…and another thing: further thoughts on the dangers of extreme conservatism

As I was thinking about my recent posts on conservatism, I remembered I had written a few short pieces as Facebook notes during the 2012 election cycle, and I dug one out that seemed particularly relevant.  It may become more so as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is likely weighing a run for the White House in 2016.  Only time will tell if his twisted philosophy will play well with what I hope will become a more enlightened and compassionate public.  What can I say? On the other hand, this is a lightly edited but shameless attempt to create blog content in my race to 100 posts.  

The following are two quotes from Ayn Rand, whom the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee has credited with being instrumental in the formation of his beliefs.  Mr. Ryan even helped organize the 2005 “Celebration of Ayn Rand” in honor of her 100th birthday, by securing the room for the Atlas Society gathering.  As late as 2009, he made video clips praising her work and for what he called the best case for the morality of laissez-faire capitalism.  In 2012, he began distancing himself from his ideological mentor when he began to be considered as running mate to wealthy business man and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.   

 “If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.”  

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The book is chock full of other vicious, spiteful, hate-inspired, self-centered comments that are being hailed by some conservatives–especially of the Tea Party persuasion–as great virtues.  However, for those who are adherents of the Christian faith, so much of the Randian philosophy that has recently invaded the conservative leadership and trickled down to the rank and file is completely and utterly opposite to Christian teaching.  In fact, this may be the only part of trickle-down theory that actually works. 

Perhaps the most directly practical book of the New Testament is the Letter of James.  He put a fine point on what it takes to actually live by a Christian standard.  The following excerpt from James 1:27 – 2:17, I believe, is in direct opposition to Rand’s Virtue of Selfishness.  The emphases are all mine, and serve as an outline of the central arguments of the text.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit  orphans and widows in their affliction, and  to keep oneself  unstained from the world.

2 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,  the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,”  while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become  judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers,  has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be  rich in faith and heirs of  the kingdom,  which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you  have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who  drag you  into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable  name by which you were called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture,  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you  show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point  has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said,  “Do not commit adultery,” also said,  “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under  the law of liberty. 13 For  judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith  but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

We each have responsibilities to help others as we can.  However, the first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor (what Jesus referred to as the second great commandment behind loving God) and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheavel, stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others as contemptible.  Are there abuses of the system?  Of course.  Does it need review and revision?  Constantly.

But back to the clash of philosophies and to draw one more conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to supplant authority and plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (vs. Ecc 12:13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” ) You could go on for pages finding the contradictions to Christianity, but they’re apparently OK, since this is economics and culture, we’re talking about and not religion. 

Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life.  It informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  And Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. 

Many people will try to cast this individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  In the Old Testament, Isaiah 5.20,21 raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:    

 20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness,who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!

I have spent many hours reading, connecting, trying to make a case that this form of self-centered philosophy is far from the character of a Christian.  I have found numerous links that demonstrate the diametric opposition of these opposing worldviews.  I have shown how some of these things are being played out.  I don’t want to live in Ayn Rand’s laissez-faire dystopia.  I would rather live in a world where I could depend on my neighbor, and he can depend on me. 

And contrary to what some people think, money isn’t everything. 

Of Squandered Birthrights and a House Divided

 

It was a hot day, and the young man, elder of a set of twins, came tramping back into camp after an exhausting hunt. He saw that his younger brother was cooking a stew that at the moment seemed to be the greatest thing the older brother could think of. He was starving and he needed to eat, not later, but right then. He demanded food.

The younger twin was a crafty one. He could see that his brother was hungry, but he was in no wise at the point of death. He also knew his brother was impetuous to the point of being frivolous at times. He would use his brother’s volatile nature and the immediate circumstance to his advantage.

The younger brother offered a bargain: a bowl of red stew with lentils and some bread for the birthright promised to the eldest son. No longer would that older brother be the next family priest. No longer would he receive the double portion of the inheritance from their father. Not being able to see into the future or hear any reason above the growling of his stomach, the older brother hastily agreed. One careless oath and he changed his life forever.

In fact, he changed history.

I would imagine that most people reading this essay would be familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 25. So many lessons could be learned from this. I am always amazed at how Jacob came out on top, even though he stooped to subterfuge to secure his father’s blessing. But then, there are many other examples of people being blessed despite their actions: David, Solomon, Abraham….

