Wednesday, January 16, 2019

First Thing We Do: Kill all the Coastal Elites

Elites?  Who or what are elites?  The alienated right wing is certain elites are responsible for their alienation.  The alienated left wing is sure elites control everything.  A recent newspaper article harped on the role of coastal elites.  A local conservative friend rejoices that the electoral college makes it possible for sparsely populated rural states of real people to elect presidents who protect them from the ravages of a special brand of coastal elites – liberals.  For him, big city, coastal, liberal and elite are synonyms.  Not to be outdone, a Marxist friend is equally certain that coastal elites are all right wing capitalists who have engineered control of the electoral college to elect predatory presidents.  The two have a lot in common.

Mysteriously evasive to pin down, except they’re usually coastal, elites appear to be the primary malevolent force in society, admired only by the bourgeoisie, and nobody knows who or what they are other than detestable, mostly because anyone labeled with a word so hard to spell or pronounce has to be detestable.  But they’re not the deplorables, whom we now know to be good, ordinary, real people who are not elite.

The dictionary defines elites as being small groups holding disproportionate amounts of wealth, privilege, political power, etc., or who are known to be the best in their fields of endeavor (Wikipedia).  I first ran into the term in C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book, The Power Elite, in which political and economic power was said to be located in a few organizations led by “men” who networked to make decisions controlling almost everything else affecting the entire nation.  

The idea of elites just begs for conspiracies, and two of the most popular are the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati.  The Trilateral Commission is real, a non-secret society of mostly academics from many nations who meet from time to time to discuss world affairs.  Founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, it’s been accused of having secret control of government policies world wide.  The Illuminati, on the other hand, was an 18th century secret society of European academics that exists today only in the imagination of those who believe its unknown members are puppeteers pulling the strings of government throughout the world.  Neither live up to the threat of today’s coastal elite.

It appears to me that right wingers, having run out of politically correct scape goats of the usual kind, have settled on elites as an acceptable substitute, especially coastal elites, who by definition are extreme liberals.  Borrowing from conspiracies past and present, they can be blamed for almost anything without having to be specific about who they are, except that Nancy Pelosi is one of them.  Left wingers are left nonplussed, having had their favorite category of scapegoat taken from them.  However, their elites tend to be corporate moguls and Republican so it works out OK.  They each get to have their elites to blame.

Are elites really that bad?  Should we exterminate them?  No.  Elites are a natural phenomena of human society, and they have important roles to play in making human society work –– for weal or for woe.

Every community or organization I’ve worked with has had several sets of elites.  Some hold more wealth and economic power than others.  Some hold more political power, some more social standing, some more intellectual standing, some control more means and content of communication, and some have power that’s less obvious.  For instance, there are thought and opinion leaders no one would call elite.  Having little obvious power in the usual sense, their words, judgement, and networks of friendship have enormous influence over decisions made by others. 

Among these elites, some are known for humility and some for arrogance, some for generosity and some for meanness, some for the common touch and some for being snobs.  Being among the elite is not a measure of one’s moral character.  But membership in an elite group carries obligations.  Elites have real power in their areas of influence, which means that there are moral consequences to how it’s used and the results of using it.  Elites, maybe more than anyone else, need wise counsel reminding them of it.  From where, from whom?  From clergy and teachers.  Of course there are others, but clergy and teachers stand at the forefront.  Among thought and opinion leaders, clergy and teachers are the least recognized and most influential.

People discover themselves to be members of an elite group mostly by dumb luck, the passing of time, or while they were busy doing something else.  They come to it having been equipped, or not, by clergy and teachers with the moral habits and critical thinking skills needed to guide them.   Ambitious politicians, for instance, may aspire to high office, but I think they’re unprepared for how influential high office can be, not in their lives only, but even more in the lives of others.  The worst among them don’t care.  The mediocre are aware but stumble in their incompetence.  The best struggle daily to do what is right for others while not damaging their own standing.  The same might be said for leaders of business and in the church, each in their own way.  

