Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rabbit Holes and Equity

Somewhere on the internet, someone suggested blogs on the question of inequality.  It’s hard to know what that means, but I assume it has something to do with the current publicity about inequality of income and net worth.  Not to make too much of it, but one might start with the observation that the issue did not become prominent until the white middle class became aware that they were slip-sliding downward on a hill tilted in favor of a few already at the top.  However, starting there would probably take us down a rabbit hole.  Suffice it to say that the white middle class remains, at least for a few more years, a sort of barometer of general economic well being, and when they are slip-sliding we had better pay attention because the whole system is hurting.

Having said that, I’d like to move in another direction and suggest that inequality is not as important as inequity.  Equality cannot be achieved across the breadth of a population, nor would we want that.  Part of what makes life interesting, challenging, and rewarding are the differences between us; our different abilities, interests, tastes, personalities, and so forth.  We are, and want to be, unequal in so many ways.  Equity is another matter.  Equity is more about the well known level playing field.  We need to strive for a national ethos that places its highest value on equity, on the assurance that no obstacle is placed in the path of any person to achieve what they are capable of achieving.  Recognizing and removing existing obstacles is a start, and an often a difficult one because we don’t easily recognize existing obstacles if they are in someone else’s way, but not in our way.  Beyond that, it also means a cultural bent toward providing the tools, education, training, and policies that are equitably available to all persons to aid them in achieving what they are able to achieve.  The early advocates of universal public education understood that.  They hoped for a nation in which every child got a first class education at public expense instead of the British system of second rate or non-existent education for most while those who could afford it got a good education in private schools.

The last century produced enormous strides in understanding what is needed for an organization (or nation) to perform well.  Researchers such as Deming, Bennis, Herzberg, Maslow, Kendrick, Likert, Lewin, and others all agreed on a few fundamentals that can be summed up as providing an environment in which each person can succeed (not will succeed).  Doing that requires the discipline of assuring that the right education, training, equipment and quality materials to do the job are available to each without prejudice.  It also requires a constant vigilance of the environment along with dedication to research and development to assure that methods change with technology and social conditions.  That’s the hub of equity, and I think we have two problems with it today. 

First, the dominant American culture has historically been the myth of a generic white middle class that is often blind to the inequity that rules the lives of others who are not a part of it.  That’s changing rapidly, if not smoothly, with claims, counter claims, and taunts along the lines of, “You think you had a hard time of it, let me tell you how hard it was for me.”  Just the same, it is changing.  Part of that is the growing recognition that we need to change our definition of the dominant American culture to accommodate diverse races and ethnicities.  Maybe that will help us see more clearly the obstacles that in our way, and in the way of others who are not like us.  

Second, we have stumbled into  a set of tax laws and compensation practices that have become so warped that only a very few are able to benefit from economic growth.  It’s the 1% phenomena of popular media fame wherein, even if equity is broadly distributed, there is little likelihood that rewards will be commensurate with achievement.  Declining purchasing power through stagnant wages for the majority of the population while a certain very small minority are able to reap unheard of riches is a prescription for national collapse.

Oddly enough, it appears to me that a large portion of what remains of the mythical white middle class has sided with the oligarchical tendencies of the so called 1% for reasons that I do not understand when it is obvious that it can lead only to their continued slide toward the bottom.  And that, my friends, is the entrance to the rabbit hole.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Refugees or Illegal Aliens?

We have just returned from several weeks away that included seven days exploring historic Istanbul from its famous sites to its slums.  It’s an enormous city so seven days was not enough to allow much beyond the older parts of it centering on the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.  Apart from that, we also came face-to-face with the influx of Syrian refugees who have left, or simply bypassed, the refugee camps along the border.

What struck me first was the public and private recognition of them as refugees, not illegal aliens.  How unlike our own recognition of the influx of persons escaping the violence of their homelands to seek shelter and opportunity in the U.S.  Many, perhaps most, Syrian refugees in Istanbul squat in the slums.  Some find work, but many beg, illegally peddle cheap goods on the street, or pickpocket unwary tourists.  On the other hand, they are systematically moved into the nation’s universal health care program.  Children are entered into the school system, and adults are encouraged to learn how to fit into the Turkish way of doing things.

