Thursday, August 31, 2017

Trump's Fundraising Mailers: models of political lying and they work really well

I noted in a recent column that I’m on several GOP mailing lists.  It helps me keep up with things.  A “Trump Agenda Survey” showed up several days ago, and here is what it had to say to prospective donors about the state of the nation, keeping in mind that it was sent out before Harvey hit Southeast Texas.
  • A border wall is needed to stop illegal migration
  • Obama’s executive orders were unconstitutional
  • Immigration laws have not been fully enforced (we’re being overrun)
  • Sanctuary cites should have their funding cut off
  • Our (weak) military needs to be rebuilt
  • Federal regulation is preventing economic growth
  • Lands must be opened to more carbon fuel production
  • Bad trade deals must be renegotiated to favor American jobs first
  • The inefficient federal bureaucracy needs to be shrunk, and made more accountable (to whom?)
  • A flatter, simpler tax code would be more fair to all
  • Federal spending on infrastructure should increase
  • Corporate tax rates should be reduced to increase employment
  • Government unions should be suspended by executive order
  • Federally mandated “Common Core” curricula should be eliminated
  • GOP leadership should change senate rules to overcome Dem. opposition to the Trump agenda
  • Because congressional Democrats have no intention of working in good faith with Trump
  • Mainstream media will not give Trump fair, unbiased coverage of his policies and leadership
They’re posed in the form of questions loaded with unstated assumptions and assertions leaving no doubt what the answers are supposed to be.  In fact, no one ever looks at the answers.  They only want to tell a story and get some money.  The illusion that they care what you think helps.  The point is that this “survey”, and others like it, presents rank and file GOP supporters with a grossly misleading, sometimes flat out false picture of how the nation is faring.  It’s a picture that’s widely and unshakably believed.  After all, would the Grand Old Party lie?  Heaven forbid.  Besides it confirms the story that has been told in other fund requests sent repeatedly to the same people for the last eight years.  The same thing repeated enough times becomes true in the minds of many.

To be fair, I’m also on a number of Democratic lists, and get their “surveys” also.  They too betray a bias, but in a much different way.  While their questions imply answers they hope will resonate with donors, they’re generally about issues  being honestly debated in the public arena, relate to verifiable conditions, and promote legislative solutions with some probability of success.  They don’t appeal in a way that drives into the deeply felt convictions of their base in order to elicit knee jerk responses.   In other words, they’re predictable, unexciting, and seldom stoop to fear mongering.  It could be that Democrats don’t really have the same kind of base, and, such as it is, it’s wildly diverse, made up of sharply divided opinions about what should be done, and, until recently, not emotionally up in arms.

That changed under Trump’s twitchy twitter finger, and  bloviated speechifying oozing with racism, sexism, pandering, threats of violence, and promises of more tax relief for the very wealthy.  The Democratic base may still be all over the place, but wherever they are, they’re united in emotionally charged outrage over the doors of bigotry and injustice the president has opened, and through which he has invited the worst and most dangerous of human tendencies toward racist authoritarianism.

The “Resistance”, that’s what they call it.  The thing is, resistance, by itself, seldom wins elections.  When it does, it often has no idea where to go next.  For Democrats to make it an effective political movement, resistance must be yoked to a solid, workable agenda articulating what the party is for, stated in emotionally attractive, easily understood terms aimed directly at the middle class, and those who aspire to it.  Otherwise, the  emotional energy of resistance will simply sputter out in self induced exhaustion.  

Given that, to whom do they need to appeal.  Obviously those who are emotionally outraged.  They’re first, but then who?  Not the Trump base. They’re a lost cause.  Next must be the 50-70% of registered voters who have given up voting altogether.  Finally, there are growing numbers of center-right Trump voters who now realize they’ve been scammed.  All they really want to know from Democrats is that they’re not raving, left wing socialists who will tax and regulate them out of everything.  Suspicious though they might be, they will vote for the right Democratic candidates at the state and local levels, maybe even for congress. 

We shall see what will happen. 


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Cultural Sophistication in the Rural West

This short article is for readers in other parts of the country who may be curious about a small city in the rural west.

Rural places are often thought of as far removed from the cultural sophistication of metropolitan areas, and they can be, but there are exceptions.  We live in one of them.  Seventeen years ago we moved to Walla Walla from the New York City area.  It’s a city of a bit over 30,000 in rural eastern Washington.  Sitting on the Oregon border, its a four hour drive to Portland down the scenic Columbia Gorge, and five hours plus to Seattle, except in winter when the pass might be closed.  It’s only three hours to Spokane, but who wants to go to Spokane?  We can always fly: three flights a day to Seattle.  It lies against the relatively small Blue Mountains, and though surrounded by the high, but productive, desert of the intermountain west , its green valley is watered by dozens of creeks flowing toward the Columbia River.  Friends in New York, and folks we met when we first moved here, wondered about the culture shock of moving from such a culturally active world capital to a small town in the  rural American West.  

In truth, culturally cosmopolitan life is not only possible in the rural West, it can be enjoyed in Walla Walla.  Yes, we have farms, ranches, rodeos, county fairs, and pickup trucks by the hundreds.  We also have three nationally respected colleges, a professional symphony orchestra celebrating it’s 150th year, a chamber music festival that attracts top talent from throughout the country, an active art community, several theater groups, and fine dining, along with burger joints and taco trucks.  If chamber music is not your thing, how about a guitar festival, rock & roll festival, or any of a dozen or so local bands of gifted musicians.  If, in your travels, you run across a magnificent piece of modern sculpture, chances are it was produced at the Walla Walla Foundry.  The arts are big in Walla Walla.

