Personal Responsibility & The Need For Boundaries

A principle of libertarian thought is that the most free society is one that relies on individuals who, acting in their own self interest without government interference, will take personal responsibility for the consequences of their acts, and not interfere with the equal rights of others to do the same. It’s the romantic ideal of western individualism, and partly explains why Governor Gordon of Wyoming, sick with COVID himself, refuses to consider a statewide mask mandate. In his own words, each person should take responsibility for acting responsibly.

The romantic ideal of western individualism was not always recognized in the West. Cattle towns quickly discovered not every person could be counted on to act responsibly toward others. That’s why they banned guns in public places. Towns in the early automobile era discovered the same. That’s why they created speed limits and stop signs. You and I, the good people, can’t be relied on to exercise self interest that respects the well being of everyone else because, even with best intentions, we can’t anticipate all the variables. Among us are some who have little interest in respecting the rights of others. They’re in it for themselves and nobody else.

None of us can get through a day without affecting the well being of others in ways large and small, including public costs thrust on the community as a whole. Apocryphally, Mrs. O’Leary was careless with a lantern, and burned down Chicago. She stands as a parable illuminating truth about the public costs of motor vehicle accidents, house fires, degradation of the environment, entrenched poverty, public health, education, etc. If individuals are less than reliable about acting in their own self interest without doing damage to others, corporations are even less so. Consider the public cost of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, acting in its self interest, that sold OxyContin in ways that decimated communities with lives destroyed by opioid addiction. It’s a cost never to be recovered, no matter how much they’re forced to pay in fines. Expecting individuals to live up to the libertarian code of personal responsibility without establishing boundaries that protect the well being of the community is irresponsible. Expecting corporations to behave responsibly on their own is utter stupidity.

Child psychologists say kids need appropriate moral and social boundaries to creatively explore their expanding world. It sounds counterintuitive that boundaries, of a certain kind, are needed to encourage childlike curiosity and creativity, but without them children are rudderless, unable to calculate consequences, and clueless about how to be responsible for their actions. Inappropriate boundaries stifle creativity with enforced conformity, so it’s always a question of balance. It’s not much different for adults. We adults need to set our own boundaries that preserve our individual freedom, identity, and integrity, and we need the community to set boundaries that respect collective rights for the greater good. The need for boundaries is neither morally good nor bad. The moral virtue of boundaries is what social norms and political negotiation attempt to discover, and it’s always a changing target.

Libertarian thought romanticizes the freedom to live without boundaries in the expectation that people will be responsible for their own actions, not infringe on another’s freedom to do likewise, not create a public cost from their private acts, and not require public assistance in any way. Jewish and Christian scripture attest that humanity is not capable of living into that romantic ideal. It’s not that people are inherently bad, sinful or undependable. Most people want to be good, and do the best they can to live responsibly in community with others, even if they hold libertarian views. But we know from long experience that without restraint, societies devolve into the brutality of selfish competition for power and resources acquired for one’s self at he expense of others, without regard for how it affects the well being of the whole.

The American way trusts that a healthy representative democracy will eventually work out the right balance of boundaries that guarantee the greatest degree of individual freedom for every person that also assures a resilient and sustainable nation. Its Constitution, as amended, is a living document that establishes the framework, and can accommodate a changing balance of boundaries as conditions change. For good or for ill, politics is the process by which it does so.

The Law of Liberty

A man who seldom came to church on Sunday, seldom missed a Wednesday night bible study, and seldom failed to ask difficult questions that kept the evening interesting. One thing bothered him enough to stick with it for several weeks: What is the law of liberty?

James, in his letter, says that “…those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere…will be blessed.” A few sentences later he says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” Jewish tradition holds there are 613 laws in the Torah; none of them are the law of liberty. Words like free and freedom are frequently used in the New Testament, but none imply a law of liberty. Jesus says in John’s gospel that “the truth will make you free” (John 8), but it’s not stated as a law might be stated. So what is the law of liberty?

I don’t think the question can be answered without reflecting on the core meaning of James’ letter, which is that we are to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The law of liberty is to be a doer of the word. The law of liberty is not like a legislative statute. It’s more like a scientific law that states if such-and-such is present, then it will produce a predictable result. If you are a doer of the word, you will experience liberty. To put it another way, if you want to experience liberty, you must be a doer of the word. The most curious part of the law is that the liberty it promises can be had no matter what conditions of oppression one finds one’s self in. That makes very little sense in our time and culture, especially when we’ve been witness to its abuse by those who kept others in forced servitude while promising that, with the right attitude, one could be happy in it. We should know better. Being a doer of the word means confronting the forces of oppression with the power of the word.

