Adam, Eve & A Lenten Journey

I cannot think of culture that doesn’t have an origin story. It’s the universal story of who we are, where we came from, and what it means to be us and not them. Like cultures, families also have origin stories. Long before the popularity of ancestry probing DNA, the question was often asked, Who are your people? The answer established one’s bona fides and could open doors, or shut them, to a more promising future.

Christians have an origin story borrowed from their elder Jewish relatives. It’s not a story of our tribe or our culture. It’s the story of existence itself. It’s in the first few chapters of the bible’s opening book, Genesis. It begins with the startling declaration that before there was anything anywhere in any existence, there was God, who is not a thing. It is God who brought into being all that is. It’s unfortunate that many people believe the creation story is factual history, because that’s not it’s intent, which is to reveal through story telling truth about who we are as human beings.

In it is the story of Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the consequence of eating forbidden fruit. It’s the story of who we are as human beings in relationship with each other, with God, and with our freedom to make moral decisions. The story says that before they ate the forbidden fruit, they were ingenuous, naive, having no knowledge of good or evil. Though instructed not to eat it, their naivety made them gullible, so it didn’t take much for a clever snake to convince them. It wasn’t Eve’s fault: they were both there and each ate of their own free will. Since, in the story, the garden and all things in it existed in a state of innocence, one has to wonder how a snake that was neither naive nor gullible got in, but stories don’t have to explain everything. The point is, the fruit gave them self knowledge, self awareness, self interest, and the recognition that they could make moral decisions because they now knew what morality was. With that, the Garden of Eden no longer had a reason to exist, but there is more truth to be revealed.

The story tells us a great deal about who we are as creatures, about how we relate to each other, and to God. It makes clear that we cannot escape responsibility for making moral decisions. It reveals our instinct for self interest and survival, even at the expense of other creatures, including other humans. Perhaps most important, and often overlooked, the story reveals that God is never absent, that God is engaged with creation, and that God intends blessings in spite of our weakness and selfishness. But God is never a puppeteer. Engaged with us as God is, we are free to decide and act as we will, as Adam and Eve always were.

It’s too bad some people think Adam and Eve were real people, and that the human condition is their fault. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be the way we are. The greater truth is that we are each Adam and Eve. We each try to be our own god, or inflict our wills on others as if we were their god, or create a gods in our own image to suite our needs. We can’t claim innocence, and we can’t blame Adam and Eve. Taking the story literally deprives it of it’s power to reveal greater truths, thrusting it into a pointless, never ending conflict with science and history. Among the greater truths is that our origin story includes all of humanity, no one is set apart as us against all others as them. Recognized or not, God is God of all, for all, and engaged with all because what God created is good.

The story goes on to explore the many ways in which humans, free to choose, corrupt their relationships with one another, with creation, and with God. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest. We are quick to divide into competing tribes, assuming full humanity for ours while denying it to others. We expect God will be for us, but not for them. We kill and abuse what is good for selfish reasons, or just because we can. Yet the mystery remains: God is for us.

The origin story of Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, and of their progeny illustrates that we are unable to resist the temptations of self interest, although we can do better than we usually do. The bible goes on to explore our relationship with God through the eyes of a particular people called by God to teach the rest of us, a people God never abandoned and never will. It is not our story. It’s theirs, but it’s instructive for us because in it God’s truth for all people is progressively revealed. We, who are not Jewish, enter into it in what amounts to a second chapter of the origin story.

It’s not written in metaphor or myth, but in history. Jesus is the one who, being fully human, is neither naive nor gullible. He chose to reject the temptations of self interest that no one has ever done. He is, as some theologians have pointed out, a type of Adam (and Eve) who does not eat the forbidden fruit. Or perhaps better said, he did eat the fruit and was not corrupted by it. Anyway, it’s not to make the rest of us look like incompetent losers. Jesus extends an invitation to follow him in a way of life that demolishes tribal enmities without dishonoring ethnic and cultural differences, or assuming the moral superiority of one’s own culture. It’s an invitation we have found difficult to accept. We have a hard time leaving our personal Adam, Eve and snake behind. Fortunately it’s more than just an invitation to follow Jesus. It’s also a promise that the one who was able to reject the fruit will be our strong companion to help us get back up when we fall, who has the authority to absolve us of our failures, and through whom the limits of this life are transformed into the gateway to a greater, more full life in God’s presence that transcends anything the mythical Garden of Eden could promise.

It’s a good story with which to begin a lenten journey.

