Politics, economics, theology, and a little nonsense. Yesterday a friend asked me if they weren’t all the same thing, and in a sense they are. They are so deeply interrelated that it would be hard to pull them apart. Moreover, he said, they are the at the root of all the hyper polarizing talk these days. Why don’t you write about something else? A good question. Maybe I should write about calming, spiritual things and avoid all this controversy. On the other hand there are enough others who do it, and do it well. I’ll leave it up to them. I’ll stick with my subjects for the time being because I think they are important. Also, it’s where I have spent most of my professional life.
Let’s take politics for instance. We live in community. There isn’t any other way to live, and the process of deciding how we are going to live in community is politics. That’s it. Simple as that. However polarizing and uncomfortable politics may become, we can’t avoid it as the only way there is to make decisions about how to live together. From the smallest most remote Amazon tribe, to the most populous autocratically ruled nation, politics is how we make decisions about the way to live together. Our American form of it is messy, inefficient, and unpredictable, but it does a better job than most in seeking participation from every citizen. Contrary to popular opinion around my town, American politics is not intended to impose the will of the majority of the people on the nation. It seeks to understand the complicated interplay of the many wills of the people, and through multiple systems of representative democracy hammer out workable policies that are good for the whole even as they benefit some interests more than others. For the process to work as well as it can, eligible voters need to be conversant on the issues and candidates, and legislators need to be able to intelligently negotiate in good faith. That’s always problematic, all the more so these days, which means that our systems of representative democracy do not work as well as possible, but they muddle through one way or the other
Even those who try to opt out, can’t. We live about five driving hours from the parts of northern Idaho that have become favored of off the grid residents, survivalists who eschew society, distrust government, and are certain that when the apocalyptic war comes, they will continue to live as they do now while the rest of us perish. Their properties are stockpiled with equipment produced by others working in community. They have little objection to driving their community made pickups on community financed and maintained roads to get to and from their land, which they own according to community laws. They are protected in their lifestyle by rights and privileges extended to them through community constitutions. The point is that even the most independent minded of us has no choice but to live in community and benefit from community, and that means politics.
The decisions made about how it all works are what politics is made of. What drives political decision making is the question of what is good for the community, and that requires some inquiry of what good means. What is good, what is not good, what’s is the difference, how do various goods and not goods get balanced against each other? How does one balance decisions that may be good for some but harmful to others? Is it even possible to make a decision that is good for everyone and harmful to none? Philosophy grapples with questions such as these, and so does Christian theology. Our theology converses respectfully with all that philosophy can offer, but in the end it seeks to know how the revelation of God’s will, as we understand it through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may be leading us into and through today’s political issues. Lest that sound presumptuous, we can’t avoid it because God has had a lot to say about politics. Taken together, Hebrew and Christian scripture is an extended treatise on the economy of the polis with God making suggestions in some places and commandments in others. Moreover, what God has to say is always in the direction of having life in abundance, as persons and in community. We cannot dismiss that without dismissing the entirety of what we assert to be the holy scriptures through which God has revealed God’s self to us, and through which God has opened doors to hear and see anew what we had not seen or heard before. Theology cannot be separated from politics because theology has little to offer other than guidance about how to live in community. Even our own disagreements about what God has revealed and how it should be translated into human behavior is a form of politics.
So what about economics? Modern economics is the study of how goods and services are exchanged within the community, and between communities. Someone called it the dismal science, Carlyle I guess. If it’s a science at all, it’s a social science rather than a hard science, no matter how much it depends on complicated mathematics. Its math never seems to hold much water for long anyway, and it’s laws are fungible in the extreme. At its heart it is a form of political science. Communities make decisions about how goods and services are to be exchanged. It’s supposed to make the rules governing the exchange of goods and services knowable and rational. In the aggregate, they do a decent job of it most of the time. But depending on circumstances, individuals within communities make buying and selling decisions inside or outside the rules, rationally or irrationally, in chaotic ways. Gobs of money are bet, won, and lost on how well patterns of buying and selling behaviors can be predicted when lumped together, even if individual behavior may or may not be predictable. It’s called market research. Dismal indeed. Into the mess, theology inserts questions of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. Christian theology boldly asserts that God has had something to say about economics, and that economic political decision making in and between communities needs to be informed by what God has said if justice and life in abundance are to be had.
So I write mostly about politics, economics, and theology. Ridiculous isn’t it? What right do I have to write on subjects in which I am not a certified scholar? Sheer nonsense, that’s what it is, and so now and then I throw some in just for the fun of it.
Rich man, poor man. You know them. Rich can mean a lot of things, and so can poor. There’s a story told about a homeless man who slept in doorways, enduring a life of debilitating illness, eating whatever scraps were thrown his way. It was easy to ignore him, maybe not see him at all. It was also easy to dismiss him with disgust as someone who was just a lazy bum unwilling to work, satisfied to live off handouts. Anyway, as the story goes, a wealthy man who, never had much time or regard for the homeless man, died on the same day that the homeless guy died. Self satisfied arrogance and contempt for others led the wealthy man to an uncomfortably hot place where he thirsted for relief. To his surprise he could see the homeless guy enjoying comfort and peace in another place not far off, so he asked that the guy be sent down to bring him a cup of water. It wasn’t to be. The homeless guy was no servant to be ordered about. Loved by God, he was finally getting the rest denied to him in life. The rich man would just have to endure as best he could with plenty of time to think about what it means when God says that loving one another is the most important thing in life. What does loving one another mean to you? Does it have anything to do with how you act toward others? Does it have anything to do with how you treat the homeless, the sick, the hungry? Is there such a thing as the deserving poor, and the undeserving poor? What do you think? I know what Jesus thought. He told the story. What do you think?
