Why Is It So Blasted Difficult For The Rich to Get Into The Kingdom of God?

Jesus warned that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich person to enter the kingdom. That sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? He went on to note it appears impossible for mortals, but for God all things are possible, which sounds like a hopeful loophole. If there’s one thing the rich are good at, it’s finding loopholes.

So, why is it so hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven? Part of the answer comes early in the life of God’s people. The Hebrews had followed Moses through forty years of desert wanderings, and were now on the verge of entering the promised land. Moses, knowing his time was at an end, gave a farewell address in which he reminded them of God’s laws and warnings. Among them was this: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses…and your silver and gold is multiplied…then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8)

It isn’t a matter of failing to walk in God’s ways. All have sinned and fallen short. That’s what reconciliation is about and available to all without discrimination. Neither does God have anything against wealth, per se. Scripture celebrates more than a few wealthy people: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Boaz, Esther, Nicodemus, Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Joseph of Arimathea, and others. It is a matter of someone thumping one’s chest, harrumphing that they are a self made man or woman. They owe their wealth to no one else. They pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They made it by themselves. They didn’t need help, they didn’t ask for help, they didn’t get help. As for God, if there is a God, ‘he’ wasn’t any help at all. That “I alone” hubris is what closes off the way to God’s kingdom. To oppress the poor and disadvantaged, to arrogantly disregard wisdom, to let might be the law of right and see the weak as useless, is to court God’s anger. (Wisdom of Solomon 2)

God is equally ill disposed toward those who claim God favors them over others as if they’d entered a divine partnership imparting a certain elite class status available only to the few who are tight with God. Remember when the disciples argued over who was the greatest? What did Jesus say? “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9) To be in partnership with God is to recognize that you are not the owner of anything, but a temporary steward accountable to God. To be sure, hard work, perseverance, intelligence, good planning and good luck may bring wealth into your possession. You’v earned it, but it’s yours only for a short time. All that you have will pass into the hands of someone else: sellers, buyers, heirs, thieves, the landfill. While you have it, you are accountable to God for how it’s used.

The reason it’s difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom is the ease by which they claim to have done it themselves, no thanks to anyone. That may be especially true where the self interest of rugged individualism is revered as a high ideal. Extreme individualism is easily blinded to the conditions and structures society has created that pave roads and open doors to wealth creating opportunity. It is easily blinded to the importance of community and its greater good, and it fails to recognize social structures that create obstacles for others to have access to the same opportunities. It gives only a passing nod to the roles of family, friends, mentors, connections, and pure chance that make wealth possible. It encourages the sense that class and hierarchy prove some people are superior to others, as is their right.

In our society, hyper individualism is quick to assume the only alternative is nanny state welfare that emasculates populations, turning them into lazy takers expecting someone else to take care of them. Their either this or that world view makes it difficult for them to recognize how communities, working together for the common good, make it possible for wealth to be generated. Their belief that what is theirs is theirs alone inclines them to object to paying their fair share of the cost of public goods, or to deny there are such things as public goods.

In a sense, it is their own stinginess that squeezes the doorway to God’s kingdom down to the size of the eye of a needle, and they have become the camel. Does that mean they’re lost? Thanks be to God that in ‘him’ all things are possible. Jesus told a parable about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man treated Lazarus with contempt, but when they both died, the rich man found himself tormented in Hades while, across a deep chasm, he could see Lazarus comforted in heaven by Abraham. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus with water to ease his suffering, but Abraham said neither he nor Lazarus had the ability to cross over. Jesus told the parable as a warning to the wealthy, but what Abraham and Lazarus couldn’t do, Jesus can. Hope remains. Rescue is offered. It has only to be accepted.

Here’s the strange part. The kingdom of God is not far off. It isn’t an afterlife reward of eternity in paradise. It’s a way of life that can be lived into now, in this life, and through the gates of death into a new and better life yet to come. How sad it is that the rich can so easily find it so difficult. Following Jesus in the way of love is to live into abundance of life. If wealth should be a part of it, the work of holy stewardship comes with it, and what a delight that can be.

“Get Behind Me, Satan!”: What did Jesus mean & who was Satan?

