Tribes are Good. Tribalism is bad.

Tribalism, and the tribalization of America, has been in the public debate for some time, and now the president has added nationalism to the menu, with white nationalism as a subtext.  It raises a question about the proper role of boundaries between tribal and national identities.  Tribes have boundaries.  Tribalism creates barriers.    Trumpians complain that liberals don’t believe in boundaries.  They want open borders and a one world government that destroys national identity.  It’s silly at best, but I remember similar scare tactics from the 1950s and ‘60s.  Thought they were dead and buried.  Guess not.  

In the meantime Europeans are discovering that it’s hard to have economic union and maintain different cultural identities, because economic integration invades long cherished cultural territory.  Added to it are pressures from immigrants bringing strange, alien cultures with them.  It must seem to Europeans like reverse colonization, and it does have some of that flavor.
As a Christian, I’m committed to following Jesus who led the way in breaking down barriers that separate us one from another, but that’s not the same thing as eliminating boundaries, or demanding that tribes and nations be abolished.  For one thing, boundaries are permeable while barriers are impermeable.  Barriers keep others out.  Boundaries mark where one tribe or nation ends and another begins, permitting passage from one to another.  
Jesus broke down barriers that prevented people from abundance of life and enjoyment of a welcoming place in community.  He never demanded that Pharisees and Sadducees become Pharducees.  He didn’t demand that the centurion cease being Roman, or the Jews and Samaritans merge into one.  He did demand that no tribe or nation impose on others that which would prevent them from a full and complete life.  
For all our dysfunction, America may have something to teach other nations about tribes and boundaries.  Of course we struggle with systemic racism, it’s a huge problem, but we know it and continue the struggle.  In the meantime, we’ve managed to form a nation of enormous variety in cultures, heritages, religions, strange names and stranger words.  I thought about it the other day when reading articles written by authors with Asian, African, and Arabian sounding names who argued passionately as Americans, about America, for America.  
American English, our unofficial official language, is filled with a growing vocabulary of words and phrases from any number of immigrant groups.  In fact, they help mark cultural boundaries between regions.  I grew up in Minnesota where Scandinavian phrases were woven into everyday conversation.  It’s hard to do the NYT crossword if you don’t know a handful of common Yiddish words.  Some Spanish is essential to getting around in Santa Fe. Louisiana has its Creole, and Hawaii has a patois mixing half a dozen languages.  American Indian words are a staple of geography.  All of them are integrated, in small ways and large, into American English spoken in every region.    
So what’s the point?  Part of it is that language helps carry the continuation of cultural heritage into a new place, and it helps make it a part of the larger culture of that place while maintaining its unique identity.
Here’s another point.  I don’t believe we need to be paranoid about tribes.  Being a member of a tribe is not tribalism.  Not too far from us is the land of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.  The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes maintain their identities but live in confederated union.  With increasing confidence and economic clout, they’re engaging with the communities around them as important players in the life of the region.  Tribal identity is important. There’s nothing wrong with it as such.  It goes wrong when tribal identity is used to denigrate, oppress, or erect barriers that prevent members of other tribes from enjoying universal rights and privileges.  That’s tribalism.  White nationalism is tribal identity that intends to do just that, and it’s morally wrong.
My final point is that nationalism is, or should be, an expression of pride and patriotic loyalty to a nation state, its history, customs, and hopes for a better future.  Think of it as super tribe.  It’s the kind of patriotic pride that has no need to put down the patriotic pride of other nations, nor does it feel compelled to define the world in terms of enemies, allies, and the rest who can’t be trusted.  Borders?  Certainly?  Secure if need be, but not excessively so.  The United States, perhaps more than any other country, ought to know how to do that.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.

We need to put away tribalism, confronting it for the immoral thing it is.  But we need not put away our tribes, and the pride we take in them.  Like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla, our tribes can live together in harmony, sharing with each other the best of what each has to offer, without one claiming privilege of place at the top of a competitive heap.

