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The Common Good: what it is and isn’t.

I used the term “common good” in a previous column, and used similar terms in other columns (greater good, good of the community, etc.).  But what is the common good? Philosophers and theologians have worked on an answer for centuries without ever coming to an agreement acceptable to all. There is no ideal common good from which all manifestations of it are derived.  The best we can do is to approximate it in a way that works for “our people” in the time and place in which they live.

For that reason there are many who deny that nothing called the common good can be more important than what individuals believe is best for their own self interests.  Any moral or ethical good shared in common with others must take the form of transactions creating temporary alliances. Trump’s world view is an extreme example.  Utilitarianism is a more popular approach to the common good.  We know it as the greatest good for the greatest number, often calculated in economic terms. It can easily morph into the greatest good for the most powerful. It can also be used to deny common good to minorities, a practice that has haunted America’s history for too long. Kings, emperors, dictators, and autocratic religious leaders declare what it is, claiming they have divine authority to do so. A professor friend says his freshman class students offer only a blank stare of incomprehension because they weren’t exposed to the idea in high school. As a Christian writer I believe God has authoritatively declared what standards are that the common good must meet, but has left it up to us to figure out how to apply them.

Messy as definitions of the common good are, they are the bedrock of stable societies, and more particularly of democracies like ours.  Phrases such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “in order to form a more perfect union” are portions of a fence that encircle the common good. The Constitution and amendments form the greater part of the fence.  More sections of fence are made of long standing American virtues including individualism, self reliance, voluntary action, generosity, faith in democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, etc.  The whole fence is never completed; it has gaps, is in need of repair, and sometimes fails.  Nevertheless, it encloses a hard to define sense of what adds up to the common good. 

However it’s understood, the common good is necessary for modern life to exist at all. No person or family can make it on their own. We depend on each other’s knowledge, labor, and resources to make it through even a single day.  That means the welfare of other people and of the community as a whole must be a priority for all.  It’s a priority that relies on the collective resources invested in improvements, maintenance, and preparation for the future.  It means individual rights to do as one pleases for one’s own self interest are not unlimited.             

As much as possible, the common in common good must be at least a tacit understanding and agreement by the community. To be good it must be equitable, show no favor to anyone and provide opportunity for every person without discrimination.  In a democratic republic such as ours, it is a standard never to be met, yet always approximated. What is customarily accepted as the common good must be subjected to continuous testing and evaluation that moves to correct historical inequities and strives to avoid future ones. It’s an uncomfortable process because it can never come to final resolution.  

Yet, simplifying the resolution for the common good by replacing democracy with the imposition of hierarchical authority is not an answer to this age old dilemma. 

© Steven E. Woolley

Building Bridges of Understanding to Nowhere

Much has been written about the need to build bridges in order to overcome the morass of divisive, recalcitrant politics being played as a zero sum game where everyone loses and nobody wins. The president’s speeches have been filled with similar appeals to the public and media.  Bridges do need to be built, but from where to where, and from whom to whom?  It seems most would-be bridge builders want to span the chasm between them and the remaining hard core MAGA crowd. That would be a pointless bridge to nowhere. Access to their world is permanently closed. In the meantime, the same bridge building technique passes over 85% of the adult public not in the MAGA crowd and not on the far left. They are people to whom the bridges need to be built.  Biden has the right idea with his appeals to the middle and working classes, but too many critics dismiss his pleas as just more of his empathetic ways. They’re wrong and he’s right to continue pressing.

Some bridge builders have the right idea but are their own worst enemies. An example I observed recently: adjacent to our Saturday farmer’s market, was a University student manned Black Lives Matter kiosk: a worthy endeavor to be sure. A white woman stopped to say she believed all lives matter.  No bridges were to be built then as several students heaped accusations of arrogant white privilege on her. A lost opportunity as they made their cause odious in the eyes of one more person who could have been engaged in constructive conversation. They used self righteous emotions as a cudgel for punishment rather building a bridge.

The failure to build bridges to the correct people is a problem in organizations and corporations as well. Years ago I consulted with an organization that had gained a national reputation as innovative, daring, and transformative. That narrative led them to put all their efforts into big projects and products offering potential for greater success.  They neglected the needs and interests of their bread and butter clients, who left them in droves. They became a hollow organization of elite managers filled with grand ideas, and no middle or bottom to support it.

That’s what happens when bridges are built over, not to, the people most needed for sustained success.  The moderate wing of the Republican Party failed miserably in maintaining connections with a base that was not against progressive ideas, just cautious about going too far too fast with too much.  Likewise, the Democratic Party found itself labeled the party of the Ivy League elite, passionate about justice and equity, but out of touch with “real America.”  It was a fatal mistake in a land when wheat and soybean farmers know more about world affairs than many urbanites.  Parties need to be aware that, urban or rural, regardless of color or ethnicity, they must never take the majority for granted, put them in separate silos, or disregard their differences. For the United States to remain united in a democratic republic, its people must be united with respect for their differences, not divided by them. 

Bridges need to be built from centers of political power to the majority of Americans, not the radical fringes. They have to be built to different places and serve different purposes with the intention of creating a network leading to the common good. What are they to be made of and how are they to be built? They have to be built on a foundation honoring American virtues of freedom, rights, cooperation and self reliance. Americans want a hand up, not a handout. They can’t define what that means, but it’s strongly held nonetheless.  Government policies and programs must be introduced, enacted, and administered as necessary to strengthening America’s core virtues.

Bold announcements about billions of dollars dedicated to this or that need can easily trigger hysteria over out of control spending.  Needed projects must first be announced by what they will do, and how that will make life better for all.

Finally, bridges have to work the way they’re supposed to. In politics that means elected officials and bureaucrats must remember they are in the business of customer service, which is something Washington based congressional staff and high ranking civil servants have a hard time understanding.          

The midterms are upon us. It’s probably too late for campaigns to start building bridges they have long ignored, but it’s not too late for them to be ready for the next general election.  In the meantime, individuals passionate about issues of justice and equity must better learn how to sublimate emotional outbursts in favor of building bridges that will change minds.

© Steven E. Woolley

American Grief, Hope & The British Monarchy

It’s been 246 years since America declared its independence from Britain.  It took two wars and multiple skirmishes to secure a stable friendship that evolved into an oft cited “special relationship,” a cousins once removed sort of thing.  Through two world wars, the Cold War, and a handful of other conflicts, we have grown closer than ever, albeit the former colonies a great power, and Britain much diminished.  So I suppose it’s not surprising that America is in a time of corporate mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II, hopeful anxiety over the ascension of Charles III, and speculation whether William and Harry will mend their breach. Americans can’t seem to get  enough of British dramas, books, actors, and royal family gossip.

It could be all for entertainment value but I think there is something else going on more closely related to the divisions and dissensions we have endured over the last twenty or so years. Our intense interest may have been brought to a head by our country’s four years with a corrupt, incompetent would be ruler who tried to overturn an election and finally resorted to invoking insurrection in order to stay in power. His plans didn’t work but served to inspire others down two dangerous paths.  One would have an authoritarian president ruling over a compliant Congress and court system.  The other would establish a new confederacy of independent states governed by a small, powerless federal government.  Both tracks would allow oligarchs of one kind or another to dictate laws and policies.  

Our democracy survived with the election of a new president, but the turmoil remains.  Upcoming elections suggest Congress may again become impotent and openly hostile to rights, freedoms, and the most precious elements of our democracy.  The climate is seeking its revenge on the abuse we’ve heaped on to this earth, our fragile, island home.  The pandemic upended our complacent way of life.  Resurgent old diseases and new ones remind us that good heath can’t be taken for granted. After WWII the U.S. dominated the world’s economy as the only advanced nation that had not been bombed into smithereens.  Still the largest, its near equals are the E.U. and China, meaning we can no longer exert dominance at will.  

What does all of this have to do with our fascination with the news of the Queen’s death and the ascension of Charles III?

From the early18th century, the British monarchy has been the symbol of continuity and stability with many prime ministers, battling parliaments, economic hard times, empire and its loss, devastating wars, and a diminished role on the world stage. Yet Britain has muddled through finding new ways to remain strong, making the most out of whatever condition it found itself in. Dukes and Barons have become innkeepers.  Knighthood goes to entertainers.  Rural and urban communities are at odds with each other.  Immigration has changed the color palette of the nation. The Scots can’t decide if they want to stay or go. The Welsh speak Welsh. On a public stage, the royal family engages in all the ordinary foibles of ordinary people. And Brexit, who knows how that will turn out?  Through it all, the monarchy has been a symbol of dependable continuity and national pride with the powerful demonstration of a seamless transition from one monarch to the next. The week long ceremonies of pomp, mourning, worship, and celebration engages the British nation as nothing else could.

America is engaged as well not only for the entertainment value, but rather subconsciously feeling a need to adopt it as our own to symbolize continuity and national stability. From the end of George Washington’s term to the end of Barak Obama’s, the office of president has been peacefully transferred from one to the next. True in times of assassination, untimely deaths, forced resignations, and even that of the only unelected president, Gerald Ford. The last twenty years have seen the rise of agents for a more authoritarian government headed by a “unitary” executive. With considerable skill and political manipulation, they created an emotionally driven movement of popular distrust in a government that gave us the Trump era. Trump’s term ended in a humiliating defeat at the polls, followed by a deceitful battle to overturn the election by claiming election fraud. When the courts threw out cases for lack of evidence, his people attempted an insurrection while he threatened to remain in the White House no matter what. It didn’t work, but it shook the nation. How could such a thing happen in a democracy like ours? Our symbols of stability and continuity were shattered.To where could we turn?

Perhaps through vicarious participation in the British monarchy’s traditions being covered hour by hour on American cable news, and on the front pages of every major newspaper, our nation will be able to regain hope and trust in our own traditions. Traditions that Trump & Co. could rattle but not destroy.

© Steven E. Woolley

The Middle Ages, Christianity, and Now:

Europe’s middle ages proceeded on two tracks. One, imposed by local warlords and kings, was the Christianization of tribes and individuals with rites and rituals not actually leading people to learn about or follow the way of Jesus. Serious intent to follow Jesus was mostly the realm of monasteries and a handful of others.  The second track was unending war, with all of its atrocities, between tribes and nascent kingdoms whose leaders wanted more power and land. They may have marched against each other under the banner of the cross, but that was mainly a tool to bind the loyalty of the people to the king, not Jesus. The nations we know as modern Europe jelled eventually, but not without keeping ethnic hostilities alive. Even the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were driven more by angry self righteousness and greed for territory than anything else.

That history has led some to accuse Christianity of being a violent religion of oppression and subjugation. It’s a claim that ignores the substitution of Jesus’ discipleship for the prevalence of selfish greed and lust for power. Moreover, the same dynamic ran parallel in Asia where Buddhism became the dominant religion.

During the same historical age, Buddhism spread throughout southern and eastern Asia. Like Rome’s Constantine, kings and emperors recognized the useful tool of binding people together by displacing tribal gods.  With no real regard for teachings of the Buddha, rulers incited the business of killing in pursuit of territory and power.  Buddhism was simply the most efficient method to mobilize a more or less unified people behind them. Although the trajectory was different in Islam, there were also power and oppression similarities. But that’s a story for someone else to tell. The point is that rulers and peoples were capable of taking on the cloak of religion without following its teachings.

That now brings this column from the Middle Ages to our own time and to the seductive power of idolatrous dependencies. What is now ancient history hasn’t gone away, rather it has just changed its form. It’s seen in the religiously flavored armed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and among religious zealots throughout the world.  We see it played out in America by an aggressive move of right wing authoritarian political movement designed to unite conservative evangelical Christians, while trampling the way of following Jesus into the dust.  We see it in religious zealotry that willfully goes along with any authority that will give power to suppress all other beliefs, Christian or not. For Christians it’s a form of idolatry that occurs whenever self and corporate identity are dependent on things given greater value than God, as we know God in Christ Jesus.  

Jesus taught about the way of love that includes God, self, neighbors and even enemies. To follow God in the way of love demands that it be the single guiding authority far above everything else. Not that everything else is displaced, only that it be subordinate to the way of following Jesus.

What can that mean? We have to start with a different set of questions. What makes us, us?  What gives us our self identity, sense of worthiness and security? It might be to have enough money to handle every necessity, most wants, and a handful of luxuries. To have enough money is power and status, to not have it is to be vulnerable, serving even to erode one’s self worth.  Sometimes it’s having possessions that announce status or valued heritage. One’s dependency on unreliable things to confer identity and worthiness can be dangerous. Dependency on others for the love needed to feel fully human can be particularly treacherous. Human love is not dependable even at its best. Even the ones who love us most let us down now and then.  Sometimes needed love is not to be had. The soul withers and self worth fades in its absence.  Dependency on wealth, possessions, and the love of others to provide self identity, status, and worthiness can lead to such fear of losing it all that everything else in life is subordinated to clutching what we can and keeping others from taking it.

It’s hateful to be owned by money, things and the whims of other people. Can’t we just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be enough? I think that’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about. 

We are most fully free to receive the imperfect love of others, embody love in ourselves, and give our love to others when we give up dependence on things and people to affirm who we are. So who are we? We are God’s unconditionally beloved. To give up dependency on things other than that assurance is to let love flow fully, freely.

Jesus loved Roman collaborators, adulterers, and maniacs. He loved the disciples who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. He loved disease ridden lepers, the blind, crippled, sick, beggars, rich and poor, even crucified thieves. He loved them unconditionally then and he loves us now. He will never take that love away.

By giving up our dependency on others and becoming dependent on the love of God in Christ Jesus is to let love flow from us in every direction, including to those closest and dearest to us. To be fully human, to be authentically one’s own true self, is to know that we are loved by God in Christ Jesus. Dependency on anything else as more important opens the door to the corroding power of selfishness, fear and anxiety. It returns us to the mindset of the Middle Ages.

© Steven E. Woolley

Jesus In The Light Of Galilee’s History: an added dimension of understanding.

Jesus’ words and deeds have taken on a new dimension for me after reading a history of Galilee.*  Late as I am in my career, it isn’t too late to study the region’s history as it was where Jesus began and did most of his work to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was near, where he healed many people, and from where he walked for days and weeks to Jerusalem and surrounding territories.  So what were the conditions in Galilee during Jesus’ time?

It had not been a region of Israelite settlement since the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel many centuries before.  With encouragement from a newly reestablished priesthood, Jewish migration from Judea got into full swing in the first century B.C. after the Maccabean revolt. By the time of Jesus, Galilee had become a predominantly Jewish province with a culture and accent that Judeans took to be signs of country bumpkins.  Galileans were separated from Judea by the land of the despised Samaritans but maintained allegiance to the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship.  Nevertheless, they developed their own network of synagogues as gathering places for civic life and worship.  The area had long been under Greek or Roman control so gentile ways were not unfamiliar to the people.  In Jesus’ day the puppet king Herod Antipas ruled as Rome’s surrogate in an environment that fostered rebels, bandits, and self proclaimed messiahs. They were troublesome but easily put down.  Malaria was rampant in marshy lowlands, giving Galilee a reputation for being pestilent. Infant and new mother mortality rates were high.  Living into a “ripe old age” meant surviving past the age of 30.  The economy was agrarian, villages small, and and cottage industry diversified to produce the needs of daily life.  There were only two cities of any size: Sephora and Tiberius.  Sephora was the older and had Hellenistic origins.  Tiberius was a new city built by Antipas.  Few villagers ever went to them and there is no record that Jesus ever did.  

Gospel records and Sunday school illustrations present a different picture: one of pastoral landscapes, relatively peaceful villages, and prosperous fishermen. Jesus grew to maturity in the hilltop village of Nazareth where he experienced the reality of life in Galilee, both the good and bad.

He began his ministry not in Nazareth but along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and from there he called his first disciples.  In a mysterious way, the pastoral scenes depicted in the gospels were not entirely wrong. Wherever Jesus went he proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near because he was its manifestation. Where he was the kingdom was.  In it was love, healing, reconciliation, and godly truth delivered in person by the Word of God made flesh. While others announced coming rebellions or an apocalyptic end of the world, Jesus promised that, through him, one could enter from this life into God’s eternal kingdom. No wonder people had a hard time understanding him.

He left the curious in awe of the authority in his voice calling all to love one another. What a different message in a land that bred rebels by the dozens.  They marveled at the healing power of his words and touch. They were astounded when he assumed the right to forgive sins.  Those who opposed him found themselves powerless to do anything despite their curses and threats of violence.  And so it was until the day Jesus chose for it to be otherwise.

What an odd place to begin the work of the world’s salvation: among villages of country people living in a region always on the edge of lawlessness, where Jews, gentiles and Samaritans bumped contentious elbows, and with a history of failed messiahs. His core followers were a ragtag group of fishermen, social misfits, Roman collaborators, and, of all things, women.  For all of it, his overwhelming presence of godly authority threatened Herod, annoyed Pilate, and unnerved the Jerusalem priesthood.

He couldn’t be stopped, not even by crucifixion.  One would expect the Jewish wars against Rome, starting in about 66 A.D., would have squelched any remembrance of a messiah who played by none of the rules. 

Unlikely things happen where God is involved.  As Rome had leveled Jerusalem and forced Jews out of the area, troublesome, backwater Galilee became the center of the Jewish world.  Rabbinic Judaism arose from Galilee to guide Jews throughout the world for the next two thousand years. Christianity, however, did not take root in Galilee, yet it spread quickly from there to every part of the Mediterranean and beyond.  If Christianity did not take root in Galilee, it was the garden where the seeds were sown for the world’s redemption, and where Judaism gained renewed life in a deeper faith.

©Steven E. Woolley

*Galilee In The Late Second Temple and Early Mishinaic Period: Life, Culture, and Society

David A. Fiensy, James Riley Strange, editors.

Fortress Press, 2014

Republic or Democracy? The United States is a Republic Rooted in Democracy.

I was in separate conversations with a few very conservative friends years ago when the tea party movement was grabbing all the headlines.  Each friend shared enthusiastically about how we lived in a republic, not a democracy. How strange I thought, what could have brought this up?  Good people, every single one, but not well versed in political theory or the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  It turned out they had been listening to a then popular right wing talk show radio host and had memorized the script of his talking points. I was perplexed. Why would radio hosts claim that an American republic was not a democracy? If someone says we have a republic, not a democracy, what sort of republic do they have in mind?  That was two decades ago.  Where are we now? I heard the same claim again just a few days ago, from someone who should know better (and likely does). 

First, to claim that a republic is not a democracy is a red herring.  To be sure, the ancient Greek definition of democracy was what we might call “rule by the fickle, desires of the mob”; think of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.  A more orderly form of so called pure democracy was practiced by New England colonists.  It was government by town meeting conducted by rules of eligibility and procedure.  It’s still practiced in some places.

To the ancient Greek philosophers, a republic relied on a few leading men to elect a  virtuous autocrat held in check by an assembly of qualified citizens.  What sort of assembly would be qualified?  Plato wanted an assembly of philosophers who would elect a philosopher as leader.  After all, he said, only philosophers really knew what was best for the whole.  Aristotle disagreed.  He wanted an assembly of propertied men who had real skin in the game. Neither trusted the mob, which to them was everyone else.  What about women?  The question never entered their minds. Neither of them got what they wanted.  Greek city states rumbled chaotically from despots to oligarchs to mobs and back again. Rome gave the Aristotelian model a good run, but ended up with emperors and a more symbolic than functional senate of Roman nobility.

Words change their meanings as the centuries go by and we now understand democracy to include democratic republics, locally adapted. For success they rely on the principles of universal suffrage, freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble in protest, and so forth.  Voters elect representatives to legislatures where they are expected to enact appropriate laws for the good of the whole, balancing it against rights of individual freedom.  Mayors, governors and presidents are elected by the voters to administer the laws within limits, preventing dictatorial power.  An independent court system mediates disputes.  In other words, modern republics are representative democracies. To claim otherwise is either calculating or ignorant.

It’s true that founding fathers were wary of too much democracy in the new republic.  They were even more worried about giving a president too much executive authority.  Too much democracy would lead to mob rule.  Too much executive authority would lead to despotism.

The balance was to entrust the vote to propertied white men, electing a House of Representatives by popular vote, and a smaller Senate elected by state legislatures.  It was a good starting place.  Demands for greater protection of individual rights led quickly to the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.  A civil war and more amendments gave full rights to all men black and white. Senators were not elected by popular vote until 1915.  The right to vote was not extended to women until 1920, nor American Indians until 1924.  The United States had finally become a fully democratic republic with universal suffrage – not that local laws and prejudices didn’t suppress as much of the non-white vote as they could get away with.  By law if not practice, that stopped in the mid 1960s.  Recent Supreme court rulings have enabled those in power to tactically suppress the right to vote in the name of election integrity, where integrity has never been seriously challenged.

The current propaganda that republics and democracies are different creatures is related to the trend toward voter suppression.  A belief has never died that government should be in the hands of only a few because the general population cannot be trusted.  Guided for the last twenty years or so by well financed and intellectually astute groups, epitomized by the Koch Network, some have been working hard to recast the U.S. as a republic with oligarchs, seeing that a more authoritarian, but compliant, president of their choosing is elected, served by a subordinate Congress.  It would, they believe, make for a more efficient, less regulated nation with more freedom for individuals to act as they please in their own best interests.  A two pronged strategy could make that happen.  First, there needs to be a mass movement to create mistrust in a government that bends to the demands of unworthy minorities and that also is a threat to individual freedom.  The solution to their fears and prejudices would be a more authoritarian president to defend their interests.  Second, the scheme depends on incremental suppression of voters most likely to object.  It’s not a new plan.  It’s been around for centuries, and used effectively by oligarchs, dictators, coups and the like.  Extreme versions include Italian fascists, German nazis, and Soviet communists.  Hungarian president Victor Orban is a contemporary example, much admired by the American radical right.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s all the same plan.  The frightening thing is how easily it can be sold to enough of the gullible to create a mob large enough to kindle a fire.

We came close to losing our democracy with Trump. It failed because the oligarchs could not control an ignorant, undisciplined Trump, the criminal ineptness of the Trump operation, the courage and integrity of enough others to stop it, and a large majority of voters who recognized the danger. 

It’s not over.  Trumpism has been recognized by political opportunists as a powerful tool that could give them all the power they ever wanted.  If oligarchs can fund the right candidates, the plan might still work.

On the other hand, the mob of trumpists, loud as ever, is growing smaller as more traditional conservatives see it for what it is, and traditional liberals begin waking up from their decades long complacency.  How they respond in the next few rounds of elections will determine whether we will be able to keep our democratic republic or decline into autocracy.

© Steven E. Woolley

Perhaps Jerusalem Mirrors The World Back On Itself: pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122)

Glass mirrors reflect images of the reality that stand before them.  But there are other kinds of mirror-like reflectors that include people and nations. Children often reflect the behavior and language of their parents, not always for the better. Nations reflect the best and worst of their histories and socio/politico values.

Jerusalem and the territories surrounding it are, I believe, a mirror of sorts reflecting the fears, hope and condition of the world back on itself.  We are accustomed to the limited success of the decades long struggle for peace in the Middle East centering on Jerusalem.  Decades of searching are merely the most recent chapter in centuries of Jerusalem’s centrality to core meanings of three global faiths and the interests of many nations. Jerusalem has been been loved and fought over, with emotional commitment hard to explain, but always said to be for God and country. It is the holy of holies where God’s presence has been most fully displayed through God’s own words and deeds.

Jerusalem is also a place where humanity’s worst words and deeds have polluted every generation including our own. It is as if the city and region have been performing Ezekiel-like prophetic work century after century.  Ezekiel, as you recall, was a prophet during the time of Judah’s Babylonian exile. With bizarre, crazy as a loon behavior, he acted out the sins, punishment, and the promise of eventual restoration of God’s people.  Like a human mirror, he reflected back on captive Israelites the reality of who they were and how they had to change if God’s blessings were to be restored to them. It was not to be a restoration to the old ways but to entirely new ways of following where God was leading.

In like manner, Jerusalem and the Middle East are acting out the best and worst of the world’s reality. If peace is to come to the Middle East it is not Jerusalem that has to change but the people of God and the nations in which they live.  For there to be peace between Jews and Arabs, nations must find ways to be at peace with each other.  If we want Palestinians to stop being oppressed, nations must stop oppressing the most vulnerable of their own people. If we want Hamas and Hezbollah to cease violent terrorism, nations must stop tolerating the terrorism they so easily endorse. If we want the Kneset to stop brawling and Israeli prime ministers to be virtuous, nations must see to their own legislatures and presidents.  If we want Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to be a holy delight to all Jews, Christians and Muslims, our own denominational feuding and interfaith suspicions must cease.

Then Jerusalem and the Middle East will reflect a new way of living together that we say we want but have been unwilling to risk. The nations of the world and their peoples have been playing a global game of Prisoners Dilemma, with predictable results. The cycle must be broken and it is religious leadership that must bend to the task of breaking it.

Can it happen? Three large, powerful and influential religions claim to worship the one merciful and just God.  If the leaders of each can be more willing and dedicated to following the way God has bequeathed to them, they can create the momentum needed to produce a critical mass needed for change to happen.

Will it happen?  The world has made incremental progress over the ages but its progress towards peace is hampered by greed, selfishness, lust for power, distrust and affection for violence as the easiest means to ends that can never be achieved. Habitual behavior is not easily broken.

Imaginary gods vs. God as Revealed: edited and corrected

Editor’s note: below is the revised version of CP’s article (Dianna)

Recently, I accidentally stumbled on an old podcast discussing how concepts of God are a product of one’s imagination.  It claimed that people desire a higher power of some kind, and imagine all the things they would like a god to be, or are afraid a god might be, and stitch them together into an imaginary god that seems so real to them, it became real. To prove the point they looked at the teaching in a particular evangelical church where an emotionally intimate relationship with God was expected as the true mark of faith.  I had something else to do so didn’t get to the end of the podcast,  but I suspected a church where preaching promoted a prosperity gospel god flexibly tailored to each person’s desires. Or maybe a harshly judgmental god tailored to each person’s fears. Who knows? 

I think the podcast was right in one sense.  As far as I know every culture has some idea of the divine.  It seems to be innate in what it is to be human.  It’s true even for confirmed atheists who can’t drop talking and writing about the god they don’t believe in.  It’s not that everyone is a fervent believer.  Many are rather complacent about God as bequeathed to them by whatever tradition they grew up in, but complacency is not unbelief. 

The podcasters were partially right in another way.  In its landmark study the Robert Bellah team coined the word “Sheilaism” to identify religious beliefs imagined or borrowed to create a personal god.  Perhaps we are all guilty of a little Sheilaism now and then, but it is not the way of classical Christianity.

God can be known only through God’s self revelation which is why imaginary gods must be rejected.  For me as an Episcopalian a reliable understanding of God can be had only through scripture, tradition and reason.  The Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament record how God has made God’s self known through two thousand years of painful, slow, incremental apprehending of who we are, who God is, what our relationship is, and what it should become.  God spoke through prophets but only the test of time revealed which prophets were genuine and which were not.  For Christians, God is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ who is the Word of God made flesh.  The gospels tell the story of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection.  New Testament books that follow tell how the early Christians stumbled forward as they gave up their pagan gods to learn a new way of life.

We’ve been stumbling forward ever since.  That’s where tradition comes in.  Only through time have we been able to discern more fully the path on which  Jesus leads us.  We have our own two thousand years of prophets and sages who have helped us understand a little more, generation by generation.  We’ve been down blind alleys, heard from false prophets and phony sages, but the power of God to lead us has not failed.

Philosophers and scientists will speculate forever what reason is, but whatever it is, humans are endowed with it.  We can think, doubt, probe for truth, test, and yes, imagine things into being.  We are called to use that reason to study scripture, learn from the wisdom of tradition, and add to it for generations yet to follow. 

The God of revelation is not a god of imagination.

It’s a curious thing that there can be an objection to God’s self revelation that has informed us that we have been made for life in peace, justice and abundance.  How can that be objectionable?  We’ve been given freedom to choose but God has told us to choose wisely and has shown us the path of justice for the poor and oppressed, and peace and reconciliation among all peoples.  Christians have been shown the way of love pioneered by Jesus. We are commanded to follow him, and to invite all others to walk with us. We confess that we fail frequently and have to try again.  It continues to be the slow sometimes painful process of understanding more fully and following with more confidence.   How God might be leading others is another matter, but it will always be in the way of love.

As L. Ron Hubbard proved, anybody can make up a religion.  Even some churches appear to make things up as they go along, mostly in whatever image the current pastor wants.  It happens when scripture, tradition and reason are considered old fashioned and irrelevant.  Making things up as one goes along leads down side roads going nowhere. We humans like to take them but it’s never too late to turn back to the road God has revealed through scripture, tradition and reason.

©Steven Woolley

Why Biden’s Poll Numbers are so Low: A Narrative Examination

The Obama administration guided the nation into recovery from the Great Recession. It placed the economy on a stable foundation for sustainable growth capable of withstanding the vicissitudes of global events.  Under Obama’s leadership Congress passed the Affordable Care Act bringing lower cost health insurance to millions of families. This in spite of unyielding opposition from Republicans who had given up governing in favor of grasping raw power at any cost.  The cost was high.  Issues strengthening equity and justice were blocked and a Trans Pacific trading partnership was torpedoed  that would have checked a growing threat from China.  Nevertheless, by the end of his term, the economy was thriving, the deficit declining, and prospects for better yet to come looked bright.  It was not to be.

Right wing talk radio and Koch Network machinations had worked hard to build an anti government movement of disaffected voters steeped in two decades of conspiracies and flat out lies.  It convinced enough of them to elect a wannabe dictator who promised to make America great again. He did just the opposite.

In four chaotic years,Trump undermined economic stability, degraded relationships with allies, colluded with dictators, started a tariff war that helped set fire to inflation, and blew the lid off the national debt and deficit. All in the name of making America great again. The COVID pandemic would have thrown the country into an economic slump no matter what but the Trump administration’s bumbling and his own strange announcements, drove it into a deep recession, and the deaths of a million persons. Trump led a growing white supremacist, fascist movement built on bizarre conspiracies and scapegoating.  Even now as battles loom, led by usurpers eager to push the doddering old man out of the way, the Trump movement will outlive him. He won’t go down easily, as proved by the insurrection he fomented in his last days in office, an insurrection that came dangerously close to succeeding.

A majority of American voters had had enough. They rejected Trump and trumpism in favor of Joe Biden.  With a bare and contentious majority in Congress, the Biden administration has led us out of a long and pointless war, repaired the nation’s economic foundation, guided us out of the Trump recession, begun the work of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and reestablished American credibility in the global arena.  Even as inflation troubles family budgets, the economy remains robust.  

For all of it, Biden’s approval ratings remain in the 30% range, miserably low for any president.  The reasons are many and a little scary.  Media pundits harp on the low ratings with predictable results.   Readers and viewers are led to believe if so many others think he’s doing a bad job, it must be so, even if the evidence says otherwise. The right wing propaganda machine is in full swing with exaggerations of street crime, economic woes, bizarre conspiracies, and  more flat out lies.  There is no responsible loyal opposition from Republicans, the GOP having turned to neo-fascism abetted by cowardice among genuine conservatives.  They’ve made good use of the old war horses of illegal immigration,  fear of street crime, reckless spending, opposition to gun regulation, and various other hard-times-are-upon-us tropes.  They’ve added a few new ones such as Critical Race Theory, the decline of White hegemony, and the usual grumbling about radical leftist socialist agendas.

Taken together  they have created an avalanche of conflicting “news” leaving too many ordinary folk unable to tell what is real or unreal, true or false, fake or genuine.  Low poll numbers are the predictable result of well sown “bad” news even in the face of a surprisingly successful and effective administration. That’s today’s American politics for you.  Not promising.

Could the polls be wrong? As any student of Sir Humphrey (The British series “Yes Minister,”) knows, the pollsters could easily produce high marks for Biden simply by rewording their survey instruments. The midterms could show that the pollsters have been asking the wrong questions. Or maybe not. November will tell. 

Christians Are People Of Faith. What IS Faith?

Churches using the Revised Common Lectionary are in the midst of            lengthy scripture readings about faith.  Faith is one of those words we use without bothering to give it a clear definition yet with certainty that we know what it means.

The problem is that there is no ‘we’ in understanding what faith is. Each of us has our own more or less intuited understanding.  Moreover we’re likely to assume others have the same intuited understanding as we do.  It can lead to a lot of confusion.  For one thing just how much faith do we need?  Jesus said not much, only a little, faith no larger than a mustard seed.  With such a small amount of faith one can metaphorically move mountains.  Yes, but what kind of faith?  Faith in what?

I think understanding what faith means comes in two large categories, themselves not easily defined: belief and trust.  For example, belief that holding certain things to be true is the kind of faith one is supposed to have.  A popular example of that is the acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior as the necessary statement of faith. Another example, for those of us who adhere to the Nicene Creed, is that accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, with Jesus as the eternally begotten word of God made flesh, is a required, if not sufficient, statement of faith.

The other broad category of trust is to simply trust God, God in Christ Jesus, to be the way, the truth, and the life.  Call it blind trust with eyes wide open.  It’s a leap of faith that many theologians talk about.  I’m a great fan of the Letter of James and think trust is the kind of faith he writes about.  With trust in God, one will do as God commands and follow where Jesus leads without having the need to satisfy a deeper understanding.  In fact, wrote James, one shows one’s trust by what one does in everyday life. 

The two kinds of faith are not mutually exclusive.  They are not the same but they always overlap in ill defined ways.  Maybe it’s that lack of definition that makes talk about faith so fuzzy.

Is everyone left on their own to come up with a comfortable balance of belief and trust about who God is, and what it is to be a Christian?   Does that mean each one is to discover for our faith through a preacher who claims you must believe or trust in such and such a way to be a Christian? I think not!  That’s the way of religious charlatans, and there are plenty of them around.

I think a more reliable way of understanding faith is to “trust” in the sloppy, messy, slow, process faithful council leaders outline for us. Through hard work, prayer, and led by the Holy Spirit, these leaders articulate a realm of belief and trust within which the Church, the body of Christ, can faithfully exist. It’s an ever changing realm because our ability to understand where God is leading us is ever changing.  It’s a process of godly trial and error – frustrating for those who want clear, definitive answers.

It is always provisional truth, which makes trust the more important element of faith.  Statements of belief must always be somewhat provisional because we are humans of limited ability to understand who God is and where God is leading us. We must always be willing to listen and learn.  God is not done speaking. 

I personally believe that statements of belief in the Nicene Creed draw a large enough circle to accommodate everyone.  But if the Creed proves to be inadequate, I trust God to lead us to a fuller understanding.

The coinage of the United States states that “In God We Trust.”  I wish that were true.  Maybe it will be some day when we can trust that a nation of “mixed races” is a good and valued thing, that God is at work among those who do not believe as we do, and that it is right to take seriously God’s admonitions to tend to social and economic justice for all persons, and creation itself.