Thursday, March 28, 2019

Baffled by What’s Become of the GOP

It’s increasingly difficult to understand what being a conservative means.  I live in a rural congressional district that takes great pride in being conservative.  Around here, claiming the conservative label is to claim status as a sober, morally upright, no nonsense, small government, low tax citizen.  At least that’s the way it used to be, and for some mainline conservatives it still is.  For them, liberals were tolerably picturesque, if slightly daft.  It’s changed.  There was always a smattering of far right wingers tagged onto the local Republican Party, but they didn’t have much influence.  For a multitude of reasons, they’re no longer on the fringe.  Intimidated by Obama, fueled by tea party rhetoric, and emboldened by Trump, they’ve forced the  meaning of conservative to be more strident, less tolerant of others, more motivated by fear, and deeply suspicious of anything marked progressive.  Formerly tolerated in good humor, liberals are now characterized by GOP activists as dissolute, morally corrupt socialists intent on imposing government control over every aspect of personal life: a dangerous threat to entitled rights and the American value of rugged self reliance.  

Oddly, the rightward shift among local hard core conservatives has come as demographic changes in our region are slowly eroding their political strength.  From what I can tell, it’s from in-migration from more urban areas, rising levels of education, greater racial diversity, and growing political awareness among formerly disinterested citizens.  How that will work out in future elections remains to be seen.  

So what about the national level?

Once upon a time not long ago there were mainstream conservatives who dominated the Republican party; a few even found a comfortable place amongst Democrats.  When in the majority, they made progressive legislation difficult to pass, but didn’t block it altogether.  When in the minority, they were a restraining force on liberal enthusiasms that could exceed the ability of society to absorb new ideas and new ways, forcing agents of change to prove their case.  Yes, there were a few fringe characters fulminating against extending civil rights and programs to help the poor, but conservative leaders were always at the table willing to talk. 

That changed with the election of Obama, and the rise of tea party type members of congress who had no intention of negotiating with anyone about anything.  Under the umbrella of Trump’s teflon coated corruption, the picture has become even gloomier. 

What happened?  The other day I listened to a BBC interview with a life long Tory who was baffled at what had happened to his conservative party.  Baffled, that’s the word I was looking for.  I’m baffled by what’s become of congressional conservatives in the Republican party, indeed of the party itself. 

Long before they endorsed a wall along the Mexican border, hard core conservatives built a congressional wall preventing any movement from one side to the other.  McConnell set the tone with his public announcement that he would make Obama a one term president by shutting down any, every and all consideration of plans the administration put before congress.  Boehner was moderately less recalcitrant, but Ryan went all the way with McConnell.  Then they fell into lock step with a corrupt wannabe political Godfather who sets policy by Twitter, doesn’t know how to negotiate in good faith, is delusional about his diplomatic prowess, incessantly lies about everything, and has a life long track record of cheating.

Conservatives used to talk about fiscal restraint and individual responsibility, even if they didn’t practice them.  With some reluctance, they supported social programs that helped people help themselves.  They were strong supporters of education, the sciences, and free trade.  They even acted to protect the environment.  One way or the other, their intentions were for what they believed to be in the best interests of the people and nation. 

Now what’s on the agenda?
  • Doing away with the Indian Child Welfare Act
  • Engaging in voter suppression and outrageous gerrymandering while complaining about non existent illegal voters
  • Easing regulation of dangerous pesticides, and other environmental threats
  • Winking at white supremacy movements
  • Providing cover for executive branch corruption
  • Undermining public education
  • Blocking release of the Mueller report
  • Stripping citizens of health care
  • Confusing support for Israel with support for Netanyahu
  • Tolerating Saudi crimes
  • Engaging in politics by insult
  • Ignoring environmental science
  • Continuing disproven economic policies
  • Ignoring the need for immigration law reform
  • Engaging in xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric
  • Pandering to a trumpian base of fascist leaning populists


That’s only a partial list drawn from a few days of front page news.  We need conservatives.  We don’t need these conservatives.  We need thoughtful, cautious people offering their sober judgment based on intellectually sound study of the issues.  I’m simply baffled by what’s become of the GOP, and the good name of conservative.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Going Home, Going Home, I'm Just Going Home

Small rural congregations served by retired clergy often find themselves without one on Sunday mornings.  Then it’s up to the congregation to worship in Morning Prayer, hearing a sermon delivered by one of their members.  This coming Sunday is one of them, so I wrote a homily that may suffice.  It contains little original material.  The Tuesday morning ecumenical lectionary study group I belong to had a lot to say about the prodigal son, and the homily reflects more than a little of their conversation.

