Monday, June 18, 2018

In Due Time

We don’t live in due time, Out for dinner with friends a few nights ago, we talked about America’s history of lurching against the status quo toward greater freedom and justice for greater numbers of its people.  The carnage of civil war, lynchings, burnings and beatings backed by laws of exclusion and prohibition existed along with optimism for a future in the vastness of a continent in which opportunity abounded for those willing to take risks and work hard.  The contradictions were not easy to resolve.  They haven’t yet been fully resolved. 

Nevertheless, the nation has lurched forward, not without great effort on the part of courageous people who stood for a better way, leading others to stand with them, sometimes at the cost of their lives.  It has made us unique among all nations, a marvel of civil instability that defies historical logic: one of the great wonders of the political world.  As dinner conversation went on, one of us wondered if progress in civil rights would have happened in due time.  Maybe it didn’t need wars, protests, and rabble rousing leadership to egg it on.  In due time it would have happened. 

“We don’t live in due time,” said our host.  Very little of real worth happens in due time.  It happens when forces of change have enough strength to overcome forces of the status quo.  It takes a lot.  Change is always disruptive, and sociopolitical change may be the most disruptive of all.  If we know how to get along with the way things are, why risk changes that may not turn out well?  Even if they do, how will we know how to get along in the strange ways of a new environment?  Not all change is good.  It can be bad.  How is one to know?  Why take the risk?  

Still, America has a record of lurching unsteadily, violently, but consistently toward more civil rights for more people shared more equitably.  And each forward lurch has been the product of courageous people taking courageous stands, against enormous odds.  

There are vicious enemies of more civil rights for more people: the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, etc.  Within movements for needed change are internal obstacles created by radical extremists who would rather fight than win.  Against all of it stands the most powerful obstacle to expanded rights; the passive resistance of those content with the status quo who are more upset with bad manners and ill behavior than by injustice.  It’s something with which I’m quite familiar, having been a part of it at critical times.

Once again, the courageous among us are on the march, not to expand the scope of civil rights, but to defend ground gained against powerful counter attacks.  Hard won rights are under threat from the current administration, backed by a large portion of the population convinced that their own rights and privileges are being taken away.  Among them are passionate libertarians deeply distrustful of government interference in their lives, egged on, oddly enough, by a relatively small cadre of wealthy persons who appear to favor a more authoritarian form of government they hope to manipulate for their own benefit.  Such turmoil is the perfect opportunity to dismantle regulatory structures that impede doing business as one desires, getting out from under intrusive government oversight, and all in the name of freedom.

In due time will the nation come to its senses, and restore legitimacy to government?  It seems unlikely because we don’t live in due time.  

Several years ago I wrote that the United States would benefit from getting over the need to be the leader of the free world, the biggest and best at everything, and learn to be one nation among others, doing what it does best while letting other nations do what they do best.  I didn’t anticipate that we might get there through an administration intent on corrupting our national reputation, eroding our competitive advantages, and undermining the integrity of our democracy, doing it, they say, to Make America Great Again.

I don’t know how this will all work out.  Now and then I run into Trump supporters.  Some of them amaze me with the tenacity of their support.  Others astound me with the grotesquely distorted convictions they hold about the world they live in.  On the other side are dozens of opposition and resistance movements that have yet to say what they stand for instead of what they stand against.  In between is a discouraging number who don’t vote, don’t intend to vote, don’t know what’s going on, and have little knowledge of American government and history.  

I guess we’ll find out, in due time.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Authentic Americans, Elitists & Haters

Trump’s advocates have ramped up use of an effective propaganda technique.  In editorial comments, social media posts, and thence to barbershop and coffee conversations, the theme is that those who oppose Trump are elitists and haters who are not authentic Americans.  It need not be said that authentic Americans are neither elitist nor haters, but it will be said in as many ways as possible to assure Trump supporters that they alone are the authentic Americans, while everyone else is an elitist hater, or one of their (duped?) sympathizers.  

It’s a technique skillfully used with amazing success in the last couple of centuries to isolate dissenting opinions, making them unpalatable to citizens fearful of being labeled unpatriotically disloyal. More important, it’s been used to isolate whole populations from exposure to plainly verifiable truth.

Given the ubiquity of today’s social media, freedom of speech, and plethora of news outlets it’s harder to have the nation shattering kinds of success it had in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Just the same, it’s possible to use it with considerable success by relying on the self selected isolation of information sources.  Thanks to algorithms, I, at least, am finding it harder to keep abreast of social media comments inconsistent with my political views, and I’m certain more conservative friends see little of what I write or the news sources I use.

What surprises me a little is the boldness with which commentators such as Steve HIlton use it, and operatives like Ed Rogers lean into its language.  I doubt whether they care very much that it’s an obvious old technique.  Rogers, for instance, is a gifted political strategist who knows how to push buttons without blowing things up, and this is a useful button.  Hilton’s more of a semi-refined Steve Bannon who relishes pushing all the buttons to see if something can be made to blow up.  

It would all be fun and games but for the barbershop and coffee conversations that reveal how well powerful techniques like this work to cement into otherwise decent people the certainty that they’re the only loyal authentic Americans standing tall against all those elitists who hate America.  It’s a frightening game given Trump’s frequent, enthusiastic statements in support of authoritarian rule and rulers, and his administration’s moves to reconstruct the economy to favor unrestricted business practices for large companies, while endlessly teasing his faithful supporters with unreachable carrots.