A recent piece going around Facebook compares those who receive food stamps to wild animals in national parks where signs warn against feeding them lest they become dependent on handouts. The message is clear, if it wasn’t for handouts, those people would have to work harder to earn more to eat better. If you want to stop dependency, stop feeding them. If someone can’t earn enough to afford adequate food and shelter on minimum wage, they should get a better job. If they lack needed education and skills, well, whose fault is that? Their own of course, or maybe their parents. You can’t breed good out of bad. Good trees and good fruit, bad trees and bad fruit, and all that. It’s in the bible. Dependency of the indolent is what’s ruining this country! Ebenezer Scrooge said it best, “Are there no prisons…, no workhouses?” Workhouses, we used to have them, and county poorhouses too. Why not bring them back? The poor and hungry could be fed and sheltered, and they could work off their debt by raising crops and livestock, and doing odd jobs around town. Dignity in work and all that. Those who refuse the collective largess might die of this or that more readily for it, but whose fault would that be? They had a choice and chose poorly. Painfully tragic as that may seem, it would be through no fault of ours. Indeed, we would suffer the unpleasant cost of carcass disposal. The best we could do for them is to pray for their unregenerate souls. Amen?
More than usual, we are in a time when the airwaves and daily conversation are filled with hard, judgmental, just plain nasty talk about whether our country is in as good a place as it should be. Opinions are all over the place with little concern for truth. If you are among those who claim to be Christian, there are some truths that stand above all others, and they must claim authority greater than any other. You shall love the Lord your God. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang everything else in scripture. You shall love one another as Christ has loved you. That’s the new commandment. Commandments, not suggestions. From God, not from television, radio, the newspaper, or coffee conversation.
So what happened to the rich man in the end? Here’s what I think. When he finally figured it out, and honestly confessed what he now knew to be the truth, he was invited to cross over and join the homeless man as a brother. Not that he finally accepted the poor man as a brother, but that he finally was willing to be accepted by the homeless man as a brother. What do you think?
Post script: I’m fully aware of the cons used by the poor to gain a few bucks, and have heard every one of them. Sometimes the most right thing to do is offer simple friendship and respect
Probably like your town, ours has a local news website with a Facebook link. Anyone can post to it, provided they obey a few simple rules against profanity and personal attacks. It has expanded the reach and impact of the old word of mouth gossip circuits. To give it due credit, it is very efficient at getting out the word about events and issues. But it is rife with speculation, unverified and unverifiable assertions, and rhetorical questions that not so subtly challenge the integrity of community policies and decision makers. In other words, it’s a lightning fast rumor mill.
Rumors and gossip. They are a yoked team, powerful and unrestrained. St. James understood that even in his day, which was a few years before mine, when he observed that, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (From the Letter of James, chapter 3)
Rumors are weird creatures. Back in high school, that Pandora’s box of rumors, I wondered how they got started and how fast they could get around. So I tried my own social experiment. I don’t remember the details, but I said something to a friend in confidence. It was made up on the spot, a salacious “fact” about a famous entertainer of the day. “Did you know that xxx was xxx, I heard it, it’s true.” It took only a few hours for it to come back to me in exaggerated form. That was over fifty years ago. I was smugly stunned, and the lesson has remained with me ever since. Consider what we have now.
Our community website with its Facebook link is an asset, and I wouldn’t want it to go away. But as a news source, which it claims to be, it lacks any pretension to journalistic objectivity or editorial oversight. Our much maligned local paper, with its reputation for slipshod reporting and difficulty with spelling, actually does a fairly good job of rooting out the facts and reporting them with editorial discretion. Reporting on the local news website, on the other hand, is the product of interested citizens offering their observations and opinions, as they would over a backyard fence or in a coffee group, which is not bad, but it broadcasts unrefined, seldom checked information to an entire electronic audience rather than to a few friends. What used to take a few hours to make it around town is now accomplished in seconds. Thankfully, it tends to be reasonably innocent in what gets published. Egregious errors are often corrected by comments from others, but not before unreflective opinions and counter opinions have been posted. The point is that the speed with which information and misinformation is distributed to a huge audience is as fast as clicking send. So is the potential for causing harm.
If local websites like ours tend to be self correcting, which I think they are, what can be said about mass media sites claiming to be news sources but engaged in deliberate manipulation of information to promote a particular political agenda? They trade in rumor, unverified and unverifiable “facts,” and genuine data contorted to make it fit. It’s plain old propaganda right out of 1938. Some try to shrug it off by dismissing them as mere venues for entertainment, or by claiming that one so called news source is offset by another so called news source. That’s begging the question. To be blunt, they are in the business of rumor mongering. They have no self correcting mechanism. They have sowed disrespect for journalism while influencing a great many people who are disinterested in verifying what has been said. What they do reaches entire populations in seconds, and there is no taking it back once it’s out there.