A Better Fast for A Better Lent

Lent is known as a time for fasting and penitential reflection, although if we’re honest about it, fasting and penitence is observed with less than disciplined intent by most of us. Penitence seems medieval, painful, even pointless. Fasting to follow the latest diet fad might be OK, otherwise it’s likely to be something like chocolate, meat, or drinking, which may all be good to do in their own right. There are serious efforts made by some, and more power to them, especially if it’s intended to reorient them toward a more Christlike direction in life, but I think Lent is better put to use in other ways.

The invitation to a holy Lent includes a recitation from Isaiah about what kind of fasting comes highly recommended by God. In Isaiah’s 58th chapter, the people wondered why they fasted but God paid no attention. The answer was not what they expected about what get’s God’s nodding approval.

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, as day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

God, speaking through the pen of Isaiah, may have addressed the people of ancient Israel, but isn’t it as valid for our times and our lenten fasts? Social justice, it turns out, is not a liberal vs. conservative thing, it’s a godly thing, and God is perfectly clear about what social justice means.

A lenten discipline of self examination is intended to make us more aware of our acts and prejudices that corrupt social justice, and give them up, at least for Lent. It’s hard work, but it’s only for forty days during which we might give more thought to the value of living closer to God’s ways. When the forty days are over, and we once again rejoice in the power of the resurrection, it may have led us to a greater commitment to work for improvements in conditions leading to higher standards of social justice in the community, and in our own lives.

It’s not intended to be an exercise adding more guilt to an already overburdened soul. We have enough of that without Lent adding to it. No one advocates some form of spiritual PTSD as a good thing. To the contrary, it is an exercise in more fully recognizing that God’s abounding and steadfast love pours out over each of us, no matter what our condition in life might be. The self examination to which we are called in Lent is meant to reveal to ourselves that with which we have oppressed ourselves, that with which we have treated ourselves unjustly, and give it up to make more room to receive the freeing peace of God’s love, given not earned. It’s ours to have, yours to have, just by making room for it.

We don’t easily give up the burdens, beliefs and attitudes we impose on ourselves. We’re inclined to hold them tightly because they contribute in important ways to defining who we are. Each in our own way wonders, if I give them up, then who would I be? The answer is a new creation in Christ Jesus; still the old you but a better you filled with more freedom and love, and fewer self imposed burdens, prejudices and fears. Lent is a time to experience it anew. Lent is a time to wade into it.

It creates the space needed for each of us to be more committed and confident agents of God’s love working for godly social justice among the people with whom we live. A lenten fast from that which oppresses and impoverishes our lives and the lives of others in our communities makes room for more of God’s abounding and steadfast love to pour into our lives, and through our lives into the lives of others.

Have a blessed Lent.

Who Cares What You Think

Not long ago I posted a response to an article in the Seattle Times that was answered by someone declaring “Who cares what you think?” It may have been said out of contempt or defensive anger, but it wasn’t a bad question. I write on politics, religion and economic matters, and why should anyone care what I think? What makes mine or any voice worth being heard in the public arena about public affairs? There are well paid opinion columnists, authoritative pundits, and authors of respected books who collectively influence the thinking of the nation on these things. I’m not one of them. Nor am I an “influencer,” whatever that is. I’m merely a writer who writes because I feel compelled to write as a way of engaging in reflective thinking about matters I believe are important to us as a people living in community.

Maybe no one cares what I think, but offering a voice in the public debate where every voice has a right to speak, even if not heard, is a mainstay of democracy. Someone posted a meme the other day about freedom not being free but comes with a high cost. It featured the military and well armed civilians as the guarantors of freedom. They aren’t. They never have been. The guarantors are those who speak in the public arena to define and defend what freedom means and requires. Words are what give meaning to freedom, rights and privileges. Words describe to whom they are given, under what conditions, and with what limitations. Words defend them, challenge them, explain them, corrupt them, incite wars for and against them, and negotiate peace to preserve them. Words are the tools by which persons gain, lose, use and abuse power. The military, self appointed militias, and armed insurrectionists are servants in their employ, or enemies. They’re useful servants at times, feared enemies at others, but never more than servants or enemies whose lives are expendable.

The power of words is not lost in Hebrew and Christian scripture where it is not armies but words that bring blessings and curses. James, in his letter, sums it up by warning that not many should become teachers because they will be judged with greater strictness. He goes on to capture in a few short words what God has warned about through the voices of prophets and psalmists. You can read it for yourself in chapter three of the letter, but it goes something like this: The immense power of a horse is guided by the pressure of a small bit in its mouth. Huge ships are guided by small rudders. The tongue is also a small member, yet it boasts great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire, and the tongue is a fire. Every species of animal can be tamed, but no one can tame the tongue. With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. It ought not to be so.

