Voting the American Dream

Yes, it’s really a new post. Just in time for the presidential election, too!

No, I am not here to endorse one of the candidates, as if it would matter to anyone were I to do so. And I am not here to bemoan either the quality of the candidates available to us or the character of the debates that have been held. And although it is a bit more tempting to chastise some of my Christian colleagues about their complicity in the ungracious incivility that marks the public conversation (yes, I am on facebook; I know who you are and what you post), that option will likewise be resisted.

What I would like participants to think about before voting is something often referred to, yet only vaguely and varyingly understood. We refer to it as The American Dream. You remember that, do you not? Some of us first heard of it when we were in elementary school. Every now and then candidates will pull out the phrase and attempt to position themselves as the champion of all that it stands for. But just what is that which we are expected to embrace when we vote the American Dream? In what sense does the embrace lead us to the particular candidate offering it to us? A moment’s thought would lead us to think foolish, if not treasonous, the person who would not vote for the person best representing the dream–our dream, the corporate aspirations of the great nation in which we are privileged to hold citizenship.

Republicans and Democrats seem to hold different versions of the dream, each of which has a long history leading to and through some very good people along the way. One version thrives on the theme of rugged individualism, an idea itself subject to some revision along the way. Whereas it once referred to the strength of will and bravery in blazing new geographic trails, it has gone through a scientific and, more recently, an economic (read:entrepreneurial) cast. Surely we recall from those earliest lessons in U. S. History the names of heroes who exemplified the quality; or perhaps it was groups of people who set out to settle the vast uncharted regions of the land, eschewing danger in order to forge a new, more successful, and (especially) less fettered way of life.

The second version has at least as long, and arguably, a longer history. This version belongs to those who sought not a place where each was on his own to make of life what he wanted it to be, but rather sought a new commonwealth, a place where the community was more important than the individual. Puritan founders has limits regarding how much land each person might be able to hold, fearing that a significant disparity would bode ill for the character and quality of life together. Being the keeper of one’s brother and sister was unquestioned; maintaining as much equality as possible was paramount. The kingdom of God was to be displayed in terms of values.

We have been trying to negotiate the proper balancing of the two versions of the dream for quite a long time now. Sometimes we get it more nearly accomplished than we do at others; sometimes the tensions between the two place us on the brink. I want to suggest that life in a world where sin is an ever-present reality virtually requires us to heed both sides of the dream. Rugged individualism, perhaps most especially in its entrepreneurial version, becomes ravenous, callous greed when allowed to run unfettered; the common good becomes something less than good when sinful persons (that would be about all of us) decide that sloth isn’t so costly after all.

And so we vote. Is the balance in danger of leaning to heavily in one direction or the other? We have our ballot. But let us not succumb to the notion that human institutions, however much superiority they may have over rival systems, can ever attain the righteousness or the holiness of God. If we remember that much we just might be able to learn something about ourselves and about our common good by listening to the people from whom we differ when emerging from the booth.

Rich, Poor, Fairness, and the Bible

Back to work. And what better way to restart the blogging than to fill a request from a former student? Who can resist an opening like “I wonder what my former theology professor would say about this”?

The issue is one of growing concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has to do with the growing disparity of income between the very wealthy and the rest. But this particular round in the on-going battle began with an interview of Rick Warren, whose considerable presence on the evangelical stage was further enhanced a few years ago by his book The Purpose-Driven Life. The following line in the interview struck a nerve with at least one reader:

There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The Rev. Susan Russell, pastor of All Saints Church in Pasadena, responded through an open letter in the Huffington Post, the gist of which cited Matthew 20 as demonstrating that everyone should indeed be paid the same wage. That response prompted the former student’s curiosity as to what I thought, to which the reply was that I thought both parties were seriously wrong, and that more would follow. This is the “more,” though I know full well that it will not satisfy the desire for a full-blown position on wealth and poverty to which Christians ought to subscribe.

