Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Observations on Trump’s Negotiating Style

Political news is breaking so quickly it’s hard to know how to think about what’s happening, much less make sense of it.  What made some sense yesterday is highly questionable today.  I wanted to reflect on Trump’s style of negotiation, only to be interrupted by Iran’s arrival in Paris for important talks that bypass Washington, German elections keeping Merkel off balance, and Johnson’s loss of a parliamentary majority further undermining his already flimsy claim to national leadership.  What’s next is anyone’s guess.  Oh yeah, for America there remains a truly dangerous hurricane, the Amazon is still on fire, and there’s rioting in Hong Kong.  Among it all, my gun toting friends are slowly waking up to the fact that most of us are sick of their NRA talking points. 

So, what the heck, back to Trump’s negotiating style.  He has one, and it’s very predictable.  It’s manifested in two parts.  Part one is relatively simple: after a little Trumpish glad-handing, he makes an offer.  When the other party counters, he amplifies his original offer with intimidating threats, making it clear the only acceptable agreement is the one he’s proposed.  Sometimes he wins, but in the presence of those who can’t be intimidated, he folds.  

Part two is more complex.  He can’t abide the success of others, especially predecessors, and revels in portraying himself as the only person who can solve difficult problems.  When he enters an arena of negotiation where another has prepared the ground for progress, he is compelled to demolish it as incompetently done so he can promote himself as the only reliable source of a way forward.  We’ve seen it reported in the media as his penchant to create controversy where there was none so he can be seen as the one who resolves it.  Having thus created a state of negotiating chaos, he unpacks the few tools he’s accustomed to using, which is to demand agreement with him or face retaliation.  As a private citizen he was not taken seriously by most people of power and means who felt free to ignore his bloviating.  Lesser folk sometimes endured his wrath.  As some have noted, his is the track record of a bully who always punches down, but turns coward in the face of real power and money.  Unfortunately, as president he has substantial means of retaliation to employ, and many perceived challenges to his competency to avenge.  Instead of representing the interests and dignity of the nation, he uses the power of the presidency to indulge his ego and satisfy personal whims. 

It’s made worse by the ease with which sycophants and political axe wielders have been able to infiltrate the White House, each gaining momentary influence that whipsaws chaotic presidential decisions.   They always settle down to those satisfying his narcissistic needs of the moment.  It means no one can last long.  It creates an environment of predictable instability in national and international affairs, with other world leaders biding their time hoping to ride out the last two years of his term. 

How the nation will recover remains to be seen. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Labor Day Thoughts 2019

Labor Day was once a day for union members to celebrate with pride the value of blue collar workers as the backbone of America’s economy, and worthy of their pay.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did it with parades and sponsored picnics at a time when unionized labor was just gaining traction.  I don’t know when the first Monday in September became the unofficial last day of summer dedicated to backyard BBQs or one last long weekend in the RV, but that’s what it now is.  Labor Day in recognition of the labor movement has been replaced by brats and beers.

If nothing else, the 2016 election raised the problems and importance of the working class to renewed visibility.  It may have even opened the door to renewed appreciation for the role of unions in a democratic republic like ours.  At their peak in 1954, labor unions accounted for about 35% of the labor market.  It’s been a down hill slide from then to today when about 11% of the work force is unionized.  The power of old time industrial unions is all but gone, and newer unions in service industries struggle to gain footholds.  

I never much cared for labor unions, although I once belonged to an association that acted much like one.  I figured I could make my way in the world on my own better than being shackled by union work rules and their antipathy toward management.  I had watched union greed strike for wages, benefits, and work rules that would help break companies, and eventually help break the unions themselves.  I saw the open hostility between labor and management that led to intransigence on both sides, and the bullheadedness of each to resist change that would improve the economic well being of both.  I even aided clients who wanted right to work laws in their states.  No union fan I.  

But I did wonder.  Earlier in my career there was a big push to stop an increase in the federal minimum wage.  White papers were sent out claiming it would eliminate jobs, and cause a recession.  Neither data nor experience supported their claims.  It was really about holding union wages in check.  At the time, some union contracts had automatic wage increases tied to minimum wage increases, and management didn’t want that to happen.  To combat union power, Right to Work laws were sold as union neutral, but they never were.  They all but guaranteed a union free environment in right to work states.  I blamed big unions for blowing it with their bellicosity, but it was also clear that without union representation, management would take every opportunity to hold wage labor costs down with little regard for the effects it would have on the fabric of society.  

About the same time, many of us were selling and teaching what some called  the Japanese way of management.  It was really the product of W. Edwards Deming, and others, who brought the best in American practices to help rebuild the Japanese economy after the war.  It was based on team work, empowerment at the lowest levels of labor, and simple tools of statistical feedback every worker could learn to use.  Many CEOs bought into it.  Few practiced it.  It just became another flavor of the month among management fads, in spite of its proven track record.  But it was a handy tool to sell the idea that unions were outdated and unnecessary.

And here you have it; my version of bellicose big unions and 19th century management mindsets blundering with fisticuffs into the latter half of the 20th century.  What kept it from being a true disaster was the size of the American economy, and it’s unquestioned place as the super power of all super powers.  

The elections of 2010, 2012 and 2016 may have been what was needed to begin the restoration of labor union strength.  We shall see.  Right wing libertarians made enormous congressional gains in 2010-12 by running as the voice of the common ‘man’ who had enough of big government, taxes and regulations.  For them, the idea of good faith negotiation was anathema. The could not be budged.  They were egged on by authoritarian minded corporate interests, exemplified by the Kochs, for whom a society as close as they could get it to genuine laissez faire would be ideal.  Then along came humbug Trump, who was talented at pretending to be a common ‘man’ loving libertarian, and gifted at preying on the economic and social fears of vulnerable whites, especially the so called working class.  He promised the moon and stars if they voted for him, and they believed it. 