It’s hard to know what effect his blundering trade war moves will have.  They could be the undoing of his whole charade.  Or they could create such a catastrophe that strong, authoritarian measures would be said to be needed.  It’s worked for other dictators.  Or he could do what he’s done before: teeter on the edge, back away, surrender, claim victory, and strut on. 


In the meantime, his faithful followers will continue to believe he’s defending them against elitist haters.  Their minds will not be changed by proving to them how wrong they are, how misled they’ve been.  They will only be changed by messages emotionally driven, well crafted, evangelically delivered that lay before them an understandable pathway to their personal prosperity and security.  It can’t be stage scenery.  It has to be the real thing.  I haven’t seen it yet.  Maybe it’s coming. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Galatian Fallacy: part 2

Communities come in all shapes and sizes: families, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, towns, states, regions, nations, occupations, places of work, all shapes and sizes.  They have values shared among their members, and some of them are core, essential to their identity as a community.  When enough people recognize that community core values are being threatened, grass roots movements are likely to rise in their defense.  Sometimes, those core values,  however important they are to the community, are detrimental to their long term well being, obstructing alternative core values that could be even more beneficial to them.  Changing core values is difficult because they are core, essential components of self identity.  They are not easily given up.

The churches in Galatia were nominally Christian.  Giving up old religions, or no religion, to follow Christ was, I think, sincere.  They weren’t pretending.  But being known as a Christian didn’t offer social or economic rewards.  When it came to core values, their communities valued above all else public respect and recognition as seriously religious people.  However important Jesus was to them, following him was not a core value.  Paul’s letter, and his work among them, was meant to redirect their understanding of Jesus as the one above all who must be the most important core value in their lives.  Public respect and recognition as seriously religious people were not.

What was true for the churches of Galatia remains true for us today.  Within the Church there is tremendous tension between competing forces, each claiming the name of Jesus, and each suspecting the others of submitting to demands of popular culture.  Some want their churches to be symbols of patriotic America within the context of culturally traditional Christian values.  Others want them to follow Jesus by liberating the oppressed and restoring justice, proclaiming it the way of the cross.  Among both are those who use the name of Jesus to clothe agendas dedicated to core values displacing from the center the Word of God made Flesh, in whom and through whom all creation exists. 

Paul understood, and I try to understand, that Christians, by keeping Jesus at the center of everything said or done, discover there are always ways for conservatives and liberals to work their way through other issues, not always resolving them, but always maintaining the faith that binds them together as disciples.  There are also those who can only win or lose, kill or be killed.  For them Jesus is never at the center no matter how often his name is used.  For them there is always something of greater importance.  Whatever it is may be very important indeed, but when Christians allow anything to displace Jesus as the center, the center cannot hold.  Interpreting Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” Christians who displace Jesus from the center can no longer hear God speaking above the hubris of their own voices.  Whatever they’ve placed at the center cannot hold.  It unleashes a form of anarchy that comes when human rules and regulations displace what God has commanded.  With enough momentum, it leaves the best of us unsure about where our convictions lie, and fills the worst of us with “passionate intensity.”  

No doubt that turns Yeats scholars apoplectically blue.  They’ll get over it.  In the meantime he described well the Galatian fallacy Paul worked so hard to correct.  It’s the same fallacy that infects so many of our congregations and denominations today.     

It’s not hard to understand why we easily fall into the Galatian way.  Most of us want to live peacefully where a sociopolitical equilibrium predictably holds things together.  Jesus was, and continues to be, what is meant by today’s favorite management buzzword, a disrupter.  Jesus never ceases to call his disciples to follow him as he breaks down walls of separation, repairs damage caused by injustice, heals the sick and broken, doing it all in the name of God’s abounding and steadfast love.   There’s a temptation to let it become a branch of secular progressivism, which is just another way to displace Jesus from the center.  It can become the “passionate intensity” that defines the worst of us, both conservative and liberal.  Is “all things in moderation” the answer? 

The way out is not to be lukewarm.  As Jesus said to the church in Laodicia, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot...because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out.” (Rev. 3.15ff).  To follow Jesus is to follow on the way of the cross, which is the way of life and peace, but it’s a turbulent kind of peace, not at all the sort of peace  that comes with a comfortable sociopolitical equilibrium.  As John cites Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let  your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27)  It’s a strange kind of peace, a turbulent peace, but it’s God’s peace that Christians are called to live into.

Sociopolitical equilibriums are never in equilibrium.  They’re always coming and going.  Whatever they’re able to offer can be enjoyed for a time, but it can never be the center of all.  The center of all must always be God, and God alone, whom we Christians know by following where Christ has led.  The words Martin Luther King, Jr. used, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” describe the way of the cross.  It exists as a part of whatever sociopolitical milieu it finds itself in, but it’s always pushing that milieu toward God’s justice of love and reconciliation.  It will always be a disrupter.




Saturday, June 9, 2018

Grass Roots and Galatia

Decades ago, tagging along behind work done on grass roots opposition movements by Luther Gerlach (U.of Minn.), I learned how grass roots movements, if they survive at all, gravitate toward becoming institutionally organized, finding their place in a sociopolitical equilibrium they helped establish out of whatever preceded it.  Sociopolitical equilibrium never lasts long, a few generations, not much longer, often less.  It means grass roots movements are always afoot, opposing or promoting change, and causing trouble among those who favor the peace of the status quo.  The early church, illuminated by Paul’s letters, is a good example of how that works.

