The first thing out the door

Is there such a thing as human nature? It seems an abstract question, one that philosophers and theologians might want to pursue, but not the rest of us. Yet the answer to that question is surprisingly important to the ordering of everyday life and society.

If you look up the word “nature” in a dictionary, you will find definitions similar to these from the Oxford Dictionary: (1) The physical force regarded as causing and regulating the phenomena of the world. (2) The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something. (2.1) The innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal.

Nature, then, is the way things are. The laws of nature are the way things work (which can be and, to a high degree have been, identified). The laws of nature undergird the natures of people, animals and things.

If that is true, then the laws of nature are a basis for, and give rise to, natural law, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “A body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.” Natural law is a way of framing how human nature functions at its best.

On the basis of natural law (that body of unchanging moral principles for human conduct), societies craft legislation to provide order and maintain justice. The idea is that both individuals and societies achieve fulfillment when they function according to their nature.

This idea has been afforded a central place in American thought. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the station to which “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” Americans. The idea lies behind the Declaration’s most memorable line: “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…”

Supreme Court Justice James Iredell paid tribute to natural law when he wrote, “The victory for freedom of thought recorded in our Bill of Rights recognizes that in the domain of conscience there is a moral power higher than the State.” The idea of natural law is writ large over the history of American jurisprudence. As Judge Charles Desmond put it, “from the Republic’s founding days till now, the decisions of our highest courts have repeated over and over that there is a higher or natural law…”

But natural law is meaningless if people do not have a nature – an idea put forward by John Dewey and other philosophers in the early twentieth century. If men have a nature, then natural law provides the basis for a society’s laws, as thinkers from Cicero to Aquinas to John Marshall have maintained. But if there is no such thing as “human nature,” then anything goes – and justice will be one of the first things out the door.

In the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, it’s become increasingly evident that the idea of human nature (and with it the influence of natural law) has lost standing. Lacking the validation of natural law, the Court has increasingly turned to public sentiment to justify its rulings.

This was the case in the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy regarding Texas sodomy laws. It’s clear the majority did not look to natural or constitutional law but to public opinion for direction. This was also true in more recent rulings, as the court overturned DOMA, affirmative action legislation, and state laws banning same-sex marriage. For the first time in the Court’s history, public opinion polling has become part of its decision making metric.

But is public sentiment, informed and influenced by richly-funded media campaigns, a trustworthy guide? History, with its slavery, lynchings, segregation, and anti-Semitism (all popular in their day), raises serious doubts. It should give us pause that Hitler was taken to be the embodiment of, as the Nazis liked to put it, “the healthy sentiments of the people.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/03/2015

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What Should We Think of Planned Parenthood?

Once, after hearing a speaker at a large public meeting claim that Planned Parenthood offered women nothing but abortions, I wrote a column disputing that assertion. It was an obvious distortion, and needed to be challenged.

Now it’s Planned Parenthood that needs to be challenged. The organization has – it seems intentionally – misrepresented itself and the services it provides in order to protect its federal funding (roughly a half-billion dollars in taxpayer monies) from being cut.

Whenever that funding has been challenged, as it has in both state and federal governments, Planned Parenthood’s leaders and supporters repeat the same arguments: that abortions represent only a tiny percentage of the organization’s health care services, and that defunding Planned Parenthood will deprive women – particularly women in lower income brackets – of necessary health services.

These are both misrepresentations, formulated by Planned Parenthood, and promulgated (sometimes unwittingly) by its supporters in the public square.

First, there is the assertion that only a tiny percentage (Planned Parenthood puts the actual figure at 3 percent) of the organization’s services involve abortion. This claim is a central tenet of Planned Parenthood orthodoxy. It has been repeated countless times (including in a current Newsweek article), yet it is a blatant misrepresentation of the truth.

To come up with the 3 percent figure, Planned Parenthood had to count each thing it does for a client as one service, whether providing contraceptives or making a referral, giving a client a urine pregnancy test or performing an abortion. It then divides the number of abortions by the number of “services” provided and arrives at the 3 percent number – as if handing a woman a cheap pregnancy test is somehow equivalent to performing an abortion.

