Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Paul, Luther, and America's soul

Kitten videos, tasty recipes, and photos of last night's meal no longer dominate Facebook.  Politics does.  I don't understand the algorithms used to decide what shows up, but my pages are about 75% liberal or progressive and 25% conservative or right wing.  Righteous indignation and mutual contempt for the other abounds.  A multitude of verbal blows is exchanged every hour of each day.  I've heard the same thing goes on in other social media, but having never been a twitterer, I don't intend to begin.  Taken together, it's a sign that things are serious.  We, collectively, are fighting for the soul of America as at no other time since the Civil War.  The civil rights and anti war movements of the '60s and '70s were prelude for what may have been simmering all this time.  Like modern warfare elsewhere, there is no front line.  Combatants mix with noncombatants, some in public view and some camouflaged.  Some are social friends and political foes, and some the reverse.  It appears that many are semiliterate about American civics, having opinions easily manipulated by others.  Among those claiming to be Christian, it appears that many are semiliterate about their faith as well.

As an Episcopalian, a center left pragmatist once comfortable in the progressive wing of the Republican Party, and now a Democrat, I find it an uneasy place not unlike navigating between Charybdis and Scylla in the fog on one of Snoopy's 'dark and stormy nights.'  What keeps me more or less on course is that neither left, nor right, nor America itself has my primary loyalty.  My allegiance, regardless of civic rituals, is not pledged to the flag or the republic, but  to God whom I know and understand through the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church.  I pray and work for the welfare of my country, but my first loyalty will always be to God.

With that in mind, and disturbed by the violence reported as happening at several immigration protest sites, I offered the following on Facebook.

At least some of those who are resisting 45's slide toward fascism claim to be Christians, so in the face of unwarranted violence we may need to be reminded of St. Paul's summary of Jesus' teachings from his letter to the Romans:
"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
It does not mean being a spineless doormat, as some of our members of congress appear to have become.  It does mean standing firm for what is right and good without inflicting abuse or engaging in violence.  Keep in mind that though it got him beheaded, we remember Paul as someone who continues to this day to inspire the better part of us.  We remember his beheader as a psychotic ruler who destroyed his own city.

One Trump supporting friend countered with Romans 13 in which Paul exhorted the church in Rome to obey civil authority because it had been established by God to suit God's purposes.  I found it dangerously close to the same argument used to justify the divine right to rule claimed by European monarchs well into the 17th century, and used by Nazi leadership to entice church cooperation in 20th century Germany.  Paul's letters are flexible that way, and have been used to justify a great many positions we now find reprehensible.  The antidote, it seems to me, to the misuse of Paul is threefold.  One is to understand the context of the issues each letter attempts to address.  It helps us avoid over generalization and application to contemporary questions unrelated to the issues he faced.  The second is to always subordinate Paul to Jesus, and particularly to what he had to say about the two great commandments, the new commandment, and the guidance offered in words such as The Sermon on the Mount.  Finally, it is to be reminded that however divinely inspired Paul's writing may have been, it is not without fault.  My fundamentalist friends are troubled by that because it challenges their understanding of the authority of scripture.  For the present, it's an unbridgeable chasm that has sometimes stopped conversation altogether.  Not wanting to go down that path, I suggested selections from Colossians and Galatians encouraging the churches not to be seduced by the elemental powers about them.  Think of it as a scriptural snowball fight, but a serious one between faithful persons trying to work out the moral ground on which to stand that justifies each one's politics as acceptable within the boundaries of the Christian faith.

Is it important?  I think it is.  It's not simply the lobbing back and forth of words without meaning or impact.  This brief exchange, and others like it going on throughout the nation, are signs and symbols that we are at a crossroads in American history.  We must turn one way or the other.  We cannot avoid it.  Each in their own way, these conversations are collectively as important as was Luther's appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 where, it will be recalled, both Luther and Eck appealed to scripture as the justification for their decisions.  Having done so, the road to the Reformation was irrevocably taken, and so was the road to modern Western nation states.  We are, I suspect, at a similar place in our own time, but who is right?  Who is on God's side?  Whose side is God on?

In this 500th year of remembrance, it would be well to remember also that Luther wasn't right about everything, and Eck wasn't wrong about everything, but the moment changed the directions of the Church and of Europe forever.  To their condemnation, the changes were accomplished through mutual intolerance and bloody wars.  May it please God that we will be guided by a brighter light as we resolve our own struggles for the soul of our nation.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Couple of Friends

I've been thinking a lot about a couple of friends.  Not Facebook friends or casual acquaintances, but men I know well.  In their private lives among their peers they are men of trustworthy integrity.  One is a hard core teetotaling conservative evangelical who has a hard time moving away from the literal, inerrant truth of the Bible, but he will listen.  The other is a theologically conservative Episcopalian comfortably tolerating the progressive theology that dominates his parish.  Both are politically right wing conservatives.  One is a classic libertarian.  The other is a full fledged tea partier.  There is a difference, but in degree not kind.  Each is convinced that Democrats in general and Obama in particular were guilty of destroying the American economy, intent on consolidating power in Washington at the cost of states' rights and individual liberties, unable to defend American interests overseas or protect freedoms at home, and deliberately working to transform the U.S. into a European style socialist state.  Neither has a clear idea of what socialism is, but it's bad, that's for sure.  Each imagines a more perfect America in which the federal government would be small, dedicated mainly to military defense and interstate transportation infrastructure.  Welfare would be relegated to localities and charities.  People would have to carry their own weight.  Taxes, in all their forms, would be low or non-existent.  Individuals would be free to act in their own interests in any way that did not harm another.  Social restraints about what that might mean would be drawn from norms associated with a vaguely understood idea about what middle class generic conservative Christianity holds to be true and acceptable.  Other religions would be tolerated as long as they did not violate those boundaries.

