Sunday, January 29, 2012

Christian Book Store Flying on One Wing Crashes

Our local Christian Book and Supply store closed after more than thirty years on Main Street.  The owner said it was the Internet that drove him out of business.  I’d like to think there might be more to it.  The first time I went in to poke around, close to twelve years ago, I was surprised that it only carried Christian literature oriented to the so called Christian Right.  Other literature was limited to the most conservative wing of Republican politics.  An NRSV or New Jerusalem Bible could not be found, though one might be able to stumble on something in the Jews for Jesus line. Window posters often linked hyper patriotism and Christianity.  Other products, jewelry, cards, gifts, and so forth, tended toward the kind of syrupy sentimentality that sometimes provides a brief warming of the heart before meeting the reality of everyday life.  That was the way it was and the way it remained until it closed a few days ago.  
What I’d like to think is that a greater number of its clientele began to realize that its brand of Christianity, however deeply felt, made them feel uncomfortable.  It left little room for conversation, and no room for deviance from the narrow path of religious/political belief it equated with Christian faith.  Maybe they couldn’t put words to it, but perhaps they began to wonder if there might be more to following Christ than what they were seeing on the shelves, and that maybe Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, et al. did not have all the answers after all.
It’s hard to say.  The community is shifting.  Church attendance is down in most places because younger generations, even those raised as “good Christians,” are not convinced that the inside of a church building has anything to do with an authentic encounter with God.  Newcomers that do come into the main line churches bring with them both a hunger for spiritual guidance and the courage to challenge asserted dogma.  A couple of the more conservative congregations are growing slightly as a declining number of very conservative believers coalesce out of many congregation into a few filled with like minded persons.  
The political environment appears less homogeneous than it did only a decade ago.  The overall ethos of the valley remains politically and religiously conservative, but the voices of those who differ are heard more often, and have greater influence than they once did.  In fact, I’d like to assert that the valley is less conservative than it is pragmatic, and I suspect that the ultra conservative ideologues, whether religious or political, are beginning to discover that they cannot assume that a majority will fall into line behind them.  That can be quite unsettling for some who have been in that line.  It’s so much easier just to float down the river where going along to get along has always meant a pleasant and predictable way of life. 
As for me: I have little regard for ideologues on either side, but responsible conservative and liberal advocates, whether religious or political, tend to be correctives to each other, and I’m comfortable living in the tension that creates because it keeps me from becoming too comfortable with my own assumptions and prejudices. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

What is Ownership?