“Get behind me, Satan!”  Peter was appalled that Jesus would willingly go to Jerusalem, knowing he would there be killed.  Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, Peter had figured that part out, but the idea that a few local leaders could arrest, torture, and execute the Messiah was just plain wrong, and he wasn’t afraid to say so to Jesus’ face.  With some anger in his voice, Jesus turned on Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” (Mark 8)

I once knew a guy who was convinced it was proof that Peter was Satan in disguise, which, for him, meant the pope was too.  He couldn’t be talked out of it.  Still, it’s a common question in adult bible study groups.  What did Jesus mean by “Get behind me, Satan”?  Here’s what I think.

Peter had a good point and Jesus knew it.  Mark’s gospel says nothing of Jesus’ post baptism wilderness trials as he worked to come to terms with who he was as the divine Son of God.  It only says he was in the wilderness forty days where he was tempted by Satan and cared for by angels.  Matthew and Luke record that Satan tempted Jesus to exercise his powers as a true god would: Jesus needs bread. Everyone needs bread.  Create enough for all.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?   Why mess around with years of preaching, healing, and training followers to carry on?  Do something spectacular in the sight of all so it will be obvious a god has come among them.   Cut to the chase.  If you’re one with Almighty God then just say so and rule the world.  Jesus would have none of it, but let’s be honest, none of the temptations in Matthew and Luke were evil.  In fact they were pretty good ideas –  efficient, effective, to the point.  Temptations are more likely to seem like good ideas than invitations to evil, at least on the surface.  It was the same for Jesus as it is for you and me.

All that was at the start of his earthly ministry.  About three years later Peter simply brought them up again.  Go to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten and killed?  You’ve got to be kidding.  Messiahs don’t let things like that happen.  We know you are the Son of God, so let’s go to Jerusalem and set things right with a real show of God’s power.  

What made Jesus so angry was that Peter made a lot of sense.  Why not?  It could save him a lot of pain, and the results might be even better than the path that had been laid out for him.  No wonder he turned on Peter with a curt, “Get behind me, Satan.”  As with the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus withstood this one, but not without giving it some thought.  He didn’t commit the sin of Adam and Eve, and that, more than anything else, is what made him sinless in human terms.  

The temptations confronting Jesus in the wilderness, and from his friend Peter, raise another question.  Who was this Satan character?  I’m certain it wasn’t an evil fallen angel, the chief of demons, although that’s the popular story.  Throughout the gospel narratives, demons, in whatever form, knew who Jesus was, had no power to resist him, and were terrified of his ability to exterminate them.  No, I think Satan, in the wilderness and in Peter’s reproach, was simply Jesus doing battle with his own human fears and desires, and that’s why he was so angry with Peter.  

“The devil made me do it,” was Flip Wilson’s punchline that always got a laugh because every one of us had fallen to more than one temptation of our own desire that turned out to be a really bad idea, and blaming the devil was as good an excuse as any.   Wilson got a laugh because the setup to the punchline was always an exaggeration of bad judgement that reminded us of us, and we knew the devil had no part to play in it.  For Flip Wilson, it was a punchline to a joke.  For Jesus, it was a serious matter.  As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote,  “…[H]e hd to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest…because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”(Heb. 2) “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have on who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4)  Jesus facing compelling temptations is what gives us confidence that in him we have and advocate, not an accuser.  In Jesus we have confidence that Almighty God has experienced what we experience, and loves us all the more for it.

“Get behind me, Satan,” are words of wisdom to be boldly claimed when we’re tempted by what sounds like a good idea that we know in our hearts and minds is not.  “The devil made me do it” is a cheap excuse to avoid responsibility for the consequences of our own behavior.  The right answer is mea culpa.  

Political Unity is Not Unanimity: how to reset the fulcrum of debate

Unity is the political flavor of the month.  We’re tired of polarized politics. We want unity, but what would unity look like?  It isn’t the same as unanimity, which implies uniformity without disagreement.  The much desired political unity we seek would overcome decades of increasingly polarizing, divisiveness that has separated the American public and their elected representatives into waring camps unwilling to negotiate with each other in good faith.  In its place would be an overwhelming majority of American opinion united around fundamental American principles defined by our founding laws and the highest ideals of our mythology, excluding no one and redressing old injustices.  That kind of unity would probably offend a disaffected white minority who believe themselves to be a persecuted underclass for whom being “free, white and twenty-one” is no longer a ticket to a future better than those who don’t have a ticket and can’t get one.  They can’t be coddled in their discontent.

