Authors and Receivers

Rather than send people away, restorative justice invites people in. There are a variety of ways to do that. One of them was devised by Dominic Barter in Brazil.

Dominic Barter, an Englishman from north London, went to Brazil in 1992. He found a land of beauty and a people with a tremendous joy in living. He also found an enormous disparity between those with access to wealth and those without it, and high levels of social tension and violence. Gradually he began to form connections with people and with various projects in the shantytowns. As he interacted and listened, people told him about the conflicts in which they were embroiled. These were communities in Rio de Janeiro that were pretty-much beyond any police control -- communities run by armed gangs. People in these communities were largely on their own to work out resolutions of their conflicts. Some of those ways worked fairly well, actually, and others didn’t. Of the various approaches that organically emerged, Barter’s work was in finding what worked, combining it with other things that worked, eventually seeing an overall system emerge, and then helping that spread.

What emerged for him, he calls Restorative Circles.

The approach assumes there are always three parties in a conflict. The first two are called "authors" and "receivers" -- rather than "offenders" and "victims." "Offender" and "victim" may sound like a permanent state of being, and one that allows a given person to be, at most, only one. Authors, on the other hand, are those who have done some action that needs to be talked about. Receivers are those who felt, willingly or otherwise, an effect of that action. The language “author” and “receiver” identifies participants as playing roles we all play at various times. In fact, in one given interaction we are likely to have done both some authoring and some receiving. "Author" and "receiver" are more free of the connotation that the action authored was inherently wrong or that the impact received was intrinsically harmful.

The third party is the wider community.

In one restorative circle there might be a number of authors, and a number of receivers, and some people who are both, and others who are neither. While some forms of restorative justice are particularly victim-sensitive – oriented toward an encounter with the offender that will yield some satisfaction for the victim – Dominic Barter’s approach is not skewed toward sensitivity to the victim. His Restorative Circles are contexts for dialog as equals.

Authors, receivers, and community representatives come together in a circle – sometimes a pretty big circle. There’s a facilitator who guides the conversation through three stages.

The first stage is to re-establish the ability to hear each other. Everyone in the circle has the chance to speak to any other member of the circle and tell them what they want them to know. After someone speaks, address their remarks to someone else in the circle, the facilitator asks the listener to say in his own words what he heard. If he doesn’t get it quite right, to the speaker’s satisfaction, the speaker clarifies, and the listener tries again.
And so on, as many times as necessary until the speaker is satisfied that she’s been heard.

Then the next speaker addresses someone. And so on, until everyone in the circle who wants to say something to anyone else in the circle has a chance to do so, and to receive back from that person a satisfactory confirmation that she has been understood. It may take a long time, but it’s crucial to re-establish the ability to hear each other.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 4: "Making Healing Part of Justice"
Previous: Part 2: "Incarceration Nation"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"


Incarceration Nation

From 1920 to 1980, the number of prisoners in the US increased slowly and steadily – as the country’s population was also increasing:
  • 1920: 110,099 prisoners
  • 1940: 272,995 prisoners
  • 1960: 332,945 prisoners
  • 1980: 474,368 prisoners
Beginning in 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, who launched a “war on drugs,” our incarceration rate took a steep turn upward. Suddenly, we were up to 1.15 million prisoners by 1990, and over 2 million by 2001. In 20 years, the US prison population more than quadrupled. What are we doing?

We’re certainly not healing the wound created by the crime. We’re not making things right – as the term “justice” implies. We are warehousing the ones we think are dangerous, walling them off in the interests of our safety – though, in fact, most of our prisoners are in for nonviolent offenses.

But the idea of restorative justice – restoring what was lost, healing what was injured – calls to our hearts. We want to find a way to come back together to walk the sacred way, for we have been divided by the prison walls that keep us apart. We are further divided by delegating responsibility for our collective well-being to authorities entirely outside ourselves. All we can do is call in the police, prosecuting attorneys, and they take it from there. They do…whatever it is that they do.

Of course vigilantism is always a bad idea, and measures to prevent it are good. At the same time, we as a people are damaged by being so completely divorced from the systems that provide us the only kind of justice available.

Of course there are people so damaged and so dangerous they have to be restrained.

Of course there are times when the armed force of police is necessary. That restraint and police force are sometimes needed does not mean they are always needed when a law has been broken, and we have become a people that rely on them much more than we have to.

New work and new experiments into the possibility of restorative justice are emerging.
“We know that we are the ones who are divided. And we are the ones who must come back together to walk the sacred way" (Ojibway prayer).
Paul Tillich, the 20th-century German-American existentialist theologian, said justice was “the work of love in community.” He said love was “the longing for the reunion of the separated.” As a people of justice and love, a people attuned to the work of love in community and a people longing for the reunion of the separated, our faith and our hearts call us toward the promise of restoration. Restorative justice is, as John Braithwaite defines:
“a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm. Restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. Thus, conversations with those who have been hurt and with those who have afflicted the harm must be central to the process.”
* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 3: "Authors and Receivers"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"


Crime and Punishment

On the one hand we know that crime is an intractable part of our reality – it isn’t going away. So we watch it on police drama shows TV and movies and crime thriller novels. We learn to appreciate the cleverness of a double-cross. We see the humor in some of it, as ways to cope with this world where crime happens.

On the other hand, we also take steps to keep crime, criminals, and punishment as far out of sight and out of mind as we can. We hide prisons and prisoners away and prefer not to think about what’s going on in our prisons, and how many people we have in them.