With that in mind, they both supported Trump's candidacy.  One on classical libertarian grounds suspicious of Clinton's Eastern establishment credentials, and memories of her husband's immorality.  The other believing every crackpot allegation asserting her corruption and criminality.  Each admired Trump's shoot from the hip, tell it like it is, tough guy style of making the complex simple, the present look as dismal as it was in their imaginations, and the future as appealing as he promised it would be in his competent hands.  So what now?

Going back where I started, they are men of trustworthy integrity.  Honesty is important to them.  Individual responsibility and accountability is important to them.  Truth telling is important to them, although immersed in truth according to Hannity, Limbaugh & Co., they have become inured to what others call truth.  Knowing them, maybe I should be surprised at their gullibility about that, but it conforms to their ideas about what a more perfect American could be, so it was believed as given to them.  The point is that at the personal level they have admirable standards of integrity and responsibility which must cause unbearable levels of cognitive dissonance as they witness the unfolding of 45's administration.  Resolution seems to come in several forms.  Urge giving him a chance, certain that doubters would soon be enlightened.  Declare that the evil of a Clinton victory had been averted.  Celebrate his pugnacious militarism as the sign of a fearless patriot who will restore respect for America as the undisputed leader of the world.  And to declare that, after a week of catastrophic fumbling, he is being misunderstood and misrepresented by untrustworthy media and left wing protesters who do not speak for real Americans.  It can't last.

Sooner or later my friends will have to have to come to terms with the humiliating recognition that none of the things that worried them the most from Obama ever happened, nor would they have.  Nevertheless, Trump has routinely violated every standard of personal responsibility and integrity they hold dear.  Our standing in the world has deteriorated to a level from which recovery will take years, if not decades, and the power of a coercively intrusive, liberty challenging federal government has grown exponentially in a few short days.  What then?  It's hard to say, but I imagine they will simply become very quiet, recognizing that their moment of ascendency has come and gone.  Perhaps they will nurse their wounds with sad resentment that they are once again a misunderstood minority of real Americans ignored by the elites of their imagination.  What they, and others like them, are unlikely to do is rise up in brown shirts to seize control.  It's unlikely because they have a greater allegiance to the ideals of American democratic republicanism bequeathed to them through history.  Perhaps more powerful, at least for them, will be the mitigating influence of their Christian faith.  One cannot claim to believe in and follow Jesus as God incarnate, and not be directed by his life and teaching. They stand in contradiction to another acquaintance, not a friend, but someone I know well, an unrepentant racist who would happily welcome a fascist regime masquerading as democracy because he would prosper in it.  Fortunately, he and his like are few.  In the meantime, I am relieved to witness the resilience of the American public that will not be cowed, and sorry for those so easily duped into following a dangerous megalomaniac in hopes that their lives would be made better.


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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Back to God, thank goodness, if only for my  own sanity.

Liturgical churches are entering a few weeks when the gospel readings in Matthew will be from the Sermon on the Mount.  I regret that it will be for a few weeks only.  Wouldn't it be better to stretch it out to cover a little at a time over many weeks?  It's so easy to let the deeply rooted revolutionary power of these words slip by as we gulp down whole paragraphs without giving them the thought they deserve.  As it is, we don't even get the whole sermon.  We just fiddle around in the Fifth chapter before moving on.  Consider this Sunday.  It's the Beatitudes, known to most parishioners as the part where Jesus says who God blesses in special ways.  What a relief to know God has done the blessing, taking a load off of our backs, one we weren't really carrying anyway.  That may be a little harsh, but these beautiful words of blessing have a way, I fear, of becoming platitudes in their familiarity when they are meant to challenge us in radical ways.

"Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Let's start with blessed.  If God is blessing anyone or anything, and we are followers of God in Christ Jesus, ought not we to be participating in extending God's blessings right along with him?  Isn't it a call to action as disciples, and not just a statement about what God is doing while we watch?  What would that mean in practical terms?  In part it means to become the people whom God blesses in special ways.  Amending behavior, and practicing it until it becomes a habit of the heart is not easy.  Nevertheless, says God, it will lead to ways of life that bring fulfillment beyond measure.  But what kind of fulfillment?  The lives of the martyrs don't portray the fulfilling life I have in mind.  What about you?  Thankfully not many of us are called to be martyrs, and it's reassuring to learn from those who have trod the path of discipleship before us that God's promise of fulfillment is true and comes in many other forms, excluding the popular gospel of prosperity.  That's half of it.  What would it mean to participate with God in extending blessings?  That's even harder.  Our judgment about what others need and how to provide it is always well meant, but often condescendingly wrong.  Learning how to love others as Christ has loved us takes a lifetime, and that's too short to get it right.  But we can try, and that's what we are asked to do.  When Jesus sent brand new disciples two by two into nearby villages, they didn't have to go far and didn't have to do much.  They just had to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and offer God's blessing, which would flow through them, however imperfectly, into the lives of others.  Maybe we mess things up when we try to be the producers of the blessing rather than the communicators of it.