What does it mean to own something?  I guess I’ve owned a few things, things that were in my possession for my exclusive use until they had no more life in them, although I have to admit they were few.  For instance, right now I’m looking at a clock that I bought at a roadside stand on Kauai twenty or thirty years ago.  I think it cost less than $5.  I doesn’t run anymore. The clock face has no covering so the hands are bent out of shape.  It just sits there telling me it’s 10:17 a.m. or p.m., take your pick.  One could probably say that I own it because no other person would have use for it, and there is no word other than ownership that fits.  
That seems a very limited definition of ownership, but I can’t think of anything broader that makes sense.  
Do you own a house?  The other night we were talking about our house.  I’ve written about the problematic question of home ownership before, but it bears repeating.  I don’t think anyone ever owns a house.  We are only stewards of a piece of property for a time.  It’s a temporary thing.  For instance, we now live in the fifth or sixth house we have owned.  We received those other houses from other people, lived in and cared for them for a while, and passed them on to the care of others who will do the same.  I like to think that we now live in the last house we will ever own, and have just finished a remodeling project the cost of which would not be recovered if we were to sell.  But that’s not the point.  We have greatly improved the delight we take in living in here.  Someday another family will own this house, and we hope that our improvements bring them joy also.  We are owners of this property only in the sense that our names are on the deeds.  Of course we paid, and are paying, a substantial amount of money to live here, and we like to think of that money as an asset, but the greatest portion can only be understood as rent paid for the duration of our occupancy.  Ownership is a very transient thing.  Our estate will eventually be valued at whatever is left after we have frittered away most of it.  So even our treasured money is a transient thing passing through our fingers as food through our stomachs.  We are merely stewards of it for a very short time. 
I thought about that again this morning when I caught a bit of a television show about the sale of certain classic cars at auction.  I don’t know why the owners felt a need to sell, but it was clear from the interviews that they identified themselves as owners in almost narcissistic terms.  I didn’t watch enough of it to get a feel for what the new owners thought.  As for me, I think all they did was transfer stewardship from one to another.  Whatever cash was exchanged was little more than water being poured from sieve to sieve.  There are other ways of understanding ownership, and since I’m on the subject of cars, not so many years ago I had a friend, now deceased, who owned quite a few antique cars.  What made him different was the sheer child like delight he took in them, including his incurable desire to share that delight with anyone who showed even the slightest interest.  He seemed to know that he didn’t really own these things, he was the steward of them for a time, and that time would pass.  
We don’t own any million dollar classic cars, but we are avid art collectors who have slowly built up a collection of works that might have some modest value if sold at auction.  Do we own them?  That’s hard to say.  We certainly have the legal right to their exclusive use.  Is that ownership?  They bring joy into our lives each day.  If they were destroyed or stolen money would not replace them.  Their value is not in dollars but in their existence as expressions of artists’ gifts that have spoken through our eyes into our minds and hearts.  We hope that others also can see and hear, each in their own way.  (A number of our friends are singularly unimpressed by them, and that’s OK too.)  Someday they will hang on walls in other places.  In the meantime, we are their keepers.  It all adds up to the fact that we really don’t own them, we’ve just rented them for a season, and we have a responsibility to care for them until they are handed into the care of the next steward.  
About now I can almost hear the harrumph of someone who says that they worked hard for their money, they earned it, and I’m demeaning the value of hard work and its rewards.  Not at all.  Hard work, performed with diligence and appropriately rewarded is worthy, commended by scripture and valued in every culture. There is a difference between that and the egotistical, fear driven, defensiveness that seems to be the aura surrounding so much of what we call ownership.  
As Christians we are called more to stewardship than ownership.  In our society we have the right to the exclusive use of property that we have acquired legally, but as Christians that civil right is mediated by a higher law calling us to stewardship with the understanding that, whatever our exclusive rights might be, they are temporary at best.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Plank One vs. Plank Two: A bridge they do not make

The problem for contemporary self proclaimed conservatives is that the two primary planks in their platform are at odds with each other, so much so that they cannot hold.
Plank one demands radical freedom from government regulation and oversight so that personal autonomy can be enjoyed to the greatest degree possible. 
Plank two demands that a bundle of particular social values be enacted into law and rigidly enforced. 
The dominant figure in favor of plank one is Ron Paul who, quite accurately, notes that he cannot endorse much of anything in plank two.  That makes him unacceptable to a majority of those claiming to be conservative. 
The dominant figure in favor of plank two is Rick Santorum who, quite accurately, notes that he cannot endorse much of anything in plank one. That makes him unacceptable to a majority of those claiming to be conservative. 
In the meantime, it appears that most so called conservatives are simply unaware of the unbridgeable conflict between the two.  What they want is a government that will leave them alone to live as they like within a society that reflects their social values, forcefully rejecting any others.  The closest we’ve come to that in American history are the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies whose leaders demanded the autonomy to live as they pleased, and what they pleased was to outlaw any way of life that deviated from their own.  I suppose the modern nation that comes closest would be Saudi Arabia.  I wouldn’t much care to live in either.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Prisoner's Dilemma meets Isaiah 55.6-11

