Tuesday, November 12, 2019

TIME TO MOVE!!!!!

A FINAL REMINDER THAT COUNTRY PARSON HAS MOVED TO WORDPRESS.  GO TO STEVENWOOLLEY.COM, SCROLL TO BOTTOM OF PAGE, SIGN UP TO RECEIVE COUNTRY PARSON BY EAMIL.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Reminder of a New Location

Grace and peace to you,
If you have been following Country Parson by email and have not yet done so, I invite you to go to stevenwoolley.com, scroll to the bottom and enter your email address to continue receiving it.  Country Parson had been going out via email to over 2,000 addresses, but when I moved the site from blogspot.com to wordpress.com I could not move the email list.  Let’s face it, it’s an ego thing.  I would hate to lose any one of you.  So, if you haven’t already, go to stevenwoolley.com, scroll to the bottom, and enter your email address. 
Peace

Friday, November 1, 2019

Follow Country Parson Anew

Dear Friends,
I have migrated Country Parson to stevenwoolley.com on the WordPress platform. To continue receiving Country Parson via email, please go to stevenwoolley.com and enter you email address under “Follow my Blog” at the bottom of the page.
Thank you to all 1,200 of you,
Steven

Monday, October 28, 2019

Five Foundations of Trump Support

Bob Gorrell, a popular syndicated editorial cartoonist, has deftly summarized five key symbols of Trump’s enduring loyalty among a great many voters for whom his questionable behavior can be easily overlooked.
  • The stock market hitting historic highs
  • Unemployment among all groups at record levels
  • America now energy independent and exporting oil and gas
  • Tax cuts and deregulation increase productivity
  • Isis caliphate defeated and its leader dead
They can’t comprehend how, in the face of such heartening good news, Democrats think he should be impeached.  Obviously, Democrats are out of touch with reality and the voting public.

Have Trump supporters built their case on solid rock?

The stock market has been bouncing around its high water mark, holding steady, if one smooths out its wild gyrations.  But it isn’t going anywhere, and hasn’t for the last two years.  To be fair, the Dow rose about 700 points during Trump’s first year in office.  But market indexes are not economic indexes.  As popular as they are, daily reporting on their ups and downs is an odd ball reflection of political winds, economic data, computer algorithms, emotional hiccups, historical trends, and quarterly earnings reports that aren’t always connected to sales and productivity.  What it all means to the average voter is an entertaining mystery.

Unemployment is at an all time low, and that’s good news to be celebrated.  Once more, it’s not a trend that accelerated under Trump, but an extension of one long underway.  As is widely known and felt, much employment is low pay, part time and without benefits.  Making enough to afford a decent lifestyle has not got easier for a great many.  Bold promises of revitalized heavy industrial and coal mining jobs have never materialized.

The U.S. has become an exporter of gas and oil, but it’s not energy independent.  It’s a dramatic change from previous decades, yet for multiple reasons it still imports between 5 and 6 million barrels of oil per day, simultaneously exporting bit more, mostly to Canada and Mexico.  In like manner, we continue to import gas, mostly from Canada and Mexico, even as we have become a net exporter of gas, mostly to Mexico.  It’s a world wide commodities market of buying and selling, trying to make a profit on the spread while fulfilling each nation’s need for fuel.  What Trump supporters are willing to overlook is environmental damage being done now, and extending into the foreseeable future.  No one expects us to eliminate fossil fuels.  We depend on them for too much, but we can become less dependent, and do less damage to the environment in the process.  As an aside, the term ‘environment’ often conjures up something somewhere else abstractly related to nature.  What it really means is human well being in the places where humans live, as well as the surrounding world of nature making up the whole of the world’s existence.

The tax cut legislation continues to be touted as a great victory, even as it’s been revealed as a total bust.  Most benefits accrued to large corporations and the very wealthy.  It produced no new investment, did little to help raise low end incomes, and did not stimulate the economy to greater growth.  Productivity took a nosedive in 2016, recovered in 2017, and has dribbled along since then, dipping a little in recent periods (which may not signify anything).  The point is, productivity hasn’t shown any trend that can be associated with tax cuts or deregulation.  Which brings up another question: Deregulation of what?  Of things protecting human health and safety? 

Indeed, the caliphate is gone, and its most recent leader killed.  Isis is not gone, and like many polycentric groups, new leaders will arise with revenge in their hearts.  Would that it were not so, but it’s the nature of terroristic movements motivated by religious fervor.  It should not go unnoticed that the very people and institutions Trump has blasphemed are responsible for this hard and dangerous work.


It adds up to Trump loyalist convictions anchored in the shifting sand of factually true events given meaning they can’t bear, and credit to Trump for achievements that aren’t his.  They dismiss his immoral and criminal actions as behavioral shortcomings no worse than any others.  They deny the damage his trade negotiations and international policy blundering have done to American honor and credibility.  They cannot see his ignorance and incompetence.  They remain steadfastly blind to his betrayal of the Constitution.  To them, he is a political savior defending American pride, and they cannot be shaken of their convictions.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Telling the Story through Biblical Metaphors

The Way of Love is the theme of the Episcopal Church, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (of royal wedding fame) is its most compelling advocate.  It resonates well with the general public, but not always in realistic ways.  It may be that the phrase itself implies a naively rosy outlook in the face of obviously troubling times, or maybe a doormat meekness lacking the strength to confront evil. 

