January 2019

This is not just an academic topic– how Muslims and Christians think about caring for aged parents. For me it’s deeply – achingly, in this case – personal. We moved down to Philadelphia from Connecticut in 2006 to be close to my wife’s mother whose health was declining. Less than five years later we actually moved in to her home (bigger than ours) for the same reason. Just before this New Year 2019 she passed away at 92.

I am not writing this to congratulate my wife Charlotte and I for taking such good care of her mother. In fact we did, but I clearly see God’s hand in the whole process. For one thing, her only other sibling is disabled, so the choice was clear. For another, my mother-in-law had been very careful in managing her own father’s estate and there were sufficient funds to pay the caregivers who came to help her for many hours each week. Finally, as you will see below, we all had to change and grow through this experience over time.

So first this disclaimer: I am NOT saying that children caring for their disabled, aging parents in their own home is ALWAYS the right thing to do. Each situation and each family is different. In many cases an acute medical condition requires a nursing home. Many other factors come into play as well, like each parent’s wishes, the dynamics of family relationships, and finally having the necessary room and sufficient finances to juggle work commitments with care for the ailing parent.

In my case, my parents decided to move into a full-service Christian retirement community in California where they already had many friends. One of my brothers was able to be with my father when he passed away and my mother was there over ten years in an Alzheimer’s unit. But my youngest brother lived in the area and saw her weekly. I was only able to visit about once a year.


The duty to care for our elders

On this topic the ethics are straightforward, and even inescapable. Siblings have the duty to surround their parents with loving care when old age and disease renders them vulnerable and helpless. After all, they gave birth to them, nurtured them and raised them to be the well functioning adults that they are today.

Then too, the three monotheistic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all stress the duty to care for one’s elderly parents. The fifth commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NIV). Paul underscores the fact that this is the only commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2). In a later letter, he gives instructions to Timothy concerning the care of widows, which then leads into this topic:


Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God (I Timothy 5:3-4 NIV).


Notice that caring for one’s family is “to put one’s religion into practice.” This is similar to the saying of James in his letter, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).

 Jesus in one instance lambasts the religious leaders for finding loopholes in the law as an excuse to neglect their elderly parents:


Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:3-7)


The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) makes this clear too, even aside from the fifth commandment. The teaching comes in the form of warnings sometimes; at other times in the form of exhortation; and finally in a prophetic word by Malachi that is picked up by the angel announcing to Zechariah the birth of his son John the Baptist (Luke 1:17):


“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17 ESV).

“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures (Proverbs 30: 17 ESV).

“Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22 ESV).

“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6 NIV).


Malachi’s message from God is especially meaningful. It implies that as a result of sin’s entrance into the world because of the fall, fathers and children struggle with a degree of estrangement. So this future healing, presumably in the messianic age, comes as a work of God in the hearts of family members. This is definitely the kind of healing we experienced in our family with regard to Charlotte’s mother. I cannot go into those details, but I offer at least a small window on that below.

For Muslims, elder care is also a central duty of the believer. A Google search on this topic offers many places to explore this topic. A popular Western Muslim website, offers fatwas (legal opinions by scholars) on various issues. Here a Saudi scholar, M. S. al-Manajjid, gives a response to the question of what Islam teaches about “care for the elderly.”

The scholar presents five initial points, including the dignity of the human person in general (“And indeed We have honored the Children of Adam …”, Q. 17:70) and “Muslim society is a society of cooperation and mutual support” (a hadith, part of which says, “Anyone who goes with his Muslim brother to meet his need, will be made by Allah to stand firm on the Day when all feet will slip”).

 Then more specifically on this topic: doing good to one’s parents (“Worship Allah and join none with Him (in worship); and do good to parents,” Q. 4:36; see also Q. 17:23). He then cites a hadith in which Muhammad, in response to the question of what good deed God loves the most, answers: 1) praying on time; 2) honoring one’s parents; 3) jihad for the sake of Allah.

 He adds one more point: honoring one’s parents friends, even after the parents have passed away. Quoting a hadith to this effect, the scholar avers that this is one good way to help the elderly in their isolation, “which in turn reduces the impact of the social and psychological changes that the elderly go through.” He then ends with a carefully worded comparison with what happens in non-Muslim societies, where the elderly tend to suffer more from isolation. I personally heard this expressed in much stronger terms over the years living in the Arab world (“You people in the West neglect your parents by getting rid of them in nursing homes”).