At the same time, in the quiet of our hearts, there is a longing for a healing.
“Look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation, only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the ones who are divided. And we are the ones who must come back together to walk the sacred way. Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other.” (from the Ojibway Indians of North American)
We stray from the sacred way of walking together in harmony.

It may be that other species also yearn – however inarticulately -- for a way to heal their divisions. One thing humans do, though, is develop institutional ways of handling those we deem trouble-makers. We probably aren’t the only species that punishes, but we do have the most elaborate institutions for doing it.

In the history of human punishment, we’ve tried all manner of ways to inflict pain or death or deprive of resources through fines and property penalties. Or we punish by separation: either banishment to push the offender out or imprisonment to hold the offender in. None of these has ever been very good at repairing the relationship damaged by the crime.

Indeed, in the history of crime and punishment, the human need to “come back together to walk the sacred way” – for restitution after injury – has slowly been pushed further into the background. Ancient law codes often provided measures for restitution for violent crimes, property crimes, or both. These included Code of Ur-Nammu in Sumer more than four thousand years ago; Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, Israel’s Pentateuch, and the legal systems in ancient Rome, Old Ireland, fifth- and sixth-century Germany and England. The indigenous peoples of North America and Australia had systems that included restitution – restorative justice. Around the 11th- and 12th-centuries European law began to shift toward regarding offenses against the “king’s peace.” Crime’s primary legal status shifted to being an offense against the state rather than as an injury to a person. Thus retribution became the central principle rather than restitution. The formalization and development of legal systems moved us away from our natural intuitions about what justice is – away from the healing and restoration our hearts and spirits yearn for when a wrong has been felt.

The U.S., in particular, driven by a desire for justice and having no structures for restoration, we have gotten more and more extreme in imposing retribution. One in every 34 US residents are currently being penalized by our judicial system. One in every 200 are locked up. That’s 2.1 million people in prison in the US. That’s fully one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world. The US has four percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This means that 1.7 million children in the US have a parent who is locked up. What are we doing?

As a deterrent, this is essentially nonfunctional. We know that it’s the certainty of being caught, not the severity of the punishment, that deters crime. If you don’t think you’ll be caught, it doesn’t matter how sever the punishment is. Nor do our prison systems rehabilitate, or deter future crime from those who are caught – as the recidivism rate shows. What are we doing?

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 2: "Incarceration Nation"


Desire Isn't the Enemy

We like food. It feels good. We can get obsessed with it if we get focused on too much – if we want only the finest foods, and we want a lot of them, and we want them right now. We also fall into obsession when we focus too much on denying the desire. Either way, we are defining ourselves by our desire – and that is the root of what gluttony is all about: allowing ourselves to be defined by desires for gratification.

In the balanced life, we have desire, and we are OK with the fact that we have desire. Our desire gets a seat at the table (as it were). But desire doesn’t gain total control. The voice of desire is neither suppressed nor indulged.

If it is helpful to call “gluttony” a sin, it is helpful only insofar as paying attention to the voice of desire can guide us to a place where we respectfully hear that voice, and then make our own decision. That’s what neither repressing nor indulging looks like: it looks like separating ourselves from our desire, not identifying with it -- stepping back from it, yet paying attention to it.

What is this desire? Where did it come from? What does it have to say to us? Honoring it and hearing it, but also being alert to other options. What other desires are alive in us? Freedom is not immediately caving in to every desire. Nor is freedom steadfastly suppressing every desire.

Nowhere are the contradictions of our lives and of our culture more obvious than when it comes to eating and body image.
“One minute we are bombarded with images of food, advertisements for restaurants or the latest sweet or fatty snack, with recipes and cooking tips. A minute later, we’re reminded that eating is tantamount to suicide, that indulgence and enjoyment equals social isolation and self-destruction. And someone is making money from both sides of our ambivalence about, and fascination with, food, diet, gluttony, and starvation.” (F. Prose)
These messages from the media, we can, perhaps, turn off. The internal messages don’t just turn off.

Be attentive, not indulgent. Talk to yourself: “Oh, there you are, you attraction to that cheesecake. I feel you there, pulling at me. And I know you are coming from a worthwhile place: you want me to have pleasure and maybe some energy from the calories and a little sugar rush. You’re just trying to look out for me.” From there, you’re in a much better position to choose. Maybe you then take that cheesecake, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you work out a different strategy to meet the need that is being voiced in you. By neither repressing nor indulging you are liberated from being controlled by the desire.

Desire isn’t you. And it isn’t your enemy. It’s a dear friend who’s a lot of fun, but sometimes gets crazy ideas. It’s not your master, and it’s not your slave: it’s your friend. So when your friend proposes some wild scheme involving, say, chocolate, you laugh. And then you’re thoughtful. And then you can either say, “OK, let’s do it.” Or you can say, “Let’s do that later. Let’s do something else, right now.”

We all have that inner glutton. It’s one of our teachers, telling us to enjoy what this sweet life offers us. But with this teacher, we don’t have to do every single assignment. And we can decide for ourselves how much we want to be graded on (ahem) the curve.

* * *
This is part 5 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 6: "Consider the Lilies"
Previous: Part 4: ""Healthy Appetite"?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"


An MLK Day Reflection

People are different. On this day for celebrating what would have been Martin Luther King's 84th birthday, Lake Chalice wrestles with how the differences between and among people affect the way people care (or don't) about each other. What are we to do about this? Lately, we have found this issue coming up in a number of ways.

