American Politics, Extremists & The Golden Mean

Political centrists, whether to the right or left, are incoherent mumblers with no firmly held convictions and unwilling to make hard decisions.  The best they can do is muddle through while offering no concrete direction to the public.  At least that’s the usual accusation coming from the extremes of left and right. That most practical of all philosophers, Aristotle, argued that the extremes, however confidently held, represented destructive excesses on one hand and equally destructive deficiencies on the other.  Wisdom required a golden mean, the well balanced middle between the extremes of excess and  deficiencies.  He was not alone in that something of the same is found in other philosophers and most major religions.  It is, one might say, the wisdom of the ages. 

The well balanced middle way is not muddle headed stumbling toward decisions, but the product of well informed reflection and negotiation. It flies in the face of a young friend who once told me centrists were ciphers, they counted for nothing, you had to pick one side or the other, there’s no middle ground. He was one of those delightful sophomoric Marxists one can find on most college campuses, but my Trumpian neighbor is no different. His take is if you are not a dogmatic libertarian you are a socialist of the worst kind. The Marxist and the right wing plutocrat passionately fear and detest each other and both look with utter contempt on all who are not one or the other. I guess they assume moderates or centrists are merely complacent, content with the way things are and disinterested in the complaints of those who passionately believe all is not well and needs to change. 

When extremes are the engine driving public policy where does it go? Consider the current standoff in the House of Representatives; a small group of right wing extremists led by a compliant Speaker of the House may bring the nation to a thundering shutdown, the ultimate nowhere.  The problem with nowhere is it always ends up somewhere with disintegration and decomposition rapidly setting in to produce system failures harming real people in real time. 

There may be a large portion of the public whose complacency can be shaken only when their personal interests appear to be threatened. They are the propaganda targets of the extremes.  They are not the centrists who have been essential to whatever progress the nation has made. National leaders who helped “make America great” were able to balance competing interests and ideologies enough to make change happen making life better and more secure for more people.  Despite the howls of big business, Republican T. Roosevelt was a centrist in his progressive era trust busting. His Democratic cousin, FDR, balanced  competing congressional interests to create the “liberal consensus” that defined America’s middle way for over fifty years.  Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson worked to make the American Dream a reality for more people in a society of greater social justice. Centrist leadership is not the politics of appeasement but of naming the issues and confronting them head on with workable solutions and enough public support to be implemented.

I think the Vietnam and Civil Rights era created the political forces that ended the primacy of centrist leadership.  Country Parson columns are too short to go into details. Suffice it to say the election of Reagan gave the Gingrich/Norquist gang of libertarian extremists the chance to use popular discontent to attack the liberal consensus in favor of non-negotiable, no quarter given strategy to make it almost impossible for centrists to create  acceptable agreements between all parties.  It helped generate the stagnation of low and middle class incomes, transferred wealth to the upper classes, encouraged big business excesses, marginalized aid to those in greatest need, and ignited the fires of far right wing populism.

It’s a strategy that’s worked more often than not since the 1980s. It sputtered enough to give us Obamacare, but regained enough momentum to also give us Trump and Trumpism.  I don’t think Koch Network libertarians and associates knew they would create a Frankenstein like political monster unable to be controlled, but they did. 

The current administration has done a masterful job of trying to restore the primacy of the liberal consensus adapted for the 21st century but have come up against the Trumpian core in Congress who have learned how to stop the machinery of government with a few dozen votes and skillful manipulation of rules and procedures.  It’s a small but determined movement that long ago abandoned any loyalty to the Gingrich “Agenda for America” and thumbs its nose at Koch Network oligarchs that underwrote their startup costs. 

The 2024 elections will set the direction of the nation’s future, but I don’t think it can be cast as red against blue or liberals against conservatives.  Trumpians want to make it a battle against imaginary commie socialists. Koch Network oligarchs want to make it a contest for a more defensible laissez-faire Reaganism and put their populist monster in a locked closet.  Centrists will favor the current administration while fending off attacks from Trumpians, oligarchs and a few hard left activists.  As elections go, I suspect it will look like some kind of professional tag-team wrestling event. 

My hope is that enough of the voting public will have had it with the destructive outrages of Trumpians, reject oligarchs’ demands that they control economic policy and disregard terrifying scares about socialism.  For America to continue being great, whatever that means, the nation must choose the responsible and reflective centrist way.   As Aristotle would say, go for the Golden Mean. 