To include an abortion as just another service is intentionally misleading. Writing in a New York Post op-ed piece, Rich Lowry of The National Review says that if The New York City Marathon used this kind of reasoning it could label itself as a hydration business, since it serves over 2 million cups of water but only has 45,000 runners. Or “Major League Baseball teams could say that they sell about 20 million hot dogs and play 2,430 games in a season, so baseball is only .012 percent of what they do.” That why a Slate editor called Planned Parenthood’s 3 percent figure the “most meaningless abortion statistic ever.”

The other frequently-made claim that misrepresents the facts is that women in lower income brackets will be deprived of health care if Planned Parenthood is defunded.

In making this claim, some Planned Parenthood supporters, including President Obama, have talked about the mammograms that Planned Parenthood provides. But the fact is, Planned Parenthood does not and never has provided mammograms. The president probably just got his talking points wrong, but what about the senior official at Planned Parenthood who suggested that many women would not get access to mammograms if it were not for her organization’s referrals, since Planned Parenthood is the only health care provider for countless women?

If that claim were true and funding was cut, then untold numbers of women would be deprived of basic health care services. But that claim is not true. According to its own study, less than one percent of Planned Parenthood clients use the organization as their primary health care provider. And many of those women could find another federally qualified health center (there are over a thousand of them) that provides contraception, STI testing, and cancer screenings.

What should we think about Planned Parenthood, especially in the light of recent and troubling revelations? We should think about transferring funding away from Planned Parenthood to other federally qualified health care centers as soon as possible. The organization has violated public trust and should no longer conduct its business using taxpayer money.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/26/2015

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Dignity is not the result of circumstances

Whenever I faced a challenge as a boy, my leatherneck dad would say to me: “You can do this standing on your head.” It didn’t matter what “this” happened to be – football tryouts, trigonometry, passing a driver’s test – the response was always the same: “You can do this standing on your head.” If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times.

I spent the last week of my dad’s life in my parents’ home, caring for him and for my mother. A few days before his death from lung cancer, I asked him: “Are you afraid to die?”

He looked me in the eye (I can still remember the eagle-like intensity of his eyes) and said: “I can do this standing on my head.” Of all the times I heard him say it, that’s the one that sticks with me most.

My dad went toe to toe with death. He knew what it would do to him: weaken his body to the point of needing help to do the simplest things; rob him of mental acuity and then of consciousness; and then stop his beating heart. Yet he faced it with courage and poise.

Last week the California Senate followed the State Assembly in passing legislation that legalizes assisted suicide. Governor Jerry Brown will now have to decide whether or not to sign the bill, which allows physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The bill was inspired and supported by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old, terminally ill Californian who moved to Oregon in order to legally end her life. Political observers are unsure what action Brown, who attended a Jesuit college, is likely to take.

Nevertheless, the media is calling the California vote a major victory for “right to die” advocates, and around the country lobbyists for “Death with Dignity” legislation have been reenergized. As they see it, every state must enact similar laws in order to provide their citizens assurance of a death with dignity.

Don’t tell me that my dad did not die with dignity. I was there. I saw it.

“Death with Dignity” advocates are compassionate people. They are trying to help, but it seems to me they are operating under a misconception: that to die with dignity means to die in the circumstances of one’s own choosing, and with as little pain as possible. They want people to be able to die before they die; that is, to die before their minds and bodies are ready for death.

I worked for years as a Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator and during that time I saw, again and again, people go through the hard work of dying. I saw how the very process of dying prepares a person for death. Men and women who were, upon their diagnosis, angry and afraid (and sometimes overwhelmed) were frequently calm and assured and ready to die by the time death arrived. They died with dignity. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Contrary to the claims of some “right to die” proponents, people are not at their most vulnerable when they die. People are most vulnerable when they are afraid. When they are worried they’ll be a burden to their families. When they feel guilty for using their children’s inheritance to pay for medical treatment. And it is then, when they are most vulnerable, that laws like the one passed in California persuade them to end their lives before they’re ready for death.

Dignity is never the result of circumstances, but of character – character that is formed to a significant degree through the process of dying. That process will be interrupted in California as people, either through fear or to avoid burdening their families, hurry to die. One cannot avoid death by hurrying its arrival, but one can miss out on the assurance and peace that untold millions of people have found by going through the process.