Walla Walla, it’s  a funny name, always gets a giggle.  Some vaguely remember it from Bugs Bunny cartoons, goofy songs, and old vaudeville jokes.  Others know about Walla Walla Sweet Onions.  Anything else?  With 150 wineries in the valley, its home to the finest premium wine produced anywhere in North America.  As is sometimes heard around here, “Napa is for auto parts, Walla Walla is for wine.”  What about produce?  The valley produces produce in abundance.  Some is exported, but most is consumed in the region, which means we feast on locally produced fruits and vegetables of the finest quality.  For the carnivores among us, it’s up to you to choose.  You can have the standard super market fare or, for a bit more, the best in locally grown and butchered meats where you can know the rancher and his or her livestock.

For all of that, it’s still a small city in the rural intermountain west.  It’s unlikely you’ll pass through someday because we’re not on the Interstate.  The Blue Mountains lack the visual appeal of the Rockies or Cascades, and besides, they’re accessible mostly by Forest Service roads not suitable for the average family car.  Rush hour lasts about five minutes.  A long wait at a stop sign might see five or six cars go by.  Like any small city, its warts and weaknesses are visible to all.  Not much is hidden.  Rich and poor live in close proximity to one another.  The usual distribution of generosity and parsimony, toleration and bigotry, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, are all the more evident in small cities like Walla Walla.  That includes its history. The grounds of old Fort Walla Walla are now a park and museum celebrating the pioneer history of the place.  Not too far away, on the reservation of the united tribes of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians, is the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute celebrating the history and culture of the peoples from whom the pioneers took the land by force.  What was done was done, both need to be remembered, both contribute to who we are today.  The growing influence today is Hispanic, and that’s a good thing for who we will become tomorrow.


If you’re a dedicated big city person, Walla Walla is probably not for you.  But if a little taste of almost everything the good life is supposed to be appeals to you, it could be the very best place to live.  One caveat: as an immigrant from the coastal East I can safely say, if you want to come to America’s rural west, leave your big city attitude and expectations behind.  It’s a sophisticated small city in the rural west, and that’s what it wants to remain.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Basics of Ethics for Ordinary People

This is an article for a few friends who are struggling to understand how to think about questions of good and evil, because they have swamped the front pages of papers and captured commentary on evening news broadcasts.  Even more, they have become routine fodder for late night comedians.  How then are ordinary people supposed to  think about them?  Scholars and academics can safely skip this one, but it you read it, keep your guffaws to yourselves.

Most people encounter questions of ethics or morality through habits of the heart deeply rooted in whatever they were taught as children.  It works well enough as long as the questions don’t get too complicated.  The question of evil, if it comes up at all, is heard most often from preachers who can’t give it a rest.  They use it like a bludgeon to intimidate their congregations.  Talk radio hosts use lies and distortions to make the evil look good, and the good look evil.  They’re poor foundations for engaging with serious questions about good and evil, and, given the current political climate, we are beset with serious questions.

So this is a brief article on a few basics that might be of some help to some of my friends, and perhaps some of yours.  Let’s start by saying that what is ethical and what is moral are the same thing.  Somehow ethics has become an arid term having to do with arcane things philosophers talk about as they explore whether something should or shouldn’t be done.  If not that, it has to do with how close something is to being illegal.  What’s ethical is important, but dull.  What a shame.  Too bad ethics can’t be more sexy, like morality.  Morality, it seems, has come to be almost always about sex one way or the other.  I have no idea how it came to this, but let’s untie the knot and say that the ethical and moral are identical twins.

Evil is another problem that needs to be unpacked.  In rough terms there is a difference between natural evil and moral evil, with the understanding that, in its simplest form, evil is something bad that happens in our lives.  Natural evils are events that occur because we are creatures who exist on a living, breathing earth in a living, breathing universe.  Life depends on it.  Wind, rain, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, wild fires, tsunamis, they’re all the breathing in and breathing out of Mother Earth.   When we were few in number, getting out of the way of nature was not a big problem, but no longer.  There are billions of us, and we get in the way of nature by building our towns along beaches, in flood plains, and on earthquake faults.  We populated “tornado alley.”  Moreover, there are enough of us with the right kind of technologies to disrupt and exacerbate nature’s normal rhythms.  Mother Nature doesn’t like being messed with.  Natural evils destroy and kill, but they don’t do so by choice.  They do what they do to keep the earth alive, making life possible for all creation.  Wondering why God lets natural evil happen isn’t helpful.  The better question is, how can we live more comfortably and safely in harmony with nature?

Moral evil, on the other hand, lies entirely in our hands.  It’s the result of decisions we make.  There are obvious moral evils that occur when we choose to do something that betrays, cheats, injures, kills, or steals.  You know the Ten Commandments, and the record of man’s inhumanity to man is always before us.  There are less obvious moral evils that occur when we do the same things, but in more socially acceptable ways, or in ways that elicit little more than a tut-tut.  St. Paul suggested a partial list: envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossiping, slandering, demeaning God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. He probably wasn’t done; just ran out of steam.  The point made two thousand years ago is still valid.  These are behaviors common to the everyday life of so called good people.  They are among the moral evils we tend to gloss over, unless we can use them to smugly accuse and judge someone else.  

