How Many?

As I watch the steady rise of the number of American deaths on the COVID scoreboard I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song: “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” It’s apparently more than 177,000. It’s apparently more than George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and a host of other people of color cut down much too soon. It must be more than the police officers who fear for their lives because we live in an armed camp.

When I think about mounting death tolls I am taken back to the years of the Vietnam War. That war lasted on so long that I graduated from high school, college and seminary while it dragged on and then continued 4 more years! Like 2020 the death count in that war was served to us with dinner every evening on the national news. We thought we were winning because the scoreboard usually indicated we killed more of them that day than they killed of us. The scoreboard of course didn’t include the more than a million Vietnamese civilians killed, part of the infamous “we had to destroy the village to save it” mind set of our leadership. I guess Walter Cronkite thought that to know that ugly truth might have spoiled our appetites.

Dylan’s haunting question “how many?” can be asked about wars, hurricanes, floods, wild fires, even those caused by climate change, gun violence, racism, cancer, drunk drivers, and pandemics. How many must die before we say “enough!” What does it take to move us to action to correct the centuries-old injustices of racism? Or to suspend personal or political ambition to create a unified strategy for combatting a pandemic? Or meaningful reform of law enforcement? Or to enact reasonable gun regulations? How many, Lord? How long till we learn that violence in any form only creates more violence, over and over again in a vicious cycle.

For way too long we Christians have taken Jesus literally when he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus didn’t mean we should turn ourselves into punching bags. He was talking about interrupting the cycle of violence which will never end until enough of us realize that as long as we keep trying to achieve peace by unpeaceful means we are perpetuating more of the same.

Just before that verse above Jesus says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evil doer.” Someone has said that living by the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth philosophy just produces a world of blind, toothless people. Instead of that outcome Jesus later in that Sermon on the Mount goes on to instruct his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

2000 years later we are still trying to do things the old way and expecting different results. We have failed to learn the critical lesson that someone has to dare to go first to break the cycle of getting even instead of being peacemakers. And until we learn we will continue to ask “How many deaths will it take?”

John Wesley for the Supreme Court

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney
It is a sad but expected reality that Justice Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court has become a political hot potato while it is still warm from his long years of influential service. My appreciation for Scalia has grown immensely since his death as I have read moving stories about his friendships and respect that bridged ideological divides with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan. Such bipartisanship is an endangered species in our polarized world and needs to be recognized and celebrated. I must confess that I was guilty of stereotyping Justice Scalia based on his conservative and often controversial legal opinions, and I vow to relearn yet again the danger of such narrow thinking.
(Follow this link to read Ginsburg’s tribute to her friend and legal rival: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/02/14/read_justice_ruth_bader_ginsburg_s_touching_statement_on_scalia.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/14/opinions/david-axelrod-surprise-request-from-justice-scalia/ for Scalia’s respect for Justice Kagan.)

Having said that, this unexpected vacancy on the court creates a valuable opportunity in this election year for all of us to learn and grow in our understanding of the importance of the court and the different philosophies represented in the selection process that have tremendous impact on the direction our nation will go moving forward.

I don’t know much about the judges who have been mentioned to fill this vacancy thus far, but it occurred to me that we United Methodists have a great candidate in one of the founders of our denomination, John Wesley. As you can see from his picture he has the wardrobe for the job. The problem of course is that Wesley is not available since he died over 300 years ago. But I would still like to propose that Wesley’s thinking can shed some valuable light on the selection process.

Wesley developed a very useful paradigm for making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making ethical decisions: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. The balanced model Wesley provides honors the importance of all four components while realizing that they are all created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens must come to grips with. Laws and traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. (I wrote about some of these issues in more detail in a July 22. 2014 post, “Tradition: Only Part of the Formula.”)

“Originalism” or “Textualism” are the labels used to describe Justice Scalia’s approach to the legal system and the Constitution. I am certainly no legal scholar, but my understanding of that philosophy is that it strives to interpret legal questions according to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That approach is loaded with biblical and theological implications, and Wesley’s quadrilateral speaks directly to the need to in both law and theology to keep learning and growing in our understanding of justice in the rapidly changing world we live in.

My problem with Originalism is that it seems to argue that a group of wealthy white men who accepted slavery and denied equal rights to women should have the final word on how to live in a democracy today. That’s like trying to live by Levitcal law in the 21st century. The framers of the constitution were men of tremendous vision and courage, but limited as we all are by our cultural and historical context they knew nothing about Aids, Zika, climate change, AR-15’s, black holes and gravitational waves, globalization, or nuclear annihilation, just to name a few. But like Wesley the authors of the Constitution did have the wisdom to know that the laws of the land must be flexible in the face of changing revelations about human nature and the natural order. Realizing the need for reason and experience to make mid-course corrections they made provisions for amending the constitution and did so immediately with the addition of the Bill of Rights.

With the same wisdom Wesley’s inclusion of reason, experience and tradition as necessary qualities for interpreting the Scriptures recognizes the on-going process of revelation. As the United Church of Christ reminds us, “God is still speaking.” Jesus did the same thing when he said repeatedly “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). Without the constant deepening of our understanding of God’s creation and God’s will as both our scientific and theological wisdom increases we would still live in a flat earth society with a vengeful, fearsome God and would celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.

Does that mean reason and experience represent a straight line of upward progress toward a perfect just and peaceful world? Obviously not. We cannot escape our human fallibility in matters of faith or of law. There is no perfect candidate for the Supreme Court or any other office, but seeking persons who balance respect for our foundational documents, be they Scripture or Constitution, with the value of applying our God-given ability to reason and learn from our experience and past traditions would be my litmus test in the selection proces