Thursday, May 24, 2018

Leaving Comments

Dear Readers,
One friend said she’d like to comment, but there is a “No Comment” button at the bottom of each column.  That simply means no one has yet made a comment.  Just click on it, and you will be magically taken to a comment page where you can write away to your heart’s content.  Most comments go through right away.  Comments with vulgar, obscene language get shunted aside.  And if I find comments to be abusive, they get deleted.  This is a place for civil conversation.
Country Parson

Kim, Trump, North Korea, Iran: It’s all here in one exciting show

Fareed Zakaria posts a daily “Global Briefing.”  A few days ago he cited a WSJ column by Tod Lindberg that endorsed Trump’s maneuvering on a possible upcoming meeting with North Korea’s Kim as being an example of well thought out strategic thinking.  This morning we learned that Trump had bailed, which might have been the smartest thing he could have done.  

Mr. Lindberg believed that walking away from a bad deal with Iran over nuclear issues, was a prelude to the Korean talks.  By doing it, Trump took it off the table as an indicator of what a future deal with North Korea might look like.  It was a clear display of Trump’s diplomatic mettle, and it put Kim in the position of having to take something stronger if he wanted any deal at all. 

Mr. Lindberg no doubt follows these matters far closer than I, but I had trouble taking him seriously.  For starters, what made him think the Iran deal was bad?  Then he appeared to assume that Trump carefully thought this out before making his decisions.  If he did, it’s a dramatic departure from his usual pattern.  Thinking things out is hard work, and Trump is loathe to work hard at anything, especially thinking.  My guess is that Mr. Lindberg was doing the best he could to read sophisticated rationality into a gut level move that’s more in tune with the way Trump acts.  If you’re desperate to make Trump look presidential, it’s what you have to do. 

He also presumed that Kim wants or needs to accept a deal from the U.S.  No he doesn’t.  They’ve gone 65 years without one, and they don’t need one now.  If Kim wants anything, it’s to be recognized as a legitimate player worthy of respect by other world leaders.  He already is a player; what he wants is legitimacy and respect.  Whether Trump does or doesn’t go through with a meeting during his term, Kim will have made his point.

The entire vaudevillian act has been consistent with an established Trump pattern.  First he manufactures a diplomatic peccadillo, then makes huge threats about tariffs or some such.  When other parties respond in kind, he huffs, puffs and bluffs before reaching an accommodation that returns to the status quo.  Calling it a victory, he takes a few campaign laps before receiving his laurels from Fox.  In this case, it was not about trade and tariffs, but about photo-ops, peace prizes, and curtain calls in front of a nuclear backdrop.  I have no idea what Trump will do next, but Kim is well on his way to reaching a form of rapprochement with South Korea, and strengthening his bonds with China.  It could lead to further engagement with Pacific rim nations.  Who knows? 

Kim may be as big a megalomaniac as Trump, but he’s probably a lot smarter, and has been watching how best to play this fish to his own advantage.  He seems to be doing it well so far.  As always, I could be wrong, and Mr. Lindberg absolutely right.  After all, what do I know?  I’m just a Country Parson. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

We Live in Strange Times, and I Wonder

One of my right wing friends, and I do have a few, recently posted an op-ed piece from someone in the Las Vegas area recommending impenetrable border walls, gated communities, and armed guards as preventatives to keep us safe.  It was a sad commentary on American life from someone who has the means to live behind guarded gates.  He was trying to call out the hypocrisy of gun regulation advocates who also live behind guarded gates, but that’s not what he ended up revealing.  For him, it appears that everyone outside the gates is a potential threat, and I might  guess it’s especially true if they are not white, speak Spanish, or look homeless.   People like that have been around a long time.  They marched in white hooded robes, burned crosses, and cheered the nascent fascism of the early 1940s America First movement.  Their influence was felt among the rank and file of good people who were disgusted by what they did, but open to bits and pieces of what they said while tolerating the rest.