I don’t think many biblical exegetes would suggest what Rev. Russell does regarding the parable of Jesus, in which workers hired at various points throughout the day all received the identical compensation for their labors. For one obvious feature, the issue is not the difference in the type of work done but in the length of time the different parties engaged in the labor. More fundamentally, Jesus was in no way making a statement about how things ought to be handled on the farm, much less the factory or broader marketplace; he was making statements about spiritual pride of place and privilege, turning prevailing assumptions about deserving God’s favor on their head. In order to make this into a text about compensating everyone equally regardless of their contribution, one must bring a lot of preconceived ideas to the reading.

But what about Rick Warren’s statement? Certainly, he is correct about the numerous mentions of poverty and just treatment of those in that position. But it seems to me that the real issue is obscured by asking the question of what fairness entails (a “fair” enough question) in the way he does it. Moving from the very legitimate question of fairness to the incendiary discussion of wealth redistribution changes everything; it’s an emotionally charged term, and I think he knows it. It has the effect of saying “we know you don’t want that—nobody would want that,” and using it to predispose anyone listening to accept the rest of what he will say as necessary to avoid the evils of wealth redistribution.

Let’s think about this for a moment. I suspect that what he really has in mind is government enforced redistribution; that, indeed, could cause significant problems on a number of levels. But that’s not what was said. The fact is that every transaction we engage in is a redistribution of wealth. And over time, the tendency is for more of the wealth to end up in fewer hands, which raises the question of whether the transactions were fairly structured to begin with. If you have experienced a real estate settlement, and actually analyzed all of what you were paying for, you would have serious questions about how fair the redistribution really was; but the only recourse would be to end the transaction without gaining the property. Are prices for many of the things we purchase on a routine basis fairly set? Whether they are or are not, it is a redistribution.

Here are some not-so-new statistics. Every indication is that the current ones would be even more stark than these from a few years ago:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Data such as these are not to be unexpected in a world of sinful, self-absorbed people. That’s why some form of redistribution was envisioned for us by God. Though never fully practiced, the Jubilee principle nonetheless acknowledges the need for fresh starts, including the release of bonded workers, and the forgiveness of debts. It is God’s plan of (dare we say) redistribution. And while the government is a poor candidate for enacting/enforcing/interpreting its version of the provisions, it would be in the best interest of Christian thinkers and leaders to provide leadership in helping us to think better about how we might care for one another in fair and just ways which neither encourage sloth nor punish industry. Christians cannot in good conscience simply give endorsement to political and economic models which do either of these.

What do you think? What does this suggest about our political priorities?

On Being Nice and Being Right

Where have all the nice guys and gals gone? They seem to have disappeared. At one time it was not necessarily a compliment to refer to someone in such terms; it was the sort of thing one might say about someone who was not distinguished in any way, but had also managed to avoid giving any particular offense. The result is a nice, as in unremarkable, person. But how often do we hear of someone being admiringly referred to as a nice person, one whose manner of being is such that it stands out for its consideration of others, its unrelenting search for something good to say about a person others would just as soon dismiss? It’s the sort of person U2 sings about: “Grace finds goodness in everything.”

They certainly are not found on tv, though once they were. For all of the bashing 1950s and early 60s shows have taken, there were nice people on virtually all of them, from June Cleaver to Ben Cartwright. See any of them on “Desperate Housewives”? Even the main characters of today’s shows always seem to have an edge about them, one that encourages us from getting too close because of a dangerous personality quirk or thinly veiled troubled past. Nice people are harder to find, maybe because we have this tendency to prove the flaws in anyone presented as a candidate for the title. It’s almost as though one should apologize for being referred to as such, hastening to point out the flaws which disqualify them from holding it. And we all know what happens to good guys in politics. Where do we turn to find lawmakers like Senators Simon and Brooks these days? It’s little wonder that scoring points with the cameras and microphones counts far less than compromising and actually legislating. Woe be to the candidate who doesn’t have swarms of operatives digging up dirt and innuendo on his or her opponent. Again, soundness of positions and proposals is secondary.