So now the question is, be doers of what word? Jesus spoke lots of words. Of which are we to be doers? Anyone who’s read recent Country Parson columns already knows my answer: we are to love God, neighbor and self with everything we have. That condenses the two great commandments, as described in Matt 22 and Luke 10, on which hang all the law and the prophets. It means everything we do, and everything in scripture must be interpreted in their light.

Jesus had a lot to say about going, doing, following. He called some to follow him, and sent others away to proclaim what God had done for them. He told parables that ended with “go and do likewise.” He said: come and pray; you feed them; go into nearby villages and heal the sick. Jesus was a doing messiah, and he instructed his disciples to follow his example. How could James understand the two great commandments in terms other than to be doers of the word, and the word to be done was to love God, neighbor and self in thought, word and deed. That is the law of liberty.

It is not a simple law. It’s not a matter of do this or else. It’s a law that establishes the conditions necessary for experiencing a holy sense of liberty, knowing that one is already living into one’s eternal life, and has the joy filled privilege of sharing the good news of God in Christ that calls all to walk in the way of love, experiencing liberty for themselves. The hagiography of the early martyrs attests that is what they did, even to their death. Not many of us are called to that kind of witness these days. Moreover, their history creates a false expectation that walking in the way of love is nothing but eternal joy regardless of what’s going on in the world. It doesn’t work that way. Living with confidence in one’s liberty that comes by walking in the way of love does not exclude discouragement, failure, pain or tragedy. It does not expect one to go through life with a forced smiley face no matter what.

The law of liberty imparts a type of contentment and inner strength sure and certain that the light of Christ one bears cannot be extinguished by the powers of darkness. It’s a contentment finding its confidence in “…him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than we can ask or imagine…” (Eph. 3) The law of liberty fnds its place in imperfect human beings who are able to live into it only in part, but that is enough. Exemplars of the law of liberty might not even be Christian, at least in the formal ways we define it. There is not one person who claims to be Christian who cannot enjoy the benefits of the law of liberty by walking in the way of love. Not one. But no one has to. It’s a free choice. One is always free to choose between holy liberty, and something else that isn’t and can’t be holy liberty. Choosing liberty does not take us out of the world, it takes us deeper into it as bearers of light poking into dark corners.

Take the risk. Choose liberty.

Advent in a Bizarre Year of Absurdities

The season of Advent approaches. For Christians, at least some of them, it’s a time of patient waiting for the annual reminder that God has not abandoned us, but came among us in the most intimate and vulnerable way possible. It’s been a long, difficult year. We’re tired of waiting, tired of not knowing, tired of COVID and masks, tired of politics and elections, and frankly, tired of each other. Some of us are tired of wondering whether God even cares.

Maybe we’ve grown soft. Waiting shouldn’t be so difficult. A difficult year like this is only twelve months long. It’s not that much. The world didn’t know for whom it was waiting, but the prophecies announcing the messiah came 500 years before his birth. The ancient Hebrews waited 400 years to be led from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, and, as the story goes, another 40 years to make the trip. The generation of the Great Depression waited a decade for it to cease, and then endured a world war before anything like ‘normal’ would be theirs again. In the scheme of things, twelve months isn’t much.

Consider the words of Habakuk who wrote: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Hab 3)

This year required of us the modest sacrifice of using common sense to protect ourselves and others from the pandemic at the cost of less travel, reasonable terms of isolation, practicing good hygiene, and wearing masks. We could have endured less economic hardship and fewer deaths, but too many of us found that too hard, and believed these small sacrifices were a draconian threat to one’s personal freedom to do as one likes. Even more astounding are the numbers who denied the pandemic was real, or serious, even as hospitals and morgues filled to capacity.

As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, we had the most bizarre presidential election in two hundred years. The transition period has turned into a theater of the absurd in which a large portion of the audience believes phantasmagoric delusions of election fraud to be true, based on not one scintilla of evidence whatsoever. How can that be?

Into this mess comes Advent, our annual season of patient waiting, reminding us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than ours. As the rain and snow come down from the skies , and do not return until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall God’s word be; it shall not return to God empty, but shall accomplish what God intends, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it. (Isa. 55)

Christmas will come, as it always does, on December 25. The nation will celebrate a secular festival of hope fueled by the sentimental magic of a gross of Hallmark movies. Christians will celebrate along with everyone else, but ours will always be anchored in the remembrance that the Word of God became flesh as a helpless baby born in dark and troubled times, far darker and more troubled than ours. If the light of Christ could not be extinguished then, it cannot be extinguished now.

