"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear," so wrote St. Paul to the church in Ephesus. It was good advice then and is now, however regularly ignored. What is evil talk? Some of the fundamentalists I know claim it is anything blasphemous, by which they mean whatever is inconsistent with their understanding of holy truth. Popular entertainment often casts evil as a caricature of the devil, vampires, zombies, or Lord Voldemort, in such a way that ordinary human beings are excused from the guilt of evil, no matter what they say or do. They may be in error, naughty, or just plain bad, but not evil. I'm more inclined to believe that evil is whatever is cruel, hurtful, deceitful, or unjust, and that the evil that comes out of our mouths is as damaging as any act.
This past election season reveled in cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk that became acceptable, even honored, among a large sector of the population as a legitimate expression of public discontent. With evil talk legitimatized, the ubiquity of unrestricted social media encouraged many to shrug off whatever social constraints had held their words in check, unleashing floods of cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk beyond measure. Freed from the tyranny of political correctness, all manner of vile words and deeds have been let loose on society with impunity, and sometimes applause.
If what is clearly evil talk has become more common place in the public arena, including among leadership, what some declare as evil has also been dumbed down. What I mean is that if your social and political values are not consistent with mine, then I can label them as evil; evidence not required. Having glued the label on, any accusation you make of verifiable social or political evil can be excused as just your opinion against my prior assertion, and, therefore, unworthy of further discussion. Decades ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay on "Defining Deviancy Downward" that criticized the erosion of standardized social values of the post war years. He had the right idea but aimed too many of his barbs in the wrong direction, trying to defend values that had been used to oppress whole classes of citizens, and was unable to accept redefinitions that would accommodate demographic changes and a more expansive understanding of social justice. What he had right was the sowing of seeds that would mature into a field of weeds in which evil talk itself would be the deviance defined downward.
So let's go back to the top. "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear." It's not only about constraining evil talk, it's about speaking only what is useful for building up as needed. Is what I am about to say useful to others for building up as needed? Building up what? From a Christian perspective it means building up a more just, less exclusive community working together for the well being of all. Within the Church it means building up communities of faith. Emanating from the Church it means building up the communities in which we live, heeding advice from the prophet Jeremiah that in the welfare of the city where we live lies our own welfare. Building up as needed. What is needed? Therein is room for a lot of debate, but debate that must be framed in language intended to build up, not language that is cruel, harmful, deceitful. Let your words give grace to those who hear, and let it be so.
It's something to work on because it's not an easy thing to do. The tricky part is that we are not excused from confronting evil talk when we hear it, but must do so boldly without falling into it ourselves. At the same time, we are not given warrant to accuse someone of evil talk without verifiable evidence that can withstand informed scrutiny. We cannot subtlety imply that another is an enemy simply because they are not doing or saying what we think is best for building up. We cannot label ordinary incompetence as evil, though we must confront the evil that it enables. We can call ignorance ignorance and stupidity stupidity, but only if we make clear what knowledge and intelligence means given existing conditions. It takes a degree of humility I often lack, so don't be quick to take me as an example. For that matter, St. Paul wasn't a very good one either. Best bet is to stay focused on Jesus.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
No one can deny the beauty of a Western valley covered in snow with foothills and mountains as a backdrop. We haven’t enjoyed anything like it for nearly a decade. A normal winter, whatever that is, may give us 20 inches over the season, melting in between. Otherwise temperatures are moderate, the land is bare. This year we have around 40 inches to date, and it’s not going away. The storms that have brought it closed highways, snarled local traffic, cancelled flights, and have been rough on farmers with livestock to care for. But they have not caused the devastation we have seen reported elsewhere, just minor inconveniences mainly. In their midst they have recalled for me romantic images of Currier and Ives prints or maybe a Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for instance.
