American Individualism and Autocracy

My wife and I were talking over lunch about how the world’s autocratic leaders, certain they’ve got everything under control, are suddenly faced with events and forces demolishing their illusions. Xi, for instance, was confidently determined to make himself China’s next Mao. Trump was an irritant who helped him along. But then came Hong Kong and Wuhan’s Coronavirus, and the illusion of a nation bowing to his command was shattered. Australia’s Morrison, a parliamentary autocrat, discovered a nation on fire could undermine more than his environmental and energy policies, it undermined his credibility as a leader. Even such autocratic icons as Putin and Khamenei discovered that an irate public will rise against them. And then there’s Trump’s beloved Bibi, now indicted for multiple crimes that will send him to trial, the new Middle East Plan notwithstanding. Autocracy is a more efficient way to run things in the short run, but it lacks flexibility and dampens creativity. In the long run it’s inefficient and incompetent. Power centralized in one person makes keeping that power the highest priority, defended by paranoid suspicion of potential threats. Everything else is subordinate to staying in power. Autocracy run amok leads to North Korea, Venezuela, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Banana Republics, and any number of small country dictatorships.

Trump is a wannabe autocrat. He may not be well educated, his level of ignorance is well documented, but he’s a slick streetwise operator who has punched his way through three years of trying to remake America into a unitary executive where the legislature and courts are subordinate institutions. Floundering as he may, he’s made progress. Unlike his autocratic idols, Trump’s not been faced with national disasters upending well thought out plans. His disasters have been events of his own making, with the almost rational intent of fixing them to illustrate his “stable genius.” It’s not a dumb strategy. Create problems you can appear to fix, then appear to fix them, is far better than waiting to be overcome by unanticipated problems that may demolish your house of cards. Moreover, it can keep people distracted from real problems.

When Trump brings his self generated disasters back to their starting places, claiming victory in the process, his supporters cheer him on. His paranoid suspicion of threats to his power have been easily handled with threatening tweets and rallies fueled by insulting diatribes exciting a fanatical base. In a street smart way, it’s not a bad scheme. But his life long record of failures, corruption and illegalities have trailed him into the White House. His blatant abuse of power and obstruction of justice catalogued in the Mueller Report and Ukrainian Affair may not be disasters of national consequence, but they are conditions that would sink any previous American leader. The question is, has he undermined himself enough to be ousted from office, or lose the next election? I think we all know he won’t be ousted, but with the impeachment evidence stacked against him, can he win another term? He might, and here’s why. A lot of Americans are content with the idea of autocratic leadership exercised by a president with executive authority over the whole of government.

A surprising percentage of the population prefers authoritarian leadership. They favor authoritarian rule in families, work and politics. Old time studies from the 1960s suggested that 60% of the American public preferred authoritarian leadership at home and work. Writing for the Brookings Inst., and citing a March 2018 Voter Study Group report, William Galston suggests 30% of self identified conservatives favor a strong presidency not hampered by a co-equal legislature and judiciary. 40% among those claiming to be economically liberal but culturally conservative prefer an autocratic executive. To be sure, the great majority of Americans, no matter their stripe, favor our traditional democratic system with its checks and balances, but when pressed on specifics the tilt toward authoritarianism is unmistakable. It’s nothing new. It’s always been there. Oligarchs and plutocrats have a long history of taking as much advantage of it as possible. What has kept it in check has been powerful congressional leaders intent on preserving legislative prerogatives, a Supreme Court intent on defending the Constitution, and elected presidents, however authoritarian, who never aspired to autocracy. Nixon may have been the exception, and he was successfully dealt with. But I digress. Back to the voting public.

American individualists don’t like to admit it, but they want to know who’s in charge and what the rules are. They want to know their place in the scheme of things, and they want that place to be honored by others. In other words, they find authoritarian conditions quite comfortable. It works well because bosses prefer to have as much uncontested authority as possible. It gives them the greatest degree of freedom to act as they think best. In an oxymoronic way, American individualism treasures authority. To be as free as possible from restraints that interfere with one’s right to do with as one chooses with what is one’s own is its central tenet, and yet it treasures authority. Think about that for a moment because it proclaims an enormous internal contradiction.

The mantra of American individualism asserts that each person is the master of what is his/her own; each person is the authoritarian ruler of her/his life. Yet many American individualists are more comfortable when subject to authoritarian leadership, but from who? Immediate superiors are always suspect because they’re the ones with authority to impose rules and restraints Americans would rather not have. Government bureaucrats are a close second because they impose restraints through rules, regulations and paperwork that inhibit one’s right to live and act as one wants. Authority worthy of loyalty has to have a place sufficiently remote in the hierarchy to do two things: not be the one directly interfering in one’s right to do as one pleases; and high enough to promise that benefits of freedom and prosperity will be passed down to their level. To whom would those high enough in the hierarchy make such promises? To the social, political and economic groups most capable of meeting the need of the hierarchy’s leadership to stay in power and cement its authority.