Unknown and little read as I am, by what I write I am a teacher joining with other teachers of greater repute and larger audiences. The power of words is why prayers are offered for those who speak where many listen and write what many read that they may do their part in making the heart of the people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous (BCP, 827). The words I offer may influence very few, but they’re on issues I know something about, and on which I spend time in reflection about how current events are pushing us into the future, and whether that is for good or ill.

Newspapers, books and magazines have been the primary platforms for writers on public affairs. First radio and then television were added in the 20th century. Before that, traveling lecturers could attract full auditoriums of townsfolk willing to pay to hear what they had to say. Now we have the internet where anyone can talk about anything in any way they want to. It’s an exploding nova version of London’s Hyde Park where for years anyone could stand on a soap box to address whoever was willing to listen to whatever was being said. It was also a place where the listening audience, if there was one, was free to speak their own piece in response, which often took the form of verbal ridicule and abuse. The internet offers far more opportunity for verbal ridicule and abuse, we now call trolling, than Hyde Park ever could. I don’t believe we’ve become less civil because of it, it’s just that we’ve made it more easy to be more uncivil to more people with less fear of retribution. But I digress.

My respondent’s “Who cares what you think” is mild by comparison to what others have said, and it’s still a good question. Maybe no one cares, but if it was meant that I should keep my words to myself, and have no right to speak, he/she is wrong. More challenging than being criticized is the moral obligation to say something when someone speaks words inciting injustice, bigotry, and disregard for the dignity of others. It is an obligation not to respond with insults, but with considered, informed rebuttal. I have a moral obligation to listen, when others detect the same in my words, and say so in a considered, informed way. I have a moral obligation to propose what I believe to be a better way, hoping to have some small influence on a future more just and equitable for all. I also have a moral obligation to listen to others, provided they speak with integrity and opinion informed by verifiable evidence.

Politics, Preachers & The Gospel

An unsolicited online critic recently scolded me for making my political voice heard in public places. He said every clergy person he knew kept their political opinions to themselves and I should be ashamed of myself for writing on politics. I feel a certain immodest shame when I write on economics, the famously dismal science about which I have marginal knowledge. I claim modest competency in theology, as long as I’m not too far from my books and Google. As for politics, it’s a field in which I feel comfortable. Thirty years of messing around in the realm of public policy and electoral politics at every level from local to national has given me the courage to write about it. As for being a member of the clergy, the story of Christianity, beginning with Jesus, is the story of pastors and preachers confronting the state from their understanding of the primacy of the Word of God in the world of human affairs.

Politics and preaching are inseparable, which does not mean preaching’s politics has always been God centered, or even wise. A good part of ordinary Sunday preaching for the past sixty years or more has been highly political as pastors catered to the social mores of their congregations, giving them God’s endorsement. It’s a politics of contented appeasement with the way things are that avoids any serious examination of how God might assess it.

For good or ill, preaching has always been political, because politics is about the way we live together in societies organized as communities from families to empires, and everything in between. The good news of God in Christ is not only about being saved, it’s about what God has commanded as the way in which we are to live in community. God is not done speaking, and we should not be done listening.

The political history of the church is filled with the preaching of saints guiding it in more godly directions, but honesty compels us to admit it’s also filled with intentions gone bad, and bad intentions bear ungodly fruit. Some want to blame it all on the Roman emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal, and then made it the official state religion, which, so say some, brought politics into the picture and ruined the Church. It seems an unfair accusation to me. He did only what emperors had always done and were expected to do. To be sure, Church leaders took advantage of their new standing as any reasonable person would.

There remains a romantic illusion that the Church before Constantine, subject to many persecutions, was innocent of the corrupting influence of engagement in politics. I don’t understand where that comes from. Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the state for political reasons. He dared to confront, in the name of God, the state, and the state sanctioned religious hierarchy of Judea – they killed him for it. Paul addressed prefects, proconsuls and kings, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ Jesus that would, if they believed it, change they way they governed. For that he was beheaded as an enemy of the state. The 3rd and 4th century persecutions of the early Church arose because political authority felt threatened by a new teaching that challenged their status.

Some scholars have tried to make Jesus and his disciples into anti government radicals fomenting rebellion. They were certainly accused of that, but neither scripture nor secular testimony supports the idea. The way of Jesus was the way of love, of healing, of reconciliation. It still is. Odd how God’s way of love could be so threatening that those in authority saw it as rebellious and threatening. It still is.