I think for all those common ‘men’ it’s beginning to sink in that rank and file workers need unions to represent their collective interests in a private enterprise based economy where, given the chance, owners and managers will treat them as expendable commodities.  If a renewed union movement can refrain from pugilistic antagonism, they may find management more amenable than they thought.  They’re still up against virulent anti-union Koch type interests who will fight tooth and nail to keep unions out.  They’re still up against long established conservative bias against unions as usurpers of management rights, and closet socialists to boot.  But there is also a deep conviction among Americans of every class in the value of fairness and equity.   A stronger labor union movement would undoubtedly help create a stronger, more equitable economic society for all. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

God & the Game of If-Then

If-then is a favorite game.  It begins with childhood bribery: if you clean your plate, you can have dessert; If you mow the yard you can borrow the car.  It’s in childhood that we learn the rules of transaction in which if and then become implied obligations rooted deep in social norms that influence behavior in subliminal ways. Years ago Robert Cialdini wrote a popular book (Influence, 1984) in which he described the excess to which if-then transactions can go when a “gift” of small value can subtly impose a social obligation to return the favor with something of much greater value.  He called it the principle of reciprocity.  Fund raisers play on it when they send out dimes and quarters attached to fundraising letters, knowing it will significantly increase the likelihood of a contribution.  One of the most popular and sleaziest forms is the oft repeated scheme: If I buy dinner and a movie, you owe me sex.  

Prayer is another popular setting for if-then transactions in which we try to employ the principle of reciprocity, but to make it seem less manipulative, we reverse the terms and hope God won’t notice.  Instead of offering a small gift to obligate God to respond with something big, we ask for the big thing, and offer something small in return.  It comes out like this: If God will grant my petition, I will do something for God, like go to church more often, be nicer to someone, work harder, or stop doing the thing I should never have done in the first place.  It’s not new.  It’s almost the entire theme of the book of Judges, and the Psalms are filled with if-then bargaining with God: “Save us from the Assyrians and we will quit worshiping idols,” that sort of thing. 

God is not fooled and can play the if-then game as well as anybody.  I was reminded of it by the lectionary’s offering of a portion of chapter 58 in Isaiah: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

It’s pretty straight forward.  If you, as one of God’s people, do what you can to create conditions in which the least among you have what they need for life and opportunity, God will lead you on the path to an abundant life. 

It raises several problematic questions.  For one, it turns out that an abundant life is not necessarily a life of wealth, nor is it free from the usual troubles affecting us all.  Yet, it will be a life of great abundance.  Most of us would prefer a more definitive offer, and have difficulty accepting it on faith alone.  But that’s the offer, and those who have accepted it have known the true meaning of abundance.

It also makes some of the politically conservative among the faithful nervous that God leans too far to the left for them.  As morally good as personal charity is, it cannot atone for a society that won’t address systemic inequities.  God, it seems, expects both generous personal charity and social righteousness in communities from towns to empires.

Then there’s the question about non-believers who dedicate their lives to feeding the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted.  Are they to be among those blessed with abundant life too?  Jesus said he came to redeem the world, and we who claim to follow Jesus are expected to be agents of reconciliation in the world.  At the same time, whether righteous unbelievers might also receive God’s blessings is none of our business, not our place to judge.  That doesn’t stop us from making it our business and declaring our judgments.

Questions such as these set the negotiating agenda we present to God, and brandish as defensive shields in conversations with others.  God, it appears, is not open to negotiation, at least not on matters such as these.  There are times, however, that make us wonder.  Consider Abraham’s bartering with God over how many righteous people in Sodom would be needed to prevent its destruction.  God respected the deal making because it was about the possibility of saving the afflicted.  Or consider the man who negotiated with Jesus for the healing of his son: “I believe, help my unbelief.”  It was about the possibility of healing, not of the son but of the father.  When God appears open to deal making, it always goes in the direction of making us more aware of how important it is to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the afflicted.  

In other words, don’t get the idea that there’s a more foolproof strategy for negotiating with God to get one’s way at little cost.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Chance, Coincidence & God’s Plan

Theologians have scoured three questions so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to say, yet they come up frequently in conversation because each person experiences them anew, and few church going Christians read much theology.

What does it mean to say we are a fallen people?  What do chance and coincidence have to do with the plan everyone says God has for our lives?  How are we called to follow Jesus?  So, I’m taking a shot at this, not for theologians, but for ordinary Christians who wonder. 

Let’s start with The Fall.  Augustine got us hung up on Adam and Eve way back in the fifth century, and shame on him.  It led to centuries of Christians blaming the pair for humanity being kicked out of paradise, and having to endure the hardships of life as we know it.  ‘We’re victims of their sin.  It’s not our fault, it’s theirs.’ At least that’s how some have understood it.  Are we all among the fallen because of them?  Maybe not.

It should not come as a surprise that the story of Adam and Eve is not an historical event.  It’s a metaphorical explanation of human nature in which each of us aspires to be our own god.  Individually and collectively we create a variety of other gods we endow with human strengths and weaknesses, and create religious rituals to manipulate them.  The ancient Greek poets recognized that gods, made in our image, have selfish egos, don’t play fair, and are not easily manipulated.  We keep doing it anyway.

It isn’t that we would all be innocent but for Adam and Eve.  It’s that we each, as if for the first time, repeat their story in our own lives.  In that sense, the evidence of our fallen condition is in our history of wars, cruelty, injustice, and feeble attempts at being good people living good lives.  A sociologist recently interviewed on NPR observed that people in relatively small circles of friends and neighbors can be extraordinarily generous and kind to one another.  But in the larger context of region or nation, prejudices erase most of their good will toward others who are not our people.  It’s a pattern indicative of our fallen nature.

The point is, yes, The Fall is real.  We are a fallen people, and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves.  Leave poor Adam and Eve out of it.  Failing to recognize that prevents us from being honest about the reality of our situation.  Calvin was at least partly right; we are a depraved lot, and there is no part of us that isn’t corrupt in some measure.