Turning to the first beatitude, who are the poor in spirit?  Are we supposed to become poor in spirit?  That doesn't seem right.  As a young man, to the extent I gave it any thought, which wasn't much, I suspected it meant people who are sad or grieving.  I wondered if Matthew wasn't getting a little too maudlin compared to Luke's version that leaves it a blessing of the poor, which is something I could more easily understand.  I'm inclined now to believe Matthew got it right, and understand it as those who are struggling with their faith.  Not only those of us who have our doubts, but those who are spiritual but not religious, and atheists who spend so much energy consumed with arguments about the God they don't believe in.  We are to take them seriously with love, encouragement not condemnation.  After all, how much faith is enough?  The size of a mustard seed, we are told.  That's not much.  And who are we if not among them?  "I believe, help my unbelief," said the father who feared for his epileptic son.  Or Thomas who had learned the hard way not to trust what the others said.  Each waited to see and touch Jesus himself?  We are, if we are honest, among those who are poor in spirit.  We believe yet need help with our unbelief.  We're a step or two behind the disciples of whom Jesus said "Good grief you guys are thick.  Are you never going to get it?"

Just the same, we can be, however imperfectly, the presence of Jesus for those who yearn to hear him, see him, touch him, keeping in mind that we are care givers, not cure givers.  What we are able to bring is a flicker of the light of the kingdom of heaven.  If theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and we have been instructed to proclaim that the kingdom is at hand, then it is through us that its presence will be made known.  Through us, not because of us, not by our own doing, but because of our intentionality to be bearers of the light.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "...we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."

Well, those are a few random thoughts about the first beatitude.  You can see why I wish we could spend more time with them.



Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What you don't know is...

I was determined to get off of politics and back to theology, which I will do tomorrow, but the chaos of our current political environment keeps bringing up new subjects.

Once I had a colleague who, in every meeting about whatever public policy issue we were working, found a way to announce that "What you don't know is... ."  It was arrogantly rude, and slammed the brakes on useful conversation because the rest of the group was primed to resist, deny, or obstruct whatever pathway this bit of previously unknown information might open up.  He never changed, and I've often wondered how much better things might have gone if he had said something like, "I've learned something that I'd like to share," or "Here's something you may not yet have heard."  "What you don't know" said to a small group of well educated, well informed professionals was heard by them to mean "Not only am I smarter than you, I'm privy to essential information of which you are ignorant because, well, you are ignorant."

That was a long time ago, but his method of asserting his expertise by demeaning the expertise of others lives on, and never more so than in the political discussions going on among those of us who consider ourselves to be progressives or liberals of some stripe.  Framed in a slightly different way, it comes off as asserting the righteousness of one's position by demeaning those of others as being critically ignorant or morally corrupt.  I don't mean those like my far left friend who can barely tolerate my center left pragmatism because it's not liberal enough for him.  I mean those who, using the newly popularized phrase 'intersectionality,'  confidently assert that 'what some entire other population doesn't know is... .'  And what it is that they don't know is what is undergirding the systemic racism or oppression of particular interest.  It is a moral failure of those who don't know for which atonement is possible, but unlikely and only through an acceptable form of groveling in the presence of righteous indignation where they admit their moral failure.  Moreover, individual members of said populations can be accused of personal failure by virtue of being in that population.  No more need be said.  It sometimes looks like what I imagine a watered down Americanized version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution might look like.  It also has disturbing similarities to the tea party movement, something others have noticed as well.

It's a curious oxymoron, at least as it occurs in the online streams of discussion I've looked at.  Intersectionality has been a topic in feminist thought for thirty years or more.  It tries to describe systemic oppression as it is experienced by persons, and groups of persons, whose multiplicity of experiences and conditions in life mean that they cannot be lumped into generalized categories such as gender or race, but must be recognized for the unique ways in which many conditions of life intersect to create the experiences of systemic oppression that is itself a product of many intersections.  More recently, it's been used to help understand how bridges of cooperation can be built between persons and groups through more appreciative understanding of each other.  So, using the tools of intersectionality to talk about systemic oppression while accusing entire categories of persons as morally responsible for it is just plain wrong.  Moreover,  failure to use the same tools to build connections for mutual benefit suggests that self righteous anger is preferred to progressive resolution, especially if it means having to give up one's own deeply rooted prejudices.

It may be that there are essential facts and important understandings that are unknown by many outside a particular community of shared experiences and interests.  Making them known in ways intended to build connections is how greater justice is gained.  Can they be made known to everyone?  No!  Some have not yet learned to listen, and yelling at them is unlikely to help.  Some are so loaded with their own prejudices that they cannot be moved.  Some are so burdened by intersecting conditions in their own lives that they have no more carrying capacity.  Some are distracted in another direction and aren't paying attention.  Some are not distracted, but intentionally focused on something else.  That's life.  There are others ready to listen and learn, a process that always goes both ways.

