Three Bones to Pick: Voting Patterns, Crime, Economy

I have a couple of bones to pick about seemingly unrelated subjects, but I suspect they have connections stronger than one might think.  Let’s get started with the current flood of mathematical evaluations of the recent election, to which pundits confidently attach motives and trends.

Analysis of voting statistics is a good and valuable thing.  It helps us see how voting patterns have shifted in the present, but it is probably too early and a leap to then transform those shifts into trends that predict future voting patterns.  Rational analysis is seldom a reliable indicator of voter decisions that are more often driven by emotions rather than disinterested rationality.  Which is not to say that decisions driven by emotions are not rational, they are quite rational in their own way.  They are calculations based on personal values, vigorous defense of self interest against perceived threats, real or imagined, and desires for more of what they believe others have and they don’t. The American value of individualism is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it’s nearly impossible for many voters to conceive of a greater good, or common good, that doesn’t deprive them of one of their individual goods. In the same way, it suspects that any good provided to another must mean someone else is deprived of the full measure of what they have enjoyed.  The value of cooperative synergy, helping create a greater good for all may work, at times, in a local context, but it’s almost impossible to see how it might work for the nation as a whole.  

For deeper understanding of voting patterns, there must be a sharp turn toward exploring closely-held values and how they influence voting behavior. 

That’s one bone down.The second has to do with crime.  The data indicate that many voters are deeply concerned about crime surging out of control and for some reason, think the GOP is better at doing something about it because Democrats are said to be soft on crime. Violent crime statistics are irrelevant to them.  Voter concern about crime is limited to violent street crime, not the bigger crimes committed on them by powerful and wealthy interests.  So called white collar crimes seem remote and hard to understand.  They have a point.  Street crime is immediate, sometimes fatal, and always traumatic. Conditions that nourish criminal behavior are of little interest – they look too much like excuses.  What voters want is a crackdown on criminals with punishment swift and certain.  It’s a utilitarian argument: get the criminals off the street and keep them off the street. There are neighborhoods where street crime is a real and present danger.  They get enough publicity to make voters believe it’s everywhere, even in their own neighborhoods, that have almost no street crime. Stoking the fear of crime has the added campaign benefit of rekindling every form of racial prejudice.  Throughout history there has never been a better way to mobilize the mob than to identify a minority population as the cause of every trouble, to be brutally persecuted as a way to cleanse society. More than other Western societies, Americans exacerbate the problem by making sure there are lots and lots of guns all over the place.  It makes it easy for anyone to blow off a little steam by shooting someone else.  At the same time, it holds out the illusion that a gun in every household is an effective defense against all the other guns in other households. I wonder if it has anything to do with Americans unwilling to give up playing wild west cowboy games.

So that’s the second bone.  The third is the economy.  I am baffled by voter tendency to think Republicans are better at managing a difficult economy. That we have an inflation problem is obvious.  The less affluent are having a hard time paying for essentials, much less anything else, and wages, while increasing, are not increasing fast enough to keep up with rising costs. It’s a bit scary to think we might be falling back into the raging wage/price spiral of roaring inflation experienced in the ‘70s.  Reagan’s solution was to cut taxes and regulations on business.  It’s been the GOP mantra ever since.  It didn’t work then, hasn’t worked since, and it can’t ever work, but still they hang onto it.  Promising a smaller, less expensive  government, Reagan blew the lid off defense budgets causing massive unfunded national debt.  Another standard ploy is to blame social service spending for  “out of control” federal spending. In Reagan’s time, the inflationary spiral was killed by the Fed shoving the country into a deep recession that threw millions out of work, and made the poor even more destitute. The data show that the economy does better, deficits are lower, and the national debt more under control when Democrats lead the nation.  It’s not a hard and fast rule.  They can make big mistakes, but their track record is a lot better.  The current administration is often criticized for trying to make the economy look better than it is. There is some spin to be sure, but it has also laid down the necessary steps for rebuilding our infrastructure, investing in future technologies, and reforming social programs that will assure a better economic future for all.  It’s the practical stuff of every day hard work that should appeal to conservatives. Maybe it’s out of sheer stubbornness that they keep on promoting the Reagan illusions.  

