When I visited northern Vermont last weekend, I was astonished to see the devastation left by Tropical Storm Irene. I think myself well-informed, a diligent reader of news media, but I hadn’t grasped the extent, complexity and bleakness of storm damage.

I suspect that I haven’t grasped other situations, as well. The terrible losses that factory workers have suffered as our economy moves away from its industrial base. The crumbling of farm towns and small factory towns throughout the nation. Failing performance in schools. Mounting despair in the impoverished sections of my own city. The flood of addictions that cripple individuals and their families. The dysfunction of government at every level.

These are worrisome times, and I realize that, as much as I read, the lows are lower than I realize. And the raw courage of people living through those hard times is more stirring than I see.

I think it is time to dig more deeply and listen more intently.


Q: With its emphasis on self preservation and promoting its particular doctrine, do you think the mainline church is adequately engaged in the discussion of morality?

A: Some congregations in each denomination are strong leaders in both discussing and acting on critical ethical issues. Some say nothing at all. The majority fall in between. They address some issues – perhaps the easy ones, like sexuality, or issues the pastor finds meaningful to him or her personally or to the congregation – and ignore more difficult ones, like wealth and power.

In general, I think we have targeted issues that can be defined, negative behaviors named, perpetrators named, and remedial solutions identified. I think we have struggled with more systemic issues like the widening inequality in incomes, the profiting from people’s weaknesses, and the fundamental ethical challenge of living in Godly ways. Making better decisions with our money, for example, standing with the have-nots and oppressed, turning away from choices that might be generally accepted but actually hurt other people.

Such systemic issues require radical rethinking of how we live and how our lives affect others. That is difficult work, subtle in some ways, profoundly disorienting in others, and it entails the faith community grappling as one with issues that many simply don’t want to address. I doubt that our communities and bonds are sturdy enough for such discussions, at least right now. We can work on that.