Monday, October 22, 2018
For all who get Country Parson by email. Please go to the website for a corrected version of Scary Socialism. As a reminder, it’s at stevenwoolley.com
Saturday, October 20, 2018
How scary is socialism? From comments on my Facebook and Twitter posts, it’s exceedingly scary. Democrats are all socialists, they say, and socialists want to strip away individual rights, nationalize industries, control all aspects of personal life, and tax people into submission as has been done in places like Cuba and Venezuela. Socialist are all Marxist, which leads to Leninism, which leads to Stalinism, and who wants that? Not only that, but Democrats, they say, secretly believe in a one world government, of which the United Nations is the camel’s nose under the tent. Who are these people who say such things? They claim to be conservatives, but are very unlike the conservatives of previous decades who were willing and able to live in creative tension with others in the public debate. Populism is a misnomer. Might as well call them tea party libertarians for lack of anything better. But I digress. Back to socialism as a convenient bogey man.
The story of socialism is well documented, with little agreement among its historians and theorists about what it is, other than concern for the well being of ordinary people, and belief that governments should be organized to have a role in seeing to it. Some are earnest capitalists, some libertarian, some old time Marxists, some more liberal, and some more conservative. If there is anything that unifies their thinking, it’s steadfast opposition to plutocracies, oligarchies, and the fascist direction they tend to go in.
American interest in socialism as an element of our democratic processes and capitalistic economy developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Evolutionary theory, developments in physics, progressive political ideas, they all contributed to various elements of socialism as it was then understood. Government was the necessary tool for assuring the safety of food and drugs, establishing and defending the rights of children, workers and their unions, and for controlling robber baron oligarchies. Many, both liberal and conservative, were concerned about an economy dependent on major corporations organized under the exclusive control of and financially benefitting a very few. Business, they believed, existed not for profit only, but also for the public good, and government was needed to make it happen.
Christian Socialism, which flourished at the same time, focused on the expectation that following in the way of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’s related teachings, could be expressed through government programs that would bring the kingdom of God a bit closer. The Great War, WWI, stripped away the illusion that godly perfection was near at hand, but the connection had been made in mainline denominations that following Jesus meant to be politically engaged, doing what one could to influence public policy in a more Christlike direction.
Yes, romantic interest in Russian communism could also be found on the fringes of socialist thinking, but was never a part of the mainstream. Yet it is that kind of dictator socialism that has captured the mind and fears of conservatives who are unwilling to comprehend it in any other way.
Against the tide of socialist thinking was an equally strong belief that American self reliant individualism was incompatible with it, and stood in the breach defending individual rights, especially the right of property. It feared that confiscatory socialist policies would replace self reliance with reliance on the government, eroding the American values of hard work and personal ambition.
Adherents of the myth of self reliant individualism have made it the lynchpin through which all political decisions must be channeled. It’s helped pave the way for tea party type movements, and has given uncritical encouragement to right wing libertarians who increasingly drift toward fascism.
They’ve become adept at picking low hanging fruit from the worst of socialism (Russia, Cuba, etc.), selling it as the secret produce of Democrats and anything liberal or progressive. “Oh, so you’re a liberal; that means you’re a socialist, and that means you want government to own and run everything, including out lives.” Isn’t that the way it goes?
At least in part, it’s a problem of vocabulary. Liberals, or progressives if you prefer, use a different vocabulary. The American form of republican democratic government isn’t the enemy, not the problem, not something other than or foreign to the American ideal. Like local and state governments, the federal government is a vehicle for bringing the American ideal into reality. It’s government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” As the people’s agency, elected by the people and accountable to them, it has a moral responsibility to enact policies that promote the general welfare without prejudice. Because individuals cannot prosper except through community, it’s government’s duty to see that the community is capable of promoting prosperity, not for some but for all. When engaged in public debate about how government can best be used to address crucial issues, socialism isn’t a word likely to come up, at least not by liberals. Oddly enough, they’re more interested in creating conditions in which business, large and small, are more likely to prosper as employees and customers prosper.
