risk

Moral Free-Riders

IMMANUEL KANT has been on my mind as I’ve followed the national response to recent measles outbreaks. Kant, a German philosopher, emphasized the danger of a temptation we are all vulnerable to—the temptation to make special exceptions for ourselves. The person who acts against principles that she thinks others ought to follow becomes a kind of moral “free-rider,” attempting to benefit from public moral order without contributing to it.

The spread of disease among the intentionally unvaccinated highlights the free-rider problem faced by parents who seek exemption from vaccination.

Some people believe that leaving their children unvaccinated (or under-vaccinated) minimizes their children’s health risks. If everyone around them has been vaccinated, their risk of infection is indeed low. But when too many people decide to forego vaccination, “herd immunity” is lost and disease outbreaks occur.

In a public without herd immunity, the risks posed by disease far exceed the small risks associated with vaccination. In other words, free-riding does not work when everyone is doing it. Herd immunity does not require universal vaccination, but it does require vaccination of a sufficient majority.

Who should get to be in the minority that remains unvaccinated and yet retains protection from disease? This is who: Babies who are too young to be vaccinated, our elders who cannot mount a robust immune response to some types of vaccines, and cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems all clearly have a claim to be shielded by their neighbors’ immunity. The decision to ask for an exemption for one’s own healthy child is a morally risky decision, one that requires an honest examination of conscience.

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The Church of the Long Haul

WHICH SCRIPTURES WILL our biases tempt us to sidestep this month? Perhaps 2 Timothy? Not usually the favorite of radicals. Whether actually written by Paul just before his death or worked up later by followers, the letter has a certain poignancy, suggesting the waning of Christianity’s pioneer phase. The church is in for the long haul. Its faith needs to find forms that can be transmitted across generations. It needs patient leadership that will be consistent in the face of inauthentic mutations of the gospel, religious imposters, and the distraction of futile controversies—hence the emphasis on sound teaching, the internalized treasure of the creed.

Let’s honor this recognition within scripture itself that the gospel needs institutions. The church must even risk banality in some of its teaching practices. A great interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, Friedrich von Hügel, invites us to respect the way radical teachings have to be given forms that can be handled by regular folks, not geniuses. “Is there not a pathetic instruction in watching the insertion of the copper alloy into the pure gold ... that is, a metal sufficiently resistant to the clumsy handling of the multitude to be able to persist in the transmission of a value, and indeed a precise value, even though it be not the highest. There is surely a pathos here most thoroughly characteristic of the abiding limitations and homely needs of our poor humanity.”

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ October 6 ]
Faith Increased, Faith Infectious
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

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Peering in the Dark Corners

JEREMY SCAHILL SPENT years working out his notions of social justice in homeless shelters and conflict zones and among peace activists. In 2007, Scahill’s award-winning investigative reporting made waves when he published Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a comprehensive exposé on the secret role of private military contractors in the United States’ “war on terror,” which prompted several congressional inquiries. Scahill’s newest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, digs into the obscure underbelly of U.S. covert wars.

“In one of my trips to Yemen, I traveled in the south of the country where most of the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have happened,” Scahill said during a recent visit to Sojourners’ Washington, D.C. office. “I was interviewing a number of tribal leaders. This guy from Shabwa province said to me, ‘[Americans] consider al Qaeda [to be] terrorism. We consider your drones [to be] terrorism.’ I heard that over and over in a variety of countries. ... Many people, in Yemen or in Somalia, would not be predisposed to think of al Qaeda as anything positive. Al Qaeda is a reviled organization in Yemen. ... But there are tribal leaders who are saying, ‘You know, you pushed us into a corner where our people are now sympathetic with al Qaeda.’ After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”

In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill’s book title, Dirty Wars (and film of the same name), is partly “a macabre tip-of-the-hat to the dirty wars in Central America, fueled by the United States ... targeting people who are insurgents and claiming they were communists. The new version of this is targeting people who are fighting us and claiming they’re al Qaeda.”