Clergy and teachers, ordinary rank and file clergy and teachers, carry the burden of doing what they can to prepare a new generation for the burden of leadership, counseling the elite whom they can reach, and confronting the abuse of elite status wherever it is found.   Clergy and teachers are obligated to inform persons that they are elite, and that being elite has consequences for which they must be held accountable. 

So, this column has drifted from elites as handy scapegoats to the reality of elites as worthy of recognition and guidance, ending with an observation about the importance of clergy and teachers as essential tools in the formation of elite morality.


Friday, January 11, 2019

Fear Mongering Socialism - An American Pastime

Fear mongering about Communist plots to take over the world was a dominant theme of conservative politics in the decade following the end of WWII, and not without cause.  The Soviet Union had violated almost every term of post war agreements between East and West;  Stalin’s cruelty was fully revealed; an “iron curtain” fell into place; newly independent nations were being forced to choose between one or the other, and there really was an American Communist Party.  It didn’t help that Communist parties were actively engaged as powerful players in Italy, Greece, France and other Western countries.

But fear mongering, as always, got out of hand.  Between Representative Martin Dies (D, TX) who headed the House Un-American Activities Committee, and senator Joe McCarthy (R, WI), commies, socialists and anyone pink were looked for under every rock, everyone was a suspect, reputations and lives were destroyed, nothing helpful was achieved, and Congress used tactics to stifle personal freedom that echoed Stalin himself.

The nation was littered with pamphlets warning about the dangers of creeping socialism.  They were all over the place – in offices and factories, schools and churches, living rooms and kitchen tables.  Socialism was never well defined, but whatever it was there were two things to know about it.  First, the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of HST, and all things progressive were instruments of creeping socialism that would bring ruin to America.  Second, the Soviet Union knew how to take advantage of them to hasten the take over of the world.  Communists were behind it all.  Less clearly voiced was a warning that (uppity, naive) blacks agitating for equal rights were being taken advantage of by socialist provocateurs.

It was all a long time ago, so why rehearse it here?  It’s because people now in their 60s and 70s were heavily influenced by it, retaining a deep, fearful suspicion of anything labeled socialist, vaguely understood as anything liberal or progressive.  Moreover, they share their fearful suspicions wherever they can in ways that help strengthen extremists tea party libertarianism.  They’re good at it.  It works.  

A recent letter to the editor is a case in point.  The writer believes progressives are socialists who, given the chance,  will lead the nation to bankruptcy.  He would disagree that socialism is vaguely understood.  For him it means one thing: “…dependency on the government to provide all our needs.”  Isn’t that clear enough?  It would be pointless to answer with an argument based on the history and philosophies of the many forms of self described socialist movements that value private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  It would be gobbledygook double talk to him, obviously a cover up for what he already knows to be true. 

It would be possible, but not easy, to argue for a progressive approach to issues, problems, and needs grounded on how they would enhance economic opportunity, restore pathways to the American Dream, and remove unnecessary dangers to life and limb.  The argument would have to be framed in language appealing to the value of private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  But it would have to overcome big obstacles.  

That the federal government is likely the best tool to provide resources and make things happen, is repugnant to them.  Never mind that everything making prosperity possible in rural America depends on federal policies and investment.  Never mind that urban America pays for it.  It’s a deeply rooted shibboleth that the government is trying to regulate everything in one’s life.  It’s a given, an article of faith.  It doesn’t have to be proved, but if you want proof just look at the people who want to regulate guns.

That the full measure of opportunities these values represent would be open to every race and ethnicity no matter what, and that assistance would be given to those who have previously been discriminated against, makes some conservatives very nervous.  Bizarre as it may be, it looks to them like others are getting a better shot at the good things in life than they are.  Iowa representative King may be too blunt, but not altogether wrong from their point of view.  After all, the white middle class defined what it is to be American, why should that not continue to be the standard for all others to meet?