It’s better than a bleak midwinter of barren trees on barren ground under grey skies that inspire deep melancholy bordering on depression, something that has bothered me for my adult life. Thinking about it reminds me other storms that attack one’s emotional and spiritual well being with more brutality than nature can produce. They don’t come on the wind or in the waves. They come through our fellow human beings, and from deep in our own souls. Not long ago I finished reading Down to the Sea, a 2007 book by Bruce Henderson about the ships sunk in 1944 during Typhoon Cobra, not by the typhoon but during it. Poor decisions, poor ship design, poor leadership, that’s what caused them to sink. To be sure, the enemy was the storm, but what wounded the emotional and spiritual health of the survivors were the words and actions of their fellow human beings that made the storm unsurvivable for so many. They were words and deeds that demonstrated a fatal lack of competence and disregard for the well being of others. On the other hand, what prevented the storm and sinking ships from fatally wounding the lives of some survivors were the words and actions of fellow human beings that showed competence and compassion inspiring hope in spite of them. Think about it.
None of us escapes the onslaught of storms. One way or another, they hit us. Some are storms of nature that wreak destruction and death. More are storms of abuse, oppression, and tragedy suffered at the hands of other human beings. The latter are always more dangerous and damning. They are killers in their own right and can make the former unendurable. The former bear no malice, the latter do. Consider the psalmist’s lament that the greatest danger came not from the outside, but from his own friends, and from within the city (Ps. 55). The old advice was to suck it up, and get on with life. It doesn’t work, at least not by itself. By itself it leaves the wounded to fester in ways that may be hidden, but never heal. What does work, what makes storms of human evil, incompetence, and stubbornness, in all their combinations and permutations, survivable are the words and actions of other humans that show competence and compassion inspiring hope.
Competence and compassion. Competence with compassion. It’s what we give to each other that enables us to survive the storms of life and heal from the wounds they inflict. None of us is competent in all things, but we can each be competent in some things, and we can all be compassionate in the sharing of our competencies with those in need. Sadly, we have each experienced persons in roles for which they had little competence which they combined with stubborn insistence on asserting authority over those who were, while displaying disregard for the well being of anyone other than themselves. It is what, more than anything else, makes storms unendurable, inflicting wounds, infecting wounds that will not heal.
Exercising competency with compassion to help each other get through the storms, wounded perhaps, but with wounds that will heal, is a moral obligation, but not necessarily a religious one. It’s what first responders train for every day. It’s what the best teachers exercise every day. It’s what the best bosses demonstrate every day. Nevertheless, as Christians, we are called to engage in it as a holy endeavor in which we each take responsibility for our own burdens while helping others with theirs so that no one is left without help, and each is offering help. Paul put it this way, “Bear one another’s burdens…test your own work…carry your own load” (Gal. 6.1-5). It’s a learning process, one we never complete, but a process from which we are not excused. Failure to engage in it puts the lie to any pretension of believing faith. This is serious stuff. We are called by the one of whom the people said hey had never seen someone speak and act with such authority. Even the demons, wind and water obeyed him.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
When I was in high school, back in the ‘50s, we had an assistant principal who patrolled the halls. Whenever he saw behaviors he disapproved of, he would lecture us on our moral turpitude. I had no idea what a turpitude was, much less what a moral one might be, and wasn’t interested enough in what he had to say to look it up. I don’t think he knew either, since it means something between disgraceful and depraved. Disgraceful, perhaps. What teenager isn’t? Depraved, never! What really got him was any display of affection, such as holding hands or a quick kiss between classes. Oddly enough, it came up in conversation about sin this morning.
Maybe it was always so that when sin is mentioned it immediately leads to talk about sex, and when that’s exhausted, to other behaviors that give carnal pleasure and may be morally questionable: over eating, drinking to excess, out of control spending, etc. Course corrections then lead to categories of sin containing a broader array of immoral behaviors illustrated by examples that conveniently leave most of our own lives in the clear. Stealing, lying, covetousness, adultery, and so forth, as understood in narrow interpretations of the Ten Commandments that we prefer to use to indict others. Sloth is another big one. We love to accuse others of laziness and unwillingness to take responsibility for themselves. Avoiding accountability for the consequences of one’s behavior is another. We take comfort in labeling just about anybody, or an entire group, as lazy, irresponsible, unwilling to be held accountable. Makes us feel better about ourselves.
