Friday, August 17, 2018

The Path to Wisdom

Some advice I picked up somewhere:

Who among you loves life, and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking, and your lips from lying words.
Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, puts it in less tactful words.  We live in evil times, he wrote, so be wise, not foolish.  Don’t get drunk on wine because that’s debauchery.  Were the Ephesians excessive in their love of wine?  Who knows?  Read in the context of everything else he had to say to them, it’s a stern warning to not let any desire overwhelm a spiritually and physically balanced, healthy life.  It results in destruction of the good things in life for one’s self, and for those near by.  

You don’t have to be an alcoholic or drug addict to live into debauchery.  It happens whenever the impulse to satisfy yourself with what you want when you want it becomes the center of daily living.   We all have those impulses.  It can feel good to act on them, but wisdom calls for us to set and observe boundaries under the guidance of what God teaches is moral and ethical.

So far so good, but the question of what is moral and ethical too easily gets translated into lists of specific behaviors, sins, said to be immoral or unethical, each paired with a set of socially prescribed reprimands.  The lists are endless. No one agrees about what should or shouldn’t be on them.  They’re dictated more by social custom than godly instruction. Scripture is assaulted for proof texts to justify them.  We strain at gnats while letting camels in.  We mistake human precepts for godly precepts.

God, as we understand God in Christ Jesus, takes an entirely different approach more interested in what philosophers call the prior question.  What is it about a particular behavior that is troubling?  What are the socially prescribed reprimands intended to accomplish?  Pay attention to the prior questions that lie behind lists of sins.  Jesus does it all the time.  For that matter, I think the Hebrew prophets do too, but that’s for another time.  Keeping with Jesus’ teaching, I’m constantly driven back to the Sermon on the Mount as the example of how it works.

In it, Jesus pointed in a new direction.   He instructed his followers in ways of living that contribute to a more abundant and godly life without dwelling on no-no prohibitions.  Interpreted for our own time, they might read like this:
  • Be humble in spirit and demeanor
  • Be honest about what Paul calls evil times, and the role you have played in it
  • Hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Be merciful
  • Be pure (have integrity) in heart
  • Be a peacekeeper
  • Be willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake
  • Be a person worthy of the respect of others
  • Let your behavior illuminate God’s presence in all that you do
  • Understand the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments, not just their words
  • Seek reconciliation with those whom you’ve injured
  • Let your yes be yes and your no be no
  • Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
  • Give anonymously with generosity
  • Pray in simple words as Jesus has taught you
  • Serve God, not wealth
  • Trust God, and don’t worry so much about this life
  • Don’t be quick to judge others, you’re not good at it anyway
  • Respect the holy in all creation
  • Ask, knock, seek: God will answer
  • Aim for the narrow doorway, not the big one that leads to damnation
  • Beware of false prophets
  • Build your life on the solid rock of God as revealed in Christ Jesus


It’s a curious list the way I’ve presented it.  Unclear about specific behaviors not allowed, it’s disinterested in punishment.  The warning that disregarding it will result in a second rate life and eternal death simply points to the natural consequences.  For the most part it emphasizes what you should do, not what you shouldn’t.  Jesus exercised his disciples in them so they would become habits of the heart when he was gone.  They didn’t get it all, but they got most of it.  That’s what we also are called to do: work at it so that they become habits of the heart.  Perfection is not ours to have, but we can do better tomorrow than we’re doing today.  And that’s the path to wisdom.



Monday, August 13, 2018

Freedom of tfhe Press: an insecure constitutional guarantee

Four freedoms are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble peaceably to petition the government.  The freedom of the press, meaning news media, has been challenged by the administration’s determination to undermine it, labeling it ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people.’  With well orchestrated ferocity they’ve caused a large portion of the population to believe it.  Pew and Gallup report different levels of trust in the media, but at best it hovers around 50%, and some sectors are as low as 14%.  Television news is often rated lowest, but is the most popular source.  Newspapers typically rate highest, but are the least popular source.  It leaves unscrupulous persons in power to say whatever they want, knowing a cynical public will distrust media reports about truthfulness, or commentary about meaning.  It gives them latitude to do whatever they want, knowing that being called to account for it will likely be unheard and unheeded.

The constitutional guarantee of press freedom has always been subject to interpretation.  In America the debate began with the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger that introduced a legal foundation for press freedom in the colonies.  I have vague memories of the 1953 television play “The Trial of John Peter Zenger,” a film of which was shown in my high school class.  We were a bit misled.  It wasn’t about the right to report on misbehaving government officials, but about the intricacies of colonial libel laws.  Zenger got off on a technicality.  It helped that the jury didn’t like the judge.  Just the same, it encouraged newspaper publishers to hold governments accountable.  The cork had been popped.  The genie was out. 