Holy scripture tells the story of our fallen condition in brutal honesty, but it also lays out the way God has established for us to move away from it.  We are not condemned, but given holy guidance.  It’s available to all.  No one is excluded, and none is predestined to condemnation.  To the contrary, the abundance of God’s grace for humanity, and presence with humanity, is the whole point of scripture’s unfolding that reaches its fulfillment in Jesus.  If it appears we’ve failed to make much progress in the last two thousand years, it’s because we commit the original sin over and over again.  It also means we can’t blame the devil for all the evil in the world.  It’s of our own creation.  If we can create a spirit of good will and good times, we can create a spirit of bad will and evil times, and we have.  Each act of violence and betrayal, from the most trivial to the most unthinkable, adds to the inventory of evil that reverberates across the centuries and into our daily lives.  It permeates every thing and every age, and it comes at us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions.  

If there is the dark of evil, there is also the light of good.  It would be going too far to equate it with the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy, but the basic idea is similar.  If we have created evil that echoes across the centuries, we have also created good that echoes across the centuries, and it too comes at us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions.  The popular memes about random acts of kindness are an example.  But there’s more.  Scripture testifies that God, who created light and said that it was good, and who, in Jesus, is the light that darkness cannot overcome, engages with the world we live in to bring good to us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions.  For lack of a better word, we call them miracles, but it’s misleading.  We’ve come to think of miracles as rare events of awesome mystery overcoming natural law and impossible odds.  Sometimes they are, but on the whole, they’re frequent, many, and often go unrecognized because they come to us through the agency of other human beings.

Which brings us to chance and coincidence.  The universe is filled with randomness, events that happen by chance, which, if they are beneficial to us, are called coincidences.  There is no plan behind them, nothing intentional about them.  The virus that gave me a cold didn’t pick me out from among all others, and I certainly had no intention of getting in its way.  That’s the way it is for many of the so called bad things that happen to us, and it conflicts with the oft repeated claim that everything happens for a reason.  I think for most people it means someone somewhere has made a decision that causes an event to happen.  It’s partly true.  Although many things happen for no reason, that is, no one acted with intention to do something, it’s also true that most events in our daily lives have some degree of intentionality behind them.  For example, we spend time at the ocean shore, and I was thinking about things happening for a reason as I watched some tourists get knocked down by the shore break.  The waves roll in and break on the shore, as they always do, without intention.  It’s just what waves do.  Tourists, on the other hand, come with intention to enjoy the shore.  With a degree of poorly thought out intention, they get in the way of the shore break, and find themselves facedown in the wet sand.  No one intended it to happen, but it wasn’t a matter of  pure chance either.  It’s a mildly comical example that avoids the many others with more tragic consequences you may have already thought of.  The point is that chance, coincidence and intention are all mixed up in events that come at us in unexpected ways from unexpected directions.

Where does God and his plan come in?  If we have the freedom to engage the world about us for good and ill in ways that intersect with random chance, how much more freedom does God have to do the same?  I cringe every time I hear someone say that God has a plan for you, or that nothing happens without God ordaining it.  The testimony of scripture is about our freedom to act on our own volition without God’s interference.  But it also testifies to God’s freedom to engage with us as guide and guardian to the extent we are willing to allow it.  Finally, it testifies that our fallen condition is not fatal.  God does have a plan, and has executed it in Christ Jesus.  We are rescued from our fallen condition on the other side of death.  In the meantime, as followers of Jesus, we can begin walking into our eternal life now, if we pay attention to what God has told us in plain everyday language about living with intentionality to love God with all our everything, love our neighbors, and love each other as Jesus has loved us.  If there’s any question about how to do that, Jesus has given specific directions nicely summarized in Matthew 5-7.

Following in the way of Jesus doesn’t make us perfect, won’t prevent events of chance from happening, and can’t stop us from being or causing hurt, but it is the way for us to be agents of good in the world, agents through whom miracles happen, and it is on the sure and certain way to abundant life. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Parisian Anxieties

It’s time for a little nonsense.  A moment of pure irrelevancy and no redeeming social value.

We’re off to Paris in a few weeks, and as much as I’m looking forward to it, there’s a smidgeon of apprehension.  It has to do with language, and the Parisian reputation for snobbish sophistication.  I could get along in German OK.  We’ve been to Italy several times.  Italian place names and directions are clear enough, and Italian hospitality can’t be beat.  I’ve had waiters patiently help me order in Italian, and have a good time doing it.  Nobody expected me to know Turkish or Greek.  Can’t understand a word the Brits say, but reading’s not a problem.  We drove a Jeep around Costa Rica for a couple of weeks, feeling very much at ease.  Most Asian countries post English subtitles under important signs, and every kid wants a chance to practice their English.  But Paris?

I’m lost.  Have no idea how to pronounce even simple words.  Basic phrases elude me. Signage is a total mystery.  There’s a certain fear of being seen as another barbarian American not worth the time of day.  We once drove from Barcelona to Paris, and had a  wonderful time in the countryside where we experienced outstanding hospitality, but Paris was another matter.  No one was rude, but, not unlike New York City, there was a sense that it was OK if you wanted to be there as a gape mouthed tourist, but don’t get in the way of locals doing things the Parisian way.

The guide books tell you to try to not look like a tourist, which is ridiculous.  Of course you look like a tourist.  You are a tourist.  However sophisticated your reputation back home, it evaporates the moment you get on the hop-on-hop-off double decker bus.  To date I’ve spent time in twenty-five countries, lived in  a few big cities, and worked in others, so why this minor anxiety about Paris?  It’s all about language, and the anticipation of being illiterate in The Language from which we get the term Lingua Franca, the language every decently educated person is expected to know if they are not to be dismissed as bourgeois trash. 

So here I am, working my way through Fodors, grateful that my wife is planning our day trips, and practicing my sophisticated posture.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Games, Movies, Guns, Calvin, Hobbes, Confucius & Buddha

Violent video games may not have links to mass shootings, but they’ve helped distort our understanding of justice.  Not long ago I wrote about violent video games, and action/super hero movies, observing that in each justice is defined as wreaking vengeance.  They advertise that peace and security cannot be restored to the community until the bad guys are destroyed in the most gruesome way possible, and that players and viewers should be entertained by it.  Their brand of justice is sold as just retribution for the evil perpetrated on society.  They teach the worst kind of retributive justice, the kind associated with vigilantes, lynch mobs, white nationalists, nazis and antifas.  They’re close cousins of tortured death in Rome’s coliseum, burning at the stake in medieval town squares, and public hangings on our own courthouse lawns.  They glorify revenge and violent death.  They demean the rule of law.  For Christians, they violate everything Jesus taught.  Who knows how many buttons they can push.

