Ethics For Algorithms

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You are probably aware that the material that shows up in your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter is only a fraction of what your friends and connections are posting, and some of it is sponsored content tailored for you. Have you every wondered why you are seeing what you are seeing? Algorithms (and a lot of data collected about you).

A similar kind of thing happens when you search on Google. I am surprised how often it works well and I find exactly what I’m looking for. But sometimes it goes sideways. Why for example, when Dylann Roof searched Google, following up a search on Trayvon Martin with a search on “black on white crime” did the top search choices come up as white supremacist organizations? Algorithms.

Why, when I search for a book on Amazon, do I receive a number of recommendations of books in the form of “because you looked at this, you might like this”? I have similar things occur at Barnes & Noble or at Thriftbooks. Why? Algorithms.

One definition of an algorithm I found is: “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Actually, algorithms are not some arcane mathematical art. They may be as simple as the process we use to solve a long division problem or the process we use in doing our laundry.

What is happening with all these algorithms is that somebody, an individual or group, has established a set of rules to determine what you see. What much of the world became aware of when Frances Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night is that the ethic behind these rules that form the algorithms is very important. Haugen alleged, producing massive documentation, that Facebook has consistently chosen profit over safety on its various platforms. For one thing, it selected content that fostered anger on its newsfeeds despite the fact that it often spread misinformation and fostered division simply because this kept people on the platform longer, which was where the money is. Another prime example is the impact that it was aware of Instagram having on teenage girls. Not only do glamorous images feed body-shame, but they discovered that the shame and depression keeps girls on the platform in an emotionally destructive spiral. They knew this and did nothing to change their algorithms of what these girls saw.

Computer-based algorithms are widely used for everything from fantasy baseball to mortgage application processing to screening resumes to your FICO score. People are not directly making decisions about what we see online or about our finances or career aspirations. Machines are making the decisions, using the rules programmers establish in the code.

There are at least a few key ethical considerations that rise to the top, highlighted in Cathy O’Neill’s, Weapons of Math Destruction:

  1. How opaque or transparent are the rules used in the algorithm? Most of the time, the algorithms are highly opaque and we know that we’ve been affected but we don’t know why. Because of this, questions of fairness often arise–how do factors of race, gender, age, etc. get factored in?
  2. What is the scale of impact of the algorithm? FICO scores affect credit, auto insurance costs, getting hired or promoted, and being able to rent an apartment or buy a house. How will this algorithm be used in the marketplace and what protects individuals from wrongful harm?
  3. What is the damage this could cause? Where possible, this should be considered proactively. For example, on social media, under what conditions is more engagement harmful to persons or the broader social context?

This is not easily done, particularly because algorithms serve beneficial purposes as well as cause harm. At very least, identifying the real instances of unfairness and harm and eliminating these, or better, anticipating them, seems a place to start. What is most egregious about the content of Frances Haugen’s testimony was that internal studies were showing known harms from platform algorithms that were not addressed because of profit considerations. We should never use complicated ethical questions to forestall dealing with the clear-cut ones. Let’s begin here.

Community Doesn’t Stop At Your Feet

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I’m in the middle of several long books, hence fewer reviews in recent days. So I thought I might share one interesting idea from one of the books I’m reading. In Majority World Theology, theologians from around the world write on the major themes of Christian theology. The situation of various writers offers unique perspectives. One of these was from some Christians from Canada’s indigenous peoples. Writing about community, one writer observed that land for indigenous people was considered part of their communal life. For indigenous peoples, separating people from the land, as occurred with the Cherokee tribes who traveled (and died along) the Trail of Tears in U.S. history, is devastating

Certainly this was true of ancient Israel as well, and part of the grief of exile was the parting of people from their land. I wonder if this is actually true of many people in the world. It makes me think that many of us modern urban Euro-Americans may be the anomaly. We live on land but often think little about it. We live in places from which we draw our life but often think little about its care or future.