I listened to portions of an interesting program on NPR this morning while wandering around town doing errands.  It was on evolution, the nature of altruism and some experiments done with the game The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Maybe you listened to all of it and can say more.  As for me, I didn’t even get the names of the people being interviewed.  That, of course, does not stop me from making a few comments. 
Are there strategies in Prisoner’s Dilemma that are more likely, or even guaranteed, to win?  Apparently there are.  Played often enough, an opening move of cooperation followed by moves that mirror whatever one’s opponent did can score more points and thereby win.  It was also noted that successive iterations of strategies that learn from previous rounds of the game can end up with the bad guys obliterating the good guys - the devil strategy overwhelming the Jesus strategy.  
Which brings me to my point: the wisdom of God that is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks.  The foolish stumbling block of Christian faith is that it is God, and not Prisoner’s Dilemma strategies, who determines the final outcome, and that that outcome has already been accomplished by the decisive victory of life over death on the cross.  It makes no sense.  It would be an utter failure in the psych lab, and it could not possibly pass a logic 101 exam.  But God does not seem to be persuaded by what we think is required to make sense, or what strategies we employ to gain the advantage over our opponents.  
To be a Christian is not to wallow in altruism, whatever that may be; nor is it to win through successive iterations of games and strategies.  It is to live in the faith that, in Christ, the game is over and God has won.  It’s our faith.  I wish we lived as if we believed it.  We say we do as we affirm our faith each week, but mostly we backstop it with some Prisoner’s Dilemma strategies of our own just to make sure.  
I don’t think God is terribly surprised.  This week’s message on the sign board at the local Methodist Church said it well: “God is not disillusioned with us.  He never had any illusions in the first place.”  Glad to hear it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

We are stuck in Corinth again. Rats!

Those of us who follow the lectionary are going to be stuck in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians until Lent.  It’s a problem for our parishioners for several reasons.  The controversies in Corinth seem at odds with what the accompanying gospel lessons have to say about Jesus’ teaching.  We have been raised on the sophomoric idea that the early churches were gatherings of loving people sharing one mind about Christ and what it means to be Christian.  It isn’t always clear what Paul had heard by way of rumor and letter about conditions in Corinth.  It certainly isn’t clear how his counsel is to be translated to our benefit in our day given our conditions.  As important at Paul is, he must always take a back seat to Jesus, and that can often be too easy to overlook.  
Some of my local colleagues are going to duck the problem by ignoring it altogether.  They’re going to preach on the Old Testament and Gospel readings as if Paul had not just been heard from.  I’m not sure that’s a good idea because so much of what is written in 1st Corinthians has become bedrock for assumed truth and grounds for doctrinal warfare.  In the meantime, we will all take a moment to wipe sentimental tears from our eyes as we hear again the words of chapter 13 before we get back to the serious business of behaving like Corinthians. 
For my part, I’m going to spend a little bit of time reintroducing the congregation to Corinth and Corinthians and then wade into the quagmire of trying to ferret out what we are to learn from them in our own time and place.  How does big bawdy Corinth speak to a little ranch town in the rural west?  We shall see.  The advantage for this small congregation is that I’m only there twice a month.  Two other retired clergy take the other Sundays, and can correct my errors. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Free Enterprise, Private Enterprise and Government

The campaign is on and the devotees of an unfettered free market system are intent on getting government out of the way.  
Wherever did the idea come from that we have, or ever have had, a free market system, fettered or unfettered?  What we have is a private market system that exists within the political context of a democratic republic.  It’s a good system, but it’s an amoral system and cannot be trusted for the commonweal on it’s own.    
I was struck by an editorial article by Rodney Clapp in the January 11 edition of Christian Century in which he discussed the limitations of private enterprise as a supplier of goods and services.  It led me to write down these thoughts that have been rumbling about in my head for some time.  