It’s too bad, because The Way of Love is grounded in the practice of following where Jesus has led, and that means walking with courage straight into the valley of the shadow of death.  In the Episcopal tradition it is the way of the cross, which we understand to be the way of life and peace.  It requires trust that in that valley there will be a table prepared by God that nourishes and refreshes, with our enemies sitting down to eat with us. 

While that paints a vivid word picture for most Christians, it’s completely opaque to the greater number who have no idea what meaning biblical metaphors such as The Way, Valley of the shadow of death, the Way of the Cross, or a table set before us might have, because they’ve never heard of them.  Nor are they familiar with any of the other biblical stories through which Christianity is revealed.  It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s been true for fifty years or more, but Christians remain puzzled that their treasured stories are so utterly unknown.

Christianity once maintained a thin veneer over contemporary social values, but it’s gone.  Western society is more secularized than ever.  One reaction is to blame the government for allowing it to happen, and insist that (Christian) godliness be legislated back into the public arena.  Proponents have a point.  A vague, watery Christian gruel was once imposed on public school students, and mumbled in public assemblies.  It never produced any Christians, and was blatantly unconstitutional, but it had one redeeming value: biblical stories and metaphors were known, if not understood.  Now they’re not.

Another reaction is to be honest about how poorly the depth, breadth and strength of the faith was passed down within the church from one generation to the next.  Some part of it can be laid at the feet of clergy, and some at the feet of parents who went to church as little more than a social obligation.  That, I suspect, is the greater truth.

If we are to recover Christian momentum, we must be able to tell old stories in new ways.  What makes Jesus different from other respected prophets?  For that matter, what makes him different from the variety of mythological saviors that populate recorded history?  Why should anyone care?

Door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons may be anathema to many, but they have an opening gambit to be considered.  They ask if they can tell a story with the assumption you have never heard it before, and have no idea how to understand its meaning.  They start with metaphors common in popular culture, metaphors about national loyalty, hopes and dreams for a better life, guarantees one can depend on, and use them to introduce texts and the unique metaphors that make up their story.   More doors are slammed in their faces than not, but now and then their story can be told in compelling ways.

Episcopalians, and other mainliners, are never going to be door knockers, but learning to tell their stories, starting with popularly understood metaphors, is a way to become comfortable about sharing the “good news” that “the kingdom of God has come near” in Christ Jesus.  But you must have a story that’s authentic and feels comfortable without being door knockingly offensive.  Learning your own story has to begin with the old core metaphors of the Christian faith as recorded in the gospel records.  Maybe the greater pubic doesn’t know them, but we do, or should, because they’re essential to knowing who we are.

A recent diocesan gathering worked on it by refreshing our memories about who and what we are: dry bones, lost sheep, mustard seeds, vines and branches, trees of good fruit, sickness and injuries healed, pearls of great value, and all the rest.  They’re metaphors for instruction because they say something important about who we are as followers of Jesus.  Participants began to discover how they helped to focus on how God has been present to them in the ordinary issues of life everyone faces.  For instance, no one has ever been in the belly of a big fish, but everyone has felt what it is to be closed in, trapped, unsure of a way out.  Many have experienced what it means to be forgiven, strengthened to endure, and the freedom of deliverance from captivity.  Sharing their experiences of living into biblical metaphors helped illuminate how important shared congregational life and worship are as sources of support and hope.  In other words, it gave sharable substance to what it means to be part of the church. 

It’s one thing for each person to have an authentic individual story to tell, but what story commends the church of which they are a part?  Twenty-one groups working independently discovered they had a shared metaphor: we are branches on a vine whose life comes from the root to which we are connected.  In one sense we are also the fruit of the branch.  In another sense, those to whom we reach out also join us as bearers of fruit.  To be Christian is to be connected to God through Christ, through Christ to one another as the church, through the church to the world.

Nevertheless, it remained an insider’s story that helped explain to other insiders who and what we are, but offered little of value to outsiders who remain unfamiliar with our core metaphors, and would find little reason to value them if they did know.  Why should anyone pay attention to followers of an itinerant preacher and wonder worker whose short career ended in crucifixion over two thousand years ago?  There are plenty of other prophets and teachers around.  Many of them lived long lives.  Some started religions that have endured.  Why not listen to them, or to a modern prophet, or to one’s self?  What makes Jesus so special?  Yes, he was a great teacher, a person of uncommon wisdom for one so young, a teller of stories, a healer.  It’s even said he came back from the dead.  So what?  There are lots of others like him, even some who were said to have come back from the dead.  

How are we to respond?  It begins with recognition that most people, even many self proclaimed atheists, have a sense of the holy, a belief in a higher power of some kind, a vague idea of God, and a conviction that there is something more to life that comes after death.  We are not without a place to begin.  Taking a lesson from Paul’s speech to Athenians, we might say, “Friend, I see you are aware there is something more, something holy, something yet to come.  What you are seeking, I boldly proclaim to you.  It is the God who created everything that is, seen or unseen.  In God we live and move and have our being.  It is God whom we know through Jesus, not because he was a teacher or performed a single miracle, but because he is the Word of God made flesh.  There is no authority higher than he.  He willingly endured the humiliating death of crucifixion to demonstrate he wasn’t a myth or trickster.  He rose from the dead not as a resuscitated body, but fully revealed for who he was and is, the manifestation of all that God is.  Who is God?  What is God?  All that is true of God is revealed in Jesus because he is all of God that can be represented in human form.  So pay attention.  There is no other.”

