Category Archives: Learnings

Nobody’s Perfect

Nobodys Perfect

When I was young, my mother made embroideries with inspirational messages for my brother and me to hang above our beds. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” read my brother’s plaque, while mine simply said “nobody’s perfect.” Mirroring our different temperaments, the messages were both uplifting and grounding at the same time. My embroidery was a picture of three owls sitting on a tree branch, with one hanging upside down. Garrison Keillor would have a field day with them in the Lutheran world of Lake Wobegon. It was a message of strength and humility I needed to hear.

This week it is US President Obama who seems to be the “odd man out” with his “crusade controversy” at the national prayer breakfast. So it seems fitting to share a lesson that has preoccupied me since childhood. Even if you feel you know the truth and are right to say or do something, sometimes it is better to refrain judgement until you are sure. The reasons for circumspection are various. Sometimes it’s not the right timing and sometimes you are just wrong or out of context. I think that both were the case in Obama’s ill-informed statements.

Errors in judgement are human and with everyone watching every word of the President, all of the time, there’s little margin for error. President Obama shouldn’t have used the national prayer breakfast to draw an unjust moral equivalency between past and present wrongdoings. It would have been sufficient to re-emphasize that America is not at war with Islam. Too often, critics have accused President Obama of “lecturing” instead of leading. This time they are unfortunately right. Not only is it detrimental to his integrity as President, the poor timing undermines what is ostensibly a meeting of the minds around the world that the current and ongoing brutality by religious extremism is singularly and absolutely wrong.

While I sometimes applaud the President for his good intentions, I am now reminded of the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and of its biblical reference in Matthew 7:13

Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it.

Sometimes it is harder *not* to say something than it is to say it. And many are those in the era of social media who are quick to spout off in public when a more quiet forum of reflection is called for. Too often our ego leads us to say things we later do (or should) regret. By making a broad brushed historical comparison, President Obama missed the mark. His speechwriters should have known better.

But, again, as my mother would say: “nobody’s perfect.” All we can do is learn from our experience and move forward with humility and commitment to do better in the future. As much as the President likes to tackle hard issues head-on, he should also follow the advice in the iconic 20th century prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.

In this case, the President should have left a millennium old discussion to the historians and used his wisdom and courage as President to focus on his current leadership duties.

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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

This is a tough one. It shouldn’t be. Even before the United States Senate released the already infamous “Torture Report” the reaction was highly charged on all sides. Critics argue that the actions taken by the CIA in detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists were necessary and effective. They foretell harms that will be directed at American citizens as a result of the report’s publication. Supporters point to the invaluable importance of “setting the record straight” and revealing the truths about CIA torture tactics to serve as a “bookend to this sorry period in our history.”

In reality, this report will unlikely bring closure to a difficult chapter of American history. Instead, it re-opens the old wounds and embarrassment felt when the pictures from Abu Ghraib first circulated around the world a decade ago. It is a painful reminder that in the pursuit of justice, even a nation which prides itself for its “exceptionalism” can succumb to the same dark and dishonorable instincts it sees in its enemies and which it is supposedly fighting against. What makes public discourse on this topic so difficult is that the true motivations on all sides of the debate are not always obvious or respectable.

To suggest a moral moral equivalence between cruel acts of interrogation and the atrocities committed by terrorists is entirely misplaced. It is not sufficient to justify all means by a well intentioned and publicly sanctioned end even if the objectives are venerable. The bottom line is – like we were taught as children – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Torturing people is a mortal sin.
It’s a very serious sin. – Pope Francis

Torture, as a moral obligation, should be rejected out of hand, regardless of its effectiveness. When Pope Francis visited convicted mafia in a Calabrian prison this past summer, he made an appeal against torture: “I invite all Christians to engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and to support victims and their families.”  Nothing in the Pope’s plea was an appeal for leniency. After all, his congregation on that day was serving time in prison. The Pope’s message is also one of atonement, to forgive even unspeakable acts through charitable acts of forgiveness. This isn’t to say that evildoers shouldn’t be stopped or punished, but they should be treated justly and in a manner consistent with the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) It is a rule, which no doubt informed Senator John McCain as a victim of wartime torture, who stood in support of the report’s release.

So what good is to come out of a report, which includes no clear policy recommendations? Like other recent revelations such as the NSA Surveillance programs, they will no doubt be used by America’s enemies to chastise the United States and perhaps even justify their own wrongdoings. In the long haul, however, publishing reports of wrongdoing allow the United States to stand up for principles of liberty and justice and challenge other nations to do the same. Precisely because the United States has the ability to project incredible and sometimes unchecked power around the world, it must act with self restraint. Through transparency and accountability America can demonstrate what is truly exceptional about the United States – an ability to learn and adapt. If not forget, the world, too, must be willing to forgive.

 

Honor your father AND your mother.

Twitter Prayers for the Pope

Each Spring Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day come and go with tradition and ritual, but little thought toward their deeper meaning. Reading the many personal tributes on twitter and Facebook this fathers’ day weekend reminds me of the virtues of my own father and of the Proverb (15:20):

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother.

To all religions, from Christianity to Islam, fathers and mothers alike are entrusted to be good guardians and shepherds of their flock and children are taught to respect the teachings of their parents. Even those who feel disappointed or misled by their parents can honor their father and mother by giving thanks to the life they were given. Considering the good virtues passed on by the family as a whole, including by grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, wives and partners, we can be thankful that all of these people have shaped who we are.

A few hours ago Pope Francis tweeted this prayer: “May the Lord bless the family and strengthen it in this moment of crisis.” While there are those who will narrowly interpret this as an appeal to uphold “traditional family values” with regard to marriage, sexuality and the respective roles of men and women, it is important to remember that these roles have been the subjects of controversy and evolving interpretations throughout time and across religions. I prefer a more universal understanding of the Pope’s blessings today.

The crisis of which the Pope speaks is manifold and the evildoers are for the most part *men* who show nothing but disregard for their roles and responsibilities as good shepherds within the family, let alone as leaders within their community. By appealing to the strengthening of the family, the Pope is not only suggesting the new roles we must play in honoring our God given responsibilities as parents and children, he is importantly reminding us that we can only solve our crises TOGETHER as a family unit and in a broader sense in the community as a whole, not by the tired habit of divide and conquer.

It is time for us to open our minds to this broader context. Just as the Enlightenment changed the way Western predominantly Judeo-Christian societies have thought about the world, so too has Islam instructed that “seeking knowledge is mandatory for every believer.” Everything that we have learned over the years is that all men and women are created equal (although women are clearly a more level-headed and moderating force in society), that peace comes about through dialogue and understanding, not war, and that the sustainability of our entire world depends upon a mutual commitment and respect to the environment and resources which we all share on God’s green earth.

Given the efforts to which Pope Francis has encouraged a more forward looking, tolerant and inclusive world view, I firmly believe that this is the wise and joyful approach to honor the legacy of my father.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

– Joshua 24:15