Christians ought never hurry death nor fear it. They know that the God who has led and befriended them will continue to do so even, and especially, as death nears. “For,” as the psalmist put it, “this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/19/2015

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What Ashley Madison can teach us

The now-famous Ashley Madison website marketed itself with the slogan, “30 million members can’t be wrong.” Maybe they ought to rethink that.

The site currently claims “Over 40,915,000 anonymous members!” One wonders how accurate that number is now, particularly the part about anonymity, since hackers breached the website’s security and posted almost 10 gigabytes of members’ personal data online. The company’s “Trusted Security Award” has become an embarrassment, and its claim to “100 percent discreet service” is, in hindsight, a pathetic joke.

The company also promised “100 percent like-minded people.” Turns out it’s more like 90 percent like-minded men, since nine out of ten Ashley Madison members are male. What’s more, tens of thousands of the “women” respondents in the communications the website facilitates are nothing more than computer-generated responses that geeks call “fembots.”

So what can Ashley Madison teach us, besides the fact that men can be jerks?

First it can teach us that the biggest fantasy at Ashley Madison was not about sex but about security. When will people learn? The greatest heist in history – a billion dollars stolen from one hundred banks by Russian hackers this year – happened online. If you have something to hide, don’t put it online. If you have something to protect, you better think twice before you secure it with a password like the two most common ones at Ashley Madison: 123456, followed by 12345678. The idea that there is security apart from God is a fantasy.

The best protection is a clear conscience. Secrets don’t stay secret. The day will come, as St. Paul affirms, “when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself put Ashley Madison users (and all the rest of us) on notice: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”

The Ashley Madison hack teaches us something else. Plenty of people, particularly men, are dissatisfied. They are bored and unhappy. They’re looking for something to give their lives meaning and excitement, and over 40 million of them went to Ashley Madison to find it.

It was the wrong place to look. Wrong because it’s a scam. (“Fembots” – really?) It’s wrong because it’s wrong. Most of the people signing up to commit adultery once took a vow before witnesses to be faithful to their spouses until death. And it’s wrong because God has prohibited it. Remember the seventh commandment? “You shall not commit adultery.”

But Ashley Madison was also the wrong place to look because sensual gratification is not a lasting solution to the problems of boredom and broken relationships. When sex is primarily a distraction, as it is for many people seeking an affair, it’s never a solution. In fact, it is almost certain to compound the problems.

When people fail to live fully, which always includes living spiritually, the human body inevitably become a person’s primary – and, often, only – source of pleasure. And sex becomes the distraction of choice – a distraction that, even when secret, can lead to the disintegration of relationships.

Yes, 30 million members can be wrong – dead wrong. It was reported today that a Louisiana pastor killed himself in the wake of the scandal. Yet his wife and kids seem to have been quite ready to forgive him. His life might have been better after he was outed than it was before, if only he had known. If only he’d confessed.

Millions of people live with shame and guilt who could experience forgiveness and reconciliation, if they would just confess what they’ve done. Maybe their spouse would not forgive; there is no guarantee. But with God there is a guarantee: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.” There can be forgiveness and happiness again.

And maybe that’s the most important thing Ashley Madison can teach us.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, September 12, 2015

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Back to the present: how future Americans will see us

When reading European authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one frequently runs across descriptions of America and Americans. Americans are either burly, uncultured, do-it-yourselfers or rich, ambitious, self-made men. As a nation America is emotional and reckless, but also courageous. Find an American in an Agatha Christie mystery, and it’s a pretty good bet he or she will either be the killer, the murder victim, or the ridiculously self-absorbed bystander.

G. K. Chesterton described Americans this way: “Americans have a taste for…rocking-chairs. A flippant critic might suggest that they select rocking-chairs so that, even when they are sitting down, they need not be sitting still.” Earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville characterized America this way: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

Recently I ran across several such descriptions, and it started me thinking about how America might be characterized by its contemporaries or, more interestingly still, by its historians. How will some future Edward Gibbon depict present-day America and Americans?