Following Jesus is the way of love and life.  Following Jesus is to be connected: root to vine, vine to branches, branches to fruit.  Following Jesus is to become an agent of God’s redeeming love in a broken world, inviting others to join in that work.


The Athenians laughed at Paul, ridiculing him as a babbler of religious nonsense.  But not all of them.  For those who listen to us, the old stories can be told, and the old metaphors given new life.  We know little of what the other apostles and disciples did.  Peter and Paul were executed around the year 65 c.e., others died earlier from the same fate, and many others later.  It wasn’t a promising start.  Nevertheless, by the end of the first century, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.  Two thousand years of stress, trials and tribulation, including centuries of ecclesiastical corruption and theological misdirection, have not diminished the power of the Word of God made flesh to lead followers into the abundance of life for which they hunger.  The deep hunger remains, and we have the holy food and drink of new and unending life that will nourish them.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

It's a Question of Justice

I’ve been thinking a lot about justice these last few days.  Maybe it’s because the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18) came up in the lectionary readings, and it reminded me of news segments about families seeking justice for their murdered loved ones, and of those seeking justice for immigrants held in harsh conditions on no charges.  Appeals to justice dominate the current impeachment investigation.  Letters to the editor demand justice on all kinds of issues.  It brings up another demand: What is justice?

Philosophers and theologians have argued the case for justice for centuries, with  words so thick, and sentences as long as paragraphs, they’re all but impossible to understand.  I’m more interested in whether the popular understandings of justice are more able to lead in a useful direction that might help us become a more just society.

The parable of the unjust judge gives at least a hint of what justice might be, because we have to ask, what made the judge unjust?  Jesus said he neither feared God nor had respect for people, and I think that’s a part of what made him unjust.  It wasn’t a question of how he ruled on matters of law, but that he didn’t acknowledge divine authority to declare what is right or wrong.  On a more secular level, one might say he didn’t acknowledge a higher authority than himself.  Moreover, he had no respect for the people who came before him.  Justice, it seems, requires submission to God’s ultimate authority, and a commitment to caring for the needs and interests of God’s people.  

In defense of the judge, I had a professor many long years ago who taught that courts and judges must be disinterested in justice.  They’re to decide on what’s legal or illegal.  What is just or unjust is a legislative responsibility, not a judicial one.  I guess the unjust judge was his kind of guy.  To be fair, my old professor understood the importance of justice, and was passionate about what he believed it to be, but defining it was not the job of the courts.  But I digress.

The parable also features a woman who was aggrieved by something, we don’t know what, and demanded vindication against the one who aggrieved her.  What can we learn from her about the meaning of justice?  The parable doesn’t say what she meant by vindication, but for many it means vengeance that would inflict an equal measure of pain on her opponent.  Is vengeance a legitimate element of justice?  In any case, she relentlessly pestered the judge until he gave in, granting her petition, not because she was in the right, but because he was tired of her pestering him.  It was, perhaps, another sign of what made him unjust.  Rather than deciding on the merits and the law, he decided on what was convenient for his own comfort.   The complaining widow wanted restoration of comfort in her life, and so did the judge.  Is one’s discomfort or inconvenience an element of justice?  Apparently not when it’s labeled a sign of unjustness.

From the parable we gain an idea that justice has to do with recognizing who has the ultimate authority to set the standards; it requires caring for the well being of others; and one’s personal comfort is probably not a part of the equation.  

Does it leave room for vengeance: the settling of scores by inflicting pain and suffering on the one who caused pain and suffering?  God says no.  “Vengeance is mine,” says God (Deut. 32).  Paul, writing to the Romans says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; …Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12)

As clear as that sounds, it runs headlong into vengeance as the central theme of all the action and super hero movies, many t.v. series, and more than a few of what we see on the news.  We want our pound of flesh no matter what God says, and we call it justice.  Even Paul, in his testier moments, got more than a little vengeful with his words.

What is comes down to is this: the question of justice comes up when something beyond the usual has upset the equilibrium of life.  Life is filled with little disturbances, but they usually fall within a tolerable range.  When something happens outside that range, it becomes an injury, a betrayal, a threat to safety that cannot be tolerated.  Justice, in this sense, is the restoration of personal or social equilibrium.  But how?  

By the standards of vengeance, the offending party must be made to pay by inflicting a requisite amount of pain and suffering on them.  If possible, they should be removed from the community so they can’t do more damage.  Then things can get back to normal.  God’s standards put a check on that, and demand that retribution be replaced by ways to not only restore social harmony, but restore the offender to a state of harmony with society.  Maybe God can do it, but we haven’t figured it out yet, so it’s always a struggle to find what works without being cruel.   

You see where the conflict is.  The parable teaches that important elements of justice are acknowledgement of God’s authority, caring for God’s people, and willing disregard for one’s own comfort, if it comes to that.  Holy scripture rules out vengeance as a tool for getting justice, but secular stories tell us that justice means getting even, and maybe more than even.  

It gets more complicated when people who have been oppressed, held in subjugation by others, denied access to the good things of life reserved for some, rise up to claim their fair share, shaking the very foundations of social equilibrium.  Those who have been privileged are likely to see it as insurrection against the natural order of things, and unjust act by out of control others.  Those who have risen up are likely to see it as a long overdue fight for the right to enjoy all the benefits of justice in a new social equilibrium that doesn’t exclude them. 

My old professor was right.  Justice is not a question of what is legal or illegal, it’s a question of what is moral or immoral, and it’s always a moving target.  In the pursuit of justice we try to move from what we now recognized as less moral than we used to think it was, to what is more moral according to what we now believe.  