The first several generations of Christians formed a grass roots movement anchored in a shared understanding of who they were in relationship with God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Emanating from Jerusalem, but taking root in widely separated parts of the Roman Empire, each group took on locally appropriate ways of expressing the shared belief, but they couldn’t be easily synchronized with each other.  It led to conflicts, and resolving them led in turn to more institutionalized discipline meant to codify and preserve the movement’s most important beliefs, preventing them from corruption.  A good idea, but sometimes more institutionalized discipline is another source of corruption. 

An example of the process is Paul’s letter tot he churches in Galatia. “You foolish Galatians,” he railed, “who has misled you?”  The Galatian churches, desiring a more orthodox worship practices structured to be reliably passed on to the next generation, had adopted rules and regulations about how to worship, and who was in and who was out that imitated traditional Jewish practices, while no doubt also having some resemblance to the pagan practices surrounding them.  Paul recognized two parallel threats.  First, in using old models to define a new orthodoxy, they were surrendering the most important elements of who Jesus is, and what that means to follow him.  Second, they were closing doors that Jesus had forced open, and erecting walls that Jesus had broken down.

New moons and sabbaths, circumcision and ritually acceptable foods were anathema to Paul’s version of what it meant to follow Jesus.  The Galatians had to be reminded forcefully that for followers of Jesus there can be no Jew or Greek, no free or slave, no male or female.  All are equal in God’s presence, and they are to be equal in the community of the church as well.  The Galatians were rebuilding the walls of separation that Jesus had given his life to tear down.  By his resurrection he revealed that it was God’s will and by God’s doing that they were torn down.  An outraged Paul demanded to know by whose authority they were being rebuilt.

Grass roots movements tend to follow the same pattern, no matter what their origin or cause.  If they mature, not all do, they work on ways to sustain themselves, and that requires rules, organization, and hierarchy.  Can it be done and yet preserve the foundational values of the movement?  It isn’t easy because a part of the pattern is to ossify under leadership that aspires to power and authority exercised through rules and rituals of exclusivity.

Galatian churches are the rule, not the exception.  Congregations, synods, denominations, they all follow the Galatian model.  Maybe that’s why reformers like Luther called for the church to always be in the process of reformation.  It’s not that they turn their backs on following Jesus, but in defense of following him with greater purity of word and deed, they craft rules and rituals that rebuild the walls he broke down.  They’re rules and rituals that borrow heavily from the sociopolitical customs of the time and area, justified by a supposed connection to something biblical.  It’s religiosity taking the place of religion, which is why grass roots efforts of reform, such as today’s Reclaiming Jesus and the revival of the Poor Peoples Campaign, are so important to the future of the church writ large. 

The usual objection is that without the current rules and rituals there are no rules and rituals, so anything goes, and how disgusting is that?  It was the accusation leveled at Jesus, and it’s the accusation leveled at those who seek to renew a core focus on Jesus within worship practices that facilitate it.  If they are successful, they’ll help break down the old equilibrium to make way for a new one in which they will become institutionalized members.  In time, a new grass roots movement will rise to shake it up again, and that is as it should be.

  


  

Friday, June 8, 2018

Airplane Logorrhea

Here’s a break from Country Parson’s usual menu of politics, economics and religion.  We travel a bit, and flew cross country on three flights yesterday.  It brought up an observation my wife and have shared before.  When flying, some people seem compelled to talk non stop, just loud enough to be heard rows away.  What’s that all about?  Is it nervousness about flying, unawareness of one’s surroundings, a need be the alpha dog in a pack of strangers?  What?

One, with a sonorous radio voice, held a running staff meeting with colleagues seated in various places as he demonstrated his OCD about who was traveling where and when, complete with assorted details, and why did he have to check his bag: why, why, I don’t understand, why?   Another regaled his seat mate, and the rest of us, with hours long descriptions of the advantages of charter schools.  Gratefully, my own seat mate wanted nothing more than quiet.  

Airplanes and terminals must be infectious agents.  Not long ago a guy paced up and down the length of an airline lounge trying to close a big deal.  We knew it was a big deal because he kept announcing the millions of dollars involved, along with most of the unresolved negotiating points.  It reminded me of the old days when a colleague repeatedly arranged to get a phone call during meetings where he thought it would impress others with his importance.  We would sometimes place nickel bets on how long it would take before the call came in.  A few months ago on a long haul flight, a passenger held forth for six hours without taking a breath.  About what?  At some point it was just noise.  Then there are ordinary conversations rudely held: the speaker phone or face time calls at full volume in those moments before everyone is asked to put their phones in airplane mode.

Logorrhea is a word sometimes used in psychology to describe a condition of uncontrolled talking.  There is no Imodium for it.  Nor is there for its less psychotic sounding cousin, talkaholism – yes, that’s a real word.  I’m thinking about a new disorder: logoairplania, and it’s close relation: terminphonearrhea.  Neither is medically treatable, but good parenting could have prevented it from developing in the first place.  I wonder if even now a stern mom’s voice might be useful.  As for me, I’ve invested in a pair of noise cancelling ear buds.  Oh, one more thing: yes, I understand you’re a newly minted billionaire, and no, I don’t want to invest in your startup company.




