The Expansion of the Good: On the Moral Universe of Prudence

“There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.”

That’s from my recent article at Comment Magazine, a subscription to which would make an excellent Christmas gift to the thoughtful Christian reader in your life.  I sent them a piece that was wreckage, and they graciously helped me work through my intuitions.  I write to learn, sometimes, and this was one of those cases.

Still, I want to say one or two more words about this above line, as the thought beneath it has been rattling around upstairs for a while.  It is tempting to think of ‘prudence’ as virtue which is perpetually guarding against a nearly limitless number of wrongs, which make any action perilous at all. Aristotle famously sums up the intuition by suggesting that “there are many ways to be in error…but there is only one way to be correct.”  Beneath this lies the Pythagorean notion that the bad is boundless and undetermined, but the good has a kind of limited and determined nature: whereas the wrongs are infinite, the good is finite and bounded.*

Now, I am half disposed to grant that this is not merely true, but obviously so:  in evaluating a particular situation, it’s easy to think that the wrongs can multiply, as every husband frantically attempting to find a Christmas gift for his wife will unhappily attest to. From the standpoint of the person who is just or courageous, there may only be one path through certain difficulties, where the goods involved are obscured or limited by the magnitude of the moral dangers and wrongs that such a situation involves. There may be no apparent good to a pregnant woman with cancer who is deliberating about her course: or if there are, it certainly seems like the number and gravity of potential wrongs vastly exceeds them.

But if we remove ourselves from deliberating about the tragic situation, things seem different: it is, in the course of our normal life, the goods that are boundless and infinite and under-specified and the wrongs limit and constrain us. Consider all the goods which might be undertaken in the time it takes to read these musings:  you might enjoy a cup of tea, or donate some money to a charity, or buy a Christmas gift on Amazon, or write a note to your loved ones.  Or perhaps you might undertake a few moments of prayer, or reflect on your own path, or comfort a friend who is in sorrow. There are so many goods in this world that we can fulfill: to consider the opportunities to do good even within a single life is almost immobilizing.  Determining which goods to pursue is at least as difficult as discerning which wrongs to avoid.

I have vague, inarticulate suspicions that the moral atmosphere generated by each of these two outlooks will be very different, and that they matter for what form we imagine the virtue of prudence to take. Asking about the goods I might participate in is a generative question: it is a question which expands our imaginations and turns our attention away from the wrongs which might beset us toward the opportunities to partake in the growing goodness of the world that we have been given. “Let us not become weary in doing good” is a bit of psychological counsel that has deep metaphysical roots: it is tempting to allow lassitude about the goods before us to take over, and to allow our entire spiritual and moral horizons to be overwhelmed by avoiding the sheer volume of potential wrongs before us.

George MacDonald’s little novel sums up the danger in a way that has haunted me since I first read it:

‘I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am. I didn’t think of its being yours.’

‘Ah, Curdie! If it weren’t mine, what would become of it now?’ she returned. ‘You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?’

‘No,’ answered Curdie.

‘Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.’

“Did you mean any good, Curdie?”  It is the good which is boundless, which is infinite, and which if we participate in is a source of endless youth and renewal and joy.  Prudence must, first and foremost, be an activity of mind which turns toward the goods within a particular situation and determines which of them should be undertaken.  And if we will so direct our minds, I suspect we will discover a more varied and colorful universe, full of possibilities for action and imagination, than we had previously known.

*Aristotle is considering the nature of virtue, which is an agent-centered concern and may explain why he is interested in a more limited form of the good.

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A Tale of Two Deaths

The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide.  Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.From the publisher

It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.

So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.

Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have.  To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.

But their stories contain two separate worlds. Continue reading

Medical Missionaries and the Role of Evidence

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

Slate’s Brian Palmer is right: missionary medicine in Africa is largely unregulated, unstudied, and understaffed. I have seen with my own eyes—and performed with my own hands—clinical decisions that would rightly be considered malpractice in a developed setting because they required that procedures or medications used reserved for specialists be attempted in order to save a life (ask me sometime about the time I did hand surgery.)

What’s more, I did so in Jesus’ name, praying with and for patients whilst frequently consulting a chaplain to do some heavy-duty proselytization. Doing good for the sake of others doesn’t require that one believe in Jesus; there are plenty of organizations and individuals who are providing medical care without any spiritual strings attached. But neither does believing in Jesus necessarily inhibit people from doing good, as Palmer seems to suspect.

This, however, is not the end of the story, though it’s about all that Palmer bothers to talk about. The story of missionary medicine is more complicated— and expansive—than he realizes. One might think that a writer ostensibly dedicated to reason and scientific study might want to investigate the evidence that does exist—sparse as it may be—on the role of faith-based organizations and Christian missionaries within the medical systems of developing countries. Unfortunately, Palmer is content to fire off a few statistics about this bizarre tribe of missionaries and their backwards religious customs, then revel in horror at their unquantified habits of practice.