Years ago our daughter and her family lived in Jakarta, in a gated neighborhood protected by armed guards.  Her office was downtown, its walls pockmarked by bullets from recent riots, so the precaution made some sense.  Our small city in the rural West has one gated neighborhood.  As far as I know, no one has ever paid any attention to the gate, but it’s a very nice one.  Nevertheless, there is a strong current of agreement with the man from Las Vegas, and fear that the boundary is thin indeed between our small city and Jakarta of the late 1990s.  In many different ways it expresses one message: You, me and our friends are all good people, but everyone else is suspect, maybe armed and dangerous, the possibility of attack is ever present and highly probable.  The despised federal government that should stay out of our lives, should not stay out of their lives.  If it can’t deport them, it should harass them into submission.  But it should stay out of our lives.  

Living in that frightening world, it’s no wonder that many of my conservative friends are well armed, fearful their guns might be taken away, and certain that mortal danger is always nearby.  It doesn’t help that there was a daylight house burglary not far away a few days ago.  The burglars were caught, all is well, but that didn’t stop brave talk from armchair quarterbacks threatening to shoot first, as if, somehow, shooting and killing are not related.  Of course, if you’re only killing an “animal,” does it matter?  

It’s a strange time.  Violent crime is declining while fear of violent crime is escalating, and it’s all mixed up with immigration, racism, economic dislocation, and libertarian fantasies.  People who earnestly proclaim their belief in old time moral values continue to give unquestioning support to policies and politicians that are blatant offenses against them.  Several times I’ve asked one friend to explain how he does it.  His instant answer is “What about Hillary?,” which is such a non sequitur that I’ve struggled to find anything to say.  I guess it’s what happens when you live in a frighteningly dangerous world that, to me, is more illusion than reality. 

Into it stepped Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church, preaching to the entire world while at a wedding attended by the social and economic elite of the English speaking part of it.  His proclamation of God’s power expressed in love nailed to the chapel’s door an indictment of the world’s failure to hear and heed, and the whole world listened.  Love, God’s love, casts out fear (of the other).  It is said that perfect love casts out all fear, but we don’t experience perfect love, or perfection in anything else. We can, however, see it lived out imperfectly in the lives of those who follow in Christ’s footsteps as best they can.  If imperfect love can’t cast out all fear, it can shove it into the closet where it can’t dominate us, and it can transform the choices we make in private and in public.

I wonder if Bishop Curry’s message of God’s power expressed in love can penetrate the lives of people who believe they live in a dangerous world,  surrounded by dangerous others who are not like them?  I wonder if those whose hearts were easily warmed by his inspiring words will forfeit the opportunity to make changes by forgetting all about in a few days?   I wonder if those who take it seriously will use it like a bludgeon to beat the opposition about their heads and shoulders?  I wonder if those who love Jesus but decline to follow in his ways will try to undermine it?  I wonder all that and more.  Wonder as I might, I am convicted without doubt of God’s promise that “[His] word that goes out from [His] mouth shall not return to [Him] empty, but shall accomplish that which [He] purposes, and succeed in the thing for which [He] sent it.” (Isa. 55)

Note:  ‘He’ is used for need of a personal pronoun because the intimacy that only a personal pronoun can give is fundamental to the relationship God has with us.  ‘She’ is equally acceptable, and neither is accurate.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Community & the Church

Bowling Alone, the 2000 book by Robert D. Putnam, was one of those best sellers many bought but few read because they got everything they wanted through media reports and interviews.  I was one of them.  His point, as I recall, was the social organizations that had bound Americans together in community were dead or dying.  Bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, church membership, they were all being abandoned by Americans who no longer found them important or helpful.   It was, said Putnam, leading to the alienation of one from another, and from a sense of community shared with others through personal conversation in the public arena.   

That was eighteen years ago.  He tended to blame it on television, but saw hope for a revival of community, enough to spawn a cottage industry based on it.  In the meantime, the internet, digital devices and mobile phones have demonstrated their abilities to further the deterioration of face-to-face interconnectedness, while creating the illusion of community through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  

Even in our rural city, bowling leagues have faded away, the Elks club is all but shuttered, there are no young Masons.  The local Eagles, which openly markets itself to the so called working class, is doing very well.   It may say something about who feels the deepest need for community, and where they find it.  Is it an example of tribalism run amok?  Maybe not.  Maybe they know something the church doesn’t.  More on that later lest I digress too far.  I miss the bowling leagues. They brought together a mix of people who would otherwise not know each other.  Could they not compete with the NFL, NBA and local sports bars?  The Elks and Masons were restricted membership groups that appealed to (white) men who aspired to rise in the power structure, and, once vetted were admitted to the possibility.  That plum is no longer theirs to offer.  Oddly enough, the country club, once the most exclusive of them all, is doing quite well.  It lowered its dues, opened membership to anyone who can pay, and provides the best available space for smaller events and dinners.  If golf is your thing, it’s a great course.  Whether it forms a nucleus of community is another, unanswered, question.

