On Selling our Inheritance

Last June, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the organizing body of the esteemed institution that I serve, decided to sell its property on Second Avenue in NYC.  It’s where our Presiding Bishop resides and the central office is located.

Certainly there are some good reasons.  After all, our church is declining and we have little money.  And what do they do there in NY, anyway?  NYC is such an elitist, expensive place, with their snobbish restaurants, cultural activities with foreign artists, and expensive hotels.   They have theater.  An entire theater district.   And we’ve got enough of that, thank you very much.

Couldn’t we sell the building and give all the money to the poor?  To the Sudan.  Just wire transfer it there.  If not the Sudan, then Mali or Honduras.   Just give it away.

I appreciate the sentiment.  It won’t create the changes we seek.

Well meaning people suffer from a few common errors.  The first is from the belief that if we sell our wealth and give it away, we will be doing some good to ourselves and to others.  Perhaps we think that with a little money, the poor would suddenly become the middle class with jobs and houses – in control of their lives.  More likely, we’d merely lose our inheritance, the hard work of our previous generations, and still have lots of poor people.  In addition, we’d also have lost an effective staging area, the organization that can help us transform the relationship of donor to client; giver to receiver.   It takes long term work.  It takes training, advocacy and time.  It means building up relationships and institutions.  Certainly we should reinvent our own organization; but selling our property may only diminish our strength rather than invite us to a shared struggle.

The second is a corollary:  a suspicion of any sort of extravagance.  I respect this – while people are skiing in Vail, others are dying in Syria.  How can anyone have a good time?  Yet, the poor woman generously pours out abundance over Jesus; and then the apostles complain, that money could have been given away.  How can we celebrate the resurrection when there are so many people who are dying needlessly?   We just feted our bishop in NY, and I could hear the occasional people complain about the cost.   We couldn’t even appreciate the party that he was throwing for us.  He’d already become a target.

We are eager to sacrifice, but especially when it’s with money we don’t earn ourselves.  We give the money away, cheaply.   For we aren’t actually making the sacrifices that will ensure our institutions can do effective work; we sell for a song the contributions that previous generations made.  We feel righteous for giving our wealth away; when we are meant to be stewards of wealth we inherited.  Our first step should be to give more; not to buy into financial austerity.

What’s disturbing is the number of many Episcopalians who are also instinctively anti-institutional.  I think this reflects our cultural antagonism toward “institutional” religion.  But this is misplaced:  strong institutions create sustained change.  They represent groups of people of a common mind.    We may identify changes in our culture with individuals or movements; but we forget that there were always organizations that made such work possible.    As our market system becomes more sophisticated, the institutions that make that work possible become invisible.  But they are there.  Social media may make us think  individuals are more effective, but Google, Facebook and Twitter are institutions, not merely platforms.  We are ill served when we forget that.

Certainly the institution of the central office should be held accountable; its administration should be staffed with people who are competent and energetic, who understand that good business practices and institutional power are not, in themselves, bad.  They probably should not be priests, aside from those individuals who must perform the church’s role in public.  But such leadership concerns are altogether of a different sort than the magic we expect from releasing the investments we make.

Our institution does need intentional disorganization and thoughtful reorganization.  But while we are certainly eager to do the former, we have little idea how to do the latter.  And selling prime real estate does not give me confidence in our ability to do so.  To some, the selling signifies prophetic action and deliverance.  But it also reflects our miserliness and desperation.

Emory and the politics of compromise

The president of Emory has gotten quite the ass-kicking for calling the 3/5s rule an example of a good compromise.  I admit, I’m perplexed by the push back in part because I’m skeptical of the counterfactual histories his critics presume.

Certainly the best thing was for all people at all times to recognize the immediate humanity of all people.  It would have been desirable and magnificent if such could have been an option.

But we are far from that time.  Can we know how those founders thought?  Certainly counting blacks completely would have given them some humanity; but it would have mainly strengthened southern power:  they wouldn’t have been able to vote.

The most moral option would have been for Southern States to admit they were wrong and the voting rights of their slaves.  But, however luscious and joyful such an image is, it was probably not an option anyone considered.  Unpropertied white men couldn’t vote either.

Perhaps not counting slaves at all would have been the just option, given they had no real representation.  But in that case, we would not have had a country.  And it also signifies that slaves were not actually people.

I do not think that this compromise was the best world.  In my world, if I were God, all people have always been equal, brilliant, understand evolution, the big bang, and math.  We would all love everyone.  But in a different world, one I do not understand, perhaps the 3/5’s rule was a compromise that was worthy.  One does not need to believe that slavery or the dehumanization of blacks was moral to also acknowledge that we make compromises that are imperfect, frail and open to change.  As this one was.  The better option for blacks at this time – counting as nothing – may have been worse in the long run.  We do not know.

But I do think the president of Emory has been misunderstood by well-meaning people.

Goodbye, Benedict

I’m not a hater, although I wasn’t a fan.

I think it was wise and generous for him to resign.   We need not always stay in roles that we have taekn on.  Sometimes if we stay to long the office becomes the person and vice versa.  There is wisdom in avoiding that, if only to let our organizations reorganize and find ways to change.

I do believe Benedict was misinterpreted.  Sometimes his arguments, I suspect, were much more nuanced than could be articulated in the media.  Still, I share the sentiments of plenty of Episcopalians, Anglicans and Catholics that the institutional response of the church toward clerical abuse was inadequate, and it points to a larger tone-deafness of a hierarchy that seems far too distant from the concerns of the people.

I remain fascinated.  In my mind, the Roman Catholic church remains the only institution with the capabilities to challenge the onslaught of market forces internationally.  It is the main international organization that engages regularly with the most wretched of the earth.  By and large, it is controlled locally, rather than by the many aid organizations populated with prosperous Americans from Ivy League Schools participating in charity tourism.

Although many people have noted that John Paul II and Benedict have appointed all the current cardinals, I think it is too strong to assume that the individual bishops do not think independently.  Oscar Romero was a bishop who was considered conservative and meek – and he became one of the greatest proponents of liberation theology.  We do not know where the spirit will take the church.  We can still hope for openness.

Granted, in my darker moments I share the view of the reformers that the Roman church is a nest of vipers and finally beholden to the anti-Christ.  But then I remember that it is also a human body; and however imperfect it has many parts and many roles.  It has hospitals and schools all over the globe; and although it is run by men, it has schools for girls and women in places where there had been none.  It does its own work, without armies, across nations.  And I believe it has also formed plenty of faithful Episcopalians.

I still consider myself a catholic, in its reformed and humanist tradition, and wish the best for the Roman tree, and for Benedict.  I had hoped for more, but bless him in his quiet days.