Politicians and governments don’t like being held accountable in the harsh light of news media exposure.  The importance of press freedom to provide public accountability was essential to the survival of the new American democratic republic.  It was a key reason for its inclusion in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Nevertheless, the young American government passed a sedition law in 1798 making it a crime to say bad things about the government in times of war.  Some newspaper publishers ignored it, and some went to jail.  Its authorization expired early the 1800s, but the nation did it again with another sedition law in1918 during WWI.  Same results.  Repealed a few years later, it’s never been tried again.  Today we have more effective substitutes involving information labeled secret for reasons of national security and executive privilege.  We also have public relations professionals skilled at manipulating what and how information gets to the public.  

Sparring with them are reporters and commentators equally skilled at ferreting out what the public really needs to know. 

All of that’s been true for decades.  What makes the present different is an administration intent on destroying the public’s trust in the integrity of a free press, thus removing it as a means by which they can be held accountable.  If the president and his minions call the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people’ often enough, loud enough, they believe they will persuade a critical mass to disbelieve whatever the press puts out.  Then they can substitute their own propaganda machines for legitimate news media.  Who needs sedition laws? Why worry about First Amendment guarantees when disabling legitimate news media is so easy to do?

They’ve had some success.  I hear it in comments from Trump supporters demanding to know what makes the legitimate media, legitimate.  They’re all liberals, they say, biased against anything that doesn’t lean left.  They have no more right, they say, to claim truth than the faux news sources littering the internet, talk radio, and some cable networks.  Verifiable truthfulness and well informed, balanced commentary are easily lost in the melee.  
  

They can do what they want.  A responsible free press, dedicated to its own public accountability, will continue to do its job of informing the public about issues and policies important to the well being of our society, the preservation of our constitutional freedoms, and our civil rights.   The Constitution guarantees it.  The American ethos demands it.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Trump and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, urged them to “let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need...” (Eph 4.29ff).  I thought about that while watching the run up to the mid term elections, reflecting on the behavior of Congress over the last decade, and their relationship to the polarization we’ve heard so much about.  

Political polarization has been a hot topic for books, articles, and columns, including mine, but understanding it may be missing an important element.  Maybe it’s not polarization at all, but a virulent game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Educators and trainers in group dynamics have long relied on variations of an old game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma developed in 1950 by Flood and Dresher at the RAND Corp.  There are many versions, but the basic idea is that two people, or teams, who cooperate with each other will always out perform the same who betray each other.  However, the way society offers rewards and punishment irresistibly entices them into tactical betrayals intended to benefit one at the cost of loss to the other.  The inevitable result is, at best, poor performance for both, and more likely, defeat for both.  These days we hear it talked about as zero sum games in which there are only winners and losers.  The truth is, zero sum games produce losers and losers. 

Congress likes to play the game.  It always has.  But for much of the last 100 years, competent leadership has found a way to bring competing sides together for something that approximated a partial win for most everyone.  That ended some time ago.  Blame it on whomever you want.  I take special aim at the tea party movement and its congressional freedom caucus whose strategy is to win by causing others to lose everything.  Failing that, no one gets to win anything.  They’ve been aided and abetted in the senate by Mitch McConnell, for reasons that elude me.  Former leadership who figured that ‘we can work this out’ have been replaced by zero sum politicians producing losers and losers.  

The game has not been played out of public view.  It’s been under the floodlights of media calling the play by play and offering color commentary, but since 2016 the floodlights have been replaced by a spotlight on one person who proudly claims to be the world heavy weight champion of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  No teams for him.  He plays it alone, one on one with everybody and anybody: his wives, business associates, opponents in the presidential primaries, the general election, with congress, world leaders, everybody.  He has only two moves in his repertoire: first, feign cooperation; second, betray and defeat.  If not successful in round one, repeat until the other gives up.  I’ve thrown in a lot of sports analogies so might as well go for one more.  For him, life is a version of the game best defined by pro wrestling, of which he is said to be a fan.  Fighting to win by defeating the other is the whole purpose of life.  It’s the only game there is.  There is no other.  Rigging the fight in advance is in one’s best interest.  Extravagant ring strutting behavior enhances fan support, and creates fear in the hearts of would be opponents.  Compromise is never an option.  Never apologize.  Never give in.