The Hazards of Cliffhanger Journalism

When I was a kid, Cliffhanger serials fronted for the main Saturday matinee movie.  They were short episodes of a hero’s daring adventures, each one leaving him (or the virtuous her) facing certain death, the outcome of which would not be revealed until next week’s episode.  They created weeklong suspenseful waiting to find out how escape was made one more time.  We’ve become more sophisticated by packing the cliff hanger concept into feature movies of the Die Hard, James Bond and and Mission Impossible variety.  The idea is the same: keep the audience in suspense wondering if the hero can get out of the next threat to life and limb. 

I’ve come to believe that building and maintaining cliff hanging suspense is what news media outlets are doing in real time with the issue of America’s political polarization. Keeping the fiction of hard line divisions between presumed left and right factions, red and blue states, enables cliff hanging suspense inviting the audience to tune in tomorrow for the next exciting episode. Intentional or not, it’s a useful marketing ploy. 

A not very deep dive into Pew Research data shows that the hard core right is small, the hard core left is even smaller.  The great majority of the American public is a mix of liberal leaning conservatives and conservative leaning liberals who believe in the basic goodness of America’s political ideals through representative republican democracy. In some ill defined way, the basic idea is understood even if the way it works is not. It may be true that many citizens pay little attention to political news, have no idea who elected leaders are, don’t really know how government works, and often don’t vote.  Nevertheless, they have an elementary image of what makes the U.S. different from other nations and an expectation that their freedoms and protections are secure, even if other opportunities are wanting. 

Philosophers and political  pundits have long noted that the American form of democracy is based on two ideas: that all men are created equal with unalienable rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness; and that a democratic republic of three equal branches of government can develop into a more perfect union.  The American government was structured to bring practical implementation of the ideas into everyday reality, but with a twist. It was structured so the three branches would be a check on the power of each, with prescribed elections and terms of office that gave tremendous power to the voting public.  In other words, it was designed to create and maintain suspenseful tension in the making and application of laws.

Our political history has been complicated further by the lack of definitions of essential terms.  Who, for instance, is to be included in the category of “all men are created equal?”  What is equality? What’s meant by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  What is a more perfect union in a nation of semi-independent states, each with their own constitution?  They are questions not yet fully resolved, nor are they likely to be. We are a nation that makes changes and improvements labeled as progress, but only through the messy process of representative democracy driven in part by reason and emotions (public sentiment). 

I wouldn’t want it otherwise but it’s made more difficult and hazardous by news media encouraging cliff hanging suspense with a “let’s have you and him fight” marketing ploy that gives marginal extremists control of the public agenda. In the remote chance that journalists read this post they will object that they are simply reporting the news as it happens. Maybe, but it’s reporting that intentionally creates and maintains cliffhanging suspense that shoves aside the reason and reasonableness of the common good desired by the greater majority of Americans. Worse yet, it appears to give legitimacy to extreme right wingers who favor a unitary executive that would take the U.S. in the direction of fascism that would destroy our democracy and its founding ideals. 

The End is Near. It’s Time to Get a New Life!

September is a month of acceleration as the academic year and football kick off. There is a sense of anticipation for the unfolding of possibilities yet to be realized.  The church liturgical year appears out of step as it draws to a close with a sense of compelling urgency that the end is near.  For the six months of ordinary time readings from Matthew’s gospel have explored how Jesus taught and demonstrated what it means to love one another as he loves us. The tone changes as we approach the end: promise is mixed with warning. We’re almost done, the end is near, there isn’t much time left to do the work God has given us to do.  

When I was young I took all this ‘the end is near’ stuff as irrelevant to me.  It was always presented as the end of time, Christ’s second coming and judgment day. History and science suggest that day is probably millennia away.  In the meantime I’d had a life to live that had only just begun.  Now I’m old and faced with the reality that the end really is near, as it had always been, and is for everyone.  My friend Pickett has adapted a quote from Henri-Frederic Ariel to read, “Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the heart of those who travel with us; so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” I wonder if it’s taken as a platitude suitable for framing but of little practical value.  To the contrary, it is a call to make living into the commandment to love a way of one’s life.

Jesus commanded us to “Let your light so shine that others will see your good works and give glory to God.” (Matt. 5) As it has turned out we prefer others to see our good works and give the thanks due to us. Ordinary good deeds are something Boy Scouts do to earn merit badges. On occasion they might be random acts of kindness but as a rule we are transactional people who expect something in return for the good deeds we do. There is no condemnation in that, but it is not what Jesus commanded. The temptation is to become complacent about worship and doing churchy things that should suffice as discipleship.  Jesus called his followers to make his commandment a way of life that in all times and in all places gives glory to God.”  Contrary to images of self righteousness bible thumpers, it’s a life without much thought given to doing good deeds.  The deeds are just what one does.  Without making a big deal of it, they shine light that gives glory to God.  When it’s the way life is lived it isn’t a burden or anything special, it’s simply the way of life.