Questions of justice will always arise when the social equilibrium is sufficiently disturbed.  Restoring it will always be the goal.  In some cases it will be a deeply emotional struggle at a very personal level through which a restoration of equilibrium, if it happens at all, will not be like the way it was before.  In some cases it will be a struggle to redefine a new moral order in a social equilibrium more just than it used to be.  Both cases will always get tangled up with each other in ways taking generations for resolution.

Martin Luther King, Jr. cited Theodore Parker in one of his speeches when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s become a popular rallying cry for those who believe the arc has been a little too long.  For Christians, the arc, however long it is, must bend quickly toward the elimination of barriers that have prohibited  a portion of the population from enjoying all the available benefits of justice, moral and legal, that exist in society today.


I end this brief article not with a conclusion, but with questions.  Can we ever define what justice means, or is it always in the process of becoming?  Are we able to become more just persons in more just societies, or can we lose it all?  As a Christian, guided by the authority of God’s word, I cannot keep from working toward more just societies, regardless of the outcome.  As a human being of limited capabilities, my ability to hear and understand God’s word is always changing, so my moral judgements about what is just or unjust must always be provisional. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Celebrating the Trump Economy

Trump supporting friends argue that the impeachment investigation is a rush to judgment without due process.  It ignores the greater crimes of the Bidens, not to mention Hillary, which they do not fail to mention.  It’s followed by tepid dislike of his character flaws, which, they claim, are no worse than those of other politicians and business leaders.  They can be overlooked in view of how he has strengthened the country’s defenses, and restored its respect after years of being mocked by other world leaders thanks to the weaknesses of Bush and Obama.  Their parade is not dampened when dumped on by tomes of facts.  They have their own facts, generated by dozens of propaganda machines, they throw down with the accusation that, in their narrow mindedness, the radical left (anyone not in agreement with them) refuses to consider them.  

There comes a point when even they become aware, however vaguely, that they’ve constructed a cardboard shack offering neither shelter nor safety.  It’s when they pull out one last argument: the economy.  The economy that had been struggling to gain traction has thrived under Trump.  Just look at the low unemployment rate and surging stock market.  What more could one want?

So I’ve been looking.  I think we can all celebrate the low unemployment rate, and the resilience of an economy that has been in slow, steady expansion since 2008.  The Great Recession of 2007-08 was frightening, but bipartisan legislation, the administration’s steady hand, and the hard work of a fully independent Federal Reserve, set the country on a path of recovery lasting until now.  It would help if wage growth at the lower end would pick up, but the overall economy is doing well.  Yay.

Has Trump contributed anything to our fundamentally healthy economy?  Yes he has, but not the easy to get 4% GDP growth rate, new steel mills that never materialized, heavy industry jobs he promised, booming export market, return of off shore production, coal mining, nor any of another dozen things he promised.  So what has he contributed?

We can start with a tax cut for the wealthy and large corporations that cost the federal government nearly $30 billion in tax revenues.  Small government types love the idea of starving the government of revenue, but it didn’t cut spending, just added to the deficit.  Tax revenues are almost back to where they were at the end of the previous administration, which is not bad news, but neither is it good news.   
Partly because of the tax cut, and partly because of “easy to win” trade wars, federal debt has continued to climb into danger territory well above the 100% of GDP range accepted by most economists.  Previous large debt increases paid for wars or recovery from recession, not good things to be sure, but at least not tax cuts for the wealthy and blundering trade wars.

The deficit, which had been shrinking under the previous administration, is now roaring toward the trillion dollar mark, which is an unfathomably high number, but not unmanageable over the short run.  Sadly, the current administration has not shown much interest in managing it. 

Industrial production, which had been on an upward swing, is now staggering to maintain its current level.  The best one can say about U.S. exports is that they were trending up until the tariff jousting; now they’re trending down.  A necessary price, Trump says, that will pay dividends in the future.  In the meantime, he’s single handedly demolished international trust in the United States as a dependable trading partner or military ally.  Whatever future Trump envisions is not on anyone else's radar screen.  

So, yes, Trump has contributed quite a bit to our strong economy, little of it good, most of it in the form of economic junk food.  


Oh, lest we forget the surging stock market, if one evens out its wild gyrations, it nearly flat.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Nation in a State of Angst

The nation appears to be in a collective state of angst.  Never before before has one party expressed such unreflective loyalty to a president whose corruption, ineptitude, and mental instability have been on such public display.  Never has the nation’s international reputation been so sullied.  The beloved myth of the United States as the leader of the free world, the paragon of civic virtue, the protector of weaker states, the promised land for immigrants, the shining torch of democracy and respect for rule of law – it all lies tattered in the gutter. 

Trump, who has betrayed wives, girlfriends, associates, friends, employees, creditors and customers over the course of his entire life, has now betrayed allies, befriended foes, and made enemies of competitors.  He’s cozied up to dictators and ridiculed democratically elected leaders.  His most recent betrayal, the betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, is inhumanly cruel, and of it he makes light.

America has been through tough times before.  Our collective behavior has never lived up to our beloved myth of national virtue, but we’ve always aspired to do so.  A brutal civil war nearly destroyed hope for a united nation committed to a federal system defined by a constitution whose enduring stability was guaranteed by a strenuous amendment process.  We more than survived, we made progress toward living more fully into the myth.  We did so even as charlatans were in political leadership, robber barons tried for plutocracy, and America First movements thirsted for fascism.  As destructive as the era of race riots was, the greater number of Americans remained convinced that civil and human rights were not to be reserved to some and withheld from others. 