I have personally sat in meetings and seminars dedicated solely to exploring the ethical issues raised by practicing medicine in limited resources, using Biblical principles to sort out how to best care for patients in a way that is sustainable and merciful. I have listened to countless Christian medical professionals discuss the lengths that they go to in order to invest particularly in professional development for indigenous health practitioners. I have even been party to forums in secular professional meetings where the benefits and risks of an explicitly religious approach to medicine were openly debated. What’s more, these aren’t just my personal vignettes—they are an essential part of the numerous institutions that Christian missionaries train and serve in.

I certainly appreciate the historical nods that Palmer gives in his piece, acknowledging that criticism of missionary doctors goes back a long way. What he doesn’t mention, however, is the fact that the modern enterprises of community health and international development were not only founded on the precepts of missionary medicine, they continue to be shaped by the work of missionaries. Much of the evidence regarding community-based primary health care strategies comes from Christian projects. The Alma Ata Declaration—a WHO document that lays out the foundational principles for evidence-based primary care health systems—was based strongly on the work of Christian missionaries who helped to convene multiple conferences in the 1960’s and 70’s on international health. As Carl Taylor, who helped write the Declaration, stated:

“Coming out of the conference, the entire global health community, developed and developing, was energized to ramp up health care around the world. The tenets of serving the poor, service to the community as a whole, disease prevention, and the pivotal role of women in health, developed following [Christian medical conferences] and refined by Christian Medical Commission, were firmly built into the evolving framework of Primary Health Care.” from The Christian Community’s Contribution to the Evolution of Community-Based Primary Health Care (PDF)

Beyond the crucial role that Christian missionaries played in helping shift the WHO’s conception of health from the previously dominant compartmentalized, top-down model of care delivery to a more generous understanding of health as a function of human flourishing that must be secured as part of a social justice agenda, there are numerous initiatives within missionary organizations today to carry on this legacy. For example, both the ongoing Global Missions Health Conference and the recently launched Christian Journal of Global Health are dedicated to the exact sort of research, analysis, and quality improvement that Palmer thinks are missing from modern missionary medicine– which makes one wonder how hard he (or his editors) actually bothered to look into this subject. Most of the residencies dedicated to training indigenous physicians in Sub-Saharan Africa–whether surgeons or family doctors–are linked to one missionary organization or another. The “current emphasis of international health delivery” of education and training that he mentions? The Christian Medical and Dental Association even has a whole enterprise dedicated to it. A study to quantify who is working where and what they are doing that he hasn’t seen? It’s been out for 4 years! All of this is still bare-bones, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that medical missions is “a mystery,” as Palmer does.

Research and quality improvement are indeed lacking in Sub-Saharan Africa (although Palmer’s mention of PubMed is laughable because you can use PubMed to find all sorts of papers written by missionaries, they just don’t write “Christian Missions” in every title.) This is largely due to funding; most African countries have yet to devote the state funds necessary for ensuring basic healthcare provisions for their people, much less an ample funding source for research akin to the vast resources that NIH, charitable foundations, and pharmaceutical companies pour into investigation in the First World (and let’s not forget that in America we have to have big public campaigns to get our highly educated professionals to actually follow the evidence that has been amassed because said professionals are so bad at following it). Many missionaries—already working long hours with limited resources—still find the time and money to collect clinical data, report it to whatever entity is willing to crunch the numbers, and use the results to shape their practice.

Beyond these concerns—which Palmer freely admits he might relinquish if secular physicians were carrying out the work—lies the question of faith. His willingness to admit that his discomfort about this issue won’t motivate him into an ideological crusade against health professionals who proselytize is certainly commendable. For a non-religious person steeped in a non-religious environment, it certainly seems apropos to be skeptical of missionaries who are open about their faith and wag a finger at those who would dare to use their position as a medical provider to share their beliefs with others. However, such an outlook is downright ignorant of non-Western conceptions of health and disease, which are far more open to spiritual causes of disease and more frank discussions of faith as it relates to health. In a world where cell phones and reverence for one’s ancestors are equally valuable and many people inquire of a witch doctor before seeking medical attention at a hospital, it is not at all unusual or inappropriate to practitioners to discuss their own religion and how it might offer a better perspective on the suffering and fear that their patients are facing. I don’t know if Palmer’s piece was vetted by any Africans, but it doesn’t seem to reflect any understanding of the holistic worldview that I have encountered among non-Western health professionals.

We do need to address the disquieting motivations that medical missionaries sometimes have for their work. Again, the white and wealthy cultural milieu finds animating spiritual convictions frightening for legitimate reasons and has ample historical basis for such fear (although the legacy of colonial missionaries is far more positive than most give credit for.) However, the dedication with which missionaries apply themselves to their work and the places that they choose to invest their labors are inseparable from the theological distinctives of evangelical Christianity. Just as the American Civil Rights Movement or the British anti-slavery movement cannot be understood without a deep appreciation for the religious teachings that shaped them, so missionary medicine is inseparable from the doctrines discerned from the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing are inseparable—the Gospels are full of incidents where He challenges, exhorts, encourages, or rebukes one who has been healed or a crowd around Him as a part of the healing. At the very heart of Christian doctrine is the understanding that as Christ’s suffering delivered us unto life, so our suffering as believers can produce similar fruit in others. Kent Brantly, Olivet Buck, and Jerry Umanos stand as excellent examples of such Passion-motivated compassion. Dr. Brantly survived his suffering for others, but Drs. Buck and Umanos did not—these theological convictions are what make Christian missionary medicine uniquely effective and continue to drive the disproportionate (but still insufficient) number of religiously based medical providers.