Unity that coalesces around American ideals, albeit from different perspectives, goals, and legislative intentions, would seem to be a doable thing, but it faces obstacles, the greatest of which is a decades old libertarian tactic established early in the 1970s.  It skillfully moved the fulcrum of debate farther and farther to the right by claiming everything to its left was radical left wing socialism bordering on communism.  It’s alive and well today in the language of McConnell, Grassley, Haley, and others like them.  They say they’ll negotiate, but every concession is met with another demand farther to the right until it’s clear they have no intention of any agreement other than one they dictate.  To be sure, the legislature has its share of left wingers who demand all or nothing, but in the end they seldom block progress.

What happened in the 1970s that set in motion the path to the polarization we experience today?  The Vietnam War was in full swing, and so was the anti war movement that disrupted college campuses, sometimes violently.  The nation had endured a decade of race riots that were winding down, but not ended.  Labeled radical, public figures like Kunstler and Nader rattled staunch conservatives and business leaders.  Real leftists like Davis, Rustin and a dozen or so black and socialist liberation “armies” made lots of threatening noise garnering lots of front page headlines.  What did they want?  They wanted justice from a white power structure that refused to give it.  They were anti capitalism in the sense that they were anti big business plutocracy.  Were they true Russian type communists?  It turned out they weren’t, but the corporate world was convinced otherwise. 

Into that mess came the Powell Memorandum mentioned in a variety of political conversations lately.  In 1971, Lewis Powell, soon to become Justice Powell, wrote a short essay for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce entitled, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.”  In it he warned that the radical left was attacking the unprepared core of the American free enterprise system, aided by sympathetic organizations and the liberal media.  He held up public figures such as Kunstler and a variety of left wing academics as proof that the younger generation, minorities, and college faculties were on the verge of taking America down the socialist path, by which he meant communism.  Big business, which he claimed had built this nation and paid most its expenses, was in danger of losing everything if it didn’t do something.  He suggested a counter offensive of public speakers, right leaning think tanks, pro business text books, teacher training, and strengthened graduate schools of business, to move the debate fulcrum from favoring to the radical left to a place more favorable to business interests.  

There were two straw men in his argument.  One was that the radical left was more headline grabbing hyperbole than possessing any real political power in Congress or state legislatures.  It’s one of the things that made them so angry.  They huffed and puffed and got little for their effort.  The civil rights acts of the mid 1960s were supposed to be enough: they would get no more than that.  Conservative, big business friendly interests still held most the cards.  Moving the debate fulcrum to the right didn’t make things more fair, it shifted what had been tentatively balanced in the middle  to the right, and the same set of fear based arguments have been used ever since to keep on moving it. 

The second was Powell’s assertion that big business was the heart and soul of the American success story – that it built this country.  WWII is partly to blame.  News media and the government had produced hundreds of motivational newsreels, animated cartoons, and movies celebrating American industry as the arsenal of democracy.  America’s giant businesses were production heroes that won the war and restored the nation to prosperity from the depths of the Great Depression.  There was a lot of truth in those films, but they also gave big business leaders the false idea that big business was what America was all about.  As “Engine Charlie” Wilson was credited with saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  Powell raised  the specter that radical socialists were out to dismantle capitalism: i.e., big business operating with as little government oversight as possible.  The threat was vocal but powerless.  By rebranding big business as the defenders of free enterprise and American capitalism, he made it the victim of assault by a few weak but noisy left wing pests whom he claimed were taking over the country. 

The Powell Memorandum was especially hard on Yale, said to be the hotbed of communist faculty churning out graduates who would spread the infection nation wide. Who were some of those radical leftist graduates of the early 1970s? Samuel Alito, John Ashcroft, John Bolton, Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, and a dozen CEOs of big business.

The memorandum was written  50 years ago.  The tactics that grew out of the it have continued to work well for the conservative establishment, what Heather Cox Richardson calls Business Republicans, epitomized today by Mitch McConnell and Co.   To their right, tea party – freedom caucus types have done what they can to push the fulcrum to the edge of the extreme right, so even center right conservatives are labeled as the radical left.  