Monday, June 4, 2018

Insult Pingpong: the new national pastime

Being a country parson who writes on politics and religion is a sure way to invite challenging insults.  We live in a social media environment where disagreement is often expressed through emotionally driven attacks on one’s person rather than informed conversation about the issues.  “You left wing socialist, you libtard.”  It’s one of the nicer things I’ve been called as Facebook and Twitter have have become factory outlet box stores for obscene, insulting rhetoric.  From the other side of the political fence come return shots demeaning every conceivable personality trait.  I call it insult pingpong.  It’s a game that descends with increasing velocity through the usual crude comments to each other’s scatology, anatomy, and sexual practices, after which it becomes nasty. 

Ad hominem attacks are as old as human language.  It’s bar room talk, coffee klatch talk, break room talk.  Just for the record, it’s seldom men’s locker room talk.  I have no idea what goes on in the women’s locker room.  It can even be funny in the hands of a comic master like Don Rickles.  For the rest of us, it’s just a cheap way to dismiss an issue as unworthy of further conversation because the other is unworthy of further conversation.  It’s used to cover up our own embarrassing ignorance while demeaning the other to assert superiority over them.  It’s cruel sarcasm.  While there are many citations about sarcasm as “the last resort of…”; they all come down to it being bereft of anything helpful to say.  Sarcasm clothed in obscenities and humiliating crudeness simply puts an exclamation point to it.  

We’ve all fallen into the trap at one time or another, but thanks to social media, what was once an emotionally charged semi private ejaculation has become a publicly broadcast personal insult aimed at anyone who says anything one doesn’t like.  It submerges important issues needing informed discussion into the muck.  It isn’t hate speech.  We’ve reserved that for racist and sexist attacks that incite discrimination and violence against whole populations of persons.  I guess it’s speech protected by the first amendment, but it’s juvenile, degrading the already tattered reputation of the American character.  

That said, there’s a fuzzy boundary between ad hominem attacks and observations about verifiable behaviors that are the issue, or essential to it.  For instance, I’ve been hard on our current president about the way his egoism, racism, lack of empathy and integrity, combined with  unrestrained disregard for truth have eroded the dignity of the office and the reputation of the nation.  That’s not ad hominem.  That’s the issue.  They’re statements about plainly observable public behavior and their impact on our nation.  His defenders, however, hear that as a personal attack, hatefully disrespectful of a man doing everything they hoped he would.  Trump’s political staff understands well how that works.  The other day I got a fund raising letter from them pleading that, in the face of all the hateful contempt for the love of nation Trump and his supporters share, would I please send a few dollars to help fight agains the lies and distortions disrespectfully leveled against him by the (lying) liberal press and extreme left wingers.  

One Trump supporter demanded to know how I could write about Jesus and love in one column, and in the next say such awful things about the president.  It was shameful that I could even call myself a priest.  It’s a fair question.  On the one hand we are commanded to let nothing evil come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up that which is good.  On the other hand, we are commanded to stand boldly against injustice and oppression wherever it is found.  Like fuzzy boundaries, there’s a thin line between being forcefully truthful about behaviors and policies that threaten the well being of the people, and succumbing to the temptation to make ad hominem attacks as an easy substitute for saying what needs to be said.

Contentious issues will always elicit emotionally charged responses.  Right wing talk radio hosts have honed the art of framing everything in ad hominem terms that incite their listeners ire.  It’s a tool they’re not giving up.  But for the rest of us, moving toward more civil conversation about issues would be helped if popular television and radio hosts would clean up their acts to get rid of pointless obscenities as part of their schtick.  As Jake Tapper told Colbert on air a few weeks ago, “Stephen, you don’t need to go blue.”  Their popularity is part of what makes obscenity laced insulting language appear normal and acceptable in every day public speech.  It’s part of what makes Rosanne and Samantha believe they can safely push the envelope of acceptable public speech further into humiliating degradation of the other.       

So am I engaging in humiliating degradation of Trump when I say something about his megalomaniac behavior?  Not if I’m describing what is easily and publicly observable that has a direct impact on matters of importance to the well being of the nation.  I have no illusions about my sparsely read offerings influencing his behavior, but I hope they might cause a few others to recognize the damage done to the nation, give serious consideration to workable alternatives, and bend the arc of justice toward the most vulnerable among us.  Constructive interplay in good faith between conservatives and liberals can make that happen, but good faith interplay has no place in it for ad hominem attacks.



Friday, June 1, 2018

From Küng to Curry: It’s all about Love

I pulled out my old copy of Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian and was surprised at how many notes I had made such a long time ago. That I ever read it at all had eluded me.  But to go on, he wrote in part that “the morally good ...is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.” (p.534)  The morally good enabled, at least in part, by freedom and love, is a worthy goal that yet escapes our reach, but it’s worth the reaching.

Who has the right to do the reaching?  Using Küng’s words, it depends on who “man” is.  Küng has a strong commitment to the freedom of the individual, but recognizes that it can be defined only in the context of community, which creates political tension between individual autonomy and community restrictions on it.   Given the time in which Küng wrote it’s easy enough to say that “man” is gender neutral, although some would argue.  More important, it seems to me, is who else is to be admitted to the class of “man,” given that the subject is the morally good optimized for both the individual and the community.