The reason large corporations don’t bother making elaborate promises to customers and employees is that senior management knows perfectly well who their primary clientele is. To whom will they make promises? To the people on whom are they dependent to keep their power and authority. Employees? Not likely, not since the unions have been busted. Customers? Nothing a good advertising budget can’t handle. Investors, fund managers and Wall Street analysts? Absolutely.

Political leaders are in a different game. Politicians are not beholden to investors, but to voters, and not all voters: only those capable of keeping them in power or forcing them out. Presidents in particular have the ability, and an honored place in a well understood hierarchy (albeit in conflicting ways by different people) to make promises. To whom will they make them? Apart from generic promises to all, they focus on those they know they must have with them if they are to continue in office.

Trump, the wanna be autocrat, may know nothing about sociological studies of authoritarian leaning voters, but his slick streetwise operator’s gut has not misled him. They are the ones to whom he makes promises, outrageous promises in abundance. He doesn’t actually have to deliver. Claiming victory where there is none is easy to do. Besides, there will always be enough enemies and conditions conspiring against him to take the blame. The failure to deliver simply makes room for more promises, and rallying cries for redoubled effort to defeat the enemies who are thwarting the good life just waiting on the other side. He doesn’t need a majority, not even a plurality. He only needs enough to intimidate the opposition, discourage the greater number of voters, and convince a few others that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

How long can he get away with it? Possibly through the next election, but the odd thing about the American electorate is they really do believe in the ideals of democracy, justice, and the possibility of achieving the American Dream (whatever that may be). Like 19th century farmers and early 20th century workers, they will rise up against autocratic rule. Like mid 20th century civil rights and anti Vietnam War movements, they will demand justice. National heroes like Washington, Lincoln, King and others will overwhelm the repugnant memory of Trump as the nation seeks to rebuild itself. Trump has already sealed his own destruction. Our problem is we have to suffer through the mess until he’s gone, and that could take a while.

(Footnote: Citizens United has given more power to “investors” to dictate terms to politicians, which is especially easy for them to do in so called safe districts)

I Wonder: Questions about values

The impeachment trial is dominating American news, as it should. I’m trying to keep up with it as best I can, probably like you. Unlike senators, I get to eat regular meals, drink coffee or tea while I work, take breaks whenever I want, and mess around on the internet. I go out for long walks, read books, fiddle around with daily chores, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. It means short stints following live proceedings on NPR, catching up on play-by-play reporting from four or five news sources, and color commentary from several others.

Writing about it would add a minuscule voice to an over abundance of voices already out there, several of whom are well informed, and many less so. However, there are some things I wonder about. I wonder, for instance, why the GOP appears to be disinterested in taking seriously the allegations and evidence of malfeasance in the office of president? How can they be so complacent in the face of such gross ignorance, incompetence, and corruption? It has to be more than simple party loyalty, or fear of losing the next election.

Are they content with Trump, ignoring his failings, because they’ve bought into tea party ideology that a small, emasculated federal government, except for defense, is a good thing? They often admit his failings, but consider them a tolerable price for policy decisions they say they like. What policy decisions? Slash and burn deregulation with little thought to which or why? Tax cuts having added no measurable benefit to the economy, but enriching a few? Demolition of Americas international standing and reputation? Trade wars? They’re policy decisions that veil neofascism appealing to the extreme right wing, and a handful of oligarchs.

Conservatives have always been suspicious of big government, even as they’ve engineered the bulk of its growth. They’ve always advocated for fiscal restraint, even though they’re behind the greatest expansions in debt and deficit. They believe in free markets, but endorse monopolies and an unrestricted industrial-military complex. They hate socialism and welfare, but freely underwrite agriculture, energy, and tax subsidies accruing mostly to the wealthy. It’s put them in a position to be held captive by right wing ideologies.

It appears they’re frightened, easily intimidated, about the likelihood of being given an insulting Trumpian nick-name, being subjected to abusive tweets, and excoriated with juvenile sarcasm at Trump rallies. They might even be challenged in a primary by a Trump loyalist. How dreadful. So what if they are? A senator who has faithfully represented the whole of his/her state, and kept in touch with the electorate, should be able to run with dignified confidence in the face of such second rate political bullying. Perhaps they have growing self awareness that they have not been faithful representatives of their states. Perhaps they recognize how easily they’ve sold themselves to the highest bidders in the campaign fund raising arena. I suppose there are lots of reasons why conservatives are reluctant to be men and women of courage.