What has to happen to put an end to this half century old trick?  First, stop falling for the illusion that useful negotiation is from the middle, or that it will lead to any agreement.  It isn’t and it won’t.  Stake out the progressive position.  Hold to it, and make the other side move.   Second, use every soap box in the land to remind the American public that it’s the “yeoman” workers, small business people, teachers, and community professionals who have built this country, and the government is their servant to see that the playing field is as level as can be for all persons with no exceptions.  Third, using every means possible, reeducate the American public on basic civics: the Constitution, federalism, duties and obligations of citizenship, and honest American history that celebrates the good without hiding the bad.  Fourth, give big business its due.  It’s not the enemy.  It’s important to the economic well being of the nation, but it must be regulated it to keep it from predatory practices, and actions damaging to the environment, humanity, and the communities in which they do business.  Big business won’t like it, but they can handle it. 

God’s Covenant with the Earth and All Creatures

Something new popped out of the Genesis story of Noah when I reread it.  When Noah and all the animals had come out of the ark after the flood, God said two things to which I had never paid much attention.  

First, God declared the lifeblood of all creatures to be holy, and God would hold accountable those who shed it.  He didn’t mean bloody noses.  He meant killing each other.  Yes, God gave humans the right to kill animals for food, but not to consume their life blood, which was holy.  How are we doing with that?  Not well.  We have a multitude of customs, folklore, laws and a long history to justify killing each other.  Just war, justifiable homicide, stand your ground, revenge as justice: there isn’t a way to justify killing one another that we haven’t thought of codified, romanticized, or celebrated. 

True, later scripture records the history of killings, and laws, said to be divinely given, justifying some forms of it.  They’re flimsy excuses for our inability and unwillingness to live up to the standard God set in the beginning: humans do not have a God given right to kill each other.  We are a violent species, and always have been, so I suppose we could blame God for setting a standard that ‘his’ creatures don’t have the capacity to meet.  On the other hand, God gave humans the ability to make moral choices, and set before them a standard to grow into.  As Christians, we know life is so precious that In Christ Jesus we are redeemed from death itself.  If, as John’s gospel proclaims, God so loved the world…, then we must pause and reflect on the truth that even the most courageous, heroic and patriotic act that results in another’s death is a sign of our failure.  The least we can do is stop the obvious.  Get rid of stand your ground laws.  Repeal the death penalty.  Stop funding proxy wars.  Retrain police.  Enact reasonable gun regulation.  What about abortion?  I’m not going down that one issue rabbit hole.  I’ve written on it at length in the past.  For now let’s stick with the ease with which we justify killing each other as fully formed human beings.

Second, God made a covenant not with Noah only, but with every animal that was on the ark, with all flesh that is on the earth, and with the earth itself.  What was the covenant about?  That God would not curse the earth on account of human failure to live up to God’s moral standards.  God did curse the earth earlier in the origin stories.  When Adam and Eve got kicked out of Eden, God didn’t curse them, he cursed the serpent and the earth.  This time was different.  God said he would not curse the earth for the failings of humanity.  Go forth, multiply, and try to behave yourselves, God said, I imagine with a sigh, because Noah and his sons only got as far as the next page before messing up. 

God’s covenant with all living things and the earth itself is a protective, loving covenant: a covenant of care for the well being of all things in whom the source of life is holy.  What does that suggest about our responsibility toward the use of it?  It’s a problem.  As a nation, we have a four hundred year tradition of honoring the rights of individuals to do what they want with their private property.  Although the tradition holds that those rights don’t extend to spilling over into the rights of others to enjoy their private property, we value rights over obligations to the greater good, and we subordinate the rights of the community to those of the individual.  It creates conditions that work against God’s covenant with the earth and all things living.  That covenant requires us to put stewardship of creation ahead of individual rights over private property.  It doesn’t eliminate those rights.  It simply puts them in their proper place, which is not on top or in the lead. 