The deficiencies that Palmer notes in his piece are real, and mission work is desperately in need of the sort of resources we apply to Western medicine. However, both the spiritual aspects of Christian mission work and the rigor already applied to such medical endeavors are indispensable to the story of healthcare in Africa—even if if Palmer can’t be bothered to discuss them when he bemoans the lack of data plaguing health care abroad. Rather than casting aspersions and “standing aside,” those who love evidence-based practice ought to celebrate what has been done through missionaries, apply what they have to teach us, and follow them to places where just and equitable health systems are still being built.

On the Number of Zygote Deaths and the Meaning of Pro-Life

What does it mean to be “pro-life”? Judging by the recent conversation about contraception, it would be easy to think that the point and purpose of the pro-life position is to reduce abortions in the world.

But as important as that is to pro-lifers, it by no means encapsulates the entirety of the pro-life position. In a brief but punchy essay, Frank Beckwith sums up the point:

The truth, however, is that the prolife position is not merely about “reducing the number of abortions,” though that is certainly a consequence that all prolifers should welcome. Rather, the prolife position is the moral and political belief that all members of the human community are intrinsically valuable and thus are entitled to the protection of the laws. “Reducing the number of abortions” may occur in a regime in which this belief is denied, and that is the regime that the liberal supporters of universal health coverage want to preserve and want prolifers to help subsidize. It is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the discretion of the postnatal. Reducing the number of those discretionary acts by trying to pacify and accommodate the needs of those who want to procure abortions—physicians, mothers, and fathers—only reinforces the idea that the unborn are objects whose value depends exclusively on our wanting them.

In a post that I’ve seen referenced a few places, blogger Libby Anne follows Sarah (last name not given) does a bit of math and contends that fewer zygotes wind up dead when women use birth control than when they don’t.  Here’s the conclusion from Sarah:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

If it were the case that the pro-life view was simply constituted by the number of people who lived and died, then Libby Anne and Sarah might have a case. But there are qualitative moral differences between the two. Suppose that two people are nearing death. In one case, we do nothing at all. In the other, we act in such a way that we know will erode the conditions for their ongoing life. Perhaps we put something in the air conditioner that makes it hard to breathe, or put a clamp on the tube that is feeding them food. In both cases, the patients die—but one died without our involvement, and the other died within conditions that we created. It’s true that they both would have died anyway. But the analogy is meant to show that the life or death of the person is not the only criteria by which we judge the morality of the action.

Now, there are two things worth saying about the above analogy. First, someone might claim that by taking birth control they are not in fact intending the death of the zygote: they are only intending that any zygote that *might* have been created to not be created. And that’s a fair claim. Second, it is an analogy where we know (with considerable likelihood) that both people are going to die. In birth, we don’t know if we use contraception whether the zygote will continue living or be “flushed out.”

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

These two counterclaims, though, actually mean less than they might seem on the surface. For one, even if in the above analogy I am not intending to kill the person I’m still responsible for creating the conditions in which they died. And given that we do not know whether the zygote would live or die *without our involvement,* if the zygote dies we take on responsibility for the death that we would not have otherwise precisely because of our action in the matter. To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.

That’s an argument, but beneath it stands the principle that we tried to establish at the beginning: the prolife position is not measured by the number of zygotes that survive pregnancy or not, but by the quality of our wills and decisions inasmuch as they relate to human life. Hypothetically, if a couple knew that by not using an abortificient every zygote they had would die and be “flushed out”, but if they used an abortificient and one of the children lived, using the abortificient would still be wrong. Why? Because the decision would have been one that would have been contrary to the presence of human life and because the morality of the decision is not determined solely by the consequences that result from it. To deploy the classic anti-consequentialist conundrum, if we could demonstrate that statistically killing one innocent person would save the lives of a hundred or thousand others, that would not make the intentional taking of human life right or good.

One final point: let’s suppose for a second that it’s simply uncertain whether in my analogy the person died because they were really old or because we put the hypothetical clamp on their feeding tube. Analogously, it may be uncertain when someone is on contraception whether any given zygote is “flushed out” naturally or because of the drug’s effect. (Again, statistics don’t matter—action and involvement does.) In such a case, a strong dose of ethical humility would entail that we should err on the side of not involving ourselves in the process, *even if* statistically more humans die as a result. Theologically, we can entrust ourselves and our decisions to the providence of God, and contend that we have knowingly kept ourselves free from even the possibility of intentionally creating the conditions that caused the death of human life—of doing evil that good may come. We cannot have too much integrity of the will in this world.