That some people who don’t or won’t work as hard as they do will get something for nothing is appalling.  If they won’t work, make them.  That hard working folks might be forced to pay taxes for something they don’t want or need is wrong, and what they don’t want or need is welfare going to the undeserving. 

Obstacles such as these are not impenetrable Great Big Beautiful Walls.  Well framed arguments demonstrating how conservative values can be enhanced through progressive policies will not convince the hard core right wing, but they will deprive them of their best ammunition.  In like manner, they will reduce the likelihood that the whackier ideas of far left wing enthusiasts will sway voters to stay home or vote conservative. 

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see a legislative agenda that aggressively moves us toward universal health care, reinvests in transportation and communication infrastructure, reforms immigration to open broad pathways for new arrivals, protects the environment, and makes taxes more progressive at the high end.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Discouraging Letters to Editors

The letters to the editor page of our local paper provide an abundance of fodder for these columns, but sometimes I find them overly discouraging.  For instance, we have two regulars who are certain global warming is a hoax contrived by out of control liberals.  Or, if it is warming, humans have nothing to do with it.  Or climate change may be happening but CO2 has nothing to do with it.  As one wrote in today’s paper, “if someone believes the liberal nonsense…please support it with scientific facts.”  What he means is that the mountain of scientific study that has convinced nearly all climate scientists is nothing more than conjecture about which there is no proof.  

Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the regularity of these two on the editorial pages is discouraging because they appeal to the dominant conservative political ethos of the region that prides itself in being suspicious of the educated elite, anything that smacks of government regulation, and is certain the mainstream media is misleading them.  

Right behind the climate deniers are a couple of others who’ve taken up the cause of The Wall.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning for TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps, Section 8 Housing, SSI, and more free stuff.”  That was the opening salvo from one of them.  Coming across the southern border he sees only drugs, human traffickers, and assorted criminals.  They’re “storming” the borders.  He cites a statistic: “63% of noncitizen households access welfare programs, compared to 35% of native households.”  

Those are figures provided by the Center for Immigration Studies based on 2016 data.  The Center, known as CIS, advertises itself as anti immigration, which should be a clue that their reports may be biased.  With joyful abandon, the numbers have since been repeated ad nauseam under many banners by every anti immigration website there is.  A more critical examination of the data, and of their report, from other sources, for instance the internet’s StackExchange, reveals how distorted the CIS report is. But more critical examinations of the data don’t count because they’re the product of intellectual elites who look down on ordinary hard working people.  Yet there is a germ of truth, and germs are all one needs to get an “Aha, I told you so”: immigrant persons (legal) have about the same rate of using programs such as SNAP, CHIP, and other family oriented benefits as do so called native persons.  Illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal aid, but may receive certain state or local benefits in the way of basic humanitarian assistance. 

Aside from citing misleading studies, this morning’s writer assumed that “liberals” want open borders.  I have no idea what that means, but hear it often.  Moreover, he rested his case on the notion that God created nations and borders because it says so in Acts 17.  It’s where Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to explain who the unknown God is and why they should listen to him talk about Jesus.  For the writer, Trump’s Big Beautiful Wall is the very thing meant when Paul talked metaphorically about nations and borders established by God.  Never mind that Paul was speaking in an age when nations were peoples, not states, and borders were vaguely marked, seldom guarded, and the world was free to wander at will.

Letters such as these are feats of legerdemain no less impressive than Lou Costello’s mathematical proof that 7x13=28.  Look it up.  It’s on YouTube.  When Costello is done, it’s hard to believe he didn’t prove it, and the same goes for my letter writers.   

I suppose one could argue that getting discouraged by a couple of small city letter writers makes little sense, except that regulars such as they are present in every city and town, making sure their views are made as persuasively public as they can, and they’re backed by well financed propaganda outfits masquerading as genuine think tanks.  Are they something new?  Did Trump’s election give birth to them?  No.  They’ve always been there, but they now have more freedom to act out in public with little fear of repercussion.  