His business career and personal life should illuminate the fragility of his playing credibility and championship claims.  While he has defeated and destroyed other lives, he can claim few victories of substance.  All he has is illusory.  It may be gold plated, but the veneer is thin.  Underneath is base metal offering no enduring integrity.  Bankruptcies, divorces, betrayals, unpaid bills, and exaggerations of wealth are all he has to offer.  Bluster and intimidation are his only weapons.

It may be faint hope, but I hope for a new congress with new leadership, on both sides of the aisle, more aware of how easy it is to slip into the game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and more willing to do what they can to avoid it.  Above all, I hope for a new president determined not to play the game at home or on the world stage.  Until then, the best strategy for dealing with Trump and current congressional leadership is to not play the game with them.  But how?

Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice.  In short, do not return betrayal with betrayal.  Return betrayal with good.

I have a few Trump supporting friends who, if they read this, will no doubt say that I have filled a column with bitterness, anger and slander intended to tear down, not build up.  I think they’re simply observations about the obviously pernicious forces undermining the integrity of our nation.  Evil is not thwarted by pretending it doesn’t exist.


   

Monday, August 6, 2018

Fake News & CNN

A recent correspondent complained about CNN’s fake news, saying it wouldn’t bother him so much if they’d report all the facts instead of only those favoring CNN’s anti Trump bias.  For him, all the facts include whatever might shine a positive light on Trump policies, and he’s an ardent Trump supporter.

It’s a decent point. Facts are important and must be as fully reported as possible.  But first they must be verified.  Merely stating something as a fact doesn’t make it so.  Verifying an alleged fact is not always easy to do, but it’s what’s expected of responsible reporters.  A single fact, or even a few, never paint the whole picture.  It takes many, some of them conflicting, but getting all the facts isn’t possible.  Getting enough is.  Enough can present a reasonably accurate representation of what happened.  What is enough?  Facts are like atoms; the more you take one apart, the more parts you find, and there’s never an end to them.  Taken together, facts are like molecules in a cup of water, including whatever else might be in it.  Trying to count them all doesn’t make sense.  Sooner or later enough has to be enough.  The question is, what's enough to present as full and accurate a picture of reality as possible?  It’s not easy, but that’s the reporter’s job within the constraints of a deadline to be met. 

I’m reminded of a training exercise I was involved in many years ago.  During a routine staff meeting of fourteen well trained observers, four men burst in, started a fight, and left as quickly as they entered.  It took less than a minute.  Everyone was asked to write down what happened.  Fourteen well trained observers gave fourteen different accounts, each of them generally right and exactly wrong.  Like I said, it’s not easy, but it’s the reporter’s job.

Another question remains: what do the facts mean?  Facts, by themselves, have no meaning.  It’s raining may be a fact, but what does it mean?  Someone has to give it meaning.  My high school text book explained the meaning of rain in the context of the water cycle.  Rained out picnickers give it a different meaning, and a drought burdened farmer yet another, all from the same fact.  What meaning is the right meaning?

Responsible reporters try to give meaning as best they can without editorializing.  Editorializing is what I do.  The difference is subtle, but looks a little like this: reporters try to gather enough facts to tell an accurate story of what happened, giving it their best shot at unbiased meaning in the form of: What does it mean for…?; What does it mean about…?.  Editorial commentators focus on meaning from their point of view, and use available facts to give it weight.  For instance, I write as a progressive Christian and center-left political observer.  

Reporters try not to make moral judgments.  Editorial commentators intend to make moral judgments.  Responsible editorial commentators are careful to use available facts to make their point so that it will stand up to scrutiny by others, especially those who disagree.  

Newspapers do both, but the news and editorial staffs are separate, and so are the pages on which they’re featured.

Cable news outlets also do both, but without much separation between reporting and editorializing.  It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because they have another problem.  They have to keep their audience and advertisers involved 24 hours, day after day.  So the tendency is to rely on anything that can be called breaking news before it can be fully vetted; they sensationalize events more worthy of a dispassionate mention; the trivial is made to appear important; and they feature commentators eager to dig for instant meaning into that which requires patient study and time for reflection.  

It’s one reason why I prefer print media, and broadcasters such as PBS, NPR, and BBC.  But calling CNN fake news, the enemy of the people, is morally wrong, factually incorrect, and dangerous to our democracy.  It needs to stop.  Given the world of cable news, they report as well as anybody.  Even Fox, on the reporting side, does a decent job of it.  The editorial side is another matter.  MSNBC is in a separate category.  They make no pretense at being news reporters.  They’re editorial commentators speaking from center left.  