Film: "The Impossible"

Last Thursday, Lake Chalice went to the movies. We saw "The Impossible," with Naomi Watts and Ewan MacGregor. The film depicts a family – a husband, wife, and their three sons, ages 6, 8, and 13 – on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami of 2004 December 26 hits. The film follows the principals as they struggle to survive and reconnect with each other.

Lake Chalice had heard nothing about the film before we started watching. As we watched, it bothered us a little that, not only is the main family white and English speaking, but it seems that all the people shown actively coping with loss are very pale-skinned. There are a lot of darker skinned Thai people serving in helping roles – rescuing, transporting to shelters and hospitals – and there are a number of injured Thai people in the hospitals. What we don’t see is anybody with darker skin among the hundreds who are looking for family members they’ve been separated from. We see Thais passively injured, and we see them in helping roles, but not actively coping in ways that would make viewers' hearts go out to them.

It wasn’t until the credits rolled at the end, that Lake Chalice noted that the family on which the film was based comprised Maria Belón, her husband Enrique, and their sons, Lucas, Simón, and Tomás. They were Belón, but the movie changed their last name to Bennett. The youngest boy was Tomás, the middle boy was Simón, and the husband was Enrique -- which the film changed to Thomas, Simon, and Henry. Does Hollywood think we won't care about a Hispanic family? We see the pathos of human beings caught in a terrible natural disaster, but we won’t care about their pain, won’t be moved by their grit and resourcefulness and the triumph of the human spirit, unless they are Anglo and pale?

As Lake Chalice was thus smoldering about Hollywood's insult to our imaginative and compassionate capacity, the credits began to make clear that this movie did not come from Hollywood. “The Impossible” is a Spanish film. Lake Chalice high-tailed it to the nearest internet connection, and began reading about the film and the family on which it was based.

The Belóns are not a Latin American family, as we had at first guessed, but are natives of Spain, and the film’s writer and director is Spanish. I read this:
"Director Juan Antonio Bayona decided not to specify the nationalities of the main characters in order to create a universal film in which nationalities were irrelevant to the plot."
What? Spanish characters would just be Spanish; Swedish characters are just Swedish; Japanese are just Japanese; Thais are just Thai -- but if they have an Anglo name like Bennett and speak English with an American accent, then they’re universal? Why would a Spanish director believe that? If the lead actress looks like Maria Belón, then she’s merely Hispanic, but if she’s played by blond-haired, blue-eyed Naomi Watts, then she’s the universal Mom? Ouch.

Meadville Lombard Convo

A couple weeks ago, Lake Chalice was at the Unitarian Universalist seminary, Meadville Lombard, in Chicago for a two-day convo on the theme “Crossing Borders.”

We heard Bill Schulz speak. He’s currently the president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and he spoke about his earlier experience when he had been the head of Amnesty International. Amnesty International sends out appeals to people urging them to send letters and cards to bring pressure to release an unjustly held, possibly tortured, prisoner. Amnesty staffers noticed that if the prisoner was middle- or upper-class, and Anglo, the response was much, much greater. This fact disturbed a number of people on the Amnesty International staff. When it comes to caring about strangers, why do we care so much more about the ones who we assume, by reason of class and ethnicity, are like us?

Schulz told the convo that he told his Amnesty staffers: we have to start with where we are. Compassion for a stranger who seems like us precedes compassion for strangers who seem less like us.

(On this point, Schulz proceeded, to Lake Chalice's giddy amazement, to cite our old teacher, mentor, and dissertation director, Richard Rorty. In our years since grad school, Lake Chalice has generally moved on -- having so thoroughly integrated Rorty's work that it no longer seems to us insightful. Nice to be reminded of its power.)

Newtown, Connecticut

Last month, on 2012 December 14, Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a terrible tragedy, and the nation responded with an outpouring of grief, outrage, and media attention.

Hundreds of times that many children starve to death in the world every day. Hundreds of times that many children are killed in gun homicides in the world every year. Where is the outpouring of grief, outrage, and media attention when the terrible tragedy isn’t happening to middle-class American kids?

What's Up With You, Heart?

People are different. And this does effect who we care about. The movie about the tsunami, “The Impossible,” is a well-done film. Lake Chalice recommends it; it’s a good movie, and Naomi Watts' performance is gripping and heart-rending. As we watched, we found we cared about the characters in "The Impossible." A few years ago, Lake Chalice watched "Hotel Rwanda," and we cared about those characters, too -- though they looked neither Anglo nor pale. We looked into our heart to see what we might be able to discern of the heart’s ways.

The heart, Lake Chalice finds, is ready to be pulled in by the details of a story. If the heart feels it is getting to know someone, whatever they look like, then it is ready to care about them. Narrative weaves a connection that is very powerful.

There’s something else we noticed also grabs our heart’s attention: “That could be us.”

That could be me.

When our heart gets going with imaginings of ourself in a given desperate situation, then our heart's rapt attention is ensured. Violence in a school in Brazil, or in Afghanistan, doesn’t so readily bring to mind the thought, “that could be my kid.” Violence in a school in Connecticut does.

The heart has its wisdom, but left to its own devices, it can be narrow.

Lake Chalice's practice, every day, is to open to a wider reality – to point our heart to a truth that it really wants to know but won’t look at unless we have the discipline to repeatedly point it that way, day after day.

The truth is not, that could be us. The truth is, that is us.