What are nuclei of community in your area?  In ours, one might look to  Rotary and Exchange clubs that have done well by becoming open to all, engaging in important local issues, and sponsoring local events raising money for crucial needs.  Youth athletics and school events bring parents together, at least to know each other by face or name, but they tend to separate themselves by race and economic class.  The colleges have various public offerings that bring a few together for an hour or two.  The local paper works to keep the general public well informed about the region, and is generous in promoting events that can bring people together.  They all have one thing in common.   They don’t create communities whose primary purpose is to strengthen bonds that build and sustain community by nourishing each individual to become more self aware, to recognize their own value and talents, to trust themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of others, and to recognize the value and talents of others struggling to do the same in their own states of insecurity.

The result has been a troubling level of disconnect and alienation that has captured the attention of academics, authors, pundits, and political consultants.  The evidence is on the pages of local internet forums that have opened doors encouraging free expression of isolation, fear, distrust, alienation from whatever is seen as the elite, the power structure, the old boys network, the other – whoever that might be.  Instead of community understood at a broad level, it has become retreat into small groups of like minded people, sure that they’re surrounded by enemies, unwilling to enter the public commons for fear of being attacked.

It can’t be blamed entirely on the digital age of automatons walking around staring at their phones, or texting in place of conversation, and all the rest, though they stand justly accused.  A signifiant part of it was hiding in the wings waiting to be expressed once the oddly comforting hierarchy of old boy networks and club elites began to crumble.   People need to know who they are and where they belong in the context of community that makes sense to them, and in which they feel safe.

What about church?  What is its role in all of this?  Church is the house of religion, and religion has got a bad name among too many.  Religiously unaffiliated is the fastest growing denomination.  Atheism has become its own religion.  And whatever church once stood for lost its usefulness with the collapse of the social hierarchy.  Why waste a weekend morning attending a useless service?  Look at them.  Conservative evangelicalism has become an arm of secular right wing politics.  The big non-denominational ones provide musical entertainment and uplifting talks that are a mile wide and an inch deep.  And the mainline is the last redoubt of the old elite. Who wants to hang out with them?

What can I say?  Mea Culpa.  We have sinned in what we have done and in what we have failed to do through our own fault, our most grievous fault.  The Church, at least the mainline churches, including Roman Catholics, fell into the ease of participating in the socio-economic hierarchy of the post war era.  Too many preached a tepid gospel message  that reinforced God’s endorsement of peace, prosperity, and patriotism epitomizing the realization of the American dream.  Children in the once overflowing Sunday schools were fed a curriculum of thin religious gruel by ill prepared volunteer teachers.  As soon as they could, they quit coming, so did their children, and their grandchildren never came.

Yet it is in the bosom of the gospel message that the deepest hungers for genuine community can be nourished with holy life giving food.  It is in the strength of the gospel message that people can be led from prejudice to truth; delivered from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; break down walls that separate us; be united in bonds of love; and work through their struggles and confusion to accomplish God’s purpose on earth (BCP 815-16).  These are the good things the church has to offer to a people starving for them.

Where is the place of the church in whatever socio-economic hierarchy comes into being?  It doesn’t have one.  It shouldn’t look for one.   It should ignore whatever place others assign to it.  It must focus only on following Jesus, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near, and serving as an agent of God’s healing, reconciling power in the world around it.  Christ didn’t come to save the church.  Christ came to save the world, and the church is the most important agency of that work.