Maybe we can find the nice people in the churches of our land. And, indeed, there are many there who might fit the description. Yet I sense that many of them are so in spite of, not because of the leadership of many of our more prominent spokespersons and influence peddlers. In what might be termed the power centers of many a Christian movement or organization, the need to distinguish one’s interpretation, goal, or cause from the plethora of similar ones provides powerful temptation to leave behind the thought that Jesus might want us to actually consider kindness, gentleness, and peace as qualities worth cultivating. Some of the same sort of dirt-digging which we despise in politics happens in churches that need to point out all the obvious errors of others, leaving the listener to conclude that only here will the truth be found.

Don’t misunderstand. Niceness is insufficient for the furtherance of the gospel and its leavening effect in a culture and its call to a rather broken world to seek wholeness in Christ. Niceness in itself does not redeem. There is a real Christ among the various and variously limited presentations of his nature and his continuing ministry in the world; and we should be diligently seeking the real thing. But I suspect rather strongly that this real thing is found equally in the doing as in the seeking. In other words, we cannot—absolutely cannot—get the right answer without being concerned about “doing” the very kind of life He told us to live. And most of us would do well to begin that with a simple commitment to be nice in a very unkind world. Maybe someone might actually ask us what’s up with that; and we’ll be able to tell them what we think is right.

Time to Finalize the Divorce?

I know, it’s a radical suggestion. And it is fraught with difficult side issues and entanglements which make it a hazardous direction by any account. Children, inheritance, estates, custody, property, visitation rights, medical guardianship, and probably a lot of other matters would have to be accounted for. But maybe it’s time to begin the conversation (one which has in fact already begun in some circles).

The divorce I am thinking of is not one between two people, but between the church and the state as that relationship pertains to the legalization of marriage. Is it time for the church to have nothing further to do with what state-sanctioned marriage proceedings? Neither the state nor the broader culture seem to have little knowledge of and even less concern for what Christian marriage is; and maybe it is time for the church to claim its ground, at least among its own people. This idea is, to be sure, prompted by the news this week that Maryland has become the eighth state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. There is little short of divine intervention that will keep that number from growing rapidly in short order.

On one hand, it is perhaps of little concern to those who do not walk in this way; no one says a person must marry one of the same sex. But on the other, it may well come about soon that anyone authorized by the state to legally sanction any marriage may be required to do so for whatever is declared by the state to be a marriage; and that will have ever more fading resemblances to Christian marriage. Odd, isn’t it? A rapidly increasing number of heterosexual couples eschews marriage for simple, convenient co-habitation, while same-sex couples want increasingly to opt in to what is by all accounts a fading institution. And on the other side of the courthouse, where marriages are legally de-sanctioned via divorce, we have mountainous evidence that the permanence assumed by Christians to be part of the substance of marriage is a sham at best and a rejected idea at worst.

It is enticing to say that Christian churches should have their own ceremonies, independent of the state, whose legal recognition a couple could seek independently if they wish. It is no longer a matter significantly noted by the community that a couple living in the neighborhood is or is not legally married. Such a drastic step should only be taken, however, after a thorough teaching of the ontology of marriage. Yes, that’s a philosophical term. It refers to the belief that marriage is not a nominal matter—something that only exists because we have given a name to it, a name with which we can interchange shapes and meanings. Instead, we believe it to be grounded in God and revealed to us through general as well as special revelation. The latter is plainly given in the earliest portions of the Bible, continuously reaffirmed throughout its unfolding story; the former is witnessed to by the virtual universality of male-female marriage through all manner of cultures, notwithstanding the many differences in roles and expectations. If there is an ontological reality to marriage, we can call something else by the name all we want; it does not make it so.

Perhaps there are good and sufficient reasons for the state to grant legal recognition to unions of same-sex persons. I am not fully convinced, particularly in light of the diminishing respect for marriage among the general population. But there are good reasons for Christians in particular to distinguish these from holy matrimony.

These thoughts are just beginning to gain some traction in my own thinking; I’m not sure where they will end up. What are your thoughts?

Another Call to Arms?