Natural evil and moral evil overlap.  We can, and do, make decisions about how we use the earth and its creatures to create conditions under which something bad happens.  Building a town in a flood plain, for instance, puts people in harms way.  Fracking causes earthquakes in some places.  Over grazing destroys the ability of the land to refresh itself.  Shortcuts, greed, mistakes, and sloppy designs create unsafe structures, vehicles, and equipment.  The famous law of unintended consequences is the adult version of a child’s whining cry that “I didn’t mean to.”

Obviously making moral decisions requires doing good while avoiding evil.  It also means avoiding, where pragmatically possible, placing ourselves and others in the path of natural evil.  It means avoiding doing things that accommodate moral evil.  Laws, for instance, have sometimes been used to accommodate moral evils such as slavery, discrimination, and various forms of oppression and  injustice.  Laws have also been used to reverse them.  That’s what politics is about.  

What society popularly accepts as right and natural is often a poor judge of what is good and just, not because society doesn’t care.  It’s because society doesn’t think about hard questions with any consistency.  It goes back to uncritical acceptance of what we were taught as children.  Of course not everything we were taught as kids was wrong.  Much of it was very good indeed.  That means for most of us, it’s relatively easy to choose between an obvious good and an obvious bad.  It’s good to be honest.  It’s bad to be dishonest.  Easy.  We learned that in kindergarten.  

It gets a little harder when the only choices are bad ones.  Which bad choice will do the least evil, while possibly doing some good.  Eisenhower had a lot to say about the decisions he had to make in WWII.  It was a war to defeat an obvious evil, but at the cost of many lives, much destruction, and that’s evil too.  What plan would do the least harm while achieving the desired outcome.  For him it was not an abstraction.  He knew he was sending thousands to their deaths, and he did it on purpose (Dear Mom & Dad: Tomorrow your son will be dead, and I decided it was for the best. Thank you.).  Few of us have to make those kinds of decisions, but our voices contribute to them, and we should think it over before leaping to endorse one way or another.  

Oddly enough, a tougher choice is between two or more goods.  We must choose, but choosing will mean one desired good will be sacrificed for the other.  An obvious example might be the debate over Affirmative Action.  If a college wants to make some places available to persons who were previously kept out, it means someone who previously might have got in, won’t.  If I have enough money to pay the rent or buy food, which will it be?  I want lower taxes, but I also want good roads and schools: choose one or the other, but not both.  

So what are we to do?  How do we choose?  Let’s go back to habits of the heart.  Throw out the ones you learned in childhood.   It’s time to take the training wheels off, and learn to ride without them.  Adopt adult habits of the heart.  The Ten Commandments are a good place to start.  Look deeply into the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus once said that the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor.  Weigh every decision on that balance, and you will not be far off.  If they are integrated into the habits of your life, you won’t have to debate everything that comes along.  Your natural responses will be ethical, moral.    

More complicated questions require more intensive pondering, but always in the direction of why are we doing this?  What purpose does it serve?  Who benefits and who gets hurt?  Is it just, is it fair, is it equitable?  Most of all, how does it stack up against the commandments to love God and love neighbors (who are always the people we would rather not have as neighbors).  We don’t always get it right, but we can always do better than we have done before.

What is required of you?  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with your God.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Here's to Identity Politics: endorsed by St. Paul himself

Identity politics came up during the presidential campaign, with Republicans accusing Democrats of using identity politics to divide the nation into competing interests while they were all about uniting everyone.  There were a few articles and op-ed columns, then it went away – until the last several weeks.  Now it’s all over the place.  Right wingers of various stripes complain that identity politics, not racists and fascists, are the root cause of the civil disorder we’ve seen.  Whoever is behind it, and surely there must be someone, intends to take us down by dividing us one against the other, while you-know-who is struggling mightily to unite us in common effort.

A Wikipedia article claims the term has been around since the 1970s, but it only gave a name to something much older.  It’s not an ideology, nor is it a movement.  It’s not even a well defined political tactic.  At it’s core it’s giving voice to, and hearing the voice of, people whose voices had previously been ignored or suppressed.  The Civil Rights movement projected some of those voices with power that shook the illusion of a national unity expressed by a single voice accustomed to suppressing dissenting views without fear of opposition.  Feminist voices added their own decibels to the mix, as did environmentalists, and then dozens of others emboldened and wanting to be heard.

Things seemed to settle down to normal In the decades following the era of Vietnam and civil rights uprisings.  Adequate progress had been made.  Voices had been allowed to speak, sometimes heard, and occasionally given a seat at the table.  All was well, the right voices were in charge, and then one of those other voices got elected to the presidency.  Who the hell let that happen?  It began to look like politics had become a game in which one identity group would win at the expense of all others, especially at the expense of those accustomed to being in charge.  The last election nearly gave it up to yet another one.  It didn’t happen, but it nearly did.  Would American elections from now on be won by which identity group could beat the others?  Something like identity playoffs in which there would be one winner, everyone else a loser?  If candidates listened to the various voices in their constituencies, were they pandering to them, or playing them off against each other?  Those who were accustomed to being in charge, speaking as if for all, thought they knew.  Those whose own identities were sort of like the ones in charge also thought they knew.  Identity politics was destructive of national unity under one voice.