But as I think about Jacob, Esau and the current political climate, I see an interesting parallel. In a very real sense, we risk selling our birthright for a tainted bowl of someone else’s dreams.

Why would I say that? Because I see a people whose hard fought heritage was won at great cost, the lives of so many brave people, and we are on the verge of selling that birthright that they secured to the highest bidder. Too many of our politicians have been bought by corporate dollars and they try to sell the rest of us to a group of people whose interests don’t range far from their bank accounts.

In a letter to Col. William F. Elkins dated 21 November 1864, US President Abraham Lincoln wrote words that seem disturbingly too close to fruition.

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Like Lincoln, I am frightened by what I see happening in this Republic. I am saddened that so many good people have bought the bill of goods being offered by a misguided conservative movement that is driven by nothing more than conserving someone else’s money. Even though I remember hearing about compassionate conservatism, I see more condescension than compassion in most of the so-called conservative leaders. And I see more corporation than cooperation in their actions and attitudes.

The left is not much (if any better) in that, while they are admirably fixated on social justice and fairness, they attempt to legislate a singular view of morality on all, and often that view conflicts with a slate of traditional values that many moderates and conservatives hold dear.

After many years of consideration, I have come to realize that in politics like in so many other aspects of life (including religion), the better path is not at either extreme. The better path is much more toward the middle ground. Someone may quote the Revelation, and say that it would be better to be hot or cold and not lukewarm. I agree. But that passage does not refer to ideological extremes. I believe it refers more to actions: either be on fire or be cold ashes. That way, we know where you stand. Half-hearted displays are worse than nothing, and may be more counterproductive than a fully negative one.

Why is the middle ground a better place? Let me offer one example. This one will be controversial, I’m sure, but here goes: I believe in a reasonable, mentally stable person’s right to own firearms. But I do not believe an average person needs to own a fully functional assault weapon. I have no problem with well-regulated hunting and carefully monitored target sports. I have no problem with owning a weapon for personal protection. But I do have a problem with a person stockpiling thousands of rounds of ammunition for no apparent reason other than they fear Armageddon or some other socio-economic/political collapse. There is a middle ground where the rights of citizens can and must be balanced with common sense. Your right to own a gun is fair and should continue. But your right to firearms should end if or when my life becomes endangered.

While I find some aspects of conservatism admirable and I dearly love many politically, fiscally and socially conservative people, I am increasingly dismayed at the stark inconsistencies I have witnessed during my years of social and political awareness. I believe I have the right to comment on this, since I made my camp among the ranks of extreme conservatism for many of those years. I supported every conservative candidate who ran for office because I feared for the safety and future of the nation if the liberals won. I remember being extremely depressed the night Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush way back in 1992. I commiserated with my brother when one of us, I can’t remember which, said, “There goes the nation.” But the nation did not disintegrate, despite the apparent sexual escapades of the President. In fact, the economy was robust and expanding, and there was actually cooperation that occurred between the two major political parties in America–when they weren’t fighting over the President’s morals.

Over the years, I have come to see a darker side to the conservative movement in America. I have seen the views and opinions and beliefs of good moral people being corrupted by a corrupt group of conservative leaders, who themselves have been bought and paid for by people who have an agenda that revolves around consolidation of power and the aggregation of greater and greater wealth. What was once a movement based on moral values has become corrupted with a perceptible undertone of greed and a reluctance to support the government’s rendering of assistance to the poor and needy. What was once a philosophy of personal accountability with responsibility to others, like George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light”, or George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, has become synonymous with what can only be described as a meanness born of greed and indignation despite the needs of others.

Some of the most ardent conservatives are single-issue voters focused on stopping abortion. I understand and respect the sentiment. But perhaps one of my greatest concerns with pro-life elements of the extreme conservatism movement is that many of these people—not all—consider the pro-life stance to stop at ending abortion. However, many of these same people are either actually or coincidentally opposed to supporting children that weren’t aborted, especially if that support is funded by tax dollars. Conservative pundits are on record as opposing government funded summer feeding programs for inner city children because it makes them “dependent” on the government. If they have no other means of support, how can these children ever break the cycle of poverty? Are we really ready to adopt a Malthusian worldview that accepts human suffering as merely a consequence of limited resources failing to meet the demands of a burgeoning population? Are we really ready to embrace the Dickensian paradigm of letting the poor die “to decrease the surplus population”? It is inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy to oppose both abortion and aid for poor children.