A new year is dawning for all of us, and a vaccine with it. How shall we enter into it? For Christians, perhaps we need to be reminded that Jesus gave us but two commandments to follow, and in two thousand years we have not yet learned to follow them. This could be the year.

Mutant Libertarians & Island Hopping

Comment strings on Twitter do not add up to conversation. That’s especially true when an interlocutor defends extreme libertarian views by demanding to know what’s wrong with his ideas, one question after another, each easily answered but never leading anywhere. It’s a tactic out of Eric Bernes’ popular 1964 book, “Games People Play” – an adult version of toddlers repetitively asking ‘why.’ It can be stopped only by responding with Socratic questions of one’s own, and then the game suddenly ends.

If you have ever taken an online test purporting to reveal where you are on the spectrum of political thought, you’ve probably discovered some libertarian leanings. I have. It places a high value on individual and property rights, personal responsibility, freedom from government interference, and restraints on the power of government. American to the core, but in recent years it’s mutated into an extreme form that gained enough viability to elect Trump, and will no doubt remain long after he’s gone. The mutant form is a closed system of thinking admitting little deviation. It captures the basics of libertarian thought, and forces it into the servitude of selfish individualism characterized by the likes of Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society.

Mutant libertarians self identify as righteous patriots defending a fortress under siege. Under siege by whom? By a mob of socialists, communists, the lazy poor, unwanted immigrants, liberal elites and other detested rabble manipulated by various unseen puppet masters. They see the mob as a threat to their individual and property rights. The mob has no sense of personal responsibility, and expects the unlimited power of an unrestrained government to care for them from cradle to grave. If the mob succeeds, dictatorial government will control every aspect of personal life. Because this mutant libertarianism is a closed system under siege, intellectual, fact based challenges can be understood only as unpatriotic mob thrown hand-grenades to be tossed back before they go off. There can be no negotiation with the enemy, no terms by which truce can be had.

It leaves progressives angry and confused. After all, progressive ideas are about empowering more individual rights for more people, respecting property rights in more equitable and sustainable ways, celebrating personal responsibility, limiting government interference in the choices people make, and being fiscally prudent with the peoples’ money. Aren’t they libertarian principles too? There are sticking points to be worked out. Progressives, by and large, are not afraid of government, and are willing to use its power for the good of the people. They think of taxes as the peoples’ collective investment in the future of the nation, and they expect them to be levied on all with fairness. They’re disturbed by embedded discriminatory practices and policies that have made it more difficult for some to have access to the same rights and privileges that have accrued to the white population over the last few centuries. These are sticking points that make negotiation difficult, but not impossible.

What’s the right strategy for engagement? What’s most likely to work. I suggest we consider a lesson learned from the South Pacific in WWII – island hopping. It left some enemy strongholds stranded on their island fortresses as American forces moved on to more important and more winnable targets. Mutant libertarians, who believe themselves to be under siege, are cemented into their cult like ideological fortresses. No amount of engagement will move them. Leave them there. Trump got seventy million votes, but they’re not all mutant libertarians. Most are ordinary people who want good jobs, a decent life, and are anxious about societal changes over which they have little control. They’ve been fed mutant libertarian propaganda ever since Obama was elected, but they never joined the cult. What they need to know, is that progressives are with them about jobs and a decent life, and that progressives are not going to take away their freedoms, or burden them with excessive taxation. Government is not going to intrude on their private lives, but it will give greater assurance that the changes and chances of life won’t bankrupt them, that their air and water will be cleaner, and that the world they’ll leave to their grandchildren will be a good one.

It’s a message of hope often shared within progressive circles, but seldom sold to the general public with any skill. Instead, progressives have wasted too much effort indicting the mutant libertarians. The best of traditional American values are progressive. Leave the mutants to grumble in dis-ease of their own making. Sell the best of American values and the hope for a better life they offer.

Sheep, Goats & Me

The liturgical year ends with Matthew’s familiar parable of the sheep and goats. As a refresher, at the end of the ages people will be gathered as if so many sheep and goats. Those who have tried to live into the commandments to love God and neighbor, emphasizing justice for the most vulnerable, will be called blessed and invited into God’s presence. Those who did not will be shuffled off to an accursed place of extreme discomfort. The admission test will be whether one was generous toward those who thirsted for a cup of water, were strangers in need of welcome, were naked and needed clothes, or were in prison and needed visitors. Those who were generous toward the least of those in need, will pass the test. Those who were not, even though they professed faith, will fail.