Fed a daily diet of them might bring some well armed person to look for bad guys in the guise of convenient scapegoats, who are always people not like their people.  Games and movies didn’t create today’s gun culture, but they’ve offered justification for it.  They can make being well armed for imaginary self defense look heroic.  They can encourage the illusion of being the good guy with a gun ready to take out the bad guy with a gun.  They can make lethal “stand your ground” reaction to otherwise non lethal confrontations appear justified.  They can foster the delusion that killing others, many others, is nothing more than the elimination of dehumanized characters.   They portray a monstrous mutation of morality and the ideals of justice held dear by leaders secular and religious. 

So yeah, I don’t care for violent video games, most action movies, and even a few of our beloved super heroes, at least in their current manifestations.  They wouldn’t be so popular if there wasn’t a market for them, and that says a lot about our collective moral character, but that can’t be.  We’re Americans.  We live in the land of the brave and free.  Our ideals are founded on equality, the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It can’t be a problem with our moral character.  It must be a problem with somebody else’s moral character.  We need to put them in their places, then everything will be OK again.  In the meantime, best to stay alert with guns loaded and ready.  That’s the way it looks to me, and we’re not unique.  It’s pattern as old as human history.

Denying the fallen nature of our collective moral character isn’t a popular subject these days.  Fundamentalists blame it on Adam and Eve, and the rest of us ridicule them for such a silly idea.  Evangelicals are sure it’s mostly about sex.  Rome pins it on Protestants, who return the favor in kind.  Conservatives blame it on liberals, the elderly on millennials, nationalists on immigrants, and so on.  The point is, everyone recognizes something is wrong, and no one wants to include themselves among the guilty.  Maybe it’s time to admit Calvin had a point; we all, individually and collectively, are among the fallen because our selfish self righteousness corrupts the fullness of life, the path to which God has clearly set before us.  For the secularists among us, Hobbes was right; we would quickly descend into the depths of mutually destructive savagery without the constraints of government.  For others, that puts Confucius on Hobbes’ side, and the Buddha on Calvin’s side.

What are we to do?  As citizens, we’re not going to do away with violent video games and action movies, and even if we did they would quickly be replaced by something else.  But we can regulate guns.  We can license guns and gun owners as we license cars and drivers.   As Christians, we can educate our young and each other about the meaning of godly justice, and we can, as we are able, do our best to influence public policy in that direction.  That we can do.  

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Changing Minds

From time to time The Christian Century publishes a feature called How My Mind Has Changed.  In it, well known theologians offer essays about how their minds have changed regarding important issues as they’ve added years of study and reflection to their life experiences.  Reading any of them reminds me of how my own mind has changed on many things.    

I can’t remember all of them, but they certainly include civil rights, gay rights, American Indian history, supply side economics, the threat of socialism, international trade, Institutional morality, the death penalty, and much more.  For example, someone with nothing better to do could dig up a newspaper column I wrote over thirty years ago arguing there was no place in the church for same sex weddings.  A more thorough reading of scripture,  a study of the history of marriage in Judaism and Christianity, and sustained engagement with gay friends in the gay community, guided me toward a dramatic change of mind.  I would hate for anyone to wave that old column around today crowing, “Ha, this is what you really think.”

The point is that well known scholars, and ordinary folks like you and me, change their minds as they grow, learn, experience and reflect.  It’s not a matter of being wrong before, but now right.  It’s a matter of recognizing that, given what I was able to know and understand then, I believed a position to be the best one I could hold.  New information and more experience have led me to a different understanding, which is the best I can do with what I have available to me now. 

It infuriates those who demand certainty, and absolute confidence in what is true.  Holding positions as provisional truths drives them up the wall.  To them it’s wishy-washy, anything goes, out of control relativism.  Peter Gomes, in his book The Good Book, says something like, the Word of God remains the same, but our ability to understand it is always changing (I can’t lay my hands on the book, so this is a rough approximation).  For many people, that just can’t be so.  Truth is truth.  A few have demanded to know if there is anything I hold to be absolutely true.  Yes there is.  Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  Two plus two equals four is a strong possibility.  Everything else is provisional.

Which brings me to the current political debate in which candidates are being held accountable for things they said, wrote or did many years ago, as if nothing has changed.  Put on the defensive, they’re tempted to deny they ever did what the record said they did, or interpret it in a way to now mean something other than what it clearly meant back then.  If they admit they once held that position, but now don’t, they’re accused of flip-flopping hypocrisy.  They would be better off saying in plain English that, given the circumstances and information they had back then, their position seemed at the time like the best choice.  Times have changed, their experiences have changed, what they’ve learned has changed, and their minds have also changed.  Moreover, they will continue to listen and learn from those who are committed to a more just and equitable society, and as new information become available.  That’s what would serve them well in a tough campaign season.  Whether they will is another question.

When do past deeds, positions and words count as liabilities?  When they are shown to have been predictive of current poor judgment and inappropriate behavior.  Then they become acts of willful unrepentance establishing patterns of behavior over long periods, now current, and likely to continue in the future.     

Monday, July 29, 2019

Paul, Colossians & Politics

Like many, I have  love-hate relationship with St. Paul, the apostle, not the city.  On the one hand, I have no doubt his letters included in the canon of the New Testament reveal God’s word and truth.  On the other hand, they also reveal a man struggling to deepen understanding of his new found faith, and struggling even harder to guide Christians newer than he.  It means I’m in constant conversation with Paul, sometimes agreeing, sometimes arguing, and occasionally proclaiming he’s just plain wrong.  It doesn’t commend me to conservative evangelicals for whom what’s in the canon is God’s truth, period. 