Working on important issues requires asking whether government is the right tool to use, does it have the resources, can it be effective, and how could progress be measured? Issues that flow across governmental borders may be addressed best at the federal level, in cooperation with local and state governments. Matters deemed essential to national well being need national solutions. Volunteerism, NGO programs, and individual charity can be powerful tools for good, but, as the old saying goes, “You can’t keep just your part of the pool clean.” It’s the whole pool or nothing. To keep the whole pool clean requires public policy using public resources. Keeping the whole pool clean may restrict certain kinds of individual and corporate behavior, while requiring others. For individuals to prosper in their ambitious hard work, well financed programs may be needed for public health, education, and welfare. For trade and commerce to prosper, well financed programs may be needed for infrastructure of all kinds. For the environment to sustain life in its many forms, well financed programs may be needed to regulate and manage the way the environment is used.
Conservatives are, for the most part, willing to spend without limit on national defense, but are skeptical about the need for other forms of federal government involvement in the lives of people. Liberals are, for the most part, skeptical about the need for massive spending on national security, but willing to spend what is needed for the public good. Conservatives are reluctant to give up individual rights to government control. Liberals are reluctant to allow individual rights to erode the well being of others. Conservatives tend to attract anti taxers. Liberals tend to view taxes as investments in the well being of the community. The public debate, at its best, seeks to find places where the two can agree. The right wing fright fest about the venial evil of socialism works against it. They may generate a lot of social media attention, but it’s, what’s the phrase, oh yes, Fake News, and useless in guiding the nation toward better public policy.
Monday, October 15, 2018
I can’t say I know a single Puritan, but strains of puritanism linger in strange places. The thought came to mind when reading in the Psalms recently. There are numerous passages assuring the reader that “The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) One might wonder how thoughts of puritanism worked their way into a passage like that, so I’ll explain.
Important to Puritan thinking was the idea of the reprobate, one predestined for eternal damnation. In their calvinistic way of understanding God’s grace, some were predestined for salvation, and many were predestined for damnation. While one could never be sure who was who, it was obvious that certain lifestyles indicated damnation. The known reprobates were lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, drank too much, and didn’t adhere to the social standards of the community. There were also indicators of salvation. The Lord showered the righteous, whom he loved, with the good things of life. The way of the wicked was frustrated, and it showed in how they lived their misbegotten lives.
It’s that part that lingers on. The very conservative people I know are concerned about the moral decay of America, which they understand to include liberalism (whatever that is) and homosexuality. They’re loathe to admit it also includes greater anxiety about the rise of non-white people displacing their majority status, or that a black president was a step too far, but it’s there in the subtext of their conversations. They believe their own way of life (and thinking) exhibits the kind of righteousness God prefers and has blessed.
They’re not without genuine compassion for those in need. Of course the unfortunate need to be helped, one at a time, as they deserve, through local resources, mostly charitable, as needed to get them back on their feet. But the reprobates, the lazy shiftless ones, are not deserving until they show willingness to change their ways. Their misfortune is their own fault, and that’s the way it is – bless their souls.
Liberals pouring tax payer dollars down the rat hole trying to make life better for them is more than wasteful. It’s misuse of money forcibly taken from those who’ve earned it to make life easy for those who aren’t willing to earn it for themselves. If liberals had their way, government would run everything, no one would have any rights, everyone would be entitled, and the worst of European socialism would replace American democracy. Opening the flood gates of immigration, liberals would cause the nation to be overrun by the dregs of society from violent countries, reprobates all, sinking the country into the depths of damnation.
Who stands in the way of such a disaster? Trump does.
What makes Trump not simply tolerable, but worthy of support? He understands and agrees with them that to restore national morality, the government must stop mollycoddling reprobates, and enact policies that reward those who are willing to work hard to help themselves. After all, if the Lord helps those who help them selves, shouldn’t the government should do likewise? Moreover, he understands that shutting down the tide of immigration across the southern border is needed to keep the nation a place of safety and prosperity for the hard working people God has destined to be blessed.
Not so many years ago fundamentalist Christians asserted that world was a battleground between good and evil, the outcome of which was uncertain. Christians were called to be prayer warriors standing in the breach to take up the fight against the Devil’s forces. The overtly religious fervor of that call faded, but its secular version has lived on and has political staying power.
That Trump’s own lifestyle is a blazing neon sign of sure and certain reprobation is offset by his wealth, and public adoration of the (hard) working class on whose behalf, he, and only he, will make America Great Again. Whatever his eternal destiny, God has made him the agent of their desires for the present, and that’s good enough for them.