Update:  Guttmacher has a study out saying that the abortion rate has decreased to its lowest point since 1973 and credits contraceptives for part of that.  It’s obviously good news that the rate is dropping.  Predictably, it’s being deployed as a reason why the pro-life movement should support the contraception mandate.

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence

It’s probably appropriate and wise to begin a review of Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros’ newly-released The Locust Effect by admitting my biases up front: I’ve been an unabashed supporter of International Justice Mission since the early 2000s, particularly after seeing IJM’s work highlighted on Dateline NBC in June 2003. I’ve applied to work for IJM, have attended the organization’s Global Prayer Gathering and Christmas Benefit gala, occasionally carpool with the CFO, and up until a recent re-allocation of our family’s charitable giving, have been a monthly supporter. So when you read me asserting that over the last fifteen years IJM has revolutionized how the evangelical community in the United States thinks about, talks about, and actually pursues, justice in the developing world, you should know that these are the words of a less-than-neutral observer.bookAngle-GalleryPage

The thesis of The Locust Effect is straightforward: without effectively addressing the “locusts” of “common, everyday, predatory violence” (50) and lawlessness that eat away at the politically and economically disenfranchised in the developing world, no amount of poverty-alleviation work is going to do any lasting good. (94-97) The world, argue Haugen and Boutros, has arrived at a “critical inflection point” where the total percentage of individuals living in dire economic conditions has dropped significantly from years past; however, due to a host of factors, there has been little change in absolute numbers (47-49).

The Locust Effect is meant to spotlight how in conjunction with continued poverty-alleviation programs aimed at well-known challenges of clean water, sanitation, public health, education (especially women’s education), and access to capital and seed money, there has to be concerted efforts at reforming public justice and law enforcement systems. “[P]eople,” the co-authors insist, “do not commonly see [violence] as intrinsic to the problem of poverty…poor people—by virtue of their poverty—are not only vulnerable to hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy and a lack of opportunity; they are also vulnerable to violence.” (50) In the developing world, the poor are decidedly more vulnerable to the predations of the strong and corrupt. The strong and corrupt must therefore be deterred, and the Locust Effect insists that deterrence arises out of functioning, non-corrupt law enforcement organs.

The book is structured in three distinct parts. First, in chapters one and two the authors provide a descriptive and typological analysis of the overall problem. The first chapter is not for the faint of heart; it is emotionally trying. The authors describe without apologies real-life cases including, among others, (a) an intentional police and local authority cover-up of a sexual assault/murder of an eight-year old girl in a Peruvian town; (b) the use of physical assault and rape in India to keep bonded laborers from fleeing a brick factory, followed by a litany of failures in the Indian court system. Chapter Two is a more systematic examination of sexual violence (including trafficking), forced/slave labor, “property grabbing” or land expropriation, and police abuse (particularly police predation, arbitrary detention and torture). Haugen and Boutros explain how physical and psychological coercion operate in each of these four categories, but they go into greater detail on how sex trafficking and forced/slave labor are business operations reliant upon deception (to lure economically-vulnerable victims away from the protection of their families and local communities with promises of better jobs or more pay) and violence (what they label the “coercive moment” that keeps victims from leaving and/or reporting).

With respect to police abuse, the chapter touches on extortion and torture, but devotes most space to the injustices associated with lengthy and often-capricious pre-trial detention: lost files, sclerotic legal systems, lack of sanitation, jail overcrowding, and, the longer-lasting damage this does to one’s family, livelihood and psyche. Chapters three and four round out this first part, reiterating the overall argument that this unrestrained violence, the “de facto lawlessness” (111) bred from an ongoing absence of enforcement, impedes human flourishing and cries out not just for attacking “root causes,” but for good policing.

In the middle section, Haugen and Boutros offer an entire chapter (five) describing the chronic infirmities that typically beset law enforcement and public justice in the developing world, and then, over the course of four subsequent chapters, they attempt to locate the origins of the more common political and organizational maladies. I found the discussion in these middle five chapters some of the most engaging of the entire book, particularly Haugen and Boutros’ careful outline of how systemic dysfunction proliferates throughout the three public justice branches (investigational, prosecutorial and judicial), and their analysis of how 19th and early 20th century models of colonial policing combined with late 20th and early 21st century proclivities for privatized corporate security to bring about the current state.

Take, for instance, their discussion of present-day, developing world police forces. It isn’t as simple as the stereotypical coterie of corrupt officers who shakedown the vulnerable and unwary in order to make up for their paltry salaries, arrest those who can’t pay up, and take bribes from those who they should be arresting. There is that, of course, which the co-authors characterize as a “bidding war” over enforcement. (128) But Haugen and Boutros don’t just stop there. Instead, they carefully outline a host of interconnected problems: politicos who aim their country’s scarce policing resources away from ‘poor neighborhood’ problems to protection of state (and, truth be told, often their own personal) companies and assets; little to no training when it comes to interviewing techniques, non-physical interrogation, evidence collection and storage, processing of both criminals and victims; and a woeful lack of infrastructure (i.e. paper, copy equipment, computer hardware, database management; archive retrieval). (123-132)

