Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Anniversaries Help Us Remember

I, the Lord of sea and sky.
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?

I, the Lord of snow and rain.
I have borne my people's pain.
I have wept for love of them, They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts of love alone.
I will speak My word to them,
Whom shall I send?

I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save
Finest bread I will provide,
Till their hearts are satisfied,
I will give my live for them.
Whom shall I send.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

World Vision: A Question of Identity and of Calling

The events of last week regarding World Vision's change in employment policy and then its subsequent retraction, reminded me of a meeting I had a number of
years ago in China.  With the buzz of news, blogs, and Tweets, immediately following the announcements by World Vision, U.S., I decided to think a little more reflectively on what this all meant, and why.

The announcement came as a surprise to many, myself included, and was viewed immediately as controversial, either as a welcomed or unwelcomed change to this great humanitarian organization.

According to the initial announcement, World Vision's American branch would no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.  As reported in Christianity Today online, "Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule." But the policy change announced on Monday, 24 March 2014, will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed by World Vision.

In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, my friend, Rich Stearns, the President of World Vision U.S., explained the rationale for this change.  He asserted that it was a very narrow change and should be viewed by others as "symbolic not compromise but of Christian unity."  World Vision U.S., hoped to dodge the division tearing churches apart over same-sex relationships by holding to its long-held philosophy of parachurches deferring to churches and denominations on theological issues so that it could focus on uniting Christians around the world serving the poor.

This has gotten me thinking about identity and calling.  When we think of identity, we think of the fact or state of being the same one as described.  Or maybe we think of it as the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in character and personality over time.  In terms of logic, identity refers to the assertion that two terms refer to the same thing.  All of this carries the sense of individuality, personality, uniqueness, and distinctiveness.

"Calling" raises a slightly different idea.  The idea of calling is a religious term, but it is more than that.  Os Guinness in his well-known book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, states that "At some point every one of us confronts the question: How do I find and fulfill the central purpose of my life?"  He writes how in "an early draft of Fyodor Dostoevsky's, The Brothers Karamazov, the Inquisitor gives a terrifying account of what happens to the human soul when it doubts its purpose: 'For the secret of man's being is not only to live . . . but to live for something definite.  Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth . . .  .'"  It seems to me that this can also apply to organizations.

Call it the greatest good (summum bonum), the ultimate end, the meaning of life, or whatever you choose.  But finding and fulfilling the purpose of life comes up in a myriad of ways and in all seasons of our lives.

But, it is not just a personal thing.  As The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged) puts it: a call is a summons to a profession, vocation, or trade.  So, as Os Guinness argues in his book, this purpose for life can be found only when we discover the specific purpose for which we were created and to which we are called.

The reaction to this change in one of the world's largest humanitarian organizations was swift, and largely critical.  But, it is not simply a large humanitarian organization.  Since World Vision has long been regarded as a premier Evangelical organization, it is not difficult to guess the lines of divisions among those critical of the change or supportive of the change.

However, on 26 March 2014, just two days later, World Vision reversed this decision.   In a letter posted to the World View constituency and media, Rich Stearns announced that the U.S. Board had just publicly reversed its decision to change their national employment conduct policy:

 Dear Friends,
Today the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its decision to change our national employment conduct policy.  The board acknowledged that they [sic] made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness with the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. 
We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern in love and conviction.  You share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened to you and want to say thank you and humbly ask for your forgiveness.
In our board's effort to unite around the church's shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with the World Vision U.S.'s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible authoritative Word of God."  And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our Christian partners.  As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.
We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.  We ask that you understand that this was never the board's intent.  We are asking for your continued support.  We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead.
While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created in God's image and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.
Please know that World Vision continues to serve all people in our ministry around the world.  We pray that you will continue to join with us in our mission to be "an international partnership of Christians whose mission is the follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God." 
As I read both the initial announcement, and rationale, for the change to the employment conduct policy, and now its retraction or reversal, several things have come to my mind that I believe must apply to all charitable organizations. These are things that have been at the forefront of my thinking over the past 40 years of experience in the third sector, and particularly, as a member of a number of boards.

At the same time, I feel a little sadness that many may view both the initial announcement, and this immediate reversal of its earlier announcement following a firestorm of criticism, as a concern for its effect on its fundraising, child sponsorship, and trust within the Christian community that has supported World Vision since its founding.  What seems to be missing throughout this entire situation is any clear understanding that marriage is pre-political, notwithstanding the affirmation of the Biblical teaching and World Vision's statement of the creation narrative.

But, first this.  I had the privilege of meeting with the senior leadership of China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, Department of Social Welfare and Charity
Promotion.  The Deputy General Director of the Department posed an interesting question in the course of our discussion.

The question was this: Are standards of Integrity and Transparency established by each country or culture, or are they more permanent?

The context was our discussion about the nature of integrity, transparency, and accountability within the nongovernmental civil society, or third sector, and the role of charity monitoring of that sector.  The question was really whether there are eternal truths, external to our space and time, that establish standards of integrity against which charitable organizations should be monitored, or whether these standards are established locally based on the history, culture, and traditions of a particular country.  Of course, a key underlying thought to that question was who was to monitor this activity and against what standards.