Even the quarter acre on which I live is vibrantly alive and I’m part of a complex community of microbes, creatures in the soil (including the grubs of the seventeen year cicadas who emerged this summer and created cacophony), and insects and spiders. Hundreds of species of vegetation draw nutrients and water from the soil and the air and return them as they decay. Squirrels, chipmunks, the occasional skunk, rabbits, possums and raccoons and birds from sparrows to vultures visit our property.

St Francis of Assisi spoke of the animals as his brothers and sisters and preached to the birds. Hildegard of Bingen commented, “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.” John Paul II loved to ski and hike in his native Poland and urged an “ecological conversion.”

I wonder if our own lack of connection to the land and community with its creatures makes us less sensitive to those around the world who face displacement from their homes, and what a wrenching decision it is to flee one’s home. Even if they leave as a family, they leave a “family” behind, a part of themselves. As sea levels rise, as temperatures and drought in some areas, or inundations in others displace these “climate refugees,” will they find those who grieve with them or will we close our doors to them?

I’m struck that many of our burial rites even sever our relationship to the land. Where at one time, we committed the remains of those who died to the earth, now we keep them in columbariums, or even on a shelf in our homes. We believed “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In past days, churches had graveyards, where we remembered the “saints of old,” a communion of land, and people past and present.

Might a renewed awareness of our community with the land around us begin to teach us to love the wider world? And might that awareness help us care for those displaced, including those our own forebears displaced? I’m reminded every time I hear the name of a river in my state, and even the name of my state that people lived here long before it was “discovered” and “pioneered.” Many of our roads began as their trails. They left their impact on the community in which I live, even as I will for another generation. And the land ties us together.

The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.

Things That Bring Joy to a Page Admin

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Most of the people I know who are group or page admins on Facebook have thoughts about giving it up. I do. It’s not easy, and more people can mean more problems. Spam posts, comments, and messages. People who openly defy page or group rules. Deciding when to shut down a thread that is going sideways. Banning people. I know. I’ve curated a book page for three years that has grown to a community of 35,000.

The headaches are well known. There is another side–the things that make it worth it. I thought I would share a few of those. Online spaces can be good spaces when we work together to make that happen. Here are some of the things that bring joy:

  1. Knowing that the page has made at least a bit of a difference in someone’s life. It was heartening when someone jotted a note saying that our page was one of the things that was helping them get through the pandemic.
  2. I love when I see people helping each other out. They share enough about a book and what they love that another person finds the next book they want to read.
  3. It gives me joy when I see people trying to learn from their disagreements, asking questions rather than flinging arguments past each other.
  4. It is a delight when people from different cultures share books and ideas that may be new to others of us. I’m glad when others take note and affirm them.
  5. I like it when people can have fun with something that is fun and not feel they have to pontificate or disagree.
  6. I enjoy reading threads where no one feels the need to leave comments like, “I never read anything by Steinbeck, in fact I really don’t like to read, but just thought I ought to say something.”
  7. It’s fun when someone adds an article or quote or even thought that is totally on point and enlarges the discussion.
  8. I like it when people on the page invite their book-loving friends to join the fun. It is encouraging when people think our page is a good enough place that they aren’t embarrassed to share it with their friends.
  9. My heart is touched when someone shares about hard things they are going through and others care without trying to “fix’ them.
  10. I’m grateful for a day when I haven’t had to delete spam comments or messages or ban anybody. But I’m glad to keep our growing “neighborhood” a good and safe place.

None of this is about numbers or platforms or making money. It is about shared conversation around a shared interest–in my case, books. I’ve learned about new authors and read some of them. Most of all, it has been a rich community of very different people–not perfect but pretty good (do we ever get better than that, at least this side of eternity?). While I created and admin the page, I like to call it “ours” because the others who are part of the community help make it what it is. Despite the hassles, I’d say this, and pages or groups like it, are some of the best things on Facebook. And when you find one, be sure to thank the admin who works to make that happen. When people do that, it makes my day.