For most of Western history, the “man” entitled to decide and enforce what would permit human life, individually and in community, to succeed and work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered, was a white male.  The chosen among them worked out what that meant.  With good intent and bad, they negotiated, and if the good of others who were not white men was ever given consideration, it was up to the chosen men to decide what that good was, and how it was to be distributed.  It all began to change in the 20th century with new voices demanding to be a part of the negotiation.  The new voices didn’t want selected white men to decide what was good for them, they wanted a place at the table to speak for themselves, and participate in the decision making.  It hasn’t been smooth progress, more like being pushed, lurching into an unknown where footing has to be tested before trusting.  

We shouldn’t be surprised that demanding new voices were not appeased by helpful, needed reforms offered as a gesture of good will by the historically recognized decision makers loathe to give up, or share, their prerogatives.  Nevertheless, the new voices must be included in full, there is no alternative, and it does mean giving up prerogatives once held to be the exclusive domain of a few.  Given the cognitive dissonance created, there’s no way to avoid conflict, although associated violence is inexcusable, even if explainable.  Nevertheless, the prevailing attitude among people of good will, until now, has been “we can work this out.”  That seems to have changed in the last decade.  Current national leadership, and tea partying libertarian ideologues on the right, have made it a zero sum game in which there must be a winner and the rest losers.  What about extremists on the left?  They’re there but small in number and long ago dismissed as a serious threat to our society. 

I’m looking forward to new leadership, and stronger voices, who understand that what is being worked out, given new birth, will not be the victory of one side and defeat of all others with nothing left over.  It will be a new thing that may disappoint the most strident among the voices demanding to be heard, but will provide an acceptable rebalancing between individual autonomy and the well being of the community.  Whom we choose to negotiate what that means will be broadly representative of the population as a whole.

Those with a libertarian bent will be suspicious.  Individual autonomy has been both highly valued and a bone of contention for the whole of our history.  Is it possible to be autonomous within the context of a community that defines what is allowed and what isn’t?  That’s a sticking point for the individualism that Americans value so much.  In fact, individual autonomy never has had an absolute claim.  It’s always been understood in the context of social and political mores.  It’s always been constructed from the society in which one was raised, which means that community of some kind always sets the foundation for what any person thinks autonomy is.  So Küng is right that  “the morally good ...is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.”

That’s helpful, but doesn’t resolve crucial questions.   For one, human interpretation of what is morally good is never unconditionally valid, which is not to say it is invalid, only that it can never be more than provisionally valid.  Is there an authoritative guide against which provisionally valid truth can be measured, not once for all, but again and again?

Speaking as a Christian and to Christians, that ultimate and unconditional authority is God, as we know God in Christ Jesus.  I can almost hear my theologically conservative friends jumping on that saying, “Aha, so you admit there is absolute truth.”  To which I reply, “Yes, but we don’t know what it is.”  The bible doesn’t reveal it, but it does point us in the right direction.  How one understands the truth of holy scripture is itself conditioned by how one was raised and educated, so it’s always a matter of trying to hear what God is saying now through the filter of our prejudices.  I think that’s why Paul wrote that we must “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2.12)

I can’t say how the nation should proceed, but I can say how Christians must proceed as members of the communities in which they live.  We have only one choice: to follow where Christ has led.  It means above all that we are to make our decisions about the morally good within the context of loving God, loving our neighbor, and  loving others as Christ has loved us.  We’re not without help in learning how to do it.  Scripture guides us through two millennia of successes and failures.  It ends with the nascent church struggling to find its footing in a new world, just as we struggle to find ours.  We have two more millennia of Christian history illustrating progress, regress, and dead ends.  They have much to teach us, but everything always comes back to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving others as Christ has loved us.

Michael Curry, my denomination’s presiding bishop, gave a rousing sermon at the royal wedding in which love was the word of the day, and he would say the word for all days.  It had an impact on the entire world, and one version of it was overheard in the barber shop a few days ago.  “You know that bishop guy at the wedding? All he ever said was love, love, love, blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t mean anything.”  Is that what love of God and neighbor is: blah, blah, blah?

I think it means hard, practical work.  Christians who are engaged in conversation about what the morally good is that will work for all the people, that will permit human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed as equitably as is currently possible, and is most likely to work out well in the long run, must employ their best understanding of how that can be done through public policies that reflect love of God and love of neighbor in the ways that Jesus demonstrated it.  And that means knowing the ways Jesus demonstrated it.  And that means doing what we can to lay aside the filters of our prejudices so we can hear what God is saying now.  It does not mean putting the Ten Commandments on the court house lawn, nor does it mean forcing public school students to read the bible.  It does mean using one’s individual autonomy in as close to the way Jesus used his as one is able to do.  Doing that is anything but meek and mild.  It may not even be safe, but it is good.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Trump for the Common Man & Woman

I read an interesting post the other day.  The gist of it was that Trump is a president who can’t be controlled by veteran lawmakers, lifers the author called them, “a cesspool of dictators.”  Nor can he be controlled by their allies, the entrenched elite of life in D.C.  None of them care anything about ordinary people.  If anything, they’re the enemy.  In Trump there is at last a president who can’t be bought and sold by them.  He’s a president for the common man and woman.  The author would like to get rid of all veteran lawmakers, and her immediate solution is term limits, always a popular offering.  Her post was heartily approved by quite a few commenters.  She took exception to contrary opinions, mine in particular, labeling them as the product of being brainwashed by drinking the liberal media “Kool-Aid”.  