Popular movements skeptical and fearful of what science reveals have been around since the time of Pythagoras.  Americans have seen virulent outbreaks in the years following Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species”, and they have not yet abated.  Various forms of xenophobic nativism have an equally long pedigree.  Remember the Know Nothings of the mid 19th century?  Violently opposed to the immigration of Irish and southern Europeans, they blended right in with other racists, and found common ground with those suspicious of science. 

Both are alive and well in the Trumpian era.  Forced into the closet following WWII, they been let out, led by their favorite president.  The curious thing is they talk like libertarians opposed to government interference in their lives, but think and act like fascists favoring authoritarian rule that will purify the nation, removing contagion of others not like themselves.  And that I find very discouraging.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On the 10th Day of Christmas: Walls, Immigration & Leaping Lords

On the 10th day of Christmas Ten Lords are Leaping, which seems an appropriate metaphor for the first day of the new Congress with its change in House leadership.  

The government is shut down, the result of a bullying power play by a childish president who wants his Wall no matter how much damage his ploy causes for the nation.  This three year old’s temper tantrum has been confronted by Democratic opposition determined not to give in to such behavior.  Reasonable Republicans, if there are any, stand on the sidelines going Tsk-Tsk, but offering no help.  We’ve all seen something like this played out in the candy aisle of the local grocery store, where there is always someone who shares their wisdom about the right way to handle it. 

Well, here I am.  Think of me as the fourth wise man heading to Bethlehem but distracted by the hubbub in the candy aisle, which is why only three made it.

Being seduced by the tantrum is to ignore legitimate issues.  Southern border security needs attention.  But there is no invasion of bad hombres.  Drugs and human trafficking have many ways to avoid fences and walls.  Illegal immigration is on a downward trajectory, and illegal immigrants are largely the product of unworkable laws and regulations.  (Source: Pew Research Center, June 2018). 

Members of Congress have long howled about the broken immigration system.  Except for the Freedom Caucus and friends, they know perfectly well what needs to be done, but have preferred rhetorical posturing over serious legislative work.  We need a relatively simple immigration system that allows quick and easy admission to the United States under terms and conditions anyone can understand and follow.  Xenophobes of one kind or another will try to mess it up, claiming to want only highly skilled or well educated immigrants, and refugees under circumstance almost impossible to meet.  It’s thinly veiled racism, as has been the case for nearly all past and present immigration laws.  Not giving them the headlines would be a good idea, but pressure to gin up controversy for the sake of reader and viewership is likely to prevail. 

Just a reminder that immigration laws in the modern sense began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not finally repealed until 1943. All those legal immigrants through Ellis Island so many are proud to claim?  They were permitted under another 1882 law.  Most immigrants entered before that by getting off the ship and walking down the street, some freely, some as slaves.  Under the new law all were admitted, if not welcome, as long as they weren’t “lunatics” or carrying an infectious disease.  Literacy was added in 1917.  It required new arrivals to read a sentence or two in their own language.  It also added restrictions on immigration from other parts of Asia.  More ethnic quotas came in 1921 and were expanded in 1924.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 revised the ethnic quota system, which always gave preference to northern Europeans, even when it pretended not to.  It got replaced in 1965 by legislation giving quotas to needed skills and family reunification rather than ethnicity.  Then things got complicated.  

All these legislative changes were racially motivated, encouraged by fears that undesirables would take jobs from real Americans while undermining the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that dominated American politics, established social standards others were expected to emulate, and dictated what it meant to be American.

