Binary Politics with Dives and Lazarus

The news of the day has proclaimed victory for liberals and defeat for conservatives.  For the record, I’m a strong advocate of marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, so I am among the happy ones.  That being said, I wonder about the binary characterization of contemporary politics.  One is either conservative or liberal.  Each side enjoys limited degrees of variation that range from far right or left extremists to just plain conservative or liberal.  Between the two is a chasm as deep and unbridgeable as that between Dives and Lazarus, so that none may pass over from one side to the other.  It’s a rock solid article of faith for our most popular news sources echoed by Internet denizens and barstool pundits.  Any conversation begins with an unshakeable assumption that the other is a liberal or conservative; whatever is first said opens the door, shoves the other through to one side or the other, and slams it shut behind.  One side must be correct in its views or it must be wrong.  Which it is depends on which side of the chasm one is on.  There is no room for being anything other than right or wrong.

I tend to think of myself as more liberal than conservative, but I’m also a realist.  The world is not black and white.  It is a complexity of competing forces working their way out in an observable direction.  I prefer political options to be pragmatic and evidence based, but I recognize that political decisions are often neither.  There is no purity in politics, and those who think there is, or that there should be, are deluded.  Given opportunity they can be so unwilling to bend that nothing can get done.  At their worst, they are dangerous.

It seems unlikely that we will ever do away with binary political thinking.  It’s been around too long, and it’s spread too widely around the globe.  But it can be kept in check.  When nations have failed to do that they experience and the world suffers from Fascist, Stalinist, Islamist, you name it, violence, oppression, and authoritarian rule.  We have not been immune.  America has come close to succumbing from time to time through such movements as the KKK, America First, No Nothings, and the like.  Tea Party types, and their cognates, are not far away.

Conversation across the chasm is what can help keep binary political thinking in check.  Dives and Lazarus may not have been able to cross from one side to the the other, but conversation was possible, especially as mediated by Father Abraham.  We don’t know how it turned out.  The parable ends without telling us, but it also ends with possibility.

The possibilities are there.  It can work.  One friend, for instance, claims to be a doctrinaire conservative who can’t stand Obama.  We talk every week.  Listening to him and asking questions, I’ve discovered that he’s not as doctrinaire as he claims..  He’s committed to the preservation of the land in environmentally responsible ways.  He worries about the best way to help feed the poor, house the homeless, and care for the mentally ill.  He’s asked enough of his own questions to discover that I’m not the far out leftie he feared.  I believe in the importance of personal responsibility, dislike government programs that do little more than throw money around, and have little patience with bureaucracy (corporate or public).  In our points of disagreement we can search for options.  Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don’t.

The thing about conversation is that it requires listening, active, inquisitive listening.  There’s the rub.  Active, inquisitive listening is what we want someone to do for us, not what we want to do for another.  Active, inquisitive listening is hard work, sometimes boring work, and often infuriating work.  Why should I have to be the one to do it, especially when I have so much to say?


I’ve been thinking a lot about guns lately, maybe you have too.  When I was a boy and young man, guns were a part of most households, but not very important in the coming and going of daily life.  They were taken more or less for granted, and used used for hunting and target sports.  If they were admired, it was for their workmanship.  They were not privileged more than a good fishing rod or quality lawn mower.
My dad had a couple of shotguns that he took on his annual hunting forays.  Sometimes I went along.  Frankly, they were not that big a deal, just something one did each year in the fall.  As an older teen and young adult, I had a couple of shotguns and a rifle of my own.  Hunting didn’t interest me much, I discovered I didn’t like killing things and calling it sport, but I enjoyed trap, skeet, and target shooting.  The only “gun nut” I knew was a man down the street who was nationally ranked in trap and skeet, and overly proud of his Italian guns with their engraved metal and hand carved stocks.  A bit older, and as a sworn officer for a few years, I carried a handgun (or two).  They never made me or anyone else feel safer.  The possibility that I might have to use them was always present, but the probability was very, very low.
The point is that no one I knew thought much about weapons one way or the other except as a means to hunt and target shoot.  Hardly anyone was so frightened of potential intruders or armed robbers that they felt the need to be heavily armed for defense.  Cowards were the only ones who measured their manhood by the gun they owned.  Very few were paranoid about the need to defend themselves against invaders, or, heaven forbid, their own government.  And remember, some of this was amidst the paranoia of the McCarthy era, and all of it in the emotional heat of the Cold War and nascent civil rights movement.  
I gave mine up over thirty years ago. They just didn’t interest me anymore, and I saw no point in having them around.  If I lived out on a ranch or up in the mountains, I would have a weapon again, more to make a big bang than to kill anything like a prowling bear or mountain lion.  I don’t live out there.  I live in town.  All of this is to say that I do not understand the irrational gun fetish that defies reason and morality, but has energized a large part of our population.  Maybe calling it a fetish isn’t enough.  How about fear driven fixation, obsession, compulsion, mania, and object of idolatrous worship?