I find my way of living that kind of life is a bit erratic and imagine you have the same experience. Even Peter and Paul couldn’t keep it up.  We are, in the words of an old hymn, prone to wander.  Recalculating, as the GPS voice says, is a principal reason to  worship in the company of others needing to recalculate. That’s what worship in church is all about. It isn’t something to do but to be in an intentional community with others in communion with God.  It is a time for reflection and redirection.

Life is a process of daily recalculating, mid-course correction, resetting.  The question is, a recalculation of what?  For Christians daily recalculation must first be about how to follow Jesus in the way of loving others as he loves us. After that it can be about recalculating all other matters that God knows we need: what to wear, eat, drink, how to earn a living, where to live and all the rest.  But, said Jesus, seek first the kingdom of God, which is the way of love, and then attend to other necessities of life.  

The Christian life is a dynamic life of spiritual and material adventure, but it’s susceptible to the disease of complacency.  Attend church as often as conveniently possible, pledge an acceptable amount, volunteer to do churchy things as time permits, and call it sufficient.  The Revelation to John records that Jesus dictated a letter to the church in Laodicea observing that their expression of the faith was complacent, neither cold nor hot but lukewarm.  Be cold or be hot, he said, but lukewarm is worth nothing. (Rev. 3.15)

Maybe as the new school year gets started it would be worthwhile to make it an exciting new start to one’s Christian life at the same time.  It would reenergize the end of time closing of the liturgical year.  What Jesus meant when he warned us to repent because the end is near was to GET A NEW LIFE!

God, Sacrifice & Human Need

What is sacrificial and sacrificed was the subtext of a recent sermon I heard. An NRSV bible uses sacrifice and sacrificed 256 times and preachers urge Christians to live sacrificial lives by taking up their crosses as Jesus called them to do. The subject raises all kinds of questions because I think we throw sacrifice around in so many ways it’s hard to know what it means. At a basic level I wonder if God actually requires sacrifice or is it something in human nature that needs to make them?  For that matter, what is a sacrifice?

Every word originated somewhere to mean something in particular but with passage of time original meaning changed as it got used by different people under different conditions.  The root meaning of sacrifice comes from ancient Greek as something done to make something sacred.  A profane thing presumably of some value, perhaps an animal, was ritually offered as worthy of presentation to the gods. It’s sort of a purpose driven worm hole humans use to create a connection with the divine.  It might be to assuage a god’s anger or solicit a favor, or maybe just to demonstrate  a shaman’s power that commoners could never have.

I’m inclined to think the Lord our God does not require sacrifices to curry favor or assuage anger and there are enough scriptural passages to suggest I’m right. Yes there were and are commandments demanding sacrifices but I think they were for our benefit, not God’s. There are other passages where God declared no desire for sacrifices, especially elaborate ones.  Yet, humans have a need to make sacrifices and have justified that need by placing the onus on God’s demands.   In everyday life we get a sense of it in when we’ve done something to hurt or betray another, feel sorry, and want to to make up for it (atone). For most of us that means doing or giving something that has a cost we would rather not bear.  I’m reminded of a story told by a former parishioner many years ago.  As a little girl she had used scissors to cut a piece out of her grandmother’s favorite dress. The result was an angry, distressed and deeply hurt grandmother.  My parishioner said she presented her own favorite doll as a gift to her grandmother.  It was, she said, the necessary sacrifice of something costly to make up for her naughty act.  I imagine that sums up almost everything humans do to make sacrifices and the reason they do it.   Humble pie, eating crow and tearful apologies are the way adults often make sacrifices for the hurt they’ve caused to another.  It’s not unheard of that flowers and an expensive dinner out have been the sacrificial salve that’s healed many an otherwise loving couple’s harmonious relationship. 

The sacrifices God is said to have required from ‘his’ people were something like that.  To give thanks or atone for sins they had to offer something of real cost.  What could have been more costly to farmers and shepherds than a perfect lamb or sheaf of the best grain?  A sacrifice that comes from the heart, and not out of mere obedience to a rule, is a tangible way to bridge the gap between humanity and the divine.  Humans have a hard time believing that the only sacrifice God truly desires is to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God (Micah 6). That’s both too hard and too easy for us.

Were ancient sacrifices always offered from the heart?  Probably not.  Many sacrifices were offered simply because they were required to remain in good standing as a community member.  It’s the same today. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart “ (Ps. 51).  It’s also a heart filled with gratitude or maybe just a wondering heart. Whatever is acceptable to God is that which is offered from the heart. 

What on earth could be offered to God for the atonement of the sins of all humanity?  Did God require Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to somehow pay for our sins?  I don’t think so, at least not in the usual ways it’s been thought of..  I think it is we humans who needed it and would not have been satisfied with less. We could not trust that our self imposed exile from God’s presence could be bridged by anything less than the physical demonstration of God reaching through the “worm hole” in both directions to obliterate it.  It’s why Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection are one thing, one event.  God so loved the world that God breached the chasm that we created out of our own imagination to show that it didn’t exist.

Is that believable?  To many it is not and never will be. The old fear that gods need to be bribed, assuaged and catered to runs deep.  If not divine gods then secular ones.  For those who can accept it, it turns the way of the cross into the way of life and peace. Taking up one’s cross is to follow Christ not only in the way of divine love, but to be active agents of divine love, even if it’s costly to do. 

Rebuilding Lahaina

The people of Maui can speak for themselves. All I can offer are a few observations I hope might inform mainland readers interested in knowing a little more about the historically important town, Lahaina.

I used to affectionately joke about Lahaina being an authentic tourist trap. It was a favored retreat for Maui royalty in days preceding the unified monarchy. Kamehameha I made it his capital for a time, and it remained a favored royal playgound for generations.  European whalers discovered it as the best layover spot for R&R while re-provisioning.  They were a rowdy bunch so there was a jail in the basement of the Courthouse and an open air prison on Prison Street.   It was the center of life for West Maui residents working for pineapple and sugar companies.  Cattle were brought to the Mala Wharf for export to other places. Hawaii’s first printing press was born in Lahaina in 1834 at Hale Pa’i where it produced the first newspaper to be published west of the Rockies.

American tourists started showing up as soon as 1860 when scheduled steamship travel was begun.  WWII converted Maui into one enormous military base with Lahaina fulfilling its role as a place to relax amidst the bustle of pineapple canning and local commerce.  The tourist flood was unleashed with the Boeing 707 and the development of nearby Ka’anapali as a destination area. Through it all Lahaina retained its small town ambience and home for ordinary working people. 

Lahaina cannot be rebuilt the way it was. The question is can it be rebuilt for the people who lived there? As popular as it was as a tourist attraction it had greater value as a place of historical and cultural importance. Its roughly 13,000 residents were mostly lower middle class and what some call the working poor. Part of the commercial center was oriented to tourists and other parts to the needs of ordinary daily life. Even its few hotels and guest houses were, by Maui standards, on the less expensive side, the Pioneer Inn an exception.  As for me, I’m a seasonal visitor with a forty year love affair with Lahaina and its Holy Innocents Episcopal Church where I’ve been privileged to serve on occasion  as a supply priest.

It will be difficult for Lahaina to be rebuilt to accommodate the people and businesses that gave it such a vibrant life.  The American land development standard of highest and best use has only one meaning: What can be built to milk the most money out of the project? Developers have got to be salivating over the possibility of making billions with an all new Lahaina rivaling Waimea.  It will take enormous courage and discipline from governmental leaders to resist the temptation. What would make some people rich would further impoverish Maui as a whole, not to mention the cultural disaster it would be.  I imagine local leaders are working on the problem even now and I hope they come up with a good solution.  From my distant view of things, I imagine something like a thousand Habitat for Humanity houses build tin “the real old style.”  Maybe another thousand tax credit financed low income apartments also built in the an island style.  My wife and I personally live in an historic town on the Mainland with fairly strict design standards, so I know it can be done.   Somehow commercial properties must be made available at costs affordable to small businesses catering to tourists and to West Maui residents. It might mean keeping out national chains. 

There are important places that can never be replaced, but they need to be reverently memorialized: Wo Hing Museum, Baldwin House, the Courthouse to name a few. Whatever and however rebuilding is accomplished, it cannot be in the usual way through loans that simply pile debt on top of debt already too heavy to bear.  It’s complicated and will require some creative thinking from leader committees to the common good of Lahaina and not the private good of investors. Maybe the millions pooled by Oprah and The Rock can be used for not-for-profit building of new homes with costs to property owners  covered by insurance settlements.  Maybe some commercial properties could be owned cooperatively in public/private partnerships willing to set rents at lowest possible levels.  Who knows?