It’s a parable that’s come up in questions from bible studies with clients at the local rescue mission, the wealthy elite, and ordinary people like you and me. Some worry about whether they will be sheep or goats. Others are certain of who they are, and equally certain of who everyone else is. Most believe it’s one or the other. You’re either a sheep or a goat. There’s nothing in between. A few have serious quantitative questions. How many cups of cold water are needed to get an A in this course? Can I substitute clothing for prison visits? Is there another menu with other things on it? The parable has led some to the odd assumption that sheep are good animals and goats are bad. For the record, not all sheep are good, or so say’s God through the voice of Ezekiel. Fat sheep, it seems, are noted for pushing, shouldering and butting weaker animals until they’re forced to flee. For what it’s worth, translations into languages that have never seen a sheep or goat use local animals that work well enough to tell the story. I don’t think Jesus minds.

But I digress. The parable is about sheep and goats. Are you a sheep or a goat? How do you know? Speaking only for myself, some days I’m a sheep, some days a goat, and most days a combination of both. I can be both generous and stingy, fight for justice and be unjust, selfish and giving, kind hearted and mean spirited, courageous and cowardly. It’s probably not going too far out on a limb to suggest you are too. This is not a parable about one or the other. We’re all part sheep and part goat. The point is that God is serious about the commandment to love God and neighbor, serious about issues of social and economic justice, and serious about blessings accruing to those who do things to make things better for the least, and thus for all.

Wanting to be a sheep is always a good thing, but it’s equally important to remember that sometimes we are among the least of these, and in great need. Not that we are literally thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or in prison, but that we have come to a place in life where the resources at our disposal are woefully inadequate. We thirst for someone to love us when we are unlovable. We’re strangers, sometimes in strange places, and sometimes in our own homes – we need welcome. We feel naked in a world of others fully clothed. We’re in the prisons of our own minds. It happens to each of us, even though we can be tempted to think we’re the only ones. That’s what humility is all about. It’s the recognition that there is very little distance between us and the least of these, and sometimes we are among them as one of them.

Do you remember the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer? Jesus said the tax collector would enter the kingdom before the Pharisee. Neither would be kept out, but the Pharisee first needed to learn a lesson: that he is one with the tax collector. The tax collector wasn’t innocent. He also had many lessons to learn, lessons the Pharisee could teach him, but first the Pharisee needed to learn he was one with the tax collector. The thirsty, strangers, naked and imprisoned are not the targets of our beneficence, they are us in conditions of life different only by degree.

I have confidence that when the time comes, God will dispose of my goatiness. In the meantime, if I am to be serious about following Jesus in the way of love, I also have to be serious about living into the lessons of the parable because God is serious about them. I also have to be cognizant of my limitations. I don’t have every gift, only a few. I’m not expected to use the gifts I don’t have, nor am I expected to use my gifts beyond my abilities. Neither are you.

Are You In or Are You Out?

We spend an inordinate amount of time wondering, debating and worrying about who is in and who is out. I’m not a big fan of movies or t.v. series, but trailers and scenes stream unbidden across my computer screen, so I have a sense of how many scripts are dedicated to coming of age angst over being in or out, adult angst over being in or out, career angst over being in or out, and so it goes. And why not? Each of us has our own story of personal experience struggling with being in, out, or navigating the path between. Being the social animals that we are, life is not fully had if it is not had in community. We want and need to be part of a herd, flock, tribe or clan. In fact, we want and need to be part of several at the same time, each serving a different purpose, and we need to know our place in each. It’s nothing new. Humans in every time and culture have felt the same need.

The question of who is in and who is out of the community of God’s people has been the subject of religious debate and opinion for as long as religions have existed. Hebrew scripture tells the story of a people learning, with considerable difficulty, what it meant to be God’s people chosen to bear the flame of God’s grace for all peoples to see. In Jesus, we Christians see that flame spread throughout the world for all to see and take as theirs. It’s an act of holy generosity hampered by well meaning Christians who want to control tightly how it’s shared by setting many rules for who is in and who is out.

Christians scripture takes exception to religious rules about who is in and who is out, and none does it more powerfully than Luke’s gospel where a series of parables are grouped together on the road to Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified. They reveal there are few who are cast out. God’s grace will go to extreme measure to seek out the lost and missing, no matter how insignificant others might think them to be. They demonstrate that there are many, unnamed, unheralded who are in and always have been. One has to work at it to evade God’s grace. Self righteous rule setters aren’t out, but their stingy lack of godly generosity creates obstacles that make it difficult for others to get in. God does not approve.