It begins with the observation that there may be no parable more familiar than the story of the prodigal son, which is a problem because familiarity ceases to surprise, and this is a very surprising lesson.  Maybe there will be a few surprises for the congregation to consider.

As Luke tells it, the driving question for Jesus’ listeners was: Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?  So Jesus told three stories.  The first was about a hundred sheep.  One was lost and the shepherd dropped everything to go find it.  The second was about a woman who had ten coins, but one was lost, and she turned the house upside down to find it.  Neither of them are in the lessons for Sunday, but they should be because they set the agenda for the third parable about the prodigal son.

The shepherd and the woman in first two stories did all the work to find and restore the lost sheep and coin to their proper places, and that says a lot about how God works.  But neither the sheep nor the coin could do anything to help, nor could they be held accountable for their lostness or repent of the difficulty they caused their owners.

But the prodigal son?  That’s another thing altogether.  We humans have at least some free will, are said to be accountable for our behavior, and expected to show some responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.

The prodigal son failed at all of it.  He was a self centered, entitled kid from a rich family who had no intention of doing honest work for living.  His indulgent father set him up with more than everything he needed to make a life for himself, and he blew it – in every way possible.  He left home as a rich young man, squandered the whole fortune, and ended up hungry, homeless and destitute.  

The well rehearsed American creed declares that he should have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and made something of himself the old fashioned way, but he didn’t.  A little hard work never hurt anybody, and if he had a mind to he could have worked his way into a decent life.  Instead, he crawled back to his father’s estate, begging for a job.  Why?  Why endure the humiliation of going home?

There is something deep in each of us that hungers for home.  It’s like a magnet.  No  matter how self sufficient we make ourselves out to be, no matter how wonderful every other place can seem, home calls – it’s where the heart is, and that’s where we yearn to be, even in humiliation.  There is a hole in our hearts that can be filled only by knowing where home is, and finding a way to get there.  And so he went home.

Where is home?  There’s a gospel song that begins: “This world is not my home I'm just a passing through.  My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door.”  I’m not keen on the theology, but the point is well made.  There is a home calling us that is deeper and more compelling than anything on earth.  One of my most important spiritual mentors, Phil Lane, called it the other side camp.  It’s just over the ridge, and everyone is there waiting for us to come.

A poem by William Fisher has been set to music from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”  It goes:
Going home, going home
I'm just going home
Quiet like, some still day
I'm just going home
It's not far just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more
Mother's there expecting me
Father's waiting too
Lots of folks gathered there
All the friends I knew

Our hearts know where home is.

Unlike the lost sheep and coin, the prodigal son could participate in his own salvation simply by going home.  He could make the choice and take the journey.  It's hard to know how repentant he was of his moral shortcomings.  Did he really change?  We're never told.  We're only told he went home.

And his father ran to greet him, embrace him, clothe him and celebrate his return.  

Let that sink in.  The father ran to greet him.  The father embraced him.  The father clothed him.  The father celebrated his return.  

Is there a  limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?

Not far a way was the prodigal’s elder brother.  He was the good son: worked hard, helped run the estate, didn’t get into trouble, kept his nose to the grindstone, and obeyed his father’s rules.

Boy was he ticked off.  

To help the deserving poor is one thing, but his younger brother was anything but deserving.  What he deserved was everything he got from being a lazy, self centered, entitled brat.  Why is he the center of attention?  How come he gets a party and I don’t?  It’s hard for us to understand.  Our ideas about what’s fair and right are not wrong, but they’re not God’s ways.  The mystery that is God’s abounding and steadfast love is deeper than we can imagine.  Try as we might to make God play by our rules, God has other ideas and other plans.

Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?

In Luke’s telling of the crucifixion, Jesus, hanging on the cross, said: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Of whom was he speaking?  The soldiers who drove the nails, the jeering bystanders, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Judas, who?  Could he have meant each and all of them?

One of the two criminals being crucified at the same time admitted his guilt, his well deserved punishment, and asked Jesus to remember him, to which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Think about it.