Facebook’s Other Problem

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Much has been made both of Facebook as a source of disinformation and its efforts to address it which have been attacked as suppression of free speech (news flash: it isn’t–as a private sector corporation, it is fully within its rights to determine what and who is on its platform). I’m not here to debate that–a stupid debate, especially when people use the very platform they are criticizing to have the debate!

I’m talking about a problem that is somewhere between annoying and insidious that it seems to me Facebook is uninterested in dealing with. In my experience, it is growing, and I think if allowed to grow, it could undermine Facebook as a platform for legitimate social engagement. It is the problem of people creating fraudulent profiles with various nefarious intents.

How many of you have received a Facebook request from someone who is already your friend? This is like a virus. Gaining access to your profile they can either do the same thing to you, or they can fill your newsfeed with their extremist views. The simplest thing to do is to search all friend requests before you accept them to be sure they are not your friend already. If not, report them to Facebook, which almost immediately shuts down the person’s activity on that profile. Also, this seems to happen most to those rarely on Facebook, and not likely to notice as quickly that someone is “spoofing” their profile. If you are not going to use Facebook, you might be wise to close your account.

I ran into a variant of this the other day. Someone tipped me off that someone named “Bob on Brooks” was friending them. “Bob on Books” is the name of my Facebook book page. They were using my profile image, which is easily downloadable or screen-captured from Facebook. I searched and found it and reported it and it was taken down. If you got that request, believe me, I’m not that interested in brooks!

Then there are the seductive friend requests. As a male, barely a day goes by where I don’t get a request from a woman, usually with two first names, like “Emily Laura” whose picture usually reveals some cleavage and that supposedly sexy pouty face. Lately, more of them include “Bitcoin trader” in their profile. All this suggests that they want to be friends with my money, not me. I suspect there are other old guys out there gullible to this stuff. This one’s simple: delete.

The newest has started cropping up on my Facebook page (not my profile). It has happened more to women who comment on a post and get a comment from a man (supposedly) who says “I really like your personality but was not able to friend you. Could you send a friend request?” Creepy, huh? It gets creepier when they do it with five other women on the same thread! So much for being someone special. Some men receive these from (supposed) women. I’ve reported this to Facebook but they say it falls below their threshold of violating “Community Standards.” Everyone is glad that I ban anyone doing this and delete posts. We’ve essentially created a “neighborhood watch” to ferret out this stuff. My sense is that Facebook really doesn’t care.

From what I can gather, when they have a friend request from you that they have accepted, anything in your profile accessible to friends is accessible to them. Whether they use it to create fake profiles or for identity theft, this can be serious. Never fall for the sweet-talker who tries this!

Finally, there are the messages that start with “Hi” or “How are you?” Best thing is not to respond and block. Your real friends send a message, not a teaser. They are looking for a response, usually to set you up to hit you up for money or collect personal information about you.

Like other things in the social media world, there is no upside for Facebook to care enough about this to take real action unless their existence is threatened. Here’s a newsflash for Facebook. When people start having a daily experience with Facebook that is one long exercise in avoiding fraud and stalkers and fake identities, people might start leaving. People leave Facebook when the negatives start outweighing the positives. Public assurances are not enough.

One thing much of this has in common from what I can tell is fake identities. Right now, Facebook only has a program to verify business identities, from what I can tell. Individuals can create fake accounts easily, and if Facebook closes down one, the same person simply creates another (or a bot does). Could Facebook create a trusted identity program? I’d even be willing to pay a modest fee for this (an upside for Facebook). Devices used to interact with Facebook (and Facebook does track this) could be blocked if used fraudulently. That would make this a much more expensive activity. If the same name and likeness are used as an existing account, it should not take a user report. Facebook notifies me whenever I log in from a new device or even browser.

I suspect there are a variety of other strategies Facebook could use. The question is, will they wait until they are overrun by this problem? At that point, it might be too late. And Facebook will become a neighborhood of scammers trying to scam the promoters of fake news. The rest of us will have left. And they will deserve each other.