Right now, as I work on a sermon, I’m in his letter to the Colossians.  It’s engaging me in conversation with Paul, with memories of questions raised in adult classes over the years, and with current social media comments.

Paul wants his new Christians to seek the things that are above, where Christ is,…not on things that are on earth… .  For some, it’s an invitation to claim a Thomas Kinkade like vision of Christian faith that has no room in the picture for the realities of life.  It’s all make nice, avoid conflict, and try not to talk about unpleasant things.  To me, if I’m serious about seeking the things that are above, I have to look for them among Jesus’ earthly words and deeds.  Isn’t that what his incarnation is about?  The incarnate Christ may have ascended, but he left the rest of us to carry on with the daily work of earthly ministry that he demonstrated for us.

Paul also wants the Colossians to clean up their act by giving up fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed (idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying.  Conservative friends jump on anything related to sex, and tend to ignore the rest.  By his own admission, Paul had no need or desire for sex, and so may not be the best source of advice about it, but he clearly sees that irresponsible sex is an unhealthy attack on the sacredness of the most intimate act people can have with one another.  Given the sexualization of advertising and entertainment that saturates society, I can see how conversation can get hung up on it.

To move on, what about all these other things the Colossians needed to clean up?  They hit deep into the ordinary ways of everyday life in our day, as in theirs.  Some are good in decent measure.  Passion is an asset in work, friendship, marriage, justice, and things like that.  When passion becomes an obsession, and emotion turns its back on rationality, sanity turns to insanity.  

Anger and wrath are the stuff of every action and super hero movie or t.v. show.  Anger plus wrath equals vengeance, and we’ve normalized vengeance to define the popular version of justice.  God’s justice goes in another direction.  It’s restorative, not retributive.  Leave vengeance to God, and don’t assume you know what that means.  

We’ve unleashed anger and wrath as political tools to be wielded with abandon in tweets and talks.  Bullies use anger to intimidate their way through life, cruelly dominating others.  But there is true righteous indignation.  Jesus was indignant about things that oppressed, excluded, dehumanized, and marginalized.  Turning over tables and driving out crooks with a whip was not beyond him.  We’re called to name evil and stand against it, but beware.  There’s also a kind of self righteous indignation over things of which one does not approve, but are probably just fine with God.

Greed: that’s a tough one.  Gordon Gekko (“Wall Street”) says greed is good.  It’s what drives the stock market, monopolies, and gospel of prosperity preachers.  Private enterprise and capitalism don’t depend on it, don’t even need it.  It’s something like nitro fuel that gives ordinary cars an extra kick, but will kill the engine.  It’s the wedge that allows some people to separate their Christian life from their business life.  As idolatry, it replaces God altogether.  With what?  See the bigger barn parable in Luke’s gospel. 

Malice, slander, abusive language and lying.  They’ve been around a long time, distributed rather evenly over history and throughout the population.  None of it is good.  It’s all a choice, and anyone can choose not to engage in it.  We seem to have made the wrong choice.  Thanks to modern avenues of communication, they’ve become the standard for public discourse, led by the president of the United States.  

I posted a link to a friend’s column on abusive language to Facebook, and got an instant response that it was a good article until it pointed fingers at the president.  He should not be singled out, they said, it’s not fair to the dignity of the office, and besides, others are also guilty.  I’m singling him out as a disgrace to the office.  Yes, others are guilty of the same, but they’re not the president, they don’t command the bully pulpit from which he bullies others, inciting some to vile and violent action.  It exemplifies what Paul urged the Colossians to turn from if they are to seek the things that are above.

Having said that, am I guilty of malice, slander and abusive language?  Perhaps, but I think not.  There is nothing slanderous, malicious or abusive about stating what is observably, verifiably true.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Can Socialism and Capitalism Coexist? Yes, they can and do.

Socialism and capitalism: can they be mutually compatible, or are they like matter and antimatter, unable to coexist in the same place?  In the heated  climate of today’s political discourse, voices from the left condemn capitalism for all the ills of humankind.  Voices from the right assert all things liberal are socialist, which is Cuban communism in disguise.  For terms that generate such strong emotional reaction, one would expect them to be fairly well understood.  But ask any acquaintance to define what they mean, then stand by for garbled non sequiturs and vague obfuscations.  And why not?  Both have multitudes of meanings covering a lot of territory.  What interests me today is how people fill them with opprobrium to be lobbed into the public debate.

Vague, but strongly felt prejudices about capitalism and socialism come in part from popularization of ideas and phrases taken from works by people such as Weber and Schumpeter.  Weber’s 1905 “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” was skimmed by political science and sociology majors for what was likely to be on the final.  It contributed to the myth that Calvinism equated wealth accumulation with evidence of divine election thus driving the development of modern Western style capitalism.  Schumpeter’s 1942 “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” contributed to popular magazine articles and pamphlets warning about the Red Danger.  Students didn’t actually read Schumpeter – they read about him.  Echoes of each float around in the political ether infecting conversations of people who have no idea where they came from.  

For the record: capitalism and democracy are not the same thing; socialism and communism are not the same thing; capitalism and socialism coexist, more or less harmoniously, in every Western democracy.  Forms of capitalism profitably exist in nations claiming to be Marx loving communists.  Saying that doesn’t seem to penetrate very far into the understanding of those who prefer to believe otherwise.

For some people, capitalism is demonic oppression of the people, and needs to go.  But asked if it means they would do away with private property, private enterprise, mutual fund retirement accounts, and entrepreneurship, they’re aghast at the very idea of it.  What seems to enrage them is the amoral monopolistic power of giant corporations able to invade and control every aspect of life.  Add to it excessive inequality of income and wealth, and it’s not capitalism they dislike, it's the injustice of conditions present in our democratic society’s private enterprise economy.  They want to change the conditions, not do away with private enterprise.