It’s a remnant of puritanism with a faustian twist.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
The stock market has taken a five meter dive. It’s been jumping off the low board for a while, but this was a big one. Because it happened on Wednesday, there will probably be a modest rebound by Friday as investment managers rebalance their portfolios. But what’s up?
Is it a reaction to the Fed raising interest rates, as Trump has claimed? Probably not. They’ve been in the works for over a year and are highly predictable. More likely the market is showing deep concern over the disruptions caused by the good and easy to win tariff battles that aren’t working quite the way Trump expected. It’s also possible that the market is expressing some discomfort with the amorality of the administration that has become manifest in blatant immorality. You can add a few members of congress to that.
In an odd way, the market claims amorality for itself, but expects a degree of morality from political leaders who create the environment in which it can make some money. While many investors have benefitted from the recent tax act, the market is aware that it has ballooned the deficit and forced the debt into dangerous territory. It makes the market nervous.
Corporate earnings may be up, but the market understands how much is due to increased sales and improvements in productivity, and how much has been generated by stock buy backs and accounting tricks that jack up stock value. Savvy investors have made money but know it’s all smoke and mirrors that can’t last. Time to bail, at least for a little while.
The market knows that vaunted reductions in regulations haven’t done anything to improve government’s commitment to customer service or make it more efficient. Add that to the list of causes. It sounds schizophrenic, but that’s the way the market works. There’s nothing invisible about the invisible hand of the market. It’s out there probing everything from global warming to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin as it tries to assess how to make money.
Speaking of things global, global economic growth is projected to be a tad lower than previously expected. International trade relationships are strained. China is not a weak as Trump thinks. Russia is not as strong as Trump thinks. Saudi Arabia is not as friendly as Trump thinks. Other nations are carefully romancing each other to see how they can circumvent Trumpian intentions without putting themselves at greater economic risk. They’ve always known he’s a buffoon, but now they understand he’s a dangerous buffoon.
On top of it, the Brexit debacle illustrates the fantasy of thinking that old time nationalism can restore a golden age that never existed. None of it makes for a happy market. The market is not nationalistic. It takes a global view. When the world’s largest economy begins acting like a moderate sized 19th century economy using a 17th century economic theory to restore an imaginary mid 20th century industrial base, the market will milk it for whatever it can get, and then take a hike.
Is that happening now? Maybe. I don’t know. Stand by. We shall see.
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
What follows came up this morning in the regular Tuesday morning gathering of our ecumenical lectionary study group. A Portion of Amos is among the alternative readings for October 14, and it reminded me of work I did some years ago when teaching an adult class on the book of Amos. They objected that the mean, vengeful God of the Old Testament was not to their liking. They much preferred the loving, lenient God of the New Testament. Maybe, I suggested, it would be a good idea to pay attention to the things that ticked God off. We might learn something from them.
Back home, I culled from Amos every statement I could find about what really irritated God, and rewrote each as it might have been said in contemporary English. If this is what makes God so angry, perhaps the reciprocal would be what God desires. From that exercise arose my take on God’s politics as made known to us through the pen of Amos thousands of years ago. It goes like this:
What makes God angry is the destruction of an enemy’s food supply
- Therefore, even for enemies don’t use the food of the people as a weapon.
Exiling whole communities makes God angry
- Therefore, no ethnic cleansing
Betrayal of treaties and international covenants of friendship
- Therefore, maintain integrity in international dealings
Fostering civil violence
- Foster civil harmony
- Establish conditions for security of person and property
Disrespect for legitimate civil authority
- Respect legitimate civil authority
Selling or manipulating the working poor into bondage of debt
- Economic policies and practices that are fair to all
Cheating the poor out of the necessities for life
- Fair, honest dealings in all areas of trade, commerce, and personal relations
- Interest that’s not confiscatory
Injustice for the poor
- Equal justice for all
Oppression of the poor
- Policies and practices that remove barriers to their success in life
- Awed respect for God’s holy places
- Holy respect for all acts of intimacy
Commanding the prophets about what to say
- Allow God’s servants to speak freely as God inspires them
The idle rich whose behavior shows contempt for the poor
- Honor the dignity of every human being
Disrespect for the poor
- Respect for all
Elaborate but meaningless religious ceremonies and practices
- Honest, intentional worship of God in heart, soul and mind
Presumption of God’s grace for one’s self while oppressing others
- Humility in God’s presence while eliminating conditions that oppress others
Corrupt courts and judges
- Honest courts and judges
Unfair taxation of the poor
- Fair taxation for all
Excessive gap between rich and poor
- Policies encouraging economic well being for all
Arrogant pride in nation or family
- Humble respect for the dignity of all
Lack of compassion for the suffering of others
- Generosity of compassion
No doubt you’ve noticed duplications. Perhaps they’re worthy of double attention. You might want to go through Amos yourself. If so you’ll probably come up with a slightly different list, applying it to our time and place in your own way. In any case, it’s clear that what makes God so upset is our behavior as persons, as religious leaders, and as political leaders that departs from what God has said will lead to a more abundant, fulfilling life. It’s not simply that we make a mockery of it, we replace it with violence and oppression while daring to claim righteousness before God. It really gets his goat.