King is such an indadequate word

Christ the king Sunday was celebrated this morning.  I heard a good sermon about how hard it is for modern day Americans to connect with the idea of kingship because it’s so antithetical to our democratic ways.  It reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when an enquirer gave up on becoming a Christian because she was unwilling to accept a God that was not the product of her own design and election.  No king for her.
Maybe we need to get at it from another starting point.  John’s gospel asserts that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, which to me to captures the meat of it.  Another way of saying it might be that Jesus is the human manifestation of such powerful love that through it all that is was brought into being. 
It’s not kingship in any ordinary way of understanding monarchs, by whatever name, but it is the declaration of ultimate authority through which, and by which, we exist.  I just finished reading Johnathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion.”  My brother in law had read it, and wanted to get into a conversation, so I read it too.  Haidt surveyed several ways to catalogue morality, noting that religious people have a strong sense of obedience to authority which they posit in gods of many kinds.  This deontological basis for morality didn’t have much appeal to him, mainly, I suspect, because he believes all religions share the same psychological and sociological processes, differentiated only by the names of their gods and the flavors of their rituals.  Besides, he claims to be a modern day utilitarian following in the path of Bentham and Durkheim.  
We Christians, following in the path of our elder Jewish kin, recognize God whom we cannot know, and cannot mold to our own tastes (not for lack of trying), but whom we we can come to know in part through God’s own self revelation.  As Christians, we are certain that in Jesus all the fullness of God that can be shown in human form has been made known to us.  It means that what he did and said has ultimate authority, and by that authority he made it clear that loving one another as he loved us is the way to abundant life. 
Maybe king of kings and lord of lords makes little sense to modern day Americans, but the idea that the ultimate power of the universe intends us to live life in abundance, and has told us how to do it, should have some appeal.
A member of the small rural congregation I serve several times a month asked the obvious question a few weeks ago.  If that’s true, why can’t we do it?  Did he goof up on our design?
Haidt’s answer, echoed by many others, is that we weren’t designed, we just evolved.  Our brains are not yet wired to live in love with one another, except in predictably limited ways.  Maybe they’ll never evolve to a higher morality.  My more sophisticated theological answer was, “I dunno.”  We Episcopalians don’t get hung up with questions about intelligent design.  We’re content to let science slowly reveal the processes by which we came to be without displacing God from the center of it all.
It brings me back to the beginning.   As Christians, following in Jewish footsteps, we have to admit we cannot comprehend God.  As an anonymous medieval mystic wrote, God exists within a cloud of unknowing.   All we can do is apprehend God as God is revealed to us.  To us God has said “I’ve shown you the way and demonstrated how to do it, follow where you have been led.  You asked how to live well, and I’ve told you and showed you.”
For all the reasons Haidt describes in his book, we’re not good at doing it.  But here’s the really curious thing.  God knows it, and has said that our life here is a waypoint on our journey to a more perfect one.  It’s through the gate of death.  We can get glimpses of it, but only glimpses.  
That’s way too much for many.  Silliness to the extreme.  A childish fairy tale.  Be that as it may, Christians are convinced of it by the evidence of those who bore witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Different denominations have different ways of understanding it.  Episcopalians tend toward the universal salvation side of things.  But my guess is that if you don’t want to go through that gate, you don’t have to.  Nobody’s going to force it on you.  

Now where were we?  King of kings and lord of lords.  I can live with that. 

Advent is Upon Us

Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  For many it’s a signal to begin hyperventilating anxiety about the strain of the holidays on an already strained budget, the expectations and disappointments sure to come with gifts given and received, and parties that are supposed to be fun.  Amidst joy filled decorating, eager anticipation in children’s eyes, and the comfort of reunited families, some are lonely, grieving, and scared.  Confusing, isn’t it? 
Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  It’s a time to prepare in heart and mind to receive once more God’s presence in our lives through the most intimate way possible: the Word of God made flesh in a baby born of Mary.  It happened only once a long time ago, but you and I need the annual renewal of the wonder of it.  We need it to be reminded that it’s not we who must struggle to reach up to God, but God who has reached down to us in humble, trusting vulnerability.