The tsunami in Asia happened to us. We are all the pale victims and all the darker victims. We are all the prisoners in dank and barren cells. We are all the tortured. We are the petrified children and the unspeakably bereft parents in Newtown, Connecticut – and in Masaka, Uganda, and in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

People are different. And you, gentle reader, are every one of them. Train our hearts to truly know that, then we will know what to do.


"Healthy Appetite"?

A healthy appetite – even if it happens to be so “healthy” as to be unhealthy -- has something admirable about it. M.F.K Fisher has written:
“I cannot believe that there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point, on anything from quail financiere to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly. In fact I pity anyone who has not permitted himself this sensual experience, if only to determine what his private limitations are, and where, for himself alone, gourmandism ends and gluttony begins.”
Fisher proceeds to offer a certain admiration for the hefty railroad magnate of the Gilded Age, Diamond Jim Brady. Diamond Jim Brady, the story goes,
“would begin his meal by sitting six inches from the table and would quit only when his stomach rubbed uncomfortably against the edge.”
There is, in gluttony, a fundamental affirmation of pleasure and passion.
“Something about the serious glutton (or in any case, some serious gluttons) inspires a certain respect for the life force – the appetite – asserting itself in all that prodigious feasting. It’s not unlike our secret feelings about various Don Juans and Casanovas; even as we understand the compulsive quality of their behavior and destructive effects it has on their hapless lovers, we can’t help feeling a grudging regard for so much sheer sexual energy.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
Our hearts go out to the Australian possum who, a few months ago, got into a bakery (in Australia) one night, and ate and ate until it could not move. The owners came in the next morning and found it lying in a tray of pastries with such an enormously swollen belly that it couldn’t even try to get away. The photograph of this possum in this state went around the internet, with the caption: “I regret nothing.”

We have a certain admiration for unrestrained gusto for the pleasure of life. The fastidious fasting, dieting self-deniers are not so fun to be around.

Indeed, in men, at least, in some ways we have less trust for a guy who, apparently, doesn't have a "healthy appetite." A group of voters read a description, along with a photo, of a hypothetical candidate for office. The group that saw the photo of the lower-weight man (on left) reported less likelihood of voting for him than the group that saw the more heavy-set version (on right). The description of the candidate was identical in both cases. (For more on this study: click here.) In fact, in the summer of 2008, journalist Amy Chozick wondered whether Barack Obama's trimness were a liability -- and found some support for her thesis. (See here.) Perhaps, in this culture, we have grown up with positive associations with the rotund Santa Claus? Or does Clement Moore's description of the "right jolly old elf" reflect a pre-existing attraction to men whose bellies shake "when they laugh, like a bowl full of jelly"?

In any case, it's a different story for women: female candidates do better to be thin. We have heard for decades that some of the same things that are positive for men are judged negatively in women. Behavior approved as "assertive" in a man, for example, is judged "bitchy" in a woman. With the increasing numbers of women executives, many workplaces have begun to see reduction in the assertive/bitchy gender bias. The same "few extra pounds" that make a man more trustworthy and likable, however, continue to earn women a more negative assessment. (Likewise: the sexual gusto of Don Juan or Casanova that might, despite ourselves, elicit a "grudging regard," will be judged with a condemnation less mitigated when manifested in a woman -- notwithstanding the mileage that a few comics such as Chelsea Handler get out of their sexual exploits.)

At the same time, as male obesity rates in this country in the last 10 years have climbed faster than, and are now almost equal to, female obesity rates, we are often harsh with ourselves (whatever our gender) and – secretly or not-so-secretly – with others (whatever their gender) who we perceive as overweight. Aside from the public health concern that in the last 50 years obesity has become what some are calling epidemic, there’s the spiritual issue of our relation to our food. Why did the Church leadership 1500 years ago regard gluttony as a root sin, an origin point of spiritual anomie? Their idea was that
“worship of the senses in general and of the sense of taste in particular turns our attention from holy things and becomes a substitute for the worship of God.” (F. Prose)
Saint Paul called it worshiping the belly. Thomas a Kempis in the 15th century put it:
“When the belly is full to bursting with food and drink, debauchery knocks at the door.”
For both Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (himself quite a large fellow), the issue wasn’t strictly the eating and drinking itself, it was the desire for it. To be oriented toward our own desires for direct sensory gratification – to be consumed by the urge to consume – is to be tied up in our selves.

Obsession with food manifests both in over-eating and in its opposite, extreme fasting. The leaders of medieval communities were concerned with “the rogue monk tempted to eat more than his share, but also” with
“nuns (for they were almost always nuns) who succumbed to the equally disturbing and disruptive temptation to indulge in excessive fasting. These women, whom the historian Rudolph Bell has termed ‘holy anorexics,’ punished their bodies by starving themselves and indulging in all manner of inventive and frequently disgusting self-mortifications.” (F. Prose)
* * *
This is part 4 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 5: "Desire Isn't the Enemy"
Previous: Part 3: "Obesity and Judgment"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"


Obesity and Judgment

The Center for Disease Control says that in 1962, 13 percent of the US was obese. By 2010, 35.7 percent of US adults qualify as “obese.” We get judgmental about this. If obesity is a “disease” that is, or is becoming, “epidemic,” then it differs from other diseases in the degree to which many of us blame those who suffer from it. There’s discrimination against the overweight, and the bias and judgmentalism gets mixed up with what might be legitimate concern about public health.