Extreme right wingers, of course, are another story. I think they really believe any liberal application of government resources to pressing social and economic problems affecting ordinary people is a steep slide into Cuban style communism. They really believe the virtue of American individualism is at stake: that Democrats are intent on a socialist government dictating every aspect of personal lives. They really believe they’re the only ones who cherish ideals of hard work and self reliance. By these beliefs, they’re certain that people not like them are lazy, willing to live off the sweat of others’ brows, and unworthy of American rights and privileges. Curiously, for people who claim the right to be individualists free of government interference, they’re the most willing to submit to autocratic rule – if the autocrats promise to minister to their beliefs. It’s a strange business.

As recent Pew research has revealed, the remnants of traditional Republican conservatism have begun to recognize the corruption of the current administration, and that three years of chaotic policy decisions made on the personal whim of a psychologically challenged president have weakened the nation. It’s embarrassing for them, no doubt, but what are they to do? How can they duck and run without losing face? Even a few stalwarts of tea party ideology, have begun to notice that he’s not one of them. Will that change the outcome of the impeachment process? Probably not. Will it change the dynamic forces influencing the upcoming campaign? Absolutely, but how is anyone’s guess.

It raises a question I’ve dealt with before in these occasional columns. How important is it for progressive candidates to speak to traditional conservatives and disaffected tea partiers looking for another way? Has the electorate changed so much that they can be safely ignored? Can the oddities of the Electoral College be factored in favorably? I don’t think so. The right still has to be addressed in ways that may attract some of them. The other night I ran into a woman confidently expressing her political opinions in a group of strangers gathered around a resort BBQ. She’s not all that happy with Trump, but loves the economy and gives him all the credit. She happily recited Trump talking points as if they were her original thoughts: booming stock market; skyrocketing 401k; lowest unemployment ever; what’s not to like? Sure, he has his failings, but life is better than ever. With assertiveness bordering on anger, she declared she was raised to respect elders, work hard, and not rely on government handouts. The intent was clear: people not like her disrespect traditional values, are lazy and want government largess to support them.

OK, I think we can all celebrate the economy, at least for now, and her All American values are indeed worthy. For progressives to win, they have to acknowledge both without reservation. And they have to say more: that these are values shared by most Americans, not just middle and working class whites; that even the poorest and lowest who need government help subscribe to them. Are there exceptions? Of course there are, but they’re exceptions. Moreover, mustering resources only the government can muster is necessary to create conditions under which all can prosper.

Everyone Wants Peace, but What Is It?

I’m not sure I know what peace is. Here and there are hints of what it might be. Psalm 133, for instance, proclaims living with one another in harmony is like precious oil poured over the head of Aaron, like the dew of Mt. Hermon that announces God’s blessings. Isaiah’s imagery of the peaceable kingdom (Isa 11) has inspired whole catalogues of paintings and uncounted sermons. Wonderful as these hints promise to be, have they ever been experienced?

I expect each of us has experienced them in moments when we have been harmoniously at peace with our surroundings, but they come and go in a world that is not. Peace may be more than the absence of war, but the absence of war is a necessary precedent. I was thinking about that when I got involved in extended conversations with acquaintances who adamantly argued that we owe our American way of life to soldiers willing to put their lives on the line defending our freedom. It’s a popular theme among many, so I decided to take a look at the wars and major armed conflicts we have engaged in, starting with the War of Independence. The result was an article published last year on Country Parson.

Scanning the record, I came up with 97 named American wars and major armed conflicts. Don’t hold me to the exact number. I could be off by a few. Of these, 39 (40%) were named wars of Indian eradication, clearing the way for (white) settlers to live in peace. They were wars of conquest and subjugation that, in a sense, could be considered in defense of freedoms for certain Americans at the expense of other Americans. Of the remainder, I could name only five that most would consider to be in defense of American freedom. The obvious point is that, as a nation, we have seldom been free of a time of armed conflict, nor can we claim the moral high ground as virtuous defenders of the God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was not an article well received by my patriotically conservative friends.

It’s hard to understand how we can talk about peace, the peace of nations living in harmony within themselves and with one another, when, as best I can tell, we’ve never experienced it. As bleak as that may sound, it’s not without an answer. As individuals, we have opportunity and means to live in harmony with those about us, as best we can. As best we can recognizes our limitations and weaknesses, but even giving them full consideration, we do know how to live in harmony with those about us. It’s a place to start. The ancient formula: loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves, and respecting the dignity of every human being, has never been improved on. Sadly, those of us who know it best observe it not well enough to inspire others. Nevertheless, we can try, and we can start with those who are closest to us, our families, immediate neighbors, friends, coworkers, and the other people with whom we engage in daily life. We cannot lobby for a world at peace if we’re unwilling to do the hard work of trying to live in harmony with those closest to us.

