When Discernment Looks Like Dissent

In his book Integrity, Stephan L. Carter explores the topic of integrity and what it might mean for an individual to act with integrity. Carter’s definition, which is deceptively simple, is that integrity is an action that requires three distinct steps. The first step, which I will paraphrase, is to discern a well-informed stance or belief. The second step is to then act in ways which are consistent with these discerned beliefs, “even at personal cost.” And the third and final step is to state these beliefs and how they inform your actions. Carter concludes that the individual who lives a life consistent with this definition of integrity is leading an integral life.

It is perhaps easy to accept Carter’s technical definition of integrity and find little to fault. However, the implementation of such a framework is not far from controversy. Discernment necessarily requires the individual to be judgemental and designate “right” from “wrong,” which presents us with a bit of a dilemma. What happens, and further who is “right,” when being integral requires nonconformity to accepted norms? Or put differently, is it better for the individual who is living an integral life to follow the rules and laws of government and society, or to act in consistency with their beliefs? Carter digs deep and concludes that indeed living an integral life is not always about following the rules, and in fact at times acting with integrity may require rules to be broken.

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Given this, how, or perhaps where, do we locate integrity in the issue confronting us following President Trump’s speech which has purposefully forced us into a cultural debate? On the one side, we have devotees of patriotism and civil religion demanding proper respect for an object and practice that symbolizes a victory over conflict earned through the sacrifice of many. On the other are individuals who see the promise of freedom and equality not yet fulfilled. Who is more integral? Those who have discerned that their beliefs dictate that standing in respect for the flag and anthem? Or perhaps those who have discerned that it is necessary to act in the only way possible and draw attention to a broken system?

The reconciliation of these two is not trivial, and I find it troubling that Trump continues to use this narrative to divide us. Further, Trump’s insistence that this is all about one side of the argument, about respect for the symbols of a civil religion, lacks context and wrongly belittles the integrity of Colin Kaepernick, and those who have joined his cause, and why he chose to kneel. This is not leadership, is it bullying.

Aside from standing or kneeling, the critique of National Football League (NFL) players has included an assertion that players should just stick to football and not be political activists while on the job. Martin Luther, a bit of a nonconforming activist of his time and also an individual who strove to lead an integral life, has something to say about this and an individual’s baptismal vocation. The Evangelical Luthern Church in America (ELCA), has published a social statement called Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, which makes the following statement

One of the ways the Church participates in society is through its members. In dying to sin and rising with Christ in Baptism, Christians are called to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-11). They fulfill their baptismal vocation in ordinary life as family members, friends, citizens, workers, and participants in voluntary associations. Since “daily life [is] the primary setting for the exercise of [the] Christian calling,” it is in that setting that Christians are to serve God and neighbor.

An integral life is one lived in the journey of discernment and played out in whatever vocation it is we perform. Lastly, Carter challenges us to not view our differences as dissent, but rather a necessary process that will inform our discernment, for we will not know if we are acting from “deep and steadfast principles until those principles are tested.”

Minding the Mission by Being Relational on Social Media

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on December 14, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

The very first social statement adopted by the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1991 was The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective. The statement “sets forth affirmations and commitments to guide this church’s participation in society” by making three statements of commitment. The commitments dedicate the church to being an active participant in society through individual members, the broader institutions of the church, and to continually remain in dialog about relevant issues that impact the broader social context. In short, these commitments require the church to be in an engaged relationship with society.

But it is in the context of local congregations that these broad statements come into direct contact with our communities. What happens many times is that the missional nature of religion competes with the practical business of maintaining a congregation. In the book Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, author Landon Whitsitt presents a depiction of how this plays out. As needs arise, congregants with specific business and leadership skills are tapped to apply these same skills to a congregation. In time, Whitsitt observes, the daily life of congregations becomes less missional and more about finding the right operational approach. To put it another way, congregations become so focused on the transactions and policies of their daily business that they lose sight of their call to be in relationship with society.

This tension in congregations has existed before now, but in many ways it is being reshaped with the emergence of social media. It seems to me that many congregations and religious leaders are struggling as they attempt to find the right way to engage social media. I have observed the increasing number of lists that contain tips and “How To’s” aimed at raising a congregation’s social media profile. These articles typically embody a very businesslike, return on investment approach to social media. At the same time I have read the unmistakable lament among some religious leaders that social media is at the very least complicit in the breakdown of society’s attention span for all things important, including religion. These leaders tend to approach social media as a necessary evil in order to ensure that their message is heard by the flocks of distracted disciples.

Both approaches tend to miss the point that what we have in front of us is a huge opportunity to fulfill the mission. Social media is a framework within which we can enhance and extend our relationships with individuals that we know directly, as well as with broader groups of individuals in society. Even if we are never to meet all the individuals in our social media network face-to-face, the opportunity to connect and converse is unparalleled as compared to any other time in history.

In the Buddhist tradition, the pursuit of knowledge can many times take the form of question and answer. The goal, however, is not necessarily to know the right answer to the question, but rather what matters is the thought process by which one arrives at the answer. In like manner, I tend to think that there is not a single right way to use social media, but rather I am interested in the process of connecting and engaging through social media. Sure there are some mechanics involved as it is technology, but let’s not lose sight of the mission — being in an engaged relationship with society.