No doubt there are many holes in the system, and not everyone is happy with them being there, but it’s so different from our own stomping Rumpelstiltskin  like hysteria at illegal (read criminal) aliens masquerading as children and teens, or our outrage at the illegal, mostly Mexican, adults who have been here for years building our houses, landscaping our lawns, and tending our shops at low wages with no benefits while simultaneously paying into a Social Security system from which they are unlikely to ever get anything.

I wonder why we find it so hard to lean anything from others?  Oh well, we’re Americans.  What could a second rate nation such as Turkey have to teach us?

Columbus Day!?

Today is Columbus Day, and throughout the internet he is being condemned as a reprehensible manifestation of all that is bad about the western conquest of the Americas.  I guess there is a legitimate point being made.  It’s true that when I was in grade school we were told that Columbus discovered America, which opened up the New World for European colonization that led eventually to the American War of Independence.  But, since I was raised in Minnesota, we were also reminded that Scandinavians beat him by centuries, so there!

There was never much said about the violent conquest of lands belonging to others.  It was more about the opening up of a vast, mostly empty land abounding in possibilities of new life, opportunity, and freedom for those willing to face its challenges.  Later, when we lived in the NYC area, Columbus Day was a celebration of Italian heritage with little publicity given to the man himself.  In any case, I’m willing to give Columbus a break.  He was a man of his age, not of ours.  He had the courage to set out on a journey into the unknown on ships no more sea worthy than large dinghies, and, from a European point of view, he did discover a new land that inspired the ensuing years of European voyages of discovery.  Those voyages redefined what the world was and could become.

It’s not much of a holiday where I live.  Except for a notation on calendars, life goes on as normal.  With that in mind, the effort to rebrand the day to honor indigenous peoples is well intentioned but misses the target.  A more pragmatic solution might be to eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday, perhaps giving federal employees the time off as a floating holiday.  Then establish another day at another time in the year to honor indigenous peoples.  My own choice would be December 29, the date of the massacre at Wounded Knee, but who wants to remember that during “the holidays.”  As an alternative I might suggest June 25, remembering the victory over Custer at Little Bighorn.  More important, as we have moved Black history into a more visible place in school curricula, we should do the same with Indian history.  It’s a rich, colorful history that goes far beyond and is more interesting than the romanticized fiction of a peaceful people at one with nature and each other.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Moral High Ground

Why someone from the U.S. or U.K. would want to join a terrorist organization is very hard to understand when it must be fairly obvious that such groups are bent on destruction and mayhem dredged out of intense hatred of enemies, imagined and real.  At the same time, I am reminded of two people with whom I once worked.

The first was a coworker in the late ‘60s.  Then he was considered by many to be a left wing radical.  He could barely contain his anger and contempt for the agents of big business, corporate America in general, and the federal government that he believed was beholden to the military-industrial complex.  I often wondered if he was involved in some of the violence that attacked local universities and erupted in urban race riots.  If he is still alive, I suspect that has has become a convicted tea-partier.  There isn’t much distance between the radical left and radical right.  Only mutual loathing of each other separates them. 

The second was another coworker about fifteen years later.  He was as right wing as the former was left wing.  A hard core libertarian, he detested anything the government did that he believed would limit individual rights to do what one wanted with one’s property, however one defined property.  Welfare for the poor in any form was anathema to him.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  He was an intensely proud descendent of Irish immigrants, and took on an unreasoned hatred of all things English, which led him to be an ardent supporter of the IRA in every way possible, legal or illegal.  I ran into some online information about him a few years ago and discovered that he is now a champion of a variety of radical, super patriot, right wing causes.  