Individual efforts to live in harmony with those who are near is only one part of working toward peace. There are systemic issues built into the social and political fabric of the nations that cannot be addressed by good people behaving with good intentions. To the extent we are able, we must also create conditions under which entire communities can be successful in life (I don’t mean Joel Osteen success, I mean Isaiah success). It requires that we be agents doing the best we can to influence private and public policies that remove barriers to fullness of life for all persons, and to see that each person is equipped to take advantage of opportunities that are present.

It means a turn from theology and philosophy to economics and organization theory. In the mid 1970s, the economist John W. Kendrick said that assuring conditions for that kind of success required public and private investment in intangible capital: R&D, education, health, and job safety. He called it Total Factor Productivity. It never got much traction, yet each new study about opportunity gained and lost comes to the same conclusion. They are the very investments ill favored by political interests determined to reduce government to the smallest size possible, and others for whom stock price is the ultimate measure of value. They believe anything less is the destruction of the ideal of American self reliance and entrepreneurial spirit. That their own future depends on their repentance eludes them.

W. Edwards Deming, another mid 20th century scholar whose work involved helping organizations succeed by empowering employees to succeed, was adamant that a person could not be held accountable for poor performance if they were denied the tools necessary for good performance: education, skills training, high quality resources with which to work, and an environment giving both freedom to exercise full one’s potential and clear explanations of goals and standards. What is true for corporations is true for every form of human organization, including cities, states and nations. Peace, defined as living in harmony with one another, cannot exist unless every person is afforded the opportunity to have and use the tools necessary for good performance. Whether each takes advantage of the opportunity is another matter.

Kendrick and Deming may have been known for their work on productivity, but they were driven by the knowledge that organizations (companies, cities, states, nations) could not succeed if they failed to function harmoniously for the well being of all their members, whether employees or customers. Peace is what it was about, but not peace without conflict. Harmony is not without conflict.

Harmony makes conflict resolution possible. They understood, as do we all, that conflict is unavoidable. We are diverse in who we are, what we believe, and how we approach life’s challenges. From a theologian’s point of view, we’re also fallen: we’re greedy, selfish, needy, and egotistical. We live in tension with ourselves and one another, but it’s not all bad. It’s only through tension and conflict that creative new ways are discovered to solve previously intractable problems. Conservative tendencies resist. Liberal tendencies can push to excess. Competitive egos try to dominate. That’s life. Harmony makes room for it by crafting processes to resolve differences, and standards to set appropriate limits.

Those unwilling to live with others in harmonious tension, according to agreed upon limits, make dangerous leaders and troublesome community members. To be sure, there are disruptive, rebellious types whose intellectual gifts and willingness to take risks are generators of great advances in human knowledge and technology. They often pay an enormous price for being social outliers. Room needs to be made for them, but there are other disruptive, rebellious types, social outliers, intent on destroying the fabric of society. It’s not always easy to tell one from the other, but there are obvious examples: white (or other ethnic) supremacists, determined insurrectionists, anarchists, and the like. They are not unrelated to interpersonal psychologies that rely on bullying, intimidation, and various forms of sociopathic manipulation for control. Standards and limits have to be set so that everyone has an understanding of how to succeed in harmonious cooperation with others. It doesn’t mean regimented sameness. It means making room for individual strengths and weaknesses to work out on their own how best to proceed, feeling it’s safe to do so. Harmony is not homogenization.

Making peace is a political balancing act. It demands political action. It requires a philosophical commitment to peace, and a pragmatic plan to create the processes and institutions to achieve it. A university peace studies program may be a part of it. A well funded community college may be a more important part of it. Both need those who can organize effective lobbying efforts in the halls of government. It should go without saying that a solid grounding in basic civics for everyone, and broadly available education in the liberal arts is essential to it all.

Do Christians Really Have Three Gods?

The other day a friend wondered why we Christians have three gods, yet have the audacity to claim they’re one.  Years ago I was in an ecumenical group that included reform and conservative Jews who knew they could get us going in rhetorical circles by asking the same question.  I think they started the merry-go-round for the fun of it, especially if they were on the losing side of another argument.

Christianity is anchored in the Trinity: God known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We may speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there is only one God, not three.  It’s not a concept that fits any rational model most people would accept as valid.  God’s trinitarian existence can be inferred from scripture, but it’s not proclaimed in an overt way.  Many theologians over many centuries have done their best to explain it.  As brilliant as their work has been, circumstantial evidence is the best they’ve come up with.  The insurmountable obstacle has always been the impossibility of feeble human minds to dissect the inner workings of God, although that’s exactly what’s been tried time and again.