There is a prevailing attitude that the obese are morally contemptible. Studies show that employers
“not only tend to assume that a fat person will be less reliable, energetic, and efficient, but are reluctant to hire the overweight for positions (receptionists, etc.) in which their size might affront the delicate sensibilities of potential customers and the general public.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
One-third of US doctors (and wouldn’t we like to hope that more than two-thirds of doctors would know better?) said they thought obese patients were weak-willed, sloppy and lazy.

Moral judgment is a strategy – generally not a very good one – for addressing a concern. It’s scary to us that the obesity rate in this country has climbed so precipitously from 50 years ago. We read warnings that obesity will soon exact a greater toll than smoking, and that the current generation could be the first to die before their parents.

On the other hand, a new study released last week shows that people who are modestly overweight have a 6 per cent lower rate of premature death from all causes than people of ideal, "healthy" weight, while even those who are mildly obese have no increased risk. The study, headed by Katherine Flegal, a distinguished epidemiologist from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was one of the largest reviews of research ever conducted. Flegal and her team examined results from 100 studies from around the world, involving three million people and 270,000 deaths. Only the severely obese, with a body mass index above 35, have a significantly increased mortality. Underweight people, meanwhile, have a 10 per cent higher rate of premature death than those of normal size.

We must note that this research looks only at the death rates, not illness (i.e., mortality, not morbidity). The study results do not cast into question the consensus understanding that heavier people are sick more. Indeed, one possible explanation for the lower death rate is that, because overweight people are sick more, they’re in their doctor’s office more, and they end up getting medical treatment, such as to control blood pressure, sooner.

Whatever our judgments, and whatever the reality of the health issues, the reason the seven deadly sins are pretty much universal is that their source is in an impulse we need, a drive that is healthy. It’s good to eat. It’s good to enjoy life, to have gusto for the pleasures of living. It becomes a problem only when it goes too far – and it’s at risk of going too far only because the underlying drive is a good one that we need.

The Jewish and Christian Bible warns:
“Be not among winebibbers, among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)
Yet the same Bible elsewhere also says:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. For God has long ago approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
* * *
This is part 3 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 4: "'Healthy Appetite'?"
Previous: Part 2: "Let's Start with Gluttony"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"


Let's Start with Gluttony

Early church leaders, including Evagrius of Pontus in the 4th century, Saint John Cassian shortly after, and Pope Gregory I (“Gregory the Great”) in the 6th century, worked out a list of vices that came to be known as “the seven deadly sins.” What these church leaders were trying to do was identify the root sins. The seven deadlies are not the most serious offenses. A little envy, or a touch of pride is not as serious as lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Rather, the seven deadlies were seen as the origins, the root causes, of the more serious sins. Envy, vanity, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, or greed could lead you to lie, steal, or kill.

These early church figures were developing a kind of theological psychology. If a person could purge themselves of these seven, none of those other sins would tempt. Indeed, precisely because these seven so often occur in mild form, and are universal, or nearly so, the seven deadly sins constitute an agenda for spiritual work for everyone. The project of coming to terms with these root bedevilments of the human condition is necessary for our healing and wholeness.

We might quibble with Gregory the Great’s list. For instance, Lake Chalice notices that idolatry – broadly defined as attachment to a fixed concept or image, to the detriment of open-ness to the dynamic freshness of each moment – is at the root of a lot our suffering, and in some ways may even be the root from which these other roots spring. Still, by and large, Gregory the Great has given us a good list, attention to which reveals insights of meaning, power, and possibilities of liberation.

Lake Chalice is still feeling a bit bloated from the recently past holiday season. So let’s start with gluttony. Gentle readers may, at this time of year, be optimally sympathetic to the claim that we are all gluttons.

Indeed, throughout the year, gluttony is the sin with which our culture is most obsessed. For gentle readers desiring confirmation of this, Lake Chalice suggests you go to a bookstore, find an employee, go the self-help section, and say, “I’m looking for something that will help me with my problem of vanity. I suffer from pride and hubris, and I want some guidance on addressing that.” Or say you want to work on your envy, or sloth. A resourceful bookstore employee might be able point you to a few titles. If you say you want help with your lust, or your greed, you’ll mostly find titles giving advice on how to be more successful in gratifying these desires rather than in mitigating their control over your life. Tell the clerk you have an issue with anger, and you’ll have somewhat better luck -- there are a number of books about anger management. But if you say your problem is gluttony, then you have hit the mother lode. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of title upon title of diet and weight-loss books to help you not groan under the weight of yourself.

If, as they say, “you are what you eat,” then how we feel about eating, and about eating too much, reveals our beliefs about who we are. While we don’t often use the word “gluttony” these days, we are a nation and a culture deeply obsessed with overeating. This is because we are obsessed with body image -- and overeating, or badly eating, shows up on our bodies in ways the other deadly sins do not.

* * *
This is part 2 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: part 3: "Obesity and Judgment"
Previous: part 1: "Seven and Sin"


Seven and Sins

There’s something about the number seven. Seven days in a week. Seven colors in a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Pre-moderns counted seven celestial bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). The earth, we learned in school, has seven continents (though, frankly, the basis for counting Europe as a separate continent from Asia is more cultural than geological). Sail the seven seas and see the seven wonders of the world – before you get the seven-year itch.

Your phone number, not counting the area code, is seven digits. There’s a reason for this. Bell laboratories research in the 1950s found a steep drop-off between humans’ ability to recall a seven-digit number and ability to recall an eight-digit number. Perhaps seven is significant for us because of the way our brains are built.
“Countless psychological experiments have shown that, on average, the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the "magical number seven" when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what's called the brain's working memory.” (ABC News, 2009 Dec 6. Click here.)
We love to make lists of seven items. One of these is the seven deadly sins. Lake Chalice wonders whether you, gentle reader, can recite them? No, they are not, "Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Doc." Those would be the seven dwarfs in the Disney’s version of Snow White.