Another Wave

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In May I wrote about “Coming Out of the Cave.” I wrote about some of the “normal” things we were starting to do. We’ve dined out and gone to public places without wearing masks. We booked a remodeling job in our home in October. I started making plans to sing with our choral group in the fall.

I wrote back then:

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

What I hoped would not happen has. The Delta variant is sweeping through the country with huge rises in cases. It is at least 2 1/2 times more infectious as original COVID, and while the vaccines are very effective in preventing hospitalization and death, they are less so, in preventing infection. As one of the “over 65” crowd, my immune system isn’t as strong as younger people, and even a number of them who have been vaccinated have had “breakthrough” infections. Most of these are mild, but one doctor described mild as a bad cold or a case of the flu. That doesn’t sound great. A booster shot will help, but there aren’t any yet, and it will be some time. The six-month mark when the vaccine may begin to wane comes around the end of September for me.

So what does that mean? I will continue to worship with our “masked” church and resume wearing masks when I am shopping indoors. I will seek outdoor or take out dining. Indoor gatherings with large numbers where I don’t know the vaccination status seems really iffy. Long exposures mean enough exposure to this more infectious virus that may be more than my immune system can handle.

Looking at the infection curves of the previous waves, it appears waves take five to six months to wax and wane, peaking 2-3 months in. Officials are saying October will be bad. That would be about right. And maybe it will wane by January–if something new doesn’t come along.

I find myself both angry and sad. Fundamentally, I’m angry because this doesn’t have to be. While vaccines never provide complete protection, a high vaccination rate would make it much harder for this variant to take hold. I’m angered at the misinformation campaigns that have persuaded people that the vaccine is far worse than the virus, which is just plain wrong. The long term debilities and the deaths resulting from this are on them, and on the public officials who cave to them. I’m angry that those asserting their “freedom” end up making others less free and possibly sick.

And I’m sad. I’m sad for our economy, which will never fully recover until COVID is suppressed. I’m sad for all those like myself, who because of risk factors need to reconsider all the things we had just begun doing. Most of all, I am sad for all those who will die or get very sick who did not need to. I’m sad for kids who are getting sick because they can’t get vaccinated and the adults in their lives won’t. It all seems such a waste. I’m sad that we are so divided over this even in a time of crisis.

I’m not sure if I will sing with our choir (if they are able to). The choir is requiring proof of vaccination. But it is not clear that we will mask, and singing has been proven to be a very effective way of spreading COVID. Do I hope that no one is infected with a breakthrough infection, and that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread infection? [Update: In the 24 hours since I wrote this the CDC has announced that vaccinated persons who are infected do shed the virus in significant amounts and can infect others.] There is a lot we don’t know. I also have to think about my wife, who has had some health issues.

I’ve concluded that I can’t change anyone’s mind about these things. Given our divided state, and the challenge of vaccinating the world, I believe we will be dealing with COVID for a long time, as the virus keeps mutating and circulating. I think we will have alternating seasons of relative normalcy, and others of infection spikes. I will keep paying attention to infection rates and gauge my behavior appropriately.

And my faith? I will not “test” God by exposing myself to possible infection on purpose or recklessly. Nor will I presume that anything “protects” me–masks, vaccines, anything. I will use these means as gracious provisions of God to reduce my risk of infection but my trust is in God, not means. My trust is in the God who already has numbered my days. I believe I will live as long as God gives me life. I will do all I can not to be a source of infection to others.

While I’ve enjoyed life out of the cave, I’ve also discovered in the last year the richness of days shared with my wife, a good conversation with a friend, times with vaccinated friends and family, the beauties in my own backyard, and the delights of a good book. Philippians 4:12-13 is more real to me now than ever: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Whether COVID waxes or wanes, and I believe it will continue to do both, Christ continues to be the one who gives me strength. And that is enough.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Saksa Daylily Farm, Photo by Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:28b-33, English Standard Version)

I spent last Saturday morning “considering the lilies of the field.” My wife and I are part of a plein air painting group. Many Saturdays will find us loading our easels and paints into the Outback and trekking off to a park or farm or small town (or even urban Columbus). This past Saturday, we painted at the Saksa Daylily Farm located outside Centerburg, Ohio, about 40 minutes from our home (by the way, Centerburg gets its name from being located at the geographic center of Ohio).