One might wonder where the concept of Trinity came from in the first place.  My take is this: the oneness of God was never in doubt for the first generations of Christians.  What they knew for certain was that God was truly and fully present in Jesus, and through him the fullness of God’s intentions for creation were made known.  As the faith spread to lands where the god of the Jews, Jewish history and Jewish ways were unknown, the whole thing had to be explained from the beginning making sense to Greek and Roman ways of thinking.  And it had to be explained in ways that exposed their pantheons of gods as not only false, but having no existence at all.  

That meant explaining who God is and how Jesus is related to God by using terms and reasoning understood by Greek and Roman philosophers, which is more or less what Christianity’s central creed, The Nicene Creed, tries to do.  Developed in the 4th century over more than fifty years, it can never be said to anticipate a 21st century audience, but it remains the pivot around which Christian theology rotates.  Explaining God and Jesus was not enough.  Christians have always been aware that God’s imminent and intimate presence is still with us, even if Jesus isn’t.  Drawing from abundant biblical evidence of God’s spirit active in the affairs of humans, the Holy Spirit was included in the Creed.

God’s own self revelation has come to us through prophets, in Jesus, and with the here but not seen power of God for us.  For lack of better words, we call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It creates a few problems for modern ears.  Father, for instance.  It does not and cannot mean that God is a male, much less and bearded old man somewhere in the heavens.  All the painted images we’re so familiar with are imitations of the Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter.  I’m sorry they ever got used because they implanted a misleading image we can’t seem to get rid of.  Jesus called God his father to describe a relationship that today we would call genetic – Jesus is of God.  No one else ever was.  No one else ever will be.  Again, for lack of a better word, he is God’s son.  The word doesn’t really work, but it’s the best we’ve got.  

He called God father, so we do too, but God is neither male nor female.  It’s not God’s problem.  Our language isn’t up to the task, and our heritage of relationships dominated by patriarchy doesn’t help.  Humans are created in God’s image, male, female and everything between, so there is something about the godly image in us that has nothing to do with sex.  What could it be?  I think it has to do with our ability to create, to think things never before thought, and bring them into existence: art, literature, scientific theory, inventions, etc.  But I digress.

Trying to define the internal life of God, the mechanics of God’s existence as it were, is impossible.  It hasn’t stopped generations of theologians from trying, but it’s a fool’s errand.  It’s better to accept God as presented, and allow the mystery to be a part of it.  As a trinitarian Christian, I’m content to know that God has been made known to us as God, God in Jesus, and God’s Spirit with us.  Calling God Father, as Jesus did, helps illuminate God’s generative, loving relationship with creation.  God as Holy Spirit acknowledges that God remains actively engaged in the life of this world.  And, for me, God as Son is, as John the Evangelist proclaimed, the Word of God made flesh.  He is, therefore, not a prophet or sage but the living presence of God in earthly life.  As John reports Jesus to have said to Phillip, one of his followers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14)  I’m content with that.

How Can You Believe That Stuff?

Sometimes I get questions from two sides on the same subject.  From non-believing friends it’s: “How can you, as a reasonably intelligent, well educated person, be a Christian.  I mean, do you really believe all that stuff?”  From certain conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends it’s: “How can you claim to be Christian and buy into intellectual secularism that denies the authority of God’s Word?”

My usual response is to say this will take a while, how much time do you have?  

One thing needs to be dismissed at the outset. Being a Christian doesn’t require an emotional conversion experience where one accepts Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. I find it a facile formula of low validity. On the other hand a personal experience of exposure to God’s imminent presence in the blinding light of pure love leaves little doubt about God’s reality. Those who have experienced it seldom talk about it. There are a lot of imitators out there. Too many believers are rooted in magical thinking, and juvenile understandings of their religion. There’s no point in getting mixed up with them.

So moving on, for a long time it seemed that God was used to explain mysteries that couldn’t be explained in other ways.  As human knowledge grew through advances in math and science, mysteries became well understood facts that pushed the need for God farther toward the edge until there was no more need for God at all.  At least that’s how the story often goes.  I think it’s wrong.  As human knowledge has probed ever deeper into the way things are, the mystery has deepened, and God appears not at the edges, but in the center.  It’s not the same thing as arguing for intelligent design.  It’s more an argument in favor of processes set into motion by divine intention.  The universe, it turns out, is bursting with fecundity and chance, full of possibilities, successes and failures, with God free to engage or not as God chooses.  It’s not offered as a proof for God, because I have none, but it is offered as proof that human knowledge is in its infancy and utterly incapable of disproving God.  