The seven deadly sins, as delineated by Pope Gregory I ("Gregory the Great") in the 6th century, are:
  • anger (or wrath)
  • lust
  • gluttony
  • sloth
  • envy
  • pride (or vanity)
  • greed (or avarice)
Then there are the seven virtues, that also go back at least to the Middle Ages:
  • prudence/wisdom
  • justice
  • temperance
  • courage
  • faith
  • hope
  • love
The first four derive from the writings of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and came to be called the “cardinal virtues.” The last three, from Paul's letter to Corinthians, are called the “theological virtues.” Our gentle readers will no doubt notice that these seven virtues do not parallel the seven sins. Thus, a list called "the heavenly virtues" has also been made, providing direct antidotes to the seven deadly sins. To counteract anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, vanity, and greed, respectively, are:
  • patience
  • chastity
  • temperance
  • diligence
  • kindness
  • humility
  • charity/generosity
"Temperance" is on both virtue lists. The Latin caritas translates as both "love" and "charity," so we can say it's also on both lists. "Diligence," from the Latin industria, carries a connotation of fortitude, which carries a connotation of courage -- so maybe that's also on both lists. The other four -- "prudence/wisdom," "justice," "faith," and "hope," -- are replaced by "patience," "chastity," "kindness," and "humility."

In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi crafted his own list of seven social sins:
  • Politics without Principle
  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Science without Humanity
  • Worship without Sacrifice
In 2008, Pope Benedict, noticing that the traditional seven deadly sins were very individual and typically victimless (in and of themselves), followed Gandhi’s lead in making a list of seven social sins. Benedict’s seven social sins are:
  • Drug abuse
  • Polluting the environment
  • Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • Excessive wealth
  • Creating poverty
  • “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “Morally dubious'' experiments such as stem cell research
Lake Chalice approves of the Pope's interest in reducing the first five, and wishes the last two had been left off. Many better ways to bring the list to the magic number seven were available. Overconsumption of resources, exploitation of labor, undermining or failing to support: public education, full equality for girls and women, gun control, immigrant rights.... Lake Chalice has many helpful suggestions, and will return calls from the Vatican.

The temptation to make a seven-item list imbued with special significance has not passed by the Unitarian Universalists either. We have our seven principles! (Click here.) Some of us call them the seven lively principles to stand over against the seven deadly sins.

What motivated Pope Gregory I’s traditional list of seven deadly sins? And why those seven? After all, the seven deadly sins are not listed in the Jewish or Christian Bible. What is in the Bible are the Ten Commandments, the violations of which amounts to a list of sins: idolatry, swearing, sabbathlessness, filial disrespect, murder, adultery, theft, deceit, covetousness. (Count only nine? Some traditions split "idolatry" into two to get ten, and other traditions split "covetousness" into two. There's a handy table in Wikipedia's "Ten Commandments" entry: click here.) Given the centrality of the Ten Commandments in our Judeo-Christian heritage, wouldn’t those be the main sins?

Maybe ten is just too many to hold in working memory. Theologians might, then, have looked to the Book of Proverbs:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” (Proverbs 6: 16-19)
There are seven, here – quite different from Gregory the Great’s list (only pride – “haughty eyes” – made the cut for Gregory). These seven, though, aren’t nicely encapsulated in a single word each.

In the New Testament, there’s a sin list in Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21)
Despite these various Biblical sources for sin lists, early Christian thinkers felt a need to create a different list.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of eight “evil thoughts.” He almost, but not quite, grasped that seven is the magic number. When, over two centuries after Evagrius wrote his list, Pope Gregory I created the seven-sin list that became so widely known, Gregory only had to do a little tweaking of Evagrius. Gregory kept "gluttony," "greed/avarice," and "anger/wrath" from Evagrius' list. Evagrius and Gregory both listed acedia, though, for Evagrius, the term meant dejection, while Gregory and subsequent writers explained the term in a way that gradually made "sloth" the better English translation. Evagrius had listed the actions, "prostitution and fornication," which Gregory replaced with the psychological state, "lust." Evagrius used the Greek work lype, which generally means sadness; Gregory shifted to a more specific focus on sadness related to comparing oneself to others, "envy." Evagrius had hubris and boasting (or vainglory) as two separate sins, which Gregory combined into one, "pride/vanity," thereby getting the list down to seven.

Still. With so many other sins enumerated in scripture – and an absence of any scriptural basis for Pope Gregory the Great’s particular list – what was the point of “the seven deadly sins”?

* * *
This is part 1 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 2: "Let's Start with Gluttony"


Business, Baseball, and the Spiritual Path

The “miracle” – on 34th street and on your street – is that love is good business. In fact, for a faith community, love is our business. If it isn’t, then we don’t need to be in business. If it isn’t, then we might as well close our doors right now.

Some folks who pride themselves on being hard-headed business realists seem to have missed certain chapters of the basic textbook of business reality. The business reality is that there are ways that benefitting our rival benefits us, too, because it makes the business that we and our rival share go better for both of us.