About 18 months later during a public lecture at Shantou, University, Shantou, Guangdong Province, one of the advanced students asked an interesting question.  China,  This was the question:  Are there differences between the way Americans are engaged in charity with their history and tradition of Christianity, and the way the Chinese are engaged in charity without that tradition?  Again, an interesting and somewhat provocative question in an audience filled with people, students, faculty, and citizens of the local metropolitan area, where I had no knowledge of the backgrounds of those attending.

I was reminded of these questions when I heard of the World Vision change in its employment policy which was then reversed within two days.

There is something that often happens in any organizations, but for our purposes, in nonprofit organizations that make up our civil society.  We simply forget our identity and why we were established in the first place.  In other words, we forget who and what we are, and to what we were called to be and do. And we forget by Whose authority and Whose standards our identity and our calling are forged.  Thus, the relevance of the questions posed to me in Beijing and in Shantou.

Any concept of accountability must, it seems to me, include some standards against which compliance and accountability are to be determined.  But, that still does not solve the problem.  The law, may in its own way, set forth standards applicable to how a nonprofit organization must be organized and operated.  Some of these may have moral content or be based on some standards of morality, while other laws might simply reflect certain administrative or ministerial requirements that do not invoke some profound moral standard.  As a result, many laws are country specific, and reflect the history, culture, and traditions of that country.

Similarly, organizations may have their own standards of integrity and morality, as well as reflecting the organization's values and culture.  To the extent that they embody some principle of integrity or morality, the question often is raised about the source of those principles of integrity or morality.

Rules or standards of etiquette, on the other hand, are generally culturally and traditionally specific to a place and time.  They simply involve manners, and for the most part, carry no particular moral standards.

The problem becomes more difficult when we talk about morality.  It is important to distinguish morality and values.  They are not the same although the terms are frequently used interchangeably without much thought.  If there are no first principles, however general, that may be expressed to convey moral content, then it seems that any real discourse about what is right or what is wrong, what is moral or what is immoral, what is good, or what is bad, is basically impossible.  There must be some set standards against which all arguments concerning standards are discussed and evaluated.  This does not mean that there cannot be interpretive differences or differences in their application.

So much of the issues that gave rise to the confusion over the changed employment conduct policy of World Vision U.S. and its subsequent reversal is related to that difficulty we have in talking about these kinds of issues without some clear and permanent baseline against which our discussions are conducted. And it is this which leads me to the questions of identity and calling.

I recall when Bob Pierce, an American pastor, founded World Vision in the 1950s preaching and making movies to raise awareness about poverty in Asia. Bob Pierce set about as simply one man trying to help one child in one country with $5.00, and began the child sponsorship program in 1953, caring directly for children in orphanages.  In the late 1960s, the child sponsorship program spread to more countries in Asia and South Central Asia.

From those earlier years, World Vision was always thought to be within what was considered to be the core of evangelicalism, and I make this comment theologically rather than politically as the term is so often thought of today. That was its identity, but it was also its calling.

I also remember when the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) was founded, World Vision was one of the founding members, and perhaps without that early leadership of Stan Mooneyham and Ted Engstrom, both previous presidents of World Vision of World Vision International, ECFA may never have gotten off the ground as a standard-setting and accrediting body for evangelical organizations.  It was Stan Mooneyham and Ted Engstrom, working with Billy Graham and other senior leaders of American evangelicalism that led to the formation of ECFA.

From its founding, ECFA has been distinctive in its vision of being Evangelical, that is, centered on the tenets of orthodox Biblical Christianity, and promoting integrity in the Evangelical nonprofit sector in the United States.  Indeed, the ECFA mission statement is: Enhancing Trust in Christ-Centered Churches and Ministries.

In this respect, ECFA Standard 1 provides:

Every Organization shall subscribe to a written statement of faith clearly affirming a commitment to the evangelical Christian faith, or shall otherwise demonstrate such commitment and shall operate in accordance with biblical truths and practices.
In an age in which words are twisted and used for purposes other than their original meaning, it is important to recognize that what is expressed in this ECFA Standard 1 is not a statement of political or popular understanding of what evangelicalism is and what evangelicals are.  Rather, it expresses the theological understanding of that term as generally described in the ECFA's doctrinal statement of faith, which is set forth as part of that Standard.

In essence, ECFA affirms a number essential elements undergirding the evangelical Christian faith. For my purpose here, I only identify three.  First, a believe in the Bible to be the inspired and only infallible, authoritative word of God.  Second, the belief in the Trinity of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. eternally existing in three persons.  Third, a statement of what those beliefs are.

Like many others involved in the charitable sector, I regarded Ted Engstrom as something of a mentor for more than 20 years, first when he was Chairman of the Board of Directors for ECFA and later during my tenure as Chairman of that Board.  But, I first knew Ted in the mid-1950s when he was a leader in Youth for Christ, and followed him later as he became president of Youth for Christ International.  And, indeed, it was during my Chairmanship of ECFA when Rich Stearns also became a member of the Board of ECFA.

