Ethics At Large and At Small

by Judith Valente

Sex, lies—and food—dominated the proceedings at this year’s annual meeting of Christian and Jewish ethicists.

The January 8-11 gathering in Chicago marked the 50th anniversary of the Society of Christian Ethics, and while most of the discussions remained contemporary rather than retrospective, some dealt with new sides of age-old dilemmas, such as what constitutes ethical eating, how to strengthen marriage, and why business ethics is so often an oxymoron. The Christian ethicists held their meeting concurrently, as they have since 2003, with the Society of Jewish Ethics.

Scandal provided a subtext for a number of the sessions. It was clear from several discussions just how deeply the shutdown last May of Agriprocessors Inc., the kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, seized for a variety of food, safety, and labor violations, has shaken the Jewish community. Among Christian ethicists, the sex scandals of the Catholic Church and controversies over homosexuality in both Catholic parishes and Protestant denominations continued to spark debate, and the ethical lapses on Wall Street and Main Street that led to the current economic meltdown provided grist for both groups alike.

This year’s meeting coincided with the release of “Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice.” The study, a joint project of two respected institutions—the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing in Westport, Connecticut, and Union Theological Seminary in New York—found that seminaries aren’t preparing clergy well in either case. This despite the fact that pastors say issues such as sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, marital infidelity, sexual harassment, infertility, and gender identity are among the leading problems for which congregation members come to them seeking counseling.

Researchers surveyed 36 leading seminaries, mostly Protestant, and rabbinical schools and found that in 90 percent of them students can graduate without ever taking a course on human sexuality. Two thirds of the schools don’t offer any sexuality courses.

The survey also found that seminaries are more focused on preventing sexual harassment than helping future religious leaders have a deeper understanding of their own sexuality and the sexual behavior of others. Seminaries often stress biblical texts and doctrinal teaching about sex, but don’t encourage students to examine their own sexual history and attitudes, said Dr. Kate Ott of the Religious Institute, author of the report.

Marriage came under scrutiny at a session on “Family and the Social Order,” at which Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke about the bishops’ long-anticipated pastoral statement on marriage.

The bishops were expected to issue their statement last year. George told the gathering there have been multiple drafts, but no finished document. When an ethicist from Boston College questioned whether part of the bishops’ problem may arise from the fact that there has been little consultation with actual married people in drawing up the document, George said there are no plans to hold public meetings to gather input on the subject from lay people, as the bishops occasionally have done on other issues. He called the fact that fewer baptized Catholics are marrying in the church or marrying at all “a great personal tragedy” and stressed “self-sacrifice” rather than personal fulfillment as essential to the marriage bond, reemphasizing marriage as a lifetime commitment. “There are relationships that, once chosen, cannot be unchosen,” George said.

Don Browning, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and director of its Religion, Culture, and Family Project, offered a formal response to the cardinal’s remarks. From a sociological standpoint, he said, there have been “robust signs of change” concerning the family in recent decades. Depending on one’s viewpoint, these changes may be seen as signs of decline or possibilities for the evolution of the family.

Browning also said the fact that more people are choosing to cohabit rather than marry and to raise children outside of marriage or a traditional family setting, as with same sex couples, may not necessarily represent a danger to traditional marriage. He suggested that religious leaders, sociologists, and lawmakers consider ways to strengthen family life in whatever form it takes.

In the midst of the current economic crisis, as some Americans worry about putting food on their tables, ethicists at the meeting seemed deeply concerned about the kinds of food people are eating, and in what quantities.

Aaron Gross of the University of California at San Diego, Laura Hartman of Augustana College, John Sniegocki of Xavier University, and Rabbi ElizaBeth Beyer of the University of Nevada at Reno all presented papers on the topic of food ethics. What constitutes proper eating for a person of faith? Did Jesus think fasting was superior to feasting? Should consumers take into consideration the working conditions of farm workers in buying a bushel of peaches? Do commercial techniques for slaughtering animals constitute a lack of reverence for life?

At the same time, Jewish ethicists pondered whether kosher dietary laws and meat processing rules are sufficient, or whether it’s patently immoral to slaughter anything “with a face.” Fair trade, locally grown food purchasing, and organic agriculture also came in for scrutiny.

