Monday, February 23, 2015

PA’s Death Penalty's Moratorium and the Question of Justice

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf initiates a moratorium on the Death Penalty.  What’s it about?  It is about ensuring that the system is truly just.  But not everyone is pleased.  No surprise there, when does any decision made by any governor please all?  Never!

Yet, some decisions make better sense than others.  In this case, it makes sense.  Why?  Because, real justice is required of any community’s legal and judicial system; it therefore never hurts to take precautionary steps to ensure that a judicial system’s procedures are in fact really and truly just.  For, there is nothing worse than being caught-up within an institution’s systemic injustice—especially if it is the judicial system itself that may be unjust.

Pennsylvania’s state Senate has already established a “bipartisan Task Force and Advisory Commission” that is to study the effectiveness of Capital Punishment in the state.  Governor Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty is a simple way of saying, “Let’s be patient and wait for the results of this commission’s findings before we go forward with any further executions.”

This is not a radical or extreme “position” he’s taking.  It is a simple step in the direction of ensuring that our system is a just one.  He’s simply giving the commission the time it needs to come up with its results, make its recommendations, and ensure that any and all items of concerns about the system’s procedures regarding the death penalty are properly addressed.  That sounds very wise and balanced to me.  Can one be too careful when it comes to applied justice affecting human lives?  Would that all our leaders would act with such attentive deliberation as this with regard to all other issues and concerns.

No system, judicial or otherwise, is infallible.  All systems need correction from time to time, and therefore require reevaluation and tweaking for improvement.  Wolf wants to be sure that our death penalty system works as it should.  Is it effective as a deterrent for example, is it cost effective?  Is it truly just and fair in its proceedings?  What can be so wrong about asking such questions and doing the necessary homework in order to answer them, before continuing with business as usual?

To accuse the governor of turning his back against “the silenced victims of cold-blooded killers,” is mere political drama.  It is argument that plays on emotions and pathos.  We all want justice.  But the truth is that we all want justice on our terms, when it favors our perspective and our judgment as to who deserves what and how.  This is why a judicial system and its proceedings must be truly just by favoring no one, favoring no side, favoring no person or group of persons (as in favoring the rich over the poor or favoring whites over blacks or favoring people of one faith over another faith).

Applied justice in its proceedings, methods, and systems, must be truly just and fair and equally applied to all in order for it to be real justice.  It’s as simple as that.  And so, it never hurts to evaluate the justice system, especially when it comes to the death penalty.  Thus, this action by Governor Wolf is certainly not a nod toward favoring criminals, far from it.  It is a nod toward respecting true judicial integrity and valuing real justice in the highest sense of the term.  Let all criminals feel the full weight of justice; but let it be true and real justice when it is so applied!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Brian Williams and the Question of a National Moral Compass

Brian Williams has been suspended from his slot with NBC Nightly News.  Apparently he lied.  Yes, he did “fess-up” and he apologized.  But I have to wonder: Is the case of Brian Williams symptomatic of this nation’s moral decline?

Some will forgive him and give him a second chance.  Others will not.  Either way, he has certainly lost something in the process.  People trusted him.  So we have to ask: Given his obvious talent, his professional stature and skill, why did he feel the need to lie in the first place?  What had he hoped to gain that he did not already possess? 

He is not the first, nor will he be the last media-celebrity to go down for exercising poor judgment and/or transgressing against personal and professional standards of conduct.  For some public figures, their road to perdition is so obvious that the public sees it coming long before they do, blinded by arrogant and perpetual denial as they are.  But then there are surprises, like Brian Williams.  Or IS he a surprise?

Was he under pressure?  If so, was this pressure internal, self-made personal pressure?  Or was he being pressured from outside, from the corporate top, from the business?  Or was it a combination of both internal and external pressure—to be number one, to stay at the top, to beat-out all other competitors by any means and at any cost!

We Americans like to believe and would like to assume that our most beloved and most celebrated public figures are people of noble character.  Indeed, ideally speaking, honesty, integrity, sincerity, transparency, and gracious humility, to name a few, should be core character-traits of any public figure of notoriety.

However, my guess is that when fame and fortune and competition for first place and the jostling for top position are at stake, not to mention the need to please the corporate powers that be in their demand for success and nothing less, a “win by any means” attitude begins to kick in.  In short, when business comes first, as in ratings and money, I have no doubt that many high moral and ethical standards are compromised along the way.  It is human nature.

What makes things worse is that we now live in a day when we no longer agree upon a moral compass as a nation, making it easier to justify moral compromises along the way.  We don’t want the Ten Commandments displayed in our public places.  We don’t want a religious voice in the public square of debate and dialogue.  We don’t want public prayer.  We don’t want the Biblical language of “sin” or “fallen nature” or “unrighteousness.”  We don’t want talk of Biblical authority or Revelation, as in God revealing God’s Self to humanity.