My denomination, Episcopalian (Anglican), finds no inconsistency between science and faith, and delights in all that we are able to discover.  What is more difficult for the modern mind is the idea of spiritual reality existing with material reality.  It’s a recent phenomenon dating from the expulsion of ignorant superstitions from the rational mind of the Enlightenment.  They needed to be expelled, but they’ve never been erased.  People hang onto them for reasons deeper than ignorance or naivety.  For as long as humans have existed, they have had an awareness of spiritual reality as a part of daily life.  Spiritual reality is a form of being that is present in living things, souls for instance, but just as present in inanimate things, and on its own apart from things.  American Indians have a strong sense of the spiritual that is present in nature.  In Hawaii it’s rude to enter certain places without first honoring the spirit that is part of it.  Some of us are aware of thin places, places that can come into and go out of existence where the separation between the spiritual and material worlds is thin.  One way or another, every culture has an idea of the holy, the spiritual reality that has a special interest in humanity.  To be sure, there is an enormous variety of ways in which the idea has been manifested in religions, gods, and epic mythologies.  The point is that for millennia in every culture, spiritual reality was taken for granted because it was experienced in daily life.  Enlightenment rationality undermined superstitions that needed to go, but the popularity of fantasy entertainment and fads demonstrates that even the most adamant  rationalist can’t avoid having an awareness of the spiritual.  

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am a part, believes God has revealed God’s self through prophets and sages, which for Christians, reached its climax in Jesus, whom we know to be the full presence of God revealed in human form.  For us, it banishes all superstition and fantasy.  Curiously, revelation of divine presence in Jesus had nothing to do with explaining away the mysteries of the world that science can explain through verifiable reasoning, and everything to do with guiding us toward justice, harmony, healing, reconciliation, peace, and a fuller more blessed life for us and for all of creation.  It may be, as the ancient Greek poet Aratus wrote, “in him we live and move and have our being,” but God is not simply the source of being; God is the source of loving care for all creation, you and me included.  

Theology, the philosophical discipline of understanding the relationship between God and creation, seeks to discover first the meaning of truth, and more particularly the truth about good, evil, and all that lies between. And second, if such and such is what we say is true about God, how can human minds find a way to understand it. As St. Anselm said, it’s faith seeking understanding. It can never find the end because what we are able to know is always changing, exposing us to exponential growth in what we don’t know. Speaking for myself, I know that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; everything else is provisional.

There are Christian leaders who assert they know the absolute truth, and reject any deviation from it.  They’re wrong, and frequently so foolishly wrong they become objects of ridicule who bring disrepute on Christianity as a whole.  Not all of them are conservative fundamentalists.  Some are liberal thinkers who wander off in strange directions pursuing a god they’ve invented for themselves.   But I digress.

The point is that, as a reasonably intelligent and well educated person who has been willing to dig into history, philosophy, theology and the sciences, I am convinced of God’s being, and believe that God is most fully revealed in Jesus, whom I try to follow.  Moreover, I believe that what is spiritual and what is material are part of a whole that is the fabric of the universe.  How other religions may fit into God’s work is unknown to me, but I reject whatever in them is unable to accommodate God’s love for all of creation.

“But,” say my interlocutors, “how could you, how could you?  Can’t you see the injustice and inhuman violence done in Christ’s name throughout the ages?”  Yes, I can see them.  They have been, and continue to be, sinful outrages against everything revealed to us about God through Jesus.  They are outrages humans have and continue to commit against one another in the name of many gods and beliefs because we are arrogant, selfish, greedy, fearful creatures who choose not to listen to God.  Don’t blame God for who we have made ourselves to be.  Pay attention to God as revealed in Jesus.  Undertake the work of divine healing, as best you can, in the part of the world where you are.  You aren’t perfect, so don’t expect to be.  

Donne, Trump & Truth

John Donne (1572-1631) has a way of sneaking up on me from time to time.  I was using a portion of his Satire #3 for another article, a portion that has often counseled me through times of doubt as I struggle to understand the world around me.  Doubt is something we all deal with about nearly everything in our fast paced world.  Anyway, the other article was about religion, but as I reread Donne it occurred to me that he spoke directly to our contemporary political culture as clearly as he spoke to his own.  And that’s where this article came from.

Donne’s English is enough different from ours that some years ago I reworded this part to make it more palatable to the modern ear, and more useful in adult Christian education classes.  You should read Donne yourself in his own words, but here is my updated version intended to spark more conversation about American politics. 

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 an image (statues and paintings in church), or protest.  All may be bad, but doubt wisely.  In a strange way to stand inquiring 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. 

Consider that last part, “So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed”  

When I watch the crowds at Trump rallies, I don’t see people interested in obeying Trump rightly, knowing his bounds, believing his history, understanding his nature, or from whence he came.  I see people who have become idolators worshiping at the feet of a despotic man who basks in their adulation, yet cares nothing for them.  It’s all he wants from them.  He feeds on their homage like a vampire feeds on his victim’s blood.  His ego demands it.  He can’t live without it.  As long as they humble themselves before him, he’s content until his gnawing hunger for more leads him to another rally.  