To other people, liberal ideology leads to socialism, which may not be communism but heads in that direction.  It puts private enterprise in straitjackets of heavy handed regulation, and over taxation that strips owners and managers of the freedom to make decisions they think best for business.  It subjects investors, savers, and entrepreneurs to the whims of greedy workers, government bureaucrats, and social do-gooders who have no skin in the game.  It appropriates hard earned wealth to provide benefits for those unwilling to provide for themselves.

There is truth in both views, but only partial truth.

Italian social philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that capitalism, per se, is amoral and has no purpose other than for private hands to manipulate the flow of money in pursuit  of profit.  Borrowing from Walter Benjamin, he calls it a religion without dogma.  Business people, and businesses large and small, may be committed to socially worthwhile purposes, but capitalism, the ill defined skeleton within which they exist, is concerned only with maximizing return to invested parties.  It has no moral interest in what a business is or how it’s run.

Things falling under the equally ill defined umbrella of socialism do have a moral purpose.  Advocates believe they will make quality of life better, more just, and more economically rewarding for more people, especially those who are on the lower rungs of society.  They intend to open doors to self sufficiency that have been closed to many.  Within the context of American progressivism, the fundamental rights of private property and private enterprise are never in doubt, but the amorality of capitalism requires that it be regulated to protect the rights and well being of people, the environment, and the long term health of the economy.  

Libertarian advocates of capitalism often talk about the free market.  They believe free market capitalism, operating with very little (preferably no) government oversight, can rely on competitive markets to sort out inefficiencies and provide the best products and services at the lowest cost to rational willing buyers.  It’s an article of faith that ignores reality: markets are easily manipulated to hobble competition, and consumers are not rational.  Moreover, the myth of free market capitalism is uncomfortable accommodating conflicting public interests that jeopardize profit potential. 

Therefore, governments have always and everywhere intervened on behalf of the public good to regulate how markets are structured and business is conducted.  Greater complexities in markets, with increasing conflicts between public and private interests, require a more comprehensive menu of regulation.  It also means some services are better provided by government, or through public/private partnerships, because they don’t lend themselves to privatization that endangers some and excludes others to the detriment of the public good.  Conservative restraint is one thing, but obsessing about it becoming out of control socialism is rational only as a tool to incite fear for political gain. 

In like measure, liberal outrage against capitalism as such ignores its essential role in guiding the ebb and flow of money to meet the needs of a demanding public.  However imperfect, reasonably free market forces create opportunity for entrepreneurial improvements in goods and services that no other economic system has been able to match.  With them comes greater economic well being for more people.  Crafting economic policy to accomplish social goals that protect the environment, workers and consumers is not antithetical to capitalism.  Resolving issues like education, health care, and access to necessities of life with public financing is not free stuff for the undeserving.  It’s the nation’s collective investment in its own well being.

And what is there to say about hard core libertarians and hard core Marxists?  In my opinion, they have nothing useful to contribute to the conversation, but can be dangerous fomenters of anti-democratic violence.  The Marxists are a faint echo of a former time, but they still make useful bogeymen.  The libertarians have generated a powerful core of followers who think they have a man in the White House.  They don’t.

Monday, July 22, 2019

It’s time to get political in the pulpit

My preaching for the past several weeks has tried to show how following Jesus involves both individual and political obligations and expectations.  To put it another way, there are obligations and expectations about how individuals are to behave, but also about how societies, including nations, are to behave.

Individual obligations to love God and love one’s neighbors are well understood because they so easily fit into the myth of American individualism with its emphasis on self reliance and voluntary charity for those in need.  As they should, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the new commandment to love one another as Christ loves us, encourage us to live in more morally responsible ways with one another.  It means our conversations about morals, or ethics, seldom stray from a focus on personal beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.  As essential as they are to following Jesus, they also contribute to a comfortable separation of discipleship from the political sphere, leaving it open for opportunists and religious charlatans.  

God, throughout scripture, has also laid down obligations and expectations for the way nations are to behave, and has a great deal to say about public policies that fail to meet them.  God does not endorse any particular form of government, but is crystal clear about what is expected of any nation’s public policies if they are to embody godly justice.  To follow Jesus, whom we proclaim to be the image of the invisible God in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col. 1), requires us to be well informed about what God has to say through the ethical prophets of Hebrew scripture, because that’s where God’s political agenda is most clearly stated.  Amos intrigues me the most, but God’s words on public policy are also recorded in Isaiah, Hosea, Micah and Habakkuk.  Even the ancient laws in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy begin the process of limiting retributive justice, deescalating violence, and expanding human rights. 

The abundance of religious leaders flying the Christian flag, while promoting political agendas they claim to be biblical, are rarely in the same political arena as God.  The religious right is one example.  What they call traditional family values, with its suspicion of any deviation from the social-sexual norms they endorse, is an influential political force, however weak its scriptural warrant.  The religious left is less organized.  It lacks the coherence of the right, but it’s spawned its own array of political activists who wave the Christian flag with abandon, sometimes following Christ, and sometimes ignoring him.  In the meantime, lukewarm denominations happily mumble support for the way things are according to the social standards of their congregants.  Leaving politics to politicians, they stick with urging members to live good Christian lives.  To their credit, they also engineer impressive charitable works in the communities they serve, and of late, most have become welcoming and affirming of all.

In large part, predominantly white mainline denominations have sat out political engagement, leaving it to the black churches on one hand, and conservative white evangelicals on the other.  The latter, obsessed with sin and sex, appear to have become Jesus praising agents for secular right wing libertarian nationalism that seems to have little connection with godly justice.

It’s time for mainline preachers to be bold in Christ, fearless in bringing politics into the pulpit.  Not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but as prophetic voices proclaiming what God expects justice to look like in any society.

So, what does godly justice look like?  I touched on it in a recent column, but it bears repeating.  God expects international treaties and compacts to be honored; crops and food supplies to be off limits as weapons of war; weights and measures to be honest; foods to be unadulterated; civil violence to be avoided; legitimate civil authority to be respected; workers and the poor to be protected from manipulation into the bondage of debt; usury to be avoided; justice to be impartial, giving no preference to the rich; the poor not to be cheated out of opportunity and the necessities of life; the courts to be uncorrupted; monopolization of resources to be avoided; taxes to be fairly apportioned; and excesses of income inequality to be addressed.

