MUSINGS

As I listen to or view news reports and read newspaper articles, essays and books, I can often distinguish between those who are committed to respectful conversation from those with whom they disagree and those who will have none of that. From time to time, I will share some thoughts on what I hear and read. I welcome your comments on my musings.



IT'S NOT MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

The surest way to shut down a conversation, or to prevent one from beginning, is to believe that “I have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and everything that the person on the other side of the aisle or table believes about the topic of conversation is “false.”

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THE GREAT REVERSAL ON IMMIGRATION REFORM

I have often expressed my dismay at a political system where politicians focus on getting elected rather than on governing. That brokenness reached new levels in the recent great reversal on the part of numerous leaders of the Republican Party relative to immigration reform. But let me start at the beginning.

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INDIVIDUALITY OR COMMUNITY: A FALSE CHOICE

One-dimensional political commitments, on both sides of the aisle, have made “middle-ground politics impossible.” That is a concern expressed by E. J. Dionne Jr. in his splendid book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury, 2012, p. 248).

Dionne traces the root of our current political gridlock to a faulty reading of American history. He asserts that the “true American trajectory is defined by balance,” which includes “an understanding of the indispensability of both the individual and the community” (p. 123, italics added). Dionne maintains that “our quest, from the very beginning of the republic, [has been] to achieve individual liberty rooted in a thriving sense of community and mutual obligation” (p. 242).

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DOES CIVILITY WORK?

In commenting on the reasons for the latest deluge of vitriolic negative advertisement released by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, a political pundit gave a simple explanation: “Civility doesn’t work.”

But there is a prior question that must be addressed before one can discuss what “works,” or not: What is one trying to accomplish?

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HONORING GOD IN RED OR BLUE

I wish to call your attention to an excellent newly released book that has been authored by Amy Black, who teaches political science at Wheaton College (IL) and is one of the six regular commentators for the Alternative Political Conversation (APC) that is hosted on this web site.

Amy’s book is titled Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason (Moody Publishers). Here is Amy’s summary description of the content of this book.

At a time when public discourse is too often harsh, divisive and hateful, Honoring God in Red or Blue calls Christians to take a more reasoned and humble approach to politics. I describe key points of tension that make political dialogue so difficult and offer practical, straightforward guidance for how to engage in political discussions, analyze political issues, and evaluate candidates in ways that honor God.

Whatever your political affiliation, I highly commend this book for your summer reading as we approach the November elections, Written in a  very readable style, it provides clear guidance for Christians who wish to model respectful and God honoring conversation in the political realm, as a deep expression of what it means to love those who may disagree with you on contentious political issues.

CHRISTIANS DOING POLITICS TAKE ANOTHER BEATING

This latest beating was administered by Andrew Sullivan in his essay “The Forgotten Jesus” in the April 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek.

Sullivan asks, “What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?” To be sure, many Christians doing politics have succumbed to this temptation. Those Christians who believe that their calling in public life is to “coerce” others into embracing Christian values have indeed forgotten Jesus. Jesus taught us to engage others with love, nor coercion.

So, Sullivan’s criticism of the way some Christians do politics is well taken. But when he elaborates on his legitimate concern, he embraces an either-or false choice that I reject. He asserts that “The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles… They were saints because of the way they lived.” His assertion appears to preclude the possibility of Christians living as saints within the political realm, which I believe is a viable possibility.

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SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE

Truth-telling seems to be in short supply these days in political discourse. Fact-checking groups are having a field day as they seek to uncover “truth” in the assertions of those who seek political office. Some of the assertions are found to be simply false. It is more common to uncover the subtle telling of partial truths meant to distort or misrepresent the positions of political opponents. In either case, truth-telling is sacrificed for the sake of political advantage.

As a person who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, I am called to exemplify a better way, that of “speaking the truth” (Ephesians 4:15) in all my interactions with others, political or otherwise.

My recent reading of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, written by the late Christopher Hitchens, uncovered an ample supply of truths, falsehoods, and partial truths that distort or misrepresent the nature of religious faith.

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LISTENING ONLY TO AN ECHO OF YOURSELF

My hope for mutual learning when persons who disagree with one another engage in respectful conversation is an impossible dream if you can’t get those who disagree into the same room.

In an opinion piece in the April 20, 2008 issue of the Los Angeles Times, titled “Talking to Ourselves,” Susan Jacoby tells of her experience of delivering a lecture on the history of America secularism at Eastern Kentucky University. Concurrent with her lecture, the Campus Crusade for Christ organization on campus had scheduled a competing lecture, reflecting their stated strategy to “counter-program secular lectures on college campuses.” As a result, both lectures were attended almost exclusively by persons who already agreed with the speaker. Jacoby’s conclusion is that “Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold,” demonstrating a strong reluctance “to give a fair hearing – or any hearing at all – to opposing points of view,” wanting to hear only an “echo” of themselves. 

The internet and cable TV have surely magnified this tendency to only listen to an echo of yourself. Whatever your opinion about a given issue, you can go online and find volumes of support for your position. And, if you find enough people online who agree with your viewpoint, it too easily serves to confirm your fixed position, and you are tempted to believe that your position must be true, even if it is blatantly false. And, the same listening only to an echo of yourself takes place if you get your cable news exclusively from FOX News or MSNBC.  An exclusive diet of either Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz will never lead you to entertain the possibility that your point of view on the issue at hand may be wrong, and that you may actually learn something by listening to someone who disagrees with you.

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NEITHER WITHDRAWAL NOR CONQUEST: PLANTING SEEDS FOR REDEMPTION

I am dismayed that the stance many Christians take toward the societies in which they live is either “withdrawal” or “conquest.” I reject both of these options for a strategy that I call “planting seeds for redemptive change.”