Which brings me back to the questions of identity and calling.  Rich Stearns wrote a great little book in 2009, The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed my Life and Might Just Change the World.  In his introduction, Rich Stearns asks two questions: What does God expect of us?  What is the Christian Faith About?  In other words, what is our identity and what is our calling.  But he then goes on to press the question further:
     I am a Christian -- perhaps you are too.  [This is a matter of identity]  But, what does that mean exactly?  To even be a Christian, we must first believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  That in itself is not small idea.  If it is true, it changes everything, because if Christ is God, then all that He said and did is deeply significant to how we live our lives.  So we believe. But God expects more.
     And so the question, "What does God expect of me?" is a very profound one -- not just for me, but for everyone who claims to follow Christ.  [Here, Rich addresses the question of calling and gets very personal as he moves away from the abstract and theoretical.]   Jesus had a lot to say about it.  Yes, He did give us deep insights into the character of God and our relationship to Him as well, but He also spoke at length about God's expectations, or values, and how we are to live in a world.  So, how are we to live? What kind of relationship are we to have with a holy God?  What is God asking for, really, from you and me?  Much more than church attendance.  More than prayer too.  More than belief, and even more than self-denial.  God asks us for everything.  He requires total life commitment from those who would be His followers.  In fact, Christ calls [emphasis added] us to be His partners in changing our world, just as He called the Twelve to change their world two thousand years ago.
* * *
      The idea behind The Hole in Our Gospel is quite simple.  It's basically the belief that being a Christian, or a follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God.  It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world.
     If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith -- and mine -- has a hole in it.  
So that is the context in which we can consider both the announced revised employment conduct policy by World Vision U.S., and its retraction several days later.  It is really a question of identity and calling.  You see, World Vision is not just another large humanitarian organization among a number of humanitarian organizations, providing the same or similar type of relief to the poor, needy, downcast, and disenfranchised, as good and as important as those things are.

As Rich Stearns point on in his book, the humanitarian identity and calling flows from what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ.  Rich does not go straight to the challenge to be a public and transforming change agent in our relationships with the world.  He could.  But, he does not.  His entire thesis and book is based on the idea that the Gospel, and of Christian identity involves first of all, requires the follower of Jesus Christ to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that if Jesus Christ is God, then everything He said and did is deeply significant to who we are and how we live our lives, not simply our engagement with the poor and disenfranchised.

If, as Rich Stearns argues, the gospel has a hole in it, then it is important to understand what the gospel is.  And Rich points out, both in his prologue and in the first chapter, that the gospel is "glad tidings, esp. concerning salvation and the kingdom of God as announced to the world by Christ." Further, "This new kingdom, characteristics of which are captured in the Beatitudes (Matt: 5:3-10), would turn the existing world order upside down.

This book, The Hole in the Gospel, is the compelling true story of Rich Stearns, who left his position as the corporate CEO of Lenox, Inc., a major U.S. corporation, to lead World Vision. This is all about his personal calling, "a call that tore him out of his corner office at one of America's most prestigious corporations -- to walk with the poorest of the poor in our world."  But it is more than that.  It is the recognition of a call to which Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision recognized when he is established World Vision; a Biblically based identity with the poor and a call to serve them in the name of Jesus Christ.   This is both World Vision's identity and its calling.  It is also what distinguishes World Vision from many other worthwhile humanitarian organizations.

World Vision, U.S. states on its website, that it is committed to the poor.  That:

The resources at our disposal are not our own.  They are a sacred trust from God through donors on behalf of the poor.  We are faithful to the purpose for which those resources are given and manage them in a way that brings maximum benefit to the poor.
* * *
We are stewards of God's creation.  We care for the earth and act in ways that will restore and protect the environment.  We ensure that our development activities are ecologically sound. 
Both of these statements reflect a philosophy of stewardship based on Biblical teaching.  In other words, both of World Vision's identity and calling are also based on the concepts of stewardship.

I think it is also what World Vision might not have carefully considered enough in the announcement of its changed employment policy, and what I think might have been under the surface in its reversal of that revised policy, was this idea of Christian identity and its calling as stewards of all of God's creation and resources dedicated to ministering the the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the poor.  It seemed to defer to the variety of understandings of the authority of the Bible and its definition of marriage to sources outside of World Vision.  In a world and age of changing social norms, this can be dangerous to one's identity and sense of calling.

Now this:

On Friday, 4 April 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported a story that had already been in the news.  It was about the Chief Executive Officer of Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind Firefox Web browser.   According to its website, "The Mozilla Project is a global community of people who that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet."  It is a community-based approach that views the Internet as a global public resource that must remain open and accessible, as a means of enriching the lives of individual human beings. The Mozilla Foundation invites all people to join to support its principles and to make this vision of the Internet a reality.