Not many of us are the prodigal son.  If we’re honest, we may not be as bad as the younger son, but we’re not the obedient elder brother either, even if we act like it when we rudely judge those who don’t live up to our standards.  Too often we want it both ways.  We want God’s forgiving grace for us, but think other sinners only get what they deserve for their sinful ways.


Jesus, we are told, ate with sinners (the prodigal poor) and tax collectors (the prodigal rich).  It turns out that Jesus is the welcoming outstretched arms of the father.  Jesus is a sinless elder brother who not only celebrates the return of all who had been lost, he went out to find them, point toward home, and walk with them on the way.  God knows no limit to how far he will go to forgive and embrace sinners.  And, like the prodigal son, we can turn to head in his direction.  Jesus will point the way.  We can go home; he’ll go with us.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Atheists, Lent, Fasting & Mystery

God speaking through Isaiah (Isa 58) says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from you own kin.”

Lent is a time of fasting.  I believe it should be a time of rededicating one’s self to the fast that God has chosen for us, which also means disrupting usual routines.  The intent is to make room for the work of God’s chosen fast.

This year I’m fasting from Facebook for Lent.   It turns out to be a mixed blessing.  It’s a colossal time waster, and the local FB based news outlets are chaotic rumor mills run amok.  Giving them up has been a blessing.  But I miss handing out birthday greetings to friends; having long conversations with conservatives who take exception to me taking exception to their politics; and am unable to respond to a dozen or so brazen atheists who delight in poking fun at Christianity, and expect me to respond. 

It’s the latter I want to talk about today.  They have quite a hoard of memes, cartoons, off color jokes, and blatant insults to hurl at the magical thinking of Christians.  Some of them were raised in a branch of the church  that inflicted pain and suffering on them.  A few simply outgrew the juvenile storytelling imposed on them in Sunday School.  Facebook has become a place for them to ridicule the fools who still believe in a vile god who enjoys barbecuing sinners for eternity, a Santa Claus god who rewards with prosperity those who pray the right words, or an itinerant preacher whose message and purpose is undecipherable.  The improbability of a virgin birth and resurrection simply add incredulity to an already incredulous story.  Fundamentalism is the ultimate joke.   

Added to their company are assorted ‘nones’ who have never been exposed to religion in any form, other that what they’ve seen on t.v., and a few adamant atheists whose religion is atheism.

One obstacle to responding in a way that might open conversation is their assumption that fundamentalist evangelicalism of the Jerry Falwell variety or Joel Osteen’s prosperity talkathons are what Christianity is.  They don’t count the gullible pledging fealty to a pedophiliac Catholic Church, nor wimpy anything goes mainliners.

People such as these populate more than my Facebook feed.  They’re the subject of articles, books, and church workshops galore, each applying the latest in psychological, sociological and demographic research to probe for reasons; then use the best organization management tools to craft a forward looking strategy, spiced up with marketing pizazz.

I want to suggest an alternative. It’s nothing new, nothing never before thought of, and nothing digitally enticing.  I want to suggest taking up a version of God’s chosen fast as Isaiah described it.

Forget about calling them atheists. Call them anti religion, anti fundamentalist con artists, anti institutionalized abuse, but not anti Christian.  They, for the most part, desire spiritual truth and are angry at the church for not providing it.  Free of meaningless religiosity and away from damage churches have done to them, they wander the desert searching for what the church promised and didn’t deliver.  In a way they’re among the oppressed, yoked to beliefs about Christianity inconsistent with the core of orthodox faith.  They’re hungry for nourishment, but don’t recognize it’s theirs to have in the bread of life that’s ours to share.  They’re spiritually naked, tempted to put on whatever looks appealing at the moment.  They’re not enemies, unclean heathen reprobates destined for hell, or anything of the kind.  They’re our own kin, we cannot hide from them.

If our job is to break the yokes of oppression, feed the hungry, provide good homes for the homeless, clothe the naked, and not hide from our own kin in need, how do we do it?

My simplistic answer is to preach the gospel in word and deed, keep Christ at he center, and try to avoid confusing contemporary social values with Christian truth.  The last one is tricky.  God is always leading us away from where we are toward where we’re going, but we hold onto the comfortable social values of our times, claiming them to be gospel truths.  We twist Christ into a pretzel to keep our cherished ways from being changed.  On the other hand, where God is leading us is not entirely clear.  It takes time, prayerful discernment, and challenging conversation with others before we can be provisionally sure.  Following Jesus is to walk trustingly into the unknown.