Curiously, God seems to have something else in mind, at least insofar as one is willing to trust the prophets and the gospel record. It’s not that these kinds of archetypically immoral behaviors are not included in the realm of sin; they are, but they are buried under things that go in another direction. As many know, I’m fond of Amos, but what God has to say through him is echoed in each of the other ethical prophets as well. The sheer consistency of it demands attention. So what on earth am I getting at? Let’s look. According to Amos, the sins of the people that got God so worked up included:
- Destruction of an enemy’s food supply
- Betrayal of treaties and covenants of friendship between peoples
- Encouraging civil violence
- Disrespect for legitimate civil authority
- Manipulating the working class into the bondage of debt
- Cheating the poor out of the necessities of life
- Systemic injustice for the poor
- Oppression of the poor
- Temple prostitution
- Promiscuous sex
- Commanding God’s prophets about what to say, or not say
- The idle rich displaying contempt for the poor
- Meaningless religious ceremonies and practices
- Presumption of God’s favor while oppressing others
- Corrupt courts and judges
- Unfair taxation of the poor
- Gaps too large between the rich and poor
- Undue pride in nation or family
- Lack of compassion for the suffering of others
That’s quite a list. A thorough examination of the other prophets would yield some additions, but I think you get the idea. Yes, certainly, some sexual behavior is on the list, as is over indulgence, but when the gospel record is examined, Jesus does’t seem to treat them with the same level of concern that he does the others. After all, he never called the tax collectors and prostitutes “you brood of vipers,” as he did the leading men of Jerusalem. When he was the only one who had the undisputed right to condemn someone whose errant life was certain, he did not. Neither did he condone their behavior, but called them into a new and better way of living.
So let’s get down to it. Who does God really condemn so we can all gang up on them with self righteous indignation because we’re on God’s side. Conservative moralists? Rioting left wing protesters? Self righteous social do gooders? Wealth that preys on the poor? The angry ignorant? It turns out not to be a who of any kind, but a what, and it’s not condemnation as such, but God’s harshly honest revelation to us about what we do that undermines integrity, and contributes to, even endorses, injustice and oppression. Well that’s a disappointment, isn’t it? No one is condemned, and you and I are bathed in the harsh light of God’s truth that most uncomfortably illuminates our own behavior. If we continue in our ways, the end will not be good. Rats! What are we to do?
I think we need to be honest about confronting sin, especially systemic social and political sin that contributes to oppression and injustice, without resorting to ad hominem attacks. We need to be honest about our own failures, but not allow them to be used by someone else as an excuse to do the same, or worse. It does not excuse us from making judgments, but we have to be careful. One of my recent articles was less than enthusiastic about the incoming administration, and a colleague asked me bluntly, “Who are you to judge?.” It was a good question. Commentary is never descriptive only. Some evaluation is what commentary is about. I try, as best I can, to assure that what I state as fact is easily verifiable, and that my evaluations are defensible in conversation with well informed colleagues. Twenty years as a priest preceded by thirty years of consulting and teaching on politics and public policy issues related to economic development, as well as applied management theory, have given me some insights that may be helpful to some, and be really irritating to others.
Let’s show a little more moral fiber, a little less moral turpitude.
Friday, January 6, 2017
Locker room conversation at the Y turned to Millennials. I know it wasn’t Trumpian locker room conversation but what can I say. We can’t all Iive up to that high standard. Actually, it wasn’t conversation at all. It was one guy speaking in a loud confident voice about Millennials as the kids who don’t want to and won’t work a full day of hard work, think they are entitled, and expect to be millionaires before they are thirty. It was one of those if you say it loud enough it must be true kind of performances. When politely challenged he backtracked slightly, admitting that there were good hardworking kids among them, but “it’s the numbers,” he said. There are so many of them, a real baby boom, so the entitled slackers are the majority.
Census data do not support his claim to a Millennial baby boom. The birth rate per 1,000 population has held steady at about 14 for the last several decades, as opposed to a birthrate of about 25 when this guy was born, so it’s really his generation that was the boom, which is why they are called the boomers, but I digress. I’m not even sure what a Millennial is, but it appears to be someone who is currently between 15 and 34, give or take, and they make up about 27% of the population, which is a good chunk. I’ve read a few things that label them as self centered, entitled, secular, avaristic, and directionless. Most of it looks to me like marketing gobbledygook, or maybe pop social psychology worked into a sensationalized magazine article. They guy in the locker room must have seen something about them somewhere. In any case, what he wanted was seasonal high school and college age labor for his farm, and it’s hard to find. He’s right. In our area there are fewer farms with smaller farm families with children who want to do farm work, except on their own farms. The stock of likely workers is less than it once was.