So we have replaced God with ourselves as our own moral authority.  We humans have become our own standard.  We now define what is good, right, and ethical for ourselves.  And so, when it comes to conveying “truth,” for example, subtle but unverified suggestion, intimation, and half-truths will suffice, if it enhances a story or promotes a cause or justifies a perspective.  Putting “spin” on a story is not only allowable but expected.  We are at the point where we must ask, as Pontius Pilot once asked Jesus, What is truth?

What is it, really?  Is truth what we want it to be, what we hope it to be, what we will it to be?  Is truth a matter of convenience, a tool, a weapon, a malleable pliable means-to-an-end, a changeling to be used willy-nilly as one chooses?  This is certainly how truth seems to be used from left to right, in all rightwing/leftwing debates.  Isn’t it?  Take one issue, just one, say global warming: “Global warming is unreal; it’s all a fabrication,” says one side.  Really?!  Is that the actual solid TRUTH of the matter?  If that is true, then someone has got to be feeding us great lies.  Who?  Why?  How?  And to what end?

We humans have a way of going into denial when we don’t want to hear hard truth about ourselves.  We often refuse to accept truth we dislike or that is “inconvenient”—truth that holds us accountable, for example.  We don’t want to accept the truth when it is to our disadvantage or when it will cost us to own it.  We don’t want to know the truth when it forces us to admit we’re in the wrong.  We’d just rather remain happily ignorant of the truth.

As a people, a nation, I think we’re in trouble because we no longer have a collective moral compass.  And I believe evidence of this is found in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 which spun us into the great recession of these past few years.  Exactly why did our large financial institutions become too big to fail?  And exactly why did these big financial institutions need bailing out by the taxpayers, even as big individual money people who caused the fallout walked away unscathed?  This is why: human ego, hubris, greed, selfishness, pride, abuse of power—character traits that we all collectively used to know from the Bible as coming from our fallen human sinful nature—something that used to be taught to us as that which must be resisted and redeemed.  But we don’t speak in those terms anymore.   And we no longer encourage its resistance and no longer believe it needs redeeming.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Respecting Faith

You have a reputation.  You hope that it is a good one.  Most likely it’s mixed, some good, some bad.

You care.  You care how people perceive you, think of you, look at you.  Yes you do.  Be honest.  Everyone cares.  We like to be well thought of.  We want to be respected.  We want it and expect it.  Some more than others, but there is a degree of it in all of us.

What is respect?

To be given respect is to be believed-in, to be trusted; to be acknowledged, to be seen as a person of value, worthy of attention and consideration.  It is to know that others have faith in you and believe in you.  That they have regard for you and trust you to be a person of worth, to count.  To be someone who is some ONE in whom people have faith.

To be dis-respected is to be summarily dismissed as unworthy.  To be given no personal acknowledgment.  To be given no place or position in the world.  It is to be held with no regard and given no esteem; to be nothing, absolutely nothing, to be worthless and useless in the eyes of others—a non-person, a no-one—a person in whom no-one has faith.

So if you want to “dis-” someone, tell him that you don’t trust him.  Tell him you don’t have faith in him that you can’t believe in him.  Tell him that he has no value and that people are better off without him.  Tell him the world would be better off had he never even existed.  Indeed, take it a step further and tell him that if he must insist on asserting his right to BE, then he is to blame for all the evil in the world.  Then tell him that he is a joke.  Laughable, if he weren’t so culpable.  Tell him that you could never put your faith in a person like him.  (Or tell “Her,” for this is a gender neutral point.)

Now, say all that to God.

Say it with all your heart.  Pray it.  Pray it in earnest.  Pray it with a feverish pitch of conviction: “God is nothing!  God is worthless.  God is useless.  God has no value and no significance.  God is not to be trusted.  I have no confidence that God is good or just and fair.  Indeed, I blame God for all the evils of this world.  God is laughable.  I have no place for God in my life.  I will not believe in God.  I give no acknowledgment to God’s place in the universe!”

To reject God is as much a faith-statement as to believe in God.  Everyone readily agrees that it is on the bases of faith that one accepts that God IS and is worthy of trust, a “someone” that should be believed-in.  Few readily recognize that it is also on the bases of faith that one asserts that God is NOT and/or is not worthy of our confidence or trust, as one who can and will and should make a difference in the world, let alone our own personal lives.

Faith matters and it is a matter of respect.  Yet, it is too easily dismissed.  How so?  It is all to often falsely assumed that the religious person dismisses intelligent reasoning in favor of passionate faith while the irreligious individual calmly chooses cool rational logic over emotional trust.  Passion, trust (faith), emotion, as well as reason, logic, and rationality are used by everyone, religious and non-religious alike.