It’s a mindset endorsed by an increasingly shrinking number of tea partiers and hard right libertarians who remain hopeful that Trump will turn out to be what he advertised himself to be during the campaign.  In one sense, they have a point.  His predictably unpredictability makes it impossible for the customary ways of negotiating public policy to work.  His word cannot be trusted.  Truth, and facts are fungible.  His boasts of indisputable competency are offset by his history of incompetency.  However integrity is defined, he seems to have little of it.  Of empathy, he knows nothing.  Working with him on important issues has to contend with his ignorance of basic facts, superficial awareness of complex issues, disinterest (or inability) to engage in informed conversation, and the megalomania that appears to drive his very being.  In that context, it’s true that he cannot be controlled.  In another way, it might be said that he’s just not trustworthy.  To his credit, he’s consistent on a few things: the border wall, undoing anything connected to Obama, and business practices free of regulatory oversight. 

He has indeed claimed to be for the (white) common man and woman, and his followers have embraced it in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  They remind me of people we’ve all met who inexplicably trust persons out to hurt them and mistrust those out to help them.  It speaks, if nothing else, about how alienated a portion of the population has become, epitomized by the so called white working class.  Part of it has to be due to dramatic increases in income and wealth inequality, the stagnation of lower income growth, and the demise of unions as powerful representatives of workers.  Another part is undoubtedly due to growing recognition that those of European descent are on their way to becoming a plurality, not the majority, and it signals the end of their domination of cultural standards.  They’re indications of an increasing awareness of class differences, either real or imagined, that help drive feelings of alienation.  The (white) alienated are not unhappy about backing someone who promises to stem the tide of change, and undermine the elite, even if he has no allegiance to them, except at campaign style rallies where, with P.T. Barnum like showmanship, he promises what he can deliver only as a side show illusion.

It’s not that the author doesn’t have a legitimate gripe.  Lifers, as she calls them, can become egotistically focussed on the power politics and social climbing that define what the capital city can be.  As one grows in seniority, it’s hard not to be influenced by a constant flow of favor seeking sycophants.  I imagine it’s why she favors term limits.  I worked in and around D.C. for enough years to see for myself what a seductive place it can be.  I also know that gaining understanding of complex issues, and mastering the art of guiding legislation through to completion, is not something easily or quickly learned.  Moreover, I’ve known, and know now, members of congress who keep their integrity, don’t lose their humility, and never forget the people they represent.  It means I’m not a fan of term limits.  They’re arbitrary, absolve the electorate of responsibility, and would lead to career legislative aids becoming the de facto congressional power.  Current majority leadership has failed us, and it’s time to get rid of them, but that’s up to the electorate backing qualified candidates.  It’s also up to fair, not gerrymandered districts, a decent level of civic education, and more robust voter turnout.  It’s a national disgrace that 50% plus one of a small minority of eligible voters get to decide who represents every one. 

The author of the post is certain that I, and presumably anyone else not in her camp, have been brainwashed by drinking the liberal media “Kool-Aid”.  That’s why we can’t see the truth that she sees.  Liberal media, I presume, is any source that’s not her source.  It reminds me of a local friend who admonishes me to be more broad minded and watch Fox News to get the truth.  As it turns out, it’s his only source of broadcast news, and all his other sources are from the hard right wing – and beyond.  A neighbor, a wonderful lady who carries a pocket full of dog treats, loves every dog in the neighborhood, and knows all their owners, is like him.  She was stunned, I mean stunned, to learn that Rush Limbaugh is not a reliable source of truthful news about what’s going on in the world.  It seems to be a pattern for those who are certain the rest of us have drunk the liberal media “Kool-Aid.”  They want us to broaden our views by narrowing our intake to right wing propaganda.

Remember Jim Jones?  It was back in 1978 that he induced his followers isolated in a compound in Guyana to drink poisoned “Kool-Aid,” committing ritual suicide to avoid an imaginary apocalypse of which they had all been convinced.  He did it by isolating his people and limiting what they could learn about the world outside.  That’s where the drink the “Kool-Aid” thing came from.  It happens in a less dramatic way when people restrict themselves to one source of information about the world around them that turns out to be, um what would the word be?, ah, yes, fake news that labels all other sources fake.  It may not be as fatal or evil as Jim Jones, but it is damaging to the health of the community, and it is evil. 

Getting a fair and balanced no spin handle on the what’s going on isn’t easy.  Those of us who try go to a wide variety of sources, check and verify, and do our best to sort out reporting on what’s happening from editorial comment on what it means.  For what it’s worth, I write editorial commentary as a progressive Christian from a centrist point of view, but I try to make sure it’s grounded in verifiable fact.


As for the author of the post that started this column, her Trump, it turns out, isn’t insulated from outside control.  He’s obligated up to his carefully coiffed hair to those who have lent him money.  He’s controlled by his insatiable ego driven appetites.  He’s easily influenced by anyone who offers a little something for his business interests.  He bathes in flattery.  Those who once worked their influence through campaign contributions and deep knowledge of the issues they represent have learned that, when it comes to the Trump administration, simple old fashioned bribery disguised as business deals and campaign cash work very well all by themselves.  In the end, he will be controlled by our Constitution and the rule of law.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Unending Wars of Harlan Miller

Memorial Day Weekend is when I write a column remembering Harlan Miller.  Mr. Miller died at an old age, an impoverished hermit with no family other than his church.  He left his estate to it, and named the rector his executor.  The property on which his shack stood is now the site of a Habitat for Humanity home.  There wasn’t much else.  