What a gorgeous place! Lilies of every variety as far as the eye could see. There were so many different varieties, and walking through the rows felt like walking through an art gallery, each variety a masterpiece. In the end, I focused on a single flower, and hardly did justice even to that. This is that flower:

“Lily,” Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

The starburst of yellow against the magenta petals, the stamens reaching up to the sun, the delicate veins and curling edges all caught my eye. Little wonder Jesus said that “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!” Jesus invites us to stop and consider the lilies of the fields and, in earlier words, the birds of the air and how God cares for them, and how much more God would care for us.

The field of lilies was a peaceful place, kissed by the sun and refreshing breezes. Such a contrast to the anxious life we often live. My own anxieties are less about food and clothing and more about what life in our senior years will look like. How long will we be able to remain in our home? What can we do to stay healthy as long as possible? What will the coming years bring? And often our thoughts are as much or more about our son and daughter-in-law as ourselves. We could not ask for better, but you never stop being a parent.

The verses above have been something of a watchword throughout my life. They were etched into my memory as a college student on a spring break outreach in Fort Lauderdale. A gifted jazz pianist, James Ward joined us in evening coffeehouse performances in an outdoor venue on the strip opposite the beaches. One of his songs was “Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies)” the first verse and chorus of which said:

Consider the lilies, how they grow,
Your heavenly Father takes control,
Are you not much more important than they?
What can your worrying do anyway?

Seek first the kingdom.
Keep the righteousness of God in view.
Seek first the kingdom.
He said all of these things will be added to you.

--James Ward, 1974

Ward’s song made sense out of my experience getting to Fort Lauderdale. I didn’t have either the money or a car to get there. People gave me money without knowing what for, and a friend lent us a car. It taught me that if I sought God’s will in God’s way, life wouldn’t always be easy, but God would take care of us. Over the years, we continued to live into the promise of this passage in moving to a new city and buying a house in a recession. Trusting God for a couple hundred dollars turned into trusting God for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the team God gave us to engage in ministry among students and faculty. We were sustained by God and his people through my wife’s two cancer diagnoses and a stubborn foot infection I faced. I could go on. We’ve been blessed to share forty-three years together.

The lilies at the lily farm reminded me of the promise we’ve lived into all of these years. The things that might cause us anxiety may be different from earlier years. The promise hasn’t changed. Most of all, the God who has proven faithful over the years as we’ve oriented our lives toward him hasn’t changed.

The lilies also recalled the song. I could not find the acoustic piano version I still have on vinyl, but I came across this jazzier version on YouTube. I like the version on my vinyl better, but this gives you a taste. It just might become a watchword for you.

Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies), James Ward

Climate Change In My Backyard

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That’s what my lawn looks like in the middle of July. In many past years the grass is dry and going into dormancy, its natural response to the hot and dry weather of mid-summer.

Not this year. Our lawns are green and growing. The landscape has the lushness of spring. It has rained nearly every day of the last week. Someone may say it is just a weather pattern, like the hot weather in the west. While there is truth to that, climate scientists say the impact of a warming climate is an intensifying of these patterns. In the case of Central Ohio, where I live, we are in the fifth year of wetter than usual weather. Average rainfall in Columbus is 39.7 inches. Over the past four years the rainfall here has been:

YearRainfall
201746.7 inches
201855.2 inches
201944.0 inches
202050.5 inches

What I have observed is more rain events with heavy downpours with risks of everything from flooded basements to more widespread flooding. This corresponds to the predicted effects of climate change for our region. Sometimes, those rain events are dramatic–high winds, tornadoes, more lightning strikes.

Temperatures in Ohio have risen 1.2 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last hundred years. While summers are wetter, we are also seeing more days over 90 degrees. The growing season is longer, I would estimate by 10 days on each end. While we have more rain, generally, we are having less snow and warmer winters.