It’s time to stop this Second Amendment nonsense that shows no respect whatsoever for the rest of the Constitution, and to name the caterwauling about some government plan to take away our guns for what it is: bigoted, fear driven, cowardly insecurity.  It’s time to grow up and act like the civilized people we claim to be.  You want to own a gun?  Fine.  Get a license and register it just like you do your cars.  It’s OK, your rights are not at stake.

Patriotism: What is it?

A friend and I were talking about patriotism a few weeks ago.  He’s a very patriotic guy who admits that it is sometimes hard to separate his American patriotism from his Christian faith.  It got us to wondering what patriotism actually is.  We didn’t come to any conclusion, but it has kept me thinking.
Do whatever research you want.  In the end the disinterested definition seems to come down to some level of devotion to one’s country evidenced by displays and rituals in word and deed that identify patriots and patriotism, with the intent that one’s show of devotion will somehow help it continue as the country to which one is willing to be devoted.  
What does that mean?  There are too many variables, and I think one reason is that patriotism is loaded with so much emotion that reason and rationality can be quickly left behind.  For instance, most of us are proud of what America stands for, but pride in one’s country can easily become ignorant arrogance.  It can claim greater goodness and more virtuous use of power than the facts warrant, but it doesn’t matter if you ignore the facts, and accuse those who dare to bring them up as unpatriotic.   
Some people seem to express their patriotism as little more than an expanded version of their high school or college pep rally – “Go Team, Go.”  It’s not very sophisticated, but they really feel it and believe it.
The anti pep rally is complacency, another emotional factor.  One who is satisfied that one’s position in life is both good and well deserved is likely, I imagine, to equate support for the political status quo with patriotism.  Those who want to rock the boat too much are likely to be labeled unpatriotic, perhaps even fifth column whatever intent on destroying the American way of doing things, which is the way that does well by me. 
Various forms of racism against those whose skin is of another color, and against every wave of immigrants that has come ashore in the last two hundred years, have been energized by emotionally driven patriots claiming that persons of color and new arrivals were a threat to the America they love.  In many ways they were right.  Each wave has changed the face of America, and each has produced new generations of patriots with their own ideas about what it means to be patriotic.  
Is there an ideal patriot?  When I was a boy the ideal patriot was white, male, middle class, and said the pledge of allegiance and saluted the flag with regularity, often as a part of a church service.  Moreover, he and his family were vocally anti-communist.  It wasn’t a bad thing, but its boundaries were not wide, and non-conformity was highly suspect.  Most of the adult males were veterans of WWII.  Some were off to Korea.  There wasn’t much room for dissent.  What they had invested to achieve post war prosperity was a cost too high to allow it.  Patriotism can sometimes demand conformity and stifle dissent in unhealthy ways.  The ideal patriot of any age is not the best role model for future generations, but it undoubtedly embodies at least some wisdom worthy of passing on.
On the other hand, and amidst emotionally charged variables, there is still the sense that patriotism recognizes certain rights and duties of its citizens.  They are to show allegiance to the nation, yet that circles back to the emotionally charged variables that determine how patriotism is defined by particular persons and groups.  I’ve run into more than a few people who pledge their allegiance to the flag with worshipful fervor, but seem to care not at all for the fullness of what it is supposed to represent.  Others express great allegiance to the Constitution, but are disinterested in it as a living document of seven articles, twenty-seven amendments, and two hundred years of Supreme Court decisions interpreting it.  In our area there seems to be a strong allegiance to an imaginary nation of fifty years ago that never existed, except perhaps on television.
Am I a patriot?  I think I am.  But patriotism for me is not uncritical.  It recognizes both our moral achievements and failures, and looks for public policies that strive toward the best of what our national mythology claims for us.  I have little interest in the flag as an object of devotion, but respect it as a symbol of the best of what we can be.  I have no interest in cheering America as the greatest, strongest, richest, or best of anything.  For me it is more patriotic to lift up America as one nation among many working toward a harmonious world living in peace.  For that reason, I agree with Eisenhower that over reliance and trust in the “military-industrial complex” is an unreliable and dangerous road to go down.  I reject as unpatriotic those who are eager to assert American military might as the solution to every international problem. 
So what is patriotism?  The answer isn’t entirely clear, but it seems to me that it is highly emotional and undergirded by conflicting rationales that end up forming something like a patchwork quilt that works in spite of its inherent conflict.