All the talk about identity politics might have died away again but for the guy who got elected.  It turned out his was a voice once identified with old gangster movies and novels about corrupt Southern politics.  With consummate skill at saying the unthinkable with the worst possible timing, he unleashed storms of voices who couldn’t, wouldn’t keep their peace any longer.  Among them were the voices of pure evil. 

What a racket!  What a chaotic, indecipherable racket!  “Can’t we all just get along?”  Can’t we all just go back to the way it use to be?  Let the people who know how to be in charge speak for all of us the way they used to.  The rest of you just be quiet, relax, chill.

It is a racket, and it is chaotic, but it’s also healthy.  They’re not voices in competition with each other so that one must win and the others lose.  With a few exceptions, they’re voices expressing genuine concern about important issues that need to be heard in the context of cooperative conversation with others.  They’re voices that live in symbiotic relationship with other voices, and the health of the whole depends on the health of the symbiosis.  

Hard to believe, but St. Paul had something useful to say about it.  He wrote to the squabbling church in Corinth that: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.  …If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Cor. 12)”

It doesn’t mean pathogens wont try to infect the body ,but I think you get the idea.  

So here’s to identity politics.  May we learn to love it as we live into it.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Deeper into the minds of Trump supporters

Ours is a conservative area that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  It isn’t easy to understand why because, conservative though the majority may be, they also espouse high standards in moral values such as honesty and integrity.  Why couldn’t they see him for the con artist he is?  A large part of it has to do with nothing more complicated than party loyalty.  They’re Republicans who vote Republican no matter who the candidate is.  Automatic as their votes may be, they’re undergirded by a deeply ingrained myth that Democrats are socialists who favor higher taxes on the middle class, more government spending on the slackers of the country, and greater regulation of daily life.  Moreover, they hold in derision the more liberal other side of the mountains (coastal Washington and Oregon) as a land filled with people who don’t know what a hard day of honest work is like, and expect the government to do everything for them.  It’s not a story easily shaken.  There’s only one reason to go to Seattle: Seahawks games.  There’s no reason to go to Portland.  Voting for Trump was a no brainer.  He ran as a Republican.  What more did they need to know?  But there was more.  He promised to undo all the harm eight years of Obama had done.  It was an added plus despite having no foundation in reality.  

I’m on several GOP mailing lists, and received regular mailings throughout Obama’s term.  Most were in the form of surveys with questions that asserted a failing economy, teetering stock market, plummeting employment, disastrous trade deals, wasteful spending, lack of respect among other world leaders, and declining military readiness.  Democrats sent out their own versions, but Republicans mastered the art of lying with a straight face about the state of the nation.  Getting messages like that, month after month for eight years, was bound to have an effect on people predisposed to believe them.   I try to keep up with the voices of local conservative voters through social media, and was taken aback by the cascade of comments following the Charlottesville backlash in which Trump backers expressed dismay at how he was being treated.  Didn’t people know how low the nation had sunk under the disastrous policies of Obama?  On the edge of economic collapse, with jobs flowing overseas, only Trump could be counted on to restore greatness to America.  Why was he being treated with such contempt by an ungrateful nation?  All this racism stuff was a deliberate distraction from the important issues at hand.

They’re not the words of right wing Fascists.  Are they the words of racists?  Yes, but the nice kind who don’t think they are.  They’re the words of right wing tea partiers who are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they’ve even convinced traditional conservatives about the need to keep on supporting Trump.  That’s especially easy to do when the main opposition candidate was the Grande Dame of the coastal elite who got us into this mess while looking down on the “deplorables” who actually do the hard work that keeps it all running.  And who was her alter ego?  That crazy Jewish New England socialist.  The GOP establishment was hardly better.  The only voice they offer up these days is a rich Mormon whose personality makes Al Gore look exciting.  They rest their case and stand their ground.


Are they going to change?  I doubt it.  What can change, and must change, is a concerted effort to educate the 70 to 80% of the public who don’t vote about basic American government civics, and the conditions that face the nation.  Don’t blame the schools for the lack of civic learning.  Adults who don’t vote were educated in schools that taught it, but it didn’t take.  The education required will have to come through social media, broadcast media, and politicians of integrity.  Republicans, if it they don’t want to become a right wing fringe party, must cease baiting supporters with blatantly false information, and begin arguing for a genuine conservative agenda proposed by legislative leaders willing to engage in honest negotiation for the good of the nation.  And speaking of honesty, let’s be honest about it, with malice aforethought they engaged in deliberate obstruction of any and every effort of Obama to do anything. They did it publicly, pridefully, and deplorably.  Now they’re stuck with an unbalanced, incompetent, amoral president of their own making.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words that Defile - but it's not about race

The nation has begun to display a collective shudder of recognition as it continues to reflect on what Trump has said, from the start of his campaign until now, on so many subjects, about so many people, in so many ways:  he is the person he always appeared to be; we thought it was just a show.  It’s hard to understand, but some continue to defend him saying, “well, they’re just words, it’s the way everyone talks, it is’t what he really means.”  

They aren’t just words.  It isn’t the way everyone talks.  Words carry real meanings and reveal real truths about those who utter them.  Jesus reminded his followers of that when he said, ”…It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles [a person]… evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (Mark/Matt.)  What we say can bless or curse, defile or sanctify, build up or tear down.  Words are powerful, and Trump has used them as blunt weapons to assault others in every conceivable way, not only now, but throughout his career. 