When radio first began broadcasting baseball games, owners worried that radio listening would compete with stadium attendance. “Who’ll buy our tickets to watch the game if they can stay home and listen to it on the radio for free?” they reasoned. The first baseball game broadcast on radio was in 1921. By the 1930s, many owners were still wary, and radio coverage was a “sometimes” thing. The Chicago Cubs, in 1935, were the first team to have all their games on radio. The last holdouts were the New York teams (Giants, Dodgers, Yankees), but by 1939, all the teams had contracts allowing broadcast of all their games.

The money that radio stations paid to the teams slowly overcame the resistance of team owners, who figured that radio income would compensate for lost ticket sales. What they discovered was that ticket sales actually went up as a result of radio broadcasting. People who heard about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Walter Johnson on the radio were more likely to want to see them in person. Attendance at the games in 1940 was nearly eight percent higher than it had been in 1920 – a remarkable statistic given the drastic effect of the Great Depression on discretionary income.

When TV coverage came along, the same pattern repeated: initial resistance – why come to the games if they’re free on TV? – followed by realization that the medium was a help.

Radio broadcast and stadium ticket sales were both in the business of promoting baseball. Faith communities are all in “the business” of promoting what we might call “spiritual values” – a way of life that attends to grace, abundance, and fundamental, irrevocable goodness that envelops even the greatest tragedies. Any church, fellowship or other faith community that does that is cooperating with us in the overall project of human growing, deepening, developing. The better they are at that mission, the better it is for us, in the long run: the more people there are who are oriented to any path of awakening from mindless consumerism, awakening to greater presence to the beauty and mystery of life, then the more people will ultimately find their way to the liberal version of that path.

(It’s also true – though this may not seem very comforting to Unitarian Universalists – the other way around. The better UU congregations are at carrying out our mission of deepening and growth, the better that is for the more conservative churches, too. We should recognize that some folks who learn from us the value of a serious religious path will find that path leading them over to the Baptists. God bless them. Their path is not mine, but if they end up helping to build an effective Baptist congregation, some of the folks from that congregation will eventually find that their spiritual path leads them to us. Like Macy’s and Gimbel’s in “Miracle on 34th Street.”)

A scarcity mentality – small, protective, guarded, grasping, ungenerous – hinders the mutual boon that occurs when rivals cooperate simply by recognizing that they always were in the same "business." Love is our business. We are here to make the word flesh. We are here to take the pure and perfect ideas of caring and relationship and put them into the messy flesh of lived human relationship. All the many Christmas stories, as varied and bright as the lights on a tree, are stories of incarnation: love embodied, in flesh. The stories of our winter festival remind us that the joy, the belonging, the love for which we hope, will come from the most unexpected places – an impoverished babe, a hardened miser, a glowing red nose and an island of misfit toys – or the very group we thought was our rival.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Previous: Part 4: "Miracle on 34th Street"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Word Made Flesh"


Miracle on 34th Street

The Johannine community -- an early Christian group, probably in Asia minor, which, in the late-first- and early-second-centuries, produced several documents that became books of the New Testament, including the Gospel of John, three Epistles of John, and possibly the book of Revelations -- would have been familiar with the very different stories of incarnation in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Rather than trying to decide between them or write their own, the Johannine authors offer us a poetic way to sum them up:
“The word became flesh.”
Love became incarnate.

Thus, at Christmas time, we tell that story. We tell it in so many different ways, but they are all stories of incarnation.

There’s the pagan story of the rebirth of the great horned hunter God, viewed as the newborn solstice sun. Life and the rhythms of nature are incarnated in Cerenunnos.

There’s the story of a red-suited elf with flying reindeer who brings us presents for no reason other than that it’s what he likes to do. Kindness and giving are incarnated in Santa Claus.

There’s the story of one of those reindeer, who believes he does not have a place, and learns that the very same nose that is his shame, that is his brokenness, that is the thing about him that is wrong -- is also his strength and his great gift, and that he does have a place. Belonging is incarnated in Rudolph.

There’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who has visions one night that show him what life really means, and when he is imbued with this recognition of life, he responds with generous compassion and ebullient joy. For filmgoers, since the 1940s there has been the story of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who sees a of vision in which he was never born, his dear friends and family do not know him, and he grasps the precious, dear sweetness of relationship – of the love made flesh. And also the story of a department store Santa who calls himself Kris Kringle who shows two department stores, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, that they’re better off cooperating.

Let me linger on that last one for a bit, for this year is the 65th anniversary of the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” – and 2012 is the 60th anniversary of my congregation – the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, founded in 1952 on the UF campus and now coincidentally on 34th street.

In the story, as you may remember, one Kris Kringle is hired as the Santa for Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. One of the roles of a department store Santa is to steer customers to buy things at that department store. But Kris Kringle will occasionally tell parents, “you might have better luck finding just what you need” at Gimbel’s, the rival department store. The Macy's management is at first horrified, but it turns out this sort of honesty and helpfulness impresses customers. Gimbel’s doesn’t want to seem greedy, so they implement a policy of referring customers back to Macy’s if Gimbel's doesn't have the item or if the Macy's version is better. This makes Macy’s escalate further, and spread the word throughout their chain to send customers to Gimbel’s if Macy’s doesn’t have exactly the right item.

Kindness and honest helpfulness are good business. Kris Kringle broke Macy’s out of its scarcity mentality -- a mentality that said, "we’ve got to protect our turf, never help a rival, because there’s not enough to go around."

