Wednesday, November 30, 2016

America's Shared Cultural Values: Are there any? What are they?

American cultural values, what are they?  Are there some that are essential to understanding what is meant by the American way of life?  Are there some that transcend the many ethnicities, races, and ways of living that make up the American landscape?  People seem to think there are, but defining them is not that easy.  Nevertheless, that is what this brief article will try to do.  But first, What is America?  In one sense we are a nation in which white European immigrants and their descendants conquered land through the use of force and duplicity in ways that are no longer tolerated as morally acceptable, but what an amazing feat it was.  Books, movies, and myths record it in truth, and in romanticized exaggeration.  It is the stuff of childhood dreams and games.  Colonial and pioneer associations exist in every region, and are celebrated at annual fairs and exhibitions.  It’s an odd mixture of pride and shame, with pride overshadowing deeds shamefully half remembered.  

In another sense we are a nation in which loosely regulated entrepreneurial private enterprise is encouraged to prosper in whatever ways are legal.  With luck and hard work, creativity and risk may be richly rewarded, or maybe not.  Finally, we are participants in a national experiment in constitutional, representative democracy that is unique on the world stage.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One) is aspirational.  Often interpreted to mean out of many people, one people, it was intended to mean out of many states, one nation.  Either way, we are  many.  We are not one.  Not yet.  Moreover, we have not yet come to terms with what government is, or what it should do.  American government is a hodgepodge of a complicated federal system overlaying fifty different versions of provincial government, each with its own sets of rules for local government, a few of which follow laws set for them by monarchs otherwise remembered only in history books.  At its heart is a written constitution, amended twenty-seven times as we try to get it right.

Before exploring the variety of ways in which the cultural values that define America are expressed, it would be good to say something about the Constitution as an expression of cultural values, especially the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, because they not only outline core cultural values, they set them in foundational law.  They are not values always adhered to, but they set standards we desire for the nation as a whole, even when we have little intention of meeting them.  We are a land that values freedom of speech, the press, and religion, but forbids governments from establishing or favoring any particular religion.  We are a nation that values the role of the citizen soldier, and, therefore, the right of citizens to be armed (in a limited and disciplined way?).  We are a nation that will not tolerate governmental use of private property without due process of law.  We are a nation that prohibits governments from searches and seizures without warrants.  We are a nation that demands fair trials.  We are a nation that recognizes there are other rights, unalienable rights, not recognized in law but given by the Almighty to all persons.  As they are discovered, they will be protected.  We are a nation that intentionally disperses governmental authority between and among different branches in different places.  Following the Civil War, amendments XIII, XIV, and XV clarified these rights by specifically extending them to former slaves, and their descendants.  Amendment XIX extended the right to vote to women.  American Indians, declared full citizens in 1924, are struggling yet for their rightful place in a land where centuries gross injustices have gone unheeded.  

The Constitution is our foundational law, but cultural values that define America go well beyond law.  They are ever changing, often poorly defined myths, standards, and expectations that are generally understood, but in vastly different ways by different people in different parts of the country.  Whatever they are, preserving or restoring them was a rallying cry in the recent presidential campaign, with many people complaining that their access to achieving all that they promise had been closed to them.  Indeed, there has been a strong movement to preserve traditional American cultural values for several decades, with no little controversy over what they are.  In the face of massive immigration from non-European countries, more demands have been made that newcomers must assimilate into American culture, leaving their old behind.  It raises a question.  What would you tell a new immigrant about what the essential American values are, and how to live into the American way of life?

We have an unofficial model assigned to display the ideal of what American cultural values look like.  It’s a white, vaguely Protestant, middle class family living in their own house, surrounded by friendly neighbors who are a lot like them.  It’s not that literature, movies, and the media (whatever that is) haven’t portrayed other ways of American life, but it’s always been clear that those ways fall short of the ideal.  Everything either pointed to the ideal as the way to success, or illuminated the outer edges of society as places of tacky humor, tragedy, or failure.  Even works that exposed and explored injustices assumed, each in their own way, that the depth of injustice was measured by its deviance from the unofficial ideal.  It isn’t working any more.  What would work?  Can we define it?

I asked Facebook friends to write a little something about what they believed to be essential American values, and to do so without snide asides or political hatchet honing.  A few responded.  Some could not resist snideness.  Only two of my several right wing and conservative friends had anything to say.  Maybe the others thought it was a trap of some kind.  Who can say?  Nonetheless, some thoughtful offerings were made.  Everyone agreed that freedom was one of the essentials, but all had difficulty saying what it means.  Before digging into what freedom might mean, what language shall we use?  Is it possible to share cultural values without a common language?  I don’t think so.  

Unlike most other countries, America does not have an official language, but English is our default shared language, and it has worked well for three centuries to help mold what it is to be American.  Strident calls to make it our official language are more about bullying immigrants than anything else and are not helpful, nor are they meant to be helpful.  Mean spirited is about the best one can say for them.  Still, English is the language that binds us together as a people.  Basic competency in it is essential to learning, understanding and adopting America’s shared cultural values.  It is shameful when we deliberately make it hard for non-English speakers to learn it in their own way.  It is even more shameful when we deliberately suppress the use of other languages.  I stand in awe of my Spanish speaking neighbors who can flip back and forth with ease between it and English.  Would that every school child was taught a second or third language from the very start of their education.  Besides, like the increasing ethnic diversity of the American public, American English is a mix of many others as it adopts words and phrases from other cultures, almost without noticing it.  New York City  English is peppered with dozens of Yiddishisms that are ordinary parts of everyday conversation.  Honolulu English contains a wild mix of Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese all mangled together.  Santa Fe can’t be navigated without some knowledge of Spanish.  Oy vey!  Let it be.  Competency in English is what enlarges our Ohana while binding it together.  We don’t need laws to enforce it.  We do need to explore freedom – in English.