Interestingly, on an evangelical website you can read a kind of “fatwa” parallel to the one just mentioned. The tone here is more of an exhortation than an apology for Christianity. But I am sure most Muslims living in the West could identify with this exhortation:


“The elderly can be seen as burdens rather than blessings. Sometimes we are quick to forget the sacrifices our parents made for us when they are in need of care themselves. Instead of taking them into our homes—whenever that is safe and feasible—we put them in retirement communities or nursing homes, sometimes against their will. We may not value the wisdom they have acquired through living long lives, and we can discredit their advice as ‘outdated.’”


My remarks at Judy's memorial service

So I end with the text I prepared for Judy’s memorial service, which, fittingly, was held in a Quaker meeting house (she was a Quaker) led by her nephew, a longstanding member there. A good eighty people attended and she would have been very honored with the way it turned out. Even three of her favorite caregivers (one African American, and two women immigrants from Liberia, a Christian and a Muslim) attended. In six years, we had become family.

One last remark. This is from my perspective. My wife did a whole lot for her mother too. Even though she has a full-time job, she also spent lots of time with her mother, often caring for her with her professional nursing skills, sometimes just sitting with her in the evenings and keeping her company before the night aide came in. Almost till the end, as a family we were able to take her places (besides doctors' appointments!) over the weekend. She enjoyed watching the countryside, like when we would take our daughter to her horseback riding lessons. We would eat out occasionally too.


When Judy and Herb came to our wedding in Algiers, Algeria, 32 years ago, they hardly knew me. It helped that we had a whole week together there with my parents before the wedding, but thereafter we would only see them sporadically, every two or three years for a short time at the most.

So fast forward to 2006, in fact three years after Herb had died, while we were living in Connecticut we finally decided it was time to come back to this area to be closer to Judy.

For the first time ever, we bought a house – a little one in Wallingford near Chester Park. We definitely enjoyed seeing more of her. But in 2011, Judy invited us to come live with her so she could stay in her house.

As you can imagine, that took some work and flexibility from both sides of the equation. But it worked, though she and I would butt heads now and then! We were definitely NOT living in our own house anymore. I remember several times having to come back to her later in the day to apologize for my words or tone of voice. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her either.

But then in January of 2013 Judy had some kind of stroke with several weeks in the hospital. It was touch and go, and we thought more than once that we were losing her. So we prayed with her everyday before leaving her in her hospital room. She really counted on that.

Her recovery at home was slow and for a long time she never wanted to be left alone. But her health improved miraculously. No more insulin; no more oxygen; very few meds. But she never drove again. Within three or four months, though, she began to come to church with us and she was making lots of new friends. We had a weekly small group meeting in our home and though she would not normally join in, she did when we had potluck dinners and the like.

Near the beginning of her convalescence at home, she said something that deeply touched me. “It’s nice you can care for me. In a way it’s caring for your mother who you could not care for.” She was right.

One of my routines with her in the morning is that we ate breakfast together starting at seven when the night aide left, and we read the paper (keep in mind, my wife was the spouse with the full-time job). Saturdays when there was no paper I would show her my phone and we would look at National Geographic pictures or short films. She enjoyed that. On weekdays an aide came in at 9. But before turning the TV on in her room, I would read her some scripture, usually a psalm or a passage in the gospels. She always enjoyed that, including the prayer I would pray holding her hand. Those were especially sweet memories.

So Charlotte and I like to say that, as far as we can see, God opened this 6-year window for us to enjoy Judy and marvel at how God touched our lives together. It was truly amazing! We all were changed. And now we take great comfort in the fact that she’s with the Jesus she came to know and love.

On New Year’s Day 2019 I read an OpEd by “the most important political artist of our time” (as Princeton University Press put it). China’s illustrious artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, now 61 and living in Germany since 2015, ominously proclaimed, “Human Dignity is in danger. We must stand as one to survive.” Human rights are threatened all over the globe, but part of the problem, he argues, is that their definition has been too constricted. It’s not just about individuals and states. No, the globe is so much more interconnected than that. Much more needs to be included. He explains,


“The right of children to grow up and be educated, the right of women to receive protection, the right to conserve nature, the right to survival of other lives intimately connected with the survival of the human race – all these have now become major elements in the concept of human rights.”


The other reason that presses us to redefine human rights is that science and technology, apart from the good they produce, have also contributed to a much darker side. Authoritarian governments now spy on their citizens with chilling efficacy. He rightly adds the arms trade to the list of threats: “Today, Europe, the US, Russia, China and other governments manufacture, possess and sell arms. Pontificating about human rights is simply self-deluding if we fail to curb the dangerous practices that make armed conflict all the more likely.”

The final threat he mentions is one he pairs with the oppression of autocracies: “Likewise, if no limits are placed on capitalist global expansion and the pervasive penetration of capital power, if there is no effort to curb the sustained assault by authoritarian governments on natural human impulses, a discussion of human rights is just idle chatter.” This is the combination of threats to human dignity I wish to examine in this blog post.