For my part, when pressed for what I believe with absolute faith, my answer is; I believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, in him I trust, everything else is provisional.  It leaves a lot of room for doubt and mystery, and I think we get into a lot of trouble when we try to impose too much rationally ordered structure on that which is holy mystery.  Naturally, I think Episcopalian liturgy is the best way to do that, but some think otherwise.

Can my erstwhile atheists be tempted to don cloaks of holy mystery and follow Jesus?  Maybe, if religion will make way for it 


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What You Need to Know About Trump’s 2020 Budget in 874 Words

The president’s 2020 Budget.  Does anyone remember it?  It was big news a few weeks ago, but you know how this president is.  It’s something new every day, making yesterday’s priorities fade into the myst of forgetfulness.  I started writing this column about the budget almost two weeks ago but got distracted by a family emergency.  Now back to work.  The question is, does anyone care?  I think they should because it telegraphs executive intention.

Once upon a time I poured over my copy of a president’s annual budget, along with detailed summaries and analyses.  They helped me anticipate what Congress might do with it, and how the people I worked for might try to influence appropriations.  The appendix was a treasure trove of historical data that helped explain what was going on with federal programs.  That was a long time ago.  Now, like most everyone else, I rely on media summaries and what I can dig up on the web; it’s mostly out of curiosity.

Presidential budgets are wish lists stretching credulity well beyond any child’s letter to Santa, but they do announce policy direction and priorities along with executive branch assumptions about how the nation’s economy is likely to perform. Moreover, they establish a baseline from which legislators begin the process of working on appropriations.  

As a reminder, the budget comes out early in the calendar year as required by statute, not the Constitution.  With or without an executive budget, Congress is supposed to pass all appropriations by October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.  It’s not something they’re good at, so in 13 of the last 18 years the nation has had to operate from continuing resolutions extending appropriations at the same level as before.  Every now and then Congress enacts new rules to give some discipline to the process, but they never work.  Adding discipline to the legislative process of passing appropriations runs against the grain of political give and take.  In any case, what comes out in the end seldom bears similarity to the president’s budget. 

This year’s presidential budget is an exception.  It’s not a legislative starting point because it’s so draconian and wildly exaggerated that Congress will pay it little heed, causing Trump to text fuming demands and insults – if he remembers he submitted a budget.  We will likely stumble into the new fiscal year next October with all the political dexterity of a wandering toddler’s temper tantrum in a toy store.  Congress, abetted by presidential meddling, may make Brexit look like a well planned maneuver.  

To refresh your memory, Trump’s budget calls for federal spending of $4.7 trillion with deep cuts to domestic programs and large increases in military spending, plus $8.6 billion for his wall.  Like previous administration budgets, it’s based on ten year projections for spending, revenue, and economic performance, none of which is probable.  That’s especially true of his economic forecast of plus 3% GDP growth, which no reputable economist buys.  Unfortunately, reputable economists have not been that good at prediction either, so the Trump gang is hanging tough.

After innumerable campaign promises to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, he wants cuts of $1.5 trillion over ten years to Medicaid, $25 billion to Social Security, and about $50 billion in cuts to SNAP and other programs benefitting the poorest and neediest.  That’s galling to for many reasons, particularly because Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are financed by dedicated revenues from payroll taxes, not income taxes.  

In place of his vaunted Infrastructure promises there is –– nothing.  Having demanded better forest management to stop wildfires, he would eliminate forest management research.  Because global warming is a hoax, EPA funding would be cut by 31%.  Various housing voucher plans providing rent subsidies for the poor would be cut to the bone.  You get the idea. 

Small government types, and others convinced there is nothing but waste in federal spending, may stand up and cheer, but they’ll be cheering for the end of mythological assumptions that never existed in real life.  Those who believe the federal government does nothing for them will applaud cutting the only programs that do, while keeping in place those favoring the very wealthy.  The holy cow of defense spending will make life good for defense industry jobs, but the sooner we can get the nation off an eternal war footing, the better.  