It turns out retail sales is not a zero-sum game. When the stores cooperate to steer customers to the products they want, customers feel better about shopping, and are more willing to do more total shopping. Setting aside, for the moment, our qualms that "more total shopping" is not a good thing for our souls or our earth, the point remains that all sides gain from cooperation. Life is not a zero-sum game. The miracle on 34th Street is that love is good business. That’s true on 34th Street, New York, New York, and on 34th Street, Gainesville, Florida.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Next: Part 5: "Business, Baseball, and the Spiritual Path"
Previous: Part 3: "Love Becomes Incarnate Many Ways"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Word Made Flesh"


Love Becomes Incarnate Many Ways

In addition to the Gospel of John, the New Testament includes three epistles of John, the first of which, at least, might have been written by the same “John” who wrote the fourth gospel. In any case, scholars think all four “John” books were produced by what they call the “Johannine community” – an early Christian cell that developed a distinctive form of Christian thought.

The first epistle of John says:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
Thus, the John gospel is saying that, “The word,” -- the logos, the uniting connecting principle which we might call love – “became flesh.” Love becomes flesh, becomes embodied. If we read this as poetry, not as a claim upon belief – that is, if we read it as expanding the ways available to us for understanding experience rather than as narrowing the ways available to us – then it is neither empirical nor imperial, but an invitation to play upon a field of imagination and possibility.

Lake Chalice is inclined to say love becomes more real when it takes its material form in our bodies and our actions of care. Plato apparently disagrees: he says love is more real as an unchangeable abstract ideal and becomes less real when dimly refracted into our fumbling, stumbling imperfect bodies. Nevertheless, Plato's perspective is valuable for reminding us that whatever we manifest, whatever incarnation we pull off, it is never the final form, never the end of the story, that there are always more possibilities.

Love becomes flesh, becomes embodied, and dwells among us. Love moves into the neighborhood. The poetry of John is more telling us than showing us. He leaves it to other gospels, Matthew and Luke, to show us what the word made flesh actually looks like.

John’s Gospel was the last one written, so its author would have known about the gospels Matthew and Luke, and would also have noticed how very different they were. Love becomes flesh in many different ways -- as John would have known just from the two examples of Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew, Joseph plans how to dump his pregnant disgraced fiancé, but an angel comes in a dream and tells him to stick it out. Wise men from the East come asking for the child born king of the Jews. They saw his star. King Herod consults his own priests and scribes, learns the child is in Bethlehem, and tells the wise men from the East to go look there, and then report back. They go, and the star reappears and leads them. They find the child and are overwhelmed with joy. Then another dream, another celestial intervention, tells the wise men not to go back and tell Herod. They left for their own country by another road.

In Luke, Emperor Augustus decrees the world should be registered. There’s an awareness of class that isn’t in Matthew. Mary and Joseph head down from Nazareth to Bethlehem because that’s where Joseph is from. While they are there, Mary gives birth, wraps the babe in swaddling clothes, and “laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”

In Matthew, there's nothing about a stable, or a manger, or no room in the inn.

In Luke, the messiah comes from a poor, outcast family.

In Matthew, Joseph has middle-class worries about respectability and has to have an angel tell him to stay with Mary.

In Luke, they’re poor. There’s no concern about respectability, no mention of Joseph making plans to “dismiss” Mary. For Luke, for the poor, solidarity matters, not respectability. And in Luke, shepherds nearby that night see an angel who tells them, "a messiah is born – go." So they go. They find the parents and newborn. I love how Luke places the poor at the center of the story. The simple shepherds are the agents of the good news. There’s no fancy wise men in Luke, and no expensive gifts.

In any case, love becomes incarnate in a lot of different ways.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Next: Part 4: "Miracle on 34th Street"
Previous: Part 2: "Logosland"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Word Made Flesh"



Raphael's Plato
"Logos" is the Greek word translated as "word" in the phrase, "the word made flesh," (John 1:14). Yesterday, Lake Chalice asked what "logos" meant for the "John" who wrote the fourth gospel.

For Heraclitus, 500 years before the Common Era, logos was a principle of order and knowledge.

For the Greek sophists, logos meant discourse.

For Aristotle, logos meant reasoned discourse.

The Stoic school conceived of logos as the divine principle, the active reason, pervading and animating the universe, the operative principle of all activity.

Philo, a Hellenized Jew about 15 years older than Jesus, merged Greek and Jewish philosophy. Philo followed Plato’s distinction between the perfect realm of ideas and the corrupted world of matter. For Philo, logos was the intermediary force that bridged the gap between God and the material world. The logos was God’s instrument in creating the world. Said Philo:
“The logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.”
The Logos Made Flesh?
Philo’s work provided the philosophy of logos most directly connected with John’s Gospel, though John takes logos into new territory.
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 1-14)
The Legos Made Flesh?
All in all, in Lake Chalice's humble opinion, Plato’s idea that this world and everything in it is a degraded, dim reflection of the immutable, eternal perfection of the immaterial realm of forms was a bad move – a bad move made worse when Jewish and then Christian thought sought to incorporate that Platonism. Still, Lake Chalice is inclined to regard religious texts as poetry: not science, nor scientific theory, nor history, nor natural history, but poetry. The poetry of John’s Gospel, for Lake Chalice at least, is improved a bit in the translation of Eugene Peterson, adapted slightly by UU minister, Rev. Jack Harris-Bonham:
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, like Mother, like Daughter: Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
This word, this logos, that was embodied, that was manifested in flesh and blood, that moved into the house next door, that is your neighbor and mine, that is kind and steadfast as a devoted family member, what is it?

It's love. What else?

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Next: Part 3: "Love Becomes Incarnate Many Ways"
Previous: Part 1: "The Word Made Flesh"