It should be a surprise, but it isn’t, that there are two common moves to deflect the power of Jesus’ words when people don’t want to hear them.  One is to assume the role of self righteous judge pointing fingers at others, especially those who can be accused of lascivious things like adultery and fornication.   There’s nothing like a harrumphed tut-tut and tsk-tsk to keep attention focused somewhere other than on one’s self, with the added benefit of implying moral superiority.  Jesus condemned exploitation and oppression, but it seems he had a soft spot in his heart for some people whose sex life was suspect.  He didn’t approve, but he didn’t condemn.  Go figure.  St. Paul seemed to understand it well when, in his letter to the Romans, he offered up an even longer list  of what can defile, and then warned the self righteous not to be quick to judge because they do the same things.  The point they both make is that being self righteous is not a solid rock on which to stand.   

The other deflecting move is to admit some small degree to guilt, but quickly point to others with a, “Yeah, but what about them?”  Trump is a master of the move, and those who continue to support him follow with their own versions.  Sure, he may have said something inappropriate, but they were just words, and besides what about (Insert name of your choice).  If you can’t think of one, Clinton always works.  If nothing else, bring up Benghazi, although that one’s faded to almost nothing. 

No!  This is not about what somebody else said or did.  This is about what Trump has said and done, and it’s important because he is the 45th president of the United States.  For that reason only, what he says has deep powerful meaning.  But for that he would still be a floundering, blowhard, celebrity t.v. idol pawning himself off on a gullible public.  That’s what he was.  Now he’s the president, and what he has said and continues to say is a constant stream of words that defile, curse, and destroy.  It ought not to be.

What about my words? Are they words of defilement or blessing?  Are they words of deflection?  They could be, but they aren’t.  They’re words of observation and description about what should be obvious and taken seriously.  There are plenty of skeletons in my closet if you want to pry, but I’m not the president, he is, and that’s important.  Pay attention to what’s important!

With that, a few of my conservative friends will undoubtedly say that I’ll end up making this about race.  Of course not.  Shocked, I say, shocked, that you would even suggest such a thing.  It may have to do with people who resented a competent black man digging us out of an economic hole when it should have been Ronald Reagan.  Failing that, it may have to do with the illusion that even Trump would be OK as a successor, as long as he was male, white and appeared to be rich.  But certainly, and by all means, it’s not about race, or gender.  No, not about gender either.   Perish the thought.






Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Standing with Jesus against evil

The events in Charlottesville have elevated an issue that has been festering a long time.  Amidst the political discomfort that now blankets the nation, Christian pastors have tried to navigate a middle course, proclaiming the gospel without meddling in affairs many parishioners consider to be none of the business of clergy or church.  That’s especially true in my community.  The dominant political ethos is conservative, and public discourse exhibits a subtle distrust of people who are “not like us.”  That’s just the way it is, neither good nor bad.  Let’s face it, that’s the way it is everywhere, even in places on the other side.  But when white supremacists, Nazis and their relations gain enough footing to absorb the evening news, pastors can no longer walk the tightrope.  They must stand.  Duck and cover is not an option. 

White supremacy and Nazisim express not one set of ideologies among others to be treated with equal regard.  Our constitution may give them the right to be heard, but they are ideologies of demonic evil, intolerable to our Lord Jesus Christ.  We would be failing in our duties as his disciples not to speak out.  As it is, I cannot speak for others, only for myself, but I speak as one who follows Jesus as best I can.  

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was tossed into the Birmingham jail many years ago, he wrote a long letter to the local clergy.  Most of them had urged patience, noting that there was a certain amount of misbehavior on both sides, and maybe now was the not the time to confront segregation in ways that invited more violence.  King chastised them with strong prophetic words.  When was the right time to stand against evil, if not now?  When was the right time to stand for Jesus Christ, if not now?  When was the right time to risk more violence from those whose evil ideology was based on violent suppression of others' freedom, if not now?

The events of the last week speak for themselves. Now is the time to stand against evil.  There are not two sides to be carefully evaluated.  There is one side that is both un-American and counter to everything Jesus stands for.  Indeed, they are near cousins to the forces that crucified him.  That counter demonstrators may have behaved badly also does not make things equal.  One side would destroy the highest ideals of our nation in the name of demonic evil.  The other, however stumbling, would defend our highest ideals.  Whether Christian or not, they follow, however poorly, the fundamentals of his teaching.  

What teaching?  Jesus dedicated his life to breaking down barriers that separate us from one another.   Healing and reconciliation was what he was about.  He made it clear that we are all created in God’s image, that none are deputed by God to be superior to others, and that God is not shy about condemning those who would twist it to be understood otherwise.  He taught not as another wise teacher, but as the very word of God.  It’s not up for debate.   As an old hymn proclaims, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”  We may not see the fullness of it yet, but it stands as our beacon guiding the way.

Jesus stood with courage in the face of the evil he met each day.  He stood especially tall in the presence of evil represented by the rulers of the land, even at the cost of death itself.  As Christians, we proclaim that, in his resurrection, he defeated both death and the ideologies of the rulers of his day.  White supremacists and Nazis are not our rulers, but they would like to be, and they are adept at spreading their poison whenever they think they have a chance to do it.


Jesus defeated them on the cross and at the empty tomb , but they have a way of raising their heads from time to time to see if a comeback is possible.  It took a world war to quash it last time.  We cannot let that happened again, and not in our country.  