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A True Contender

Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"

PAYING ATTENTION isn't easy in a world of infinite content, but there's a reason artists and prophets from Jeremiah to Arthur Miller have called upon us to sit up and listen: A drop of water or a focused breath may be as inexhaustible as a symphony or a thousand-mile trek. And one film? It could contain the world. On the Waterfront is not that film (for me it's Andrei Tarkovsky's transcendent portrait of a 15th century icon painter, Andrei Rublev), but it belongs in the canon all right. The new Criterion BluRay edition not only offers the crispest representation of the 1954 New Jersey dockyard visuals any of us have ever seen, it also illustrates the sociopolitical and creative context in a manner richer than any previously released.

So the story of a former prize fighter torn between his brother's mob ties, a blossoming love affair, his broken ambition, and desire to do the right thing emerges once again, six decades after first exploding onto the national consciousness, winning eight Oscars along the way. It's six decades and a bit more since its director, Elia Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, another man making a tough decision amid nearly impossible pressure: name names and survive or take the Fifth and receive exile. It's one decade after a perhaps more self-conscious Academy gave Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar, though half of the audience chose to sit on their hands. We may ask whether or not the grace of God would have enabled any of us to do differently than Kazan, or if he perhaps had good reason to challenge the worst Soviet practices in the 1940s, or if the value of an artwork depends on the integrity of the artist. More questions besides are explored in the array of features on this On the Waterfront disc—interviews with Kazan, a documentary about the film's making, and a transcript of Kazan's defense of his testimony.

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Guns, Culture, and Sanity

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

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Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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Raising Sons and Raising Men

This past Saturday, on a brilliant fall morning, my eight-year-old son came bounding downstairs for breakfast. I reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a cold Diet Mountain Dew from in between glass-bottled organic milk and tomato juice, and served it to him with farm-fresh eggs, feeling the part of a drug dealer.

We had a long day ahead, and I wanted to see what happened.

I smiled to myself, imagining some upcoming event, the mothers’ conversation all about peanut-free this and local that, when I’d pipe above the crowd to say, Hey sweetheart, how about your Mountain Dew?

The arrival of Diet Mountain Dew in my house is only the first in a cascade of little experiments we are now undertaking as a result of neuropsychological testing in August indicating that my son has a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Our house has never lacked order or discipline, and yet now we are thinking about how to structure everything more explicitly.

Diet Mountain Dew, with its massive amounts of caffeine, is our initial effort in our goal of avoiding, for now, giving him any stimulant medications: Did you know that caffeine actually calms down a hyperactive person, allowing them to focus? Maybe that’s why I’ve drunk eight cups of coffee every day since around 1985.

I tried the coffee with my son first, hoping I could cultivate a new bond with him over a shared habit. He detested the stuff. You could always give him Red Bull, one of my brothers said. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, hence the Diet Mountain Dew.

Missional Church: A Paper Revolution

It started with a few pieces of construction paper.

If you’ve been following my blog at all over the past few months, you know that Amy and I recently moved our family from Southern Colorado, where we planted a church eight years ago, to Portland, Oregon. Though we’re still doing ministry, it’s a completely different kind of work. Now we’re at a 133-year-old church in the heart of the city. The facility is incredible and the history of the church spans generations. But with that comes a good deal more administrative work than either of us is used to.

We found a preschool for Zoe right away. In fact, the first day she told us that we needed to leave and let her do her school thing. She’s the kind of kid who blooms wherever she’s planted. Mattias, our eight-year-old son, is a little more complicated. Aside from him having Asperger’s, the schools here don’t get out for a couple of weeks yet. This means not only that he has no other kids his age to play with, but also that the typical summer activities we could enroll him in don’t start until mid-June. The result: he gets to spend some pretty long days with us at the church.

Most times, he makes the best of it. He’s figured out how to navigate the labyrinthine halls by scooter, and he has plowed through more cartoons on the iPad than is healthy, I’m sure. But we have to work and we have no other options for him. So far, we’ve all managed.

But yesterday afternoon, he’d had enough. He looked up from his chair on the other side of Amy’s desk with tears filling his eyes. “Mom,” he said quietly, “I’m so bored.” There are plenty of adjectives that describe Mattias, but quiet isn’t one of them. So you know when his voice reduces to a whisper, he is really being sincere.

Amy came down and stuck her head around the corner into my office. “We’re going across the street to throw paper airplanes in the park, she said. “want to come?”

Image by Feng Yu/Shutterstock.

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