It’s not an exhaustive list.  You might find a few more to add.  The point is, what God expected social justice to look like almost three thousand years ago continues to be as true today as it was then.  You want truth, absolute godly truth?  This is as close as you’re likely to come.  It stands up to examination through the lens of Jesus: love God with all your everything, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I love you.  For Christians, everything in scripture, old and new, hangs on these and is interpreted by them.  Prophetic words about godly justice are given even greater authority through Jesus’ words and deeds that break down barriers separating us from one another, heal and reconcile us to one another, and cry out for the oppressed and poor.

Conservatives who are nervous that this looks like a camel’s nose under the tent for a politically liberal agenda, it’s time to get over it.  For the lukewarm who would rather avoid conflict than face it, it’s time to take a stand.  Each has needed gifts.  Conservatives help keep things on track.  The lukewarm, gaining courage, help mediate toward agreement.  But God’s agenda takes precedent over all.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

I Am Deeply Troubled

I am deeply troubled by a president who proclaims “if you don’t love it here, leave, get out.”  The old canard of America, love it or leave it, has never been used by moderates, liberals or traditional conservatives.  They’ve always been the threatening words of right wing ersatz patriots whose meaning is clear: if you don’t agree with me, you’re disloyal and have no right to be here.  And that’s especially true if you’re some color other than white.

I am deeply troubled when a senior member of the White House staff says liberals in general, and four Members of Congress in particular, represent the “dark underbelly of America.”  They are four women who have fought hard for the inclusion of the most marginalized into the fullness of all that America claims to be.   Demanding that the nation live up to the standards of justice it proclaims for itself, is not a dark underbelly but a guiding light.

I am deeply troubled by a leading senator who calls them socialists and communists.  He is a learned man who knows perfectly well that their liberal proposals fall well within our system that values individual rights and private enterprise.  He fully understands the bonfires of fear his incendiary remarks will light.  He is an arsonist of right wing authoritarian racism.  

I am deeply troubled by a Senate majority leader who has finally mumbled it’s time to restore a higher level of civility to the conversation, assuring us that there are bad people on every side, but the president is not one of them.  I can only assume he realizes the president has gone too far, but if he can spread the blame around thin enough it might not jeopardize the march toward remaking the nation in the tea party image of laissez faire opportunity for some, and repression for many.

I am deeply troubled by right wing media shouting that every “liberal” proposal is something from the radical left bent on destroying freedom.  Policies intended to improve the well being of communities, workers, the environment, and, yes, business and industry too, are not radical left.  Policies that would bring more fair justice into the lives of more people are not radical left.  Their endorsement of autocratic rule in the name of freedom is frightening.

I am deeply troubled by Facebook and Twitter sites that are replete with Americans (and foreign bots) who concur, joyfully concur, and believe that somehow this will lead to a restored America in which their future is secure, and those who trouble them will be removed one way or the other.  They really believe we’re being invaded.  They really believe asylum seekers are criminals and neer-do-wells.  They really believe the ACA has made health care worse.  They really believe Obama caused the Great Recession and blew the deficit out of control.  They really believe they’re not racists, but.  But immigrants from poor non-white countries are not wanted; but those who manage to get in (legally) must immediately assimilate, which means speak English and defer to your betters; but non-white citizens should quit whining about racism (the good ones who know their place are OK).  They really believe what they’re told about over regulation, about how the federal government wants to control their lives, and how liberals are all closet communists.  They are really blind to the authoritarian control over their lives they’re giving willingly into the hands of those who promise them freedom.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Pulpit, Politics & Amos

Whether the pulpit is the right place for political commentary is hotly debated.  My experience is that church goers don’t mind if what’s said is marginally related to God and generally in accord with their own beliefs.  It leads to politically segregated congregations with the liberal church at one end of town and the conservative church at the other.  In between are congregations with ministries that address favored issues while pretending they’re biblical, not political.  The constitutional separation of church and state has never found a meaning acceptable to all parties, which means the phrase has become a blunt instrument used to defend every possible interpretation while attacking others.  Ever wonder what God might have to say about preaching and politics?

The lectionary gives us a few weeks in Amos where I believe God has thundered with political judgment, holding preachers accountable for boldly proclaiming God’s expectations for society’s public policies.  To be sure, Amos was sent to the kingdom of Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II, which seems too remote from our 21st century republican democracy to be of any use.  But God appears to be disinterested in forms of government, yet has a great deal to say about standards of justice and equity transcending centuries of developments in governmental structure.  Moreover, I believe God’s ordained ministers are required to proclaim them in our day as was Amos in his.

What we are called to proclaim is not necessarily safe to proclaim.  It wasn’t for Amos who got kicked out of the kingdom, but there are ways to be diplomatically bold by avoiding party and candidate endorsements, and by showing respect for a broad range of points of view.  Nevertheless, no bold preacher has ever avoided controversy altogether.  It’s the price of being called to preach God’s word. 

What was Amos called to preach that also challenges us?  God condemned Israel and surrounding kingdoms for public policies that offended the standards of godly justice.  They included policies that betrayed treaties and covenants of friendship, engaged in ethnic cleansing, used food supplies as weapons, and sent whole populations into exile.  God was outraged at policies that manipulated the working poor into the bondage of debt, deprived the poor of the necessities of life, and imposed taxes favoring the rich.  Corrupt judges, incitement of civic violence, and disrespect for legitimate civil authority got God’s goat.  Those who lacked compassion for the suffering of others, and took undue pride in their status were an affront to him.  What was true 2,800 years ago is no less true today.

We no longer live in the time of kings like Jeroboam, for whom government and religion were one.  Now the world is filled with combinations and permutations of governments defying easy classification.  Our particular form of a democratic republic is unique and may not work for others, but we’re convinced that representative democracy, adapted to fit local cultures, is the best kind of government to optimize individual freedom and social well being.  As Americans, we say government should not establish or favor any form of religion, but should protect everyone’s right to worship as they please (with cautious suspicion that there may be limits to what’s allowed).  It hasn’t stopped some sectarians from asserting their rightful place as the U.S.A.’s only legitimate religious faith, but that’s for another column.  The point is that God’s expectations for what just public policy should strive for are universal truths that must be taken seriously.