The Chief Executive Officer and co-founder, Brendan Eich, announced in a blog
that he was resigning as CEO and leaving Mozilla. Brendan Eich was the creator of JavaScript for Netscape Navigator, a brilliant engineer that was one of the co-founders of Mozilla.  But, he had also presumably been known for his opposition to same-sex marriage and had contributed $1,000.00 to support Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriage in California.  Although there were some stirrings of disapproval at the time of the donation, it was this donation that became the trigger for the outburst against Mr. Eich at the time of his selection as CEO.

The New Yorker magazine reported that none of this was a surprise, although his resignation came only two weeks after he assumed the office of CEO.  There was an outrage in the technological community in Northern California, and within the Mozilla community.  But, it was a petition circulated by the dating site, OKCupid recommending that customers stop using Firefox, and the call from some of the Mozilla employees for his resignation that led to just that.

As the New Yorker reported, "the obvious point to make about Eich's resignation is that it shows how much a part of the mainstream that support for gay rights has become, particularly in the technological world."  So, "the real mystery here, then, is not why Eich stepped down but why he ever got the job in the first place."  He was essentially forced out of his own company after running the show for two weeks.

None of this was about government censorship.  One writer stated that Eich did not have any right to be the CEO of Mozilla.  "His personal views were simply at odds with community standards." Whatever those "standards" are, assuming of course that they are "standards."  But again we have a question of what Mozilla is and what it was called to be when it was formed. all of which was set out in its organizing vision statement.

Then this:

Little Sisters of the Poor is an international congregation of Roman Catholic woman religious, originally established during the French Revolution and later established in its aftermath in 1839, and in 1868 came to America.  As part of a network of collaborators, it serves the elderly poor in more than 30 countries around the world.  Its mission, or calling, is to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ.

Its vision is to contribute to the culture of life by nurturing communities where each person is valued, the solidarity of the human family and the wisdom of age are celebrated, and the compassionate love of Christ is shared with all.

Its statement of "Stewardship" states: "the recognition that all life and all other goods are gifts from God and should therefore be used responsibly for the good of all; trust in God's Providence and the generosity of others to provide for our needs; just compensation for our collaborators; a spirit of gratitude and sharing."

When the Congress of the United States passed, and the President signed, the Affordable Care Act, the Act and implementing regulations mandated certain coverages to be included in health insurance coverage.  The mandate covered contraceptive services for all employers and educational institutions without cost sharing to the employee.  The services covered included contraceptives and contraceptive services, including abortifacient drugs and devices, and female sterilization.

Failing to obtain an exemption from the mandate as a "religious employer," the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a class action lawsuit seeking to uphold its rights to carry out its vows of obedience in the service to the poor.  In its statement when faced with the denial of its application for exemption, the Little Sisters of the Poor said:
     Because the Little Sisters of the Poor cannot in conscience directly provide or collaborate in the provision of services that conflict with Church teaching, we find ourselves in the irreconcilable situation of being forced to either stop serving and employing people of all faiths in our ministry -- so that we will fall under the narrow exemption -- or stop providing health coverage to our employees.  Either path threatens to end our service to the elderly in America.  The Little Sisters are fervently praying that the issue will be resolved before we are force to take concrete action in response to this unjust mandate. 
So although the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction while the case is being litigated through the courts, the litigation continues to drain resources and energy as the Little Sisters of the Poor continue to attempt to vindicate their identity and calling, but also to vindicate the Constitutionally recognized right of religious freedom.

Several years ago, CIVICUS  observed in its newsletter, and I have repeated here and in talks I have given, that threats to the charity sector, and to charities in particular, come in three different forms. First, there are those threats which are internal to the organization.  Then there are those threats which are external to the organization or sector.  These may included barriers that prevent organizations from becoming established to how they operate and raise funds. The third threat includes those threats that are common to human life and existence, such as war, conflict, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes or typhoons, or volcano eruptions to suggest a few.

So, loss of trust.  Some of this loss simply occurs as a result of scandals reported in the media.  But, this loss of trust may occur in a variety of ways that are not directly connected to any "scandal." While not a scandal, charities may lose trust when disclosures of fundraising, or use of funds are inadequate or when the ratios of administrative or fundraising expenses to operations may suggest that funds are not being used effectively for the purpose for which they were raised, or for the mission of the organization.  There may be a loss of trust on the part of the public for something as simple as the way funds are raised and how those funds are used.  Similarly, a loss of trust, especially in the case of a particular supporting constituency when there are policy changes, expansions of mission emphasis, or maybe just change in leadership.

So, loss of trust in not just limited to the perceived scandals that are reported in the media.  There may be legitimate decisions taken by boards of charitable organizations that seem to shake the confidence and trust of its donor public.

Governments receive their funds through taxation and coercion; businesses through the sale of goods and services.  Loss of trust may adversely affect the reputation and authority of government, and loss of trust may adversely affect the viability and sustainability of a business.  But loss of trust to a charity can affect not only the reputation of that charity, but also the well-being of other charities, and indeed the entire sector in a community or country, and thus the welfare of the community.