It begins with the recitation of the two greatest commandments (Luke 10) that establish the standard by which God’s grace is to be shared generously. The story of the Good Samaritan makes that clear enough with a despised Samaritan as the bearer of grace provided to a robbed and beaten Jew, who lived by rules excluding Samaritans from the possibility of being in God’s grace. In the parable, the Samaritan, the beaten man, and the anonymous inn keeper are all in. No one is out. Not even the priest and levite who passed by on the other side.

The parables come in quick succession, and each is fascinating in its own right. We can get distracted easily by parsing their individual meanings as if they weren’t grouped in the context of Jesus’ final few days of public ministry. Maybe that’s the lesson of the story about Mary and Martha, and how easily Martha’s duties distracted her from what was going on around her. As if to remind us, the readers, Luke inserted elements of the Sermon on the Mount that add practical guidance to the great commandments. Admonitions, as it were, not to water them down with trivial objections.

With that in mind, it’s a deep dive into a lost sheep, a lost coin, a prodigal son, dishonest stewards, the rich man and Lazarus, ten lepers, an unjust judge, and a pharisee and tax collector at prayer. They have a lot in common. God will seek out the lost who have strayed from the flock. They will not be abandoned, at least not by God. They will be brought in. In the meantime, the flock remains safely in, even if God appears to have left them on their own.

The coin did not wander away. Its owner misplaced it, but it was of such great value that all else was set aside until it was found and restored to its place. How many Psalms complain that God has forgotten ‘his’ people, and how often have you and I felt that God has lost interest in us, abandoned us? It’s a real feeling, and not wrong, but God will sweep the cosmos to see that we are found and restored. On that we can rely. We’re not out, but in, and always have been. And so is every other soul who has felt abandoned by God.

Even the sniveling, selfish prodigal son who came crawling back with a well rehearsed plea of dubious credibility was welcomed back. He’s in, not out. And so is his self righteous, grudge bearing brother who always obeyed and never wandered. They’re in, not out.

There are some who are not in, but they have chosen to be out. Isn’t that what the story of the dishonest steward is about. Make friends dishonestly with dishonest people serving a dishonest master, and you will have chosen to be out of God’s grace. It’s not an irredeemable choice. You can choose again, but some won’t. For more on this see C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.”

It makes me wonder about the rich man and Lazarus. A deep chasm lay between Father Abraham and Lazarus in heaven, and the rich man in Hades. Even for Abraham there was no way across. But not for Jesus who descended to the dead and rose again, not for him through whom the chasm was created, and through whom it is spanned. Hope remains for the rich man, if he will accept it. The parable doesn’t end on a promising note. The rich man, even in Hades, can’t get over the idea that some are in and some are out by virtue of their social status and wealth.

Who could be more out than a leper, and here were ten of them, a full minion, except one was a Samaritan. Despite their miserable life, they were never out of God’s grace, which was extended over them in healing power for the asking. “Go show yourselves to the priests,” said Jesus, and nine went off to do as they were told. The lone Samaritan, despised among fellow lepers, returned to the only priest he was allowed to approach, Jesus our great high priest. Was he the only one in? No. All ten were in. No one was out.

So what about the unjust judge? If he could be persuaded by a pestering plaintiff, what about God who loves with generosity, and has a bias for the oppressed? They’re in no matter how hard it is for them in a society that doesn’t care.

And so we come to two people at prayer. One was an insider, a pharisee who had devoted his life to knowing the rules, following them, teaching others to do the same, and confident of living into God’s grace. The other was an outsider, an outlaw, a tax collector who colluded with the occupying enemy against his own people. In the universe of God’s grace, they’re both in, and to the horrified dismay of the disciples, Jesus declared the despised outsider to be in first.

What ties these parables together? They each expand on what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27) Lived into the way of love leaves no room for worrying or judging about who is in or out of God’s grace. With sure and certain confidence that we are in, we will find it easier to set our prejudices aside, the ones that incline us to judge others harshly. Knowing that we are in God’s grace means worrying less about whether we’re in or out in the social standings of someone else’s idea of what it means to be in or out. Are you not in the Social Register? Are you not on the A list, not even the D list? Does it matter? You’re on God’s list, and there is none higher.