The Holiday Season has other intentions.  After all, it’s rooted in pagan celebrations of the new year, and let’s admit it, it’s fun to engage in at least a bit of it.  If we’re honest, there’s a little pagan blood in each of us.  But Advent can be an effective inoculation against too much.  Advent can slow us down, redirect our attention to Jesus, remind us that the enduring gift of life is ours to have for all eternity.  Advent can calm our fears, ease our anxieties, and hush the noise so we can hear the angels sing.  What we have, we have.  What we don’t have, we don’t have.  Let it be.  What we need is important.  What we want is not.  What we most need and want is love that accepts us as we are.  We can give love like that, even to those we don’t much like.  We can receive it, even from those we’re not fond of.  We have received it freely from God, and can give it freely in Christ’s name.  Advent is a time to work on it. 

Online $pending $eason is Here Again

Online shopping is booming, and has only just begun its rise.  At around $130 billion in annual sales, it’s still only about 10% of total retail spending (source: FRED).  Somewhere around 40% of the buying public does so online several times a month, and over 80% of them are quite happy with the experience.  My own family prefers shopping online, although they also say they like to support local stores.  Not entirely sure how that works. 
This leaves me in the minority.  I shop online from time to time, mostly for ebooks, but occasionally for other things.  For instance, I recently bought a pair of slacks and a new iPad online.  Was I happy with the experience?  No!  
All I wanted was a pair of khakis.  How difficult is that?  Apparently only old guys like me buy them because there are none for sale locally.  As of now, I’m waiting for pair number three to arrive via UPS.  Maybe they’ll be the right ones this time.  Probably not. 
In days of yore I would have wandered into the store, looked around, found the right pair, paid and left.  Total time – maybe twenty minutes.  Now the weeks roll by as I wait for the next box to come.
I like to see, touch and try products I’m thinking about buying.  I want to read labels, check alternatives, ask a few questions of a helpful sales person.  I like the tactile human experience.  Quaint isn’t it?  Are there any helpful sales persons?
It may seem old fashioned, but I needed (wanted?) a new iPad.  Every molecule in my body screamed for driving to the nearest Apple store to look them over, mess with a few, talk to a genius, and hand over the plastic money.  Shoot, I might even have done it with Apple Pay.  The nearest Apple store is 200 miles away, so I bought it online.  You’d think I’d be satisfied.  Look at all the money I saved not driving 400 miles round trip plus hotel and food.  But it seemed so –– sanitary.
Well, it’s that time of year again.  “Tis the $eason to be $pending; tra la la, la la, la la la la.”  Did I get enough las in there?  The mail box is stuffed with catalogues from vendors I’ve never heard of, each begging me to order online.  We can $plurge it all over the internet, and never have to worry about choosing between Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas when paying at the cash register.
I’ll get used to it.

A Unifying American Narrative

A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYT noting that Trump and Trumpsters have a simple but effective narrative about what America is and who Americans are, but mainstream conservatives and liberals don’t.  They sprinkle well researched positions on issues all over the place, each of them important, but they don’t weave a cohesive narrative that sells well to a public that needs to grasp it in 240 characters or less.  Brooks wrote in part that: “Trump’s blood-and-soil nationalism overturns the historical ideal of American nationalism, which was pluralistic – that we are united by creed, not blood; that our common culture is defined by a shared American dream – pioneers settling the West, immigrants crossing an ocean in search of opportunity, African-Americans rising from slavery toward equality.”

Liberals, and some traditional conservatives, are accused of divisiveness because of their overt appeals to different ethnicities.  So called identity politics has been ridiculed by the right wing as undermining the unifying theme that describes America, and which has served the nation well since its inception.  Their unifying theme describes everything from the point of view of a mythical white middle class.  It has changed in many ways over the years, but it’s always been anchored by whatever was deemed to be white, male, and middle class.  Everyone else was expected to adopt it as their own if they wanted to be accepted as true Americans.  They say liberal appeals to other ethnicities as if they were equal to it is disruptive, threatening, and bereft of a center that can hold.