Friday, August 11, 2017

Christianity for Curious Nones

It seems to be cemented into our brains that getting in good with God is hard, that we have to do special things in special ways or miss out altogether.  That goes for believers and non believers alike.  God, as we know him in Jesus, doesn’t work that way.  So how does God work?  In what way do we see it demonstrated in the life of Jesus?

There’s a story told about Jesus walking on water.  People can’t walk on water, you know.  Anyway, he walked out to a boat where his disciples were in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, a very large lake in northern Israel.  All but one of them thought they were seeing a ghost, which, in those days, was more common than it is today.  That one was Peter, who thought he recognized Jesus, and called out, “Hey, if it’s really you call me to get out of the boat and walk to you.”  So Jesus did, Peter got out, began to walk, and sank like a rock.  People can’t walk on water you know.  Anyway, Jesus grabbed him, pulled him up, and said why didn’t they both get back in the boat. 

Now the rest of the disciples were used to seeing Jesus heal people, and say profound things about love, but this was something new, unexpected, and unexplainable.  If this isn’t enough to make the story hard to swallow, it was a dark and stormy night of violent waves and fierce winds.  The disciples were exhausted and afraid.  What could possibly happen next?  Jesus told the waves and wind to settle down, and they did.  Good grief!  What could they say except “You must be a son of God.”  Now Jews, they were all Jews, did not believe in a son of God, but there were lots of sons of gods in the mythology of the religions that surrounded them, so it was a reasonable thing for them to say.  Are you buying it yet?  

For Christians, it’s not that hard because we understand Jesus to be the manifestation of God in human form, or, as we prefer to say, the Word of God made flesh.  For others, these kinds of stories seem too far out to be of any value, and that’s a mistake.  Whether it happened that way or not, the story says a great deal about what it means to come to God, or have God come to you.  

Some people are called by Jesus to get out of the boat and come to him.  There is always the possibility, maybe probability, that doubt and insecurity will result in sinking fast, but if Jesus called, Jesus will pull them up and lead them on.  It may still be a dark and stormy night, the outcome yet to be determined.  That’s the way life is.  In Jesus’ company it doesn’t matter.  All will be well  The ancient martyrs being led away to their execution knew that, and lived into it.  The same is true of modern martyrs.  Think of MLK’s mountain top speech as one example.  When Jesus calls someone to follow him, every bad thing that can happen loses it’s power because they have entered into a greater, more authentic reality.

If there is a test to pass, it is to recognize the authenticity of Jesus’ call, and get out of the boat.  However, not everyone is called that way.  Most of us stay in the boat. Why?  Because we weren’t called to get out of it.  And here’s the curious thing; confused, afraid, full of doubt, unable to understand, battered by the storms of life, Jesus comes anyway, gets in the boat with us, and all is well, no matter how it turns out.  I suppose we could yell in disbelieving fear, “No, No, get out of here: you’re a ghost, we don’t want you, go away!  it’s probably what he would do – go away.  Jesus doesn’t force his way into anyone’s life.  The disciples didn’t do that because Peter, brave, impetuous Peter, had answered the singular call, and verified for them that this really was Jesus, so yes, they were more than relieved for him to get in the boat with them.  

It often takes a Peter to lead the way to recognizing Jesus, however sinkingly incompetent he or she might appear.  Only a few are called, like Peter, to get out of the boat.  Most are called, in a sense, to stay in the boat.  Jesus will be there either way, so don’t worry about it.  Yes, but, how is one to know if Jesus is really calling?  Good question.  Here’s the only answer I have.  Many years ago I was doing some work in northern Minnesota on questions about forest management.  Driving into a birch and aspen grove, I asked my guide how to tell the difference between them because they all looked white to me.  “If you wonder whether it’s a birch,” he said, “it isn’t.”  The brilliance of a northern Minnesota birch leaves no doubt about it.  If you wonder, it isn’t.  That’s a lot like a call from Jesus.  If you wonder whether it is or not, it isn’t.  The important rule is to stay in the boat.  That’s where you’re supposed to be.

Doesn’t that make those in the boat second class disciples?  Who wants to be second class?  No it doesn’t.  Jesus is fully present either way.   The big question is, are you in the boat at all, because on that dark and stormy sea, there is no other boat?  But don’t go all exclusive about that.  It’s a big boat, and if you look around you will probably see others you always thought didn’t belong, and never would have been invited aboard.  


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Correcting Human Defects – Designing Human Perfection

Genetic modifications to human embryos in laboratory settings have set off quite a conversation.  Mysterious to me, it appears to have to do with finding ways to correct harmful aberrations in frozen sperm or egg cells, which can then form embryos without defect.  It seems like a good thing.  If you know ahead of time that a sperm or egg cell has a significant defect, and it can be fixed, wouldn’t you want to do it?  We’re still in the early stages of  discovery.  The answers are not yet clear.  The questions have not even been well framed.  

Sperm and egg cells are not potential persons.  Moreover, most frozen embryos created in the lab will never be implanted in a uterus with the possibility of growing through gestation to birth.  They are not life, but potential life, although that is hotly debated.  Nevertheless, there is some remove from whether the same could be done for sperm and egg cells joining to create embryos conceived in the normal way.  There is an even greater remove from whether today’s experiments will lead to “designer babies,” although tabloid type sensationalization loves to leap in that direction.    