It's unlikely that any of those involved in the online streams I've looked at will ever read this short article, but I can imagine a few who would hop up and down like Rumpelstiltskin that an old white male would dare to speak at all.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Saturday's Reflection – It's time for a new conversation

Friday, January 20, 2017, perhaps not a day that will live in infamy, but a sad day for the nation just the same.  Consistent with everything the past year has given us to expect, his inaugural speech was rich with bombastic distortions that gave fact checkers plenty to work with.  His supporters though, steeped in a brew of assurances that America is in horrible shape because of the disastrous policies of the last eight years, are primed to cheer any Trumpian move as a sign that good times are here again.  I suspect they are partly disappointed, and partly relieved, that they have escaped the confiscation of their guns, the imposition of Sharia law, and the humiliation of being led by a corrupt woman.  It's going to be a rough four years.  It's made rougher by the violence of anti-Trump protesters whose behavior confirms everything Trump supporters believe about "the Left," and undermines the hard work of protecting the nation from the bottom up that lies ahead.  The inauguration saddened me deeply, and the protest violence angered me beyond measure.

I, like many others, believe the years ahead will be roughest on those who have put their trust in Trump.  How will they react to the dawning recognition that they've been had by a world class huckster?  There is a chance they will deny that they have been had.  It's too humiliating to admit.  The timing of their deliverance may have been off a bit, but it will come.  Of course hucksters work best when in control of the arena, and a number of commentators have noted that Trump's arena has just become, using his favorite word, huge.  It's so huge that large parts of it are controlled by people placed in charge by Trump, but who appear to have little respect for him, regardless of their public pandering, and little time for taking his inarticulate ramblings seriously.  My guess is that they are (mostly) men who figure they can play Trump the way he plays others.  It's hard to predict where that will lead.  Historians might think of inept Byzantine or Ottoman rulers and the intrigues that brought down their empires.  I'm more inclined to think of Mel Brooks without the jokes, but I've said that before. Again I've digressed.

A more honest recognition of reality from Trump supporters may be possible if center right and center left progressive leadership can learn to talk to them without insults or condescension.  Joe Biden has been quoted in the recent press as saying that he wished he had stayed on message when he spoke directly to working class America about their own welfare, instead of getting sidetracked into blasting away at Trump.  It remains to be seen whether others will recognize how important that is.  I have no feel for how it might work in the nation, but members of our local Democratic Party, to which I belong, are skilled at talking with each other about how to organize for the next election, but largely ignore what is needed to communicate effectively on issues and candidates with the region's conservative majority, who tend to swing reflexively to the far right.  They are abetted by a regional movement to "dump" our member of congress that sends out daily memos about how bad she is.  It makes all the liberals feel good, but does nothing to address the desires, fears, and needs of the majority who keep reflecting her.

Predicting what might happen is always dangerous.  It seldom works.  What we can do is reveal what is happening in a clearer light.  What has happened is that lies, distortions, and phantasmagorical illusions have prevailed in the election.  There is no reason to believe they will not continue to be employed, at least from the Oval Office.  What I know from my conservative and right wing friends is that they are convinced that their liberties have been taken away, that those remaining have been put in jeopardy by Obama, that public policy tilted toward the undeserving has stolen their birthright, and that regulation of business and industry has strangled economic opportunity, especially for small businesses and family farms.  Trump said he would save them.  Progressives said they would work for greater justice, which they read as code for more of the same.  It's time to change the terms of the conversation.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evil Talk and Downward Deviance

"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear," so wrote St. Paul to the church in Ephesus.  It was good advice then and is now, however regularly ignored.  What is evil talk?  Some of the fundamentalists I know claim it is anything blasphemous, by which they mean whatever is inconsistent with their understanding of holy truth.  Popular entertainment often casts evil as a caricature of the devil, vampires, zombies, or Lord Voldemort, in such a way that ordinary human beings are excused from the guilt of evil, no matter what they say or do.  They may be in error, naughty, or just plain bad, but not evil.  I'm more inclined to believe that evil is whatever is cruel, hurtful, deceitful, or unjust, and that the evil that comes out of our mouths is as damaging as any act.

This past election season reveled in cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk that became acceptable, even honored, among a large sector of the population as a legitimate expression of public discontent.  With evil talk legitimatized, the ubiquity of unrestricted social media encouraged many to shrug off whatever social constraints had held their words in check, unleashing floods of cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk beyond measure.  Freed from the tyranny of political correctness, all manner of vile words and deeds have been let loose on society with impunity, and sometimes applause.  

If what is clearly evil talk has become more common place in the public arena, including among  leadership, what some declare as evil has also been dumbed down.  What I mean is that if your social and political values are not consistent with mine, then I can label them as evil; evidence not required.  Having glued the label on, any accusation you make of verifiable social or political evil can be excused as just your opinion against my prior assertion, and, therefore, unworthy of further discussion.  Decades ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay on "Defining Deviancy Downward" that criticized the erosion of standardized social values of the post war years.  He had the right idea but aimed too many of his barbs in the wrong direction, trying to defend values that had been used to oppress whole classes of citizens, and was unable to accept redefinitions that would accommodate demographic changes and a more expansive understanding of social justice.  What he had right was the sowing of seeds that would mature into a field of weeds in which evil talk itself would be the deviance defined downward.