In a previous column I wrote that the self can never be defined in isolation.  It can only be defined in terms of its relationship to others, so community, one way or the other, is  essential to our existence.  Whatever we do always has an effect on others, and that effect will either help build up relationships, and thus community, or tear them down.  God in Christ Jesus has called us, all of us, into community that builds up by strengthening bonds of love, lending a hand to those whose burdens are too heavy, removing walls of separation and oppression, and confronting injustice whenever it’s encountered.  It doesn’t take a denomination or congregation to pursue worthy ends such as these.  Any group can adopt them.  What the church recognizes is that it is God, and not humanity, who has called us to this work.  It is God who feeds us with holy food, drink, and Spiritual presence to have the strength to go on.  It is God who forgives and heals.  It is God who is the very source of life and love, and there is no other.  It is God who says to each person, “You are created in my image, and it is good.”  That’s what the church recognizes, proclaims, teaches, and makes available to all.

Those who enter into the community of the church are sent forth to live their daily lives in other places of work, society, politics, and leisure in all of their many manifestations, but always bearing the love of Christ as best they can.  Is there genuine community outside the church?  Of course there is, and it’s to be celebrated and encouraged.  The church is bold to assert that the source of genuine community is always traced back to God, no matter how it is  manifested in the world.  It is in community that we are able to realize the full potential of our individuality, not as “radically autonomous,” but as radically complete.  

The church stumbled in the work it has been given to do.  It’s time to get back to it.  It’s too easy to make excuses by saying that the church is only the gathered assembly of believers, and so it’s everyone’s responsibility.  The clergy are the ones who have been called to serve as pastors, and they are the ones who must assume the responsibility of being the shepherds God has called them to be.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Very Short Column

A friend told me yesterday that my columns were getting too long.  So here's a short one just for the fun of it.  Should relieve everyone's Twitterspan anxieties.  The End.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Liberalism Has Not Failed : but it’s badly injured

Patrick J. Deneen’s ,Why Liberalism Failed, is a challenging book because it explores some of what hides behind the curtain of liberal democratic ideals that have formed and guided our history as a nation.  In withering language he prophecies liberalism’s imminent demise, but offers no clear idea of what might come next.  Underlying his printed word is the subtext of a Catholic mind that misses the ordered life and values of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and sees in American history glimpses of what might have been that come from early New England colonies and contemporary Amish culture.  It’s the idea that self control, commitment to the local community and its ways, a sense of one’s proper place in society, and an emphasis on household economics is what may save the U.S. from an authoritarian alternative.  They’re only glimpses, and he never spells out what a possible future might hold, only that the one we have is eroding away.

Liberalism, for him, comes in a variety of flavors that extend from right wing libertarians to left wing socialists.  My tea party friends would be horrified to read that they, and other right wing conservatives, are merely a different kind of liberal.  In like manner, Deneen observes a deeply conservative bent in most left wing liberals.  It’s because liberalism’s core values, drawn from the Age of Enlightenment, are centered on the freedom of the individual to become whatever they are able to become, unrestricted by society’s rules or government interference.  Left and right have different ways of expressing what that means, but they agree on the centrality of individual autonomy from external controls.

For him, it means that liberalism slowly erodes the essential functions of community and family as the sources of stability and true freedom, replacing them with “radically autonomous individuals” who, demanding governmental protection for their autonomy, open the door to authoritarian rule of one kind or another.

I think he overstates his case by a huge margin, but also believe that he raised an important weakness in our society that must be addressed: the importance of family and community as bedrock values.  The current obstacle to restoring a broad understanding of their importance is idealistic commitment to an obsolete view of what a proper community or family should look like: it’s unworkable.  

There is nothing wrong with a married mom and dad with three children as a symbol of what a family is, but it falls short.  They’re mere tokens on a game board.  What’s more important is what needs to go on in a family like setting for healthy relationships and learning to develop.  Family is important, its value should be celebrated, but the definition of what family is needs to be modified.  Not by adding additional characters to the approved cast of family members, but by emphasizing the roles and functions families need to excel in to be successful.  What are the dynamics of family life needed for each family member to have fullness of life, both in the family and as persons engaged in community?  My sociologist friend Michelle Janning spends a lot of time thinking and writing about what that means, so pay attention, she knows whereof she speaks.

