, NYTimes, Jan. 11, 2021) He does not take his charge to be to uphold the US Constitution or the integrity of elections. When he was sworn in to the US Senate, he must have been lying.
            When Pastor Brian Gibson declares that “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America,” he has a strong point. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII, in his bull, Unam Sanctam, (One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority) declared the authority of the church over political authorities, like Christian Nationalists do. As European nations acquired the wherewithal to travel to all parts of the earth, several popes blessed them in doing so, so long as they carried out Christ’s directive that his followers convert all nations of the earth. In doing so, Christ declared that all authority on heaven and earth had been given to him. He transferred that authority to his church. The popes were insistent on the requirement that the conquerors convert whomever they encountered who was not Christian. The mission of colonialism was the mission of the church. And the justification of the popes, referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery, was recognized as law in US jurisprudence with the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. This precedent of this decision holds sway even today.         
            Pastor Gibson is correct. The Christian church founded America. In 1510, the Council of Castille formulated a statement for Spanish conquerors to read to the native peoples they encountered. It was a declaration of Christian dominance.
            That declaration, Requieremiento(Requirement: To be Read by Spanish Conquerors to Defeated Indians) stated that what the conquerors were doing was ordained by God, and that the Church was “the Ruler and Superior of the Whole World.” The Native peoples were informed that they were invited to voluntarily convert to Christianity. When they did, they would lose their autonomy and become “the subjects and vassals” of the Spanish crown.  Belying the fact that this was not at all voluntary, if they did not convert, “with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”
Any wonder that some would now claim that “Christianity represents the worst of the history of colonialism among Indian peoples in North America.” (p. 72, A Native American Theology) When Christians came from Europe to occupy the land they call the Americas, they did so with the belief that they were God’s chosen people, and this was their promised land. The narrative of Manifest Destiny was unquestioned by ordinary Christians while it was the program of their church leaders. As Simone Weil observed, “Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.” 
            At this point, it is easy for liberal Christians to blame white supremacy or fascism for the danger of Trumpism. This ignores the growing realization that white supremacy had its roots in Christian supremacy. (See Hill Fletcher The Sin of White Supremacy). Liberal Christianity does not take ownership of this problem, rather treating Christian nationalists and not being true Christians. As we have seen in Germany with Nazism and in South Africa with apartheid, health and healing requires taking ownership of the problem by people who initially deny any role. Christian Nationalists and liberal Christians draw from the same source material. And, in many ways, liberal Christianity is the benefactor of the Christian domination that founded this nation and structures it yet today.
            In addition to addressing systemic racism, we would do well to address systemic Christian domination, which may be even more difficult to recognize and admit to. We can begin by identifying the authoritarian themes embedded in Christianity’s narrative of chosenness and its promise to what others have, the hierarchical nature of its theology, and the foundational threads in the Christian bible liberal Christianity shares in common with Christian Nationalism.


Insurrection is not Protest

With the current crisis in our nation, we need to be clear about how to think about what is happening. People with agendas are trying to influence how we think about the vandalism and trespassing on the US Capital. We need to be clear. Insurrection is not a form of protest. Insurrection is not a form of communication; it is an attempt to seize power through illegal means. Protest is not. They should not be equated. Insurrection should not be afforded the protections that protest deserves. Nor is vandalism a form of protest. It is merely self-indulgent exploitation of a situation. With vandalism, there is no desire to reason together or come to resolution, as is the case with healthy protest.
                Another important distinction we need to make is between political action that is reality based and action that is based on delusion. When it is fueled by delusion, people simply need to be stopped. They will not stop themselves. There is no reality-testing possible, no reasoning that will change things. No additional recounts or court cases will get them to recognize that they were wrong. There is no additional fact-finding by congress that will convince them. Delusion does not work that way. Delusion based behavior simply needs to be contained. It is simply too compelling for most people to self-regulate without professional help. In this case, there is no willingness to recognize that one is wrong, which is required of discourse. In this case, what also leads to insurrectionist motives is simply a refusal to accept the loss of power that is inevitable with the ebb and flow of democracy. Some people don’t act democratically because they are incapable or unwilling to do so. Such people need to be stopped. And we can do so with compassion.