There is another world of propagandists and provocateurs who imitate authentic providers of news and editorials.  They’re all over the internet, talk radio, and some television.  I have no respect for them and regret that others, seduced by their calculated deviousness, give them legitimacy.




Thursday, August 2, 2018

Genderless Thoughts in a Gendered Age

My understanding of the dynamics of social interaction in small groups was formed many decades ago by the work of Robert F. Bales.  He observed, among other things, that each of those present had to work out a rough idea of the role they intended to play, how much control or influence they wanted to have, how their personal needs related to the issues at hand, and how much acceptance or intimacy they wanted from others.  I believe it’s still a valid observation, but with some dramatic changes.

In those days there were men’s groups, women’s groups, and mixed groups.  Men ran theirs according to a range of predictable male rules.  All business groups, civic groups, and most political groups were run by men.  Women ran their groups by their own rules.  In mixed groups, men were dominant, women subordinate.  All the rules existed within the context of white middle classes that defined the American way of doing things.  All others were marginalized, no offense intended, they just didn’t count.

Times have changed in many ways, and this short essay’s focus is on gender as one of the most significant changes.  The work place, civic organizations, and social gatherings are no longer the province of male domination.  Women arrived a long time ago, but until recently some men seem not to have noticed.  The #Metoo movement has been a bucket of ice water waking them to the startling revelation of, “Oh! We had no idea.”  From business meetings through casual conversations, women are no longer willing to be ignored, diminished, neglected, exploited or rejected.  Their voices will be heard, with the expectation that they will be respected.  But changing cultural patterns takes time, and it comes with side effects.  One of them is the temptation to assign gender to the way thoughts are given voice, indeed to assign gender to the thoughts themselves.  The frequent accusation of “mansplaining” is but one example. 

Small group conversations can elicit strongly held opinions often expressed with equally strong emotions.  Where men and women gather to converse about matters great and small there can be wariness that entrenched patterns of male dominance have not been left behind, or that new patterns of female assertiveness have derailed the agenda.  Add to the mix anxieties about political correctness (whatever that is), and the occasional presence of a “just kidding” jackass, and gender issues can boil over.

It leads to a problem.  In the heat of debate it’s not uncommon to make assumptions that the other is speaking from the perspective of their gender, on behalf of their gender, and what they have to say is so gender loaded that whatever other value it may have cannot be heard.  It’s the natural outcome of recognition that women’s voices have been ignored or denigrated as a matter of course for the last few thousand years, and they are unwilling to let it continue.  If women’s voices are to be heard, then men’s voices have to make room for them.  It raises two questions.  If a woman speaks, is she speaking as a woman on behalf of women?  If a man speaks, is he speaking as a man on behalf of men?  What it they’re each just speaking, expressing thoughts worthy of being entered into the conversation?

If that was all, we might be able to work it out, but gender isn’t limited to male and female.  We have the whole LGBTQ community to consider, which creates complicated subsets of male and female voices.  Is what they have to say always about LGBTQishness, or might they simply be saying something about the weather, state of the economy, or a new way to sell toothpaste?  For that matter, I’m an old, upper middle class white man.  Should that automatically paint whatever I have to say with an old white man brush?

What about the expression of genderless thoughts?  Let the expression of a thought stand on its own merits without leaping to gender assignment.  Starting with the assumption that one’s contribution to the conversation is made in good faith will open the door to a more free exchange of useful information to be debated with vigor.  Stupid, silly, ignorant, and prejudiced thoughts will still make themselves known, as will those who cannot be relied on to act in good faith.  Dealing with them in appropriate ways may be tough and decisive, but it doesn’t have to include gender bashing generalizations.  

Here's to the expression of genderless thoughts. May they flow in abundance.





Sunday, July 29, 2018

Religious Freedom: Where did it come from?

Freedom of religion has been much in the news these days.  It might be worthwhile to explore a little of what it means.  Where did the idea of freedom of religion come from?  Two sources come to mind right away: the Pilgrims, and the First Amendment to the Constitution.  

Let’s take the Pilgrims first.  Fleeing to the New World from religious persecution in England, they landed at Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1620.  They were calvinist Puritans who rebelled against the papist tendencies of the Church of England, which, in turn, made their lives miserable.  They hoped to be free in their new home to practice their faith in their own way.  They weren’t interested in the freedom to worship for anyone else.  It was their way, punishment, banishment, or death.   