To win back America, liberals and traditional conservatives need an attractive unifying narrative of a pluralistic America populated by people from a wide variety of ethnicities and cultures.  It would be a narrative portraying an ideal, not a reality, but ideals are what progressive political reality starts with.  Ideals define what we honor and spire to become, knowing it’s a journey from where we are.  The new narrative must preserve a respected place for Trump’s white base, but not one of privilege exceeding that of others.  The old white, male, middle class narrative was not all bad.  It contributed much to the well being of the nation, and should not be demonized for its shortcomings and failures.  But neither should it be exalted to a place of unwarranted privilege.  It served its purpose and must step aside for what comes next.

What does come next?  Or to put it another way, what should come next if we’re to be faithful to the ideals of the noble experiment that gave birth to the nation?
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.”

These preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide a vocabulary that can accommodate the needs of a pluralistic 21st century nation far removed from conditions existing when they were written.  From them can be constructed conservative and liberal narratives of shared values  able to speak to one another in cooperative ways.  It’s not an entirely new thing.  From time to time events have moved the nation closer to the ideal of being united by “creed and not blood.”  It happened during WWII in a sort of ‘fake it til you make it’ kind of way.  Movies and news coverage made much of an American Way that united all races and faiths in the fight for freedom.  Twenty years later, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s established a legal framework to give it enforceable reality.  We have not lived into that ideal, but it is the foundation on which to build. 

Being an old guy, some of my ideas are grounded in ancient learning.  For instance, back in 1974 the economist John W. Kendrick wrote about Total Factor Productivity in which the nation’s future prosperity rested on investments in intangible capital.  By that he meant integrated public and private investment in research and development, education, health, and job safety (which, in today’s environment, might be expanded beyond jobs).  He also favored policies facilitating mobility of labor and capital between economic sectors.  To be sure, the nation also needs massive investment in tangible infrastructure, so it’s not an either/or proposition.  But giving priority to these intangibles would benefit every “tribe,” strengthening the interdependent bonds between them.  It would be a far cry from today’s presumed descent into combative tribalization of winners and losers.  It would move the conversation away from the worship of radical individualism without giving up the value of individual rights and accountability.  It would be a huge step away from Trump’s delusional plan to restore old time industrial jobs in a self sufficient country walled off from the rest of the world.  To the contrary, it would be a form of nationalism comfortable in a global economy of which it is a fully participating member.

Liberals might prefer a version of it with a greater emphasis on the public sector in public/private partnerships.  Conservatives might prefer the reverse.  Liberals would insist on those most in need getting the resources they need for success in life.  Conservatives would assure that individual effort be rewarded according to its value added.  Both would demand accountability.

There’s nothing perfect in any of this, but it could become the narrative that Brooks believes is needed if Trumpism, and its slide toward fascism is to be stopped.

Hush the Noise and Cease the Strife

One hundred years ago, November 11, 1918 marked the armistice ending The Great War.  No one knew another, greater war was yet to come.  It was only World War I, but we didn’t know.  We hoped it was the war to end all wars.  We said it was the war to make the world safe for democracy.  It wasn’t.  Instead, it introduced the horrors of modern warfare that would become greater horrors of which we have not yet seen the end.  It introduced the world to the politics of totalitarian rule, set the stage for the rise of fascism, and ushered in the possibility of global annihilation, not by God’s hand but by ours.  It prepared the way for the hot wars of the cold war that seldom ended in victory for anyone.  We live now in a world of little wars, hoping to avoid a war to end all life.  
The dawn of the 20th century had promised something different.  Religious leaders believed the civilization of humanity was bringing us ever closer to a more godly state in which goodness would prevail and social justice would bring peace on earth.  A lot of good came out of the Social Gospel movement.  It pushed public policy toward the standards Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  It gave hope for a better life that would soon come to everyone.  All of us have benefitted from it because it really did bring about changes in public policy.  Its influence still echoes in today’s work through churches and people of faith.  Nevertheless, WWI stripped it of its illusions about human perfectibility.    
The third verse of the well known Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear,” says it this way: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long: beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and waring human kind hears not the tidings which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”
Today would be a good day to be honest with each other, confessing that we have not loved God or our neighbor as we should; that we have sinned in thought, word and deed through what we have done and not done, said and not said, believed and not believed.  It would be a good day to hush the noise and cease our strife, at least for a day.  Perhaps we will hear the angels sing.  Maybe it would be a good day to again take up the cause of ending wars in a world safe for democracy where each nation is free to decide for themselves what that means for them, and none imposes its will on another.  In the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  We Christians say we are the body of Christ at work in the world today, which means we are to both bless peacemakers and be peacemakers.  It’s a good day to remember that.
Peace sometimes comes at a high price.  Today would be a good day to honor the veterans who gave much that we might have another chance for a better life.  They deserve all the honor we can give.  Fly the flag.  Put flowers on the graves of the fallen.  Say a prayer for the living and the dead.  Take some  time to hush the noise, and cease the strife.  Maybe you’ll hear the angels sing.