However, the charity and charity sector is also challenged by external threats, such as the legal and quasi-legal means whereby governments restrict the space in which charities operate.  These may include barriers to entry, such as those which discourage or burden, or prevent formation of organizations or their operation as charitable entities.  There may be barriers to speech and advocacy, which may include the use of laws to prevent organizations and associations from engaging in the full range of free expression and public policy.  Others may use laws as means of restricting a charity's ability to raise and use funds necessary to carry out its work, or that prevent the organization from carrying out the legitimate activities for which it was established.

I would include within this variety of external threats, threats which might not be occasioned only by government action.  It may well be that external threats to the existence or effectiveness of a charitable organization arise because of changing norms or public pressure.  As certain norms and practices change and spread through societies, public pressure through protests, funding, and more recently, through the negative use of social media, may pose threats to specific charitable organizations or classes of charity.  In such cases, the charitable organization may simply bow to the pressure, and change policies which are considered to be in conformance with prevailing social norms or at least to those norms which seem to get the most attention, particularly in new media and social media networks.

If moral standards never change and are eternal and universal, it is clear that cultural norms do change, and often that change is at variance with well-known tried and true principles of morality.  Of course, there will always be debates about the source and authority of those moral codes, but this does not suggest that there are none.  In the case of World Vision and Mozilla, the same-sex marriage issue predominated in the internal decisions regarding employment and conduct policies and the selection of leadership without regard to their respective identities and callings.  But, these decisions also resulted from the external pressures caused by changing norms, in large measure advanced in social media and in the mainstream press.

Little Sisters of the Poor was faced with losing its long-standing identity and calling in order to be in compliance with the law and regulations or to face extinction or heavy fines which would result in its demise in America. Although the issue drawing most attention in the media regarding this particular litigation, as well as those joined in similar lawsuits, is the question of religious freedom, what is also at stake is the identity and calling of Little Sisters of the Poor and similar religious charitable organizations.

Isn't it true that every organization, whether or not it is a charity, faces the same questions of identity and calling, or what some might think of as mission.  I think that in the case of World Vision and Mozilla, there might be some loss of trust on the part of its donor constituency or users in the case of Mozilla. Certainly, there are boycotts in play for Mozilla, and it may lose some of its browser clientele.  Also, whether or not Brendan Eich got the comeuppance he deserved as some suggest, or was himself a victim of intolerance will be debated for sometime.

While there is no question that World Vision will survive and prosper over the long haul, there is no question that its trust and reputation has been harmed, if not by the actually change in policy, then by the way it was announced with the immediate retraction.  So, for a season, there might continue to be some controversy.  But, knowing Rich Stearns as I do, and being familiar with approximately 55 years of history of World Vision, I think that the organizations contrite and humble apology to its constituency, and indeed to the larger evangelical community, will do a great deal in restoring its trust with its loyal partners, child sponsorship supporters, and larger world-wide constituency.  It may lose some donors and partners because of it stand, but I think in the long run, it will have preserved its identity and calling.  That is good!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What Is It About Corruption That Fascinates?

The television series, House of Cards is a major hit around the world.  It is a
Netflix television series about a an unscrupulous Washington politician. To the West Wing, political junkie, it is the antithesis of the popular television drama of years ago.

Whereas West Wing was a series about a likeable president with a White House staff of do-gooding liberal bleeding hearts, House of Cards is quite the opposite.

As one magazine reported, the unlikeable, but fascinating main character and his wife, who is equally diabolical, share a common goal to become the ultimate power couple in Washington.  "Their world is dark, devoid of redemption and humility."

The husband, the main character, is a Democrat, former House of Representatives majority whip, responsible for getting proposed laws through Congress.  After he was rejected for an appointment as Secretary of State, he goes on a revengeful rampage.  His wife, is equally vulgar, and the head of a major nonprofit organization.

Everyone in Washington is basically evil and corrupt.  Even the media presents the world of self-glorification, personal agendas, and seemingly unaware of the main character's ruthless pragmatism. The publisher of the major Washington, D.C. newspaper berates the editor of the paper, saying, "We don't need people that follow the rules.  We need people with personality."

And, indeed, the series if filled with people with personalities, evil, vile, ugly, addicted, and corrupt personalities.  As a recent article said:

Most chilling is Frank's [the main character] rather gleeful acknowledgement of is diabolicalness.  In one scene, Frank struts into an empty cathedral, stands before the pulpit and states, "Every time I've spoken to you, you've never spoken back -- although given our mutual disdain, I can't blame you for the silent treatment."  Then he looks at the viewers -- and smirks, "Perhaps I'm speaking to the wrong audience."  He turns his gaze down -- to hell -- and calls: "Can you hear me?  Are you even capable of languages, or do you only understand depravity?"
You see, this is one of the quirks of the show.  The main character winks and converses with the show's audience and viewers.  In doing so, he manipulates the audience and "like a great chess master, he delights in divulging his strategies, tricks of the trade, and zingy one liners."

For some, myself included, there is a shocking quality to the program.  The plots are evil.  The language coarse and vulgar.  But, one learns that perverse depravity does reach into its pits.  One wonders how much darker can this plot and language get?  Yet, as one writer put it, this program points to the truth: that human sin is boring, unexciting, trite, and only various shadows of the same color.  Nevertheless, the series deals with virtually every sector of society, from family, to third sector, to government.