Times have changed in other ways too. I worked in a gas station when I was in high school and part of college. I pumped gas, checked oil and tires, cleaned windshields, and did simple mechanical jobs: oil changes, grease jobs, brake adjustments, belt changes, muffler installations, etc. Full service gas stations don’t exist anymore. Part time entry level jobs that do exist are increasingly taken by adults working two or three of them trying to make ends meet. It’s not that jobs for adolescents can’t be had, but they appear to be fewer in number.
Those who are growing out of adolescence and want to make a decent living have several options. Go away to a university, unlikely to return. Get a degree or certificate from the community college in a specialized field, and maybe find a job in the area. OK, that’s two options. I can’t think of a third. Without those one would have to work several jobs at low pay to live at a lower middle class level.
The guy in the Y locker room would scoff at all this as just a way to excuse a lazy, unfocused generation of kids who think the world owes them a living because that’s what he’s been told about them, and what he says he experienced trying to hire them for a couple weeks of work. It’s a familiar complaint because it is one heard century after century from an older generation about a younger generation. Does it do any harm? Maybe not by itself. Each generation manages to grow up, producing responsible adults in the process no matter what the older generation says about them. What it signals is a tendency to believe, without verification, whatever appeals to one’s prejudices, applying gross generalizations to entire populations and conditions of life. Asserting them with force and volume establishes barriers to conversation, indeed to anything that might look like disagreement. That is a problem. Loud voices of ignorance distort the public debate, and endanger responsible public decision making. Not, of course, that we have experienced any of that lately, but we could.
Thursday, January 5, 2017
There are two places in scripture where what we call heaven and earth come together in warm embrace: the birth and resurrection narratives. Right now we are in the season of the birth narratives. Embrace might be a little weak. In whatever way one imagines heaven or the spiritual realm to be, it fully enveloped our world at the nativity and the resurrection. At other times the two worlds seem to meet and touch each other in extraordinary ways, but we don't recognize them as envelopment. Daily Office readings in the Christmas season bring them to mind with familiar stories. Abram’s conversations with God that led him from his homeland to a new land of promise that in centuries to come would become a homeland for his descendants. Jacob’s vision of the ladder that connects heaven and earth. Moses’ meeting God’s presence at the burning bush. Joshua’s conversation with God about what crossing the Jordan into the land promised to Abram so long ago would mean.
They are reminders of the kingdom of God that Jesus said is not somewhere else, but at hand. It is not in some other place or at some other time, but always here and now, wherever and whenever Jesus’ followers engage the world in his name. The popularity of Celtic Christianity, Americanized beyond Celtic recognition, and often devalued into generic spirituality set against a rocky coastland, has exposed many of us to the idea of thin places, places where the spiritual and physical world come together in ways that they don’t come together elsewhere. I have no doubt there are such places; indeed I believe I have experienced some of them. What I don’t believe is that they are limited to designated spots that exist only at designated times. They aren’t Brigadoon. The world of our ordinary lives and the world we call spiritual are entwined with one another in every place and at all times. Moreover, it is not just any spiritual world, but the kingdom of God that is at hand. To crudely borrow from the Cappadocians, it is perichoresis, a holy dance, that constantly enfolds us in both worlds. The questions is, where, when, and through whom is that recognized?
There are people we call saints, whether canonized or not, in whose lives we see that holy dance performed, but I don’t think it’s reserved for them. My guess is that it is performed in many places at many times by ordinary people. Indeed, it can be performed by you and me whenever we choose to let it happen by loving others as Christ has loved us. It’s a move from simply recalling places where and times when it happened to others, and joining in the dance that is always present. It is the act of joining that opens our senses to the recognition that we are in a thin place, participating in the heavenly embrace of the world through new birth and and resurrection to new life.