Well, here we go again. Nothing like a good controversy to spur a backsliding blogger back into action.

And oh, what a controversy we have, courtesy of the White House, from whence it was announced earlier this week that the fifteen year run of the Defense of Marriage Act will no longer be defended itself. Predictably, a host of conservative watchdogs has been busily rallying the troops for an all-out frontal attack on the decision and on those responsible for it. Anyone associated with evangelical causes of any kind can expect a mailbox flooded with appeal letters pointing out the evils of homosexuality, the callousness of the current administration toward what its citizens truly believe, the necessity of overturning the decision, and–oh, by the way–the need to send a check to make sure all of this happens. (Last time I checked, I did not need to pay someone else to cast a ballot for me. Just saying.)

Let’s make no mistake about it. There is plenty to find disconcerting in the announcement. For starters, there is the hubris of justifying the decision by pronouncing that it violates the constitution. Clearly, that sort of declaration does not come from the Oval Office; but apparently the body charged with making that declaration failed in its duty to so rule and needs to be corrected by the White House. Technical foul. If that were not enough, the administration also presumes itself to be the appropriate arbiter of what marriage is and is not. Flagrant foul. Then there is the flip dismissal of the moral traditions which have been woven into the fabric of this culture as though they cannot speak into the whole question. Just plain foul from the start.

The concern in this corner is not over whether or not to agree with President Obama’s decision; rather, it with what we are to do about it. I cringe almost as much over the coming rantings and deluge of promo materials as I do over the decision itself. Does that mean I am indifferent? Not at all, though interpret it as you must. But I do wonder whether it is time for Christians to evaluate what they have to show for the strategies of the past forty years or so, strategies which have included the giving of untold millions of dollars which have yielded virtually nothing by way of actual policy reform. At the same time, there has been far too much vitriolic language targeting “the opposition.” Unlike the funding, this has produced a yield, albeit of a negative sort; it has created further defensive barriers and animosity, not only toward the attitudes on the issues, but toward the faith supposedly represented. So what do we do? Below are several options, not exhaustively stated by any means.

1. Fight the good fight as before, trusting that the Lord will do mighty things to bring victories which we may not see immediately. Write the letters, send the contributions, and join the marches.

2. Pray for those who represent our views and for those who do not, yet have influence in the decisions.

3. Recognize that the arena of the mind, from which ideas flow, was conceded a long time ago when we preached a private faith, untouched and unaffected by reason. We then must do the hard work of recovering the believing mind, and maybe the even harder work of gaining a hearing, all the while displaying a respectful attitude.

4. Let the world do what it will. It is unredeemed and we cannot expect redemptive behavior from it. After all, no one is forcing believers to engage in homosexual marriages, have abortions, gamble, etc. When they have had enough, we’ll be there to help the lost to see a better way.

It’s just the start of a list, but I’d like to hear where you find yourself and why. Since some of my readers cannot refrain from posing their own nuanced options, you have my permission.

What Does it Tell Us?

I am refraining from any direct comment on a so-called pastor in Florida. More precisely, I am refraining from commenting on his plan for Saturday.

But I do think that the incident, whether or not anything is actually burned when the time comes, recalls the issue of ecclesial authority. To whom are pastors accountable? Accountability is a concern in other areas of pastoral life, usually having to do with conduct–are they secretly engaging in behaviors which are detrimental to their own spiritual health and/or to that of the congregants they serve? Are they abusing the position they hold in a way that diminishes others psychologically and spiritually? But in the present case, it is quite clear that accountability for what is spoken or encouraged is every bit as important, if not more important, than what sites one visits on the internet (because of the potential impact far beyond his own family, congregation, and community).

Who speaks for God? Who speaks for the Church, the presence of Christ in this world? We could debate the status of the words spoken from countless pulpits (where they are still used) relative to what God says; somehow the “foolishness of preaching” continues to address the heart, mind, and soul of listeners. Mr. Jones, however, is not preaching a sermon. But whether he is aware of it or not, he is making a clear statement about the manner in which people of a different faith ought to be treated, and he is doing so in the name of God and is implicating all of Christianity in what he does. To the extent that this is true or believed to be true–and it will be so believed in certain other places in the world, and by certain other (influential) people in the world. Read: mass media.