Freedom.  Everyone agreed that freedom is an essential cultural value, but what is it?  The light of freedom had been snuffed out all over Europe in the last years of the ‘30s, flickering only in Britain.  It looked like it too would be extinguished soon, and our own was under threat.  Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech articulated Four Freedoms that should be universal, are treasured by Americans, and are worth fighting for.  They were: Freedom of Speech; Freedom to Worship as one desires; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear.  Might they also include freedom to work at whatever one is capable of doing, or studying whatever one wants to study, or live wherever one wants and travel without restriction?  Commentator Dennis Prager says that American freedoms are unique because they are not based on race or ethnicity.  Would that it were so.  It’s wishful thinking, but he has a point.  We want our freedoms to be prejudice free.  We may not live up to our highest standards of freedom that have no place for racial prejudice, but they are still our standards.  

Although many countries proclaim freedom of speech, it is America that embeds it in the Constitution, and protects even vile forms of speech so that the freedom to express one’s self is not jeopardized.  When powerful political forces arise to limit freedom of speech, equally powerful forces arise to defend it.  It may be our most important freedom.  Freedom to worship as one pleases frames the value Americans place on worship, and on the value of not prescribing what worship is or should be.  If “in God we trust,” we do not presume to say who God is or isn’t.  

Freedom from Want has generally been understood as freedom to work for one’s bread in the assurance that there is work to be had and that it pays enough to live comfortably.  Can it mean more than that?  Roosevelt’s speech came as the nation was finally coming out of the Great Depression when work was not to be had, or could not be had a wages sufficient enough for food and shelter.  What was the responsibility of the community to create conditions under which well paid work is available to all who can work?  That was the question then.  It is still the question.  

Freedom from fear of what?  Fear of destitution?  Fear of domestic violence?  Fear of crime?  Fear of war?  Fear of terrorism?  There is a lot to be afraid of, yet with few exceptions those of us privileged to have been born into and live the life of the American dream do not know fear the way others do.  If all are to live free of fear, what has to be done?  Freedom from fear means a certain level of security of life and property.  It’s not a value unique to America, but it is the promise of security that draws many from other nations where there is little of it.  Freedom from fear also implies courage in the face of threats, and there is an American ideal of courage that is a cultural value idealized in images such as the Minutemen, cowboys, Marines, and armies of one.  It may be more hype than reality, but it is an important cultural value just the same. 

Freedom is not the only cultural value that transcends the length and breadth of America.  Consider self control – responsibility – accountability.  An American hymn declares that freedoms are “confirmed by self control, liberty by law.”  The cultural value of self control and liberty protected by and accountable to the law are important elements of the American character.  From colonial days to now, American cultural values have included accountability to others, and the responsibility one has for one’s own choices and actions.  American culture also values self control that eschews extravagant displays of emotion one way or the other, and can withstand temptations to act outside the boundaries of what is socially and morally acceptable.  They are cultural values that, while celebrated, rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways depending on where one stands in relation to two significant strands of American political tradition: Libertarian and Puritan. Libertarians celebrate responsibility for their own actions and freedom from government oversight.  They reserve the right to establish their own standards of what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable.  If they are not hurting anyone else, leave them alone.  Those from a more Puritan perspective celebrate freedom, responsibility, and accountability within the context of community.  It is the community that is free to do as it likes, and that sets the standards for those who are members of the community.  Individuals are free to join or leave the community, but they are not free to live as they please within the community.  When the community gets defined as the city, state, or nation, the conflict between Puritans and Libertarians can be unresolvable.  It’s not that Libertarians don’t believe in accountability, they just have a problem saying to whom.  While Libertarians are well known in today’s politics, Puritans can be dismissed as stuffy New England pilgrims from long ago who are barely remembered.  It’s not true.  Their political and ethical standards are with us still in hundreds of ways, underwriting our constitutions and laws, and buried deep in the American consciousness.  

Almost as universal as freedom are the values of equality – equity – tolerance.  Proclaimed, if not practiced, equality under the law is an essential American cultural value.  If nothing else, we want to believe that everyone is equal under the law.  We also want to believe that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed in life.  If it isn’t true, we agree that it should be, although in different ways to make it happen.  Recent publicity about the reality of white privilege has been ill received by many, especially by those who think that whatever privilege had been theirs has been taken away and given to someone else who has not put in the hard work to deserve it.  It’s created a strain on another essential element of American cultural values, tolerance of those who look different, think different, act different.  We celebrate our tolerance of others more than we practice it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an essential cultural value, one that we insist new immigrants adopt as quickly as possible.  In fact, we want immigrants to go one step farther.  We want them to respect and honor the cultural values that have already been woven into the American fabric, leaving their own behind. Tolerance of differences is not the same as respecting and honoring differences.  It seems to be where Americans want to go, but we want immigrants to go first.  In the meantime, their cultural baggage will be grudgingly tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with established ways.  

Related American cultural values are perseverance and hope.  Sustaining Americans through ups and downs have been shared cultural values of perseverance and hope.  We may not like what’s going on, but Americans value determined perseverance to get through it.  Generic Protestantism, the de facto civic religion for three centuries, bequeathed hope to our shared values.  No matter how bad things might seem there is always hope for a better future, perhaps not now, but soon.  The Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have sputtered in the wake of wars, depression, and social upheaval, but it will not be put out.  There is always hope.  

Is there more to be said?  Of course there is.  For instance, I believe that tax supported free public schools are not just important but essential to preserving and enhancing everything that is America.  We may need to reenergize the principle of subsidiarity in public policy and programs.  Some conservatives have a handle on it, and progressives need to do the same.  You may have your own thoughts to add, but this article is long enough for now. 




Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

Two friends recommended J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (Harper Collins).  One started an online group to discuss it.  The other left a copy in my car just to make sure I had it.  So I read it.  Here’s my short take.  The final chapters reveal it as an extended apology for and about "hillbilly" culture as the refiner's cauldron from which some are able to emerge, bringing with them the gold and silver of individual fortitude without the dross of behaviors that are destructive of lives and societies. It's an essay on learned helplessness and the ways, or at least his way, of unlearning it.  In it are echoes of behaviors many others have experienced in their own lives, regardless of where they grew up. Finally, it is a commentary on how cultural heritage is baggage, both good and bad, that is not easily discarded, no matter how far away one gets from its epicenter. 