Monday, January 2, 2017
The Fractured Republic is a 2016 book by conservative author Yuval Levin that has been lauded by the likes of Paul Ryan as something between scripture and a handbook for a better America, so I read it.
Levin believes that the Achille’s heel on both the left and right is a nostalgic love for the decades following WWII that has warped their respective political agendas as they try to recapture the best of those years for the future. It’s not a bad premise but for two things. First, while carefully parsing the varieties of conservative thinking, he plasters over liberal diversity by assuming they all think and believe the same things, which are about taking away personal liberty and making the federal government bigger and badder. Second, as he works toward plotting a fresh course into the future, leaving nostalgia behind, he proposes a romanticized non-specific agenda that wallows in it. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean, but in essence he has a strong faith in what he calls the mediating institutions of society: family, church (generically), work, and voluntary civic organizations that he says have been stripped of their traditional roles by centralizing them in the federal government. By turning our backs on centralization of federal power over all aspects of life, and turning toward revitalized mediating institutions, we can apply the principle of subsidiarity to the solution of the nation’s problems in more creative, locally responsive and democratic ways that would surely please De Tocqueville. He never says so, but it left me imagining Norman Rockwell’s paintings brought to life all across the country.
The left, he assures his readers, has been committed to centralizing power in the federal government ever since Roosevelt, both of them. The right has gone along, and shame on them. As a result, fewer and fewer decisions about public policy are left to states and localities, where, by the authority of subsidiarity, better decisions would be made. Even better than local and state governments, things we now look to government to handle would be dealt with through the mediating institutions. Wholesome intact families would be encouraged through what? Public pressure, restrictions on divorce, limits on contraceptives, what? However they would be encouraged, they would raise healthier children less likely to get into trouble and more likely to become hard working productive citizens. Churches, meaning all kinds of places of worship – in the Judeo-Christian tradition – would again become the accepted arbiters of what is moral and good. His limitation to Judeo-Christian religions is never overtly stated, but strongly implied, as is the idea that state and local laws could be used to help make that happen. Finally, much of what we now call welfare would be better handled through charity provided by local voluntary organizations. Moreover, connecting charity to the dignity of work would strengthen the moral fiber of those whose moral fiber needs strengthening. Paul Ryan calls this insightful and original, the very thing needed to navigate the fragmented world in which we live. I don’t think Mr. Ryan cares what I call it, but original it is not. However, it is not without insight. There is no doubt on the left about the importance of families in the raising of children, the value of churches in speaking to the nation about what is moral and good, the worthiness of charity and charities, and the dignity of work - hard work. The left has a lot to say about the dangers of using the coercive power of government to encourage them, even as it has been accused of using that power to usurp them.
It would have helped if he had been more honest about centralization of legislative and regulatory authority in the federal government as a reality impelled by economic and social conditions that are national in scope, flowing as they will across local and state borders, requiring resources available only through a national government. We don’t live in a society of villages and villagers who are in limited relationship with one another. We don’t even live in a confederation of independent states. We gave that up in 1789, sealing it at last in 1865. We are more aware than we once were that the rights and privileges of American citizenship cannot be compromised by local decisions to limit them in any way. The solution to pollution, in all its environmental and sociological forms, is not dilution, especially when we trash that which flows into another’s home. More today than ever, the economy is married to corporate entities that have no loyalty to locality or nation. Funds flow around the globe in such volume and velocity that only national governments have any hope of managing it for the protection and welfare of their people.
The idea that by appealing to subsidiarity we can return to a time when none of this will be true anymore is unrealistic nostalgic romanticism at its height. But it does reveal something that needs fixing.