God’s way of love has been corrupted by the Church from time to time. Political authority has a way of corrupting its own environment, even in the Church. Yet it’s necessary to provide structure that makes community possible. Only Marx and anarchists have ever thought otherwise, and, given the opportunity , both lead to totalitarianism. But I digress. It’s true that Christian faith has been used corruptly. It’s been used to promote crusades, persecute Jews, establish theocracies, and given into the hands of princes to advance their own agendas of power and empire. We Anglicans (Episcopalians) are too aware that Henry VIII dragged us into the Reformation for political, not religious, reasons. It is why, as Luther observed, its own reformation is what the Church must always be about.

Amidst all that, it is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ that commands Christians in every age to engage with the world as agents of God’s healing, reconciliation and justice by doing what they can to influence public policies in favor of society’s most vulnerable. My critic believes preachers who speak the gospel boldly are trouble makers upsetting the status quo, worsening the Church’s decline. He may be right, but the gospel comes first. I was struck by a single sentence in Rowan Williams’ book “Christ The Heart Of Creation:” [Consider the possibility of] a Church that was systematically unconcerned about preserving its own space for its own sake.” (p.213). I like that. A Church fearless about proclaiming the gospel is a Church fearless about political engagement.

I suspect my critic’s greater fear is political engagement is a cover for radical, left wing socialism, which, I further suspect, is anything for him not safely conservative. Or perhaps he is opposed to preachers endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and I heartily agree, but that doesn’t rule out standing firmly against political leadership that makes a mockery out of God’s way of love.

A Brief Reflection On Episcopalian Proclamation of The Faith

A brief reflection on an unfinished conversation with someone I never met. Not long ago a question was posed on an Episcopal Church discussion forum asking what influence John Selby Spong had on the the Church. It erupted into hundreds of comments that devolved into unChristian insult slinging more characteristic of presidential tweets, and the site administrator took the whole thing down. I suppose that alone says something about the influence Spong had on the Church.

Anyway, in the midst of it was a heartfelt statement by one contributor, made with some vehemence, that many Episcopalians, indeed many Christians, don’t believe in a theistic God (whatever that is), virgin birth, resurrection or miracles, but they’re still Episcopalians, she among them.

I thought it a curious statement. To me it established the writer as identifying with liturgy, vestments, music, fellowship, and sacramental acts divested of all their meaning: symbols signifying what? Maybe some undefined better way of being an ethical human? That’s certainly a worthy goal, but it has no need of religious ritual designed as a conduit for communion with God whom we know in Jesus Christ. It reminded me of Roman Catholics who are Catholic because it’s always been what defined the family of which they’re a part; it’s ritual comforting, but its meaning unobserved. Or Jews who are culturally-ethnically Jewish, but are otherwise disinterested in what Judaism exists to be. Or people who like gongs, prayer flags, sticks of incense, sitting crosslegged on the floor, and think they can claim to be Buddhist.

The writer can certainly claim to be an Episcopalian. I won’t disagree, and she would always be welcome in the congregations I worship with. But she cannot claim to be a Christian, at least not as the Episcopal Church proclaims it, and not without twisting the meaning of Christianity out of coherent shape. No doubt she would be outraged, and demand to know what gives me the right to say whether she is Christian or not. The Nicene Creed, for all its ancient weaknesses, draws a very large circle encompassing what Christianity is. For an even larger circle, the Apostles’ Creed does the trick. There is tremendous room within both to accommodate an endless variety of ways in which to proclaim and celebrate the faith. There are portals allowing the still speaking and creating Word of God to be seen and heard. But there are limits, and to deny the fundamental truths that define Christianity is to step well outside them.

In the end, her presence, questions and doubts are welcome. Her proclamations, made with the expectation of receiving approval as an acceptable alternative to our received faith, will always be met with an invitation to explore more deeply what she disbelieves in, but they cannot claim to be Epsicopalian.

The Old American West: a story for our times

Heather Cox Richardson (Boston College) wrote a lengthy Facebook post about the importance of narrative in elections, and how the people she calls “movement conservatives” have one. For what it’s worth, what she calls movement conservatives, I call extreme libertarians. But progressives and moderates, struggling to craft a narrative that can be shared between their competing interests, haven’t done it.

From what I can tell, Trump’s “movement conservatives” have a narrative built on aggrieved fear that something important to living the good life in America has been stolen from them by predatory enemies who are people not like them: immigrants fleeing homelands to invade America, domestic minorities demanding more than is their due, people of strange religions, and left wing socialists who are really communists. Maybe they’re not conspiring together, but together they are the thieves who have stolen opportunity to live the good life and intend to destroy it altogether.