Neither of them ran off to join a foreign terrorist organization, but the anger and hatred they evinced toward those whom they tagged as enemies seems to me to be like that I imagine inspires those who do.  Where does it come from?  For these two, and based on my limited knowledge and memory, it came from a combination of childhood experiences, lessons they were taught by their elders, frustrations in their early careers, and something else.  That something else seemed to be an inability to look dispassionately at the world about them, their own beliefs about it, and the moral consequences of those beliefs.  

Is that a neurological problem?  A spiritual problem?  An educational problem?  Some combination?  I don’t know.  I suspect that they would say none of the above.  They had staked out the moral high ground, and it is the rest of us who are deluded and in need of help.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Let's talk about Sex!

I’m part of a small clergy group that meets each week to share thoughts about the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday.  We explored a passage from Matthew's gospel that has Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of others in the audience with whom he was speaking.  

That brought up the question of what it meant to be a sinner, which, given the presence of prostitutes, slid toward the usual conflation of sin with sexual immorality.  I say usual because it seems that every time the subject of sin comes up in any discussion, it turns quickly to sexual morality.  It’s a curious thing.

One can raise the issue of sin, at least in the gospels, as being a condition of living outside the boundaries of strict pharisaic standards.  That would include just about everyone living in rural communities, and most of the poor living in cities.  One can raise the issue of sin as failing to meet the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments.  One can raise the issue of sin as any failure to live up to God’s expectations as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.  One can raise the issue of sin in just about any way one wants to raise it, and the discussion will turn quickly to sexual morality.  Why is that?  

In popular thought sin means immorality, and immorality will be assumed to have something to do with sex.  To be sure, there are important moral questions revolving around sex including clergy abuses, human trafficking, sex tourism and more, but morality is more than sex.  You know that.  

Very strange.  Has our culture has become so obsessed with sex?  If not obsessed, has it been so overwhelmed with sexual overtones that we cannot avoid it?  FaceBook ads tell me that Fredrick's of Hollywood is still in business.  Who knew?  I wonder why they think that would interest me?  But I digress.  That may all be true, but there is more.  I suspect that we slide so easily into equating immorality with sex as a way to avoid examination of, and responsibility for, the multitude of behaviors with moral implications that we participate in on a daily basis without giving them much thought.  And we don’t give them much thought because we don’t want to give them much thought.

I’m reminded of the years I taught an ethics course for business students (no oxymoron jokes please).  They always wanted to start off with questions about things like the morality of atomic warfare.  That gives you an idea of how long ago that was, but the point is the same.  They could grapple with that, but did not recognize the need to grapple with questions of a more immediate, everyday nature involving the decisions they actually make and are responsible for.  They didn’t recognize the need because they didn’t want to recognize it.  It was a matter of avoidance.  I think it’s the same dynamic that took place in my little clergy study group, and it takes place in almost every discussion of morality and immorality.  We quickly turn to sex because it’s, well, sexy.  The issues are real and important, but even more important, they allow us to avoid the more immediate issues that are no doubt lurking nearby.  Maybe we should leave the prostitutes out of it altogether, and focus entirely on the tax collectors.  They hit closer to the homes in which most of us live. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We are leaving in a couple of days for a few weeks away on a trip that will take us on ten flight legs through several countries.  I find myself a bit anxious.  It’s not the anxiety of fear. It’s more of anticipation, the kind that children feel as they wait impatiently for Christmas.  I’m a little surprised.  Having spent a good part of my life traveling domestically and abroad, why is this trip different?

The answer, I think, is twofold.  First, the combination of closely timed flights on airlines large, small, and unfamiliar, means that if any link fails in this technologically knitted fabric, the whole thing comes unraveled, and then what?  Second, part of our trip will be in entirely new territory, and anticipation of the wholly unknown tends to raise a strange combination of eagerness and anxiousness.  

There is probably something else as well.  When I was younger, my attitude was more like, ‘What could possibly go wrong?,’ and when something did, it just added to the adventure.  Now I’m old and know perfectly well what can go wrong.  Moreover, not so many years ago we might have got a taste of breaking news in other parts of the world on the evening news.  Now it’s splattered all over the electronic byways in instantaneous, hyperbolic ad nauseam, so that highly improbable events are presented as potential and immediate threats.  It can’t help but have an effect, even on a calm, reasonable person like me.