Why so puritanical?  Convinced that they knew the right way to worship God as reformed Protestants, they were equally convinced that other ways were corrupt, probably infected by the devil himself.  They had to be careful to keep their own community from becoming infected by the same.  The much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1628 not far away.  Although financed by mercantile interests, it was populated by other Puritans who followed the same strict adherence to religious practices that outlawed all others.  

It took a long time for anything like freedom of religion to take root in the New World.  Other Christian denominations set up their own colonies with their own rules outlawing other forms of worship.  Roger Williams, a Baptist who established Providence Plantations (Rhode Island) in 1636, was the first to talk about separation of church and state, and tolerated other forms of worship in his territory.  No one followed his lead.  Open minded as he was, he believed other ways of worship, especially in the Church of England, were hopelessly corrupt, including his Puritan neighbors to the north, but he tolerated them.   

Colonial freedom of religion meant freedom only for the established denomination in each colony.  All others were not free.  What about non Christians?  Apart from a few stray Jews, some form of Christianity was the only religion that came over from Europe.   Don’t be too hard on them.  They were people of their time trying to do what they thought was right within the constraints of what they were able to know and understand, and their times were very confusing.  Thanks to the Reformation, denominations were springing up right and left, each claiming to have the truth no one else had.  The new science of science, and the explosion of secular philosophy, rattled the foundations of long held beliefs.  It made a certain amount of sense to stake one’s claim on one way of believing safe in its own corner of New World.

It couldn’t last.  The colonies got too crowded for each to exist as if no others did.  People didn’t stay put.  Wherever they went, they brought their ways with them.  Economy driven politics led to a war of separation from England, and the unification of colonies as states forming a nation, which brings us to the First Amendment. 

The Constitution was adopted as the law of the land in 1789, after several years of floundering around under Articles of Confederation that never worked very well.  The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791.  The first one reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

There’s been a lot of recent talk about the legislative intent of its authors.  Examining what they wrote certainly offers insight and wisdom, but legislative intent is not law, and what the law means is what the court says it means.  The court, being presided over by humans, is constrained by what the justices are able to know and understand, just as the Pilgrims were.  Over the years, they have adjusted the meaning as new knowledge, new ways living, and new understandings of what is permissible have come along.  What they say it means today isn’t what will be said a century from now.  That’s the way it goes.

Among the new things for our time has been a much greater appreciation for what human rights are, and how they get expressed as civil rights.  A human right can be proclaimed, but only a civil right can be enforced.  It gets pretty basic.  Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the original Constitution.  They didn’t have the right to be a full human, or, as a practical matter, human at all.  Indians weren’t counted, so they didn’t exist.  The post Civil War 14th Amendment recognized former slaves as whole, free persons, but it wasn’t enforced fully until the mid 1960s.  Women were counted, but had no right to voice or vote.  They got it in 1919.  American Indians had to wait until 1924.  What is or isn’t a human right is always up for debate, and we haven’t figured it out yet.

Not that we haven’t tried.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.  It remains a set of unmet goals against which each nation’s civil rights are measured.  To be sure, the nations of the world have been making progress, and that’s a good thing.  But not to digress too far, it’s time to get back to freedom of religion in the U.S.A.

What is it?  About the time we think we know, it changes.  For Americans in the 21st century, it’s the assurance that government cannot establish a religion, nor do anything that gives preference to one form of religion over another.  Government can’t force religious practices or beliefs on anyone.  Government can restrict persons from forcing their religious practices on unwilling others.  Every person is free to worship, or not, as he or she pleases.  

There is a debate right now about whether a person holding religious beliefs can discriminate against others who don’t in the course of doing business in the public marketplace.  Generally speaking the answer is no.  If you own a store or run a business open to the public, then any member of the public who wants to buy from you must be allowed to do so.  You can’t be forced to sell something that’s against your religion, but whatever you do sell to the public must be available to all without discrimination.

It sounds simple but gets testy because religion is important.  Religious faith addresses the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human, what the world around us means, and what role God plays in it.  Even my atheist acquaintances are deeply concerned about how religion impacts their right to disbelieve.  The spiritual but not religious, and those who don’t give it much thought, live in communities defined in part by the religious heritage of the pioneers.  Religious practices touch our rawest nerves and most vulnerable parts of our souls.  In spite of our treasured separation of church and state, the religious faith of legislators and executives has always influenced their decisions.  It can’t be helped.