The Truth About White Protest Distress


White liberals, this message is for you too.

“You want me to tell the truth? Sure, I want you to get what you need to be free from injustice. I just don’t want it to cost me anything. I don’t want to be afraid or insecure for my future. I don’t want your protest to make the stock market go down. I don’t want to lose symbols I am attached to. I don’t want to lose my favorite boutique. I don’t want to look to the future with uncertainty. I don’t want to look at what you are doing and be confused. I hate confusion, insecurity, fear and loss more than I hate the injustice you endure, if I’m really honest.

So, I will keep my certainty. If what you protestors are doing doesn’t make sense to me, then I will insist that it doesn’t make sense. If your way of protesting doesn’t seem right to me, I will insist that it isn’t right. Why can’t you be like Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their protests didn’t threaten or disturb anyone, did they? Their protest followed the established rules of engagement for change, didn’t they?”


Well no. Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King succeeded in large part because they engaged by different rules. People in positions of power think they have the right to decide the rules of engagement for anyone taking issue with them. Of course, they only do so in a way that gives them the advantage. They aren’t stupid.”

European soldiers and European American soldiers fought in straight lines, faced off, in open terrain. Those native to this land did not fight that way. Had they tried to, they would have had no chance. They hid behind boulders, ridges, and trees. They used the element of surprise. So the Europeans, our ancestors, condemned this way of fighting as being uncivilized, morally wrong.

Those in power fault protestors for not working through the system rather than trying to settle things in the court of public opinion. They have more control over the system than the wild card of public opinion, which can force their hand. People in power know they will win if the issue is handled in the system they control. Anything else, they want to be wrong

Do white liberals really want what protestors of police racism and Black Lives Matter Advocates want, as they claim? What makes it suspicious are things like lumping all protestors together, to make them a “them,” a coherent group in our minds. It isn’t true and they don’t want that. If we don’t want nuance and complexity, then we don’t really want what they want.

When we insist they have clear goals and strategies, maybe we don’t really want what they want. If we can’t tolerate their process, we can’t really know if we want what they want. Our distress blocks our ability to understand the complexity of what they long for. Our impatience may be hiding our real desire for the protests to fail. When we insist that they aren’t protesting right, it is suspicious that we really want them to fail.

We are confused; we are threatened. We don’t trust the protestors to have power. What would become of us if they got what they wanted? We can’t possibly know. Maybe we are unwilling to do find out, to live with an uncertain future when the present is working so well for us. We want guarantees.

If we care enough to manage our distress internally, then we might be able to make the charitable assumption that the fact that I don’t understand means I have something to learn, not that they are wrong. The charitable assumption that if I feel threatened, I am invested in what is oppressing them, not that they need to be stopped.

With so many others wanting an end to the injustice that they endure, some of the hardest work for those who feel no need to be liberated, is to learn to get out of their way. And that means learning to manage our distress internally and being willing to lose something for the sake of what others can gain. For them to be safer, maybe we need to be less safe. For them to have more power, maybe we need to have less.

Is President Biden Too Old?

Is President Biden too old? Is quarterback Tom Brady too old?

Are we really inviting people to engage in age discrimination? I hope not, but then (full disclosure), I’m old. But so have been some really great baseball managers.

When an old person makes a blunder, we blame their age. When a person in their prime makes a similar one, we regard it as a mistake.

To not hire someone or not vote for them based on anything but their qualifications and performance is simply unfair. It is also kinda stupid as it categorically rules out a lot of great people. Age, gender, race, whatever.

If Tom Brady can no longer read defenses fast enough or throw the football hard enough or far enough, then those are the reasons to bench him. Not his age.

Similarly with politicians. Performance matters; age does not.

It is difficult to not engage in age discrimination. Really. My doctors seem too young to be competent. I’m wrong about that. Likewise, I can find myself thinking that a politician is too young or too old. That does not lead to good decisions to really important questions.

We need to watch our prejudices when they sway our judgment and not let them get the better of our decision making. The well-being of the nation depends on it. Voting is not the time or place to be exercising our prejudices.