Compared to some parts of the country, we are relatively fortunate. We don’t have the hurricanes of the southeast or the hot and dry weather and fire seasons of the west.

These are the kinds of things I think about given the changes we are seeing in our climate:

Water drainage is the big one. It begins with the gutters and downspouts on my house. With heavy downpours making sure these are clear and adequately can handle the water coming off the roof. Are all the drains to our street clear? Is the drain outside the landing to the backdoor on our lower level clear? Is the sump working properly (we replaced it last summer after bailing the pit during a heavy rainstorm)? I’m also looking at all the grading around our house to make sure water is flowing away from the house.

Warmer and wetter conditions invite insects. Ticks and mosquitoes are a growing concern. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, and Zika could also become an issue. Now an evening working in the yard includes a tick check on oneself and one’s clothes. We look for any standing water where mosquitoes can breed.

Last summer, we cleaned out an interior storage closet so it could be used for a tornado shelter if worst came to worst. We hope that’s enough. If I were building a new house anywhere in the Central and Midwest part of the country, I would incorporate a safe room in the design.

The high winds that accompany some of our storms mean evaluating the health of the trees on our property. We do find ourselves spending more time cleaning up branches after a storm. We don’t want to clean up heavier limbs, though.

When we replaced an A/C unit to our house, we installed one that had greater cooling capacity and energy efficiency to handle the higher summer temperatures.

We’ve probably halved our electricity consumption in recent years through energy efficient appliances and lighting. But heavier storms have made power outages a greater problem. We’re weighing using the southern exposure on our roof for solar energy, and the possibility of some form of backup power. Two major storms in recent years have resulted in widespread outages, some lasting a week.

There are some upsides. We do have longer growing seasons. I can put my tomatoes out by May 1 instead of May 10-15 when I first moved here. That means ripe tomatoes in July. We do have ample water (wish we could send some out west). During the worst of COVID, we were able to do outdoor visits comfortably from April through late in October of last year.

I don’t want to indulge all the tiresome arguments about whether climate change is real or whose fault it is. What I do have to think about as a responsible homeowner are the climate impacts we are experiencing. What I’ve discussed is simply how I am thinking about “what is” rather than “what if.” I do think the longer term challenge to limit global warming is an important, even an existential issue, as the heat-related deaths in the Pacific Northwest underscores. But the changes to our climate that I have seen in the thirty-one years we have lived in our home involve all sorts of practical considerations from maintenance schedules to what improvements we make on our home.

Human beings all over our planet are making changes, many far more dramatic than the ones I’ve described. Some are having to relocate to produce food or because rising sea levels are inundating their homes. Some have “go bags” packed to evacuate at a moment’s notice during fire season and are not sure to find their home standing when they come back. Some are trying to survive unseasonably hot temperatures that can be deadly to the elderly.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, life is changing for all of us. It certainly is for me.

Repentance and the Christian Mind

Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

It is typical to think of “repentance” as a highly emotional experience, often arising from a sense of one’s sinfulness and need for God. Perhaps the comic image of a bearded man carrying a sign saying “Repent or perish” comes to mind. We may think of a revivalist setting with an “earnest bench” or an altar call for the repentant turning to Christ.

I do not want to deny the reality of such experiences. In fact, there is an element within them that I want to focus on. All of these involve a mental understanding of a need to turn from one way of thinking and living to another, combined with actions that reflect this change of mind.

“Change of mind.” That phrase is a good way to translate the Greek word metanoia which is often translated as repent in the Bible. It reflects what happens in genuine Christian conversion, or other forms of conversion. A person who has been thinking, seeing the world, and living one way, begins to think, see the world, and live differently. Christians believe this involves both human agency, believing and following Christ, and divine intervention–forgiveness and the indwelling of God’s Spirit, initiating and empowering this new life.