What can be helped is to engage in the discipline of respect for each other’s beliefs and practices, and to do what we can to see that they are not abridged or interfered with in any discriminatory way.  It’s not incompatible with proclaiming your religious faith to others, hoping they will be inspired to join you in worship.  They’re certainly free to do so, and so are you. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

White Hot Anger & Supporting Trump

I read a piece supposedly from a small city mayor about why he and others remain staunch Trump supporters.  It was a fascinating look into white hot anger at Obama, Clinton(s) and liberals in general.  Right wing myths and real incidents, some old, some more recent, were grotesquely distorted to portray crimes and misdemeanors that never happened.  It expressed outrage at liberals who hypocritically ignored them while being obsessed with Trump’s peccadilloes that are minor in comparison.  The accusations were bizarre reflections of almost everything Trump and associates have done proudly, with blatant exhibitionism, and on the record.  

It had the disturbing effect of proclaiming high moral standards for public officials while contemptuously ignoring their application to the current administration, doing so with the high dudgeon of unchallengeable self righteousness.  I have a local friend who does much the same, but with a smidgen of care about offending too many others with whom he wants to maintain good relations.

What the diatribe came down to, it seemed to me, was racist fear of everything the supposed writer believed was a danger to the way he believes society should be.  Combine white supremacy, fearful of its fragility, with demands that government get out of one’s life (except  that it’s OK for it to impose one’s values on the rest of society), and that pretty  much sums it up.  I’m not linking to it for two reasons.  First, it could have been a bot intended to incite violence.  Second, if legitimate it was too sick to give it more publicity than it already had.  

However, it is not to be dismissed.  Previous columns have described some of the dynamics that have made it possible for such attitudes to come out of the shadows, into the public arena as a legitimate mass movement.  It has some similarities to the America First movement of the late 1930s and early ‘40s, as if merged with the then popularity of the KKK throughout vast portions of the nation.  Cruel and ignorant though it may be, it’s based on deeply held beliefs, endorsed by some religious leaders, and abetted by others who recognize its usefulness as a tool to help gain political and economic power denied to them by the rule of law defining liberal democracy.  

Psychologists call it transference and projection when despicable behavior is attributed to others as a way to deny one’s own guilt.  I don’t know if sociologists have similar terms for how large segments of society can do the same thing.  René Girard certainly probed it as a philosopher.  So did Hannah Arendt before him from her political historian’s perspective.  At its simplest, it’s finding a suitable scapegoat on which to unload all blame for sins and injustices, expecting that the goat’s punishment will restore order and harmony.  However it’s described, creating conditions and providing information to counter it is hard to do. Those who hold such views cling to them with tenacity few throughout history have ever seen before (I borrowed some of those words from a well known stable genius). 

Who are today’s scapegoats?  We’ve got a herd of them.  Elite white liberals are always useful. The problem is, no one is exactly sure what liberal means or what a liberal looks like.  They’re all socialists of course, whatever socialism might be.  Pipe smoking professors in tweed jackets are rarely seen these days.  Hippies went out of style a long time ago.  The others are hard to spot.  Blaming liberals is too much like chasing after the wind.  

Unfair international trade is good for the moment, but suffers some of the same weaknesses.  Is the current trade environment really unfair?  Trump says it is, but what does he know?  What are current tariffs on what goods and services?  Are trade imbalances really bad?  In what way?  Anyway, negotiations were going along just fine.  Why were they shut down?  All of a sudden, blustering trade wars don’t seem so simple or easy to win.  

Federal overreach, excessive regulation, and bloated bureaucracies are always worthy targets, except when one’s favorite programs become the targets.  Battle cries to keep government out of our lives sounds hollow when yoked to rabid support for authoritarian leadership, and demands for government to force “traditional values” on an unwilling populace.  It causes unsettling cognitive dissonance when it runs afoul of libertarian convictions.  There have to be better alternatives.

Blacks used to be good ones, but with Black Lives Matter and all those kneeling football players, they’re not as malleable as they once were.  Consider that we twice elected a popular black president by large margins.  It’s safer just to take occasional pot shots than make them into scapegoat martyrs.  Same problem with women, especially with all the #MeToo fanatics running around.

Still, put them all together and you’ve got something to work with, not a scape goat, but a herd of scapegoats, each assigned their own portion of blame and threatened with their own measure of punishment.  If someone complains that one is being accused and punished for too much, you can always say, “Yea, but what about…”  Fortunately, the whole herd is led by a relatively new, easily identifiable goat, Hispanics, all of them, everyone of them, the more illegal the better.  And aren’t they all illegal one way or another?  On them can be blamed nearly everything: loss of jobs, gangs, drugs, crime of all sorts, loss of white demographic standing, you name it.  What Jews and Gypsies did for Europe, Hispanics can do for America.  Build a wall.  Zero tolerance.  Speak English or leave.