So let's go back to the top.  "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."  It's not only about constraining evil talk, it's about speaking only what is useful for building up as needed.  Is what I am about to say useful to others for building up as needed?  Building up what?  From a Christian perspective it means building up a more just, less exclusive community working together for the well being of all.  Within the Church it means building up communities of faith.  Emanating from the Church it means building up the communities in which we live, heeding advice from the prophet Jeremiah that in the welfare of the city where we live lies our own welfare.  Building up as needed.  What is needed?  Therein is room for a lot of debate, but debate that must be framed in language intended to build up, not language that is cruel, harmful, deceitful.  Let your words give grace to those who hear, and let it be so.

It's something to work on because it's not an easy thing to do.  The tricky part is that we are not excused from confronting evil talk when we hear it, but must do so boldly without falling into it ourselves.  At the same time, we are not given warrant to accuse someone of evil talk without verifiable evidence that can withstand informed scrutiny.  We cannot subtlety imply that another is an enemy simply because they are not doing or saying what we think is best for building up.  We cannot label ordinary incompetence as evil, though we must confront the evil that it enables.  We can call ignorance ignorance and stupidity stupidity, but only if we make clear what knowledge and intelligence means given existing conditions.  It takes a degree of humility I often lack, so don't be quick to take me as an example.  For that matter, St. Paul wasn't a very good one either.  Best bet is to stay focused on Jesus.

 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Enduring Storms, Healing Wounds

No one can deny the beauty of a Western valley covered in snow with foothills and mountains as a backdrop.  We haven’t enjoyed anything like it for nearly a decade.  A normal winter, whatever that is, may give us 20 inches over the season, melting in between.  Otherwise temperatures are moderate, the land is bare.  This year we have around 40 inches to date, and it’s not going away.  The storms that have brought it closed highways, snarled local traffic, cancelled flights, and have been rough on farmers with livestock to care for.  But they have not caused the devastation we have seen reported elsewhere, just minor inconveniences mainly.  In their midst they have recalled for me romantic images of Currier and Ives prints or maybe a Frost poem,  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for instance.

It’s better than a bleak midwinter of barren trees on barren ground under grey skies that inspire deep melancholy bordering on depression, something that has bothered me for my adult life.  Thinking about it reminds me other storms that attack one’s emotional and spiritual well being with more brutality than nature can produce. They don’t come on the wind or in the waves.  They come through our fellow human beings, and from deep in our own souls.  Not long ago I finished reading Down to the Sea, a 2007 book by Bruce Henderson about the ships sunk in 1944 during Typhoon Cobra, not by the typhoon but during it.  Poor decisions, poor ship design, poor leadership, that’s what caused them to sink.  To be sure, the enemy was the storm, but what wounded the emotional and spiritual health of the survivors were the words and actions of their fellow human beings that made the storm unsurvivable for so many.  They were words and deeds that demonstrated a fatal lack of competence and disregard for the well being of others.  On the other hand, what prevented the storm and sinking ships from fatally wounding the lives of some survivors were the words and actions of fellow human beings that showed competence and compassion inspiring hope in spite of them.  Think about it.

None of us escapes the onslaught of storms.  One way or another, they hit us.  Some are storms of nature that wreak destruction and death.  More are storms of abuse, oppression, and tragedy suffered at the hands of other human beings.  The latter are always more dangerous and damning.  They are killers in their own right and can make the former unendurable.  The former bear no malice, the latter do.  Consider the psalmist’s lament that the greatest danger came not from the outside, but from his own friends, and from within the city (Ps. 55).  The old advice was to suck it up, and get on with life.  It doesn’t work, at least not by itself.  By itself it leaves the wounded to fester in ways that may be hidden, but never heal.  What does work, what makes storms of human evil, incompetence, and stubbornness, in all their combinations and permutations, survivable are the words and actions of other humans that show competence and compassion inspiring hope.  

Competence and compassion.  Competence with compassion.  It’s what we give to each other that enables us to survive the storms of life and heal from the wounds they inflict.  None of us is competent in all things, but we can each be competent in some things, and we can all be compassionate in the sharing of our competencies with those in need.  Sadly, we have each experienced persons in roles for which they had little competence which they combined with stubborn insistence on asserting authority over those who were, while displaying disregard for the well being of anyone other than themselves.  It is what, more than anything else, makes storms unendurable, inflicting wounds, infecting wounds that will not heal.

Exercising competency with compassion to help each other get through the storms, wounded perhaps, but with wounds that will heal, is a moral obligation, but not necessarily a religious one.  It’s what first responders train for every day.  It’s what the best teachers exercise every day.  It’s what the best bosses demonstrate every day.  Nevertheless, as Christians, we are called to engage in it as a holy endeavor in which we each take responsibility for our own burdens while helping others with theirs so that no one is left without help, and each is offering help.  Paul put it this way, “Bear one another’s burdens…test your own work…carry your own load” (Gal. 6.1-5).  It’s a learning process, one we never complete, but a process from which we are not excused.  Failure to engage in it puts the lie to any pretension of believing faith.  This is serious stuff.  We are called by the one of whom the people said hey had never seen someone speak and act with such authority.  Even the demons, wind and water obeyed him.  

If we will accept it, our competencies, however modest, are infused with gifts of the Spirit, that we too often think of as limited to evangelism, preaching, or something to do with church.  It’s too narrow.  We are not called into church. We are sent out from it to serve the world in God’s name.  The gifts we are given are innumerable, and have more to do with trades, professions, and daily tasks than they do with evangelizing.  What makes the difference is, that as followers of Jesus, the gifts are holy.  They have been made holy by grace through faith.  They are to be employed in holy ways in which we each use our competencies with compassion for the well being of the community about us.  That’s who we are. That’s what we’re here for.  It’s what enables us to share, however little, in the power of the one whom even the wind obeyed, bringing with it the strength to endure storms and heal their wounds. 