Stop killing each other.  Take care of the earth and its creatures.  Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?  Millennia of violence against one another, and selfish abuse of property, form too much of our legacy.  Yet, what if?  What if we remembered the holiness of life and God’s covenant with the earth and all living creatures that renew origin story of God’s people?  What if we remembered the new commandment that ends the narrative  to love one another as Jesus loves us that ends the narrative of his earthly ministry; what if we remembered them as the guides for our Christian voices in the public debate?  How would that change what we say and do? 

Segrintegration as a step forward

I worked in Manhattan for about twenty years. What I learned to appreciate was the variety of races and ethnicities that defined the streets of the city. We didn’t have much to do with each other, but we shared the streets. The next twenty years were in the intermountain West where ethnic diversity was mostly limited to a workable divide between Anglos and Hispanics. It could have been different in the sparsely settled region had it not been for a history of ethnic cleansing through Indian wars, sundown laws, Asian exclusion acts, and the usual menu of discriminatory restrictions that made it difficult for non whites to feel comfortable amongst a small but powerful white population.

Now we live in a part of tidewater Virginia where the black and white populations are more evenly matched, and other ethnicities fit in without much overt notice.  It’s an area of segrintegration, at least that’s the way it appears to me.  What is segrintegration?  It’s seeing black and white faces distributed throughout civic leadership, on television newscasts, and pictured side-by-side on the obituary page.  It’s a smattering of people who don’t look like each other in nearly every store, doctor’s office, and restaurant, and no one takes much notice of it.  Heavy with tourists, the region celebrates its history from colonial times through the Civil War; stories of enslaved and free blacks have risen from obscurity to become major themes in the overall narrative.  It’s more painfully recent history of Jim Crow and segregation is beginning to be addressed.  Yet neighborhoods remain enclaves of one or the other, but not both.  Local towns are majority one or the other, but not both.  Lingering racism is expressed on license plates and car decals, but not out loud in public.  Right wing militia types are present, but try to keep a low profile.  This part of Virginia is politically progressive, but the old white guard and their descendants aren’t happy about their loss of status as the undisputed ruling class.

Segrintegration is cohabitation without actually touching each other.  It’s systemic social and economic stratification that resists forces slowly breaking down the racial elements embedded in it.  It’s learning to live with sublimated prejudices.  Some learn to do it with courage and grace.  Some let prejudices fester, thinly veiled by as much civil language as one thinks needed at the moment. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Segrintegration is not a bad thing.  It’s a necessary step toward receiving answers to our prayer that God will guide us in taking away the arrogance and hatred which infects our hearts; breaking down the walls that separate us; uniting us in the bonds of love; and working through our struggles and confusion so that we may live in harmony with one another (BCP 813).  Segrintegration is leading, however slowly, to a new kind of society where ethnicities can be warmly shared with one another in mutual appreciation. 

A New Lent: forget the old one

Lent is nearly upon us.  It begins on Wednesday, February 17 and continues until Easter weekend at the beginning of April.  Once upon a time it was a season observed with great solemnity in worship and daily life throughout the Christian world.  These days, various denominations observe it not at all, while it is of great importance for others.  Regardless of denominational practice, ordinary daily life for the average Christian is likely to be unaffected, except when at worship in churches that are serious about Lent, made more problematic by pandemic restrictions on in person gatherings. 

If you ask random people on the street what Lent means, the most common answer, other than “I have no idea,” is it’s a time to give something up, like candy, alcohol and things like that.  “Why?,” you ask, and the answer will likely be a blank stare.  Will you get a better answer if you ask random Christians?  Maybe  not.  While clergy are known to give brilliant sermons on the meaning of Lent at Ash Wednesday services, they’re generally attended only by the pious few.  For most irregular church goers, the six Sundays in Lent are marked by liturgical strangeness that are a bit odd, which means it’s Lent, and that has something to do with preparing for Easter, but that’s about it. 

I don’t think it’s helpful to go on about what Lent used to be and expect average church goers, or the vaguely curious, to be inspired by it.  More important is to open the doors to what Lent can be today for those even slightly interested in deepening their experience of Christian faith.  That may be especially true in our time of pandemic with its economic and social dislocations that have erased the old normal, while holding before us the possibility of an ill defined new normal almost but not yet here. 