Memorial Day remembers those who died in military service.  It should be a day of solemn reflection on the sinful inhumanity of war, and the grievous waste of young lives who were sent into battle.  Harlan didn’t die in battle.  He was blown to bits in North Africa, survived, spent years in the hospital, and was left to live out his days earning his living with odd jobs, never having a career, poor, and alone.  Not all those who died in battle are buried in graves marked by rows of white crosses.  Many, like Harlan, died in pieces, not all at once.  They came home with some part of them dead, some part of their future dead, some part of their soul dead, some part of their hopes and dreams dead, some part of their humanity dead.  Death comes to us all, but these kinds of death cruelly haunt and hurt the partly living.  We can give them parades and thank them for their service.  We can acclaim them heroes, and pretend they are protectors of our freedom.  Can we restore what has been killed?

War has been glamorized to excess in every generation.  Homer’s Iliad, stories in the Hebrew scriptures, Medieval tales of gallantry, the heroics of Nelson, Wellington, Washington, Lee and Grant, they all glamorize war, romanticize it, and entice the young to pursue it.  I wonder if it has to do with a collective subconsciousness that is terrified to admit to moral responsibility for the brutal immorality of war, and so recasts its stories as heroically righteous.  Otherwise the burden of guilt would be too great for us to bear. 

Americans are particularly drawn to WWII, the Good War fought by the Greatest Generation; I admit to being among them.  Of all wars, this was the one that was morally righteous.  Those who died did not die in vain.  Heroes were made, and myths have endured to lift the war years to the apogee of everything the United States stands for.  We tend to overlook the Harlans of the era who came home partly dead, living out their years partly alive.  With all good intentions, and genuine patriotic sincerity, we say of the dead that they died to protect us, and of the veterans we say they served and fought for our freedom.  And so they did. 

That was WWII.  There are no other good wars in our history.  There have been wars of some justification: the American revolution, WWI, the Civil War perhaps, even Korea.  Each had at least something to do with the defense of democracy, freedom, and the security of the United States.  We have now been engaged in decades of undeclared war spread across the face of the globe.  None of them can be fully justified no matter how just war theory is tortured to make them seem so.  With Orwellian duplicity we send young men and women to kill and be killed, promising that they are doing the right thing for God and country.  As we should, we honor returning veterans for their service, then dishonor that service by claiming it was for the protection of our freedoms, when it was really to salve political egos, enhance the economic profitability of a few, or both.

Emerging from it have been thousands of Harlan Millers.  They volunteered.  It was their patriotic duty.  It promised adventure.  It was their best chance for a future life.  Gallantry and respect would be theirs.  They returned partly dead, not sure how to thrive in a civilian world in which their war was but a forgettable nightly news clip unrelated to the daily lives of ordinary people.  We’re not heartless.  We’re now more aware of PTSD, and what it has done to too many veterans.  We’re mostly united in trying to do something about it.  We’re not united about doing anything to stop the undeclared wars.  The majority of us have been sold on the idea that, bad as they are, they are for our own good, and the eventual good of the people in whose lands they are conducted.  It is Orwellian.

This Memorial Day weekend maybe we could do more than picnic and parade.  Maybe we could take a few moments to reflect on our responsibility for the violent sinfulness of the world we have created, and for what?


“Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your will.  Guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquillity your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP 258)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Leaving Comments

Dear Readers,
One friend said she’d like to comment, but there is a “No Comment” button at the bottom of each column.  That simply means no one has yet made a comment.  Just click on it, and you will be magically taken to a comment page where you can write away to your heart’s content.  Most comments go through right away.  Comments with vulgar, obscene language get shunted aside.  And if I find comments to be abusive, they get deleted.  This is a place for civil conversation.
Country Parson

Kim, Trump, North Korea, Iran: It’s all here in one exciting show

Fareed Zakaria posts a daily “Global Briefing.”  A few days ago he cited a WSJ column by Tod Lindberg that endorsed Trump’s maneuvering on a possible upcoming meeting with North Korea’s Kim as being an example of well thought out strategic thinking.  This morning we learned that Trump had bailed, which might have been the smartest thing he could have done.  

Mr. Lindberg believed that walking away from a bad deal with Iran over nuclear issues, was a prelude to the Korean talks.  By doing it, Trump took it off the table as an indicator of what a future deal with North Korea might look like.  It was a clear display of Trump’s diplomatic mettle, and it put Kim in the position of having to take something stronger if he wanted any deal at all. 

Mr. Lindberg no doubt follows these matters far closer than I, but I had trouble taking him seriously.  For starters, what made him think the Iran deal was bad?  Then he appeared to assume that Trump carefully thought this out before making his decisions.  If he did, it’s a dramatic departure from his usual pattern.  Thinking things out is hard work, and Trump is loathe to work hard at anything, especially thinking.  My guess is that Mr. Lindberg was doing the best he could to read sophisticated rationality into a gut level move that’s more in tune with the way Trump acts.  If you’re desperate to make Trump look presidential, it’s what you have to do. 