It is precisely in this time of lesser and greater ‘remove’ that ethical and theological questions need to be explored in a more public way, made understandable to a broader segment of society, including people like me for whom the biology of it is well beyond my ken.  A brief essay such as this can open one door for that to happen, but many more doors need to be opened, and more qualified voices need to lead us through the conversation on the other side.  If we can do something like this, should we?  It’s a relatively new question. 

Not long ago most human lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Thomas Hobbes may have been writing about what he thought the natural condition of humanity was before the mediating force of government stepped in, but he wasn’t far wrong about the ordinary lives of the people of his time.  Then the question was different.  If it was possible to do something to make life better, it should be done.  Who would argue with that?  But in 1651, when he wrote those words in the Leviathan, there were few tools available to make life better.   Charles Dickens published David Copperfield in the late 1840s.  By then parliamentary government was well established, science had made huge strides, the industrial revolution was well underway, and the new experiment in American style democracy was about to be tested in a great civil war.  Conditions were changing, but Dickens catalogued the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of ordinary people that had endured.  His stories begged for something to be done, if it could be done.

The next hundred years brought acceleration of change in the human condition with enormous advancements in public health, nutrition, medicine, and universal education.  Add to that changes in laws on child labor, working conditions, weekends, food and drug safety, universal suffrage, and life for most in the West ceased to be solitary, nasty, or short.  Poor became relative to extraordinary increases in wealth for many; what was once normal behavior became brutish in the eyes of society and the law.  Life really was better.

The prior question also changed.  It was no longer, “if we could, we should.”  It became, “we can, should we?”  Should is a word requiring an ethical answer.  Is it right?  Is it good?  What is right?  What is good?  When?  For who?  Under what circumstances?   They aren’t easy questions to answer.  If we can modify frozen pre-embryonic genes to correct defects, should we?  If we can modify in utero embryonic genes to correct defects, should we?  For that matter, what is a defect?  What if we could modify embryonic genes to enhance human potential, should we?  What are the ethical answers?  

Ethical answers depend on your starting point.  Different people and different cultures start in different places.  Christians have no choice. They must start with Jesus because Jesus is the voice of God him/herself.  One way or the other, what is right and good must be consistent with the standards made known to us through Jesus.  There’s just one big problem with that.  Jesus never said anything about genetic modification of embryos.  Can what he said about healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love be of any help?  Theological discourse is all over the place about how to understand questions like these from a Jesus centered point of view.   Most dangerous among them are those who are certain they speak for God.  Right behind them are those who think God has nothing to say.  Both are wrong.

What can we say that might be useful?  We can say life is precious to God, more precious than we can imagine.  If we know nothing else about Jesus, we know that he healed all who came to him.  He did it without concern for who they were or what they had done.  Life in all its fullness, not only in the hereafter but here now, is a blessing God desires us to have.  We can also say that God rejoices in creation’s diversity.  Persons considered defective by others, and denied full participation in life, were warmly embraced by Jesus, who treasured them.  What we call death, he calls new life.  What we reject he accepts without condition.  What we condemn he reconciles and blesses.


From that we might consider that we don’t always know what life is.  We are not competent judges of what defective is.  What is good and perfect in our eyes reveals its hidden brokenness to Jesus.  What appears to us an aberration is to God a new creation.   It doesn’t mean we should not repair brokenness in sperm and egg cells.  Repairing brokenness is a Christlike thing to do.  It does mean we should be cautious in judging what is broken and what is not.  It also means we should avoid our own attempts at designing enhanced human perfection because we are so bad at knowing what that means.  One need turn no farther than the last several decades of experiments on  athletes with human growth hormones to see how badly we can mess things up in our search for engineered perfection.  Greed, pride, and lust lead us as easily as Mephistopheles led Dr. Faust, with the same results.  Most important, we must avoid making self righteous judgments about what is right, wrong, good, and bad because self righteousness stems more often from the comfortable social ethos of our surroundings, and less often from what Christ taught.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Open Letter to McMoRo in WA 5

Dear Ms. McMorris Rodgers:

Your most recent letter and request for funds arrived in today’s mail.  In it you assert that “unrepentant liberals” are intent on destroying journalism, denying your party legislative success, and threatening the very foundations of democracy.  Wow!  But wait, that’s not all.  Their news outlets, and you say most media are theirs, print and broadcast “fraudulent news.”  Well, as you also say, it’s not going to happen on your watch – a watch that has been going on for ten years.  You are superb at watching.  Doing is another matter, but watching, that you do better than anyone. 

You have said, and say again, that you and Trump are tight, with a proud record of astounding successes for which you are given little credit.  What are they?  By your own account, you’ve taken first steps to get rid of Obamacare and put health care back to where it used to be.  That it would remove many thousands of your rural constituents from health care coverage is apparently something to be celebrated.  Equally apparent, the senate, troublesome folks that they are, failed to go along.  Tsk tsk.

You’ve passed medical liability reform, which you claim is the single biggest driver of health care costs.  I assume you mean the “Protect Access to Care Act,” which limits plaintiffs to a maximum recovery of $250,000 in actions against services provided through Medicare and Medicaid.  Tort reform has merits, especially for ObGyn practitioners, but few observers have noted health care costs being driven mostly by the cost of physicians’ liability insurance.  We thought it also had something to do with lack of ability to negotiate drug costs, the distortions caused by fee for service billing, excessive use of E.R.s by the uninsured, and the like.  