But wait, there’s another question. Is there a time when someone should be excommunicated? If excommunication is understood to mean out of communion, and not condemned, the answer is yes. The time comes when someone, maybe you or me, becomes so toxic to the community that the community’s well being, and the well being of individuals in it, is in serious jeopardy. The same is true for relationships of all kinds. The excommunicated may be out to us (for a season), but they are not out to God, and that we must remember.

The Loyal Opposition, Democracy & McConnell

A long time acquaintance, hoping for Republicans to retain control of the Senate, said that for the nation to move forward, it is best to have at least one house of Congress controlled by the party not represented in the White House. I agreed, provided the other party is the loyal opposition, something we have not seen under Mitch McConnell. Well, said he, that’s the kind of quibbling that perpetuates divisiveness and hatefulness, after all, no one has clean hands. No, said I, McConnell’s unprecedented obstruction has no equivalence on the other side. You can see where this was destined to go. The question about loyal opposition got diverted to a quibbling argument over quibbling.

My friend had a point. Democracies require a loyal opposition if they are to remain healthy, but what is a loyal opposition? Some quick research revealed the first use of the term in 1826 in the British parliament to describe the minority party as “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” It meant that however much the minority party might object to the majority’s policies, they would remain loyal to the British Constitution and monarch. They could not be accused of treason. That’s not a trivial claim. In previous centuries, the emerging British democracy had often resorted to charges of treason when faced with political opposition, charges backed up by the stake or gallows. Since then, the idea, and ideal, of a loyal opposition has become an essential element of thriving democracies, including our own.

A Wikipedia article cited a Stanford University speech by Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of the loyal opposition in the Canadian House of Commons: “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself… Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”

Embedded in the principle of loyal opposition is the assumption that loyalty to the Constitution as servants of the same law implies something more constructive than simple obstruction. In Westminster style parliaments, the opposition has little power to obstruct, but tremendous opportunity to influence the public debate through intense interrogation and a bully pulpit of their own. Our republican style democracy, on the other hand, gives the opposition less opportunity to influence the public debate, but more tools to delay and derail, and those tools have sometimes been used to grind the business of government to a proverbial snail’s pace, and obstruct completely work that persons of good faith would otherwise agree on, if negotiating in good faith was encouraged.

Negotiating in good faith has not been encouraged by libertarian wings of the GOP since 2007. Mitch McConnell is no libertarian, but they provided him with what he needed to exercise a blatant and successful power grab branded by extreme obstructionism. It began in 2010 when he declared his intension to make Obama a one term president. Under no circumstance would Republicans negotiate in any way that might give Obama a legislative victory working in his favor. It mattered not what might be good for the nation, it only mattered that the President not win, or even eke out a negotiated agreement. It’s an extreme form of The Prisoner’s Dilemma played out in real life with betrayal as the opening gambit. Making it worse, it involved decisions that affected the health and well being of the entire nation. It’s a cruel, vindictive, morally corrupt gambit. Its only purpose is to seize political power by emasculating the opposition without regard for the good of the people. He used all the tools at his disposal as minority leader, and even more as majority leader when he refused to consider routine appointments to fill federal judgeships, including Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. He’s continued the same tactic during Trump’s administration, this time to throw a defensive shield around an impeached incumbent, while preventing needed economic and health care reforms. We may never know what motivations lie behind it, but the vitriol with which it drips suggests something deeply personal.

It is not the model of loyal opposition our democracy needs to remain healthy. Would the Democrats do the same if they roles were reversed? I doubt it. They never have, and it’s not the style of their current leaders, but it’s also not the point. The point is, McConnell has done what he’s done. No one else has. It is he, and not someone else, we have to contend with. So what’s to be done?

The Magic Eight Ball says conditions are not favorable. Tea party libertarianism has morphed into Trumpism that, with its many grievances, leans heavily toward anti-democratic authoritarianism. It’s unlikely to go away once Trump is gone because some of its grievances have merit, others are illusory but firmly fixed in its ideology, and it’s not giving up its new found voice. Oligarchs of the Koch Network variety hold Trumpsters in contempt, but recognize them as useful pawns in their attempt to dismantle government restraints on their freedom to run things as they want without interference or oversight. McConnell, I suspect, shares little in common with tea partiers or oligarchs. He wants political power for power’s sake. To the extent it can enrich him, so much the better.