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Moral Turpitude: We love it – in others

When I was in high school, back in the ‘50s, we had an assistant principal who patrolled the halls.  Whenever he saw behaviors he disapproved of, he would lecture us on our moral turpitude.  I had no idea what a turpitude was, much less what a moral one might be, and wasn’t interested enough in what he had to say to look it up.  I don’t think he knew either, since it means something between disgraceful and depraved.  Disgraceful, perhaps.  What teenager isn’t?  Depraved, never!  What really got him was any display of affection, such as holding hands or a quick kiss between classes.  Oddly enough, it came up in conversation about sin this morning.

Maybe it was always so that when sin is mentioned it immediately leads to talk about sex, and when that’s exhausted, to other behaviors that give carnal pleasure and may be morally questionable: over eating, drinking to excess, out of control spending, etc.  Course corrections then lead to categories of sin containing a broader array of immoral behaviors illustrated by examples that conveniently leave most of our own lives in the clear.  Stealing, lying, covetousness, adultery, and so forth, as understood in narrow interpretations of the Ten Commandments  that we prefer to use to indict others.  Sloth is another big one.  We love to accuse others of laziness and unwillingness to take responsibility for themselves.  Avoiding accountability for the consequences of one’s behavior is another.  We take comfort in labeling just about anybody, or an entire group, as lazy, irresponsible, unwilling to be held accountable.  Makes us feel better about ourselves. 

Curiously, God seems to have something else in mind, at least insofar as one is willing to trust the prophets and the gospel record.  It’s not that these kinds of archetypically immoral behaviors are not included in the realm of sin; they are, but they are buried under things that go in another direction.  As many know, I’m fond of Amos, but what God has to say through him is echoed in each of the other ethical prophets as well.  The sheer consistency of it demands attention.  So what on earth am I getting at?  Let’s look.  According to Amos, the sins of the people that got God so worked up included:
  • Destruction of an enemy’s food supply
  • Betrayal of treaties and covenants of friendship between peoples
  • Encouraging civil violence
  • Robbery
  • Disrespect for legitimate civil authority
  • Manipulating the working class into the bondage of debt
  • Cheating the poor out of the necessities of life
  • Usury
  • Systemic injustice for the poor
  • Oppression of the poor
  • Temple prostitution
  • Promiscuous sex
  • Drunkenness
  • Commanding God’s prophets about what to say, or not say
  • The idle rich displaying contempt for the poor
  • Meaningless religious ceremonies and practices
  • Presumption of God’s favor while oppressing others
  • Corrupt courts and judges
  • Unfair taxation of the poor
  • Gaps too large between the rich and poor
  • Undue pride in nation or family
  • Lack of compassion for the suffering of others

That’s quite a list.  A thorough examination of the other prophets would yield some additions, but I think you get the idea.  Yes, certainly, some sexual behavior is on the list, as is over indulgence, but when the gospel record is examined, Jesus does’t seem to treat them with the same level of concern that he does the others.  After all, he never called the tax collectors and prostitutes “you brood of vipers,” as he did the leading men of Jerusalem.   When he was the only one who had the undisputed right to condemn someone whose errant life was certain, he did not.  Neither did he condone their behavior, but called them into a new and better way of living. 

So let’s get down to it.  Who does God really condemn so we can all gang up on them with self righteous indignation because we’re on God’s side.  Conservative moralists?  Rioting left wing protesters?  Self righteous social do gooders?  Wealth that preys on the poor?  The angry ignorant?  It turns out not to be a who of any kind, but a what, and it’s not condemnation as such, but God’s harshly honest revelation to us about what we do that undermines integrity, and contributes to, even endorses, injustice and oppression.  Well that’s a disappointment, isn’t it?  No one is condemned, and you and I are bathed in the harsh light of God’s truth that most uncomfortably illuminates our own behavior.  If we continue in our ways, the end will not be good.  Rats!  What are we to do?

I think we need to be honest about confronting sin, especially systemic social and political sin that contributes to oppression and injustice, without resorting to ad hominem attacks.  We need to be honest about our own failures, but not allow them to be used by someone else as an excuse to do the same, or worse.  It does not excuse us from making judgments, but we have to be careful.  One of my recent articles was less than enthusiastic about the incoming administration, and a colleague asked me bluntly, “Who are you to judge?.”  It was a good question.  Commentary is never descriptive only.  Some evaluation is what commentary is about.  I try, as best I can, to assure that what I state as fact is easily verifiable, and that my evaluations are defensible in conversation with well informed colleagues.  Twenty years as a priest preceded by thirty years of consulting and teaching on politics and public policy issues related to economic development, as well as applied management theory, have given me some insights that may be helpful to some, and be really irritating to others.  

Let’s show a little more moral fiber, a little less moral turpitude.  