He also presumed that Kim wants or needs to accept a deal from the U.S.  No he doesn’t.  They’ve gone 65 years without one, and they don’t need one now.  If Kim wants anything, it’s to be recognized as a legitimate player worthy of respect by other world leaders.  He already is a player; what he wants is legitimacy and respect.  Whether Trump does or doesn’t go through with a meeting during his term, Kim will have made his point.

The entire vaudevillian act has been consistent with an established Trump pattern.  First he manufactures a diplomatic peccadillo, then makes huge threats about tariffs or some such.  When other parties respond in kind, he huffs, puffs and bluffs before reaching an accommodation that returns to the status quo.  Calling it a victory, he takes a few campaign laps before receiving his laurels from Fox.  In this case, it was not about trade and tariffs, but about photo-ops, peace prizes, and curtain calls in front of a nuclear backdrop.  I have no idea what Trump will do next, but Kim is well on his way to reaching a form of rapprochement with South Korea, and strengthening his bonds with China.  It could lead to further engagement with Pacific rim nations.  Who knows? 


Kim may be as big a megalomaniac as Trump, but he’s probably a lot smarter, and has been watching how best to play this fish to his own advantage.  He seems to be doing it well so far.  As always, I could be wrong, and Mr. Lindberg absolutely right.  After all, what do I know?  I’m just a Country Parson. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

We Live in Strange Times, and I Wonder

One of my right wing friends, and I do have a few, recently posted an op-ed piece from someone in the Las Vegas area recommending impenetrable border walls, gated communities, and armed guards as preventatives to keep us safe.  It was a sad commentary on American life from someone who has the means to live behind guarded gates.  He was trying to call out the hypocrisy of gun regulation advocates who also live behind guarded gates, but that’s not what he ended up revealing.  For him, it appears that everyone outside the gates is a potential threat, and I might  guess it’s especially true if they are not white, speak Spanish, or look homeless.   People like that have been around a long time.  They marched in white hooded robes, burned crosses, and cheered the nascent fascism of the early 1940s America First movement.  Their influence was felt among the rank and file of good people who were disgusted by what they did, but open to bits and pieces of what they said while tolerating the rest.

Years ago our daughter and her family lived in Jakarta, in a gated neighborhood protected by armed guards.  Her office was downtown, its walls pockmarked by bullets from recent riots, so the precaution made some sense.  Our small city in the rural West has one gated neighborhood.  As far as I know, no one has ever paid any attention to the gate, but it’s a very nice one.  Nevertheless, there is a strong current of agreement with the man from Las Vegas, and fear that the boundary is thin indeed between our small city and Jakarta of the late 1990s.  In many different ways it expresses one message: You, me and our friends are all good people, but everyone else is suspect, maybe armed and dangerous, the possibility of attack is ever present and highly probable.  The despised federal government that should stay out of our lives, should not stay out of their lives.  If it can’t deport them, it should harass them into submission.  But it should stay out of our lives.  

Living in that frightening world, it’s no wonder that many of my conservative friends are well armed, fearful their guns might be taken away, and certain that mortal danger is always nearby.  It doesn’t help that there was a daylight house burglary not far away a few days ago.  The burglars were caught, all is well, but that didn’t stop brave talk from armchair quarterbacks threatening to shoot first, as if, somehow, shooting and killing are not related.  Of course, if you’re only killing an “animal,” does it matter?  

It’s a strange time.  Violent crime is declining while fear of violent crime is escalating, and it’s all mixed up with immigration, racism, economic dislocation, and libertarian fantasies.  People who earnestly proclaim their belief in old time moral values continue to give unquestioning support to policies and politicians that are blatant offenses against them.  Several times I’ve asked one friend to explain how he does it.  His instant answer is “What about Hillary?,” which is such a non sequitur that I’ve struggled to find anything to say.  I guess it’s what happens when you live in a frighteningly dangerous world that, to me, is more illusion than reality. 

Into it stepped Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church, preaching to the entire world while at a wedding attended by the social and economic elite of the English speaking part of it.  His proclamation of God’s power expressed in love nailed to the chapel’s door an indictment of the world’s failure to hear and heed, and the whole world listened.  Love, God’s love, casts out fear (of the other).  It is said that perfect love casts out all fear, but we don’t experience perfect love, or perfection in anything else. We can, however, see it lived out imperfectly in the lives of those who follow in Christ’s footsteps as best they can.  If imperfect love can’t cast out all fear, it can shove it into the closet where it can’t dominate us, and it can transform the choices we make in private and in public.

I wonder if Bishop Curry’s message of God’s power expressed in love can penetrate the lives of people who believe they live in a dangerous world,  surrounded by dangerous others who are not like them?  I wonder if those whose hearts were easily warmed by his inspiring words will forfeit the opportunity to make changes by forgetting all about in a few days?   I wonder if those who take it seriously will use it like a bludgeon to beat the opposition about their heads and shoulders?  I wonder if those who love Jesus but decline to follow in his ways will try to undermine it?  I wonder all that and more.  Wonder as I might, I am convicted without doubt of God’s promise that “[His] word that goes out from [His] mouth shall not return to [Him] empty, but shall accomplish that which [He] purposes, and succeed in the thing for which [He] sent it.” (Isa. 55)


Note:  ‘He’ is used for need of a personal pronoun because the intimacy that only a personal pronoun can give is fundamental to the relationship God has with us.  ‘She’ is equally acceptable, and neither is accurate.