Perhaps he will look around, and, knowing his time in office is nearing its end, choose to attend to the needs of the nation as a way to salvage his legacy. Maybe. It could happen. Maybe a new Republican Party will emerge, conservative to be sure, but committed to serving as the loyal opposition. It’s possible. Most likely, the new administration will have to use every tool at its disposal to back McConnell into a corner from which he must negotiate, a grimace on his face, but negotiate nevertheless. In the meantime, we can only wait and see what happens.

Laying Groundwork for National Reconciliation

I’ve awakened each morning to political news that was not much different from the night before, or the morning before that. Even when I turn to international news sources, the American election dominates the headlines. The majority of American voters are hanging on anxiously waiting for Biden to top 270 electoral votes, and the long four year nightmare to near its end. But there is a sizable minority that understands politics as either winning or losing, with no possibility of cooperative work amongst differing views.

Hard core Trumpsters are convinced fraud is rampant in vote counting that they believe is secretively manipulated by Democratic operatives. More “normal” Trump voters, concerned about jobs, white status, street crime, and long held grievances against coastal elites, upper classes, and liberals in general, are loathe to give up on the man they know in their hearts is an untrustworthy, unsound, wannabe dictator. Some have become convinced that anything progressive, liberal, or Democratic is radical left wing socialism bordering on communism, and why not? It’s been driven into them by tea party propaganda since 2008. Asking them to think otherwise is almost pointless.

There are in the midst of all this, far right wing libertarians for whom all taxes are theft, and all government a threat to freedom. They imagine a fantastical paradise of unfettered individual rights to live as one pleases, while they parasitically enjoy the benefits of liberal democracy. They’re a separate case to be bracketed for the moment.

What will it take for national reconciliation? Is reconciliation even possible? For that matter, who wants it? On one hand, Trump supporters appear to be disinterested in reconciliation. They’ve been sold on the idea that it’s either win or lose. There isn’t anything else. Progressives of one ilk or another proclaim reconciliation is high on their list of priorities, which they’re inclined to see as mass conversion to their way of thinking. How likely is that?

There is one immutable truth in the field of applied management theory: You cannot motivate anyone else to do anything. All you can do is create conditions favorable to motivation. Its corollary is, you cannot change anyone else. You can only change what you do and think. With that in mind, if progressives, liberals, Democrats, and others who want a different American ethos with less suspicious, conspiratorial divisiveness, are going to have to take a hard look at themselves to see what they can do differently. Part of that is to become less arrogantly dismissive of the ignorance, fears and anxieties of Trump supporters. Some humility is called for.

It’s not wrong to want dependable, good paying jobs. It’s not wrong to want a decent education for your kids. It’s not wrong to want safe streets, affordable housing, fair taxes and honest government. It’s not wrong to value your own rights and freedoms, or to be anxious about perceived threats to them. There is nothing deplorable about wanting such things, even when couched in deplorable terms.

When St. Paul was working with Corinthians stubbornly resistant to changing their ways, he tried all the usual stick and carrot moves with little success, but he hit on a new path at the end of chapter 12 and into 13 that should be instructive for us also. He acknowledged that each of them had something to offer, even if none had it all, and that was a good start. Then he showed them a still more excellent way. That doing all things as a gift of love for the good of others would bring them closer to the good they desired for themselves. That being patient and kind, not envious, boastful or arrogant, would bring them closer to the good they desired for themselves. That being irritable or resentful would drive the good away. That, in this life, we see dimly and not to let that get us down.

Don’t expect perfection, or, as the saying goes, don’t let perfection become the enemy of the good.

It should be instructive to us in two ways. First, If there is a better, more excellent way to achieve some of the hopes and dreams of Trump supporters, it’s up to us, not them, to demonstrate what that is. Second, it can only be demonstrated by living it out in our own lives by what we say and do, which cannot be from a place of arrogant superiority. Paul, of course, was trying to instill a higher level of discipleship in the lives of new Christians unsure about what it meant to be followers of Jesus. He couldn’t make them do it, he couldn’t motivate them to do it, but he could create conditions that pointed the way. I am more interested today in laying the groundwork for a sort of reconciliation in civil society by using the godly inspired guidance that was given to Paul.

Skeptics are likely to scoff. All I can say is, if God says this is the way to go about it, we should pay attention.

Fairness, Toddlers, Maidens & Politics

Fairness. We want fairness, and we want it from an early age. “It’s not fair” is among the first phrases toddlers learn. They may not know what fairness is, but they do know that something is out of whack, unbalanced, and not in their favor. That life is not fair is the tough lesson most people learn as they begin to mature, but fairness is still the measure of things, and we want things to be fair. What is fairness?