Magical Thinking & Elijah

The story of the widow of Zarephath will be read in some congregations this Sunday.  To refresh your memory, it’s from 1 Kings in the Hebrew scriptures. During political turmoil and a severe drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to sojourn with a widow and her young son in the foreign town of Zarephath.  A single man living with a woman not his wife would not only be unthinkable, it could lead to death.  Even worse, living with a foreign woman in a foreign land.  But that’s what he did.  In the story, the widow had no food except for a little oil and some flour.  She intended to make bread for her son and herself, then lie down to die.  Elijah convinced her to make the bread for him instead, promising that the jars of oil and meal would not be used up as long as he stayed with her.  And so it was.
Like several Elijah and Elisha stories, it reads more like a fairy tale than scripture, and it can entice naive believers into magical thinking.  Magical thinking among religious believers is the expectation that the right prayer, said in the right way, with enough faith, will result in the outcome one desires.  Magical thinking is also what many non religious people believe is what religion is all about.  For them, Christianity is simply another backward made up folk religion not much different from that of ancient Greeks or remote Amazonian tribes.  If magical thinking has any reality, maybe the Wiccan have it right.
It may be impossible to know how the Elijah and Elisha stories were meant to be understood when first written.  Within the context we now have they illustrate the in breaking of God’s power, manifested through God’s chosen persons, to demonstrate the foolishness of belief in other deities and their magical rites; as signs of God’s supremacy over the greatest of human authority; and as indicators of God’s presence with and for all persons, even non-believing enemy aliens.  
Elijah and Elisha could not manipulate the world about them according to their own will, but could only serve, as they were called to do, as vehicles through which God’s will was enacted.  It’s the very opposite of magic in which the “witch” entices the gods to do his or her will.  It’s not an easy lesson to learn.  Humans are forever trying to bend the spiritual powers of the universe to their will.  The most common expression  of it is the oft said prayer for an open parking spot to be where we want it to be.  Believer and non believer alike are said to utter it without a second thought.  Golfers and bowlers are enthusiastic practitioners.  It’s a staple on both sides of football stadiums.  I know a couple who effused over their new car.  They’d asked God for one and he delivered when they won it in a raffle.  It was proof to them that their faith was stronger than almost anyone else in church.
The lesson Elijah has to teach is just the opposite.  Surrender yourself to God and let the chips fall where they may.  Perhaps God will call you to some amazing feat, perhaps not.  Perhaps you will be chased across the countryside by your enemies.  Perhaps you will live in comfort with your loving family.  In the midst of famine, hungry, near to death, you may be called to do the impossible, or you may die.  It doesn’t matter which.  If you’re going to follow where God is leading, follow and quit trying to lead.  For what it’s worth, there was only one Elijah and one Elisha.  Everyone else was just everyone else, like you and me.  No one else was called by God to do what they did.  They were called by God to be messengers, beacons of God’s presence.  We’re not called to be like Elijah.  We’re called to pay attention to the message and follow on the path the beacon has lighted.