So what will happen?  Not much.  The House, in which appropriations must originate, will dither, argue, and eventually pass bills to the Senate where the slim GOP majority will mangle them beyond recognition.  As the year end looms, we will see a move to pass continuing resolutions and Trump threats to shut down government if he doesn’t get his way.  

Could it be otherwise?  Yes: it depends on McConnell, a man who’s made it clear he cares not one whit for the welfare of the nation, has no interest in good faith negotiation, and appears to favor Trump’s strong man inclinations.  Is he likely to bend in a new direction?  Your guess is as good as mine.


P.S.  My editor and backup editor remain out of town attending to other things.  My emergency go to is busy grading philosophy papers, so all errors are mine alone.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Psalm 119 & Meditation

Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it, is my favorite Psalm for meditation.  As a reminder it’s divided into 22 eight-line stanzas exploring human engagement with God’s law.  Each stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working it’s way from ‘aleph’ to ‘taw,’ which is interesting, but loses significance in the English translation.  Long ago I decided it was written by several authors, each contributing a little something about their relationship with God, and God’s word as revealed to them in the Pentateuch.  Some were hopeful, some contrite, others smugly self-righteous,  Some wanted to be taught, some knew it all, and some were confused.

Whenever I read portions of Psalm 119 in the context of prayer, I’m led into conversation with the authors, God, and myself, that occasionally becomes a hot argument.  One psalmist claims to seek God with his whole heart, and I say ‘not me; at my best I’m at about 50%, and I think you’re lying.’  More to my liking is the admission of another to being a stranger on earth, more than a little confused, and wondering what’s going on around here.  I can relate to that.  Several stanzas remind me of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in the temple (Luke 18).  One describes being prostrate in the dust hoping for grace.  Another gloats pridefully about how well he follows all of God’s laws.  I don’t think I’m either one, but both at the same time.  An author tells how he hates the double minded.  I think we’re all double minded most of the time, and the most double minded are the ones who think they aren’t. 

The central theme of the Psalm is God’s righteousness revealed through scripture as a dependable guide to a better life. The more one gives it serious thought, and works to live into it, the more fully the better life is realized.  Failure has come, and will come again, but God’s grace abounds – we will not be abandoned.  The very last stanza says it this way: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”  Isn’t that the truth.  “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love…,” it’s certainly my confession.  Maybe that’s why “Come thou Fount of every blessing” is one of my favorite hymns. 

Psalm 119 is a reminder that God’s word, as expressed in scripture, is a living thing.  It’s not etched on stone tablets.  It doesn’t demand blind obedience; it invites honest conversation in which God honors doubt, confusion, and disagreement.  It’s conversation that opens doors to deeper understanding, and more certain faith that God’s abounding and steadfast love will not turn away.

There is a heresy in Christian thought called Pelagianism (named after Pelagius, a 4th century British monk) that claims humans can choose between good and evil without God’s help, and can lead a sinless life if they want to.  That’s an over simplification, but in condemning it the Church went the other way to say humans are so corrupt that they can do nothing good without God’s help.  Being Episcopalian, I’m always curious about the middle way, and I think the writers of Psalm 119 got it right.  God’s word describes the better way; God’s grace leads us on it; We can choose to follow; Meditating on what it means helps us stay closer to the path; Failure is certain, but it need not be fatal because God will not abandon us.  In other words, I guess I’m a semi-Pelagian tending toward Erasmus.


Lest someone complain I’ve left Jesus out of it, I haven’t.  Jesus, whom I recognize as the Word of God made flesh, is the seal and guarantee of God’s grace that has been there all along. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Socialism, Capitalism & The American Way

Note to readers: my editor is stuck in the Seattle airport, unavailable for editing and proofing.  So here goes anyway

I have great respect for government, especially our forms of constitutionally established representative democracy.  Local, state and federal government in the U.S. provide structure within which civilized society can exist consistent with a maximum of individual freedom.  None of it is set in concrete.  The structure has to be always changing because standards that define civilization and freedom are always changing; fortunately, our system was designed to accommodate change. 

There are other forms of government, and each provides structure for society to exist, but in vastly different ways.  Totalitarian governments, for instance, emphasize control over freedom, centralizing power in the hands of a leader, and those to whom the leader grants a portion of it.  Representative democracies put a heavy emphasis on structure that preserves as much individual freedom as possible, decentralizing power by distributing it among branches, across geography, and limiting how much any one person can exercise.  