How western management consulting is empowering the world’s autocracies

China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, just to name the top three autocratic regimes, do not pay for the expertise of western consulting firms to make their governance more broad-based, accountable and responsive to the needs of their citizens. No, they pay dearly for their services to either burnish their international image, or promote a particular policy at home and abroad, or in most cases to breathe new life into state-owned companies that had long been on life support.

The New York Times recently published an excellent piece of investigative journalism on the gold standard of American management consulting, McKinsey & Company, founded in Chicago in 1926. Its clients represent 80 percent of the world’s largest corporations and its alumni, much more than any other firm, populate the highest ranks of these corporations – like Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai, Morgan Stanley C.E.O. James P. Gorman, Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sanders, and many more (see Wiki article). With a revenue of over ten billion dollars in 2018 and close to 30,000 employees, McKinsey’s tentacles literally reach around the world. And though it only relates to China, this is an apt summary by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe of their 5,100-word article:


“For a quarter-century, the company has joined many American corporations in helping stoke China’s transition from an economic laggard to the world’s second-largest economy. But as China’s growth presents a muscular challenge to American dominance, Washington has become increasingly critical of some of Beijing’s signature policies, including the ones McKinsey has helped advance.”


You will definitely want to read this article, so just allow me to whet your appetite with three short points.


1. Underpining China’s bid for hegemony

One of the Chinese companies McKinsey has advised is the one that built those artificial islands in the South China Sea, which have infuriated the Philippines, as well as Vietnam and Brunei, which all share a stake in this sea (to understand why the international tribunal ruled against China in 2016, read this). Clearly, the US is also nervous about China projecting its military power in such an aggressive manner.

Further, according to The Times’ research, McKinsey consults with “at least 22 of the 100 biggest state-owned companies — the ones carrying out some of the government’s most strategic and divisive initiatives.” China’s most ambitious plan is its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BTI), a recreation of the ancient Silk Road Marco Polo famously publicized in the medieval West. Today this represents a trillions of investment in infrastructure in nations from Central Asia to the Middle East and into much of the African continent. This in turn represents a formidable display of Chinese soft power in the world.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with boosting the economies of all these nations while landing lucrative trade deals and burnishing your own national image in the process. Western nations have been doing this for decades. But they usually pay at least lip service to improving governance and bringing jobs to the local population. China’s port-building or high-speed railroad projects are all done with its own workers and by definition they do NOT seek to spread democracy.

So it’s not surprising that China’s BTI policy has taken a hit in the last year when the construction of a port for Sri Lanka piled so much debt on Sri Lanka that is was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese for 99 years. Seeing this, Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad panicked and stopped work on the massive railroad project one of China’s largest companies, China Communications, was building in his country. As a result, Malaysia’s landscape is dotted with abandoned buildings and concrete bridge pylons.

But the Malaysia fiasco doubly bears McKinsey’s fingerprints. They had helped to craft China’s enticing proposal for this project and at the same time they had convinced Malaysia that this was a deal they should not turn down. Add to that shame on McKinsey the sanctions the World Bank had imposed earlier on China Communications for its high level of corruption and its involvement in building the South China Sea artificial islands. But as with other Chinese companies, these contracts were too lucrative to turn down.


2. The Ukrainian Yanukovych saga

Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, had made a deal with politician Viktor Yanukovych whose sordid past would seem like an insurmountable barrier to taking power (“two criminal convictions and a rigged election”). Not to worry, he could enlist the help of two US management consulting groups: Paul Manafort and his Russian cohorts, now well experienced in helping dictators with dismal human rights records, and McKinsey, which agreed to help him devise a winning economic program. We know how things turned out for Manafort, now in federal prison, and partly because of all the money he embezzled in the process of consulting. But why McKinsey agreed to sign this contract is more complicated.

For one thing, here’s how McKinsey defends its global involvement: “it will not accept jobs at odds with the company’s values. It also gives the same reason that other companies cite for working in corrupt or authoritarian nations — that change is best achieved from the inside.” Fair enough, at least to a degree. But as Bogdanich and Forsythe argue in their piece, there is absolutely no evidence that the billions of dollars McKinsey has earned by working with the Chinese have inched China any closer to democratic rule. Here too, no sooner had Yanukovych been elected president that he abandoned the economic blueprint crafted for him by McKinsey and over the next three years drew Ukraine into Russian arms. He was driven out of the country four years later by a popular wave of protests and a budding civil war. Later that year, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s most eastern territory.


3. Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissidents

McKinsey has been working with a number of Saudi firms over the years (600 projects from 2011 to 2016), but its most troubling project recently involved research on how the KSA’s policies were viewed by its public. In doing so, it pointed in particular to three individuals who elicited a good deal of negative chatter on Twitter. Bogdanich and Forsythe inform us that one was arrested, the other saw two of his brothers imprisoned and his phone bugged, while the third person’s account (anonymous) was shut down. McKinsey made a statement that it is “horrified” that its work might be used to curtail people’s civil rights but it showed no hesitation, unlike many other companies, to show up for the big Saudi investment conference in October, despite the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi murder in Istanbul.

A 19-month research project by an American academic in the Gulf countries focusing on the work of management consultants concluded that they were “the black box of authoritarian governance.” McKinsey and Company are only the biggest, but the sum total of those efforts, far from coaxing these regimes into more inclusive, participatory governance, actually may be giving them better tools to hold on to power and repress their political opponents.

My takeaway here is simply that US business corporations working abroad, and consulting firms in particular, need more Congressional oversight. In this case, good journalism shed a light on a problem that needs urgent fixing.

On another note, if in light of the preceding you are beginning to wonder whether autocratic governance is not spreading rather than retreating, you are right. That is the subject of the next section.


The 21st-century phenomenon of growing authoritarianism

I am helped here by a groundbreaking essay last April in Foreign Affairs. Yasha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, as I see it, make two basic arguments.


1. The twentieth century was the century of democracy

Post WWII North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan formed an alliance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Yet despite the USSR’s military might and politico-economic alliances over vast regions of the world, it collapsed in 1989, and at the turn of the new millennium no one would dispute the political and economic clout of the bloc that had embraced liberal democracy. Indeed, this is why an array of McKinsey-like firms suddenly stumbled into a goldmine of projects and contracts in the 1990s. Western capitalist knowhow was in high demand, but not necessarily as tools for democratic reforms.

Mounk and Foa recount the traditional narrative for the rise of democratic hegemony. Democracy flourished because people were becoming enamored with human rights and personal freedoms. Certainly those values played an important role, particularly in the rise of so many human rights NGOs and movements of civil society in most parts of the world. On the other hand, they argue that scholars have underestimated the attraction of the West’s economic prosperity. But that’s precisely where the balance began to tilt dramatically. Hence, their second argument.


2. Almost two decades into this century autocracies command the greatest wealth

Within the next five years these authors estimate that nations run by authoritarian regimes (with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia in the lead) will command the lion’s share of economic output for the first time ever. And adding to the weakness of the traditional bastion of liberal democracy is its current political turmoil. For example, two-thirds of Americans over 65 say it’s absolutely important to them to live in a democracy, whereas less than one third of those under 35 believe that. Worse, authoritarian solutions are considered possibilities: “from 1995 to 2017, the share of French, Germans, and Italians who favored military rule more than tripled.” Finally, as elections around the world in the last couple of years indicate, we are witnessing “a deep groundswell of antiestablishment sentiment that can be easily mobilized by extremist political parties and candidates.” They explain:


“As a result, authoritarian populists who disrespect some of the most basic rules and norms of the democratic system have made rapid advances across western Europe and North America over the past two decades. Meanwhile, authoritarian strongmen are rolling back democratic advances across much of Asia and eastern Europe. Could the changing balance of economic and military power in the world help explain these unforeseen developments?”


Of course, many different scenarios might be entertained at this juncture. Maybe the West’s current political volatility will settle down again, giving way to a more stable democratic state with improved economic performance. And at the same time, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia could see their economic rise falter, particularly in the transition from fossil fuel-based economies to ones based on cleaner energy alternatives. But then again, Mounk and Foa can easily imagine autocracies expanding and prevailing. And though they don’t bring up war as a possible outcome, I find it hard to put out of my mind. Think of it: it’s the democratic ideals that have guided (imperfectly, yes!) and empowered the work of the United Nations all these past decades. If that fragile structure with its paradigm of human rights begins to crumble, who is to stop another world war?

Today the Eurasia Group just published its Top Risks report for 2019. The number one risk is “bad seeds”: “the geopolitical dangers taking shape around the world will bear fruit in years to come.” This year will likely be fine, but trouble is looming down the pike. Unsurprisingly, the second top risk is the US-China relationship.


Parting Words

At this point, we are brought back to Ai Weiwei’s eloquent and solemn New Year’s warning: “Human dignity is in danger: we must stand as one to survive.” For me, this makes the united work of people of faith even more necessary. Specifically, it calls for Christians banding together with Muslims across national boundaries and contributing in practical ways to a strong solidarity between all human beings. Why? Because, as our texts teach us, they are called and empowered by the Creator to manage this earth in just and peaceful ways.