Vance uses hillbilly as a label for the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the Kentucky town from which generations of his family came, and the cultural baggage they took with them when they migrated for a hoped for better life elsewhere.  Although he escaped the cycle of ignorance, abuse, poverty, and addiction that infected most of the people he knew, the culture that formed him came with him into his new life far away from Kentucky and Ohio.

His personal story aside, there are more than a few subtexts in the book.  Primary among them is his attempt to explain right wing populism as an extension of “hillbilly” culture that exists in many forms throughout industrial and rural America where decent job prospects are scarce and the people are deeply suspicious of those whom they identify as effete, yet powerful, upper class manipulators of their misfortunes.  Another is a predictable reverse snobbishness that celebrates the hardscrabble endurance of “hillbillies” who know how to survive under conditions that would kill upper class softies who have never had to do hard work with their hands.  It’s the subtexts that interest my friends, although both of them are familiar with life experiences that share similarities with his.  Most of us do, I suspect.  The subtexts offer attractive generalities because there is some truth in them, but like all generalities , they bite off too much.  They can only be tightly focussed beams illuminating a small portion of a more complex reality.  Anything more is too much, and I think Vance knows that.  The problem comes when readers have their “aha moment” and declare that it explains everything. 

The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy may honor family loyalty, hard work, and Jesus, but it’s also a culture that habitually undermines the foundations of family loyalty, works hard sporadically, and proclaims religion without practicing it.  It’s a culture that opens doors to addiction, tolerates abuse as normal, belittles higher education, and assumes a knowledge of how the world works that extends no farther than the next “holler.”  It despises government welfare, and takes every penny it can get.  It’s not a culture on which a successful democratic society could be built or sustained, but it is a culture that can be turned easily to fascism offered to them as a bulwark protecting their rights and freedom.  Vance, I think, would like to see a way for them to assimilate more successfully into an America that will never again provide the economic opportunity they imagined was theirs for the taking in the mines and mills.  It’s a more complicated America that requires different skill sets, but has yet to understand the economic value of critical jobs that are chronically underpaid.  The hillbilly culture he describes works against it, but there is alway hope.

It’s also important for readers of the book to remember that it is not the only culture around, nor is it the only one that burdens its people with baggage they haul with them into future generations and far away places.  We all carry something with us.  I’ve never lived in Kansas, and haven’t seen my Kansas relatives in almost fifty years, but there is something of the Kansas prairie that is an important part of who I am.  You have your own story too.  The old shibboleth that we were a melting pot nation was a sixth grade text book dream in which everyone eventually became a white middle class Protestant.  It gave way to being a stew pot nation, which is still not a very good metaphor, but at least it gets at an important point.  Assimilation of cultures into the American way of life means learning how to live together sharing important transcultural values while remembering and honoring the best of whence we came.  The dominant cultural standard has been the white suburban middle class, and it’s been a good one, but it cannot stand.  It’s evolving, as it always has been, into something less white and more colorful with norms that accommodate more than a suburban house and two children who grow up to go to college.  It will become a better thing, if we let it. 





Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Hey Jesus, let's stop here. This looks like a good place to stay.

I’m part of a Tuesday morning ecumenical study group, and the other day we spent time with Isaiah 2.2-5: 
2:2    In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Laying plowshares and pruning hooks aside, what struck us were words like come and walk.  You can’t come to some place unless you leave the place you are in.  You can’t live in faith by resting in it.  You have to walk in it.  Walking always means leaving the place where you were as you go to the place at which you have not yet arrived.  Each step brings you to a new place along the way where you will remain for only a moment because it is not the place where you are going.  The psalmist begs us to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46).  In a curious way, we can be still only by walking – leaving, arriving, and leaving again – in the stillness of quiet confidence that we are waking in the way of the LORD. 

It’s frustrating.  My confidence that I am walking in the way of the LORD is not all that great.  For me, stillness is a call to stop walking.  Just sit and be.  Let the world go by.  Get out of the parade.  If I have to move, I want to look around for a moving sidewalk, escalator, taxi, whatever, anything to take the work out of it.  On the whole, I’d rather stay put.  I mean, it’s one thing to enjoy traveling to foreign lands and exotic places, always knowing that I will return home.  It’s another thing to walk in the way of the LORD knowing that I can’t stop walking, will never return to where I started, and have no idea when I will get to wherever I am going, which, I am told, is my true home, but I have to trust that it is so.  Prayerful meditation is not a big help.  It always ends up with me being somewhere other that where I started.  God, it seems, has a puckish sense of humor so that even when I remain anchored in the reading chair of my study, where I thought I was when I began prayerful meditation is not where I am when I rise to go out to the kitchen.  

When Jesus said “follow me,” he meant get up, start walking, and leave where you are behind.  A number of people I know don’t like that at all.  The world is unpredictable enough as it is.  They want a Christian faith that is set, doesn’t change, doesn’t further upset the tenuous balance of life they have to live with anyway.  If there is a difference, maybe it’s the difference between believers and disciples.  Believers are content to sit where they are, acknowledge Jesus as he passes by, and hope he comes back again soon.  In the meantime, they’re not moving.  Disciples follow Jesus, never staying in one place for long, unsure of where they are going, but certain that by following Jesus they are going in the right way.  Some days I’m a believer.  Some days I’m a disciple.  Mostly I wish Jesus had handed out AAA Triptiks.




Monday, November 21, 2016

Taking the country for Christ

A young man in our community said that he hoped we were going in a more conservative direction, and that we would see the nation reflect more of our Christian values.  I wonder.  I would rather see Christians offer words and live lives more reflective of Christian values without suggesting that they should be imposed on civil society.  It would be something to witness millions who claim to be Christian proclaim by word and deed what it means to follow Jesus by being like Jesus in their daily lives.  Of course it would be imperfect, but the intentionality of loving one's neighbors in healing ways would be dramatic, particularly if one's neighbor is whoever one encounters no matter where or how.