I know that some suggest that conservatives merely prefer that the government not take their wealth and “redistribute” it to the poor. They themselves should be allowed to do that—or not—since after all, it is a free country—for now—and their money is indeed their own. If we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and every person took it upon himself to really, judiciously and even (dare I say it?) liberally (that’s a biblical expression, not mine) give to the poor, then such government action would not be necessary.

In reality, this nation had a century and a half to make good on that. But we didn’t. Remember the “Gilded Age”? That was a time when the rich robber barons made fantastic fortunes at the expense of the poor, and little, if anything, was done to really help those who made that wealth possible. Money was everything and human capital was cheap. Wages in America were comparatively higher than in other parts of the world, sparking a flood of immigration, but working conditions were appalling. Industrial safety measures were non-existent; child labor was exploited to the detriment of countless poor children. There was no “safety net” to help people with health care nor was there a “safety net” to help the poor who had reached a point where they could no longer work.

Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, what some would call his radical social engineering, changed America likely forever, but the outcome is hotly debated among the ideological camps arrayed along the liberal/conservative axis. Social Security and federally guaranteed health programs have been a boon to countless poor and elderly who, through no fault of their own, may have never had the opportunity to amass a significant enough reserve to see them safely through retirement in any measure of comfort and dignity.

Ah, but the churches can help. And many do. But there are those churches that do not see a corporate obligation to help the poor, and even grudgingly aid the poor and needy of their own congregations. They place the responsibility fully on the members, who may or may not be involved in helping the poor. After all, we were taught by Jesus not to call attention to our charitable works, not allowing the right hand to know the actions of the left. They fail to read the early chapters of Acts except for compliance with a perceived plan of salvation. They fail to apprehend the example of the collective outreach to needy people, even those among their own numbers, with accounts such as those involving the pooling of proceeds from the sale of personal property to distribute to any who had need.

At the same time, I tend to agree with the conservative caveat, that it is incumbent on the poor to do everything in their power to help themselves. The object of government aid should never be indefinite support for those who can at least in part support themselves. In fact, the object of aid should be helping the able to reach a point of increased if not full self-sufficiency. After all, you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have a boot to begin with. A hand-up trumps a hand-out, at least for a person of integrity and possessing at least a modicum of pride. However, there are those who cannot support themselves by reason of age or infirmity. As a caring people, we must not marginalize the most vulnerable.

The modern conservative movement is funded in large part by a small group of very rich business people. They make no bones about their own extreme Libertarian leanings, preferring less, or in some cases, no regulation at all levels of government, including deregulation of the financial industry and relaxed regulation on the environment so that their profits will not be diminished by restoration, reclamation, or rehabilitation efforts and costs. They oppose a proliferation of assistance programs, and would prefer a sharp diminishing if not a full discontinuation of some of those now in existence.

But those regulations are in place to help and protect real people, not corporations’ profits. The global financial collapse of the last decade happened in part because of corporate greed and a lack of appropriate regulations to corral that greed and prevent it from reaching catastrophic proportions. If we allow corporations to put profit above the lives and livelihoods of regular people, we will have sold our birthright. If we destroy our environment for the sake of some rich corporation’s exploding profits, we will have sold our birthright. If we starve the poor to pad a rich man’s portfolio, we will have sold our birthright.

If we no longer “…hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, we will have sold our birthright. If we fail to respect “…that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed,” we will have desecrated the memory and achievement of those who sacrificed so much to guarantee those freedoms we were once promised, we now enjoy, but may one day realize we have lost. When we turn over our government and allegiance not to our own lawfully elected leaders, but those selected and bought by would-be plutocrats, we will have sold our birthright for the flimsy promises and self-serving schemes of a small group of self-important men who would be our masters. Money may indeed make might. But money does not always make right. In most cases, far from it.

The politics of extremism, whether right or left, is either too liberating or too restrictive. Neither unyielding conservatism nor inflexible liberalism will ensure the blessings of liberty for anyone. But there is a middle ground where progress and profit are tempered with compassion, where all may benefit regardless of social class or circumstance. That may compromise extremist ideology from either direction, but not genuine reason. Contrary to what conservatives may espouse, life is not always black and white, nor is it only shades of gray as extreme liberals purport. Life is a tapestry that mingles both threads, apparently shading in gradients, but we must be cognizant of all of its constituents and attentive to the subtlety and nuance of each situation.