It’s a time that cries out for restored meaning to life and hope for a better future in a wildly unpredictable world.  It won’t be a return to the old ways, and how dependable can new meaning and hope be when the future is unknown?  On what, if anything, can a person depend that will remain rocklike steady amidst chaotic change?  Following the failure of social progress destroyed by WWI, an entire generation of thinkers proclaimed there was no hope, no future.  Life was pointless, a matter of chance.  Just getting through without premature death was the best one could expect.

Christians know there is a different way.  Life is not meaningless, hope is not in vain, and Lent is the season set aside for discovering unshakable meaning and hope on which one can depend in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In other words, for us in today’s world, Lent does not begin in sackcloth and ashes of penitent self abnegation.  It begins with the Easter proclamation of resurrection.  In that sense, Lent doesn’t begin on Ash Wednesday, but on the Sunday before, the Sunday in which we remember that Jesus was fully revealed to several of his disciples as God incarnate in his mountain top transfiguration.  It is the promise that each person’s life is known and loved by God, that it has purpose and meaning beyond the conditions in which it finds itself, that in death, life is not ended but changed.  Moreover, the promise of meaning, purpose, and love isn’t something to search for, it’s given.  It needs only to be received as in the words of the old hymn, “Just as I am.” 

It’s from that beginning that the curious, the desperate, the seeking, the doubtful, the hurting, the fearful can be invited to observe a holy Lent of self-examination, reflection, guided study of God’s holy Word, and to make a new beginning of life in communion with God as revealed in Christ Jesus.  Lent becomes a time of slowing down, a time to surrender anxieties to God’s care, and to learn with greater certainty who Jesus is and why he can be depended on, no matter what conditions of life are experienced. 

Lent is a time to be reminded that the bible contains the stories of time and lives more uncertain, unpredictable and dangerous than our own.  They’re stories of God’s abounding and steadfast love that cannot be shaken by destructive human behavior, and of persons living in communion with God giving them unshakable confidence no matter what conditions of life they endured.  It’s what explains Paul’s confession that he would trade nothing for his life in communion with Jesus, in spite of imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, poverty, threats from bandits, and betrayal.

From the mountain of transfiguration to the cross of Good Friday, Lent is a time to explore the depth and breadth of human existence we all experience in part.  It ends with rationally predictable circumstances condemning Jesus to death as a common criminal by crucifixion on a cross.  Were that the end there would be no hope, no future; life would be pointless, a matter of chance. There would be no God.  We would be alone. Just getting through without premature death would be the best one could expect.  But it was not the end then, and it is not the end in our own uncertain time.  What was revealed to a few on the Mount of  Transfiguration was revealed to all humanity in the Resurrection.  Jesus, the word of God made flesh, was not dead.  The word of God spoken through the pen of Isaiah centuries earlier was true: “…my word that goes forth from my mouth…will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55)

Life has meaning because it is loved, individually, by the one who is life itself.  There is no other.  Life’s purpose is to contribute, in any way, big or small, monumental or trivial, to the well being of others, and of all creation.  That is why the curious, the desperate, the seeking, the doubtful, the hurting, the fearful can be invited to observe a holy Lent of self-examination, reflection, guided study of God’s holy Word, and to make a new beginning of life in communion with God as revealed in Christ Jesus.  Lent becomes a time of slowing down, a time to surrender anxieties to God’s care, and to learn with greater certainty who Jesus is and why he can be depended on no matter what conditions of life are experienced. 

Political Maturity, Delusional Reality & Today’s GOP

Well balanced social/political maturity is defined by the ability to recognize what is real about the life we live in, adapt to changing circumstances, relate to others in mutually acceptable ways, and sublimate violent tendencies to more useful ways.  Individuals, families, groups, classes, and nationalities, each have their own take on how they understand reality, what adaption to change means, how mutually acceptable relationships work, and how hostility is to be made useful.  Because their various takes are based on objectively verifiable data about the reality they apprehend, they can communicate with others, learn from others, and work out ways in which their differences can be accommodated. 