Immigration is one thing.  Border security is another, even though the current argument tangles them into a snarled wad.  Southern border security has its own special needs, and some form of barrier more extensive than what we already have may be needed in some places.  So be it.  Fund border security to meet performance standards, and leave the means to do it to competent experts with on the ground experience.  Fund it not to satisfy racially motivated fear mongering about imaginary invasions of bad people, but about the need to secure a very porous border that yet demands easy, controlled access to accommodate huge flows of traffic in both directions. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

Jesus, Time, and Meaning: A New Year’s Eve Reflection

[Note: my editor is getting ready for a night out and unavailable.  I, being fully confident of having proofed and edited carefully, dare to publish on my own.]

It’s New Year’s Eve 2018.  Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Name in memory of the baby’s circumcision and proclamation of his divinely given name, Jesus.  For Luke, things are to be done decently and in order so there can be no mistake about who he is.  Maybe we need to be conscious of starting the new year off more in the name of Jesus than in the name of Alka-Seltzer.  

In any case, New Year’s Eve is a strange event.  It’s as if something old has been left behind, the door shut on last year, as we enter a new place and time.  In truth, tomorrow will be not unlike today, and what it brings will come in large part from the accumulated events of many yesterdays.  Once upon a time, time was thought to be circular, what goes around comes around, a bit wobbly perhaps, but essentially no different than what it was the last time round, and not going anywhere new.  

So here is my New Year’s reflection on the nature of Jesus, time and meaning.  My coffee buddy Tom, who teaches philosophy, might shake his head at me covering old sod, and not well, but it’s just a reflection, nothing more.

Jesus changed time, at least for Christians and Western civilization.  Whatever time was before Jesus, his presence dramatically changed its direction and meaning.  Time after Jesus was going somewhere.  It had a purpose, it was on a journey.  Where it had been was left behind as it went on to where it was going.  But did it become linear?  Physics says time is multidimensional, and I suppose it would be if we were quarks or photons, but we’re not, we’re humans living in history.  We record our history in linear fashion, year by year, marking each year as if it were a new beginning when we know very well it’s not.  Yet marking them serves to remind us that the cycles of the years have a direction, and we can do something to guide them for the better, at least a little, based on understanding where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go.

Time for us is history, and history is cyclical, but more like a moving spiral, a three dimensional curve.  Each season returns at its appointed time, but never in quite the same way or with the same conditions as it had before, or will again.  Empires rise, fall, and rise again, but never the same way twice.  Economic cycles are unavoidable, their conditions recorded and studied to predict what will come, yet their next iteration is never what we expect.  Generations are born and die, but each transmits what it has received, adds to it and passes it on as an eternal inheritance to those who follow.  All the yesterdays are not dead and gone.  They are the stuff of which today is made, and the preparation for what will come tomorrow. 

Moments don’t pass into extinction, they are woven into the fabric of who we are, our memories restore them to today’s reality – for good or for ill.  The possibilities of tomorrow can be anticipated with a comfortable degree of probability, goals can be set for something new, and so the work of today already lives into the future.  It’s why we can anticipate and plan for what is to come, yet as with all cycles there will be a today or tomorrow that changes everything for all time.  Fortunate or tragic, it will come.

Jesus did that.  The curious thing, at least for Christians, is he continues to do it.  He is not a person who lived several thousand years ago and whom we reverently remember. He lives now and is as present now as he was then.  Moreover, he is the manifestation of the essence of God that has never not lived.  Jesus transcends time.  When, in this earthly presence, he bent time in a new direction, giving it purpose, he invited us to walk in that new direction toward an end that has meaning beyond the limits of time as we experience it in our short lives.  Discovering that meaning is the purpose of our worship.  Living into it is the work of our daily lives.   

Friday, December 28, 2018

Quiting Politics for Christ’s Sake?

A friend, not a close one, but a friend nevertheless, is the founder and pastor of his own nondenominational church with a growing congregation.  He is, as one might expect, a conservative evangelical who is suspicious of the theology and politics of people like me. 