So the question cannot be avoided: by what authority does he do so? To whom is he accountable, by which I mean who can call him to task about this action? Those who have occupied my classroom over the years will recognize that I have a bias against the independent church model; the present case does nothing to deconstruct that bias. In today’s world of soundbites and instantaneous distribution of thoughts of whatever merit, this man’s thoughts are on the same level as those of the Pope, of the recognized head of any denomination once they are disseminated. Who has the authority to tell him to stop? Who can legitimately challenge his claim of being led by the Holy Spirit?

This issue of authority has, of course, broader implications. Is it the case that the church can speak with only one voice? Can there be accountability at all once the protestant movement has taken hold, in that anyone can disavow the authority over him and establish a new church? I am not, obviously enough, either Roman Catholic of Orthodox. But are there options available which will help us to avoid the lone rangers who tell the world in word or deed what God is saying?

Your thoughts encouraged.

To Build or Not to Build

Much has been said, more of it for political capital rather than for honest debate, about the president’s position on the building of a Muslim mosque/community center in Ground Zero area of New York City. Many of the comments pay little regard to what the comments on separate occasions tell us about what the president thinks when taken together; again, it makes better political fodder for rallying the opposition.

To be sure, what the president said might have caused considerably less of an uproar had he clearly made the entire statement which emerges from the combination when he addressed his Muslim audience. Not doing so invited the sort of backlash he has received. Did he add the thoughts regarding the wisdom of the project as a back-peddle from the initial words of supporting the right of the Muslim group to build the center? Was he playing to the individual audiences on separate occasions, or was the secondary statement his position all along? I don’t know the heart or mind of the man, so I will not comment on that.

I am curious, however, about the question of the projects’s wisdom. As much as it grates on many of us to think of having this Muslim presence in this specific location, the president is indeed correct that the legal right to purchase and construct are on their side. Announcing it added nothing significant; most Americans concede the point. When we come to the wisdom piece of the debate, however, things become somewhat murky. Whose wisdom is in question? What determines whether wisdom’s path is being followed by the groups with a stake in the matter? What objectives are being served which would answer these questions?

If the goal of the Muslim group wanting to construct the project is to demonstrate in a very public location that Muslims indeed can fit into the fabric of American society, and can use it as a point of interaction and dialog with others in the community, it might be wise to complete the project. But would it have to be in this particular section of New York? Surely there are other equally suitable locations in the city if that is the purpose. And if that is in fact the reason for the project, would it not be wise to demonstrate sensitivity to the very real wounds and misgivings of the people with whom the intended dialog is to be engaged?

On the other hand, if the purpose is to erect a sort of statement of victory at the location of the horrible deeds of their co-religionists, it could hardly be more loudly spoken. It would, from that perspective, constitute a clarion call to the Muslim world that victory over the evil west is within reach. Where once stood a symbol of western enterprise and financial dominance there is now a Muslim presence. One could hardly miss the message, one which would use our own legal system as its weapon against the opposition from the soon to be defeated culture.

Is that the real intent? As with our president, I do not know the hearts or minds of those involved. But surely the President Obama’s secondary statement ought to be taken to heart. And it should be taken to heart by those who must make decisions regarding the zoning and other permits required for a project in this sector of the city.

Before leaving the discussion, I’d like to also challenge Christians to think of instances in which our own actions might be open to the charges of triumphalism. Are we as quick to see the possible and predictable offense given when we act in ways that might be parallel to what is proposed at Ground Zero? No, there is nothing on this large a scale that comes to mind. But are we sensitive to how others might interpret our actions, given what they hold dear to begin with? Is it more important to celebrate being on the winning side, or to stand for truth and goodness? Does mercy triumph in our lives and is witness more important than winning? Just asking.

(Note to regular followers: pardon the interruption of previous series; protests over the weekend on the above issue prompted some thoughts.)