Future thinkers will portray our America as overwhelmingly distracted. Citing the shocking statistic that as many as 50 percent of Americans felt overwhelmed at work, they may come to the same conclusion Tony Schwartz did in the Harvard Business Review: the cause is not overwork but the attempt to juggle too many things at one time.

Americans, a future historian might say, lived to be distracted. They constantly checked email, shopped online, channel surfed, dined out, and spent money. Affluence was measured by the ability to pay for distractions. Indeed, some future Gibbon may conjecture that had America taken a 24 hour respite from distractions, her economy would have entirely collapsed.

A future historian might also point out that in the early 21st century America was dominated by feelings. “Crushed” might be a better word. That historian would notice that Americans believed that feelings were the only authentic thing about them. To betray one’s convictions was no big deal, but to betray one’s feelings – that was totally hypocritical.

A discerning historian might connect the dots between this disproportionate emphasis on feelings and another distinguishing feature of the age: the magnitude of addictions. Early 21st century America is addicted, as is inevitable when life is governed by feelings.

A careful historian would uncover telling data: more Americans died from painkiller overdoses than from car accidents. The increase in overdoses rose by 132% between 2004 and 2011, and the illicit use of drugs more than doubled among people between the ages of 50 and 64. Nearly one in four Americans reported episodes of binge drinking. America was hooked.

Studying the early 21st century, a historian might be shocked by the degree to which America was sexualized. It’s most persistent debates – abortion, same-sex marriage, gender rights – all revolved around issues of sexuality. That historian would find countless pictures of sexualized little girls and boys, not just in illegal pornography but in mainstream advertising. He or she would find scholarly articles on gender dysphoria alongside tawdry gossip columns on the same subject. Evidence of sexual preoccupation would be found in almost every area of life.

Our historian would also find that early 21st century Americans lived in fear. The previous generation’s dread of “the bomb” was replaced by fear of: immigrants, terrorism, weather events, old age, wrinkles, lack of resources, genetically-altered foods, global warming, fat, and the loss of social security benefits. Our future historiographer’s working title might be: “Sex, fear, and addiction in early 21st century America.”

It’s not too late to change that title, though it will take a spiritual earthquake to do it. St. Paul’s counsel, given to an equally troubled age, is key. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” Nothing less will do.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, September, 5, 2015

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A rose by any other name

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Those are of course Juliet’s lines in Act II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If only Romeo’s last name were something other than Montague, there would be no obstacle between them.

Juliet sees words (including names) as mere labels, attached for the sake of convenience. But like the Capulet’s and Montague’s, contemporary thinkers would beg to differ. Words frame our ideas and direct the way we think about them. People who study language and cognition know that thinking is shaped and directed by the words we hear and repeatedly use.

A proverb attributed to Confucius states that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. But how is one to do that? What, for example, would the sage call today’s political wrangling – fidelity to principle or stubborn pride? Yes, the odor of the rose remains the same, whatever we call it, but so does that of cow manure. We must call it something and, as soon as we do, the words we use begin to shape the way we think about it.

Consider MSNBC and Fox News, for example. Were someone to conduct an analysis of word usage on their shows, particularly in regards to nomenclature, it would demonstrate the power of language to shape thought. Followers of these competitors frame the issues of the day in distinctly dissimilar, and sometimes irreconcilable, ways because of the power of words.

The ancient world was well aware of the power of naming things and people. To name something was, in some sense, to exercise authority over it. Any astute viewer of the news media will know this truth has not been lost on moderns.

A clear example of the power of words can be found in the social war triggered by Roe v. Wade. One of the critical battles waged has been over terminology. People who favor comprehensive abortion rights routinely refer to themselves as pro-choice, while those opposing them refer to them pro-abortion, or something yet more inflammatory. Both sides understand the power of language to influence thought.

Another idea from the ancient world is that knowing the true name (as in the Confucian proverb) of a person or thing gives one power over that person or thing. Many scholars believe this is the reason that biblical Jacob demanded to know the name of his opponent, who resolutely refused to give it, in the famous wrestling match of Genesis 32.