Chapter seven and eight show that colonial legacies and privatized security are part and parcel of the same problem – that of the relationship between law enforcement and political economy. As Haugen and Boutros clearly bring out, law enforcement in colonial settings was not oriented, in the main, at punishing or deterring colonial subject-on-colonial subject crime or predation, but rather was aimed at guarding and protecting the economic—and typically extractive—interests of the colonial power from labor interruptions, internal dissension, riots and espionage (all of which are encapsulated in Charles Gwynn’s 1934 treatise, Imperial Policing, as enforcement duties rendered in “aid of the civil power”). Indeed, if one can get hold of a library copy of Martin Thomas’ recently-released Violence and Colonial Order (roundtable located here), it makes for an excellent tandem read with these two chapters of Locust Effect. In the developing world, imperial political economy drove the evolution of law enforcement and public justice—the languages used, the way resources were allocated, the overall goals of local enforcement (166-167). The incoherent, rapid, and unprepared way by which former colonial police, intelligence and justice systems were taken over by newly-decolonized states fostered the vacuum one sees today, which, in turn, precipitated the growth of the private security industry. The overwhelming use of privatized security is simply a late 20th and early 21st century manifestation of the same political economy driver.

The last part of the book examines possible avenues for improving or reforming law enforcement in the developing world. Haugen and Boutros insist that when it comes to international aid (whether governmental or non-governmental in character), the program flavor du jour is overly focused on broad, “rule-of-law” approaches that often don’t get down to the nuts-and-bolts of law enforcement infrastructure or training. Moreover, because governments like the United States are (understandably) more interested in protecting citizens from threats which directly impact domestic well-being—terrorism and drugs, for instance—the emphasis on US foreign police training has been almost exclusively centered on counterterrorism and counternarcotics, with comparatively smaller amounts aimed at human trafficking.

In contrast, Haugen and Boutros talk in depth about IJM’s dual approach of “structural transformation” through “collaborative casework.” Over the years, IJM has honed its ability to identify jointly with local law enforcement concrete violations that can be investigated, brought to trial, and result in convictions. In the realm of sex trafficking, this can also include jointly-run surveillance, management and debriefing of confidential informants, undercover operations, and brothel raids. As the co-authors put it, by doing “collaborative casework,” one slowly identifies systemic and structural problems which can then be addressed— jointly—at the local, national or even international level. “Collaborative casework” builds trust and, just as importantly, empathy, between IJM personnel and national law enforcement and public justice officials on the ground. IJM’s Project Lantern—a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—funded initiative that successfully decreased the number of available children in the commercial sex industry in Cebu City, Philippines – gets top billing in this section (and I would recommend reading the project report in conjunction with Locust Effect).

Haugen and Boutros have no illusions about the existence of “magic bullets” or the possibility of overnight improvements to law enforcement in the developing world. One thing I appreciated as a historian about Locust Effect was the co-authors’ discussion about the time and effort it took to professionalize policing in the United States, and how such transformation was often undesired and only able to take hold in fits and starts.

This perspective is valuable because, I would argue, this effort is likely to inaugurate a new phase in IJM’s institutional evolution. In the conclusion, Haugen and Boutros call for both increased participation of law enforcement experts in development and human rights circles and for more local-level projects, and so I wonder if IJM’s organizational future in its role as a liaison broker and “standards protocol” or “best practices” provider. In this way, IJM and its field offices might act organizationally like the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). Under the JTTF banner, the FBI leads, organizes, liaises with, deconflicts, strategizes, and trains up personnel from a myriad of government, state and local agencies, and as the number of actors—especially private actors—entering the law enforcement reform arena increases, IJM’s reputation, its institutional memory, its existing local footprint, and its methodologies will be at a premium.

This brings up a second, related point. The work and details involved with policing, prosecutorial, and judicial reform in the developing world may not be able to garner the same level of ‘movement cachet’ (or, for that matter, the theological comfort) for churches and individual evangelicals as has the organization’s rally cry for justice. If I could tweak the Gospel Coalition’s “theological famine relief” motif for a minute, I’d like to see churches or denominations adopt individual IJM field offices in order to stave off “law enforcement or justice famine.” I can also see where churches and denominations might be hesitant to do so given limits on resources and/or concerns about condominium with foreign government entities, negative impact on missionary efforts, and doubts about how such an effort directly connects to gospel outreach. I think it’s going to take greater effort to secure long-term evangelical interest in the subject matter of Locust Effort, and I’m curious if the “neo-Anabaptist turn” popular among the Relevant crowd could result in that “tribe’s” hesitancy about sustained, cooperative involvement with foreign law enforcement. One avenue of theological connection to that particular constituency might be found in some of the “just policing” literature, and I also wonder about a larger, positive role that might be played by Christian police associations and ministry groups (like Fellowship of Christian Police Officers, International Christian Police Fellowship, and Christian Police Association).