Centralization of public policy decisions at the national level has also resulted in too many laws and regulations that don’t accommodate regional differences. A very long time ago I played a small part in an effort to help members of congress understand that a bill designed to protect a particular eastern hardwood forest would endanger western softwood forests. It’s a small and very old example, but it’s an indication of how hard it is for congress to build needed flexibility into laws. It results in onerous regulations required by the laws themselves. The federal government is good at raising and disbursing the huge amounts of money needed to address many issues. It’s good at making broad policy decisions on behalf of the whole nation. it borders on incompetent when it micro-manages implementation in so many places where conditions are so different. Experience with state and local governments suggests they suffer the same weakness. There is nothing wrong with government as such; it has to do with elected representatives who are reluctant to trust those at lower levels to do the right thing unless they are told precisely how to do it. The idea that goals and performance standards could be set, audits made rigorous, and otherwise those who know best left to do best in whatever way works best, is just too risky to try. And don’t blame politicians for having flawed genes or something. The same problem exists in business at every level, even more so in large corporations. One of our greatest weaknesses as a society is that, at every level and in every institution, we don’t really trust subordinates to be responsible persons, even as we criticize everyone except you and me, and I’m not sure about you, for having lost their sense of self responsibility.
Even Levin, trying hard to avoid the trap, falls into it. Without saying so out loud, he leaves readers to clearly understand that once conservative social values are imposed on the unwilling, especially those on the left, in some locally democratic way, all will be made well again. Speaking of Levin, toward the end of the book he finally gets around to taking potshots at the usual welfare state suspects in the usual generalized terms alleging their awfulness on the assumption that decent right thinking people will agree without asking too many questions. He offers subsidiarity as the solution. If that seems a little vague to you, see my previous article on deconstructing the federal government.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
I've agreed to fill in on Sunday, January 1 at the parish where I had been rector for eight years. Anyone want to guess how many are likely to be there? It’s not just New Year’s Day; given our Pacific time zone, the services will be right in the middle of a day of bowl games. Talk about high probability for a low Sunday! I've begged and bribed my wife to be among the congregation so that there will be at least two, and we can celebrate the Eucharist. It's also the Feast of the Holy Name, which brings up two questions. What makes a name holy, and if it's holy, does it have any special power that other names don't? Jesus posed something like that when he rhetorically asked: "For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?" Is the name holy, or is it made holy by the holy one to whom it is given?
I suppose one ought to ask what holy means, and therein lies a problem. Holy is not a thing. It is a condition of a thing. It has an abundance of meanings that gravitate around while weaving in and out of an intimate presence of the divine. In so doing, things that are holy take on a character of wholeness and health that exists in a dimension not quite our own. Thus it is not always recognized as wholeness and health according to our ordinary standards. It’s not much of an answer is it? But it should give you a glimpse into the spiritual reality that has always been a part of our lives, and was briefly made incarnate for us to experience in our reality through Jesus Christ.
So, back to the main question: Is your name holy? Or perhaps your name is made holy by the one who made you holy? Are you holy? When in baptism you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever did that make you holy in some way that you weren't before? Did that make your name holy in a way it otherwise wasn’t? If it did, has it ever done you any good? Does being made holy mean becoming a prissy, holier than thou, self righteous prig? Can you be a scruffy, run of the mill, sometimes ill behaved human mutt, who enjoys a good time, and still be holy?
For the sake of argument, let's say that all creatures, being made in the image of God, are inhabited by the holy, but in baptism each takes on a special kind of holiness as prospective agents of God's presence in the world, each according to one’s abilities. In that sense, there is nothing that is not holy, but some holy things have been set aside for particular purposes. Paul, in his letter to the Romans made the case that the potter (God) made all of us out of the same clay, but made some for one use, and some for another use – not a better use as such, but a different use with responsibility for doing odd jobs in God’s name (9.21). My own sense is that we start out our holy lives at an infantile level, sometime literally, and gain in knowledge, understanding and skill by the grace of others who have preceded us, and our willingness to be taught, coached and disciplined under the guidance of those who have proven themselves to be masters. Consider Luke and Yoda, or Harry and Dumbledore. As those mythical stories tell, it can also go nowhere or the wrong way. Success is not guaranteed.
If you are among those who recognize that all creatures have something of the holy in them, that you are holy, your name is holy, and that in baptism you have been set aside for holy work – what then? For starters, it’s time to recognize also that the world we live in is not myth. It’s real. We’re not playing a video game or watching a movie with many sequels. What we say and do has a real impact on the lives of real people in real time. After that, stop worrying about it. Go do what you usually do. You will be led to the place you need to be, or maybe others will be led to you. It doesn’t matter. It does matter that you remain awake and pay attention.