OK, I’m done picking bones for the time being.

Jesus in Hell – Still

A guest column on Country Parson is rare, so this is an exception. It is a short essay by my friend The Rev. David Hindman, UMC pastor and long time chaplain at William and Mary.

Considering this question has been prompted in recent days as I have heard claims from faithful Christians that Mahatmas Gandhi could not possibly be in heaven and is in hell because he was not a Christian. He is certainly the poster child for good people assigned to hell, but that company would logically also include Anne Frank, Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, and any other remarkable person who had not said the sinner’s prayer or been washed in baptismal waters.

The concept of hell that precipitated these musings naturally presumes that there are those who are forever separated from God, from Jesus, or from the comforting presence of the Divine.  That company includes not only those many would consider worthy of hell (e.g., Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin) but also all non-Christians, regardless or their morality, virtuous lives or anything other than them claiming Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. For our co-religionists shaped by the theology of John Calvin, those not elected by the grace of God as predestined for salvation are likewise consigned to this realm.

But what if Jesus continues to reside in hell? How is that possible? Why is that something to be considered? Is it something biblical, or at least theologically plausible?  How could this be? 

Jesus, in his ministry, always favored and had a profoundly merciful compassion for the dispossessed, the outsiders, the marginalized, those who felt abandoned and forgotten, and the suffering. Indeed, his crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem marks Jesus himself as an outsider; his only words from the cross in two gospels are lamenting cries of abandonment by God (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). He dies beyond the pale, beyond compassion care, seemingly on the far side of God’s presence. 

What community could be more abandoned, forgotten, dispossessed, marginalized, outside and suffering, than those populating hell? If such people are Jesus’ people, can we imagine that he has chosen to abide with them, to be among them, and to suffer with them, a quiet but faithful representative that even there, we cannot flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7-8). Is it possible that even there we cannot be separated from the love of God experienced in Christ Jesus; as Paul proclaims, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life…not height or depth, or any other thing that is created.  (Romans 8:38-39, my italics)? 

The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ, God has pitched the Divine Tent among us; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1;14). If the glory of God is in our midst, would that also allow for the Incarnate One to live in the most godforsaken realm of all, where humans also exist?

In Ephesians 4:10, we read, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe (my italics).” Through Christ’s humiliation on the cross, Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (my italics, Phil. 2:10-11). John Wesley, spiritual forebear to those of us who swim our faith in the Wesleyan stream, believed that Christ’s power to confront and convert did not have to be limited by physical death; it was possible for humans still to be changed and blessed in the life beyond this life; is it not possible that such change could happen among those inhabiting the halls of hell? 

C. S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, envisions a bus connecting the realms of heaven and hell. The great horror of the story is that, upon experiencing the ways of heaven, many of those who arrive soon choose to go to hell. Using Lewis’ metaphor, is it not also possible that some would choose to depart hell for the joy of heaven?  (As a side note, the conservative and evangelical Lewis also envisioned a more expansive, hopeful, and humble image of God’s salvation; in Mere Christianity he opined, “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”)

Some will readily agree that Jesus, as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, did indeed descend into hell, but that “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.” That affirmation, understandably so, may be considered a sequential statement: First Jesus dies, then he descends to hell, then he is raised from the dead, and then ascends into heaven. That makes perfect sense, especially for us humans who are bound by time and space.