In conclusion, it is interesting and certainly understandable that Locust Effect was not directly written or marketed for just evangelicals. Haugen ‘s earlier books (Good News About Injustice, Just Courage, and Terrify No More) were directly aimed at the Christian market and were published by evangelical presses. In them, Haugen focused on imago dei as a justification for Christian involvement in the struggle for international justice and worked diligently (and I would say successfully) to overcome the common evangelism vs. social action dichotomy.

The Locust Effect is definitely more advocacy-oriented than other Oxford University Press books I’ve seen, but there is only one section that explicitly addresses IJM’s Christian character (226). And, honestly, I have zero qualms about this. It is exactly the type of book evangelicals need, and it ties nicely together with the current crop of intra-evangelical writing about vocation, “gospel at work” and ordinary vs. radical Christian lifestyles. What does it mean to involve oneself as a Christian in an arena where direct and explicit “workplace evangelism” may be impossible, but where substantial Kingdom dividends could accrue through longevity, steadfastness, and a commitment to what Richard Mouw has labeled “uncommon decency?” Police, crime analysts, detectives, prosecutors, paralegals — these are not the categories of Christian professionals that usually make the so-called “radical” lifestyle cutoff, but through the targeted application of their “ordinary” skill set (guided by organizations like IJM, hopefully in conjunction with a local church body), the Kingdom impact is immeasurable.

In the end, law enforcement and public justice reform in the developing world is going to require steady, disciplined, and trained expertise— Christians and non-Christians experts alike. It is going to require evangelicals who are just plain good at their jobs, and who are able to use their everyday skills for the common good, knowing that Christ is the Lord of all.

Brian J. Auten currently serves as an intelligence analyst with the United States government and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions in the review are those of the author and not the US government, or any entity within the US intelligence community. This review is based on an advance reading copy provided to the author directly from Oxford University Press.

Evangelicals and Foreign Adoption

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to host this reflection on adoption by Maralee Bradley.  As longtime readers know, I’ve kept one eye on the evangelical adoption movement.  This is a very personal and very difficult subject for many people, and worth considering carefully.

As the parent of a child who lived for a year in a Liberian orphanage, Kathryn Joyce’s article about the evangelical adoption movement disturbed me. It gave me that sinking feeling in my gut. You know the one—like seeing your cousin’s mugshot pop up unexpectedly while watching the evening news. You knew your cousin was a little troubled, but you still feel protective of his reputation and by extension, yours.

Joyce has strong words about the ethics of the agencies and families engaged in international adoption. As an example of how that movement can go astray she speaks extensively about the adoption of children from Liberia. She details the mistreatment of those kids when they arrived in the US with more problems than their families were prepared to handle and how this led to children suffering in abusive homes, kids being shipped back, and eventually the shutdown of adoptions from Liberia entirely. This all strikes entirely too close to home for me.

You see, we’re one of those “crazy” evangelical adoptive families that anxiously filled out the paperwork, cried over the pictures of our little malnourished baby, prayed fervently when we heard he was hospitalized with malaria, and when it was all completed took a flight to Liberia to meet our son. We were shocked that within a few hours of being placed in our arms he was looking into our eyes with smiles and giggles. I cried with relief when he peacefully let me give him a bottle and rock him to sleep that first night. After four years of working with older boys from troubled backgrounds through houseparenting at a group home, we felt prepared for anything and expected our son to have struggles. We were aware that orphanage life in a war-torn country could be a recipe for attachment disaster and institutionalization issues. Before boarding the plane for Liberia we read books on bonding, adoption, and Liberian culture. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for whatever his needs might be and expected he might have trouble adjusting to life with us.

Interracial adoption

Apparently that thought process wasn’t shared by many of our fellow adoptive parents.

Which is why it’s hard to read Joyce’s article. She isn’t wrong when it comes to the sad situations some Liberian children found themselves in. They entered families who were woefully unprepared to deal with their issues and were shocked that this child wasn’t grateful to have been taken from their birth culture and everything they had known. These families did not have the coping skills needed and also lacked support from their agencies to help them work through the issues they encountered. There seems to have been a feeling that a child would be better off in US foster care than in a Liberian orphanage so the agencies were prepared to match a child with a waiting family even if they had an inkling that it wouldn’t last. And if they did try to explain to a waiting family that a child had issues, there was a pervasive belief among adoptive families that once they got the child home, love and good nutrition would fix all their problems.

When “love” wasn’t able to conquer those behaviors and adoptions had to be disrupted, families were devastated. Obviously the adopted child was hurt. But so were the biological or previously adopted children who may have lived in fear or experienced abuse at the hands of a child who had learned terrible coping behaviors in the orphanage. It has broken my heart to see these adopted children slowly disappear from family pictures and hear whispers about behaviors no one could manage and the trauma these families experienced.

And these behaviors shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone with an understanding of the events of Liberia’s recent past. Continue reading

The Morality of the Story

Alasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981) he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested by philosophers and sociologists that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.

Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely-connected notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.