Drawing from the ancient philosophers, we might say that fairness is having all that we rightfully deserve in a world where everyone has all that they rightfully deserve. Some might have more, but not too much more, and some might have less but not too much less. Under conditions of fairness, all things balance out naturally over time without artificial stimulus or restraint. As toddlers know, it doesn’t work that way. However little they understand fairness, they do know that what’s fair is supposed to be satisfying to them, with little regard for how satisfying it is to others. They also know power exercised by adults imposes arbitrary rules of fairness that are not always in their favor. It doesn’t take long for them to discover how to manipulate conditions of fairness in a world where different adults have different rules. Nor does it take long to discover the brutality of competition with other children for satisfaction of fairness to self no matter the cost of injury to others. Ideas about fairness in the adult world often appear to differ only in degree, not in kind, from those of the toddler world.

Ancient philosophers also held that a mature understanding of fairness as having all that one rightfully deserves meant not desiring to have more than that, even if more comes into one’s life – it’s OK to enjoy it, but not to desire it. It also meant not despairing if less was one’s lot in life. It requires discipline that comes only with maturity. Greek and Roman philosophers developed schools of discipline. The Stoics, for instance, taught the principles of disciplined fairness, but they recognized it would benefit only the elite few. The masses would remain as undisciplined as toddlers, and that’s the way the world works. It’s not fair.

Early Christian leaders had a different understanding. God’s immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have the means of grace and hope of unending new life has created conditions of holy fairness under which all other conditions are subsumed, if we allow it to be so. As St. Paul said, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4) It’s true, but it also has limitations.

Unfairness is the natural state of affairs in the human world for all the reasons intuited by toddlers and discerned by philosophers. Those with power and wealth are able to structure society to work in their favor, to the disfavor of others, and they do. Societies compete with each other to tilt the scales even to the point of destroying each other. Excessive socioeconomic unfairness often ends in revolution when the disadvantaged turn the tables, not to make things fair, but to take revenge. It’s a toddler’s melt down battle royal over toys, treats, potties, and teacher attention acted out on the world stage by adults who should know better.

It’s hard to live with Pauline confident contentment, but Jesus calls us to live, as best we are able, into conditions of fairness even as we are subjected to the unfairness of the world around us. It’s to be an active way of living, not passive. We have a responsibility to do what we can in the places where we are to move conditions toward fairness so that each person is able to have all they rightfully deserve without obstacles deliberately placed in the way of some, and the way deliberately eased for others. Some might have more, but not too much more, and some might have less but not too much less.

Christianity lives into and out of the story of God’s people as recorded in holy scripture. It suffers no illusion that fairness will balance out naturally over time without artificial stimulus or restraint. God has told the peoples time and again what is needed for a full and blessed life. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5); “…do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6) It’s only within the structure of a society governed through wise laws that it’s possible to move in that direction. A government of wise laws is not easy to come by because toddler like competition for laws to be favorable to me, but not necessarily to you, makes movement in a godly direction difficult.

In America, as in many other countries, that means Christians must be active in political engagement, not to make the country a Christian theocracy, but to encourage the application of godly principles of fairness in public policy as illuminated by Jesus. And just to be clear, they have nothing to do with homosexuality, abortion, or the subordinate place of women. They have everything to do with economic and social justice, as God has revealed in holy scripture. Some may be called to political activism, others to simply demonstrating the way of love in daily life, some to service as elected representatives, others to the civil service, some to leadership in business, others to leadership in education, each to the work for which they are fitted, but all as followers of Jesus Christ.

The question of fairness will be a struggle for those who worship in churches this Sunday when the parable of ten maidens, five wise and five foolish, who waited to greet the homecoming of a bridegroom (Matt. 25). There’s little fair in it. It’s not fair that the bridegroom was rudely late in coming, not fair that five maidens with oil were unwilling to share with five who had not brought enough, not fair that after patient waiting some were refused entry to the feast for trivial errors, not fair at all. The parable is set in the midst of many warnings about civil unfairness and the end of times when each will be held accountable to God. The warnings reveal that issues of godly fairness are to be taken seriously. Perhaps the lesson of the five foolish maidens is that complacency in an unfair world is no excuse. Will the door be closed forever? Probably not. Only a few moments later, the text will turn to the Last Supper when Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, gave the gift of Holy Communion to those who were about to betray him. It is the holy food and drink of new and unending life proclaiming the forgiveness of the sins of the world. In it, “steadfast love and faithfulness wil meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. …Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.” (Ps. 85) They are the steps we are called to follow.