Through it all, the United States emerged as a sign of democratic and economic hope for the entire world.  Respected by many, feared by some, it became a reluctant imperial super power greater than any other in recorded history.

In less than three years, Trump, Senator McConnell and the Freedom Caucus have eroded enough of its foundation that the nation will never recover its former glory.  It may not be all bad.  A few years ago I wrote a column arguing that we Americans must learn to be one nation among many.  It’s not important that we be first in everything.  We can be content with the good life that is at hand, and not lust after a richer life to the detriment of others.  I thought it was a reasonable argument, but did not expect to achieve it at the cost of ignominy casting Americans as foolish rubes easily led by an imitation Mussolini.  It stuns me that there remains a core of the electorate not simply loyal to him, but convinced he is the savior of all that’s important to them.

We will survive again.  Hopefully, a new administration will be elected next year.  It will not be perfect.  Right wing howling about a dive into socialism may raise emotional hackles, but it’s entirely without merit.  The most liberal of candidates is pretty mainstream, even if the right wing is easily persuaded that anything to their left is dreaded socialism, leaving no room for traditional conservatives.  For hard core libertarians, any form of government is suspect.  May they ever remain a small sect.  Curiously, committed as they are to individualism free from governmental interference, they’re the most likely to opt for autocracy.  But I digress.

A new administration will restore public decorum, adherence to the rule of law, and hesitant trust among other nations that the U.S. will again become a reliable partner in international relations and trade.  In keeping with previous Democratic administrations, it will probably restore fiscal discipline as well, and that should reassure traditional conservatives.  

Should it not happen, we will have more years of digging deeper holes taking longer to get out of when the time comes.  We may even lose our democracy.
  


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Are All Equally Corrupt?

I have a libertarian Trump supporting friend with whom I maintain regular correspondence.  He’s unhappy with Trump’s “character flaws,” but likes his policies because they’ve been dismantling the federal government piece-by-piece, something he’s wanted for a long time.  He’s not persuaded by accusations of Trump’s unethical, perhaps criminal track record because he believes all politicians and corporate leaders are equally corrupt, so what’s the difference? There was a time, he thinks, fifty or sixty years ago when it wasn’t so, but it is now. 

In his view, Trump is no worse than Hillary, Biden or any other politician.  They’re all equally bad.  Regular people, real people, are not as fallen as that, but politicians and corporate leaders are.  Left on their own, regular people, real people, would do very well with limited local governments and smaller family owned businesses.  It’s a romantic ideal prizing the rural life of small towns populated by self sufficient citizens right out of Hallmark Channel movies.  What’s keeping us from it is the evil of big government, socialism, and greedy corporations, all led by corrupt people.  They’re represented by the worst of the darkest of Batman’s Gotham City.

Having spent a good many years working on the edges of public policy at the federal level, and with a wide variety of corporate leaders, I disagree.  I don’t believe politicians and corporate leaders are either more or less ethical than ever.  In fact, I have a generally high regard for most of them, but there have been systemic changes making ethical commitments harder to keep, or, maybe, more costly to keep. 

For instance, in that magical time of fifty or sixty years ago, many of the largest corporations had strong ties to their home communities, the places where they came into being.  Major share holders were often heirs of the founders, or executives with deep roots in the community.  Minority share holders were widely distributed among the local population.  The result was an implied commitment to the well being of the community.  Those connections have faded away.  Major shareholders are more likely to be mutual funds, pension funds, and impersonal hedge fund types.  Computerized algorithms create wild gyrations in the stock market, as technotraders try to eke out profitable margins on the casino tables of the floor, rather than investing in a company’s future.  When connections to communities and their people are severed, so are implied ethical commitments.

Current tax and corporate governance law, as I vaguely understand it, requires CEOs and boards to manage affairs for short term maximum return based on share value.  It means manipulating the business to keep stock prices as high as possible outweighs all other commitments, no matter what the annual report and press releases claim.  Moreover, the seductiveness of super salaries for senior executives can easily subvert good intentions to be ethically responsible decision makers.  Paul warned his student Timothy that ”a love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Tim. 6)  I can’t ask the corporate world to adopt Christian values, but I can point out the universal truth of Paul’s warning, and encourage actions that might mitigate the corrupting influence of demands to maximize monetary return to the exclusion of all other forms of return. 

It seems to me that a few minor changes to the law, together with a high marginal rate on super salaries, would do a lot to change things for the better.  Corporate tax incentives for better wages at lower levels, and tax disincentives for excessive stock buybacks and super salaries might work to improve both investment and wage distribution. 

Over the course of many decades, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of politicians at the local, state and national levels, as well as staff on one hand and corporate lobbyists on the other.  For the most part, they have been people who desired to do what they believed to be right for their constituents, and tried to do it with integrity, keeping in mind that defining integrity is always influenced by the social mores of the time.  There were always exceptions.  They often made the headlines.  Some went to prison.   I think it’s still true.  

Yes, the political life is filled with dangers.  You can’t be a politician and not have an ego that delights in public approbation.  Doing whatever is needed to get it is dangerous.  Being skilled in the give and take of political negotiating with other ego driven politicians is a must.  Losing one’s way by making it a zero sum game is dangerous.  State capitals, and Washington, D.C. to an even greater extent, are filled with people attracted by power, intent on getting as close to it as possible, and competing with each other for position and influence.  It can be very seductive.  There’s a fine line between legitimate influence and bribery paid with money, sex, and insider trading tips.  Moreover, what’s moral and what’s legal are not the same thing.