Faith matters because faith is required in all relationships.  And faith in God is also a viable relational dynamic.  A healthy working faith requires good evidence and trustworthy patterns of consistency and dependability.  In short, faith requires the good use of one’s mind and intellect.  Hence, we are not presuming a blind faith, a faith that willfully goes against absolute evidence to the contrary.  Nor, on the flip side, are we presuming that reason alone can provide us with perfect knowledge in absolute terms.  Hence, faith matters and it is a matter of respect.

In short, there is no one that does not exercise faith in their logic, or in their reasoning, or in their assessment of reality.  Likewise, contrary to popular attitudes, there are few who totally check-in their minds at the door of faith, as if rationality and faith have nothing to do with each other.  Faith is as necessary to rationality as knowledge and understanding is as necessary to applied faith.  Faith matters.  It is also a matter of respect.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Good Communication Skills Require Personal Growth

You have a problem.

It’s not a “thing” problem.  It’s a “person” problem, a relational problem.

Now what?  What to do?  What to say?  Where to go from here?

Things, machines, and processes, these can easily be fixed by following step-by-step directions.  Nuts and bolts, hammers and screwdrivers, that is, the proper tools and the right parts are all one needs, to fix mechanical problems.  It’s not the same with people problems.  Would that people were as fixable as machines are.  Alas, we’re not.

Good communication is foundational to repairing people problems.  The problem has to be discussed.  But that’s where things can also go badly, and fast.

    “We have to talk.”

    “I don’t want to hear it!”

Talking can create more misunderstanding.

    “Did you just say what I thought you said?!  How dare you say that to me!”

And it goes downhill from there.  After all, people are people.

Good communication doesn’t just happen.  It takes work.  It’s a developed skill just like anything else.  We tend to assume that just because we’re talking we’re communicating.  As if the more talking we do, the better we’re communicating.  Sadly that’s not the case.  Quality communication is a learned skill that few of us learn well.  Thankfully it is also a skill that most anyone can learn to do better and improve upon over time.

What are some common mistakes we make when communicating, especially when a relationship is deteriorating?

(1) When we are angered or frustrated by a person’s actions or words, we tend to immediately leap to judgment and/or condemnation of the person’s character and personhood rather than staying focused on describing the action or words that were committed so as to explain why it is that, said action or words, bother us.  In short we go into attack mode and the other person immediately goes into defensive and protective mode.  An open, trusting, and engaging spirit of communication is lost.  The possibility of having ongoing, good and productive communication never gets off the ground.

(2) We often fail to take personal ownership and personal responsibility in a deteriorating relational dynamic.  People problems are usually a two way street.  There is action and reaction, response and counter response.  Yet, we humans tend to avoid taking personal ownership of our own misbehavior or mean words or bad attitude or stubborn willfulness within the relationship.  We deny, deny, and deny yet again.  This denial is exasperating to those who see through us all too clearly and know all too well that we are simply kidding ourselves or are outright deceiving ourselves, let alone lying to everyone else, when we refuse to own our part in the deteriorating dynamic.

(3) We tend to take a superior posture or try to get the advantage over the other, rather than relate as co-equals (as fellow human beings) giving mutual respect.  That is, aside from hierarchical social structures, a person’s dignity and honor is sacrosanct regardless of position, role, or office.  An individual knows when he/she is being disrespected as a person and his/her human dignity is being trashed.  Whatever a person’s role or position is, in the social structure, the other person’s dignity and self-respect as a fellow human being should be maintained and honored.

(4) And then there is the question of power and authority and its potential for abuse.  We want our own way.  And we’ll often become manipulative or resort to the use of direct power and control to get what we want out of a relationship.  Instead of signaling a spirit of invitation toward mutual cooperation, thus allowing the other person to have a sense of real personal choice, and the dignity that comes with having the freedom to make that choice, we demand and command.   We talk to the other, rather than speak with the other.  And then we wonder why we face so much resistance with little cooperation.

(5) A common element in many problematic relationships is the failure to be in touch with one’s own inner dynamics.  Men especially may have the problem of not understanding their own deeper feelings, why they’re reacting the way they are.  He may be clearly mad.  Anger is one emotion that men feel most free to own and express.  But the source of his anger may belong to deeper more mysterious feelings, such as feelings of guilt or remorse or hurt pride or shame and embarrassment, or whatever, with which he is completely out of touch.  Both men and women need to be in touch with the inner-self, the true self, in order to fully understand the source and causes of emotional outbursts or reactive defenses within a souring relational dynamic.

Good communication nurtures good relationships and good communication begins with one’s own self-awareness and personal development.  We must be present, we must be real, we must be in-touch, we must be true, we must be respectful, and we must be receptive, inviting, willing, and authentic.  In short, all the old fashioned values and principles of personal development that ancient sages teach us in their spiritual disciplines, for example, are as necessary today as they were hundreds of generations ago.  When it comes to the requirements of human development, there is nothing new under the sun.