Donne Enough

I keep a volume of John Donne close by, and read in it from time to time.  I like him as a person and enjoy traveling with him on his spiritual journey, partly because it seems a lot like mine.  About thirty years ago I came across Satire 3 in which Donne poetically examined the difficulty of knowing what true religion might be, given the competing, irreconcilable claims of truth coming out of the Reformation.  It’s been a favorite ever since, and I often go back to it as a source of reassurance as I work through my own spiritual trek toward truth.  
Because it’s been helpful to me, I’ve suggested it to others in my adult classes who have expressed anxiety about not knowing  which path to follow in the pursuit of spiritual truth.  Their anxiety has often been accompanied by a sense of guilt over doubting what they had been told was true when they were younger.  For that matter, they have wondered, can anyone be a trustworthy guide to truth?
It hasn’t always been a good idea because Donne’s English is not our English, and his poetic style is not a comfortable style for today’s readers, especially for adults who haven’t read old English poetry since the high school class they slept through.  To get around that, I rewrote a portion of the poem, putting it into contemporary English prose.  That brilliant rewrite was lost somewhere in the transition from MSDOS to Windows, and its many reincarnations, to the final move to Apple.  It’s probably just as well because it wasn’t that good.  
However, not being good has never stopped me, so I have tried again.  What follows is my take on the final portion of Satire 3 in which Donne compares the search for spiritual truth to a difficult hike up a hill, often losing sight of the goal, but pressing on just the same.  I’ve added a few parenthetic notes to guide adult learners on a few points of interest.  With luck, no Donne scholar will ever see it. 
Truth (God’s truth) and falsehood are near twins, yet truth is the elder.  Work hard to seek her.  Believe me this, you are not nothing or worse to seek the best.  To adore, or scorn and image, (statues and paintings in church) or protest, may all be bad, but doubt wisely.  In a strange way to stand inquiring right is not to stray. To sleep, or run wrong, is.  
On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands, and if you will reach her you must take a twisting trail.  What the hill makes difficult must be overcome.  Strive hard before age, death’s twilight, deprives you of your strength.  Do not delay. Do it now.  Hard deeds, bodily pains, difficult study, are the work that needs to be done.  
The mysteries of truth are like the sun, dazzling, blinding, yet plain to all the eyes.  When you have found truth, keep it.  Ordinary men are not so ill served by God that he has signed blank charters for kings to kill whom they hate.  They are not vicars of Christ but hangmen of fate.  Don’t be a fool, a wretch, and let your soul be tied to their laws, a slave to kings’ powers.  You will not be tried by them on the last day.
On judgement day will it do you any good to say that Phillip (King of Spain), Gregory (pope), Harry (Henry VIII), or Martin (Luther) taught you this or that?  Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong.  Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong?  Maybe they all are.
So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed.  Humbling yourself before them is idolatry.  A king’s power is like a stream, and those who prosper in its gentle backwaters lose their roots in the greater law of God. When the tyrant rages, alas, they are driven through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost consumed, going into the sea where all is lost.  And thus also perish the souls who choose for themselves unjust power, who claim to have it from God.  Trust in God himself, not them. 
Donne was, I believe, writing as much to himself as to anyone else, and what he had to say remains a powerful corrective to what too many have been told about the Christian journey in faith.  It can too easily be pictured as a smooth one in the company of like minded friends.  On the road ahead the mountains have been made low, and the valleys raised up.  God is our shade by day and light by night.  Spiritual food and water sustain our every step, and we never tire.  With Jesus as your personal savior, it will be smooth sailing.   
If that is not what your journey in faith looks like, you must be doing it wrong.  Maybe you have taken the wrong path, are an unbeliever, a reprobate, filled with doubt and uncertainty.  Such an image of the Christian journey is popular, but sheer fantasy, and the chastisements that go with it are cruelly unjust.
Donne has spoken as much for Paul, Augustine, Patrick, and Luther as he has for himself.  I think he also speaks for every Christian who is serious about seeking God’s truth.  The most we can hope for in this life is to get closer to it, and that is enough. 