People embrace extremism for many different reasons. Some believe undiluted conservatism is more in line with their faith, while others see staunch liberalism as doing the same. Both are dangerous, because they lead to judgmental exclusivism and to the unwillingness to compromise on any issue. Some embrace liberalism because they believe it sheds the chains of what they see as antiquated philosophies, beliefs, or a restrictive morality, while others view extreme conservatism as the surest means to increased personal liberty. Again, both of these are dangerous because they lead to an anarchic state in which each person becomes a law unto himself. Ironically, this results in each person being imprisoned by his own circumstance, constantly defending what is his from any and all interlopers.

I like what President George H.W. Bush once said: “I am a conservative, but I am not a nut about it.” In my own experience, I was once an avowedly extreme conservative. Now I am not. But I am not an extreme liberal, either. I truly believe that somewhere in between these extremes lies a place where we can all peacefully coexist, where we can balance rights and responsibilities, and where we can experience personal liberty while protecting and caring for others, not haphazardly and unpredictably as individuals, but corporately and in an organized fashion as a caring nation. While we continue to fear threats from outside agents, perhaps the greatest threat to us as a blended society is really none other than us, as witnessed by our unwillingness to tolerate any view outside our own, whatever that view may be. We should remember that contrary to what some leaders may assert, God has not endorsed either American political party, nor has he shed his grace on only one ideological fraction of this country. We are strongest when we stand together. We are most vulnerable when we tear each other down. If we choose the politics of division over that of respect, good will, and genuine cooperation, we will only reap destruction as a house divided. Liberal, moderate or conservative, I’m not sure any of us really want that.

In Search of a Different Kind of Conservatism

It’s that time of year again.  Political season.  The airwaves and the web are alive with righteous indignation and mud-slinging and half-truths, twisted facts, and out-right lies.  In other words, it’s business as usual.

But for anyone who claims to be a Christian, it really shouldn’t be business as usual.  I don’t know how many memes I have received from friends who are Christian, bashing the President and anyone linked to the Democratic Party.  The conservative movement in America has co-opted the Christian community to serve as foot-soldiers in a culture war.  Make no mistake: the other side has its foot-soldiers, too.  But they typically aren’t spouting scripture while waving a political sign.

I am discouraged that so many people are taken in by so many conservative  political arguments.  I am discouraged to see churches with political signs in front of them.  That is a clear violation of the separation of Church and State, and could put that church in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status.

I have no problem with Christian people having political opinions.  I have no problem with them expressing them.  I do have a problem with politics being preached from pulpits, and people being castigated, even condemned for possessing views at variance with the views of a church, its leadership, or its minister.

When considering the role of the Christian in politics and government, there are two passages from the New Testament that immediately come to mind.  Peter wrote in I Peter 2.17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  Having no emperor, we should honor the president, the duly elected head of state. That should immediately give one pause when considering passing on the latest internet meme that perpetuates some rumor about the president, his past, his perceived motives, or his perceived actions.  You cannot spread unsubstantiated rumors about the president with the same mouth that you use to praise God.

Paul wrote in Romans 13.1-7,

1  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  2  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  4  for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

5  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  6  For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  7  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

So, if we accept scriptures, we must accept that governments exist by the authority of God, and that authority must be respected and honored.  How can I click the share button on some meme that blasts the president, when I claim to be a servant of Christ?  I can’t see how we can justify it.

The government may be doing things of which we do not approve.  One party may support issues that we find either distasteful or even patently wrong—for conservatives, that translates into abortion and gay rights issues.  But I submit that both parties are guilty of these very kinds of things.  Using the right as an example (because I personally know far fewer Christians that move in left-wing circles) and in broad strokes, conservatives are opposed to raising the minimum wage to help lift people out of poverty.  They are opposed to environmental regulation which would cost money but build a more sustainable environment.  They oppose many health care initiatives.  They may oppose abortion, but in practically the same breath, fail to support many poor and disadvantaged children who have been born.

In short, they parrot the views of a group of very rich people who use people of good conscience and good will to advance their goals.  But when you step back and really observe what is going on, many of these so-called “conservative” initiatives are in direct violation of biblical principles, such as God’s own admonition in Isaiah 1.17, “…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” The wise oracle in Proverbs 31.8,9 commends a ruler’s action on behalf of the poor and needy: “8 Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.  9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  When “conservative” programs favor business revenue over human survival and dignity, are they indeed defending the rights of the poor and needy?  Do they truly bring justice and correct oppression?