You’ve taken pride in rolling back hundreds (really, hundreds?) of Obama era regulations that protected consumers and the environment, on the grounds that they have stifled job creation and innovation: that in the face of eight years of intense job creation and innovation.  My goodness.

And, you’ve repealed parts of Dodd-Frank, that silly law holding banks accountable for their actions.  You say it will help community banks do more business.  Ah, it's music to old J.P. Morgan’s ears.  He would be so proud of you.  Remember how he claimed to have engineered both panics and recoveries, making money on both ends?  


Here we are, with you as our m.c., in this great big fifth congressional district of Washington that stretches hundreds of miles in every direction, nearly all of it rural, much of it poor by the usual standards.  On our behalf, and proudly so, you have supported policies that would impoverish more, enrich few, and put all at greater risk.  With consummate skill, you’ve sold them as blessings to those most in need of blessings.  Outstanding!  Well played!  Oddly enough, you will probably get reelected because there are enough voters who truly believe you represent their best interests, there are enough voters who have become discouraged about voting at all, and there are not enough voters who pay attention to the issues to recognize how much damage you have tried to inflict on your constituents – so far with limited success.  May it continue to be so.  


Friday, August 4, 2017

The Climate of Power is Changing

A frequent letter writer to our local paper is consistent in his certainty that the climate is not changing, or is changing within the context of normal climactic cycles extending over the eons.  He is equally consistent asserting that humans have nothing to do with it.  He’s not alone, but his fellow true believers are small in number, and growing smaller, finding themselves in company with young earthers, flat earthers and their ilk.  There is something to be said for a man willing to stand defiantly alone in an unfriendly crowd.  Great leaps forward in humanity’s ascent have come from courage  like that.  But not always.  Sometimes they have been the last man insisting that Copernicus was wrong, cars would never replace horses, Malthus was right, etc.  It’s a long list.  I suspect he is among them, at least on this issue.  

What bothers me more is his apparent indifference to the suffering and damage already caused by a changing climate, and his dismissal of actions that can help prevent more suffering and damage.  In that, he is not alone.  Indeed, he is amid a multitude.  Among them are those who claim moving away from reliance on fossil fuels will cripple the economy.  It’s a double sin.  On one hand it shows a heartless disregard for human suffering in favor of economic profitability for a few.  On the other it fails to recognize where economic opportunity is heading.  The future of economic growth is precisely in the direction of new technologies applied to energy production and distribution, not just here but all over the globe.  They are changing almost as fast as the climate, and with them the possibility of doing something useful to mitigate climate change suffering and damage.  That should be celebrated and encouraged. 

Our local letter writer can’t see that.  He worries about economic damage caused by shutting down carbon heavy industries in favor of new age fads fighting a climate change battle he  believes doesn’t exist.  He has a point, or at least a half a point.  When infrastructure changes in dramatic ways, there will always be economic dislocation.  An electrical system that relies on central generating plants feeding into a nation wide grid of towers, wires, substations, and all that is needed to operate and maintain it, is a big economic player.  As the nation weans itself from total dependence  on it, companies will have to shift, downsize, reorganize.  It’s already happening.  In 2015, two years ago, there were more jobs in the solar power industry than there were in either traditional electricity or coal.  Both of those were in years long decline, while solar and wind were in years long growth.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has data you may find interesting.  Look it up. 

What is true for electricity is also true for petroleum.  It’s not going away, but with a growing market for all electric and hybrid cars, improved gas mileage, and renewed interest in plant based packaging, gas and oil demand is likely to decline, and perhaps stabilize.  That doesn’t mean an end to it.  Old systems never go away altogether.  Even the Erie Canal has found new uses.  Horses still roam the countryside.  The railroad is still in business.  My Subaru Outback has years of life in it.  None of it is going away forever, but change driven by concern about climate change, new economic opportunities, and a desire to reduce dependency on centralized power sources, mean economic dislocation for some.  It’s a reality of life in a world of rapidly changing technologies.   Dislocation in one area means relocation in another.  It’s not a zero sum game.

I’ve tried that line of argument in coffee conversations, and got nothing back but blank stares of incomprehension.  It comes from a combination of skepticism about the volume and acceleration of climate change, disbelief that small changes made locally can have an effect on a global problem, and anxiety about the impact of old jobs declining in the face of increasing demands for mysterious, poorly understood new jobs.   Consider what happened when cars and tractors became common.  Demand for stables, farriers and blacksmiths declined.  Demand for gas stations, garages and mechanics increased.  Something like that is going on today at a more complex technological level. 

Maybe it would be more persuasive to try another tack, one that appeals to our shared values about responsibility, accountability, and stewardship.  Look at it this way, our island home, careening through space in the company of its life giving sun, is the only one we have.  At no other time in it’s long, long history has it been populated by enough people with enough technology to do it great harm, or to care for it as responsible stewards.  Originating with the industrial revolution and advances in human longevity,  it’s something new in the last two hundred years of its four and a half billion years of existence.  Suddenly, we have before us the possibility that we humans can so abuse our home that it will become uninhabitable – for humans.  With or without us, the earth will go on.  Which it will be is up to us. Climate change skeptics could use their gifts of skeptical reasoning in more constructive ways that may contribute to the well being of us all, and even more, to the well being of those yet to be born.  In like manner, those who are concerned about economic good times should stop defending a dying past, and turn to a future in which the economy can do well while doing good.  Finally, we all need to recognize that the accumulation of small steps taken locally all over the globe add up to major shifts on a global scale.