Friday, January 6, 2017

Loud Voices and Millennials

Locker room conversation at the Y turned to Millennials.  I know it wasn’t Trumpian locker room conversation but what can I say.  We can’t all Iive up to that high standard.  Actually, it wasn’t conversation at all.  It was one guy speaking in a loud confident voice about Millennials as the kids who don’t want to and won’t work a full day of hard work, think they are entitled, and expect to be millionaires before they are thirty.  It was one of those if you say it loud enough it must be true kind of performances.  When politely challenged he backtracked slightly, admitting that there were good hardworking kids among them, but “it’s the numbers,” he said. There are so many of them, a real baby boom, so the  entitled slackers are the majority.  

Census data do not support his claim to a Millennial baby boom.  The birth rate per 1,000 population has held steady at about 14 for the last several decades, as opposed to a birthrate of about 25 when this guy was born, so it’s really his generation that was the boom, which is why they are called the boomers, but I digress.  I’m not even sure what a Millennial is, but it appears to be someone who is currently between 15 and 34, give or take, and they make up about 27% of the population, which is a good chunk.  I’ve read a few things that label them as self centered, entitled, secular, avaristic, and directionless.  Most of it looks to me like marketing gobbledygook, or maybe pop social psychology worked into a sensationalized magazine article.  They guy in the locker room must have seen something about them somewhere.  In any case, what he wanted was seasonal high school and college age labor for his farm, and it’s hard to find.  He’s right.  In our area there are fewer farms with smaller farm families with children who want to do farm work, except on their own farms.  The stock of likely workers is less than it once was.  

Times have changed in other ways too.  I worked in a gas station when I was in high school and part of college.  I pumped gas, checked oil and tires, cleaned windshields, and did simple mechanical jobs: oil changes, grease jobs, brake adjustments, belt changes, muffler installations, etc.  Full service gas stations don’t exist anymore.  Part time entry level jobs that do exist are increasingly taken by adults working two or three of them trying to make ends meet.  It’s not that jobs for adolescents can’t be had, but they appear to be fewer in number.  

Those who are growing out of adolescence and want to make a decent living have several options.  Go away to a university, unlikely to return.  Get a degree or certificate from the community college in a specialized field, and maybe find a job in the area.  OK, that’s two options.  I can’t think of a third.  Without those one would have to work several jobs at low pay to live at a lower middle class level.  


The guy in the Y locker room would scoff at all this as just a way to excuse a lazy, unfocused generation of kids who think the world owes them a living because that’s what he’s been told about them, and what he says he experienced trying to hire them for a couple weeks of work.  It’s a familiar complaint because it is one heard century after century from an older generation about a younger generation.  Does it do any harm?  Maybe not by itself.  Each generation manages to grow up, producing responsible adults in the process no matter what the older generation says about them.  What it signals is a tendency to believe, without verification, whatever appeals to one’s prejudices, applying gross generalizations to entire populations and conditions of life.  Asserting them with force and volume establishes barriers to conversation, indeed to anything that might look like disagreement.  That is a problem.  Loud voices of ignorance distort the public debate, and endanger responsible public decision making.  Not, of course, that we have experienced any of that lately, but we could. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thin Places and the Christmas Season

There are two places in scripture where what we call heaven and earth come together in warm embrace: the birth and resurrection narratives.  Right now we are in the season of the birth narratives.  Embrace might be a little weak.  In whatever way one imagines heaven or the spiritual realm to be, it fully enveloped our world at the nativity and the resurrection.  At other times the two worlds seem to meet and touch each other in extraordinary ways, but we don't recognize them as envelopment.   Daily Office readings in the Christmas season bring them to mind with familiar stories.  Abram’s conversations with God that led him from his homeland to a new land of promise that in centuries to come would become a homeland for his descendants.  Jacob’s vision of the ladder that connects heaven and earth.  Moses’ meeting God’s presence at the burning bush.  Joshua’s conversation with God about what crossing the Jordan into the land promised to Abram so long ago would mean.  

They are reminders of the kingdom of God that Jesus said is not somewhere else, but at hand.  It is not in some other place or at some other time, but always here and now, wherever and whenever Jesus’ followers engage the world in his name.  The popularity of Celtic Christianity, Americanized beyond Celtic recognition, and often devalued into generic spirituality set against a rocky coastland, has exposed many of us to the idea of thin places, places where the spiritual and physical world come together in ways that they don’t come together elsewhere.  I have no doubt there are such places; indeed I believe I have experienced some of them.  What I don’t believe is that they are limited to designated spots that exist only at designated times.  They aren’t Brigadoon.  The world of our ordinary lives and the world we call spiritual are entwined with one another in every place and at all times. Moreover, it is not just any spiritual world, but the kingdom of God that is at hand.  To crudely borrow from the Cappadocians, it is perichoresis, a holy dance, that constantly enfolds us in both worlds. The questions is, where, when, and through whom is that recognized?

There are people we call saints, whether canonized or not, in whose lives we see that holy dance performed, but I don’t think it’s reserved for them.  My guess is that it is performed in many places at many times by ordinary  people.  Indeed, it can be performed by you and me whenever we choose to let it happen by loving others as Christ has loved us.  It’s a move from simply recalling places where and times when it happened to others, and joining in the dance that is always present.  It is the act of joining that opens our senses to the recognition that we are in a thin place, participating in the heavenly embrace  of the world through new birth and and resurrection to new life.




Monday, January 2, 2017

The Fractured Republic

The Fractured Republic is a 2016 book by conservative author Yuval Levin that has been lauded by the likes of Paul Ryan as something between scripture and a handbook for a better America, so I read it.  