Think of it.  Millions of people would go through the day making decisions prefaced by questions.  How will this affect the poor, both spiritually and physically?  How will this affect those mourning, or rejoicing?  How will this affect those burdened by oppressive conditions?  How will this affect those struggling for justice?  How will this affect the balance between justice and mercy?  How will this affect standards of integrity and honesty?  How will this resolve conflict and deescalate violence in constructive ways?  How courageous can I be in the face of evil?

I don't think they would be conscious of asking questions like these of themselves.  They would be habits of the heart, just the ordinary way of going through the day doing things. No doubt some would snicker at all those goody-two-shoes whom they would suspect of having no backbone.  They would be wrong.  Living that kind of life would require strong determination, an ability to know the difference between sentimentality and reality, and the maturity to live with others without being superior or subordinate.  It would recognize the dignity of differing gifts, and highly value each of them.  It would require tremendous courage in the face of the greater number intent on manipulation of conditions in pursuit of power, prestige, and wealth.  It would require perseverance in the face of those who just don't care.  It would require patience with those whose habits of the heart were destructive of life.  Their normal way of things would accommodate imperfection in self and others with honesty, and without excuse.  It would tolerate differences between persons and peoples without trying to force uniformity.  Christian tradition has name for that kind of life.  It's called the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace for those who follow Jesus.

You might rightfully ask if it is the kind of life I lead?  Let's just say that I'm a beginner.  Some days I get it right.  Many days I don't.  Most days are a bit of each.  However, if you are among those who call themselves Christian, why not walk along with me and we'll figure it out together.



Saturday, November 19, 2016

How to Play Trump the Game

A new president puts lobbying interests into supercharged four wheel wheel drive.  What are those interests?  Congressional leadership, corporate lobbyists, unions, public interest groups, egos angling for high office appointments, other egos desiring a plumb ambassadorship.  You name it.  The process is more or less the same with each new president regardless of party.  Who do they know that has access?  What is the best way  to approach new White House staff, and through them, the president?  How well do they know cabinet designees?  What are their most important issues?  How will they make decisions?  Where will they connect with Congress?  What do they like to eat and drink?  Where did they play golf?  What old school connections might lend a hand?  Then comes the hard work of making opening moves, establishing relationships, making or faking friendships.  It's all about getting one's pound, or ounce, of influence, and maybe a little direct access.  It's a power game where egos are made and broken by how well the game is played.  It's always worked in some fashion because no matter who the president elect might be, it was understood that 'he' knew how all of this worked, and, at some level, really did intend to be a good president for the nation.  The unwritten norms of D.C. politics could be relied on to function the way they usually did.  Of course there were winners and losers, but the rules of the game were reasonably well known to the pros that run things.

We have a new president elect.  Following the normal pattern, supplicants crowd the escalators and elevators of Trump Tower, each fawning in the usual way over the newly elected, and those closest to him, in hopes of establishing a little traction.  What's different is that Trump doesn't play by the usual rules.  He doesn't doesn't know what they are, and doesn't care.  The old game is not his game.  He has his own.  For him, it's one enormous, endless episode of The Apprentice.  He's lapping up all the attention, loves every minute of it, and has no intention of honoring anything that is not in whatever he thinks is his best interest, which can change from moment to moment.  To him, whatever is on a supplicant's agenda has no intrinsic value in itself.  It has value only if it benefits him.  He may have paid to have someone write The Art of the Deal in his name, but he's not a good faith negotiator, he's a sociopathic manipulator.  Each supplicant will go away thinking they have gained a foothold, that he is someone they can work with.  They will be wrong.  If they presume say out loud that they have an in with Trump, the only words from him they will hear is "You're Fired!"

Trump doesn't play the traditional game by the traditional rules.  We learned that in the campaign.  Business partners learned it years ago, and tried to tell us.  He plays his own game by his own rules, making them up as he goes along.  If he wants something, he uses every juvenile trick of manipulation to get it.  What other people want or need is of little interest to him, unless he can use it to his own advantage.  Otherwise, who cares?  To what might we compare him?  Not to other presidents, though Nixon might come close.  Perhaps Henry VIII of England, or maybe Louis XIV of France, as they might have been portrayed in a Mel Brooks movie.  That would have been funny, but this is real life, and it's not funny.

What is a workable way to engage with him and his staff?  Stick to the issues.  Use only verifiable information.  Avoid the usual exaggeration of facts to suit political ends.  Avoid all contests of wit or personality caricatures.  In fact, ignore him altogether.  Deal with the office of the president as a thing, not a person.  If he wants to play his game, let him come to you.  Let him play it with zeal.  But do not respond.  Stick to the issues.  One of Clinton's mistakes was to play his game with him by continually comparing herself to him by name while criticizing his positions.  All it did was give him added publicity on her dime, raising his name as one worthy of validity by virtue of frequent mention.  Let he who must not be named, not be named.

What will be the result?  You will lose most of the time.  You might win a few.  You will retain your dignity.  You will not fall victim to his game playing, looking like a fool in the end.  You might even gain his grudging respect as someone he will give into when it won't cost him too much, and otherwise avoid as too dangerous to play with because you know the game.  The most important thing you will gain is public trust in what you have to say when the next election rolls around.  Not the public at large, they will remain as ignorantly uninvolved as usual.  I mean the public that has influence and actually votes.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Home invading illegal immigrants and racism

A recent internet posting declared that it’s not about being against immigrants.  It is about doing things legally.  Illegal immigrants are as if someone sneaked into your house through a basement window, crept up the stairs into the kitchen, and yelled FEED ME!  It went on to demand that others stop distorting the facts.  All the writer wanted is for the government to enforce existing laws.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to some, and racist to others.  Why?  The key is in its construction.  It’s a parable bracketed by two reasonable statements: Do things legally; Enforce existing laws.  That makes a lot of sense, and all the more to those who believe that law and order, as a fundament condition of a stable prosperous society, has been severely weakened.  In between is the parable about a home invader sneaking up on a home owner and demanding loudly to be fed.  The request to stop distorting facts implies that the parable accurately describes what the facts are.  Does it?  In certain places and circumstances it might, but not in the full scheme of things where study after study demonstrates that immigrants, legal and illegal, add to the economy without burdening it. Those macro findings are not believable to people living in communities where immediate conditions say otherwise.  Nor are they believable to a large number of the population who choose to disbelieve them because they have heard stories about the hordes of illegals filling hospitals, schools, and jails, demanding welfare, not paying taxes, and they believe them to be the greater truth.  No amount of proving otherwise is likely to change their minds.