So, we shall see what we shall see.  I wonder if Paul felt like this as he prepared to set sail from Antioch?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Provisional Truth

Provisional truth is something I’ve sometimes preached about, and it has always been discomforting for those (few) who were paying attention.  What they want, and what would be comforting for me also, is absolute truth.  But, to slightly reword a sentence from William James, “We must be content to regard our most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience.”

Scientific fact is one thing.  Theological fact is another.  Our most solid reasoning, experimentation, evidence and peer review, backs up scientific fact as irrefutable, given what we currently know, and there’s the rub.  What we currently know.  Each time we add a bit of verifiable knowledge to the pot, it changes the whole stew.  It’s what enables some people to discount scientific fact as just another opinion, no better than their own.  Well grounded theories are dismissed with “It’s just a theory, no one really knows,” as if theory and uninformed guesses are pretty much the same thing.  Operating from that set of assumptions, one can claim anything they want as their own private fact. 

Theological fact gets even more complicated.  It can rarely, if ever, be anything other than provisional.  As a Christian preacher, I believe that our provisional truths point reliably toward the absolute truths that are hidden in God, but, along with Paul, I’m doubtful that we can see them except as in a mirror and dimly.  It’s an argument unacceptable to many who demand to know now what the absolute truth is, and are willing to accept the word of anyone who claims to have it.  Some claim the absolute truth that God is a hoax because God cannot be subject to scientific verification.  Some claim the absolute truth about God they have coaxed out of scripture, which they assert to be inerrant.  The historical record of competing claims to know the absolute truth is wobbly at best.  No one view can endure for more than a few years, and each appears to be in unreconcilable competition with all others, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade their true believers.   

Lower case ‘o’ orthodox Christianity, for the most part, holds that scripture is a genuine bearer of God’s truth without having to be scientifically or historically factual in every way, which is way too fuzzy for those who want the certainty of a fifth grade arithmetic text.  Yet, it took centuries for the priests and rabbis of our paternal roots to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as Hebrew scripture.  In like manner, it took several centuries for the Church to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as scripture in what we now call the New Testament.  Unlike the sciences, theology cannot turn to the laboratory to conduct controlled experiments whose results are made public for peer review.  But that doesn’t mean that writings and teachings cannot be subject to examination and evaluation.  It’s the very task of theology.  It may be that authentic scripture, inspired by God, is still being written.  Every now and then someone says that it has.  The Koran and the Book of Mormon are two examples that have been accepted by many, but rejected by orthodox Christianity as inconsistent with what what God has revealed God’s self to be through the progressive revelation of provisional truths that we have learned can be trusted.  In like manner, the so called Gnostic Gospels have been instructive for what they say about the communities they served, but rejected as scripture because they are inconsistent with what we have learned is trustworthy about who Jesus is. 

The test of consistency is a good one, but it has serious limitations.  If every new truth had to be consistent with the old truths, we would still live on a flat earth, so to speak.  Sometimes the Church has acted as if we do.  However, the essential characteristics of the consistency of Godly revelation are change and direction of change .  It’s always changing, so the new and challenging always have to be looked for, and it reliably goes in the direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Reliable scripture always speaks to the people of the time of its writing in terms they can understand given the vocabulary available to them and the cultural setting in which they lived, but it also pushes the limits of meaning in the uncomfortable direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Speech that claims to speak for God but goes in the opposite direction has to be suspect.

We’ve come to accept the canon as a reliable revelation of the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.  Two thousand years of theology have informed and guided our expanding and deepening understanding within the context of the times and places we have lived, but it has always been an uncomfortable understanding that has pushed us into unfamiliar territory.  For all of that, no matter how respected a teaching has been, none has been accorded the authority of scripture.  Somehow we have recognized that it’s all provisional, but, walking in faith, we are confident that it points more or less in the right direction.

If you would like to wade in with your own thoughts, please do so in the comments, or drop me an email.