The Story is About Something (Creation) – First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. These types of approaches take MacIntyre’s point and run with it to a degree that essentially denies the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection at all. One thinks either of Hegelian historicisms, or even the biblical theology movement with its emphasis on the history God’s mighty acts, as opposed to the pagan gods of nature. Of such schools O’Donovan writes:Resurrection and the Moral Order

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. -Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline For Evangelical Ethics, 2nd Ed.  pg. 60

O’Donovan points us to the reality that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption. In other words, protology matters for eschatological ethics. Observed from a different angle, we must not forget that part of the story that the Scripture tells begins with a good Creator God, whose first ‘mighty act’ was to sovereignly make the world, and those things in it, in a particular way, for good reasons. The defacing effects of sin aside, moral reflection needs to attend to that fact before running ahead to the second or third acts of the drama and drawing our ethics entirely from the NT. It also means we know enough to say something substantial about the moral nature of things before the final act is concluded.

You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) Continue reading

Genetically Modified Food: Mark Lynas and Your Inner Luddite

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a leading environmental campaigner and erstwhile anti-GM food crusader, delivered a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference that brazenly combined penitence and pugnacity, offering a public recantation of his own views on GM food while challenging those not so enlightened to “get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

Although sure to offend or dismay the localist and Luddite that resides deep within so many of us, there was much to admire about Lynas’s address: his honest admission of his own faults, and willingness to re-examine high-profile commitments in light of the evidence; his willingness to point out that a commitment to both environmentalism and humanitarianism requires trade-offs (we cannot feed the hungry, prevent overfishing, and oppose fish-farming simultaneously); his indictment of the self-satisfied aestheticism that lies at the heart of much of the organic food movement; his willingness to take human dominion seriously as part of the solution to, not merely the source of, environmental problems.  There was also much to complain about: his occasionally bullying tone; his declaration that “the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals”; his careless lumping together of all “organic” farming under one heading and declaring that whatever it was, it had no health benefits; his enthusiasm for short-term solutions and inattention to possible long-term consequences.

Any of these points merit thoughtful consideration or critique, but I will confine myself in what follows to examining the last point of admiration and, more briefly, the last point of complaint, for these get to the heart of why so many people, perhaps especially the theologically-inclined among us, have a gut distrust of genetically-modified food.  If given a soapbox on which to pontificate for a few moments, my theologically-sophisticated inner Luddite might proceed as follows:

It is essential that we remember that we are creatures, and not gods, that God alone has established the course of nature and tasked us merely with tending, preserving, and overseeing it.  We have not been given the Promethean freedom to take nature into our own hands and refashion it into our own image.  Nature is not “raw material,” but material that has already been given form and structure by God, and we must respect this God-given form; this is particularly the case with living things.  If we do not, two things will happen.  First, we will harm ourselves physically, for God has created the world good; he has given us the fruits of the earth as food to eat, and he knew what was good for us, so if we try and improve upon it, we are trying to outsmart God and find that we have only decreased malnutrition at the cost of increasing cancer incidence, or whatever.  Second, we will harm ourselves spiritually, for we will lose all sense of our created limits, and of the inherent teleology within nature; we will conceive of ourselves and the world around us as mere products of our own will, human nature itself as clay to be shaped into whatever form we might desire.  At this rhetorical climax, I might quote liberally from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and would perhaps conclude by dolefully reciting some lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Chastened by Mark Lynas’s address, what might we say in response to this pontification?

OGM - ADN

OGM – ADN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, first, we might point out that it seems to be oddly silent on the subject of the Fall, a matter of no small theological significance.  If God’s good creation has been disordered by sin and the curse, we might well expect that simply “doing things naturally” would get us into some trouble.  Fact is, a lot of the things we try and eat can do us harm, or at any rate, can’t do us enough good to protect us all from disease and malnutrition.  To deny that we might need to take measures to avoid these evils of life under the sun would be tantamount to rejecting civil government because, as naturally created, we could live in harmony without it.  The fact of sin means that we cannot always have our cake and eat it too; maybe it would be nice to eat all-natural fruits and vegetables, but this might conflict with the imperative to feed the starving.

More fundamentally, though, this pontification distorts the Christian tradition’s understanding of nature and humans’ role in it.  God created the world with room to grow and mature, and the task of humans is not to curate a museum, but to enrich and perfect the garden we’ve been given to tend.  And simplistic attempts to dichotomize between “helping something grow to its natural perfection” and “intervening so as to force it in an unnatural direction of our own choosing” won’t help us much.  Humans have been intervening and imposing their will on creation since the beginning, to the point that much of what we would today think of as “natural” is actually our own creation.  Roses, potatoes, corn, dogs—all of these wear man’s smudge and share man’s smell, and are, most all of us would agree, very much the better for it.  Not merely “better for us,” mind you (though we might say this for the potatoes and corn, and given God’s desire for a well-fed human race, this is nothing to be scoffed at), but objectively better, better in themselves.  God rejoices in the wild dog, yes, but I would submit that he rejoices still more in the Golden Retriever and the Great Dane (though not, mind you, in the pit bull or the poodle).  When we decided that some plants qualified as weeds, to be removed rather than left alone, and that other plants were beautiful, worthy of being cultivated and bred, rather than left alone, we made determinations about what the “natural perfection” of creation was, and what it wasn’t, and “intervened” accordingly.  In many cases, such interventions have helped ensure or preserve, rather than distort and destroy, balanced ecosystems.