The reality of our political environment is that a significant portion of the electorate, and their leaders, have chosen to live in an alternate world of delusion and conspiracy defined by little that can be objectively verified.  It’s centered in today’s Republican Party.  It’s hard to know how many are true believers, and how many leaders are in it only to  seize power at others’ expense.   Along for the ride are others, probably many others, genuinely perplexed about who and what to believe.  Together, they’ve absorbed public attention, dominated media coverage, and influenced elections.  They’re not a majority of the population, not even a plurality, but they have sent us down countless rabbit holes, eroded the integrity of the electoral system, and made it difficult to address agreed upon issues and work out solutions that, if not wholly agreeable, are at least tolerable to all who are willing to negotiate in good faith. 

I worked with local and regional Republican interests during my years in public policy work.  Republican leaders then shared a general understanding with Democrats about the reality of issues before them, but had significantly different ideas about how to address them.  There was always a tacit expectation that an acceptable agreement could be worked out.  In general, the more conservative Republican approach favored private solutions over public ones; expected ends to be achieved without the government dictating methods; encouraged problems to be addressed at the lowest practical level of government; desired as much freedom as possible for businesses to make market decisions; and believed federal policies should be more general, less specific, to allow flexibility of administration at the local level.  There is wisdom in listening to that kind of conservative thinking.  It’s a check on liberal tendencies toward extravagant plans and programs that promise more than they can deliver. 

Today’s GOP leadership, playing to the trumpian base, has embraced those who live in an alternative world of delusion and conspiracy.  It’s built a wall between objective reality and delusional reality that prohibits agreement about the reality of issues facing the nation.  Issues identified by hard data are denied.  Issues invented out of conspiratorial imaginations are claimed to be real, and there is no room for agreement on ways forward.  

GOP public messaging no longer addresses serious issues.  It substitutes a litany of complaints that Democrats, and liberals in general, are extreme left wing radical socialists.  It’s an old trope founded only on repetition.  Nothing in any of the many Democratic agendas rises to the level of extreme anything, and much of it is old time conservative defense of the rights and responsibilities of each person.  

  • The GOP accuses liberals of refusing to allow differing voices to be heard, claiming delusional alternative reality should have the same status as objectively verifiable reality.  
  • It defines bipartisanship as surrender to their demands.  
  • In the absence of Trump there is less talk about fake news, but the GOP continues to harp on liberal media that won’t give credibility to a menu of allegations that can’t be verified.  
  • Curiously, in the face of white supremacy violence, including a well organized insurrection attacking the Capitol, they contend that liberals are prone to violence.  I guess that’s why they need their guns.
  • Their final thrust is from an old war horse: that Democrats and liberals are out of control tax and spend fiends who will wreck the economy and impoverish the middle class.  Data prove otherwise, but it is true that liberals want to raise marginal rates on the very wealthy.   It’s also true that, on behalf of a vulnerable public, liberals believe corporate interests need to be regulated to limit predatory practices and protect the public health.  It has the added benefit of protecting capitalists from their own worst tendencies, enabling them to compete more fairly on more reasonably level playing fields with rules everyone understands. 

The nation clearly needs a responsible conservative voice that adds a bit of caution and restraint to the public debate.  Today’s GOP can’t fulfill that role.  One of two things needs to happen.  Establishment Republicans, what Heather Cox Richardson calls business Republicans, need to regain control of the party.  Or, they and other like minded conservatives need to start a new party.  We shall see.  If that doesn’t happen, if the current GOP trajectory toward delusional reality and autocratic rule continues, we will have a Democratic party continuing to fight for the preservation of American democracy as it faces off against hard core fascists.  What may save us from such a fate is the rapidly changing American demographic profile that is watering down white hegemony while modifying the distribution of political views toward the center, with a slight edge toward left of center. 

Arguing With Paul, who is sometimes pompous

Reading and interpreting the bible can be intimidating.  As an old camp song put it: “It’s a great big complicated hard to understand book.”  The bible is neither handbook nor textbook.  It’s a rambling record of humanity’s emerging relationship with God, who is incrementally revealed over many centuries.  How you understand what the bible is influences how you read it.  If it’s God’s inerrant word, you must submit to it without question.  If it’s not God’s word, it’s no better or worse than any other text claimed to be sacred, and you can interpret it any way you want.  On the other hand, if God spoke, and speaks still, through the humanly written text, then the text, sacred as it is, invites questioning conversation and even argument with its human authors as you strive to hear God’s voice.