In like manner is the question of community.  Deneen appears to have a romantic attachment to self governing communities that he believes epitomize the best in liberal democracy.  The early colonial New England towns are long gone, but, for him, today’s Amish society could be an example worth considering.  He would like there to be less surrender of governing authority to federal and state governments, because they are relentless accumulators of power in defense of the autonomy of free individuals that, paradoxically, leads toward authoritarianism.  Small, self governing communities in which there are no “radically autonomous individuals” represent what democratic freedom should be about.  I imagine he would say that’s an over simplification, but it’s what seems to emerge from the book

Communities never exist in worlds where their self governance is isolated from the effects of other self governing communities.  To paraphrase St. Paul, they are like parts of a body, each in need of the other parts to be a healthy whole.  As different as each may be, they depend on each other for their well being.  It means there have to be systems to link and govern relationships between body members, and norms by which to measure how well they work together.  That interconnectedness and interdependence is true for communities and the individuals who live in them.

Increases in population and population mobility, ease of transportation, developments in communication technology, and environmental impacts that know no border, mean that communities can’t self govern as if local decisions are not important to other communities, even distant ones.  Even today’s Amish communities couldn’t exist but for the presence of the surrounding society from whom they seek to remain aloof.  If community self government is what will save liberal representative democracy, then there must be ways to broaden the definition of community to include the federal government, as well as state, regional, and local governments.  If true freedom can never be the product of “radically autonomous individualism," but can only be achieved through community membership in which individuals define themselves by their relationships in and to the community, then there must be national norms to protect individuals from being treated unjustly by the community.  Indeed, there must be standards that each community, and all communities have to meet to justify their existence. 

Deneen hints at what they might be, but never says, and my guess is that I wouldn’t like what he says, if he said it.  But I agree with him in one way.  The myth of rugged individualism on the right, and the myth of the unrestricted freedom of the individual on the left lead to either autocracy or chaos, and chaos leads to autocracy, so there you are.

The self can never be defined in isolation.  It can only be defined in terms of its relationship to others, so community, one way or the other, is  essential to our existence.  The silliness of believing we should be free to do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t hurt others needs to die.  Whatever we do always has an effect on others, and that effect will either help build up relationships, and thus community, or tear them down.  But building up can strengthen injustice and oppression, while tearing down can destroy the good, so it’s not a simple question, and it begs for standards.  What standards?  Deneen inserts an occasional appeal to Christianity for answers, which is where I also would look.  I can’t be sure about what he would find, but here’s my take drawn from Hebrew and Christian scripture.  It’s a short list not intended to be comprehensive.  It’s intended to demonstrate that such standards do not have to dictate who people should be, what roles they should play, or how their behavior should adhere to secular social standards of questionable validity.

Persons are taught to be fully confident in all that they are capable of becoming, and communities organized to facilitate that happening.

Persons are taught to be fully aware of how what they do and say affects the environment around them for good or for ill, and communities are organized to take communal responsibility for the same.

Persons are taught to be merciful, and communities value restorative justice higher than retributive justice.

Persons are taught that peacemaking is greater than war making, and communities are organized to pursue peace over war.  Persons and communities commit to confront violence in radically peaceful ways.

Persons are taught that the Ten Commandment are about integrity, and communities are organized to value integrity over self serving.

Christians are taught to worship God only, subordinating all other loyalties to God first.  As Jim Wallis has said, “If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.”  They are also taught to respect others doing the same according to their own traditions, while feeling comfortable about sharing the good news of God in Christ Jesus when other ears are willing and desire to listen.

Persons are taught, and communities organized to be generous in providing for the needs of the poor, and the shared needs of the community.

Deneen’s closing remarks are curious for a book about liberalism’s failures.  He expresses high regard for what liberalism has achieved, and will continue to achieve.  He rejects what he says are claims that liberalism is the end of political development, a claim I think few would take seriously.  There was a time in the early 20th century when political and social thinkers believed human progress might be like Darwin's evolution, and humanity was in the process of evolving to a higher moral plane.  Liberalism was the evolutionary pathway.  It was not to be.  But liberalism has shown that the environmental conditions of human life, indeed of all life, can be changed – for better or worse.  The choices are up to us, living and working in community.  Putting more effort into understanding the necessity and value of community, and perhaps less emphasis on individual autonomy from community, can be where liberalism leads.  