So, what do we make of this?  According to IMDb Moviemeter [the Internet Movie Database, and the world's most popular and authoritative source for movie, television, and entertainment content and celebrities] the Netflix original series is the most popular television program in the world.  This does not mean that it is the best television show, only that it is the most addictive and a show that raises "a ton of buzz and interest" on social media and on entertainment news reports.

Perhaps as evidence of this is the fact that President Barack Obama recently tweeted to his Twitter followers: "Tomorrow @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."  Like so many viewers, the President was reported to have been doing "binge-watching" the entire second season's 13 episodes.  During a meeting with Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, during a White House meeting, the President was reported to have said, "I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient" in real-life Washington, D.C.

What is interesting about all of this, House of Cards is not a free television service.  It can be watched only by subscription on Netflix as a rate of $7.99 for the streamed movie and television service.  Statistics from a year ago reflect that Netflix had 27 million viewers in the U.S. and 33 million viewers worldwide.

What is even more amazing is that Netflix has "mind-boggling" access to consumer sentiment in real time.  GigaOm, the leading voice in emerging technologies, reports that Netflix looks at 30 million "plays" a day, including when viewers pause, rewind, and fast forward programs.  As a result, as reported by the Netflix Chief of Communications, "Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show."  Financial news about House of Cards, report that Netflix stock surged after the Netflix decided to invest in two seasons, 26 episodes, in House of Cards. 

However, not only is the series popular in the U.S. and around the world, according to most reports, it is one of the most watched shows in China.  The Financial Times reported that if the articles in the Chinese press are to be believed, we can learn a lot about the watching habits of senior Chinese leaders. Much has been written about Chinese President, Xi Jinping, reportedly considering the American classic movie, The Godfather, as his favorite Western "cinematic indulgence."  Wang Qishan, the former Vice-Premier of Finance, now the ultimate arbiter for discipline in the Communist Party's standing committee is said to favor House of Cards.   He has reportedly told his colleagues in the cloistered leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, to keep abreast of this Netflix series.  Indeed, he has instructed his subordinates to check the release date of the new season.

The series is streamed on, one of China's biggest online video services, which purchased the exclusive rights to the series for mainland China and posted the latest season at the same time as Netflix.  As in the U.S., and I suppose elsewhere, there is binge-watching.

So, what lies behind this fascination in China with the political intrigue of House of Cards?  Is it because the Chinese, probably like many around the world, view the series as quintessentially American, because it is a movie series about official corruption, political double-crossing, and state violence?  But, this particular series of House of Cards is adapted from the original British BBC version by the same name, which I understand is also watched in China. In season 2 of the series, there is a major role China plays as the plot unfolds.

If you read news reports, such as those carried in the The China Daily, the show is perceived in China to be a niche product on the high-end of viewership thereby bringing in an audience of quality rather than quantity.  Its popularity in China is rooted in China's penchant for backroom political maneuvering, palace drama, and the like.

Yet, few in China have seen the relevance of the series to the present Chinese reality, notwithstanding the level of corruption there, and as The China Daily recently reported: "even fewer have acknowledged what the drama has told us about ourselves."  Nevertheless, The China Daily, continued:
But let's face it: The dramatized wheeling and dealing of the US congressman has striking similarities with the many exposed Chinese scandals involving the "tigers", or high ranking officials, who usually also hold seats at the legislative bodies at various levels.  The Machiavellian characters remind us of the corrupt official who climb the ladder by whatever means available, including intricate maneuvering to outdo rivals.
Indeed, as I posted several weeks ago regarding living in an age of corruption, House of Cards, may have had its own China counterpart to the main characters in Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, with their own arrests, trial, and conviction.(

The China Daily reported that over the years, Chinese researchers have looked at factors that drive public officers down this treacherous road.  What these researchers found was what could be summed up in ten common personality traits that prompted hundreds of Chinese officials to become corrupt.  These included a strong need for power, greed, a need for instant gratification, jealousy, risk-taking and expectation of returns.  Not that different from what many of us experience in our own personal lives and situations.  So, there is no reason to be proud of who and what we are.

But, these similarities between what is reflected in House of Cards, and the conclusions from that research transcend borders and ideologies, do they not?   The news media in the United States is filled, almost every day, with reports of asserted corruption.

In the last 24 hours, the television news reports and newspapers in Washington have been filled with the news concerning the negotiated guilty plea of a businessman and illegal fundraising operations that violated both federal and local campaign finance laws.