I was thinking about that when I got into an argument with Paul while reading a portion of his first letter to the Corinthians.  He wrote over a half dozen letters that made it into the bible, so who am I to argue with him?  He was an apostle, a genuine saint, I’m just a retired country parson.  He wrote scripture.  I write columns on an obscure blog site. 

Maybe so, but I never believed Paul knew he was writing scripture.  He was just writing to answer questions, as best he could, put to him by congregations of new Christians uncertain about matters that troubled them.  He knew Jesus had commissioned him to proclaim the good news to gentiles in the GrecoRoman world, but he was the last and least among other apostles senior to him.  We have no authentic records of what the others wrote or said, but we have Paul’s letters, and in time, church leaders came to understand that God spoke authoritatively through them, which is how they got included in today’s bible.  

God may have spoken through Paul’s letters, but Paul wrote them, and he was prone to the kinds of mistakes we all make.  Other apostles challenged him, and Peter wrote that “there are some things in [his letters] hard to understand…”  I think you and I, in good faith, are free to challenge him as well, especially when he’s hard to understand.  Personally, I think Paul is too sure of himself, and can come off as pompous when he commends himself for being the most perfect of all Jews, the hardest working of all apostles, the one who can be all things to all people, who can endure every hardship without batting an eyelash.  It leads me to contentious conversation with Paul as I struggle to hear God speaking through what he wrote.  Most of the time he’s a reliable, patient and loving teacher.  Sometimes he gets in the way of what God has to say.  In other words, just because Paul wrote it doesn’t mean God said it.  Even Paul admits it when he offers opinions he knows are not from God, as he does in 1 Cor. 7.12. 

And so it was that in my Tuesday morning ecumenical lectionary study group, I lit into Paul for telling the Corinthians that he was a Jew to Jews, a gentile to gentiles, obedient to religious laws when he needed to be, but otherwise disregarded them.  In the end he claimed to be all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.  How arrogant.  Who is the authentic Paul if he’s always wearing a different mask? How can that be “for the sake of the gospel?” 

My friends suggested that if I read the passage (1 Cor. 9.16-23) in a different tone of voice, I might discover Paul was only trying to meet people where they are, willing to enter into their world in order to share the good news of God in Christ Jesus with words they could understand.  Maybe I was too harsh on Paul.   The question remains, even if there is wisdom in his words, how far can one go entering into another’s world without losing authenticity?  We who are well educated white teachers, steeped In the Western canon, have been accused of inappropriate cultural appropriation when we try to imitate the cultural ways of other people.  

It’s difficult to be the alien in another’s culture; honoring it, yet remaining authentically one’s self.  Learning how to do that is what Jesus was up to when he sent new disciples into nearby villages.  He instructed them to stay with whomever received them in peace, and accept whatever hospitality was offered until it was time to leave.  The disciples were not going outside the realm of their local culture, but it was good training for the day they would.  To receive the other’s hospitality, however strange it may feel, is to honor them without surrendering one’s own authenticity.  European missionaries who were successful in proclaiming the gospel during the age of empire, willingly received hospitality as offered without demanding that those to whom they went adopt Western ways.  Nor did they pretend to be other than who they were, European missionaries.  Those who were not so successful tried to impose their own cultural norms on the people to whom they had been sent.  There were few of the former, many of the latter.

Maybe that’s what Paul was trying to say when he commended himself as being able to be all things to all people.  If so, I think his ego got in the way of making it clear enough.  He did better at one of his meetings in Jerusalem when he explained to senior leaders that he didn’t expect his gentiles to follow Jewish law, he only expected them to follow in the way of the Jewish Jesus, without the necessity of circumcision or adhering to strict food laws.  And he was furious with the Galatians for trying to imitate Jewish ways foreign to their own culture, claiming it distracted them from authentically following Jesus.

It seems that, on his good days, Paul was as good as he claimed to be, on his bad days he was pompous.  As Holy Spirit inspired as his letters were, we need to be reminded that God didn’t dictate them, and Paul wasn’t right about everything in them.   Understanding that opens up tremendous opportunity for conversation and argument, with the sure and certain expectation that God’s voice will enter into it, often with something new to say.  It is also assurance that you and I, ordinary Christians of 21st century America, can enter into that conversation without fear of breaking anything or committing an unforgivable sin.