Is the post racist?  The parable sounds very racist to many of us.  Why?  It shows no regard for circumstances and conditions that lead people to escape in hope of a better life elsewhere.  It shows no regard for the complicated, nearly unworkable, processes for legal immigration.  It shows no awareness of the reality of undocumented family members for whom this is the only homeland they have every known.  It shows no awareness that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government aid programs, yet are required to pay income and social security taxes – unless they work for unscrupulous employers who keep them off the books.  In that case it is the employer cheating all of us.  It shows no attempt at any humanitarian compassion. It appears to open the door to indiscriminate acts of discrimination against anyone suspected of having the wrong name, wrong color, wrong accent.

Is it racist to agree with the post?  Not necessarily.  But it does indicate a blindness to the systemic racism tightly woven into the fabric of American life.  The immigration issue gets further complicated by the violent corruption infecting too many of the nations to our south.  Our temptation is to want to address complicated problems with overly simple explanations of them.  That doesn’t mean simple solutions are not in order, only that simple explanations lead to wrong solutions.   However, I’m digressing.  There is something in us that resists charges of personal racism, and that does not want to face the reality of systemic racism.  In the first instance, unless one is an unrepentant supremacist proud of one’s racism, even the suggestion that one might be racist be is like being scolded by some self righteous jerk demanding confession of a guilt that can never be forgiven or erased.  Who wants that?  In the second instance, an examination of systemic racism forces us to exam the uncomfortable historical truths of a system rigged in favor of white people (men in particular) over all others.  It’s a truth that has been hidden behind treasured myths about who we are as Americans, and some of us don’t want to give up those myths.  It’s painful to admit that our ancestors were wrong in some of what they did.  It isn’t helped by those who appear to want the current generation to magically change the past.  We certainly don’t want to repeat the past, but neither can we change it.  Confronting it with honesty is important, but we can only go forward, we can’t go backward.


Here are two suggestions.  First, stop scolding.  It doesn’t do any good.  It just makes stubborn people more stubborn, malleable people more malleable, and the rest of us angrily muddled.  Second, let the marginalized and losers in history books correct the record without half of us taking umbrage and the other half moralizing with finger pointing contempt.  Then we have a chance to set a new course together.  No doubt future generations will chastise us for getting it wrong, but it will be the best we can do with what we have. 


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Oh to be in Lake Wobegon

It’s been a tough week.  I really want to write about something else, but the election has me tied up.  A quiet week in Lake Wobegon looks pretty good about now.  I confess to having avoided reading or listening to the news, except for snippets here and there.  I’ll get back to something more like normal next week.  In the meantime, I picked up a snippet about Speaker Ryan explaining how his plan to dismantle Obamacare would help prolong the financial stability of Medicare.  Knowledgable people were driven up the wall rebutting his math, noting that his plans would do just the opposite.   Knowledgable people did not get it. 

Look, Ryan may not be able to add, but he’s no dummy.  This is not about protecting Medicare, it’s not about balancing the budget, it’s not about paying down on the debt.  He knows that.  It’s about dismembering the federal government, and putting it back together again as a new and smaller creature.  Think of it as taking a fully loaded Lincoln and rebuilding it as a Yugo (if you don’t remember the Yugo, look it up).  What do you do with the left over parts?  Toss them out.  A Yugo doesn’t need them.  The idea is that our modern “welfare state” is a wasteful bureaucracy encouraging slothful dependency among people who should be out there working hard and taking care of themselves.  It stifles the American entrepreneurial spirit, and discourages investment in new jobs by big business.  On top of that, America is surrounded by well armed enemies and must rebuild its weakened military.  And, oh yes, let us not forget the infrastructure.  Whatever it is, it needs to be rebuilt.  

In the new America people will regain their native work ethic, live simple lives of contented, but competitive, enjoyment of all that an honest day’s work can provide.  New small businesses will sprout everywhere.  Industries will invest again.  The factories will return.  The ladder to middle class success be restored to it’s rightful place.  The poor will work their way out of it.  The destitute will be cared for through private charity.  It may be hard on some, but a little tough love to break the habit of dependency will turn out to be the best thing for everyone, especially those on the bottom rung.  Some may not do well, and let that be a lesson to the youth.  It is God, not the government, who helps those who help themselves.  It is not the government’s role to make life easy for those who wont work.  

You can come back with all the rebuttal data you want, it means nothing because it’s not about the data.  It’s about wanting a different kind of federal government than the one we have.  It doesn’t matter that we have had the longest span of uninterrupted, albeit slow, growth in our history.  It doesn’t matter that the deficit has been going down. It doesn’t matter than unemployment is low.  It doesn’t matter that tens of thousands have health insurance for the first time.  It doesn’t matter that Ryan’s budgets make no fiscal sense.  It is all about creating a smaller federal government with only four basic jobs: defense, foreign relations, minimal regulation of interstate commerce, and maintenance of the (privately owned where possible) interstate transportation system.  None of this social welfare stuff.  Leave that to states, localities, and charity.  What about all the other things the federal government does?  Let the private sector do it.  Let someone else do it.  Let it go.  