Not long ago he cited a passage from “The Screwtape Letters” in which Screwtape advised Wormwood to encourage his “patients” to obsess about politics and the problems of society because it would keep them from focussing on Jesus and their own moral failings.  As a priest and political commentator, I have some misgivings about that, no matter how much I admire C.S. Lewis, and this book in particular.  

They are misgivings in two parts.  One is entirely pragmatic, having to do with observations about the ebb and flow of religious engagement in politics.  The other is more theological, based on the political implications of following Jesus, at least as I understand it.

American religious leaders have always had their political say and sway.  How could it be otherwise for a country founded in large part by religious colonization?  Think of the religious righteousness of Adams fulminating against the godlessness of Jefferson, and how that affected the way the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written.  Or consider the religious foundations of the anti-slavery movement that were, oddly enough, opposed by arguments justifying slavery on biblical grounds.

In our time, the religious right, starting with the Moral Majority of the Reagan years, has been overtly Republican, and worked hard to oust moderates from GOP leadership.  The old Moral Majority is no more, but its progeny have endured and succeeded in what they set out to do.  Advertised as doing God’s work to restore traditional American family values, they claimed moral superiority over dying mainline churches and their anything goes ways.  

Perhaps to their surprise, the mainline churches did not die.  Their ways were never anything goes.  They were always about following Jesus.  And they redoubled their commitment to follow Jesus by opening more doors to more people from more conditions in life.  It was not without prayerful, sometimes painful struggle, nor was it without recognition of human failure within their institutions.  In the meantime, the religious right discovered the infection of unrighteousness in their own ranks.  The burden of racism, sexism, and internal corruption has led some conservative traditions to reexamine their souls, and face their own declining membership.  

The sad fallout for us all has been the often reported growth of so called ‘nones’, and parallel growth of disrespect for clergy and Christianity in general.  One way out is for some, such as my friend, to return to an earlier practice of removing church from the corrupting realm of politics in order to save the faithful.  Being more skeptical, I think it’s a well thought out tactic to quit the game while winning is waning.  It’s hard to be morally righteous when your own movement has helped generate a Trumpian quagmire of corrupt autocracy.  Trying to segregate church from politics is a rear guard tactic to avoid clergy accountability, while giving an encouraging wink and nod to church members to stay the political course, knowing the clergy won’t hold them accountable either.  

God has quite a lot to say about politics in both the Hebrew scriptures and gospel records.  Prophets were called to challenge idolatrous worship and to illuminate the political sins of the people.  Right worship, the prophets warned, required right politics of justice and equity, not only in personal life, but even more in the life of the community and its government.  Jesus defined ways of living with one another that can’t be met unless they’re extended to the community and its leaders.  

You can’t thirst for righteousness without thirsting for it on behalf of everyone.  You can’t be merciful without seeking mercy as a standard for the community.  You can’t be a peacemaker without working for peace between enemies.  You can’t be the light of the world in a shining city on the hill without building the city and all that’s within it.  You can’t let your light shine before others so they see your good works and give glory to God without those good works making society better than it was.  You can’t live into any of Christ’s ways as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount without engaging in the political process that governs the whole community.  

There is nothing in scripture demanding that one be Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.  But there is much in scripture that reveals God’s expectations for what a just society is to be.  Doing what one can to influence public policy decisions to meet those expectations is what politics is all about, at least for Christians.  The temptation we face is our desire to tell people what to believe and how to behave in properly righteous ways, enforcing them through the coercive power of government.  It never works.  Never.  The harder, but more Christ like way, is to do what we can to create conditions under which others, especially the least of others, are able to succeed and prosper as best they can in a society as just and free as we are able to make it.  Some of those conditions are very libertarian in character.  Some are very socialist.  Some are regulatory in favor of health, education, safety, and freedom.  Some are   more laissez-faire, trusting in a free market to do good as well as profit.