They’re all to blame.  Punish them all: liberals, trading partners, blacks, women, and especially Hispanics.  On them fall the sins of society, and when they’re dealt with, all will be well again.

It’s a horrible thought.  Few are willing to own it outright, but its odor lingers in conversation, political debate, and voting patterns.  A good friend, conservative, gentle and deeply concerned about the well being of future generations, would never agree to such an ideology.  But he does observe that local Hispanics are unwilling to become a part of the community, even though invited, so there is some validity to what more strident voices say.  What he means is that local Hispanics are unwilling to become white middle class Americans with Northern European roots.  They’re ready, willing and able to become full members of the community, but as Hispanics bringing their heritage with them, expecting it to receive the same respect that white Northern European based culture has, meshing with it so each is fed by the other.  It’s not an idea he’d be opposed to.  It’s just one he’s never thought of.  For him, “truth, justice, and the American way” have always been defined by the white middle class.  It's not proprietary, it’s just normal.  A different normal is hard to imagine.  It seems so abnormal. 


Well, you’ve seen where this has gone.  We started with an angry, ignorant white bigot, and ended with a gentle, reasonable white conservative.  In between we’ve allowed room for a nascent authoritarian movement to take root.  Our democracy is at risk, going in harm’s way. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Localism, David Brooks, & Big Government

David Brooks, a center-right conservative who harbors suspicion about big government, wrote an encouraging piece in the NYT (7/20/18) about what he called localism.  In the face of generalized unhappiness with the federal government, he wrote, it’s through local governments that real problems are addressed by real people who are known and can be held accountable.  They can respond more quickly with greater flexibility and creativity than the massive federal bureaucracy with its tendency to impose one size fits all solutions on problems that manifest themselves in unique ways at the local level.  It’s from there where he sees hope for America springing.  

All true, but it shouldn’t be romanticized.  Local communities are also strongholds of entrenched prejudice and power, the birth place of tea party politics.  They’re where old ways rumble over the stillborn new, and where tolerance of systemic injustice is abetted by blindness to it.  Local governments are also creatures of the state.  Even with home rule exceptions, they can do only what the state permits them to do.  Their ability to act quickly in imaginative new ways is limited.

Obviously local governments are not one or the other, but a complicated mix of both, deeply affected by tradition, historical circumstance, and demographic and economic change.  They’re not hilltop fortifications immune as possible from the outside world’s influence.  Transportation and communication systems broke down those walls a long time ago.  Issues may be experienced in locally unique ways, but few have respect for city limits or county lines.  Disease cannot be controlled in one place if it isn’t controlled in every place.  Homelessness can’t be solved in one place if it isn’t solved in every place.  The quality of air and water ignores government boundaries.  In our area, trading relationships and agricultural prices in other countries have a direct, immediate impact on the local economy.  Globalization is a reality.  No amount of hot tempered frustration will make it go away.

It means that we need a strong, efficiently run federal government to study and provide needed information about the condition of the natural and economic environment, adopt policies requiring all units of government at every level to address them in ways coordinated to meet national standards, but allowing each to do it in ways appropriate for them.  There’s no place in the contemporary world for a small, weak central government.  Its ability to raise and invest enormous sums of money to meet enormous needs cannot be delegated to lesser units of government.  Consider the part of the country where I live; local agriculture depends on water from the Snake and Columbia, inexpensive electricity generated by their dams, and river transportation to export terminals near the coast.  Curiously, the small government, conservative minded voters in the region appear to have collective amnesia about their dependency on massive federal investments in infrastructure, their taxes and fees making an infinitely small contribution to the cost.   

Given that, I agree with Brooks: emphasis on responsibility for addressing issues should be given to the lowest capable level of community, and that’s often municipal and county government.  They need to be given helpful guidelines, adequate funding, held accountable for results, but not constrained by uniform methods imposed on everyone.  Federal bureaucracies need to become more flexible, and their staffs must understand their more important role is customer service, not enforcement.  

A change in corporate culture is obviously needed, but it’s not an executive branch problem only.  Congress has a nasty habit of writing laws that tend toward micro management through language and legislative intent requiring the regulatory detailed inflexibility they rail against during campaigns.  They take umbrage at what they created.  It’s a wonder.