Are there holes in this utopian vision of a simpler America?  Like Swiss cheese, there are.  You can probably name many of them.  It doesn't matter.  The ardent believers are still ardent believers.  What gives them hope is that there are real problems with the way our federal government has evolved.  It is a rat’s nest of undecipherable rules and procedures.  Highly competent staffers don't know that they are in the business of customer service.  The corporate tax structure invites squirreling away retained earnings both here and overseas.  Unrestrained flows of cash into campaigns and lobbying distorts elections and the legislative process.  And let’s face it, the Constitution crafted the distribution of power between branches of the national government, and among quasi-independent states, each with its own way of doing things, so that competition, conflict, and confusion was inevitable.  Some fixing is in order.  Many of us would like to see it fixed.  They don’t want it fixed.  They want it replaced.

My own guess?  If Ryan, and Trump, are able to have their way, the nation will plummet into depression, not recession but depression, from which recovery would be very difficult.   Ryanists and Trumpeters don’t believe it.  What does Trump believe?  He believes he will help himself.  All three are sure it would lead to prosperity.  Only one might be right.


Friday, November 11, 2016

The Election Makes More Sense Than You Might Want To Admit

Several friends who voted for Trump have reacted to my short Morning After Thoughts article.  They are among those who agree with the woman who wrote about being shoved around and ignored for the last eight years.  They have lamented the wrong direction in which the nation has been going, and are hopeful that Trump might get it going in the right direction.  

What is the right direction?  Well, they protest, it certainly isn’t about making America white again.  Despite their earnest protest, I think it is, at least in part.  I’ve talked with them.  They don’t mean to exclude others exactly.  They do mean that the standards of the white middle class culture should again, and always be, the standards by which America is defined.  To put it bluntly, working middle class white people have been the center of political attention since FDR’s New Deal.  Every national campaign catered to their interests in the pursuit of votes.  Genuine or not, campaign promises were crafted to appeal to them.  That’s eighty-four years of concentrated attention from which flowed significant benefits: Social Security, wage and labor laws, FHA and VA housing loans, paved highways, rural electrification, and all the others were designed and delivered with white working middle class people in mind.  The emphasis on the white middle class was often enforced through Jim Crow laws, “red lining”, and other practices that prevented others from having equal access, or any access at all.

Eighty-four years were not without change.  I need not remind you of the cultural earthquakes that accompanied integration of the armed forces, school integration, civil rights and voting laws, nor of the social upheaval experienced through anti-war protests and the rise of feminism that coincided with the Viet Nam War.  Amidst it all, we continued to identify America with the white working middle class, the standard bearers of what it meant to be American.  Assimilation meant to become like them, even if you didn’t look like them.  It couldn’t last.

While my friends vehemently deny that they are racists, and I think they are being as honest as they can about that, everything changed in 2008.  Parenthetically, our acquaintances (not friends) who have always been full blown racists now feel free to let it all out, while disingenuously denying that they are.  It’s a little scary.  It was’t just that a black man was elected president, although they can’t say it wasn’t important.  What happened over the next eight years, and was seen to continue into the 2016 election, is that the white working middle class was no longer the center of political attention.  National candidates, except for Trump, and sometimes Sanders, did not cater to them.  They weren’t ignored, but neither were they catered to; they were not the center of attention, nor were they acknowledged as the authentic bearers of what it is to be American.  Like an only child who has been thrust into a blended family and expected to take a place, not as first among equals, but as just another family member among new siblings they don’t know, don’t like, and who define what it is to be family in alien ways, they rebelled.  They saw the new siblings as elbowing their way into getting benefits they had never worked for and didn’t deserve.  Freeloaders who upset the stable patterns that had assured them that everything was in its right place.  Divisiveness of the worst kind. 

Their candidate, odious as he is, won the electoral votes needed, even as he lost the popular vote.  He did it by appealing to their anxieties and fears, and by naming the upsetting changes out loud.  It helped that almost half the electorate stayed home, did not vote.  It’s the old story of getting the government you deserve.  Post election riotous protests against Trump have simply proved to his supporters how right they were.  It’s opened the gates for them to express their deepest fears and imagined grievances in ways that many progressives find appallingly ignorant and prejudiced, which, when we smugly say so, further fuel the divide.  What are we to do?


My guess is that four years of the incoming administration will be a bitter disappointment to his supporters.  They honestly believe the man is on their side.  So did the students at his fake university.  My hope is that he will do as little damage as possible to the fabric of American life.  A younger generation, four years older, will exert more political influence.  All those step siblings who used to know their places will continue to confound the old order as they establish their own places on their own terms.  Some of the nearly fifty percent of eligible voters who did not vote may come to their senses and cast their ballots.  As for me, if his tax plans see the light of day, I will do quite well, thank you very much.  Most working class Americans will not.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Evangelizing the Nones

The Christian Century included a brief article in its October 26 edition about a research project conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute on people unaffiliated with any religion, the “nones” of which we hear so much about.  I have no knowledge of how the project was undertaken, so am simply commenting on what was cited in the article.

One finding was that 60% said they simply stopped believing in their childhood religion.  Good for them.  Childhood religion is infantile pablum served up by well meaning church school leaders well beyond the time children should have been weaned from it.  At the very moment when most children are being prepared for the intellectual rigor of high school, they are elbowed out of church school still being taught bible stories more suited to the very young.  It’s not entirely the fault of their teachers.  Many of them never went beyond a juvenile understanding of their faith, which they have enthusiastically but uncritically held onto for a long time,  and they are teaching from materials that don’t encourage intellectual curiosity.  Others were pressed into service against their better judgment, and their teaching betrays it.

People, the bible is not fragile! It can stand up to serious inquiry and debate!  Children are capable of critical thinking, especially as they enter into their preteen years.  Jesus is not made of clay.  He can be engaged in serious conversation.  God does not remain distant and aloof.  God can be confronted, challenged, as in the story of Job.  In fact, Job as instructive myth is not hard for kids to grasp.  Children are not infants.  They can be, want to be, led into deeper, more profound engagement with God.  When church school and parishes don't let that happen, why bother going on at all?  They have better things to do, and besides, what is taught in school counts, what is taught in church doesn't.