It gets messy.  Not everyone involved in making public policy has noble intentions, but Christians are not excused from entering into the fray in order to stay ritually clean.  Jesus compels them to enter bearing the light of Christ, fearlessly illuminating the issues under debate.  Can we all be of one mind?  Paul hoped so, but it didn’t happen in his time, nor has it ever.  That also is no excuse.  Prayerful deliberation will eventually come to a place more godly just than it used to be.  We muddle through.  That’s what we are – muddlers. So, Onward Christian Muddlers.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Christmas Reflection 2018

When I was a boy, the weeks before Christmas were filled with giddy anticipation centered on the decorated tree, stockings hung by the fireplace, and carols sung around the piano with mom, dad and my sisters.  Somewhere in my teens Christmas eve at church became the principal focal point, and with it an expectation of a greater time of peace and goodwill on earth, although it seemed to me we already had good portion of it.  It didn’t occur to me until years later that mom and dad had lived through the depression in rural dust bowl Kansas, and WWII when all the world was aflame.  Just when it seemed that peace and goodwill might have finally arrived, Korea broke out and threats of nuclear annihilation were real.  Amidst it all, they led us in carols, worship, and thanksgiving for the peace and goodwill that surrounded our home life.

To me, America was an island of peace and goodwill in a world that was otherwise neither peaceful nor of goodwill.  Not true of course, unless you were among the fortunate and privileged, I being one of them.  For many Americans, television kept up the illusion through decades of entertainment featuring the good life, good times, good friends, and happy days.  Even the Great Recession couldn’t rattle the cage, but it’s rattled now.  The world hasn’t changed, and maybe America hasn’t either, but whatever patina of peace and goodwill it had has worn thin.  What happened?

We’ve become aware and weary that our engagement in decades of military hostilities offers no victory, no end, and increasingly no purpose.  We can’t avoid knowing about the unspeakable barbarity it has brought upon millions of others.  The nation’s government lurches from one continuing resolution to another like a broken down old truck.  The presidency is held by the corrupt head of a corrupt family organization.  He knows little about and cares less for anything that isn’t about him.  In the harsh light cast about him, the systemic injustices that have haunted us for centuries are now more fully and painfully revealed.  Our reputation for world leadership lies in ridiculed tatters.  A significant portion of the population we had hidden away feels liberated to engage in racial and ethnic discrimination without fear of consequences.  A slide toward fascism seems possible, even probable.

Where is Christmas in all of this?  Certainly not in Hallmark movies.

If we strip away the sentimentality of Christmas, it’s right where it should be.  It came in just such a time as this.  It came when things looked as if they couldn’t get any darker.  It came in the least expected way: gritty, humble, vulnerable, weak, powerless, a baby lying in a borrowed pile of hay.  The Word of God made flesh was made known to only a few shepherds, yet it was a light that the darkness could not extinguish.  Amidst the pomp of Rome’s greatest days, in a land under the thumb of Roman occupation, with a cruel puppet king, Jesus, prince of peace, entered unobserved and unwelcome.  The source of all life came to give us new life in a dangerously improbable way.  

It took many years for me to realize that mom and dad had known it all along.  We could gather around the piano singing songs of peace and goodwill because they had been to the manger in the darkest of times, and knew that lying there was the source of redemption from darkness.  Their’s wasn’t a complicated faith.  I’ve often called it mid American generic Christianity.  But they had experienced the darkness.  With the shepherds, they had seen the stable light burning, had heard the angels sing, and let it guide their way into the future.

We, no less than they, can do the same.  We live in neither the best of all possible worlds, nor the worst, but it is a world desperate for redemption, and we know that its redeemer lives, not as a mythical far away god, nor gallant knight of yore, but as Jesus Christ, whom in human language we say is God’s only and eternal son.  He was born to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, reconciling us to God.  In dark and dangerous times we need someone to shine the light and lead the way.  Jesus is the way, the light, and the source of life.  Finding our way to the manger is a good place to start.  No Hallmark movie sappiness here, it’s the real thing, and we need it.