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  Labor Day in recognition of the labor movement has been replaced by brats and beers.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.