Sunday, October 7, 2018
Some of us are reading the prophet Hosea as we say the office of morning prayer. Writing near the end of the northern kingdom of Israel before its obliteration by the Assyrians, he compared Israel to an unfaithful wife who had violated God’s trust. The natural consequences of their behavior would doom their existence as a nation, yet God’s love for the people would persevere with the promise of new life for them.
How might Hosea’s words inform our own time and nation? We’ve enjoyed a century of relatively stable good times. Rich, powerful, free, the leader of Western nations, respected by allies, feared by foes, who would dare to get in our way? With pride of country leading the way, significant elements of the Christian Church have adopted a patriotic theology conflating Christianity with American nationalism subsuming Christ under the Stars and Stripes. Patriotic Christian nationalism is, to my mind, an apostasy akin to the golden calves and assorted baalim woven into ancient Israel’s worship of the Lord. Yet those who adhere to it are adamant about it as the true Christianity to which the nation must cling if it is to retain it’s place in the world’s hierarchy. It comes up frequently on Facebook in the form of memes pleading for the return of prayer in schools, displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, photos of flag and cross, etc. Preachers such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. proclaim it to cheering crowds, as did the priests of Israel before approving kings and blinded congregations.
Whatever else the United States is, it is not a nation God has called into being as the new promised land. For that matter, neither was the northern kingdom of Israel. It was the product of a civil war that had left the promised land far behind. God promised through Hosea not the restoration of a nation, but the salvation of a people. As Christians we are witnesses to delivery of that promise through Christ Jesus in whom all peoples everywhere are invited to become a new creation, not as a nation but as a people of God present in every nation. It’s not an easy idea to grasp given nearly two thousand years of Western Christendom during which Church and state were one, in a chaotically balkanized often violent way.
As has been true in other ways, we Christians may need to learn from our elders, the Jews of the diaspora. For most of European history, they were always aliens wherever they lived. They could become wealthy, powerful and achieve high office, but they could never be other than alien. And being alien, they were vulnerable to the ebb and flow of political power, economic conditions, and the prejudices unleashed through them.
Christians, in like manner, are called to be faithful people of God no matter where they live. The United States is not called by God to be a Christian nation. Christians in America are called by God to be followers of Jesus first, and citizens second. As citizens, they are called by God to work, as they are able, for public policies that encourage Christlike justice and equity, and to exhibit behavior illustrating it, as they are able. It’s likely their work and ways will not always be appreciated, sometimes reviled, and always suspected. Persons claiming to be Christian will present corrupted versions of it that suit other ends and purposes. Many will follow them. Don’t be among them. Pay attention to Hosea. Pay attention to his contemporary Amos. Most of all, pay attention to Jesus, and follow where he has led.
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
My friend Ralph, who is more conservative than I, says when I post something political on Facebook, “Father, I’m surprised you would post something so partisan,” which I take to mean he believes clergy should be sufficiently dignified to abstain from partisan politics, or at least anything showing partisanship deemed too liberal.
It brings up some questions. What is partisanship? Why should clergy abstain from it? In what way are his views more conservative than mine?
Partisanship has to do with being a supporter or follower of a cause, person, or party. One way or another we’re all partisans. There is no such thing as being nonpartisan, unless ignorant complacency is nonpartisan. It’s possible to engage persons, issues, and parties while suspending bias to the extent possible. It’s what we expect, for instance, of judges, but that doesn’t make it nonpartisan. It’s simply the disciplined suspension of partisanship for a purpose. There are nonpartisan elections in which candidates are not identified by party. It doesn’t mean candidates don’t support a party, but that party identification is unimportant to the office. It’s sometimes said that important issues should be decided in a nonpartisan way. It expresses a hopeful expectation for negotiations in good faith. Good faith negotiations engage partisans in respectful conversation with the intention to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement. Partisanship is always near at hand, but it need not be divisive.