According the news reports, the businessman, Jeffrey Thompson, also a major contractor with the Washington, D.C. government, pleaded guilty to funneling more than $2 million in illegal donations to federal and local political campaigns over a six-year period.  Not only was the mayor of Washington, D. C. implicated in this scheme, but also were the campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton in her quest for the White House, and numerous congressmen and senators.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, following the President's State of the Union address, the writer wrote that this year, the television coverage was distinct from prior years which showed the President walking down the aisle of the House of Representatives after his dramatic entrance was announced.  Now, every cabinet-level officeholder marched in shaking hands and "high-fiving" with breathless congressmen, a 'bland and banal' bunch indeed, with power to destroy life, through EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations, the placement of children in school, the defining medical coverage out of existence, and to what appears to many, the twisted enforcement of the tax code and tax agency to further political goals and destroy opposition to government programs."

Indeed, government lawsuits against religious nonprofit organizations threaten the very concept of civil society and of religious freedom.  The lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, who came to America in 1868, and now operate about 30 homes for the needy across the country.  There are no allegations of corruption against the Little Sisters of the Poor organization.  Rather, the government simply mandated that organization and others similarly situated had to comply with a law that they claimed violated the teaching of the Church.

But, we all know of scandals that taint the everyday world of charity.  A little more than a year ago, there was a picture of a young girl holding an umbrella over an aged street cleaner woman sitting on a curbside in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China.  This was part of a fundraising appeal to help those
in need.  It was subsequently disclosed that the picture had been staged and that the little girl was not simply a little girl who happened to be at that place and able to help the elderly and needy woman.  There was an outcry among the public and in the news media claiming that this was an example of corruption in the charity sector and that the public had been fooled.

Years ago, there were similar concerns about a fundraising appeal in which an obviously homeless man had been fed and sheltered in a homeless shelter.  The appeal appeared in newspapers in the major cities in the United States, extending from California and Washington State in the West, throughout the Southwest and Midwest, to the major cities on the East Coast.  The picture was the same, and the story of the man's hardship and life were the same in all the newspaper fundraising appeals.  As is often the case, the appeal was prepared by a professional fundraising consultant, under contracts with homeless shelters and food kitchens throughout the entire country.  As in the case of the little girl in Shenzhen, China, the claim was the there was corruption in failing to accurately disclose the source and nature of the appeal.

While there are so many more examples that could be used in this discussion, what is unclear is just what corruption is and how an act or course of conduct is determined to be corrupt.  Is it possible, that what is thought to be corrupt in some situations or environments, is not considered to be corrupt in other similar situations?  Is corruption an issue of immoral conduct of a certain nature, that is, that it violates certain moral norms?  Or is corruption more in the nature of a legal issue, violating some legal code, whether criminal or civil?  Why is it that certain forms of corruption are like a train wreck or automobile crash where people must stop to see what is going on?

I started this post with an extended discussion about the Netflix series, House of Cards.  What is it about House of Cards that draws so many viewers from all over the world notwithstanding what is the obvious and total depravity reflected in it, and the vulgar and coarse language used throughout the series?  Why is it that the elites, the intellectuals, members of the ruling classes are so drawn to it?

What I find interesting in the series, is that there is no competing worldview. This is not about simple Machiavellian characters that remind us of some of what we see in government and the politicians' collaboration with business interests as suggested in The China Daily.  If the show is entertaining, and perhaps it is that, it is not long before the "craving for meaningful, colorful grace gets louder and louder."  Or maybe, we simply become dull by the graphic display of sin and depravity, and we miss the social transformation that is going on all around us in the world and this great shift in worldview as represented in this story.

Ravi Zacharias, a world-renown apologist, once noted that there are three ways in which belief systems are passed down from generation to generation that influence the culture.

The first is what he called the foundation substructure.  This is the theoretical level which comes primarily from the intellectual, philosophical, and academic communities.  What are the basic ideas of truth or reality, of morals, of values, of meaning that influence people and how they see themselves and their communities?

The second is what he called the infrastructure, where the culture is influenced aesthetically, that is, through the invasion of the imagination through the arts. Few people read the great thinkers of Western, or even Easter civilization, or those shaping or emerging from the Enlightenment.  The popular media and entertainment sectors of society usually inform our contact with the world of ideas.  What is portrayed in the media or entertainment sectors, reinforces our ideas of reality, morality, and values.

The third level is what he calls the superstructure, or the prescriptive level.  In its most general form, this is what we might get on popular talk radio or television shows in which various celebrities speak with authority on issue for which they have no expertise.  These matters include everything from global warming, to health and psychology, from abortion to gay rights, from human rights to animal rights.  All proclaimed with authority, although there is no wisdom or knowledge or expertise to back up the claims.  It is what also goes around the kitchen tables in homes all over the world as parents try to respond to their children's questions, or in our community centers and churches.  The problem is that we may use reason and discuss the issues somewhat rationally at the substructure and infrastructure levels of theory and at the level of the invasion of the imagination through the arts, entertainment, and media, but at the superstructure, or prescriptive level, we are usually expressing subjective opinions that often defy rational dialogue.

A problem with any discussion of corruption, whether at the government, business, or third sector level, is a certain lack of clarity and a great deal of confusion about what it is that we think corruption is.  We may view House of Cards as nothing more than simple entertainment without ever realizing that it is seeping into our consciousness and imprinting some sense of reality, some sense that there is no difference between morality and immorality, between the good and the bad, or between the beautiful and the ugly.  In doing so, it may well begin a process of legitimizing pragmatic, materialistic conduct that is without any redeeming social or moral value, while at the same time creating an attitude of skepticism and cynicism about anything external to our own personal interests and experience.