Trump is a master showman preying on that narrative, driving it home in simple, repetitive, brutal language with no pretense for the need to be truthful. He may be a sociopathic narcissist interested only in expanding his own realm of absolute authority, but he’s also a tool useful to others who prefer fascism clothed in democratic language, and their near cousins whose wealth and power is dependent on an every expanding defense industry. As it turns out, Trump may be a useful tool, but not one easily controlled, which is something to keep in mind.

It’s a classic pattern explored in depth by Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The rise of German Naziism may be what comes to mind most readily, but Arendt would have her readers pay more attention to the political histories of France, Italy, and even England for parallel insights in American history. When an aggrieved people believe they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs, they want to know who did it, they want extreme punishment, and they want decisive, authoritarian political leadership to make it right. It’s a pattern explored through a different lens by Rene Girard’s scapegoat mechanism but it comes to the same conclusion.

Trumpians, including the many who voted with earnest hope for Obama, really believe Trump cares for them, has their best interests in mind, will pursue and defeat the thieving enemies, and what is rightfully theirs will be returned to them. That his policies are antithetical to their every hope is disbelieved, fake news. That his relatively few accomplishments have enriched the already wealthy, and given them more freedom to conduct business without regard for the public good, is hidden from their view by a combination of snake oil salesmanship and their own self delusion. That his many failures at trade negotiation and international relations have cost Americans dearly, and shredded the nation’s standing in the community of nations, is explained away through bold lies about making other countries pay the cost Americans have borne, and restoring American respect to new highs. All verifiable evidence to the contrary is fake news.

It’s a dangerous, powerful narrative that uses as its foundation the myth of the American West and the self reliant men and women who tamed it. What could be more American than that? It’s not built on history. It’s built on dime novels, B western movies, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. It’s serenaded in cowboy songs, and country music that claim for themselves the true voice of real patriotic Americans that excludes and ridicules urbanites, coastal elites, and intellectuals. Trump loves it because he was rejected from admission to the society of urban elites, and he failed in every intellectual attempt.

Prof. Richardson would have progressives and moderates (whom we used to call conservatives) create a better narrative, and suggests they can’t win without one. She may be right, but what would that better narrative be?

It might start with the myth of the American West. Why not? We all know it. We all love it. In the new narrative all the romance of taming the West will celebrate the pioneers as usual, but add to it the bountiful heritage of American Indians, praise the hard work of Chinese and Irish railroad workers, honor the courage of slaves and former slaves who stood against their oppressors, and honestly acknowledge the violent injustices that the American ideal has slowly overcome. Whatever our shortcomings, we’ve always managed to take steps forward. The tellers of the new narrative need to celebrate each step, no matter how small, as the story of true American grit making progress against those who would deny the American dream to ordinary people – including the white working class of Appalachia and where ever the “heartland” is deemed to be.

Have we ever tried to tell a story like it before? We have, especially in government produced films encouraging the public during the darkest days of WWII. But also, oddly enough, in the many stories of the American West by good old Louis L’Amour. Think about it. The villain is almost always a rapacious land baron running roughshod over the good people of a struggling frontier town. His autocratic rule is enforced by a gang of gun slinging thugs. The hero never acts alone, but always with support from braver, more virtuous townsfolk. The closing moral is that the day of guns and violence is over, the future belongs to community, a cooperative community in which the interests of ordinary people, no matter their estate, are collectively promoted and protected.

The stories are dated by seventy years or more, but they’re powerful stories and they can be used to craft new 21st century narratives featuring progressive (and moderate) heroes who are not out to steal land or jobs, will courageously face down bullies, and will work in collaboration with others for the best in what American freedom means.

The Bell Tolls for Life

The line, “…send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” are the closing words of a 400 year old poem by John Donne that begins with another familiar line, “No man is an island…” Written in a time of a deadly epidemic, it’s a bold statement that amidst uncountable deaths, one must remember that each person, whether great or small, is a member of the whole of humanity, so that each death diminishes ‘me’ because I am involved in humanity.