As a Christian, especially as a priest and pastor, I’m called to follow Jesus as a partisan of all that he taught. For me it means a bias in favor of the poor and oppressed whether deserving or not. It means a bias in opposition to injustice and inequity, even when unsure about how to understand justice and equity. It’s a bias in favor of peace, generosity, healing, and the breaking down of barriers that separate us one from another. They are biases that compel me to engage in the public debate that sometimes feels it’s being held in the valley of the shadow of death.
Following in the way of Jesus leads through that valley, not as a Democrat or Republican, but as an advocate for a society more just and free than it has been, and is yet to become. It doesn’t matter what country or form of government one lives in. Courageous Christians in other places can be in real danger as they follow in the way of Jesus by confronting unjust conditions under which they live. As it is, I live in the United States and have a strong bias for the liberal democratic values on which the nation was founded. They set high moral standards that we’ve not yet lived into, but we’ve never stopped making progress. It’s sometimes slow and uncertain. On occasion we’ve taken backward steps, but we’ve kept at it. Following the way of Jesus in the public debate isn’t always safe, even in America. We’ve seen the danger one can face in the history of black preaching that forced greater honesty about systemic racism, calling us in the name of Jesus toward a more just society. The cost has been high, the progress slow, but it’s been in the right and godly direction.
I’m from another background, one of relative comfort free from anxieties about daily survival, and reasonably content with my place in society. Combine that with years of experience in public administration, consulting on public policy issues, and working to influence their outcome, I have a healthy appreciation for the value of our democratic forms of government. They’re not the enemy.
Contrary to my more conservative friends, I don’t believe limited governments are a good thing in their own right, nor is small, limited government an end to be pursued. Governments are not the problem that keeps the nation from getting to a better place. They’re the necessary tools for acquiring and organizing resources to make it a better place. To be feared and guarded against are systemic corruption, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness. To be opposed are governmentally sanctioned conditions that oppress, limit justice, and promote inequities. To be sure, governmental abuse of its coercive power is always a real and present danger. There’s always a question about whether we can keep the democratic republic that’s been bequeathed to us, or perhaps slip into some form of authoritarianism.
For me, following the way of Jesus in the way of the cross leads directly into the public arena where issues of public policy are worked out. But I may not be as “liberal” as friend Ralph thinks. I’ve learned to be pragmatic about what’s possible, what can work, what can be paid for, what consequences must be considered, and the danger of zero sum politics.
Ralph is no less committed to following in the way of Jesus, but as a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for themselves. It’s their own fault if there are unpleasant consequences from poor decisions. Anyone can run into a string of bad luck, and a helping hand may be offered, but it’s not society’s responsibility to care for the irresponsible. If people are unwilling to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, the consequences are on their own head. The proper role of the Church is to teach others what that morality is, and it would be helpful if government allowed Christian moral teaching to take place in the public arena. Without saying so, he appears to favor a tacitly Christian government in an overtly Christian nation that allows freedom of religion for others, as long as they don’t interfere with the Christian majority. At the same time, centered on individualism as the root strength of American democracy, he favors the least amount of government needed for decent, but not lavish, pubic services facilitating commerce, transportation, and security.
Rather than saying I’m more liberal and Ralph is more conservative, which is something I say all the time, it might be better to say that we have different starting points. Ralph tends to begin with the responsibility of the individual to be a morally productive member of society, and I tend to begin with the responsibility of society to provide the conditions under which the individual can do that. Looking at it that way, there is always a place for us to meet in agreement, if we can find it, with perhaps one exception.
I believe following Jesus requires Christians to be politically active, and for clergy to have something to say about that from the pulpit. But I’m deeply suspicious of any suggestion that the U.S. should be a Christian nation. We have seen how a governmentally endorsed civic religion of watered down generic Protestantism helped enshrine white middle class society as the measure of what it meant to be American at the cost of freedom and opportunity for others. Separation of church and state is essential to maintaining our democratic freedoms. It allows the church to challenge the state without being an agent of the state.
Note: Ralph is a generic all purpose name standing for a number of friends whose views get consolidated in him. Apologies to any Ralph out there who would rather another name be abused.