But the ethicists were often short on concrete suggestions for what we can do in our everyday lives to eat more ethically. Hartman said she hoped consumers would simply begin to think more about their buying and eating choices, what she termed “an ethos of attention” to food.

There likely will be much more discussion on the ethics of meat-eating at future meetings. An ethicist from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, announced that former “Price Is Right” host Bob Barker has donated $1 million to Drury, his alma mater, to establish an animal studies center. Barker, a longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist, has also contributed money to several law schools, including Harvard and Stanford, to support animal rights studies.

Both the Agriprocessors scandal and the fraud charges against financier Bernard Madoff, accused of bilking his investors out of billions of dollars in an elaborate Ponzi scheme, formed the backdrop of a session on Jewish business ethics. Judaism contains many precepts for conducting business ethically. In many ways, its approach is more stringent than commonly accepted secular business practices. A contract, for example, is viewed as a covenant under Jewish ethics—not merely an agreement to complete a task, but a promise to build a relationship. Fraud and theft are likened to desecrations of God’s name.

Moses Pava, an ethicist at Yeshiva University in New York, said some high-profile businesses like Timberland, the New Hampshire company that makes rugged shoes, boots, and outdoor gear, have tried to follow Jewish ethical precepts with varying degrees of success. The problem lies not in the set of ethics, Pava said, but in the fact that business people often don’t follow the rules. “They’re not connecting the dots,” he suggested.

Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who has also served as president of the National Council of Churches, spoke to the meeting on government ethics just as a committee of the Illinois legislature was voting to recommend the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blogojevich, who is accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Edgar suggested specific ways ethicists could work to improve government. He urged them to support bans on campaign donations from lobbyists and government contractors, and he proposed a new system of public financing for political campaigns.

On the practical and applied ethics front, Dawn M. Nothwehr, a Franciscan sister who teaches at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, reported on a project training people in low-income city neighborhoods to fight for environmental justice. Poor neighborhoods house a disproportionate number of waste sites and industrial facilities and, as a consequence, their residents suffer more from environmentally caused asthma and poisoning by PCBs, mercury and lead, Nothwehr said. The “Knowledge as a Path to Empowerment” project helps members of these communities mobilize. Residents in a few Chicago neighborhoods are fighting to have lead and mercury-based materials removed from residential buildings and are forcing companies to clean up toxic waste. These are just initial steps, and the victories at this point remain small, Nothwehr acknowledged. “The poor and people of color still bear the brunt of the nation’s pollution problems,” she said, but projects like this offer hope for the future.

As violence in Gaza grew, there was also a session on the Compassionate Listening Project, a Seattle-based effort to teach “attentive, empathetic, and compassionate” listening as a tool for conflict resolution and a type of “citizen diplomacy.” The conflicts may range from everyday family and neighborhood disputes to the battles between Israel and Hamas, said Frida Kerner Furman, a professor in the religious studies department at DePaul University in Chicago and a self-described strong advocate for Israel. She reported on a recent trip she made to the Middle East with project members to meet a Palestinian mayor who is also a member of Hamas. Such meetings can often devolve into “dialogues between the deaf,” she said, where both sides remain firmly ensconced in their own viewpoint, without seeking commonalities.

Compassionate listening follows the adage that “an enemy is one whose story I have not heard,” and it begins with storytelling. It requires each side to suspend skepticism, criticism, and self-preoccupation in order to enter into another’s experience. “Let the speaker’s truth take center stage, while our truth takes a back seat,” Furman said.

Furman acknowledged having difficulty identifying with the political views of the Hamas mayor. But something changed, she said, when he began describing the personal experiences he and his family have had living in an occupied territory. Furman said she thought of her own family, and her heart “cracked open.”

“There will never be peace,” she concluded, “if those opposed to us aren’t listened to.”

On the final day of the meeting, the ethicists discussed the possibility of establishing a new Society of Muslim Ethics. “There is support from the board to form this group,” said Hamid Mavani, assistant professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, and he reported that the 2010 meeting will include four panels on Muslim ethics, with formal creation of a Society of Muslim Ethics expected the following year.

Judith Valente, a Chicago-based correspondent for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, has reported for the program most recently on Thomas Merton.