Promising everything and delivering nothing, yet they remain loyal for reasons that dismay me.  Believing he will make them free and prosperous, they surrender their freedom and their prosperity to his authoritarian ways.  What’s worse, certain leaders claiming to be Christian have assumed for themselves unjust power, claiming to have it from God, and presume to confer it on Trump.

Are rallies for others any different?  I think they are.  It isn’t simply that the candidates themselves speak in full sentences with considerable knowledge about the issues.  Those attending may express passionate support for Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Pete, or Amy, but no two rallies are the same for any candidate.  The mood at each is unique; participants freely express widely differing thoughts on important matters.  Unquestioned loyalty is neither demanded nor expected.  Of course the candidates have sizable egos or they wouldn’t be running, but they sublimate them to earn the peoples’ trust, and in the interest of the greater good.  

In the end will it do you any good to say that Donald, or Mitch, or Bernie, or Elizabeth 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.

This year brings many doubts, and Donne’s good counsel helps.  But about one matter I have no doubt.  I have no doubt that Trump is a bumbling authoritarian narcissist who, claiming to know more about everything than anybody, knows little and is unable to anticipate the consequences of his gut inspired actions.  For that reason alone he’s dangerous, and needs to be defeated.  As for Mitch, I have no doubt that he’s sold his soul in a faustian deal, and using his considerable skills works to manipulate government toward the plutocracy he favors.  

How to best evaluate the others continues to be a search for truth on a twisting trail.  Any of them  would be an improvement, but one of them will be the right one for our time.  Which?

Trying To Make Sense of Suleimani

As with many, I’m struggling to make sense of Suleimani’s assassination.  It’s not a simple matter, even for those of us who try to follow world affairs as well as we’re able.  It wasn’t an assassination because that’s against the law, so says the administration.  But it sure looks like one.  

Yes, but he’s responsible for the deaths of many Americans, says the administration.  

We all agree that’s true, but we’ve been engaged in war like conflict in the region since 1990, that’s thirty years during which we also have been responsible for uncounted deaths, including a few too many “Oops, terribly sorry, didn’t mean to bomb that wedding” incidents.

Yes, but we’re the good guys, says the administration.

I would like to think so, and Iran has tried hard to live up to its bad boy reputation.  But a quick look at a map of U.S. military installations surrounding Iran, and they do surround it, suggests Iranians may not agree that we’re the good guys.  Nations dislike being surrounded by military bases of an imperial power.  Who’s the enemy among enemies depends on whose side one is on, and let’s face it, we’re the occupying army.  There has never been a beloved occupying army, never in the history of empires. 

Well, he had it coming because he fought dirty with diabolical IEDs, ragtag militias, and alliances with any disaffected terrorist he could find.  

It’s pretty much the same thing British commanders said about American revolutionaries in 1776.  It’s the way small countries fight big ones.  Consider what the Roman tribune said to Paul when he was arrested in Jerusalem: “Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21) 

None of that makes Suleimani an honorable man, and there is some evidence his public relations staff had burnished his reputation far beyond credulity, leaving some Iranian leaders suspicious of his political intentions.

Trump says he ordered the killing because of an imminent threat that has now been stopped.  I wonder.  In 2012 he tweeted up a storm predicting Obama would go to war with Iran to boost his chances of wining reelection.  It didn’t happen then, but in 2020 Trump appears to be following the script he wrote to boost his own chances at reelection.  Some of my right wing friends love it.  It’s the kind of “We’ll show them, and they’ll learn not to mess with us” bravado that demonstrates American toughness.  No more of this namby-pamby diplomacy that Pompeo labeled as Obama “trying to buy them off.”  

Where does that kind of thinking come from?  I said to a few others that Trump chose the Dirty Harry option, believing it would make him look like a Clint Eastwood character full of virtue and violence acting as judge, jury and executioner.  But as Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which it appears Trump doesn’t.  It’s not just Dirty Harry, it’s the macho imagery of every action and super hero movie where virtuous, lethal revenge is equated with justice, and in the end all is well.  Revenge, lethal or not, is neither virtuous nor just, and it never ends well.  Tough guy swagger from politicians is cover for a lack of courage and wisdom.

Four years ago Iran was adhering to the terms of a nuclear agreement it had made with an alliance of Western nations.  They were being eased back into the community of nations.  Their economy was prospering as it hadn’t for years.  Ordinary Iranians were experiencing political and economic freedom in new ways.  The government was still sponsoring terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but the West held all the economic cards that could force them in another direction.  Trump ended the agreement, reimposed sanctions, and alienated our Western allies.  So here we are. Now what?

I have no idea.  The ideal of Iranian self respect may demand an eye for an eye: the assassination of some top American.  A cable news commentator listed a dozen other options involving attacks on various installations, oil fields, etc.  Cooler heads in Tehran may prevail as they consider the consequences.  I hope so.  