Friday, May 11, 2018

Things Urgent & Things Important

It’s time for Country Parson to talk about religion, and this is a reflection on the discipline of daily prayer, but first let’s talk about things urgent and things important.

Things that appear urgent demand all our attention, but are often distractions from what is important.  Genuine urgency requires immediate response, but not all things claiming urgency, are.  Pretended urgency is especially demanding in our digital age when buzzing mobile devices announce texts, emails, and the occasional phone call that demand the right to interrupt everything else, and we fall for it.  And it’s not just cell phones.  I don’t watch much television, but my internet news feeds burst with breaking news every few minutes – almost all could wait for tomorrow’s newspaper.  It isn’t important and it isn’t news driven, it’s market driven urgently urging us to look and see.  Marketing or not, I’m not immune to the seductive call to drop everything and look anyway.  It’s a character weakness I’m not proud of.  Is it the pervasiveness of digital urgency that has encouraged a greater sense of unneeded urgency about real life decisions to speak and act?  Could be.

Sometimes the urgent is important, but urgency and importance are not the same things, and I fear we too often forget that.  Urgency entices us to make intemperate, precipitous decisions that are seldom the right ones.  It puts us in the position of not taking time to do something right the first time, yet forced to take more time to do it over, correcting mistakes as we go, hoping for the best.  When urgent matters are unimportant, mistakes can be unimportant too.  When urgent matters are important, mistakes can cause real damage.  Do overs are not always easy, and sometimes impossible.  It’s especially true for interpersonal relations where once something is said or done, it cannot be taken back.  When the  something said or done breaks the bonds of trust, restoring them takes patient time and effort not easily given or received.  The easier alternative is to burn bridges, build walls, and hide behind defensive perimeters.  Taking the easy way is, well, easy.

Having spent many years working with first responders, I know that training, education, and building habits that are second nature are what enable them to enter incidents of great urgency and importance, yet take their time to make sound decisions and take right action.  The discipline to slow down and do it right, in the face of urgent demands to hurry up and do something, does not come naturally.  That's why it's a learned discipline.

Curiously, the same is true about prayer.  It's a learned discipline that puts the urgent and important in their proper places.  What could be more important than developing and maintaining a nourishing relationship with God?  Don’t let the urgently unimportant get in the way.  Take some time to be in deep conversation with God.  Make it a daily discipline well insulated from demands to hurry up and do something.  What should you pray for?  Nothing.  Does it require religiously approved special language?  No.  Can you speed through it because you’ve got a lot to do today?  Sure, but it won’t do you any good.  

What do I mean by conversation with God?  I’ll compare it with my friend Tom who teaches philosophy, because philosophers tend to be treated as godlike when in the company of ordinary mortals.  When I meet with him for coffee, I don’t start off with a list of requests for favors, demands to know what truth is, or burden him with fawning thanks for being a friend.  We just talk about what’s going on in our lives.  You do the same with your friends.  OK, God is not a pal, a friend like that, but the principle holds.  Just have a conversation about the things in your life that are important, or urgent, or both, or neither, and then be quiet.  The phone can wait, the tablet can wait, the computer can wait, the television can wait.  Coffee may be another matter, but the point is that starting the day in unhurried conversation with God will help set the tone for a healthier, less urgently driven life.  And when real urgency arises, it will help give you the discipline to respond more wisely than you otherwise would.

My practice is to hold the conversation within the structure of the Morning Office as practiced in the Episcopal Church.  For me, it’s an exercise in discipline that helps build second nature habits that make responding to daily events of urgency and importance more consistent with what I profess my faith to be.  It helps me remember that the conversation I began early in the morning has not ended, but is still going on.  It’s my practice.  Yours may be different, but I hope you have one, and that it’s slow paced, ignoring urgent interruptions.  

So how am I doing?  Not bad.  It’s a work in progress, and even at my age, I’m still a beginner.  Nevertheless, the nourishment it gives has made life more abundantly fulfilling, even when the rain falls, and the floods come, and the winds blow, none of which I like, but it happens.   Now if you’ll excuse me, my cell phone is dinging.  It sounds so urgent.  I must see what it is.