That’s life in any capital city at any time in human history.  An honest reading of American political history reveals the ebb and flow, push and pull, between political integrity and political opportunism, between corruption and reform, between justice and injustice.  Over time we have made enormous strides toward “a more perfect union”, but we have made them stumbling and lurching.  Popular memory prefers another image of smoother progress combined with reverent patriotism, and faith in the  future.  It’s a wonderful image now torn into polarization that I think came from sources claiming patriotism for themselves while denying it to others.

The rise of extreme libertarianism (tea partiers, freedom caucus, etc.), combined with propaganda machines skilled at using the internet and social media, have undermined respect and support for the institutions of government, and led their followers in an authoritarian direction, all in the name of patriotism.  It’s worked well for a relatively small number of corporate barons (Koch, et al) who have little respect for the libertarian masses, and would prefer Oligarchical control over as thin a veneer of democracy as they can get away with.  But even they have convinced themselves it would be for the good of the  nation, claiming and believing in their own integrity.


Is it cause for despair?  For worry, certainly, but not yet for despair.  Politics remains the art of deciding how we want to live together in community, whether local, state or national.  It is, in that regard, a noble art worthy of our best efforts, and one in which every citizen should play their part.  Our federal system of representative democracy is unique in the democratic world, and it’s lumbered through several centuries to prove itself enduring, flexible, and resistant to being overwhelmed by those who would corrupt it for their own benefit, or push it away from democratic ideals.  We have reached a nadir with the current administration, but House investigations and the 2020 election may yet turn us in a better direction.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Honoring Conservative Values in a Progressive Agenda

The impeachment express is full ahead, and not without justification.  Combine it with Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop blustering about other peoples’ corruption, and we’re all distracted from important issues that must be addressed by the next administration. 

Democrats will nominate a liberal candidate who will be quickly labeled as a radical left wing socialist, in spite of the fact the he or she will be about as mainstream as can be.  We’ve already seen how Trump’s mastery at slapping the socialist label on primary candidates resonates with those who think of themselves as conservatives, even if they dislike Trump.  Consider these talking points currently used by the GOP:
  • Pelosi & Co. are holding hostage Trump’s agenda and the good of the country
  • Democrats will raise taxes (on you), squander resources on free health care and college tuition, open borders to all immigrants, let inmates vote, allow dangerous abortions, and abolish the electoral college.
  • They promote a big government socialist agenda.
  • Big and social media are in their pocket.

They’re points engineered to raise emotional angst to a high level, and they work very well, partly because they can cite something some Democrat once said that, out of context, lends them credence.  To be sure, Democrats have their own emotional trigger pulling talking points, but right wing Republicans have honed theirs with more skill to better effect. 

On the other hand, the GOP is also raising issues that show concern for:
  • Stagnant wages
  • Soaring deficits
  • Rebuilding infrastructure
  • Fixing health care
  • Adequate funding for Social Security and Medicare
  • Veterans health care
  • Global instability
  • Cyber security

Each of these issues is addressed as a priority in various campaign messages.  They’re also issues of concern to progressives because they’re important to the future of the nation.  In an age of polarization, they cross the divide.  It means a key to wining the election will be how well the candidate and party can truthfully present a progressive agenda appealing to the values of voters who have voted Republican, or who tend to not vote at all.  They will never win over libertarians for whom the federal government is a malevolent creature in need of dismantling.  But they can win over those whose conservative values can be honored by a progressive agenda.

What would such and agenda look like?  Here are a few thoughts that might be worth considering.  Advance warning: there is nothing here about climate change as such, and no grand scheme for health care.

  1. Modest changes to the IRS code to encourage higher rates of wage growth for low and middle income earners.  Use corporate tax credits to create incentives for higher wages at lower levels.  Apply tax penalties for overuse of stock buybacks and excessive executive compensation.
  2. An infrastructure plan focussed on the Interstate, bridges, water & sewer systems, and regional airport improvements.
  3. Demonstration of ability to restore respect for American leadership on the world stage.
  4. Free but fair trade through reengagement with multilateral negotiations emphasizing worker rights, and protection for intellectual property.  Make agriculture a public priority.
  5. Revise the tax code to make it more fair to all, with a significantly higher marginal rate at the top end.
  6. A health care plan expanding the ACA and allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for all.
  7. An affordable housing program that restores special advantages for tax credit financing to build low and moderate income housing through Housing Authorities and NGOs.  Expand and fully fund the voucher program.  Strengthen HUD enforcement of rules for safe, clean housing financed under its authority.
  8. Offer planning assistance to encourage economic diversification in distressed areas.
  9. Restore regulations protecting health and the environment, but streamline processes, and require federal agencies to adopt customer service practices replacing impersonal bureaucratic enforcement.
  10. Reconfigure FEMA to accommodate greater frequency of severe weather events.  Restrict rebuilding grants to reasonably safe areas.
  11. Restore the integrity of government, particularly in the: FEC, SEC, Inspectors General, CFPB, Consumer Protection Bureau, and federal R&D agencies.
  12. Immigration of course, but keep it simple.  Make it clear, no open borders; simplify and speed up processing asylum seekers; allow higher numbers of legal immigrants; reform CBP; guarantee dreamer protection.
  13. Restore Federal budget integrity: eliminate debt ceiling; commit to getting budgets and appropriations out on time; improve the sequester system to once again initiate deficit reduction without jeopardizing core social programs.  
  14. Celebrate low unemployment numbers as long as they last.
  15. Celebrate military preparedness, but avoid promises of new weapons systems.  Restore funding highjacked for the wall.
  16. Celebrate House passed legislation stopped in the Senate without further consideration.
It’s not a perfect agenda, not even a beautiful one.  The intent is to appeal to conservative minded voters who represent significant numbers of electoral votes, as well as urban voters in traditionally Republican neighborhoods, because we need them. 



Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Welcoming Congregation? Maybe Not.

A recent day long gathering of congregational lay and clergy leaders focussed its attention on conditions that favor and oppose inviting and welcoming newcomers into the fellowship of worship.  The usual menu of all the good things they do to was posted, with everyone nodding that, yes, these were good things.  In addition to coffee hours, greeters at the door, follow up with personal contacts, new signage, and better access, there things like soup kitchens, room for AA and other community groups, and a variety of other social service activities.  Each and every one a good thing indeed.  Yay for us. 

Conditions that were unfavorable to inviting and welcoming were a little harder to come by.  Compliance with ADA standards was a big one.  Poor signage, and lack of good things mentioned above of course.  One brave soul admitted that the matriarchs and patriarchs of her congregation didn’t want any new people because they knew everyone in town, and anyone new would be someone they didn’t want.  She was grateful that none of old leaders were in the meeting with us.  Another admitted that, in spite of the congregation’s financial support of community needs, few knew where they were located, or wether an Episcopal Church was even Christian. 

The common denominator linking all the discussion was the subconscious assumption that new people, invited and welcomed into the fellowship of worship, would probably have the same cultural values and expectations of church as did the congregation.  They would certainly know who Jesus is.  Even those who desire to open the doors to people not like us tend to think about what would be more welcoming from their own point of view, which includes assumptions about what “those others” would find attractive.  

It’s not our problem only.  It’s the same set of assumptions shared by every organized assembly wherever, in what ever culture.  We, mostly white Episcopalians from the intermountain west, are not unlike a congregation in Nigeria, Lakota lands, suburbs of a big city, or the rural deep South.  It’s human nature.  What we stumble over is our inability to look at the question from the point of view of the other whom we think we want to welcome.  The real question is: what is it about what we offer that the other will find uncomfortable and unwelcoming?  What is it that will make them feel vulnerable, not fit for the likes of those present, embarrassed or humiliated?  They’re hard questions to answer because it requires us to step out of our area of comfort to see things from an alien perspective.  To experience it for yourself, go to church in another denomination in another part of the country where you are a stranger.  Better yet, make it a church attended predominantly by a race other than yours.

The dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Portland, OR was featured in a Whitman College magazine article, in it he described the difficulty of opening the congregation to the others who are a part of the neighborhood.  It’s already an LBGTQ friendly congregation, so how hard could it be?  Very.  The poor, unwashed, and mentally ill – what is it that prevents them from feeling welcome?  What makes non-whites feel uncomfortable?  What makes the never-gone-to-church-know-nothing-about-Christianity feel uncomfortable?  What makes the straight, white newcomer feel uncomfortable?  You can’t know unless you ask them, and you can’t find out from them unless you’re willing to engage with them in listening conversation.  Engaging in listening conversation is an active way to encourage others to open doors from the outside and come in.  It’s not easy, and it can raise anxiety to a high level.  

There’s a more passive way to open doors from the inside, and that’s by losing the anxiety associated with trying too hard.  It means giving up on cultural projections and expectations.  The congregation from which I retired struggled with how to attract some of the growing percentage of Hispanics in the community.  Some suggested adding Spanish prayer books, reading the gospel in two languages, or maybe hosting a popular Mexican saint’s day.  It was all well intended.  No one noticed that the church is in a part of town not frequented by the Hispanic population, nor that what the expected was their easy adaptation to the warmth of our Anglo Episcopalian ways, albeit with a Mexican touch.  It was all well intended, but nothing happened.  

Curiously, with that failure behind them, they became less uptight about who they were, and less anxious about welcoming the other not like them.  They began to discover gay couples among their number, a few Africans (not American), some struggling with behavioral issues, and a number of odds and ends who were definitely not your typical middle class whites.  They even discovered that noisy children, who sometimes wandered around the nave during worship, could be welcome with only an occasional tsk-tsk and tut-tut.  It’s remains a struggle.  A large apartment complex of low income elderly on the same block remains an untapped well.  The twice weekly luncheon for any who are hungry is oversold, except for an invitation to join worship, which remains undersold. 

The point is, we can sometimes allow our anxieties about not being welcoming enough get in the way of being more welcoming congregations.  How about simply opening the doors and welcoming whoever comes in?  What really gets in the way is reluctance to make the open door more well known in the neighborhood.  Maybe it’s fear of looking too evangelical, in the worst sense of what that means.

A final point.  Some, in their desire to welcome all, absentmindedly obscure the special characteristics of our Anglican tradition.  Denominational differences are important.  We Episcopalians have a particular way of expressing our faith within a tradition that has real meaning.  Diminishing what makes Episcopalian polity and worship different demeans what is important in our understanding of what it means to be Christian.  We aren’t more right than others, but our Anglican tradition has value.  We are not just another vanilla variation.  We’re reformed Catholics for a reason. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Moral Justification for Anti-intellectualism - and a response

Headlines and social media proclaim we’ve entered an age of anti- intellectualism.  It wouldn’t be the first time for us, nor for the world.  There’s a restlessness among those who believe they’ve been ignored and left behind by a ruling elite that cares little about their welfare.  Economic welfare is clearly at the head, but being left behind intellectually is close behind.