In the meantime, maybe, at long last, Republican leaders will show some backbone, and take a firm stand against escalation of armed conflict we can’t win, can’t get out of with dignity, and don’t know what victory means.  Maybe, at long last, conventional conservatives will wake up to recognize this president is not a conservative and not worthy of their support.  Maybe, at long last, some who looked to Trump to save the white middle class will realize he never intended to, and doesn’t really care about them.  Maybe, at long last, some conservative evangelicals will realize he’s not one of them, not even a Christian in any recognizable way.

What about Trump’s hard core base?  They bought into his dream world, and they’ll stick with it.  Remember Hillary’s basket of deplorables?  They’re in it. 


The New Year is always a time for signs, but what kind?

Farmers read signs in soil and sky.  Sailors read signs in wind and water.   I wonder, do city dwellers have a harder time reading signs because there is so much competition among them for the limited attention one can give at a glance?  The next week or two will be filled with articles in the media offering signs about the year ahead, with politics and the economy dominating prognostications. 

Humans have always wanted signs that predict the future, or validate plans of action.  What will the winter bring, who will win the battle, will my plan work, what is the right thing for me to do?  What are the signs to show the way?  I suppose our signs are more sophisticated than our ancestors’ bones, clouds, chicken guts, and oracles.  After all, to conjure up our signs we have computers, algorithms, and data sets, all very rational in a Spock like way.  Whether they’re more accurate is another question.  My guess is one’s as good as the other.  

We’re coming to the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember the wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the new born king.  They had seen a sign in the sky, a star said to be that of a newborn king of the Jews.  What could it mean?  Where would it lead?  What would they find?  It took both curiosity and courage to follow it into the unknown.  

Signs from God are like that.  They’re unexpected, unusual, and call those who see them to follow where they lead into the unknown.  But they have several things in common.  They’re always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.  God’s signs come to those to whom they’re sent.  One can’t just wander into the local sign store to cast lots, read tea leaves, or see what the latest computer projection has to say.  Abraham heard an unknown voice, and followed where it led.  Moses saw a burning bush, and went to see what it was all about.  The Shepherds saw angels in the sky, and went to see this thing that had happened.  The wise men saw a star, and followed it.  None of them asked for it.  The signs came to them, and they had the courage to follow where they led.

Signs from God are like that, but it doesn’t stop us from demanding more easily understood signs to guide decisions we already know we have to make.   Gideon laid out his fleece, priests and prophets cast lots to guide kings into battle, and the apostles cast lots to see who would replace Judas.  Were any of them genuine godly signs?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Who knows?  Either way, we have not given up asking for signs to guide us in our own day.  Asking for signs, and thinking about godly signs in that way, obscures our ability to see the more important signs, the ones God initiates, that are unexpected, that demand to be followed into the unknown.  Religious leaders in Jesus’ day demanded that he show them a sign, one of the usual expected signs they might recognize.  He didn’t because he was the sign.  He came unexpectedly, he invited others to come and see this thing that had happened, and to follow him.  Follow him where?  To the cross and beyond?  How crazy was that? 

I wonder how observant we are of the signs about us that call us to come, see and follow.  They’ll be unexpected.  We can’t anticipate a replay of the burning bush, angels in the sky, or a new star.  But they’ll be unusual, a curiosity out of place attracting our attention, if.  If we’re willing to see them, which I suspect we’re not much inclined to do.  We’re more inclined to like predictability, a little excitement but not too much.  Even chaotic, out of control lives can feel normal compared to following a God sent sign that probably no one else can see. 

The common assumption is that God-sent-signs call people into an intensely religious life.  They certainly call people into a life of greater intimacy with God, but Abraham kept on being a herder of livestock, the shepherds went on keeping sheep, and the wise men went back home to continue being wise.  David became a king, Isaiah a prophet, and Nehemiah a governor.  Who’s to say the greater number of God-sent-signs don’t call people to be teachers, executives, politicians, firefighters, cops, farmers or fishermen?  But always for an unexpected God-sent-purpose plunging one into the unknown with no guarantee other than “Trust me, do not be afraid, go where I send you.”

When we look for signs, and we do look for them, we tend to scan the environment, watch body language, read horoscopes, watch the Dow Jones, and dive into the latest polls.  We ask our friends, seek therapy, and hire personal coaches.  We interpret the usual signs from our experience, learning, prejudices, gut feelings, and public pressure.

When God sends a sign, it comes out of the nowhere, unbidden, and odd.  It may be why it can go unseen.  It’s the old problem of the Black Swan that couldn’t be seen because everyone knew there were no such things as  Black Swans.  I wonder how many signs there have been that we have not seen.  I wonder whether there are ways for us to be better at seeing them, and having seen to go where they lead, remembering that they are always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.