Many Christians who advocate for withdrawal from society are motivated by intentions that should be applauded. Accurately observing the destructive effects on society of individual and collective sin, as well as the brokenness caused by systemic evil, they focus on the need for Christian communities to model a better way, to bear witness through their communal life of Christian values such as compassion, justice and peace. So far, so good. Possibly our non-Christian neighbors would “sit up and take more notice” if more of our Christian communities actually lived out these values rather than just giving them lip service.

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CHUTZPAH AND HUMILITY

“Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens a democracy needs.” I had never seen these two words used in the same sentence, until I read Parker Palmer’s excellent recent book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (p. 43).

Parker defines chutzpah as “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” I know a lot of people who have chutzpah to spare.

Parker defines “humility” as “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all.” I know fewer people, especially those with chutzpah, who give much evidence of such humility.

My experience suggests that it is rare to find a person who exemplifies both chutzpah and humility. In current public discourse, especially in the political realm, I often hear persons who do not hesitate to express their beliefs on the issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction, and I applaud such chutzpah. But seldom do I hear a strong argument for one’s position followed by the words “I could be wrong, what do you think?” Palmer describes this much needed rare combination as follows: “I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other,’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction,” where by “the other” he means those persons who we would not consider to be of “our own kind” (p. 38).

Through the eyes of faith and hope, I can envision a much improved mode of public discourse, in our churches, schools, and political venues where we create a safe, welcoming space for everyone who has gathered to express their views with clarity and deep conviction, followed by a respectful give-and-take that reflects the honest acknowledgment by each of us that “I could be wrong,” and could therefore learn from the persons who disagree with me. 


CLASS WARFARE OR NOT

President Obama is inciting “class warfare.” That is the charge of numerous Republicans in the wake of Obama’s Jobs Bill that proposes increasing tax rates for millionaires. The war that is feared is between the wealthy and the rest of us. Whether Obama’s proposal amounts to class warfare depends on your response to a prior question: What does it mean to be a human being?

My views on human nature are deeply informed by my Christian faith. I embrace “individuality,” by which I mean that each human being is a unique individual, endowed with gifts that he or she ought to be able to exercise. That is part of my understanding of what it means to be created in the “Image of God.” 

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I AM PRO LIFE, BUT...

A “but” does not get much of a hearing in public discourse. It is erroneously categorized as being “wishy-washy.” The words that follow cannot fit on a bumper sticker or in a 60-second sound bite. And positions in-between either/or extremes dampen the polarization that the media and many politicians and citizens thrive on. To illustrate this problem, allow me to summarize, albeit too briefly, my views relative to the contentious pro-life/pro-choice abortion debate. 

I aspire to be consistently pro-life, believing that physical life is a gift from God that needs to be both protected and helped to flourish. Therefore I oppose “abortion on demand,” independent of how one answers the thorny question of when physical life begins, since a form of life that is a “potential person” is of value. 

My aspiration to be consistently pro-life takes me places where some pro-lifers refuse to go. It is not only the case that the life of the fetus ought to be protected. After a baby is born, steps must be taken to care for and nourish that person throughout life. Therefore, those of us who oppose abortion on demand should also be committed to addressing the circumstances that lead some expectant mothers to conclude that they cannot adequately care for a newborn, including addressing the persistent problems of poverty that sometimes contribute to the choice for an abortion. We also need to provide more encouragement for alternatives to abortion like adoption. 

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BEING HARD OR SOFT ON IMMIGRATION LAW

Advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is often viewed as “being soft on the law.” As a strong form of the argument goes, those entering the USA illegally broke the law and they should therefore be punished to the full extent of the law, which currently calls for deportation. To do otherwise is to provide “amnesty.”

I agree that illegal immigrants have broken the law, and therefore some form of punishment is appropriate. Therefore I am not in favor of “amnesty,” if what you mean by that word is “no punishment whatsoever.” But I question the prevalent truncated view of criminal justice, which suggests that such justice is accomplished when someone who has broken the law is given suitable retribution by government.

A richer view of the meaning of justice is provided by the “restorative justice” movement. The vision of restorative justice does not preclude some form of punishment. But it is broader in scope than just punishment. It focuses on meeting the needs of all persons affected by the breaking of a law, not just the offender, but also those who are victimized by the breaking of the law, and the communities in which both the offender and the victims live. And the ultimate goal is to restore harmonious relationships between all persons involved and promote the flourishing of all these persons. A tall order indeed (two excellent books on the Restorative Justice movement are Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr and Beyond Retribution by Christopher Marshall).

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MY SANTA CLAUS FLIP-FLOP

I don’t remember when in my childhood I stopped believing in a flesh-and-and blood Santa Claus. But whenever that was, it was a colossal flip-flop.

At least that is was the political pundits on TV and Talk Radio might call it, for they seem to be saying that whenever you change your former belief about something, you are flip-flopping. For example, the media has been quick to give that pejorative label to John McCain for changing his former views on immigration reform, and to Mitt Romney for reversing his former support for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and for distancing himself from President Obama’s health care initiative, when many features of that initiative are similar to the health care program that Romney supported when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

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BUDGET COMPROMISE: GETTING A HALF-LOAF OR LESS

“Are there issues where compromise is justified, but others where it is not?” That is a question that my friend Tom Tiahrt asked me in response to my most recent musing (Forfeiting Today for a Political Tomorrow). 

It depends on what you mean by the word “compromise.” In my very first Blog musing (Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea in Politics?), I suggested that “compromise is a temporary yielding in an ongoing political process,” quoting with approval President Obama’s definition: “Compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.”

The recent action of Congress dealing with debt reduction and the raising of the debt limit enables me to provide a good concrete illustrative example of when I think compromise is a good idea in politics, in preparation for my response to Tom’s question.

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