The introduction of new technologies, and new fields of knowledge, that demand assertive curiosity and critical thinking skills to be understood, can easily leave many behind.  When they’ve become popularized through application to every day use, indeed when they’ve become essential to every day life, perhaps needed for workaday livelihood itself, they can flood whole populations with overwhelming angst about being left behind intellectually.

It’s not hard for popular forms of anti-intellectualism to grow and prosper when that happens.  There was a time when technological innovations, and new fields of knowledge, arrived in reasonably predictable waves separated by enough years that one could anticipate earning a living based on what one learned in school or apprenticeship.  New developments came, but at a rate most could accommodate.  WWII changed all of that, and the rate of technological and knowledge base change affecting every day life has accelerated ever since.  It’s jarring, disorienting, and frightening.  

No wonder ant-intellectualism found fertile ground, but where did it find moral justification permitting it to accuse an undefined intellectually elite of culpability?  In the bible; more particularly in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, not buried in the middle, but right there at the beginning.   In it Paul wrote that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.”  The foolishness and weakness of God, he wrote, is wiser and stronger than that of human beings.  In fact, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”  “God chose what is low and despised in the world…to bring to nothing things that are.”  So, Hah!, take that you intellectual snobs who look down on us.  Anti-intellectualism had found its moral justification.

What’s the right response?  I’m not sure.  Anxiety, with its roots in rapidly accelerating technological change, combined with uncomfortable developments in society’s core knowledge base, must be recognized and respected.  There’s no point in being one of Agnew’s (remember him?) nattering nabobs of intellectual superciliousness.  That’s nothing but bait for defensively angry attacks.  Based on my own experience, there’s not much point in trying to change firmly held convictions that have become treasured possessions.  

Jesus’s warned us not to store up treasures on earth where corruption consumes them, but in heaven where there is no corruption. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  We treasure nothing more than holding grievances close to our hearts.  What could be more corrupting than treasured grievances held so close that we can’t-won’t give them up.  The great advantage of a grievance is that it creates an enemy who must be defeated if justice is to be restored. But to declare intellectualism to be the enemy is to smite the potentially best ally one could have. 


Maybe the best we can do is calmly, patiently assert the utilitarian value of intellectual disciplines that help bring order to the apparent chaos of overly rapid change.  There will always be a hard core who refuse to budge, but there will be more who show willingness to learn and adapt, however hesitantly –– if they are acknowledged with respect as worthy peers.   

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Importance of Church & Episcopalians Do It Well.

Why regular worship in church is important is not easy to explain.  Add to it a sense that denominational differences shouldn’t matter, and it get’s more difficult.  I think they do matter.  This column tries to address both, and is a revision of a recent article for a local paper

In a nation where church attendance continues to decline, belief in God retrains an important place for most people.  Recent studies suggest about 80% of Americans believe in God, but only half of them believe in God as described in the bible.  The others are from non-biblical faith traditions, or believe in some kind of higher power.  Among those who believe in God as described in the bible, Christians and Jews have different ways of interpreting the text.  Among Christians there are differences between those who believe God determines what happens in one’s life, and those who understand God as engaging but not micro managing.  Of the nearly 20% who do not believe in God, a healthy subgroup does believe in an undefined higher power. 

So what does that have to do with the people here?  You’re not that different from the population as a whole, and it means there are a lot of folks wandering around in a fog of unknowing who believe in God in some way but don’t know who God is or how to  have a right relationship with God.  Participating in the worship life of a congregation is where they will find answers to their questions, and I encourage them to take the risk to discover for themselves how much richer life can be.  Moreover, as a Christian pastor I boldly proclaim that it will lead to a fuller, more abundant life not for now only, but for all eternity.  Is church really necessary for that?  Can’t you do it on your own?  God says you can’t.  God calls us into community that is the worship life of a congregation. But which one is the right one?

Denominations differ in how they understand and express faith in God, whom we Christians believe is most fully revealed in Christ Jesus.  It can get confusing if we think there can be only one right way.  Let’s face it, not one size fits all, but in our differences there is a size for every person.  Episcopalians proclaim God’s love that heals, restores, nourishes and strengthens.  We dedicate a large portion of our services to hearing the bible read and offering prayers.  Sermons are biblically focussed and short.  We believe Jesus is truly present for us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion that we celebrate each Sunday.  All who would meet and be received by Jesus are invited to participate with us in it.  We work hard at helping each other understand God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) more thoroughly, more deeply, and more personally, but we don’t demand that everyone believe in exactly the same way.  Because we’re a liturgical church with priests and bishops, people often ask whether we’re Protestant or Catholic.  We’re a bit of each.   

Other denominations have other ways of understanding and expressing faith in God.  They’re not wrong, only different.  The idea that there has to be one, and only one right way to be Christian seems odd to me.  We don’t insist on that with anything else.  Is a Ford the only right truck to drive?  Is a Nike the only right sneaker to wear?  We are a nation that treasures differences and the freedom to discover for one’s self what is right and good.  But in all that is right and good, there is one that is highest and best.  It comes to us from God because it is God.  We Christians are certain the highest right and good is revealed in Jesus Christ, and can be fully experienced only through participation in a worshiping community.   

Take a risk.  Find a church that fits you.

(Data from April 2018 Pew report)