The private market system, operating within reasonable constraints that assure public health, safety and honesty in the market place, works very well when there are many suppliers, many buyers and the ability of each to make informed decisions.  It doesn’t work so well when the numbers don’t add up to many, or when many is counterproductive.  
The private market system also lacks internal incentives to consider the public, or external, costs of doing business.  The costs to society of pollution, unsafe products and practices, withholding of essential services to the poor, etc., are not natural calculations for private enterprises.  They need to be imposed, in appropriate measure, by the society itself.
Then there is the knee jerk assumption that anything government does can be done better and cheaper by private industry.   Contracting out public services is not the same thing as allowing the advantages of private sector competition to do the job better.  One might, for instance, contract out police services to a private enterprise, but a community would not open up the town to a multitude of competing police services selling themselves to individuals or groups.  Well, I take it back.  A town could do that.  Chicago did, in a sense, during prohibition, and ended up with gang wars as each competed for territory in which they sold “protection.”  
The point is this: what I hear being argued in the GOP debates, and among my conservative friends, is that private enterprise is a moral system of moral agents, and is best equipped to do all things for all people.  That’s naive at best.  The private enterprise system is a very efficient system for the production and sales of goods and services.  Given the right competitive environment, it cannot be beat for the generation of new ideas growing into new and improved goods and services.  But it is an amoral system.  Whatever morality it has is injected into it from the society it serves acting through its governments.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Political Process: Noble or Knave

It’s just politics.  Let’s get the politics out of it.  They’re playing politics.  How did politics  get such a bad name? 
I spent a lot of time in politics.  Some of it organizing at the local level; some of it lobbying; some of it teaching; some of it working on campaigns; some of it consulting about community and economic development; some of it helping groups better understand management, leadership and organizing effective work groups.  All of it was politics one way or another.  Along the way I met a few scoundrels, but I also met some of the most principled men and women of integrity that I have known.  Several of them served in Congress.
Whatever else it is, politics is the art of deciding how we are going to live together.  We are social animals.  We live in community.  We require community for survival.  Even the loners and hermits among us require the presence of community in order to be loners and hermits.  We live in families, cities and national states.  We participate in clubs, associations and churches.  Our employment puts us in the company of others for cooperative purposes.  Sellers and buyers depend on community to define their markets and assure some level of predictability.  Our lives are intertwined with friends, associates, places of assembly and spontaneous engagement with others.  Decisions have to be made in each case about how we are going to live with one another, and how those decisions get made and implemented is what politics is all about.

Not every one agrees that the politics of living in community is a good or necessary thing.  Some claim they go it alone.  They are self made, owing no one.  They do not now, nor have they ever, nor will they ever, have any need for government to help or tell them what they can and cannot do.  They live in a fool’s paradise of ignorance and delusion.  I’ve worked with a few who have come close to living in that paradise, mostly men living on the streets, whose lives were so chaotic that they could not abide any rules, not even their own, and yet their survival depended on the presence of the community around them, and the reasonable predictability of how to find basic needs in that community.  
I’ve only met two hard core survivalists who considered themselves modern day mountain men capable of going it on their own without any outside support.  Both seemed oblivious to the arsenal of food, weapons, clothing and other equipment produced and sold to them by the community, to say nothing of their suburban houses, pickup trucks, public roads into the mountains, and the public policy giving them the wilderness into which they imagined themselves disappearing.
Working out the decisions that govern our lives together, that provide a reasonable predictability, is always a function of negotiation with others, even in the most hierarchical organization.  In any gathering of those who will do the negotiating, there will be some who are genuinely interested in the welfare of the community while not being unaware of the power and position that might be theirs in the offing.  There will be those driven by the acquisition of power and position, with only marginal interest in the welfare of the community as a whole.  And, there will be those who are primarily interested in protecting and promoting particular interests in competition with other interests.  It’s a mess and prone to corruption, but we Christians know that we live in a fallen world, and understand that muddling through is what we do.  Politics lingers in an uneasy balance between nobility and knavery.  It’s never just one or the other, which means that vilifying the political process as such is not only senseless but prevents it from working as well as it can.
What, I think, has brought politics at the national level into such disrepute, especially the Congress (except, of course, for your own member of Congress) is a combination of factors.  The rules of the House and Senate have become so arcane that it’s impossible for the public to understand them, and relatively easy for those who are steeped in them to use them to avoid or shut down the decision making process.  The enormity of the lobbying industry, with its unlimited access to cash and skill in manipulating so called public opinion, makes it difficult to craft reasonably impartial legislation for the public good.  Rank and file citizens no longer believe their thoughts and opinions will be heard, and that their only “representatives” to their representatives in Congress have to be associations they pay to join and who will lobby for them on this or that.  The Citizens United case has resulted in such enormous amounts of corporate and secret money entering the campaign process that elections appear to be for sale to the highest bidder.
As an aside, and by way of closing, the idiocy of twenty-four hour cable news reporting and “analysis” has more than a little to do with the disrepute into which politics has fallen, but that’s for another time.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Civics Anyone?