It’s all the more powerful because death, in European life of 1600, was common enough. What would make anyone’s death a matter of importance? Odds were against children living to maturity. Women dying in childbirth was expected. Wars were what kings fought because that’s what kings did. Punishment by torture and death went unquestioned. Long life was possible, but the exception. Donne himself died at the ripe old age of 59. With death so common, it’s remarkable that he could say with such poetic power that “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”

What’s more, under the mantle of a poem about death the subject is life. If each person’s death diminishes me, then each person’s life, and the quality of it is what gives value to the society in which we live. And not to society in the abstract, but to you and me in particular, because you and I are members of society, by which I mean the communities in which we live, and the structures by which they operate, at every level of formal and informal from local to national. Our individual well being depends on the well being of these communities. They don’t exist by themselves, but in relationship with each other and all of creation. It means my well being, and the well being of the communities in which I live, are dependent in part on the health and well being of creation, all of it. We are beings in an interdependent relationships with each other, with the social structures of our communities, and with all of creation. Our well being, and the potential well being of future generations, depends on the health of each element of those relationships.

It’s a lesson hard to comprehend for those who define themselves mostly through the lens of American individualism’s ideal of self reliance. They aren’t wrong to endorse the values of self reliance, but tend to be blind to the need for a strong social fabric woven of interdependent strands that provides the foundation on which self reliance can prosper.

I’m plowing my way through Rowan Williams’ “Christ, The Heart Of Creation.” For someone like me, it’s like hacking one’s way through a jungle of page long sentences with a dictionary and Google as my machetes. But Williams wrote a couple of relatively simple things that made me think of Donne’s poem. “We cannot make decisions as if our interests were capable of being isolated from that of others.”(203) “[Empathy] (my word) is a responsibility for liberating others into their responsibility; anything other than this would be a violation of the others’ dignity.” (204)

True as the first may be, it would lead to insanity were we to try to understand and integrate the interests of all others who may be affected by every decision we make. We have to operate by “habits of the heart” that guide us with general rules not requiring a lot of thought. Sadly, humanity’s most common rule has been: My people are the chosen people, others not my people may not be people at all, and are unwanted, untrustworthy competitors for the good things in life. It’s a rule that comes in many variations, and each of them leads toward some form of prejudice and bigotry. Ardent individualists are inclined to define my people as themselves. Anything that is a cost assessed on them to provide for the greater community is understood as unfair confiscation of what is rightfully their own to use as they please.

The rules have to change if we want to survive as a species, but the change doesn’t mean my interests have to be subordinated to the interests of others. Williams’ assertion that we each have a responsibility to work at liberating others into their responsibility is remarkably similar to longstanding counsel from management gurus who teach that the responsibility of leaders is to create the conditions in which others can be successful. Both are committed to respecting the dignity of others, and each understands that in so doing, one’s own best interests are also being served.

If we need different habits of the heart to guide us through the ordinary complexities of life, what are they, and on what authority do they stand? They are no more clearly summarized and presented as coming from God’s own words than in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and its near cousin, the Sermon on the Plain recorded by Luke. My contemporary take on them follows. It may be that we find them difficult, but they are the foundations on which we are commanded to rebuild the internalized habits of the heart that serve as something like an autopilot keeping us reasonably sane, confident, and morally safe.

• Be humble in spirit and demeanor

• Mourn for this fallen world and your role in it

• Hunger and thirst for righteousness

• Be merciful

• Be pure in heart

• Be a peacemaker

• Be willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake

• Be a person of integrity

• Let your light so shine that others will give glory to God because of you

• Understand the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments and not just their words

• Seek reconciliation with those whom you have injured

• Let your yes be yes and your no be no

• Confront violence in radically peaceful ways

• Love your enemies

• Pray for those who persecute you

• Don’t act too pious, especially in public

• Give anonymously and with generosity

• Pray with simple words

• Pray as I have taught you

• Serve God and not wealth or earthly riches

• Trust God and don’t worry so much about this life

• Don’t be so quick to judge others; you are not very qualified to do it anyway

• Respect and honor that which is holy

• Ask, knock and seek; God who loves you will answer

• Aim for the narrow doorway – the wide one leads to hell

• Beware of false prophets

• Build your life on the solid rock of faith in God through Christ

Be More Like Pete

I’ve been in a long conversation with a Trump supporting friend who is convinced that Democrats in general, and the Warren/Sanders gang in particular, are intent on destroying the American ideals of free enterprise and individual responsibility. Toward the end of our time together he offered a parable to prove his point. I first heard it years ago. It doesn’t matter that it’s old, he said, the point is that it explains what left wing socialists, meaning all Democrats, are trying to do. So what does he believe Democrats, and especially Warren/Sanders are up to?

They want to redistribute wealth by taking it away from the top and giving it to the bottom, which they intend to do through uncontested legislation.