The distance between the two is spanned by many variations of governmental types.  We don’t live in a binary political world.  We live in an analog world of innumerable variations where cultures and traditions are reflected in how governments are formed and used.  For instance, the most common form of representative democracy is not the American system, but parliamentary democracy that combines the legislative and executive functions in a way that holds a Prime Minister, who is a member of parliament, more directly accountable to the majority will of parliament, while being closely monitored by the minority.  

Confusing the public debate of today is an assumption common in America that socialism is a form of government existing at the very door to totalitarianism.  It isn’t.  It’s not even a form of government.  It’s an ill defined political philosophy about the role and responsibility of government to address social and economic needs.  Socialism can be very comfortable with capitalism, and strongly protective of individual freedom.  It does not, per se, undermine individual responsibility and self reliance.  It places a high value on economic parity and governmental provision of essential services for the welfare of society as a whole that are beyond the capability of individuals and the private sector.

It got its bad name because Russian and Chinese communism attached the word socialist to their movements, and bequeathed it to other one party dictatorships pretending to be Marxist.  Modern communism, plunging into dictatorship, began poorly and ended worse, dragging anything labeled socialist down with it.  Marxism, not to be confused with Soviet style communism, was and remains a 19th century utopian ideal worthy of study, but of little practical value.  For one thing, Marx underestimated the fallen nature of humanity lusting for power.  In the U.S., Soviet communism and Marx became bogeymen used by right wingers to scare the public, much like monsters under the bed and in the closet, but not without some reason.  The Cold War was real; there was a sustained effort to spread Soviet style communism throughout the world, and to undermine democracy where it existed.  The Russians may have given up communism, but undermining the West remains their passion, and that’s a story for another time.

Contrary to conservative fears, governments in large complex societies, with many competing needs, are often, but not always, the appropriate vehicles for underwriting essential social needs that transcend entire populations.  Only governments can raise the funds necessary and see they are used without discrimination, which they do imperfectly because people, and the systems they create, are imperfect.  The U.S. has a long history of socialist programs starting with grants of charter to private corporations to build canals, roads and railways, providing them with substantial subsidies along the way.  The entire American transportation and communication infrastructure is a gigantic socialist program of public-private partnerships underwritten by taxpayers.  The military, including every defense contractor, is socialist.  That it’s socialism funneled through huge corporations doesn’t make it any less so.  In many ways, the same can be said for American agriculture, but why open that can of worms?  

Food and drug safety, job safety, workers’ rights, social security, Medicare, Medicaid and more are socialist programs.  At the local level so are schools, parks, streets, sewers, water, and the like.  Land use planning and zoning are socialist.  What gives American socialist programs their particular character is our preference for public-private partnerships, and a strong commitment to use them to benefit individual freedoms.  That for many years those benefits accrued mainly to whites, especially white men and the middle class, is a subject for discussion elsewhere.  What’s obvious is that extending those benefits to others brings scary warnings about Creeping Socialism.

Right wing friends go apoplectic, claiming that restricting their right to discriminate, to use their property as they choose, to put limits on their behavior, and to force them to pay taxes for things they don’t like, is the very kind of undemocratic socialism they fear will lead to what?  Cuban communism?  Venezuelan collapse?  Chinese takeover?  Who knows, but they’re serious.  

On the one hand, they’re perfectly happy with all things socialist as long as it’s called capitalism and helps them maintain their place in society.  On the other hand, they have a point.  Government is a clumsy tool that can easily be misused.  Governments may be necessary to create structure for civilized society, and are efficient at raising funds needed for the public good, but they have only one effective method of enforcement –coercion.  Governments coerce the payment of taxes.  Persons are coerced to behave in certain approved ways.  Illegal behavior is coercively punished.  Government reserves to itself the right to use lethal force as a means of enforcement.  Because the idea of individual freedoms are especially important to Americans, using the power of government to do things must be approached with caution; not everything deemed for the public good has to be addressed through legislation, and some shouldn’t. 