I’m convinced it’s imperative that preachers do what they can to proclaim God’s expectations for just public policy, boldly confronting injustice, and teaching those to whom they’re sent to do the same.  There’s no one right way to do that.  Authentic and honest expressions of it may look conservative to some and liberal to others, but keeping God’s expectations at the center will help open ways to reasonable and workable, albeit imperfect, agreements.  


Monday, July 8, 2019

Bubble, lots of social bubbles. We all live in them.

Jesus went about breaking down barriers that separate us one from another.  The sick, outcast, and alien were enfolded in his healing and reconciling love.  We who claim to follow Jesus have been instructed to do the same, each as fully as able, constantly pushing the limits of ability.  Thousands of years before Jesus, the psalmist celebrated a time yet to come when God would declare that Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, strangers and enemies of Israel, would be counted among God’s own.  Paul, writing to the Galatians, declared that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus.  In our own time we sing “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”  There are few sermons that fail to include a call to follow in the way of Christ outside the church in our ordinary daily lives.

None of it falls on deaf ears, but translating it into a more Christlike way of life isn’t easy.  Instead, these heartwarming words are likely to be received as wonderful and inspiring ideals of hope, but set aside by Sunday afternoon to attend to the immediacy of personal lives overwhelmed by needs, anxieties, customs and habits.  I think it has to do with the bubbles – social bubbles – in which all of us live.

I’ve been thinking about it given the example of several long time friends whose Christian faith is unshakable, but contained within social bubbles that if burst would destroy their sense of self.  Whatever Christian faith calls one to be, it must be contained within one’s established bubble.  Other long term acquaintances live in bubbles resistant to organized religion for the same reason.  Fear, prejudice, ignorance, habits, and lack of intellectual curiosity create bubble defenses difficult to penetrate.  It’s not true for every person.  Some, perhaps many, live in permeable bubbles, highly mobile bubbles, or bubbles defined by unrestrained curiosity about life in other bubbles.  One way or the other, we all live in bubbles.

So what’s a bubble?  

Sociologists have been studying social bubbles for a long time.  Bubbles are closed environments, bubbly human terrariums if you will, that sustain, defend, and give order to the meaning of life.  In them we find comfort and security.  Properly stocked, they are places of refuge against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate.”  In one sense, individuals live in their own unique bubbles custom designed by each to fit their needs and desires.  In another sense, bubbles of like minded people interact with each other to form bubble colonies in which members can interact in mutual reassurance.  Individual bubbles, having degrees of mobility, might even belong to more than one colony.  

Bubbles are transparent, or at least translucent, so we’re not unaware of other bubbles about us, and we can know, or think we know, something about them. Even without verifiable knowledge about the other, we can assume things about them based on their similarity to, or deviance from, the norms of our own bubbles.  Better yet, colonies of like minded bubbles reinforce each other with shared assumptions taking on the appearance of reliable verification that we find reassuring.

Faculty members of our two four year colleges often talk about the college bubble that enables staff and students alike to exist in the greater community without actually being a part of it.  Since their bubbles have mobility, they can float through the greater community as curious onlookers, insulated in their bubbles from too much engagement.  I’ve experienced a like sensation on cruises where stops at exotic ports of call feature guided tours in mini bubbles before returning to the big bubble in the harbor where all is comfortably familiar. 

I live in a small city in the rural setting of the intermountain West where watching bubble dynamics is easier to do.  It’s a college town, a center for premium wine making, and the primary market place for a region of large farms and ranches.  The Corps of Engineers has a regional HQ here, and the state’s maximum security prison sits on a hill just outside the city.  It means there are lots of bubbles and colonies of bubbles that keep bumping into each other in ways that force inter-bubble contact.  It has a bubble watching advantage over large metropolitan areas where bubble colonies can be more easily isolated from one another  Neighborhoods of richer and poorer are not separated by much, sometimes by nothing more than a fence or hedge.  It’s an easy bike ride from the Symphony to the rodeo to the prison.  Farmers, old time families, newbies, country clubbers, blue collar workers, professionals, they all live in their bubble colonies, but they can’t avoid bumping into each other. 

Well insulated bubbles are like self created miniature universes in which residents live as their own imagined gods.  They may need transactions with the outside world for supplies and entertainment, but each transaction can be interpreted to exist for no purpose other than adding value to the self created universe of the bubble’s godly occupant.  Some bubbles are armored with strong prejudicial values acting like Star Trek deflection shields.  Others are capable of a limited range of interaction with members of other bubble colonies.  A few careen from one to another as if in search of home.  There are bubbles with permeable boundaries, and persons willing to leave them for a season to explore the outside world.  The point is that in a small rural city it’s possible to watch all of them at more or less the same time.

From what perspective?, one might ask.  From the perspective of the bubble I live in and the bubble colonies to which I belong.  “To know thyself” is an old and debated adage, but in this case it means to be honestly and critically aware of the bubble one lives in, of the existence of other bubbles, and of the nature of the bubble colonies to which one might be attached.  

Which brings me back to Jesus.  He continues  to break down the barriers that separate us one from another, inviting our bubbles to be more vulnerable.  He invites us to be among those who occasionally leave their bubbles altogether walking into the lives others as they experience it.  My guess is that many regular church attendees are unaware of the bubbles in which they live because they’ve become invisible in the ebb and flow of daily life.  It’s an act of disciplined self awareness to know one’s own bubble, and a leap of faith to trust in God to be present in one’s greater vulnerability if it becomes more permeable.  Venturing outside doesn’t mean others will be more receptive to the invasion of their lives in their bubbles.  Nevertheless, God invites us to give it a try.  Offer God’s peace.  Be agents of healing and reconciliation.  Then go back home to a more permeable bubble.