And in the modern era of technical advances, instant communications, social networks, and loss of the ability to concentrate or think linearly and rationally, we simply are unable to make rational judgments about the kind of society we want and our roles in that society.  Scary, isn't it?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Living in an Age of Corruption

For the last few years, or more actually, there have been reports of corruption and concern about corruption.  I think back to the arrest, charges, and trial of Bo Xilai, and of the
question whether or not the corruption alleged there was simply a part of life that we must accept.  Indeed, one of the central themes we hear of Xi Jinping. Party Secretary and President of the People's Republic of China is how China must address the problem of corruption.

It is not my purpose here to render judgment on the legitimacy of the Bo Xilai trial.  Having followed it through his fall from grace in the National People's Congress, to his arrest, the arrest, trial, and conviction of his wife, Gu Kailai, for the murder of British businessman, Neil Heywood, and ultimately to his own trial, conviction, and decision on appeal, I am aware of the debates surrounding his conviction as to whether the trial had more do do with politics than criminal conduct.  The fact is, that there was a great deal of discussion in the Chinese media and among government officials, that Bo Xilai represented some level of corruption that might exist in many sectors of Chinese society; government, corporate, and third sector.  But more about this in another post.

But this concern and theme are not unique to China.  As the work focuses on the Winter Olympics, there has been much attention given to the issue of corruption in the construction of the Olympic Village, the award of major contracts to those favored by the government, and the high cost of constructing such a place in Sochi, Russia.

We read reports in the press about total spending for the Olympics site in Sochi exceeding $51 billion, rather than the $6.5 billion claimed a year ago by the government.  As in many similar projects, houses are destroyed to make room for the Olympic village and infrastructure.  One friend of the president was a awarded a contract in the amount of $7 billion to oversee a rail and road link that covered 30 miles.

Okay, these are some of the obvious stories we see in our newspapers and on televisions. But, at times, corruption seems to permeate all sectors of society, no matter what country we are in, or in what region of the world we find ourselves.  Whether it is how a country conducts its elections, manages its economy and health care agenda, guards its borders, or how internal revenue agencies determine tax liability, collect taxes, or treat the citizens and their private financial information, corruption appears to exist everywhere.  Although it may not be accepted, because who would accept corruption at any level in its institutions, it engenders an unacceptable level of distrust between people and their institutions, and a level of skepticism about government and private institutions which is unhealthy for any society.

In my country, the level of anger against, and distrust of the major financial institutions
and corporations for causing the economic crisis around the world in 2008 and the years that followed reflect this sense of corruption to the very core of our economic systems.  Similarly, the bailouts appeared to many people to be granted on the basis of some political favoritism and insidious corruption in our governing and economic institutions.

This level of distrust and skepticism has permeated all levels of society, including those that are international in scope.  We sometimes forget that the International Olympic Committee, the International Federation, and the National Olympic Committees which make up the Olympic Movement are all nongovernmental organizations.  Although many of enjoy the celebration of the Movement and follow the sporting events, both summer and winter, there are constant concerns of corruption permeating the movement, from the selection of sites, to the construction of sites and costs to the hosting country and community, and even to the judging of the athletic performances.  This was most openly discussed in the case of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Some of the argument about the level of corruption is simply a failure to define what we mean.  For example, a year ago in China there was a great deal of debate in some circles about the alleged corruption in a fundraising campaign in Shenzhen. The story in the Chinese press was about a little girl shown in a photo holding an umbrella over the head of an aging lady during a rainstorm.  The suggestion in the photo was that this was just a story of a little girl walking down the sidewalk when she saw this women in need.  When it was later discovered that the photo had been staged for a fundraiser, the general reaction in the public was that this was evidence of corruption in fundraising efforts by a charitable organization.

This was not too different from pictures we see in the newspapers in the Unite States during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons where homeless shelters and food kitches are seeking funding for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless.  The picture is often of the same man, with the same story of bad luck, whose life is turned around in the goodness of the shelter or food kitchen.  Centralized fundraising by contract with multiple charity organizations.  Is this corruption, or efficient and cost-effective pragmatism designed to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless?

How easy it is to despair!  Do do nothing, because the reach of corruption is so deep and so broad.  But, that is really not an option.  And so, where is our hope?

God sent His son, they called Him, Jesus;
He came to love, heal, and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.


Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

How sweet to hold a newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He Lives! 


Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

And then one day, I'll cross the river,
I'll fight life's final war with pain;
And then, as death gives way to vict'ry,
I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know He lives! 


Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

This was written in the midst of a crisis, where health was failing, and friends were accusing the authors/composers of things that resulted in their torment, fear of the future, and how they could bring a newborn baby into the world filled with chaos, violence, corruption, and confusion.  And so each of us, at some point in our lives, faces a personal bout with darkness and a sense of hopelessness.  But . . . !