Once we recognize that genetic modification is simply a technologically-accelerated way of doing things that already happen naturally (in cross-pollination and random mutation), or that have already happened through human ingenuity (conventional breeding methods), the prima facie theological objection to it should fall to the ground.   Continue reading

Hamlet, Beauty, and the Case Against Abortion

William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is a story of tragedy; a tragedy that results in part because of a stasis that Hamlet nurtures when he should be taking action to avenge his father’s death.  He has all the impetus one could need—his father’s ghost visits him early in the play urging him to “revenge his foul and unnatural murder” (I.V.25) at the hands of his brother, Claudius.  Yet rather than acting, Hamlet hems, haws, and monologues the play away, inventing opportunities to provoke his uncle’s conscience rather than openly confront him.  He even later finds Claudius in a moment of vulnerability as his uncle is at player, and delays even with a sword in his hand.

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?

No!

Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. (III.3.82-95)

Hamlet justifies his hesitation with the hope that catching his uncle in the midst of more sin will ensure his tenure in hell, whereas killing him at prayer risks sending him to heaven.  Yet this concern ultimately rings hollow given his constant inactivity and misdirection and, moreover, demeans the only motivation he should need—his murdered father.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I, like Hamlet, have been so haunted and remained largely apathetic.

I remember a day from my undergraduate career at Biola University when the entire campus was seething with anger, and with good reason. Or so I thought.  Our passion was directed at a bi-plane flying above the campus trailing a banner with horrific images of aborted fetuses. My friends and I were scandalized, offended, and not a little self-righteous. What an audacious waste of money to hire a plane like that and brandish such images over a Christian campus. We all knew and believed abortion was wrong. We weren’t the ones who needed to be persuaded…right?

Not really.

The truth is, though I identify myself unambiguously as a conservative Christian, and though I affirm the sacredness of life, there’s a real sense in which I have been complicit in the abortion of children because I don’t actually do much to prevent it. And I’m not alone; I know many individuals who next month will go to the polls and console themselves with the belief that they have discharged their duty to the unborn because they voted Republican, just like they did four years ago.

Pro-life advocate Rolley Haggard recently wrote in Breakpoint Magazine, “pulpit silence on the abortion holocaust is nothing short of blasphemy.” But this silence is one shared, potentially, by every Christian—not merely our clergy—and so we all share in the blasphemy. So insular is my experience of Christianity that the last time I really had a discussion with someone about abortion was over ten years ago. This is America—you need never “inconvenience” yourself on account of your faith if you don’t want.

When I was in graduate school in 2008, a thunder-voiced rascal named Brother Jeb told everyone who passed by that voting for Obama would usher in the apocalypse (which I kind of thought he’d prefer). As something of an introvert, I have a strong aversion this type of vitriolic evangelism that, unfortunately, is widespread enough to be cliché.  These people embarrass the cause of Christ with their hellfire (not to mention give Obama too much credit).

But my real problem was that I’d thought about abortion too much. I had myself convinced that to persuade someone that abortion was abhorrent, I needed to deconstruct the sexual revolution—a problem so colossal that what I needed to do was write a book, not have a conversation.

Let me explain. Continue reading

How to Reduce Abortions: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

This past spring, we spent a lot of time arguing against the notion that single evangelicals should take contraception to reduce abortions.  What we didn’t do, though, was talk about the positive case:  if not contraception, then how should we set about reducing abortions?

That’s the question that Kolburt Schultz put to me for his blog Faithful Politics.  My friend Eric Teetsel (go forth to his new blog) weighed in, as did a few others.  My contribution is, well, typically idiosyncratic.  Rather than address the issue head on, I tried to get beneath the surface to one of the core problems in the evangelical culture:  our understanding of children.

Happy

Yes, this is a shameless attempt to make you like this post.

Still, cultural transformation need not wait until we have every solution.  So let me propose one sideways suggestion, one idea that comes at the question not from head-on but through the back door.  I would like to see evangelical churches end “children’s church” and nurseries and keep all the crying infants in the services.  If we segregate infants because they “distract us” from our worship and learning, then we undermine our own imaginative resources to welcome distractions in other parts of our lives.  The posture of welcome to infants and children begins at the center of the universe, in the person of Jesus.  We ought not want a more professional and more distraction-free worship experience than he does, and if we look at the Gospels he seems quite interested in allowing the little children to mess up his plans.  If our worship on Sunday is a microcosm for the rest of our lives, then it seems deeply inconsistent to separate ourselves from children while singing only to claim that we want them every other moment.

Will that reduce abortions?  Empirically, probably not.  At least not right away.  But like all problematic ethical behaviors, the willingness in our people to abort their children is a sign of our deeper dysfunctions.

 I’d be curious to hear from you, dear reader, on this question as well.  What should we think about how to reduce abortions?