17 December 2015

Law and Sausages


"What has happened to altruism on the political spectrum? When I was growing up, it seemed that it was 'One for all and all for one!' It seems to be much more visceral and mean-spirited, today. " - HK

"There is not new under the sun," said the author of Ecclesiastes.  She or he could also have said, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."  Sadly, the abject condition of national politics is more typical for our history than not.  Way back in 1866 the lawyer Gideon Tucker said, "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session."  "Imagine I am an idiot," said Twain.  "Now imagine I am in Congress.  But wait, I repeat myself." My title is usually attributed to Bismarck, but The Daily Cleveland Herald, March 29, 1869, quoted lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” In our own era, Milton Berle said, "You can lead a man to Congress but you can't make him think."   In other words, the venal and petty and nature of politics is well commented and documented.  

That does not excuse or absolve it, friend, but it does mean we should not be surprised it has come to such a lowly pass as we see now.  Rather we should look to those times of high resolve and comity and ask how they happened at all.  What brings out the spirit of magnanimity in people such that they overcome the lesser angels of their nature?

Again, history is a help, though not an encouragement.  Our eras of greatest nobility seem to follow times of greatest strife.  Only when it is evident that pursuing your own agenda slavishly leads to greater misery not greater good. The lesson of motes and planks still needs learning 20 centuries later.  

But let me set Ecclesiastes aside and try to be practical for a moment.  The current 'free market' orthodoxy in politics confuses and conflates the market with the forum. We need to dismantle the market of politics.  That means limiting the ability of individuals and groups to have more influence than the people themselves.  This comes down to at least three things.

1. Partisan Redistricting to limit party influence over the power of the electorate.
2. Public financing of campaigns
3. Restoration of the Fairness doctrine in Broadcasting.

These will not happen, though, until both parties grasp that trying to get and keep the upper hand is not possible and ultimately self destructive (Witness the ever greater cultivation of the right wing and its culmination in Trump/Cruzism).  It is this competition for power that corrupts, as Lord Acton so wisely noted.  Pray that it does not require some great struggle and sorrow to become evident again.

04 December 2015

Grief is the Winter of the Soul

How best to cope with the loss of yet two more DEAR friends...I remember them with gratitude..and our long friendship...but the sting is still there...MJE

As the Tin Man so famously said, "Now I know I have a heart, because it's breaking."  Much longer ago the great Seneca (I think!) said, "next to the death of one's self is the death of a friend."  

Like winter there is no shortcut through loss and grief, but unlike winter it cannot be evaded by going elsewhere.  Continuing with the metaphor, surviving emotional winters takes work.

Stay warm.  Grief makes us more solitary, feekling sad and not wanting to impose on them or to answer questions over and over.  You need human warmth more, not less.  Stay in touch with friends, both the friends you and your late friends shared, and friends that they did not.  

Do Not Stay Outside Too Long.  Grieve too long and you get emotional frostbite.  Get inside by taking time off from grief.  See a silly movie, fix a favorite meal, do things that feel good.  And tell yourself that grief can wait for a day.  It can.  

Don't get stuck in the snow.  Grief can tempt us to stop exercising, sleep late, drink more.  Some slippage is inevitable but going slow is better than stopping as any driver in the snow will tell you.  

Make spring come.  Rather than measure how bad you feel from day to day, measure other things that matter, like people who plan their vegetable garden while the snow flies.  

Tap your maples. Sugar season is in late winter, when it is still cold.  But the cold now is a good thing.  At some point you might want to create a scrapbook of your friendship, perhas inviting other mutual friends to join you.  Hold a party when a friendship anniversary comes around. Plan a visit to a place you remember and cherish. Give money to a cause that she or he cared about.  

None of these things will make your sadness go away, and as you know there will be days during your winter of grief that are overwhelming.  That's when these tactics will serve to get you through them better, and when you are feeling overwhelmed help you get 'whelmed' sooner. 

The same Seneca (I hope!) also asked rhetorically, "shall a man bury his friendship with his friend?"  The friend is gone, but the friendship remains.  At first the absence of the friend is so strong that it is all you can feel.  But as the season of grief edges along the friendship becomes more evident.  

Finally, make new friends.  The gifts you received from your friends deserve to be passed along.  Be the friend she was for you to someone else.  Pay it forward, as they say.