No one will turn back the calendar to a time of more reliable news sources. There never was such a time. It’s just that slower, more localized news sources, including the backyard fence, were easier to check, and influenced fewer people. It would be refreshing to witness real journalists standing up for the value of reporting that has a higher standard of objectivity and accuracy. One can hope. In the meantime, adhering to the words of Peggy Noonan, we need to practice the habit of trust but verify, or as Hillary Clinton rephrased it, distrust and verify. I guess both are appropriate. I have no doubt that readers of these articles already do that. I have little expectation that it will become common practice.
Cotton Mather has never been one of my historical heroes. He was one of the characters who appeared to take delight in the Salem witch trials while doing what he could to preserve restrictive Puritan discipline that had begun to fade from popular favor. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading excerpts from his works that have reminded me about how poorly educated I am. He peppered his texts with long passages in Greek and Latin, while indicating that he had read every classical text available to him, as well as the works of most philosophers and theologians contemporary to his time. It could be that he was making an extra effort to convince Europeans that a Puritan rube from the colonies should be taken seriously as an educated intellectual of their equal. He may have been a pompous ass, but he was a well educated one.
Supposedly, I also am a well educated man, at least in my own mind. But, I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Greek, and none whatsoever in Hebrew. It’s a good thing I’ve got enough dictionaries to help me through when I have to dig into a word or phrase. Moreover, while I have cursory knowledge about many of the ancient classics of the Western world, and have read some of them in their English translations, I cannot compete with the bibliography Mather referenced with what appeared to be intimately familiarity. Have we lost something important?
In my defense, and possibly yours, what constitutes a thorough education has changed. Mather was a product of colonial 17th century Puritan New England. Not many were well educated, but the few who were, were well grounded in English, Latin, Greek, and enough French to get by. Their texts were the classics of Greece and Rome. Filling in the gaps were the latest writings of reformer theologians, and a few heretic philosophers just to keep an eye on them. With relatively few adaptions to include an expanded geography and a bit of science, a good university education in the earliest decades of the 20th century was not very different from his. Then things speeded up. Rapid application of new technologies to everyday life pushed education in new directions. The push became an explosion following WWII. Two world wide wars; the dawn of the “Atomic Age”; antibiotics; prosperity for the masses; fast, inexpensive travel to anywhere; popularization of psychology; global commerce; the advent of computing; it changed everything. My education, basic as it is, included a far broader range of subjects and experiences encompassing the entire earth and its many cultures and traditions. Some smattering of familiarity extends from subatomic particles to the dark matter of the universes, and everything in between. Education has been overhauled and redefined in my lifetime, with the old classics assuming a minor role.
For Mather, Europeans, especially the English, were the sole arbiters of all that was true and right. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Calvinist reformation theologians, and the bible; that’s what one needed to know and it was enough. As for the New World, the New England wilderness was a free, open, unpopulated land that God had prepared for Protestant settlement. The natives were recognized as present in it the same way deer and elk were present – a wild species to be moved out of the way of settlement, and utilized until utility gave way to disposal for the sake of convenience. Freedom for him was freedom to worship as Puritans in a theocratic society that prohibited any other form of worship or polity. The nascent democracy that he treasured, and we celebrate, existed only to facilitate right organization and discipline of a religiously orthodox society. In other words, as big as the New World was, his writings describe a small, tightly circumscribed world protected by sturdy ideological walls. We live In a much larger world, and while we have an abundance of ideological walls erected to protect our preferred world views, they are quickly assaulted by others, and often crumble almost as quickly as they can be built.
Education appropriate for our larger world requires disciplines foreign to Mather: psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and organization and management theory, math in all of its complex forms. Like others, I’ve been exposed to a lay person’s understanding of relativity, subatomic physics, chaos and game theory. Thanks to the Internet I can log into news about any part of the world, and do at least superficial research on any subject. As a well educated man of my time, the extent of what I can claim to know is much broader than anything Mather could imagine. Yet I cannot claim as deep a knowledge in any one of them as Mather could in his. My friend Bill Hess, recently deceased, would have loved a visit with him. Bill was a classicist familiar with all the ancient languages, and well read in the classical literature of Greece, Rome, and Europe. But Bill was flummoxed by the modern world and unhappy with rapid technological developments. He felt that modern education has lost something important. It has become adept at knowing the present, but it has lost an understanding of from whence it came, and thus is ill prepared for the future, so Bill believed. What do you think?
It isn’t slowing down. For our youngest grandchildren, a thorough education does not include but begins with computer science; something for them as basic as the alphabet and counting to 100. Last Christmas we played a trivia game with a group of of very intelligent college students, each attending a top college, and each studying at advanced levels in difficult subject areas. The trivia game was heavy with questions about history, geography, and the cultures of the world. They didn’t stand a chance. We routed them. I’m not sure it was a good thing.