God’s Plan For Your Life Explained In As Much Detail As Possible

I wrote  a few brief articles about five years ago on claims that God has a plan for one’s life, and the subject came up again recently in some newspaper articles and Internet posts.  The idea gets presented as a form of determinism or fatalism that is very popular, at least as far as bumper sticker theology goes, but it’s rife with internal contradictions that adherents seldom recognize, or so it appears to me.
What I hear and read is that God’s plan for one’s life is something one must work hard to find yet cannot be escaped.  It is intended to accomplish some particular pragmatic goal that will lead to (godly?) success, it’s a gateway to salvation, but it may lead to hell.  It’s all part of God’s plan.  Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is always a working out of God’s plan.  I’m not unsympathetic with that idea.  Most of us want to know what the meaning of life is, why we are here, and whether there is something that we are supposed to accomplish during our time on earth.  The idea that God has a plan can be, on the one hand, comforting, but on the other, filled with anxiety about whether one can discover and execute the plan to God’s satisfaction.
As it turns out, I am confident that God does have a plan for your life and mine.  Not only does he have it, it’s spelled out in scripture, but we have to do some thoughtful, prayerful work to find and understand it.  That’s because it is revealed in bits and pieces scattered throughout scripture, sometimes hidden amongst passages that are more tares than wheat.  The Ten Commandments summarize it.  Micah encapsulates it, writing that what the Lord requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  God speaks directly about it through Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and then, with even more terseness than Micah, he condenses it into a new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  That’s the plan.  If the details seem a little sketchy that’s part of the plan too.  In the words of Paul, each of us has to work it out with fear and trembling.
Why is it so hard to recognize that plan and work on it?  My guess is that there are two big reasons.  First, we don’t like the plan revealed in scripture.  It interferes too much with they way we live, or want to live.  It would be so much better if God had a plan was more pragmatic, perhaps more along the lines of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which, as it turns out, are good habits to work on.  However, scripture’s record of God’s engagement with people doesn’t follow them.  Some of us would prefer something even more direct, a Godly Google route map for life, one that would give us turn by turn directions to a clearly defined destination, with delightful stops along the way.  What we don’t like is a plan for an ethical life in communion with God and one another that keeps taking us on adventures we can’t know about in advance and would rather not have. 
Second, scripture’s version of God’s plan puts way too much pressure on us for personal responsibility, not for success in life, but for living into God’s kingdom that is at hand.  Scripture’s version also has plenty of room for chance to invade our lives.  Laying any number of life events at God’s feet can be a way to explain away some of the pain in life.  The emotional pain of the death of a loved one, a terrible illness, the loss of a job, a broken relationship, or just a series of really bad decisions, may be eased by believing it was part of God’s plan.  The reverse is also true.  My good fortune and prosperity must be the working out of God’s plan, helped along, of course, by my hard work, intelligence, and deserving character.  I don’t think that’s what Calvin had in mind, but it has become the hallmark of a kind of Calvinistic fatalism that combines predestination with American individualism.  What an odd mix.  Like oil and water, one part will always rise to the top.  Blaming God or taking credit, which will it be?  What we don’t want is to admit chance into the mix.