But in eternity and in God’s timeless Being, time and space are irrelevant; they collapse into what Paul Tillich called The Eternal Now. If Jesus fills all things, and is Lord of all times and places, would not that Lordship include the realm of hell and those who would inhabit it? 1 Peter 3:18-19 boldly claims that Jesus was active in the season between Good Friday and Easter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” This interesting phrase suggests the possibility that in God’s eternal economy of salvation, again there is no time distinction between Christ’s death and resurrection (“being put to death but made alive in the spirit”); so is it possible that the crucified One is also already alive in God even as he descends to hell and is present among them as the Risen One over whom death and hell no longer have ultimate power?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the resurrected life and looks to the final consummation of human history of universal salvation and deliverance. “All will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power….The last enemy to be destroyed is death….When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all (vv. 22-24, 26, 28).”   If death is the last enemy and if hell is the realm where God’s enemies are consigned, then in the end even hell and death will surrender and succumb to the marvelous love and presence of God, and God all will be all in all. There will be no place where God is not. If the resurrection of Christ is a promissory note and down payment on God’s final future for the whole creation, is it not possible that Christ is already there in the midst of those some think belong in hell, as a comfort, encouragement, and witness to God’s abiding eternal love and presence in the midst of the whole creation? Is it not possible and even plausible that already and even now, Christ continues bearing witness in that realm to the New Creation that is surely coming? 

What if Jesus remains in hell? Perhaps the better way to phrase it is, What if Jesus is already in hell, and will not leave or forsake those there because that is the nature of the God whose  steadfast love endures forever? That, it seems to me, would be good news for all. 

Dear Major Media: Quit Speculating, Start Reporting

I hope we’ve all had enough of speculative reporting. I have.  It isn’t just cable news, it’s the major national dailies as well that have been obsessed with reporting on news that has not yet happened by speculating about what it might, possibly, probably will be, or not.  Reporting has been followed by op.ed. pundits ruminating about the possible meaning of future events, maybe, most likely, or not.

In the several weeks before the midterms, I gave up on cable news. For news about what was actually happening, or had happened recently, I kept to The Guardian, BBC World News and NPR.  A couple of local t.v. news programs did quite well with actual local events that mattered. Lester Holt did a pretty good job of sticking to the events of the day, not the potential outcomes of those yet two weeks off.

Quality news journalism is more than “just the facts, ma’am,” although it must be grounded in them.  Relevant conditions, circumstances, known effects, and moral issues at stake are essential to presenting a full story to the public. That’s different from wandering into the morass of fortune telling pretending to be reporting.

In like manner, punditry from well informed observers of the national scene is helpful in assessing the deeper meaning of events, especially as they relate to history e.g. American values, the common good, and interests of various parts of society and economy.  Prognostications of potential meaning of possible future events is more harmful than useless.  It’s but one step away from falling into the conspiracy cesspool.  

Cable news has a lot of air to fill, but there have to be better alternatives to speculative reporting and opining.  What might they be?  Perhaps informed reviews of appropriate American history events that would help inform current events; or maybe segments on basic civics and the responsibilities of citizenship; what about segments covering the Constitution article by article, amendment by amendment? The same might be said for important court cases leading to current events.  Producers would no doubt object that they already do that. No they don’t.  Cable news gives the occasional expert fifteen seconds here and there to say a sentence or two, that’s it. They might say that if I want more, I should find Amanpour & Co., wherever she has been hidden on PBS. That’s evasion. I think they have the idea that if they don’t sensationalize the news, or add cliff hanger drama to it, the public won’t buy it. All of that on the grounds that it’s hard to underestimate the intellectual appetites of the American public. That’s arrogant snobbishness at its ignorant worst.

I wonder if reflection on the long, boring “news” run-up to the midterms will cause producers, publishers and editors to reevaluate their products, and resolve to give them more substantial value.  It seems unlikely.  Rats, there I go speculating. Let’s call it hope without much evidence of it being met.

A Diatribe on Woes of Church Decline

Throughout the world there are churches that have been in continuous use as places of worship where centuries of warfare and destruction could not overcome them.  They stand in contrast to lovely old parish church buildings left abandoned and decaying, or, if lucky, converted into museums, inns, or homes.  Many church buildings in America are in rural, aging towns with too few people to support the dozen or so congregations that once thrived.  Too many more are the result of economic flight, and disregard for the need of a worshiping community to serve a changing neighborhood.  Sadly, some are the result of declining church attendance across all denominations whose clergy and lay leadership failed to teach and proclaim the gospel effectively.  Booming mega churches have succeeded, at least for now, by creating safe, non controversial social gathering places where comfort and encouragement is doled out in the form of promises that with just a little more cash to support the preacher, God will dump loads of financial blessings on the congregation.