Levin believes that the Achille’s heel on both the left and right is a nostalgic love for the decades following WWII that has warped their respective political agendas as they try to recapture the best of those years for the future.  It’s not a bad premise but for two things.  First, while carefully parsing the varieties of conservative thinking, he plasters over liberal diversity by assuming they all think and believe the same things, which are about taking away personal liberty and making the federal government bigger and badder.  Second, as he works toward plotting a fresh course into the future, leaving nostalgia behind, he proposes a romanticized non-specific agenda that wallows in it.  You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean, but in essence he has a strong faith in what he calls the mediating institutions of society: family, church (generically), work, and voluntary civic organizations that he says have been stripped of their traditional roles by centralizing them in the federal government.  By turning our backs on centralization of federal power over all aspects of life, and turning toward revitalized mediating institutions, we can apply the principle of subsidiarity to the solution of the nation’s problems in more creative, locally responsive and democratic ways that would surely please De Tocqueville.  He never says so, but it left me imagining Norman Rockwell’s paintings brought to life all across the country.

The left, he assures his readers, has been committed to centralizing power in the federal government ever since Roosevelt, both of them.  The right has gone along, and shame on them.  As a result, fewer and fewer decisions about public policy are left to states and localities, where, by the authority of subsidiarity, better decisions would be made.  Even better than local and state governments, things we now look to government to handle would be dealt with through the mediating institutions.  Wholesome intact families would be encouraged through what?  Public pressure, restrictions on divorce, limits on contraceptives, what?  However they would be encouraged, they would raise healthier children less likely to get into trouble and more likely to become hard working productive citizens.  Churches, meaning all kinds of places of worship – in the Judeo-Christian tradition – would again become the accepted arbiters of what is moral and good.  His limitation to Judeo-Christian religions is never overtly stated, but strongly implied, as is the idea that state and local laws could be used to help make that happen.  Finally, much of what we now call welfare would be better handled through charity provided by local voluntary organizations.  Moreover, connecting charity to the dignity of work would strengthen the moral fiber of those whose moral fiber needs strengthening.  Paul Ryan calls this insightful and original, the very thing needed to navigate the fragmented world in which we live.  I don’t think Mr. Ryan cares what I call it, but original it is not.  However, it is not without insight.  There is no doubt on the left about the importance of families in the raising of children, the value of churches in speaking to the nation about what is moral and good, the worthiness of charity and charities, and the dignity of work - hard work.  The left has a lot to say about the dangers of using the coercive power of government to encourage them, even as it has been accused of using that power to usurp them.

It would have helped if he had been more honest about centralization of legislative and regulatory authority in the federal government as a reality impelled by economic and social conditions that are national in scope, flowing as they will across local and state borders, requiring resources available only through a national government.  We don’t live in a society of villages and villagers who are in limited relationship with one another.  We don’t even live in a confederation of independent states.  We gave that up in 1789, sealing it at last in 1865.  We are more aware than we once were that the rights and privileges of American citizenship cannot be compromised by local decisions to limit them in any way.  The solution to pollution, in all its environmental and sociological forms, is not dilution, especially when we trash that which flows into another’s home.  More today than ever, the economy is married to corporate entities that have no loyalty to locality or nation.  Funds flow around the globe in such volume and velocity that only national governments have any hope of managing it for the protection and welfare of their people.

The idea that by appealing to subsidiarity we can return to a time when none of this will be true anymore is unrealistic nostalgic romanticism at its height.  But it does reveal something that needs fixing.

Centralization of public policy decisions at the national level has also resulted in too many laws and regulations that don’t accommodate regional differences.  A very long time ago I played a small part in an effort to help members of congress understand that a bill designed to protect a particular eastern hardwood forest would endanger western softwood forests.   It’s a small and very old example, but it’s an indication of how hard it is for congress to build needed flexibility into laws.  It results in onerous regulations required by the laws themselves.  The federal government is good at raising and disbursing the huge amounts of money needed to address many issues.  It’s good at making broad policy decisions on behalf of the whole nation.  it borders on incompetent when it micro-manages implementation in so many places where conditions are so different.  Experience with state and local governments suggests they suffer the same weakness.  There is nothing wrong with government as such; it has to do with elected representatives who are reluctant to trust those at lower levels to do the right thing unless they are told precisely how to do it.  The idea that goals and performance standards could be set, audits made rigorous, and otherwise those who know best left to do best in whatever way works best, is just too risky to try.   And don’t blame politicians for having flawed genes or something.  The same problem exists in business at every level, even more so in large corporations.  One of our greatest weaknesses as a society is that, at every level and in every institution, we don’t really trust subordinates to be responsible persons, even as we criticize everyone except you and me, and I’m not sure about you, for having lost their sense of self responsibility.

Even Levin, trying hard to avoid the trap, falls into it.  Without saying so out loud, he leaves readers to clearly understand that once conservative social values are imposed on the unwilling, especially those on the left, in some locally democratic way, all will be made well again.  Speaking of Levin, toward the end of the book he finally gets around to taking potshots at the usual welfare state suspects in the usual generalized terms alleging their awfulness on the assumption that decent right thinking people will agree without asking too many questions.  He offers subsidiarity as the solution.  If that seems a little vague to you, see my previous article on deconstructing the federal government.