Some Thoughts on the Homeless Problem

As with any small town or city, there have always been a number of homeless persons, a few old time hoboes, and a handful of others who wander about during the day, seem to disappear from public view at night, but return at dawn to make themselves known.  The number was small until recently, so no one much cared one way or the other about the occasional inconvenience of being panhandled or sharing a park bench with “one of them.”  Besides, we had a flophouse hotel where the rules were few, and a few bucks a night could get you an unsanitary, unsafe bed with a toilet down the hall that sometimes worked.  It got closed about ten years ago for obvious reasons.
Things have changed.  I’m not sure why.  The annual snapshot homeless count has shown an increase in numbers.  The most recent count, as cited by the local paper said that: 
The number of homeless individuals rose about 20 percent this year (2014), from 400 to 478 people, and the number of homeless households increased by about 22 percent, from 242 to 296.  The top three places where people said they were living remained the same, with the majority saying they were staying with family or friends.
The percentage increases are large, but the numbers are fairly small for a very rural region of just over 50,000.  What the numbers don’t explain is the apparent increase in homeless persons hanging around our two downtown parks, sleeping off alcohol or drug induced stupors on benches and in doorways, and, some say, more aggressively panhandling.  More of our early morning calls for medics are to check on a person down, unknown if breathing — they are.   We now have people complaining in letters to the editor about urinating and defecating in public, loud noises, and disruptive behavior.  It’s a problem.  
I spend enough time hanging around downtown to take some notice.  Homeless adults, mostly male, and scroungy looking teens, do hang out in a popular Main Street park.  Mostly they are just sitting in small groups, not doing much, so I wonder if some of the complaints are about what they might do because they look scary, rather than what they have done.  Whatever panhandling I’ve seen is pretty tame compared to the big city.  As for using back walls as toilets, if you gotta go, you gotta go.  We all know what that’s like, but I wonder if it is as common as letter writers believe it is.
One of our senior city officials who is up to his neck in the issue tells me that these folks are locals.  Some are homeless vets who’ve drifted here because of our V.A. clinic, but most are locals.  They’re the people who have fallen through the cracks.  Drugs, alcohol, abusive homes, joblessness, you name it.  Whatever the reason, they are poor, homeless, and human beings trying to get through another day.  They offend the good people of our community just by being present and visible. They know it.  It embarrasses them.  So they put on their meanest scowl and hope it keeps the good people away.
Like many communities, we are working on it.  A coalition for the homeless has come up with some good ideas.  A plan is ready for implementation that will streamline making existing resources available to those who want and can use them, and we do have resources.  They are not enough but we do have them: a large men’s shelter and rehab center, a single women’s shelter, a residence for abused women and their children, housing for vets, a free clinic, a thousand units of public and subsidized housing, etc.  A new ordinance establishes reasonable limits on behavior in public places, and enforcement will not involve harassment.
More needs to be done to relieve and prevent homelessness.  The proposals are abundant.  Some are pie-in-the-sky.  Some are heartless.  Some have possibilities.  
One that is easily overlooked may be the most helpful of all.  It would help if the good people of our city could learn to, in the words of the Episcopal baptismal covenant, respect the dignity of every human being.  If you live in disgusted fear of a scroungy looking teen or ratty looking adult who just happens to be within eyesight, respecting their dignity as a fellow human being can be hard to do.   Fear of what?  That they might talk to you, touch you, ask you for money, beat you up, rob you?  One imagined fear leads to another more threatening fear, and they can soon take on lives of their own, can’t they?

The issues are complex.