I’ve written from time to time as one who works among academics of the idea of the Christian mind and how this is formed. The title of a chapter in Who Created Christianity titled “Metanoia: Jesus, Paul, and the Transformation of the Believing Mind” written by Alister McGrath stimulated my thinking about some of the ways metanoia or repentance shapes the Christian mind.

Humility. The awareness that one’s prior way of thinking was subject to error ought lead to humility in our thinking. We may believe that the faith we have embraced is true but we don’t confuse our own grasp of that faith with the one we believe to be true. I think this makes us more willing to be proven wrong in other areas.

Passion for Truth: When we turn from being our own source of truth, we become more passionate for truth in whatever field we pursue it. We discover that truth is bigger than us and that if someone else has an insight or even shows where we have gone wrong, we are glad and open to learn, because we have been freed from a life that sees ourselves as the source of truth.

Dependence: Understanding in any field, whether Christian doctrine or any field of academic study doesn’t come easy. The change of mind that is repentance means turning from autonomy to dependence upon the God we trust. If we believe that God is creator and the source of all knowledge and wisdom, it only makes sense to turn to God for insight in our studies. It’s not that God does this for us, but that God wants to do this with us.

Doxological wonder: I draw this phrase from Jeff Hardin, an embryologist, who hopes to foster that sense of wonder in his students. So many who are drawn to academic work come to this with a profound sense of the wonder of some aspect of the world, whether it is how tone, harmony, meter, and rhythm make music or for how four nucleotides paired together in a double helix can encode all the instructions needed for the “program” that creates all living things. Whereas we’ve wondered what to do with this wonder, with this newfound way of thinking and seeing, we find that worship is the proper outlet of wonder.

Realism: In life among the academics, I’ve observed this interesting fluctuation between ungrounded optimism about the human project and unremitting cynicism (usually directed toward the institutions within which one must work). We are quite skilled in seeing what is wrong with “them” but pretty clueless to what is wrong with us. Repentance recognizes the worst in human beings because we’ve seen it in ourselves and yet believes in a God who does not give up on us. We live with a kind of critical realism that holds together our newly won self-knowledge of our finiteness and fallibility and hope in one who is devoted to the world he has created and is redeeming.

Peacemaking: To repent is to accept God’s peace offer ending our rebellion against God. Of all people, Christians ought be people of peace because of our peacemaking God. We often work in contexts of contended ideas. Often these reflect societal binaries–the either/ors that often polarize and separate us. While contradictory ideas cannot both be true (they both can be false!) it is rare that people are utterly wrong. Might the role of Christians in at least some of these disputes be to listen to both sides and help reconcile the connections to a possible larger underlying truth and place of agreement? Often, instead, we side up and add to the acrimony.

Curiosity: I do not think that curiosity is unique to the believing mind. In fact, curiosity strikes me as one of the things that drives the academic enterprise. Questions drive research as well as the peer-review process that tests and advances that research. I would simply suggest that repentance punctures all our mental pretensions, challenging us to question our questions, to doubt our doubts. Curiosity coupled with a new way of seeing might lead us to ask different questions. One education researcher I know, caught in the tension between social justice and academic performance asked the questions, why aren’t advances in academic performance for ethnic minorities not social justice? and, why shouldn’t social justice be concerned about academic performance? This led to crafting a novel approach attempting to bring these two polarized streams in educational theory together. (This is also an example of peacemaking!)

Excellence: People in the academic world care about excellence. Often career advancement and reputation become obsessions that drive excellence. Repentance de-centers the self. Someone else and what that Person cares about becomes the center of our lives. Excellence is no longer a competition with others over who gets the most citations or the biggest grants. It is a passion for the reputation of God showing through how we teach, the quality of our work, our care for students and collaboration with colleagues. It shapes not only how we work but our ethics. Nor is it one dimensional. It concerns our families, our community life.

You might think of other implications of repentance for the development of the Christian mind. The development of a Christian mind is a lifelong project as we seek to see God’s world God’s way. Likewise, repentance is not a moment but a way of life. We keep turning from a self-centered to God-centered life. I would propose, as I have here, that this means a change from a mind closed in on our selves to a mind set afire by the grandeur of God. To my mind, that is a project worthy of our lives.