If there are adults who stopped believing in their childhood religion, it is because we left them with a comic book version of it when their comic books had long been boxed up in the attic.  OK, I’m showing my age.  We left them with a Sesame Street version of it long after they had stopped watching Sesame Street.  It would be relatively easy to recover if it was only a matter of adults who once attended church but do so no longer.  Sadly, we are now into the second or third generation of those who have never been in church because it was their parents or grandparents who left their childhood religion behind.  It’s not easy to share the good news of God as revealed in Jesus Christ with people who are not interested, and can’t see any reason they should become interested.

Aren't you concerned about your eternal soul?  No, not particularly.  Don't you want to go to heaven?  Well sure, if there is one, but I don't need religion to get there.  OK, then you'll burn in hell for all of eternity.  Oh really, you should get a life, you bible thumping nutcase.

St. Paul had it easier, a lot easier.  He went to people who believed in gods of some kind, and in the religion that worshiped them.  Gods and religion were important.  They were an accepted part of the fabric of life.  All he had to do was point them in the right direction.  Our best option, it seems to me, is to focus on those whom we know were brought up in church, at least to the point of giving up their childhood religion.  At least they have a handle to grab onto.  Working with them to guide them into an adult way to engage with scripture that will help them gain an adult understanding of God, and what it means to follow Jesus is a doable thing.  Church then becomes not a thing one goes to, but a community of which one is a part.  Religion becomes the way in which God is shared in communion with one another, and not facile entertainment or dry rote liturgical exercises.  Among them, hopefully, will emerge some whose formation in discipleship will enable them to "witness" as adults to to other adults outside of church about the God they never knew.

Well, it's something to think about.

Morning After Thoughts

 Regular readers of my articles know I wrote several over the past year about why so many could not accept HRC as the candidate of their choice.  In short, it was because she represented the epitome of dynastic establishment elite whom they had come to loathe and distrust.  Moreover, she had the temerity to be a woman who would follow a black man.  You can stuff a lot into that bag.  It also has a lot to do with growing awareness among a very large segment of the population that a society dominated and controlled by white males of a vaguely Protestant persuasion is quickly, inevitably, being transformed into a society where that will no longer be true.  Consider the woman who posted on FB that "You leftists think we are all racists and sexists.  Well, we're not.  We are hard working people who have been shoved around and pushed up against the wall for the last eight years, and we're having no more of it."  You can make of that what you will.  What troubles me is that they chose a corrupt, cowardly, ignorant, unstable, serial abuser, and fraudster who drove his campaign on a dystopian vision of the present inconsistent with the facts, and promises for a glorious future he cannot deliver, which he shored up with insults, threats, and lies of unprecedented number.  It doesn't matter.  He's not HRC, and that's all that counts.  A number on FB are ecstatic.  It's the most wonderful morning in their lives.  All their prejudices have been vindicated.  That saddens me very much.  I don't know what will happen.  Perhaps it will be the catharsis that we need.  A last gasp of an old age dying far too late.  Perhaps it will be our own version of Caligula and Nero.  I hope not.  We shall see.  In the meantime, I think we are in for a very rough ride.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Christian responsibility in a secular state

Not long ago, the local paper ran a column by a fundamentalist pastor who urged everyone to vote.  So far so good, but he couldn’t stop there.  It is one’s Christian duty to vote in support of Christian values that will restore the country to its Christian roots.  That was more or less what he wrote.  He was never specific about what Christian values are or what restoration to Christian roots might look like, but he was adamant about the Christian responsibility to vote accordingly.  I confess to being skeptical about what Christian values he might have had in mind, indeed skeptical about whether they would even fit my understanding of what Christian values are.  No doubt he would be equally skeptical about me. 

His column reminded me of a discussion going on in a series of internet postings about separation of church and state.  Well, it wasn’t so much a discussion as a fortified engagement in which religiously loaded grenades were lobbed back and forth.  There is no such thing as separation of church and state, argued some.  God, as known and proclaimed in the bible, is in charge of everything.  It says that he raises empires and brings them down.  It is only by our sinful nature, and the power of the devil, that secularism has taken hold.  Christian must vote in such a way that the nation will be brought (back?) under the authority of God’s dominion lest it be destroyed by God’s wrath.  It’s been tried.  The Puritans were the last Americans to try to put such a political theology into practice through a hybrid theocratic democracy.  It worked only so long as their ruling elders, all duly elected men of good standing, could maintain control over what was publicly held to be correct Christian dogma.  Public punishment, banishment, and the occasional execution were the preferred tools of enforcement.  I wonder how that would work today?
There are other examples.  Medieval states, nominally Christian, were more about gaining and retaining power than they were about nourishing the state with Christian faith.  English Puritans, certain that the English Church was an evil echo of Rome, waged war, beheaded the king (he of divine right to rule in God’s name), and set up a Puritan theocracy ruled as a de facto dictatorship, only to discover that they could not be both Christlike and disciplinarians of faithfully correct behavior at the same time.  It took a half century or so, but the people got their king back, their church back, and began to discover that toleration of diversity had value for all.  We can look across the spectrum of modern nations observing that those that encourage religious freedom within an otherwise secular state tend to prosper in other kinds of freedom as well, while theocratic states tend to be oppressive, with little opportunity for fullness of human expression.  In them, God is not loved but feared.  Even more feared are the enforcers of what obedience to God is said to be.

I want to suggest, as I’m sure others have also, that it is not the responsibility of Christians to conform the state to their beliefs, particularly since we do not agree on what those beliefs are, except in the broadest of terms.  It is the responsibility of Christians to be politically engaged as followers of Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  The gospel message is fairly clear about that.  In summary it means to work to break down barriers of separation, to be agents of healing and reconciliation, and to advocate for economic and social justice. 

In this morning’s ecumenical clergy group we offered prayers for the nation from the Book of Common Prayer.  They seem appropriate to share here as well:

Almighty God, giver of all good things:
We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
Heal us.