I know there’s a nostalgic desire among many for a small national government, with most governmental functions assumed by states and localities, and even those functions limited to the most basic.  It evokes images of a renewed society of hard working individuals taking care of themselves, and meeting the needs of the poor through charity.  Currier and Ives would live again.  It’s a desire not without value, but it has no foundation in reality.  There never was a time like that, nor can there be.  Its value lies in encouraging an American character of individual responsibility, charitable generosity, and civic engagement.  It’s a worthy value that need not be in conflict with the reality of what is required of our national government in the contemporary world.    


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Religious Leadership & Political Conversation

Not long ago someone challenged me about the role of religious leaders in politics.  In today’s contentious political environment, it troubled her to hear religious leaders using the name of Jesus as they advocated political views.  Jesus, she said, was not political.  He was only about God.  A few months later I was confronted by an online piece claiming liberals, all of whom are socialists, have misused Jesus’ name because he was really a first century libertarian.  Jim Wallis and my own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, lead a politically oriented movement to reclaim the name of Jesus.  It’s not new.  For good or ill there is a long history of religious leaders having a lot to say in the political arena.  Preachers in the black community have long been vocal advocates for political reforms affecting civil rights.  Conservative white Protestants have not been shy about supporting conservative politicians, and Catholic clergy are all over the map but seldom reticent about having their political say.  All in the name of Jesus.

Well, there you go.  It’s difficult to understand in today’s environment of deeply partisan electoral politics that politics in the larger sense is the art of deciding among ourselves the kind of society we want to live in.  Partisanship has a legitimate role, but there’s more to it than just that.  Religious leaders have their role too, and as a Christian, it’s to their part in it that I write. 

Hans Küng offered a thought that may be helpful.  The name of Jesus, he said, signifies power, protection, and refuge.  It’s opposed to inhumanity, oppression, untruthfulness, and injustice.  It stands for humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love (Küng: On Being A Christian, 547).  A little later on he suggests that Jesus is not what he called “an optimal model” to be copied in every detail, but a “basic model” to be realized in an infinite number of ways according to time, place and person.  That leaves a lot of wiggle room. 

Because of the wiggle room, it’s not helpful advice for anyone who wants Jesus to be an immovable rock, known in one definitive way, and that’s the right way.  But it is helpful advice for Christian libertarians, socialists, and those in between, who want to sit in conversation about how best to organize the society in which they live together so it can become better at how it demonstrates humanity toward all, assures personal freedom, protects from oppression, provides equal justice, rewards truthfulness, and expresses love toward one another.  

Among followers of Christ, there will be arguments about what it means to be humane, free, just, and loving.  There will certainly be arguments about how truth is to be understood.  As long as the argument remains committed to following Jesus wherever he leads, they will not go too far off course.  If, on the other hand, they move their own agendas ahead of Jesus, the conversation will fall off the cliff.  Keeping Jesus at the forefront is simple, and also hard.  The simple part is to measure everything against the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment.  The hard part is exercising the prayerful discipline to do it.

Having said that, a pious claim to follow Jesus can also be an excuse for doing little or nothing: ignoring obvious issues of inhumanity,  oppression, injustice, and untruthfulness in the interest of stability, predictability, and keeping peace.  After all, who can deny that every side is represented by good people of good intention?  This is where things get muddy, because there’s no promise of equivalency between differing views in an argument about humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love.  If nothing else, it’s what King’s well known Letter from Birmingham Jail pointed out.  Broods of vipers are still broods of vipers no matter what their ecclesial rank or public acclaim.  Blind guides are still blind guides no matter how often they shout the name of Jesus.  And tepid followers who are neither hot nor cold are still worthy of being spit out.

Another way to keep a constructive Jesus led conversation from going anywhere is to claim the right to speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ own agenda for which one is speaking.  It helps to add that after a long night of prayer, God put it into one’s mind to say it.  “I speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ position, and God told me to do it.”  Who could argue with that? Jesus maybe?  Well, you never know, so put it in brackets and get back to the issue at hand.
Naming the issue is to name the sin.  To name the sin is to open the door to repentance, not to guilt, but to a new direction.  It gets complicated because we (or at least I) don’t like changing directions when we’re certain the one we’re on is the right one, and all others are wrong.  And we’re quick to name the sin of the other, with disbelief that they stubbornly stick to it, astounded at their temerity for throwing the sin hand-grenade right back at us. 

It all happens.  To keep from getting derailed, go back to the basics.  How does the conversation about the political issue at hand measure up to the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment?