Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Hard Day's Work

I've been challenged by all of Gandhi's Social Sins - but this particular one about Wealth without Work has really captured me. Perhaps it's because I was thinking about this long before I saw the poster that clued me in to the Mahatma's list.

The US seems to be in a quandary when it comes to social services. We want to help those people who don't have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep or anyone to address their health problems - at the same time we do seem to have created a system of generational dependence.

Some argue, and it's easy to agree, that we've separated the fulfillment of our basic needs from real work. However, when I begin to think of the logical and theological implications of that idea, it just doesn't cut the mustard.

First, if a visceral understanding that the daily work you do is directly connected to your survival is paramount, there's just as many people well-off enough to never fit into the category. My family makes less than $50,000 a year, but we'd have at least a few months without income before we began to worry about food and housing (even then it wouldn't be an issue as we have plenty of equally capable and willing family and friends who would help us survive. The connection between wealth and work goes both ways.

Secondly, it just doesn't fit with a Christian understanding that our work doesn't earn us anything. God gives us what we have and everything we have is God's. That's pretty paramount. That is the reason for Sabbath. We need to be reminded that our wealth and our work are not connected - as much as it may seem so. Don't believe me? There's millions of people around the world who work twice as hard as you or I who still can't feed their family or provide decent housing.

What then do we do? How do we address the real relationship between wealth and work if it's not a direct correlation? I've been puzzling on this and I have an idea. It might be crazy, but hear me out:

What if work is not just a responsibility, but also a right?

There are some basic rights. Everyone pretty much acknowledges that. Whether you subscribe to the US Declaration of Independence's "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," a more general "respect and dignity," or a very specific list - we all tend to agree that society (not necessarily government) owes something to people.

What if one of those things was a hard day's work?

No one wants a life of backbreaking labor, but there is something emotionally, spiritually, and physically profitable in exercising your mind and/or body in pursuit of a goal. People need to be engaged in something meaningful.

Both the left and the right seem to fall short of this understanding. The Left (and I know I'm generalizing here) seems to view work as a luxury and the Right seems to view it solely as a responsibility. In a sense, they're both correct, but they miss the bigger picture.

During the Depression, the government was feeding and clothing and housing a lot of people - but they also came up with public benefit projects where they put people to work. The work didn't cover the benefits economically, but it kept people hopeful and invested. I know our economics are a little different today (if the government hired people at minimum wage or less to work on National Park improvements, the construction industry would be rightfully upset), but the notion is praiseworthy and I suspect the creativity exists to figure something out.

I've often been accused of hating efficiency. I'm certainly not a fan of it as an unquestioned proposition, but I do think efficiency is a valuable tool. I think about how much more land one farmer can farm now - an area that would have taken a dozen people fifty years ago can be cultivated by one. That's great. But is it less great if only half of those other eleven found meaningful work to replace farming?

Again, these are more theoretical questions than practical. I'm not an expert and thus you won't get genius ideas. I've been trained to think, ask questions, and see the world differently. I'm also committed to optimism. I believe all things are possible. Gandhi did, too.

I am convinced that the creativity exists to see everyone engaged in meaningful work - just as I'm convinced the creativity exists to get everyone clean water. I think our collective life depends on it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gandhi for President?

Obviously, Mohandas Gandhi would not make the best President of the United States. It would be tough to get him elected. First of all, there's the nebulous religious background, plus the criminal record, the vegetarianism, the non-violence - not to mention his distinct lack of a birth certificate. Then, of course, the largest hurdle: he's dead.

In any event, Gandhi was dedicated to the welfare of society. It would be difficult to place him in a partisan category in the US - there's some educated, elite stereotypes there, but he also fought hard for the right of people to work and be unconstrained by the government. He believed in people and in people working together. I don't think any politician could argue with that.

One of the most intriguing things about Gandhi's life (and there are many) is the enduring legacy of his "Seven Social Sins." They are, in his view, the deadly sins of a society - violation of such will result in the failure of society. Important stuff, in other words.

Gandhi believed that violence was the premier destructive force in the world and that ignorance of these seven principles incites violence. He talked of them often, but there remains little printed, recorded evidence of how he explained them.

It seems to me, in this time of deeply divided rhetoric and partisan battles surrounding the US Presidential election, it might be interesting to examine these social sins more closely. They speak prophetically into the false divide created by current US politics.

Perhaps that's precisely what's addressed by the first sin: Politics without Principles.

We live in a system in which re-election is more important than governing. Power has become the only goal and preserving or regaining power the only principle. Nobody stands for anything besides whatever the other guy is against. Our politics is one of division.

This may not be true of each individual, but we've allowed the whole to become a game. We do not enter politics with an interest in getting along and living together, in building a world where everyone is at peace. We enter politics to win.

I suppose it could be argued that making everyone come to my side or bend to my will is a principle in itself, or that there are real principles behind the battles - I'm just not that sure what it says about those principles. It certainly says that the principle of winning, of self-determination is more important than anything else we believe.

That may be true for some, but it results in little more than "convert or die."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hidden Camera Soundbites and Gotcha Politics

By now just about everyone has heard the comments made by Mitt Romney at the fundraiser this spring. People are a little upset. Obviously, putting a specific number on the people who are entitled and lazy was his biggest mistake (although there's some other terribly unfortunate comments on that recording that aren't getting the same kind of press). Making it a specific claim and not a generalization is going to hurt his campaign down the stretch.

However, I'd prefer to talk about the generalization itself. Again, outside the specific number, I thought about the last election and President Obama's comment that some people react to the challenges of society by "clinging to guns and religion."

I'm struck by the similarity of these claims. Obviously they're generalizations from opposite sides of the aisle, politically - but they seem no less important for a solid public debate. The media gets riled up protesting how thoughtless the candidates are for making such outrageously unflattering claims.

The problem is: they're partly true.

I wasn't outraged at Obama for talking about people clinging to guns and religion. I know a lot of those people. It's a natural human reaction. When things seem tumultuous in the world, we seek out security. One of the places people find security is in God - another is in their own ability to control a situation (for many, with a gun). Certainly the President (candidate, at the time) was speaking derogatorily (I'd've preferred compassionately), but the truth of the statement stands.

When I heard about the Romney comments, I was upset at his use of a specific number - that's dangerous territory (especially because - as just about every media outlet in the world has explained - the number is silly) - but I also understood the implication. Some people are overly entitled, steeped in a culture of victimization, and often unwilling to work for what they deem is owed them. This number is far, far below 47% of the population, but it's not zero. I know some of them, too.

I think this response is equally about security. A lot of times these people live in unstable environments, where there's no guarantee of a place to live, food on the table, or a job to go to. As a response, they cling to the idea that society owes them something - and they want government to cash that check. They want the safety and security of (a quite literal) check in the mail.

Romney's lack of compassion is no less troubling than Obama's. Although I suspect that these two, both steeped in ideology and partisan politics, can't fathom why so many people who they'd love to help if they'd just be allowed to do so, could possibly think the other party would do it better. It's more an exasperated frustration over a different way of thinking than it is any real animosity.

From a theological and philosophical perspective (As I've written before) I do think society owes all of us some basic things: healthcare, nutritious food, education, shelter, a full day's work, and a loving community. I'm not convinced government is the way these have to be provided.

When these sorts of honest statements are made public, it is a great opportunity for us as a people to discuss how we want to live. There's a place for discussing how much government intrusion we want in our lives - but beyond that is a discussion of how we want to live with each other.

There is a basic dignity in all persons - something God-given and inherent. We do have a moral obligation (if not an existential one) to treat people in accordance with that dignity.

There exist people in this culture (likely some part of this exists in all of us, as it is indicative of the human condition) people who want the security of being left alone, self-reliant; and there are people who want the security of dependence, that they'll be ok even if they're not able to provide for themselves. Likely we've all experienced both of these desires at one time or another.

It seems that by refusing the acknowledge the truth and validity of both these positions, we're unable to win the right to speak into them - to remind those inclined to self-sufficiency that we need each other and we must stick together in tough times, and to remind those inclined to dependency that they have something essential to contribute.

It's almost as if we use the lack of political correctness as an excuse to avoid hard truths. We want to take the easiest path in times of turmoil; we must not let ourselves or each other do so.

Monday, September 17, 2012


There's no doubt fear is an easy motivator. If we are afraid, it triggers our fight or flight response: we react. Everyone knows this. If people can be made to fear precisely the right thing, the reaction can be predicted.

We see it everywhere. We see it in the political race, "vote for my opponent and the world will crumble around you!" and it reared its ugly head again in a Newsweek article about the need for infrastructure improvements in the US.

That article is probably a better case study than a Presidential campaign - a little less controversial. It was titled, "America's Coming Infrastructure Disaster," and used historical failures of infrastructure to push the point that attention is needed.

It is a classic appeal to fear.

The articles actually does a half decent job of laying out a logical case for needed infrastructure improvements in the US. The lack of security and efficiency in our electrical grid. The postponed maintenance on roads and bridges. Even an economic argument about the impact that the $2 Trillion in needed works would make on the current recession.

Still, the headline, the pictures, and the overarching theme is fear. It's as if the author doesn't think anyone else will take it as seriously as he does.

I wonder if that drive to use fear to motivate others comes from an internal fear in ourselves? Even if a political group is using fear of one thing to get another (scaring people about a foreign invasion to get a candidate more likely to give them tax breaks) it still comes from a position of fear, right? I'm afraid I will be harmed or otherwise disadvantaged with a different outcome.

This sort of fear tactic can lead to outright lies. We tell people whatever will scare them enough to get them to do what we want. At some point a parent through it was ingenious to tell their child a monster lived under the bed to get them to stay in it.

This is another ends vs means issues.

We're so afraid the ends won't come about that we resort of rotten means - we do it out of fear. Those people we attempt to control are only secondary victims. We are the ones in the grip of fear.

As Christians go back and forth over which candidate should be President of the United States, you hear a lot of fear language. "Barack Obama wants our country to fail." "Mitt Romney wants to give everything to the rich and let the poor die." These are statements intended to make you afraid of the future.

If I can say anything to my brothers and sisters - both those who speak about such things and those who listen - it is simply "be not afraid." The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of love. Jesus was constantly telling his followers to be not afraid. There is nothing to fear. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear."

If someone is trying to make you afraid, if something has already made you afraid - God is not in that. If the world seems like it would crumble under a certain eventuality - this is a lie in the vein of the serpent in the garden.

I know we can't actually control when our emotions rise up - when we feel terror or fear. It happens. I do believe we can discipline ourselves, that we can change how often or how easily those fears come upon us. The first step is taking rational control of those emotions. Be on the look out for fear tactics. Recognize them and ignore them.

So often our fear is tied to difficulty. I might have to work harder or suffer more if this comes to pass. That is still no reason to fear. Love wins. Death has been defeated.

Let's avoid the pain and the worry and fear this election season. There's plenty of real, actual things to discuss. And the world won't end if ____________ is elected. At the very least, the world ending won't be caused by his election.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Super Sized Sodas and the Myth of Individualism

I can't believe I'm writing a second post about this, but the first one wasn't really all that good - and it was months ago. The New York City big-soda ban has officially gone into effect now. Lot's of people are upset. I don't think this is necessarily a high priority, nor do I think it's the best way to do what they're trying to do. That being said, I'd like to make a humble defense of the idea behind this ban.

The main argument against this ban is that it's too heavy-handed in telling people how much soda they can drink at one time. It is an invasion of individual freedom - and that people should be allowed to do what they want - even if it's bad for them - so long as it doesn't affect anyone else.

The problem is that everything we do affects someone else. We really aren't individuals. Maybe, if you were to hike into the wilds of Northern Canada, build a cabin from wood you'd hewn yourself, and live off the land - there might be an argument for individualism. Whilst we live in a society, we are in relationship to each other.

Health care costs are skyrocketing in this country. Whether its paid for through government programs, private insurers, charities, or straight from your pocket, we all end up paying for each other's health care. It all comes from the same place and ends up in the same place. One of the big drives now, is to figure out how to get our health care dollars from point A to point B most efficiently. We don't need to go into that here.

About 10% of our healthcare dollars are spent combating diabetes (57% of the money spent on diabetes patients goes directly to treating the disease) - this number is rising rapidly. Most health insurance plans do not cover preventative measures, only emergency and management procedures - which means a lot of poor people (who disproportionately have diabetes) are not getting all the preventative interventions possible - and costing all of us money in the long run.

One of the main causes of diabetes is too much sugar in the diet - hence a ban on large sodas in New York. I personally think ending the subsidies that make corn syrup so artificially cheap - and doing what's necessary to make healthy foods competitively priced is a better route.

You may say, "People who want more can get more, they just have to fill their cup more often or buy multiple cups or stop more often." That's true. No one is actually impinging on their freedom to drink as much terrible soda as they want - we're just making it a little more difficult. If there's one thing we know about ourselves as Americans, it's that we're lazy. If we have to work hard for soda, we might find it less worth it (although our addiction to the caffeine will likely push us to make the extra effort).

Ultimately this is not about affecting the consumption enough to save money on the ban alone. You can walk out of a New York McDonalds and into the 7-11 next door and buy a three liter bottle of soda. What this is is the beginning of a stigma.

At one point in this country it was odd if you didn't use a tobacco product on a regular basis. Doctor's prescribed them for people's health. All of our role models - newsmen, politicians, actors, athletes - they all smoked. When I was a kid, you could put a few coins in a vending machine, pull a lever and get cigarettes in every restaurant.

Now, there's a strict age limit and pretty severe penalties for adults to provide tobacco to minors. We've put billions of dollars into a stigmatization campaign that has driven tobacco users to the periphery of society, like those who frequent strip clubs or adult book stores. You can't even smoke inside at all in many states. We're working to put pictures of diseased lungs and tracheotomies on cigarette packaging (they already have in Europe).

Effectively and efficiently, our society decided that while tobacco should be accessible in whatever quantities an adult desires, it shouldn't be easy or cheap or fun to do so. We're encouraging people to cut down, cut back, cut out tobacco in an effort to save lives and to save money. Lung cancer and emphysema treatments aren't cheap.

Sugar is pretty ubiquitous and certainly not everyone is an addict, although some are. Likely the same could be said for cigarettes in the 1940's and 50's. We laugh at the Mormons for avoiding caffeine, much the same way my own denomination was laughed at for avoiding tobacco. Things change.

There's nothing wrong with sugar. I love it. I have a difficult time resisting a bag of gummy worms when I pass them in the grocery store. We buy too much ice cream. You know what - none of that is good for me and I'd certainly buy less of it if it cost more money.

Maybe the individual isn't better off having small sodas, paying extra, or having to go up for more refills. I'll grant that it's true. But I do think we can argue society is better for it - or things like it.

As much as we dislike government (and I am all for as small a government as necessary) one thing it's incredibly good at is making us do things we know are good for us, but are tough to follow through on. Keeping ourselves healthy might have to be one we add to list - along with providing for our security, infrastructure, elderly and poor.

I'm ok if you're against the ban (heck, I already said I don't think it' the best way to get the desired result). I'm ok if you're offended by the idea. I'd just like you to admit that, for some people, it makes sense. There is a logic to it - even if you don't think the costs are worth the benefits.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


This third entry in what has come to be known as the "politics not Politics" series borrows heavily on the concepts in the previous post - Peace. The concept of shalom weighs heavy in any discussion of justice.

Justice is perhaps the most misused word in our culture today (except maybe love). We have everything from the Justice League (which is a fictional organization) to the Justice System (which we only wish were fictional). But throughout our world, the concept of justice is all about punishing bad guys and restoring good guys. There's a lot of retribution, perhaps not the violent kind, but retribution nonetheless.

Now don't think I'm again consequences for behavior or restoration for the aggrieved; those are both essential elements to society. No, my question involves why we divide ourselves into good guys and bad guys and what standard we use for "making someone whole."

We hear that Osama bin Laden's death brings justice to the victims that died under his various attacks. We hear that justice is served when a criminal is locked behind bars for the rest of his life. In those instances, justice has become synonymous with punishment. Someone commits a crime, thus they are penalized - monetarily, with time, or with their own life.

This is a perversion of justice (again, not that consequences for bad actions are wrong, but that this system is incomplete and is not really justice). Like many things in our society, justice has become too individualized.

Our legal system is based on making individuals whole. If I steal $100 from you, I must pay back that $100 and any interest that would have been earned during the time you didn't have it. You are made whole. If my drunken driving causes you to be paralyzed, I owe you a lifetime of medical bills and lost earnings. If a woman is raped, well, there's nothing to make her whole - so we do the next best thing, the guilty party pays as much as possible, by forfeiting freedom and spending time in jail. Sometimes the crime is horrific enough that it requires the perpetrator's life in payment. All in attempts to make the victim, or their loved ones, whole.

You can see, as crimes and violations increase in seriousness, the ability to make an individual whole diminishes. We can never think of an appropriate way to restore lost innocence or lost life - even torture, while satisfying on some primal level, doesn't do the job.

It becomes even less realistic when we move beyond one-on-one crimes and speak of sociological atrocities. How does the world compensate Africans and their descendants who suffer from the effects of the trans-atlantic slave trade? How does a nation compensate its indigenous people for the loss of a way of life and for near genocide? It would bankrupt our societies to make these individuals whole, so we give lip service to the injustice.

We celebrate justice or our attempts at justice until justice gets in the way of our way of life.

What if justice were not about making a group or individual whole, but about making creation itself whole? Justice, at least in its biblical sense, is about restoring shalom - about bringing society back (or at least closer) to what God envisions for the world.

This is where our idea of punishment as justice comes from. Of course, for justice to be done, some who have must have less and some who lack must have more. This is not a socialist utopia; God never said there should be no rich and poor. God did say that we should leave the gleanings of the harvest and the crops at the edge of the field so the poor will not be hungry. God did say that those who are foreign residents among you must be treated as native born.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those with wealth and power because they must give it up. Is it right to buy bottled water when a billion people lack access to the kind of clean water that runs out of your tap all day, every day?

Justice is not about Robin Hood robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Justice condemns stealing, even if it's from a greedy, heartless corporation. Justice does not recognize victimless crime. Of course, justice also asks if the greedy, heartless corporation is acting justly in its dealings. Profits may have to be sacrificed for justice. Justice does not recognize a victimless crime (even if society doesn't recognize it as a crime at all).

But I earned this, I worked for it. Justice takes that into consideration as well. God created this world with enough. In a just society no one should be afraid of not having enough. We are afraid because we don't trust each other to be just.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those who lack power and standing because they must submit. Justice does not mean punishment or retribution. After decades of slavery, it may seem only fair for the roles to reverse, for the slaves to becomes the masters and the masters, slaves. This is not justice, for people still suffer, for society still fails to live up to its created purpose.

Justice costs something because it requires repentance and forgiveness.

Justice is the restoration of shalom.

When Dr. King quoted the prophet Amos - "May justice roll down like waters..." he was not calling for an overturning of the tables, but a meeting at the table. Party allegiances aside, when John Lewis speaks of meeting one of the men who beat him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, heard his confession and offered forgiveness, that was the beginning of justice. Justice is seen in the ongoing relationship of perpetrator and victim as friends.

Justice is George Bush and Osama bin Laden having a meal together.

That is, of course, impossible now - and likely was always impossible. Human nature is opposed to justice; we have to work at it. And likely we can't start with the biggest rifts, the biggest problems, the biggest injustices. We have to start with the small ones. The spats between husband and wife, the way we treat rebellious children and irresponsible neighbors.

Justice is not about demanding individual or group rights, justice is about commitment to making creation whole. It is about working for the good of others at the cost of your own. Proper justice rests on a proper understanding of peace and freedom.

True, justice is not expected in this world of sin and filth. Even those of us who are committed to the cause of Christ may never expect to see justice on a grand scale. But it is possible. Justice is not a pipe dream.

As we approach our politics and our Politics, justice should be an important foundation. We should be working for justice and supporting others who do as well. We should be celebrating those who sacrifice, both those with power and those without, for the cause of justice.

Most of all, we should not be fooled into calling our legal system a justice system. I don't think it's worthless. In our world, it is the best we have to keep order - and it certainly avoids some wicked calamities. We can always work to make our legal system more just - to make it more focused on the redemption of those who break the law rather than on retribution.

And we can work to make society more just, even if it's only where you live and with the people you know. We can work for justice so those in the legal system have a more just community to come home to, so we all have a more just place to live.

Monday, September 10, 2012


So often, whether consciously or not, we understand peace to be the absence of conflict. In fact, a quick survey of three online dictionaries reveals a nearly identical definition. They each used a different word - expressing an absence of violence, conflict, or hostility.

The last one may get closest to a proper definition.

Our public politics tend to push for peace as the result of winning a conflict. We take sides and fight and may the best man win. Sort of the old school battle tactics (think Hector and Achilles or David and Goliath) - if my ideas defeat your ideas, then you must submit. Even when we have real battles, we tend to seek peace through dominance or victory. If I kill enough of the enemy, they'll stop fighting or fight to the death. Eliminate the enemy, one way or another, and we will have peace.

We may be able to end violence or conflict by intimidation or force, but we cannot bring peace that way.

The biblical concept is the Hebrew word shalom (the Arabic salaam comes from the same root) - translated to English as peace. It means a bit more than that, though. Shalom is about wholeness, completeness. This peace is one in which all parties come together in unity. It is not about competition or dominance; shalom can't exist in that environment.

Peace cannot be limited to simply the absence of conflict. As I said, the absence of hostility is closer. Even a defeated party is hostile. They may be powerless or disarmed, but the fact of defeat generally increases hostility. Our drive for revenge is often greater even than our original desire to win. True peace cannot be achieved this way.

As a Christian I believe that we all have to live together. We are united in our humanity as caretakers of creation. We are not a democracy, but one people who must move forward together. This is why I oppose divisions and labels. Our national boundaries separate us from each other, as do our flags and military uniforms and political parties. We are, in the end, just people, and we have to get along.

That is what politics are all about, after all. Politics is our way of getting along with one another. Peace must be the goal of our politics.

Whether its a dispute with the cashier over the price of a tomato or two Presidential candidates facing off in a debate. Our politics must be about peace. We have to live together. That means working, sacrificing if need be, to see the value and humanity in my opponent. It may mean refusing to have opponents.

I get excited when our politicians set out a positive vision of the future. I become despondent when they attack, defame, and degrade the "other side." I truly lack the ability to understand political parties - to understand why one would rather have be seen as representative of a brand than as an individual.

How much better off would we be if the Republicans and the Democrats could openly respect and acknowledge the good ideas of the other party. If they do think an opponent has a good idea - they can't say so without hurting their reputation and re-election bids. That's not entirely their fault; after all we are the ones voting for them.

But peace is more than just our day to day interactions, our families, our congregations, our communities, States, and Nations must be exemplars of shalom. The same rules apply. We must not seek to dominate or consolidate our position. We must refuse to have opponents and enemies. Peace comes when we recognize and actualize the reality that we're all in this together.

In the end, though, our understanding of peace only works so far as our opponent also accepts it. Shalom can be nothing but a universal principle. If someone is throwing rocks at me to take my food, shalom exists neither in throwing rocks back nor in starving.

There may be shalom through starving, through suffering - if that act softens the heart and wins over the opponent - but there is no guarantee. There is one truth, though: peace never comes until someone chooses to stop fighting.

There will never be true peace until more people are willing to die not fighting than are willing to pick up arms (material or otherwise).

Finally, we have to separate peace from violence. We live in a violent world; I suspect we always will. However, our world is less violent now than it has been. Our visions and views of violence are different than they were in the past. Our world is no more peaceful. We have shifted our perspectives and our expectations. We have so utterly associated violence with peace that we fail to recognize the lack of shalom.

We celebrate the "peaceful" transfer of power in many nations around the world. Something that was once unheard of. Yet our transfers of power do not embody shalom. There is regular talk of "healing the nation" after a bitter election, even after a decisive court decision or legislative battle.

Peace is more than an absence of violence or conflict - peace is shalom, a unified world ruled not by a gracious majority, but by sacrifice and cooperation. Only a truly free people can ever be at peace.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


There's a lot of talk of freedom during election campaigns. In the US we also have a semantic love for liberty. Overall the idea is to be as unconstrained as possible without negatively affecting anyone else.

I've always had a hard time with this idea. I've never been able to figure out exactly how we determine the effect of our actions on other people. When are we doing harm to others? When are they just being too sensitive?

Freedom and liberty work great as campaign slogans, but the details can bog you down.

Can someone use their freedom to give up freedom? Could a democratic election result in a dictatorship, if the free voters freely chose?

There's a lot of issues surrounding freedom, which is why philosophy exists and why there's no shortage of libertarian debates to be had (go to any message board anywhere and type five simple letters: obama - and if your posting privileges aren't immediately revoked, you'll understand the cultured nuance of the topic).

But what if our idea of freedom isn't really freedom at all? What if our striving for unconstrained rational pursuit of our own good isn't the end all and be all of life? That might make things a bit more complicated.

That's exactly my proposal.

As a Christian attempting to live in this world of ours, it seems important to understand how to approach freedom from the perspective of the God who created it in the first place.

The Bible is full of paradoxes and unexpected reversals - it's what keep us on our toes. Freedom is no different. Christian faith calls the ability to make unconstrained choices a kind of slavery - and the single-minded adherence to someone else's preferences, freedom.

It blows the mind a bit, I know - but stick with me.

In Corinth, Paul encountered some Christians enjoying their freedom - doing anything their hearts desired, living unconstrained. He rebuked them saying, "everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial." Beneficial to whom? Certainly not to me. I know we humans are prone to immediate gratification over long term benefit, but I'm smarter than that; I'm rational. I can plan for the future and make the right decisions for me.

I'm responsible - even more so because I have the moral code of a Christian. I can use liberty better than anyone else.

That's not freedom. We can't take our selfishness, bless it with faith, morality, and reason - and call it righteousness. When our own benefit/happiness/desire is the focus of our actions (even good, moral actions), we're enslaved.

In Romans Paul calls it the law of sin and the law of grace. Sin is our desire to put ourselves first - that doesn't change when we do it in a way that is culturally and morally acceptable. Christ came to free us from our slavery to self.

This law of grace, though, is not just a free-for-all; it is deeply rooted in the creative purpose of the world. We are interconnected. Everything that happens affects everything else. Human beings were not created to look after themselves - but to maintain God's creation in the way God intended.

We're supposed to make sure everything goes according to plan. This is real freedom - when we're relieved of the need, the drive, the desire to satisfy ourselves, to look after ourselves. Only then are we free to enjoy the world as it was intended. We no longer have to think about when it's ok to indulge ourselves; we are free to truly love others.

How does that work? Christ serves as the model of freedom. He came with a single-minded devotion to love. That love, so extreme, it could only be proven by a brutal, but willing, execution for an innocent man. That's what freedom looks like - it's sacrifice.

Of course that doesn't entirely leave us off the hook for making decisions. None of us has that direct a line to God, to know instinctively what to do in any given situation. We can't either simply say that we'll do only for others - that is also a form of slavery (no different, really, than chattel slavery, except it's willing).

No, true freedom involves living into the creative purpose for the world. Read Genesis 1 and 2 again - creation is not a gift for humanity; humanity is a gift for creation. Jesus took time for himself. He partied. He vacationed. It's not just about self denial. This freedom is a bit more complicated.

I can't tell you exactly how to live free (I think we're supposed to reason that out together - which might just be a useful purpose for government), but I can tell you it never involves asking the question, "what's best for me," and it never involves envisioning ourselves outside the community.

The United States gives people the right to live enslaved to themselves. We have a thing, often called freedom, that allows people to cut themselves off from others, to live independently, to do what they want (so long as it doesn't overly upset others). That is not freedom, but slavery - and it doesn't have to be rewarded.

We can value individual choice as a nation, as a society, as a people. We can, and should, be a place where people are unconstrained to do as they please. We do not have to collectively celebrate it. We do not have to idealize it and praise it and lift it up as an example.

Ultimately what people want is not freedom to choose, but freedom from consequences. That freedom just doesn't exist.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Government, Politics, and Hope: A Mea Culpa

The last couple of weeks I've been floundering a bit. I've been struggling to reflect on the US Presidential election in the midst of the party conventions - and to somehow communicate my perspective on the whole thing. I don't think I've done a great job. You may have seen the evidence on Facebook or Twitter.

As a Christian, I am called to embody and live into a different culture. The people of Christ are to be formed in love with different (if often complementary) values to those of the dominant culture. It's difficult to explain or embody those differences as I am as co-opted by this US culture as anyone.

I feel like a child, re-learning the ways of the world around me with a different set of values, attempting to change my reactions and foundations. (Incidently, it's just as difficult to try and teach a child to understand the world differently the first time around).

Part of the counter-narrative, the counter-story that the gospel presents is a different take on power. Christ ignored the power structures of the day. The religious leaders, both inside and outside the temple, as well as the Roman governmental and military rulers. He acted as if they were unimportant for life. Jesus called collaborators and zealots (people who hated each other more than Democrats and Republicans).

I don't believe Christ came to found a religion, but to remind us of God's creative purpose for life. I believe the mission of the Church, of God's people, is to embody that purpose in an alternative community.

I find it more and more difficult to put my hope and faith in God's mission when I'm being pulled and pushed to put faith (even if its reserved faith or skeptical faith) in a political system. The type of power that infuses government is the type of power from which God has delivered God's people time and again throughout history.

I struggle to participate in that power, even in a small way - like voting.

I also struggle to put such faith in an ideology other than love. When choosing a candidate, we're choosing a way of looking at life. No political candidate has the Christian perspective: love, love love; give, give, give; submit, submit, submit; sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice; love, love, love. The ethic, the ideology of the gospel is the exact opposite of the ideology of power (no matter what stream of politics you subscribe to).

I believe strongly that life is about relationship. God's relationship to the world and our relationships with each other. We need each other; we were created for cooperation. There is nothing in scripture that speaks to the individual - we receive the gospel personally only as we participate in God's people, in relationship.

For that reason I am a lot more amenable to politicians and elections the smaller and more local the race. I believe the election of block captain or school board is more important than the election for President or Governor - because they're the people we deal with on a regular basis. They are the people responsible for enacting our values within our own communities.

Now I understand that there's some real benefits to a federal system, be it a county, state, or nation. There's a lot of things that are streamlined and simplified by scale. I'm not trying to say or infer that governments can't be a part of our life together.

I think the most important role government can play is holding us accountable to do the things we know to be right, but that are hard for us to follow through on. We want to take care of the poor and the elderly (there's a lot about widows and orphans and strangers in scripture), but we don't always want to make big sacrifices when those needs present themselves - so we put money in trust with the government to do that for us - to help us follow through.

You can already see the pitfalls, even in that example. Now we've moved ourselves one step away from the relationship. Those in need are now helped through a middleman, an intermediary. The same problem applies if its a private charity rather than the government.

In the end, our politics are simply our way of living with each other. Politics is not limited to governments and elections. I believe strongly that, for Christians, the Church is the avenue in which we express our politics. We love each other and we take that love out into the world - we bring that politic to everything else we do. Our jobs, our schools, our neighborhoods, our communities, our government.

So often our culture has attempted to confine our politics to our government - so that we outsource our responsibility to live together to someone else. Life is not a competition. People with different politics don't disappear just because they lose an election. When we're neighbors, we still have to see each other when we put the trash out. We have to live together - and not in dominance or victory, but in peace.

I don't see our government working for the good of anyone, for the end result of peace. We have lofty goals, things like justice and freedom. I'm not sure we really understand what those words mean. In the end, government is a play for power - for the authority or the ability to enact our politics, our vision, on the nation, the state or the school board. As great as the opportunities are for good, that kind of power doesn't bring what we seek. It just doesn't.

It is part of the paradox of faith. The gospel finds power in weakness and authority in submission. The gospel finds influence by avoiding power. The politics of Christ is humble love.

I have not been humble or particularly loving. I see a strong correlation in the two parties to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee. The tax collector comes to worship and prays for forgiveness - have mercy on me, O God, a sinner. The pharisee prays - thank God I am not as sinful as that tax collector. One is attuned to the heart of God, the other is not. Our reaction, however, is too often to say, "thank God I am not like the pharisee" and thus become him.

The political parties point the finger at one another like the pharisee toward the tax collector. I pointed the finger right back.

There is a better way. There must be. I haven't yet found it. I'll keep trying.

I treat the political conventions like a baseball game - tweeting my comments and trying to be funny and mostly failing. I truly don't view them as much more than a spectator sport. A lot of people take this stuff deadly serious, more than they should. But elections and governments have the opportunity to be more than a sport - there is some value there, we just can't let it be the source of hope.

I included the video above. Emmanuel Cleaver is a United Methodist minister and the Representative from Kansas City. He's a great man, a good pastor, and a strong man of faith. He's doing his best to bring the politics of the Church into the public sphere. You can see in the speech above how much he believes in hope.

I think it's a bit misplaced to associate those politics with government and elections - Republican or Democrat. A party means a platform and an ideology - and we've covered that already.

I do think we can and should speak together on big issues. One of the travesties of our political system (one with two parties) is that our public debates are generally limited to either/or options. We tend to view every major issue with one of two solutions. There is always another way.

I think we'd be more likely to find those ways forward if we'd stop associating ourselves with an ideology or a platform and just talk about issues.

I tried to do that a few weeks ago with the voter ID situation. I will do that in the future as the election approaches. I don't think I'll vote; I just don't think either man represents a workable politic, nor do I think any human should be given the kind of power the President of the US has - it's unhealthy and unloving to put anyone in that role.

I believe that candidates who get our hopes up for change, for success, for a future that meets our expectations, they represent a temptation to think we can make things work through the sheer force of will, through our own power.

In the end, I don't vote because we cannot build the tower to heaven, no matter how just, how free, how virtuous we craft our government, it will not satisfy the longing we have for peace, freedom, and justice. I just don't like fooling myself or getting my hopes up. For me, that's what a vote does. I want to stand up and cheer Rev. Cleaver in his video, but I just don't believe his God-given vision is possible through governments and elections.

The next three blog posts will be concerning those three words - peace, freedom, and justice - the ways we use them and my understanding of the Christian perspective on each. I hope we can have a conversation about how our politics plays out across the many spheres in which we live together.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Following the Lance Armstrong post, I received this question:

Wondering if there is a recent Evangelical Church/Church Growth comparison to be made with stubborn superstars and cheating (doping) the Gospel. Sort of like when Willow Creek admitted they were doing "it" wrong - people weren't growing. Did other churches renounce the church growth shortcuts? Or should we have all admitted we were "doping." Or should we idolize the old days in the church of faithful prayer, solid orthodox theology, rigorous biblical study in preaching, faithful pastoral care? Can the church now continue without looking for the next superstar pastor any more than the Tour can accept someone lesser than Armstrong as its superstar?
To me this speaks directly to how we define success. In sports, I know there are different opinions on the matter. Some see doping and the like no different than diet and weightlifting - things you can do to your body to develop a competitive edge. Others see a line where potential hazards outweigh potential benefits. Still others feel as though winning through better medicine removed their own physical contributions from the process.

It all comes down to success.

I got in some heat on Facebook recently for criticizing how some of he GOP Convention speakers were equating success with making money or running profitable businesses. I'm sure that those things do equal success for some people; I hope that's not true for everyone.

As a Christian, I define success by whether or not my actions make the Kingdom of God more evident in the world. What exactly does that mean? Well, it's tough to condense. There's four gospels that try to exemplify it, a whole bunch of letters that try to advise the practice of it, and a couple centuries of experimentation (not to mention the several thousand years of human-divine interaction that the gospels re-conceptualize in the first place). But let me give it a go:

The Kingdom of God is the world as God intends it, a redeemed creation. Our faith provides us with some useful maxims to try and work out in everyday living. They're mostly parables and thus defy explanation as an exact science, but the crux of it is simply unconditional love. I believe the goal of Christian life (and thus our measure for success) is to embody with our lives this Kingdom that is coming, but has not yet fully arrived.

Did I love my neighbor unconditionally today? Did I balance my time effectively, making room for service and celebration? Have I taken concrete actions to bridge injustice? Have I served as a means of peace and reconciliation? Things like that.

I try not to measure this in degrees - as in "could I have made the Kingdom even more evident than I did?" I hope to be and try my best, to put forth top effort (and perhaps even learn to improve in the future), but I don't worry about degrees. I am a frail and fault-filled human being whose only hope is to be open and available to the working of God in my life.

It's not tough to see the jump to worshiping congregations. A lot of Christian congregations and pastors have seen their profile rise considerably in recent years, through television and books and our general cultural love of all things big. Big money, big buildings, lots of people. There is a growing trend - soon congregations will either be huge (2,000+ attendees) or family sized (less than 30).

The first and most famous of these mega-churches is Willow Creek. They mastered the world of marketing and target audience and grew to be very large. They also did an internal survey that showed their people were not actually looking more like Christ through participation. They were bringing people in and getting them involved, but they weren't succeeding in ways they wanted to succeed - in gospel measures.

There's a lot of books about the Church and consumer culture. I've read a few. They talk about the different measure of success in different branches and forms of Christian expression. There's a lot of value there.

Ultimately, though, this is the minority. We are, as human beings, much more consumed by the culture around us than we are creators of culture. As the question pointed out, there's not a large stream of congregations shifting radically from their "church growth" strategies (which is insider language for increasing attendance and income). The methods of power and success dictated by our culture just don't jibe all that well with the gospel. The CEO model of leadership can create successful non-profit corporations, if success is defined the same way it is in corporate board rooms.

There's nothing wrong with that in many sense. There's a ton of great non-profit ministries out there working directly with people in need. I've got a lot of friends doing amazing things, efficiently and effectively - succeeding, no matter your definition.

I do think there is something different, though, when it comes to a worshiping community - and we are all part of a worshiping community, whether we know it or not. That community is one whose collective life is oriented around a specific set of principles.

For some it is freedom. For others it is business and financial success. Still others worship pleasure and personal happiness. For some it is patriotism. For Christians, it is (or should be) the Kingdom - we're living into an eternity that has already begun. It means we can't live with the same principles that guide everyone else.

I don't think that means other entities and institutions are useless. There's no reason that Christians should have to abandon the best of business, education, science, or politics. The problems arise when participation in such becomes defacto worship. When the means become the ends.

Too often Christians are loathe to reject alternative definitions of success because their much easier to achieve. Just like doping in sports (we got back around to it eventually - o ye of little faith) - it's a much faster, more predictable means to an end. In sports the end is secure, for the most part - winning is the measure of success. It's certainly the measure Lance Armstrong uses (he still introduces himself as someone who won the Tour de France seven times). Not every athlete puts winning as paramount - some just seek to get the most out of their performance, to give as much as they possibly can (see: about half the guys who run alongside Usain Bolt in the 100m finals).

Christian life and worship is not about winning - not about winning attendance battles or even winning souls. It's about being faithful. Success is about re-presenting the Kingdom with our lives and our relationships.

Some of my brothers and sisters still see politics as an avenue where that's possible; I admit I can't see it. Some of my brothers and sisters see the free-market as a place where the Kingdom can thrive; I admit I can't see it. I will support their faithful endeavors, though, as much as I can. I will also be vocal in reminding them that these are but means, not ends - that there is a different measure of success to which they are accountable.

Bradley Wiggins does seem less superhuman than Lance Armstrong, as I imagine my father does next to Rick Warren. I'm just not sure we can trust our instincts, when they've been so formed by a culture that defines success in ways so foreign to reality.