We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
Forgive us.

We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
Inspire us.

We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
Enlighten us.

We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless
again and again.
Renew us.

Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name.  Amen. 




Monday, November 7, 2016

In Praise of No Names

What counts as fame comes and goes.  Today’s celebrities are faint whispers soon forgotten as others take their place.  The great and famous in one age are relegated to historical trash piles when a new age has examined them and found them wanting.  Some great names are remembered for the wars they fought and empires founded, but even they fade into the recesses of our mental closets to join the stuff that had been crammed into our heads by relentless teachers.  Who is it that is truly remembered?  For the most part they are the ones who have given us great ideas, great literature, great art, and great discoveries, each of them likely to have been dismissed, even persecuted, during their lifetimes.  I doubt that they ever aspired to historical greatness, even as a few, perhaps, sensed that it was their fate.  I imagine they preferred to do their work, be given due thanks and appreciation, but otherwise allowed live without the hassle of public acclaim.

The apocryphal book of Sirach offers praise for famous men who are remembered in history for their great deeds, or have left wondrous creative works for future generations to enjoy.  Good for them, whoever they are.  What has always intrigued me is that the author goes on to remember the rest of us as well.
But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children.  Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake.  Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out.  Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.  The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise. (Sir. 44)

These are the people from whom most of us came, and from whom our descendants will take root.  A superficially brief look at the genealogy of my own family reveals that we were mostly farmers, teachers, and ministers, with an occasional blip on the radar to accommodate a noted scholar, athlete, momentary celebrity, along with the requisite horse thief.  Something like that is probably true for your family too.  If there is such a thing as average, I guess we were it.  Back in high school, many of us rebelled against being average.  Who wants to be blah?  We did not want to be unremembered as no names trudging her and his way through life along with all the other no names doing nothing great or exciting or interesting.

We were wrong. There is no such thing as average, and going through life with a name that will not be remembered does not add up to nothing.  It is from these that nations are fed, new generations prepared for life, the ebb and flow of daily life enabled and maintained, and from whom the possibility of greatness is born.  John Polkinghorne talks about our God of infinite possibilities in a universe of unbounded fecundity.  At the heart of all those possibilities lies the multitude of those lost to memory, yet in whom, and through whom, all those infinite possibilities exist.  We are the infinite field and the infinite seed that will grow infinite possibilities ripe for the harvest.  We are not nobody but uniquely somebody.  We are, as it is said, each created in God’s image, yet unique in all of creation.  Amidst the infinite we are each known by names that will never be forgotten.  

As with all living things, the time will come when our work will end, whether completed or not.  There will be questions.  Did we ever begin?  Did we abandon it?  Did we care enough to do the best we could with what we had?  Were we wheat or were we tares?  Amidst the cares and occupations of daily life, did we even know what our real work was?

They are difficult questions, uncomfortable to answer with full transparent honesty.  It’s not that we deceive others with intentional dishonesty, though some do.  Most of us deceive ourselves with all best intentions.  Thankfully, ours is a God not only of infinite possibilities, but also of infinite second chances.  As Christians we are confident that in Jesus we are each embraced with abounding, steadfast, reconciling love that guides and guards us along the way – if we will accept it.  Our time on earth will end, but we know that in death, life is not ended but changed for a greater fullness and wholeness of new life in God’s nearer presence.  I imagine, as God calls us each by name, that the questions will still have to be answered.  It will be a little uncomfortable for me.  No doubt it will be a breeze for you.  We can meet up later and compare notes.  In the meantime, how does it feel to be among those whose names will never be forgotten?


Thursday, November 3, 2016

One Last Shot. This time not across the bow.

If Hillary was a man she would be the overwhelming favorite of everyone except the extreme left and right.  People would be cheering that, at last, we have a candidate who speaks with understanding about the most pressing needs of the nation, and of the great majority of its people.  They would express delight with a candidate that knows how government works, and has the proven ability to negotiate across party lines.  How pleased they would be with a candidate who understands global issues, and is known and respected by world leaders. Here, they would say, is a person who can bridge the gap between vision and pragmatic possibility.

If Hillary was a man, Trump would be clearly revealed as the dangerous charlatan that he is.  His hollow swagger, his incompetency as a business person, his  life of gargantuan exaggeration and lies beyond number, his bigotry, his history of fraud and abuse, his record of contempt that, if ever prosecuted, would be criminal.  It would blossom like a field of poison ivy.  

But Hillary is not a man.  She is a woman, and not only a woman, but a woman following a black man.  For some that is beyond unacceptable, it is unthinkable.  Never in American political history has a person’s life been parsed and investigated with the voracious hunger of a ravenous wolf pack as has her life.  And where has it led?  Nowhere!  But even nowhere can be made into somewhere.  Every error of judgment and misstep of behavior common to us all has been contorted into felonious proportions.  Every record of a diligent work ethic applied to many accomplishments of merit has been ignored or trivialized.  Never has so much been made of so little in an effort to demean a person for no good reason other than that she is a woman, and not just a woman, but a woman following a black man.

I am not surprised by the Hannitys and Limbaughs of the airways, nor of the Breitbarts and Drudges of the internet.  They earn their living by appealing to the worst in human nature.  It’s an old vocation, a form of intellectual prostitution, but it can provide a handsome income.  I am disappointed by editorial coverage in papers such as the WSJ that is as dreadfully ill informed as its reporting is well informed.  What really distresses me are the rank and file journalists who have murdered journalistic integrity in their attempts at fairness by equilibrating one person’s venial errors with the other’s mortal sins.

This is not an election in which we must choose between the lesser of two evils. This is an election in which we must choose between selfish malfeasance personified, and an experienced person whose fundamental, if humanly  flawed, integrity is as solid or better than yours or mine, and is dedicated to the best interests of the nation.

Is there a yes, but?  Of course there is, in fact there are several.  For perfection in persons one needs to look elsewhere, the mirror not included.