They approve of giving money to those who don’t work by taking it from those who do. He points to a few proposals to give everyone a minimum cash income as a plain example.

For him, all taxation is expropriation of what hard work has earned to pay for things he may not approve of. Some taxes are needed for essentials, of course, but they are few and must be limited. Moreover, taxpayers should have a vote on whether any taxes should be levied.

The pie is only so big; it can’t be expanded by dividing it, and that’s exactly what Democrats want to do.

The end point of Democratic plans is a society in which there is no point in working hard to become successful, so no one will and the whole nation dies.

It’s hard to argue against these assumptions if one’s mind is fixated on them and popular forms of right wing media provide constant reinforcement. He can easily point to the Warren/Sanders obsession with income and wealth inequality, and Warren’s wealth tax, as proof certain that his fears are justified. Some Warren/Sanders supporters add to the evidence with their emotionally charged diatribes against rich white people. My friend is a hard working guy who built his successful business up from very little. Now retired, he sees Warren/Sanders, their supporters, and the whole Democratic Party as threats to his future, and to the futures of others like him, whom he sees as the true builders and sustainers of communities. That he has succeeded with an abundance of government support is something only vaguely recognized, and he can recognize not at all that many others have been systematically denied the same benefits. That is the mindset against which the presidential race will be run. That is the mindset Trump will speak to in glowing terms of support, lying all the way and not caring one whit whether it’s obvious.

The powerful but more subtle dynamics of using tax, economic, and civil rights policy to expand the field of opportunity to people against whom the field has been tilted is not easy to explain. Using tax policy to discourage super incomes as fundamentally unjust, yet still permitting the accumulation of wealth, is even harder to explain.

Wealth redistribution can be taking from one and giving to another, and that’s what has been the result of policies that front load the economic system to benefit some while limiting or refusing equal opportunity for others. Redressing the injustice of it does not mean a retributive reversal. It does mean making policy changes that equalize opportunity, which will mean more broadly extending some benefits, and restricting or eliminating others.

It will upset the equilibrium of those who are favored by current policies, and no one likes their equilibrium upset if they believe the changes are not in their favor. Those who favor change have a choice: not give a damn how the opposition feels; or tell a new story that honors what is good in the old story. I strongly recommend a new story.

Part of the new story has to be the celebration of representative democracy where differences are worked out, where the executive doesn’t have the authority to do as he/she autocratically will. It has to reframe taxation as investments that will bear significant, knowable returns benefitting more people more equitably. It has to be rich with generosity of spirit and compassionate consideration for those who are the poorest and weakest. It has to be told without rancor. Finally, it has to avoid getting sucked into stupid arguments laid out as bait by trolls and their cousins. It cannot allow itself to be baited by Trump. When it comes to one-on-one campaigning, it has to speak only to the voting public, never to Trump, who must be treated as if he was a cardboard cutout of himself.

Of the current candidates, Buttigieg has done the best job of articulating what a new story might be, and his surprise Iowa finish is a measure of it. It seems unlikely he will be the nominee, but if Democrats expect to win, the nominee better learn how to be like Pete.

Jiminy Cricket, How Can They Be So Beguiled?

It’s frightening to watch a Trump rally and see thousands of followers eat up every word of really bad propaganda spewing from a man who cannot speak in full sentences, gets lost in his own short trains of thought, makes outrageous promises, claims imagined victories, and tells blatant lie after lie seasoned with mere hints of truth.

It’s disheartening to hear him use middle school insults to characterize every person who challenges him, or dares to disagree with whatever he’s most recently said. It’s become the Lingua Franca of Trumpeting twitterers who know no other way of response than juvenile insult.

But wait, there’s more. Mentored by talk radio and the dark side of the internet are millions who have bought into the bizarre world of political conspiracy. Like Pinocchio following Honest John the Fox to the pleasure island, where good times become imprisonment and boys are transformed into donkeys destined for lives of burdened slavery, they reject the world of verifiable truth for a world of believable conspiracy promising the best of all possible conditions if they but surrender to the masters beguiling them. They willingly exchange truth for falsehood, and falsehood for truth. They happily do it with conviction so deep it’s difficult to imagine how they can be saved, or we can be saved from them.

I have a friend, someone I like and spend time with at least once a week. Otherwise intelligent and personable, a life long government employee, he has become an ardent extreme right wing libertarian, completely sold on anti democratic conspiracies. He’s convinced the establishment, in all its permutations, is secretly run by powers intent on enslaving Americans, taking away all their rights.