Politics, Partisanship, and Partisanism

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

It’s always been etiquette in social situations to avoid religion and politics. Fights about these two important areas of life are not a new thing. I would contend though that what has occurred in our time is a move beyond politics and beyond partisanship to partisanism. Let me explain what I mean.

Politics: I know people who say they just don’t want to talk about politics. I haven’t figured out how we live without talking about politics. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis, the word for city, and has to do at root with the affairs of the city. The city was the state in ancient Greece. Since then, we have created additional levels of politics at state and national levels. Decisions about school curriculums, trash pick up and recycling services, policing, the creation and maintenance of state parks, the right of way of roads, what taxes we pay, and the regulations that govern interstate travel all are political.

Politics exist because more of us exist than simply our own households. We all have our ideas of what makes a good place, a good society. Politics is the process of how we figure out together how human societies best flourish. Good political processes are essential to a healthy society. When these processes cease to function well in promoting the common good, social orders deteriorate. Not all at once, perhaps. Societies may live for a while on the capital of formerly constructive political processes. I think that is our current predicament.

Partisanship: If you have two human beings, you probably have disagreements. Often, a number of people will take the same side against others. In many countries there are multiple groups with particular interests. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows diverse interests to have a voice in political decisions all have to live with. Effective politics recognizes the situations that need to be addressed for the health of a society, allows different voices to be heard, and arrives at compromises that aren’t perfect, but work, at least imperfectly for everyone. Healthy partisanship ensures that all the citizens are considered and that political solutions are ideally common good solutions, not favoring some citizens over others. Partisans keep in mind that they represent a certain interest but also serve those with different interests. Maintaining that tension is important if you believe in the equality and value of all your citizens.

Partisanism: I looked. It is actually a word. I see partisanism as a distortion of healthy partisanship. It is where party ideals become ideology and there is a kind of absolutism about it that says we are right and they are wrong. The point is not seeking some form of common good, but simply the good of our party, our group. Wrong people don’t deserve good. Partisanism stirs up a religious fervor befitting the fact that it is an -ism. If partisanism can’t get its way it obstructs and often complains that the other side is unwilling to compromise. What is really the case is that the extreme positions sides are forced to in these situations brook no compromise–only winners and losers. Nothing is left on the table. We only allow either/or. There is no room to consider both/and.

Partisanism at its worst becomes political extremism in which pretenses of principle are jettisoned for the ruthless exercise of power. It might be a form of fascism on the right or a form of statism on the left. In history, this always ends badly in the loss of human rights, and often, a succession of violence.

As a follower of Christ, I believe both that politics reflects an aspect of the “culture mandate” given Adam and Eve and that in a world of finite and fallen human beings the best that can ever be obtained are proximate goods. Any move toward the absolutism of partisanism and political extremism ignores these realities and substitutes an earthly kingdom for a heavenly one. Hence, I believe at best politicians work for proximate solutions that listen to and serve all those represented by them. I believe it is essential that our parties strive toward this kind of political work and that as a citizenry, we support that work and stop vilifying political compromise and negotiation. Might we release a kind of creativity when we free politicians from the tyranny of “either/or” politics to explore what “both/and” might look like?

I hope those of you reading don’t try to argue with me about what “they” did, whoever “they” are. I’m not interested in those arguments because I’m not interested in that kind of partisanism. I don’t mind a politics where we have different ideas of the common good as long as the common good of all our citizens is our aim. Any other politics is unworthy of us because implicitly we are saying that there are some Americans we don’t need, some Americans who don’t count, some who don’t have the same value as human beings. I’ve watched us espouse the idea of all being created equal on July 4 and ignore it the rest of the year for too long. We won’t get it perfect but a politics that relentless pursued the common good, and vigorously resisted partisanism, could get it better. No matter your party, that’s a politics worth talking about.