That same story also illustrates the intrinsic power of assigning names to people. Though Jacob’s opponent withholds his own name, he gives to Jacob a new one: Israel. In so doing, the man whose name meant something like “conniver” received a new identity and a new way of thinking about himself.

The power of naming was uniquely displayed in Hindu law, which required Dalits (“Untouchables”) to be given one name, which had to be pejorative. So little babies were given names like “Dung” or “Ugly.” Someone called “Dung” all his life has been conditioned to think himself incapable of challenging the cruel and unjust social structures that demean his people.

A more encouraging example of the power of naming is found in the Christian scriptures. There it is said that the Lord will give a new name to all who overcome. George Macdonald reflects on this idea: “The giving of … the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man … The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it.”

“Who can give a man this, his own name?” Macdonald asks, and then answers, “God alone. For no one but God sees what the man is.”

A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it’s different for people. A person has a true name, which is an invitation to vast and rich possibilities, an invitation to become all that one could ever hope to be.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/29/2015

BTW – I would love to see an enterprising grad student take on the challenge of conducting an analysis of language, particularly that of nomenclature, in regards to the respective news outlets mentioned above. Perhaps it could serve as a dissertation in philosophy or political science. Let me know if you take on the challenge.


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A rich and lasting heritage

I was a little anxious. I was guest speaker at our church’s youth group, sitting before a crowd of teenagers who had been encouraged to ask any question they wanted. They asked really good questions: Why does God allow suffering? How can we know if God is speaking to us? How can it be just to send a person to hell for eternity?

During free time, I joined a pick-up basketball game with some of the teens. I was easily the tallest, and arguably the best, player on the court. I got rebounds, made outlet passes, hustled down court and cut to the hoop or positioned myself on the blocks. But nobody ever passed me the ball.

That didn’t bother me. Teenage boys are notorious for being ball-hogs, and at first I shrugged it off at that. But then I realized the boys were passing the ball to other boys on the team, but not to me. I may be wrong, but it crossed my mind that they weren’t passing me the ball because they thought I was old (and probably unreliable).

I’m in my late fifties. My hair is thinning and my beard is white. I don’t look like a thirty-year-old any more, though as long as I don’t look in the mirror, I still feel like one. The realization that some (admittedly very young) people think that I’m old came as a surprise.

But the truth is, I have been on this planet for almost six decades. What have I been doing with all that time? Is the earth a better place because I’ve been here? Am I leaving a heritage for my family, friends and church? And, if so, what is it?

I frequently ask people about the heritage handed down to them by the important people in their lives. I usually introduce the topic by explaining the difference between an inheritance (what someone leaves you when they die – property, cash, stocks and bonds) and a heritage (what someone leaves inside you when they die – a strong work ethic, a thirst for knowledge, a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility, a love of family).

An inheritance can be directed to anyone, including a stranger, but a heritage can only be imparted to people to whom one is known. An inheritance can make a person rich, but a heritage can make him valuable. A heritage is more precious than an inheritance.

A few years ago it was common to see cars with bumper stickers that read, “I’m spending my kids’ inheritance.” (It’s less common now, because all those people spent their kids’ inheritance on new cars.) It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which spending the kids’ inheritance would be the right thing to do, but it impossible to imagine a situation in which frittering away the kids’ heritage would be good. Yet people do it all the time.

Heritage is frittered away by people who do not connect genuinely and personally with those around them, especially family. While passing on heritage does not require words, it does require close and extended contact. People with the ability to pass on a rich heritage can fritter it away by isolating themselves from those around them.

Heritage can also be compromised. Just as an inheritance is compromised when inherited liabilities exceed assets, a heritage is compromised when as many (or even more) negative qualities are passed on as positive ones. What good does it do if I pass on to my children a strong work ethic, but along with it instill in them an indifference towards the feelings of others?

What can I do to impart a rich heritage to family and friends? I can stop thinking about heritage and start thinking about the people around me. What will be helpful to them? How can I use the gifts, passions and experience I possess to serve them?

Further, I can own the truth that the best way to give a life-enriching heritage is to give myself. Sensible words and wise counsel are not enough. Heritage cannot be imparted from a safe distance. I have to be present and involved. Nothing else can guarantee a rich and lasting heritage.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/22/2015

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