For seven years I taught a course called Management and Society at an east coast university.  It was almost twenty years ago, but that’s beside the point.  Most of my students were from technical fields, primarily engineering and medicine, seeking an MBA to further their career opportunities.  I remember my dismay when my first class was met with blank stares.  It’s hard to discuss management and society if one does not know anything about society, especially the one in which we live.
I took a quick survey.  “When was the last time you took a course in civics, American history, or anything like that?”  Some couldn’t remember.  Most said in maybe the 9th or 10th grade.  None had taken anything along those lines in college.  They were technical people.  If it couldn’t be framed as a mathematical formula, they weren’t interested.  As a practical matter, most had a hard time writing a simple declarative sentence as well, but that’s another issue. 
In a class of graduate students desiring an MBA, we had to start at the beginning.  America is a republic, a representative democracy.  There are different types of governments, even different types of democracies.  This is how ours is different.  There are three branches of government.  They are defined by the Constitution.  This is how we got our Constitution.  And so it went.  
I imagine they found it a bit embarrassing to discover they were young adult citizens, aspiring to business leadership, who were operating from a largely forgotten 9th grade education about what it means to be an American.  To be sure, they were more interested in learning how to craft market strategies that would ensure a high rate of return on investment, but mine was a required course and they had to endure.  
From then on, every semester started with a few days of basic 9th grade civics as preparation for everything that would follow.
I’ve learned that my budding corporate leaders were not unique.  I am no longer surprised by people demanding their First or Second Amendment rights who have never read the Constitution.  Many go on at length about what the founding fathers intended, but have never heard of the Federalist Papers.  Defenders of a corporate free market don’t know that corporations were originally creatures of the state authorized, at least on paper, to do business benefiting the public good and the state itself.  Regular voters admit that they never read the voter information booklet received in the mail, and don’t actually know much about the initiatives or referenda they vote on.  In fact, they don’t know the difference between the two.  And so it goes.
We need better civics education in our schools.  We also need a way to provide remedial civics education for the adult population.  How about requiring a basic civics test to get or renew a drivers license?  No?  I guess the DMV has enough image problems as it is.  Well then, let the Luddites rule (no offense to the original Luddites).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Literal or Poetic

This morning our lectionary study group talked about a literal reading of scripture as opposed to a poetic reading, recognizing, of course, that there are other ways as well.  A few hours later I was reading an essay by Hauerwas in which he cited a passage from Yoder’s Royal Priesthood.  I think it is important enough to share.
If we understand deeply enough the way in which the promise of the Holy Spirit is linked to the church’s gathering to bind and loose (Matt. 18:19-20), this may provide us well with a more wholesome understanding of the use and authority of Scripture.  One of the most enduring subjects of unfruitful controversy over the centuries has been whether the words of Scripture, when looked at purely as words, isolated from the context in which certain people read them at a certain time and place, have both clear meaning and the absolute authority of revelation.
To speak of the Bible apart from people reading it and apart from the specific questions that those people reading need to answer is to do violence to the very purpose for which we have been given the Holy Scriptures.  There is no such thing as an isolated word of the Bible carrying meaning in itself.  It has meaning only when it is read by someone and then only when the reader and society in which he or she lives can understand the issue to which it speaks. (Yoder, 535)