It starts easily enough. An unending chorus of commentators drives home the thought that conservatives believe in a limited government operating within a balanced budget financed by low taxes, enough for essentials of defense, transportation, and whatever benefits the conduct of free enterprise. Individuals, free to live as they like without undue interference from government, are responsible for themselves and subject to the consequences of their own decisions. Not without compassion for those in need through no fault of their own, emergency help through the local community is what voluntary charity is about.

They are told that liberals, on the other hand, believe in big government financing every conceivable need through out of control spending and ever increasing taxes. Liberals assume no one need take responsibility for themselves, bad decisions need not have bad consequences, and government is needed to regulate every aspect of life, corporate and personal. Moreover, liberals dismiss the need for a strong military to defend against enemies, and are generally unsympathetic toward what conservatives call traditional American values, sometimes called family values.

The opening argument is not without some merit. The mythic values of freedom, individualism, and local community conservatives claim for themselves are worthy, and it’s difficult for them to believe that others, liberals included, treasure them also. People who cast themselves as liberals do believe that government is needed to regulate predatory tendencies fueled by selfishness, greed, and disregard for the well being of others. They are not afraid of a government big enough to take on the most ferocious perpetrators of injustice. Curiously, when it comes to what is best for their own interests, conservatives believe the same.

Left at that, there has always been room for negotiation to reach decisions most could live with. But it has not been left at that. Provocateurs on the far right have crafted hundreds of stories, conspiracies if you will, that liberals have a secret agenda. What they really want is a totalitarian government that strips away rights to private property, nationalizes the corporate world, regulates every aspect of public and private life, and prevents anyone from accumulating wealth. They say they’re democrats, but they’re actually controlled and funded by? By who? By what? It depends on who’s spinning the story. Today’s favorite bugaboo is the mysterious and evil George Soros, but imagination can concoct as many others as it wants. Finally, good freedom loving people are surrounded by enemies. What enemies? Whoever they are, they will be threatening minorities, despicable, unbelievers, who, at any cost, must be denied access to the reins of power, and not allowed to pollute the purity of our people.

For those who, like Pinocchio, buy that line of reasoning, there are only two options for saving American freedom. First, elect as many representatives to government as possible who will not negotiate on anything. If they can’t turn policies around, at least they can bring government to a dead stop. Second, look for a strong leader who promises your hearts desire, and give him (almost always a him) all the authority he needs to set things right again. Pinocchio and Honest John Fox is more than a fairytale. In the version we’ve come to love, Disney created a morality tale warning the world of liberal democracies about the danger of falling for a Mussolini or Hitler, especially for the domestic version of the America First movement that gained serious momentum in the late 1930s.

If liberals have been bound and labeled with fantastical conspiracies about secret cabals exposed only by the unending variety of brilliant deductions of talk radio hosts and internet trolls, it can be said that their own schemes to seize power have been right out in the open where everyone can see them. They get credit for that. The Koch Network is proud of their work and happy for all to know about it. They don’t want anyone to have a list of who they are or how much they’re willing to spend, but they’re not secret about what they do. The Citizens United decisions gave those with control of private or corporate wealth the unlimited right to pay whatever is needed to buy the government they want. Donald Trump is a living, breathing caricature of Honest John Fox. Mitch McConnell proudly and publicly declares his intent to bring down democratic government as we know and treasure it. When it comes to pure unadulterated chutzpah, they’ve got it.

And so my friend has bought into it, all of it, without reservation. He’s decided of his own free will that QAnon is his most reliable source of information, that no major media outlet can be trusted, and that Trump is a misunderstood, honest man intent on saving America. Not far behind is another acquaintance, someone who was once a traditional conservative, who believes, without fear of contradiction, that Sanders and Warren are socialists of the Cuban communism variety who intend to strip away all the wealth of those who have worked hard to earn every penny, and give it to those too lazy or incompetent to make it on their own. Trump, may have his moral failings, but he’s the only one who will make the good times roll for those whose hard work makes them deserving.

The pleasure island to which the Trumpian Honest John Fox entices them is a factory to produce oligarchical fascism suiting the aspirations of those who are suspicious of democracy. It will enslave the very people who think it will guarantee their prosperous freedom. What may save us all are the legions of moderates and liberals who have seen through the charade, are not enticed by its promises, and are willing to engage in the political process with renewed vigor. It may also help that Trump’s impeachment, and the growing trove of evidence enlarging the field of his criminal immorality, will begin to penetrate the consciences of those who have been beguiled. It’s not exactly Jiminy Cricket, but it might suffice.