01 December 2015

"Ask Pastor Know It All"

First, I should say why this blog has been dormant for a year.

The answer is that whatever I had to say was being said elsewhere and better.  My career as a public intellectual came to an end, outnumbered by lesser louder voices and out-thought by greater brighter minds.

Then, someone asked me why I had stopped and, having said these things, she still expressed hope that I would resume.  That set me to thinking, a dangerous sport in these thoughtless times.  While I have no urge to opine on what seem to me obvious things to a small and already convinced cadre (that would be you dear readers) I have a desire to help those who ask for it.  Not once in all my days have I persuaded anyone who did not already wish to change.  At best I have helped people make up their minds when asked.

I am a pastoral theologian, not an apologetic one.  Those are technical terms in theological schools. Pastoral theology is about the 'cure of souls,' and its tool is the spiritual talking cure for those whose acedia has grown burdensome.  It is in response to a need expressed by someone.  Apologetic theology is addressed 'to whom it may concern,' an audience undefined and unknown. It seeks to persuade without being asked, to convert.

This became evident as I lost interest in the blog as a platform and became more invested in a newspaper panel I share on matters of ethics and religion.  You can sample that here, though I am not in every issue.  Similarly, I enjoy my radio program Faith & Reason more when I am talking to someone not just talking into the air.

As one ages, it is best to focus on one's strengths rather than labor over one's weaknesses.  Therefore, this blog will now be entirely devoted to answering your questions - matters of religious fact and fancy, questions of doctrine and dogma, riddles ethical and moral, struggles spiritual and personal.  Your questions will be my subjects.

To send a question you may add a comment here, or tweet me @fred_wooden or via Facebook.  Please tell me if you wish to remain anonymous, or any other restrictions.  I may wish to contact you beforehand to make sure I am clear.

There is already one question, which I will address in a day or so.  But it seemed fair to let you know what was up ahead of time.  Feel free to comment and tell me your thoughts.  Thanks for reading!

25 November 2014

In the Heat of the Night

Less than 12 hours after it came down, many have already responded to the Grand Jury decision about officer Wilson's killing of Michael Brown.  I have not, and there is a reason.

Long ago, before I was thirty but after I was married, there was a moment when I was so filled with anger that words were useless.  In my fury, and my haste to quit the room, I toppled a coat rack which broke when it hit the ground.  Handmade by my father-in-law, and thus very precious to my wife, the sight of it lying in fragments broke me into pieces as well.  I collapsed in tears of regret and shame.

Like Billy Budd, to express deep anger - the profound anger of powerless injustice - often does more harm. It is not revenge at all but a volcanic response to being done wrong and being unable to right it.

This may be the heart of why racial justice has always been part of my life and work.  It started when I was 12 and promoted including Tony, one of the black kids being bused in to school, to be on the safety patrol.  None were and that was wrong, even to a kid like me.  I succeeded.  A week or two after he got his white belt and badge my messy desk caused my teacher to have me cut from the safety patrol.

The irony and proximity has never left me. Those who work for racial justice will not be welcome because true racial justice means everything will change.

In our dogmatically capitalist times, where politics and morality are treated as markets and success is measured by how much more you have than someone else, the reality that racial justice means everything will change means for many that the winners become losers and vice-versa.  Justice is thus a 'zero-sum game,' as we now say, meaning that some have more and some have less and that's just the way things are.

And that's what makes me angry beyond words. If we think this is the way it has to be - some having more justice than others - then America is a lie because America exists 'to establish justice.'  We must believe that everything should change, not only because the way things are now are unjust but because we will be better off as people and a nation if we do this.

Liberty and Justice are not zero-sum games, limited resources, commodities to be bought and sold and traded.  Yet we treat them like they are, and so some get more and some get less.  In America, people of color notably get less, as they have for over 400 years.

It may be that in this case, there was no crime according to law.  I am prepared to see that, but only if others are prepared to say that law is no guarantee of justice.  Injustice is very legal when it comes to marriage for lesbians and gays in Michigan.  Injustice is quite legal when it comes to children getting educated fully.  Injustice is legal where money is speech and poverty is silenced.

We need a better America, the one we pledged allegiance to in school.