What conservatives call socialist, and most of the rest of us call progressive, works best at the national level, on issues affecting large numbers of the public across local and state boundaries.  Old standards need updating.  Weak areas need strengthening.  Issues long ignored demand to be addressed.  Environmental protection and infrastructure renewal are obvious needs.  It’s increasingly clear that health care is another.  Some form of universal health care is critical to the long term welfare of the nation.  The ACA was a good start.  Whether a form of Medicare for all is the next step remains to be seen.  Certainly it could be worked out in a public-private way as Medicare now is.  Appropriate regulation of guns is another.  It would restrict individual freedom to own whatever one wants in any way one wants, but the cost of 30,000 plus gun related deaths each year is a cost too high.  You can name your own.

They, and others, are complex issues the solutions to which will require more socialist oriented answers.  Conservatives will resist.  If they resist in good faith, the result will favor workable plans that respect our constitutional values of freedom.  If they resist, throwing up siege works to block all movement, the nation will continue its downward slide toward second tier status.

A closing thought.  If the right wing is deliberately blind to what socialism is, within the context of American history and values, the left wing is deliberately blind to what capitalism is.  Like socialism, it’s not a form of government, but an ill defined political philosophy endorsing private enterprise operating with the least amount of regulation and taxation it can get away with.  It’s amoral, neither good nor bad.  Morality is what society imposes on it through structures established by government.  Capitalism is good at moving money around to discover the best return it can get.  It’s what fuels the engine of economic prosperity.  It needs freedom of movement to work well, but not unlimited, unregulated freedom.  It’s government that sets the rules and limits of freedom.  The political processes of American representative democracy work well at deciding what that means.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Understand Lent

We have entered the season of Lent, known by many as a time for giving something up, although why is a bit of a mystery.  For Christians it’s a forty day time of preparation for the celebration of Easter.  To make sense of it, we need to back up a little.  Almost everyone knows that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  It’s followed by the short season of Epiphany when we consider who Jesus is – what does it means to say he is messiah, Son of God?  For whom is he messiah?  For that matter, what is a messiah?  

Lent comes next, starting with Ash Wednesday.  Ash because we are reminded of two difficult realities: we aren’t immortal, made of dust we will return to dust; the dust of which we’re made we share with all other created things, the divine that lives in us is in all of creation.  The important question in Lent is, who are we?  More particularly, who are we, each of us individually, in relation to and with others, creation, and God?  

Episcopalians are invited to observe a holy Lent through prayers, fasting, self denial, and reading and meditating on scripture as a way of making a right beginning of repentance.  It begins with an Ash Wednesday service in which we do our best to be more honest with ourselves, and each other, about how we’ve failed to love ourselves and one another as we should; allowed pride, hypocrisy, and impatience to get in the way; are self indulgent and envious of others; are intemperate in our love of things and comfort; are inconsistent in worship; have made many false judgments; and contributed too much to waste and pollution.  

In an age when we’re told to be self affirming through the power of positive thinking, and where many suffer from inappropriately low self esteem, it can seem like an oppressive anachronism, but wait.  Sometimes we need to be honest about not being the paragons of virtue we like to think we are.  It’s not for the purpose of self condemnation, but for hitting the reset button to get started again in a new and better way.  And nothing helps to make a new beginning possible more than God’s own words of forgiveness and promise of new life in spite of our weaknesses and failures.  It’s all part of a holy Lent.

A renewed right beginning of repentance is not a call for moping in guilt while trying to turn one’s life around.  It’s about being more honest with ourselves about who we are, recognizing more fully that Jesus is with us, for us, loves us, and will lead us into a better life.  It means making mid-course corrections to more faithfully follow where Jesus leads. There is a kind of liberating joy in making an honest confession, accepting the saving hand Jesus extends to lift us up, brush us off, and walk with us on the way.  

I’m deeply saddened for those raised in traditions where sin and damnation were pounded into them along with faint hope that they might be saved from hell if only they believe the right way in the right words.   It’s not what  Christ is about, and it trivializes the restorative power of a holy Lent.  In like manner, I’m saddened by those who’ve put their faith in various self help gurus and therapy made into religion.  They are missing out on the power of Almighty God made known to us in Jesus Christ through whom there is sure and certain hope.


The ancient church made Lent a time of welcome and learning for those who wanted to know more.  It was also a time when those whose way of life had separated them from fellowship were invited to make a new beginning in renewed fellowship.  We’ve gotten away from that in recent centuries.  It’s time to get it back in ways that make sense for times and places in which we now live.