I’ve been thinking about such things because we now worship at Bruton Parish Church, the oldest church building in America in continuous use for worship since it was built in 1711 to replace an earlier building dating from 1674.  Its interior is a replica of what it was like at the height of colonial elegance when  the king’s presence was represented by the royal governor whose canopied throne sat in the chancel, and the pulpit was two stories high.  In those days, College of William and Mary students were required to attend services, the rector was the president of the college, slaves sat in a gallery “reserved” for them, gentry sat toward the front, and the poor toward the back.  Any matter of importance to the town was debated and settled in the church.  The governor’s palace was around the corner, the capitol down the street at one end, the college at the other, and Bruton Parish Church anchored everything.

That elegance lasted only a few decades.  The War of Independence, War of 1812, and Civil War ravaged the land as armies attacked and retreated through Williamsburg.  Bruton’s interior was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again many times.  The building was used as a warehouse, stable, field hospital, morgue, and school, but always as a place of Christian worship.  The congregation ebbed from the wealthy elite of Virginia to the poorest of villagers left to pick up the pieces and start again.   It was not until the early 20th century that work began to restore its colonial grandeur.   Today it is again a large, active congregation, this time serving the whole community, a forceful voice for civil rights, with a broad mix of young, old, and economic status, and a smattering of racial diversity.  It also lives in harmony with First Baptist Church,  the oldest black congregation in Virginia.

At the other end of the spectrum, I served a tiny congregation in the rural West for many years.  The building could seat forty, but Sundays were usually ten to fifteen.  They could never afford a full time priest, but they had soldiered on for 120 years proclaiming the gospel, providing clothing, school supplies, summer funds for camps and pools, and participating fully in diocesan affairs..  Always small, always poor, always rich with God’s blessings, they will go on like that for as long as the town exists.  You don’t have to be big or wealthy to succeed.

The point is, that faithful Christians, even those supporting the cause of slavery or the forceful submission of American Indians, continued to worship, whether many or few, rich or poor, in good times and bad.  I can’t imagine that any of the dramatic changes these congregations faced were easy or comfortable.  It must have often seemed that God had abandoned the church and the people who worshiped there.  Yet they persevered.  

I wonder sometimes if so called dying, aging congregations fade away for lack of commitment to follow Jesus by proclaiming by word and deed the Good News of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  I’ve read the same articles you have, about changing demographics, poor marketing, etc.  There are good excuses for towns that have grown so small they can no longer support a dozen churches, but there is no excuse for handing rural America over to Christian nationalists and their ilk, or to preachers more in love with the devil than Jesus – they’re the ones who open and end sermons with scary stories about how the devil has taken over the land, and stick Jesus in the middle with the threat of being sent to hell if He is not accepted as one’s personal lord and savior, according to the terms and conditions set forth by the preacher.  Some congregations drift into oblivion because they become little more than social clubs to which those who should belong, already do belong.  Maybe it’s too many pastors who are more ritualists than proclaimers of the Word, offering healing and hope in the Eucharist.  Sometimes it seems to be timidity in forceful proclamation of God’s love, for fear of alienating the wrong people.  After all, there are enough troubles in most people’s lives that being urged to reflect more deeply on God in ways that will change everything, might be too much to ask. The hymn “Just as I am without one plea…” is true enough, but when through it one is led into Christ’s presence, just as I am, it is the beginning of transformation into a new being in Christ Jesus.

And so I grow weary of tears of woe from priests and pastors, lay leaders, and the gamut of religious writers.  If Paul had done that, we would have burned his letters long ago as worthless drivel from an evangelical failure. The same can be said of James, Peter, John and others such as Augustine, who continued on as Rome fell and Carthage was attacked.  Maybe that’s what Bonhoeffer was driving at when he wrote enigmatically about religionless religion.  Religion is the ritual through which faith is expressed.  When religion becomes its own end, what’s the point?

© Steven E. Woolley