07 November 2014

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” – Isaiah 9

A rather long post, following many post election thoughts, and to console my political son who was the second in command for someone who lost her re-election bid by 58 votes.
Although we are less and less Christian as a people, many of us even now recognize and enjoy the tradition that speaks of light after the dark, something we all understand in the northern hemisphere and also a metaphor for hope after despair which is what Isaiah meant after all.
American elections always come within sight of Christmas season, so to my fellow liberals and progressives and Democrats let us recall the words of Isaiah. Yes, there is reason for weeping and gnashing of teeth, and lamentation is understandable but, and let me repeat that word with emphasis – BUT – dismay serves the victor a second victory. Here, then, are some reasons for hope and courage, which are essential especially now.
1. America is a conservative nation, even among liberals. (“I thought you said reasons for hope?”) Yes, this is a reason for hope. By conservative I mean skeptical about government. One hundred fifty years ago Gideon Tucker wrote, “No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session," sometimes attributed to Mark Twain as well, who may have appropriated it somewhere along the line. Suspicion of government is very old among us, well entrenched and even liberals share this notion in some areas. Who of us is not outraged about mass incarceration, police misconduct, civil forfeiture, the Patriot Act? A healthy distrust of power is part of the liberal view as well. In other words, we are not as divided as we may feel.
2. Because we are conservative – skeptical – by nature, people will preserve the status quo long after it has been harmful to them. It is a form of preferring the devil you know, as the saying puts it. I think Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition of conservatives and liberals expresses the heart of the sentiment, “Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”
3. This fact is as old as the country itself. “And accordingly, as all experience hath shown,” writes the Declaration of Independence, “mankind (sic) are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to change the forms to which they are accustomed.” We liberals may decry the folly of those who vote ‘against their own interests,’ but it is an old and well-established fact of social behavior. We should not be surprised when it happens, and rather expect it. As Winston Churchill wryly observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.” And he was a conservative!
4. Therefore, liberal ideas will only be adopted when all else has failed. As a consequence, we should expect to be the minority most of the time. Which clearly means WE SHALL LOSE MORE ELECTIONS THAN WE WIN.
5. But we must not wait until disaster calls us – like firefighters – to the flaming house of democracy. That would be derelict. Though we may not be called upon until the last moment, we may not be absent in the meantime. But what should we do in that meantime, how shall we be ready when the nation needs us?
6. Even the conservative hopes for what the liberal hopes. What is that? “Liberty and Justice for All.” Where liberals have failed is in speaking to that hope in everyone. We have fallen prey to the same devil conservatism serves, fear. Conservatism thrives on fear as this is its basis. Some fears are appropriate, unchecked government power being one. But liberalism is premised on hope, and all people need hope, the light in the darkness, even conservatives; but liberals have lost that voice insofar as it speaks to the nation and not just themselves.
7. That is why dismay is conservatism’s second victory, for by feeling defeated we give up our soul, which is hope. The emotion is legitimate for the moment, as all defeats are hard. It is equally hard not to analyze why we were defeated, forgetting that victory for us is always exceptional and never the norm.
8. Our task is to ask not what went wrong with our strategy and organization, but how we can better speak to the hope. Technique helps win some elections, but ‘without a vision the people perish,’ and it is the liberal vision that people need. Thus the next step is not asking how to get people to vote but making people hungry to vote. We have two years. Here is how.
9. Reclaim our gift as those who believe the future of America is before us (hope) not behind us (fear). We cannot win elections or hearts by trying to compete over whose fears are more dire, or by using its cousin, anger. Fear and anger are the emotional basis of conservatism, after all.
10. Express liberal hope in words every American knows and reveres, ‘liberty and justice for all,’ ‘we the people,’ ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ ‘I have a dream,’ and so on. Our greatest moments as a nation have been moments when liberals were in power.
11. Let go of specific policies and platforms, the techniques of government, and talk only of the people and the nation. Liberalism is larger than government, but right now it has been cornered as mere belief in big government. Let’s then lose the language of government with its programs (which sound like money spent) and laws (which sound like regulations and limits) and speak instead of democracy and liberty, of justice and fairness, of community and responsibility, of all the things everyone values. These are liberal hopes, but not enough people know they are.
12. Finally, rejoice in the victory of our fellow conservative Americans. They are our neighbors and friends and as wrong as we think they may be, we are as likely to wrong as well. And cheer them on because liberal hope extends to all Americans, not just those who think like us. Let’s disappoint those who think us defeated and outcast by drawing the circle of our hope around them as well.