I am in no wise passing judgment on Christian people who hold to these conservative ideals.  In fact, if these values were not being manipulated by a shadowy power structure for what I perceive to be less than noble purposes, I could respect them more.

In fact, that used to be me. 

I listened to every whisper from the conservative rumor mills.  I believed a lot of lies.  And I am heartily sorry I did.

When I started seeing what the “conservative” agenda was all about, I could not make it jibe with what I was coming to see in scripture.  That “love they neighbor” thread is woven through it from first to last.  Those who claim to be Christians need to see that.  If we wore phylacteries like the Jews of old, we should load them with that thought and meditate on it.  I know all of the arguments about “teaching a man to fish.”  But opportunities rarely knock on inner city doors or Appalachian shacks, beckoning the poor to a path of success.  And yes, there are many examples of abuse of aid.  But legislating solely on the basis of abuse fails to account for and protect the most vulnerable among us: the children, the sick, and the elderly—the very ones mentioned as needing aid and protection in scripture.

At times, I think that some Christian people would like to see the rise of what would essentially be a Christian theocracy, where all legislation is viewed through the lens of the Bible.  However, to impose such would effectively remove free will, wouldn’t it?  A better solution would be for Christian people of good will to run for office and let their faith inform their actions, but not dictate them.

We should all open our eyes to the true nature of our government.  A recent study argues that we are not a representative democracy at all.  We are at best an oligarchy, where power rests with a few powerful entities in government, the military and the corporate world, as demonstrated by the tenor of legislation being tilted strongly in favor of industry, and not people.  At worst, we are a festering plutocracy being driven further into corruption by the very rich to feed their own coffers and consolidate their power.

We sing in that wonderful patriotic song, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee. / And crown thy good with brotherhood /  from sea to shining sea.”  I really don’t think we mean it by the way we act.  God does not shed his grace on a nation run by the ultra-rich and power hungry who deny his fundamental principles of caring for others.  He shed his grace on a people with ideas and ideals of liberty and equality.  But we have fallen from that grace.  We have sold our birthright for a bowl of someone else’s broken dreams and tarnished promises.

That brotherhood of which we so often sing has not yet been achieved.  If we allow ourselves to be manipulated by either the extreme right or left, it never will be realized.  Real brotherhood can be found when we lay down our political ideologies and reach out our hands, not in repression, but in kindness.  It can be found when money is seen as a means to better society, not as an end in itself.  It will happen when we let our hearts speak, not our hate.

I am a Christian.  But I am not necessarily cut from the same cloth that so many others seem to be.  I trust God to direct the flow of history.  But he trusts me to do what I can to speak out for justice.  I cannot be true to my God and blindly support anything and everything that the “conservative” establishment pushes.  The same goes for the left.

Maybe that makes me a different kind of conservative, one who tries to conserve the principles of justice and mercy that God wanted of his people from the very beginning.

I am reminded of John Denver’s song, written in honor of Buckminster Fuller, titled “What One Man Can Do.”  In it, Denver says,

It’s hard to tell the truth

When no one wants to listen

When no one really cares

What’s going on

And it’s hard to stand alone

When you need someone beside you

Your spirit and your faith

They must be strong

 

What one man can do is dream

What one man can do is love

What one man can do is change the world

And make it young again

Here you see what one man can do  

Imagine what could happen if one man dreams of a better world, and that dream fills another man’s sail and propels him to dream an even greater dream, and then another.  What might happen if one woman standing up for change inspires another woman to rise up against injustice, and she stirs another woman to nobler thoughts and actions? Soon, the world may be filled with vision and hope that rises from people, from the mass of humanity, not the greed and power-lust of a small group whose idol is their wealth, whose god is themselves and  whose goal is to remake the world in their own twisted image.

I read the other day where a conservative radio talk show host has written a book warning of a second civil war in America.  As I read history, our nation may have been birthed in violence, but its promise was of peace.  The Union was threatened in the 1860’s when brother fought against brother in the bloodiest of conflicts, but I do not believe that has to be so again.  We have it in our power to consciously and conscientiously turn a putative civil war into a realized civil discourse.  We can start by turning off the divisive pundits and prophets and extreme ideologues and turning on our humanity. Tim Russert said, “The best exercise for the human heart is reaching down to lift someone else up.”  Tim Russert was a wise man.

Speaking for Those Who Have No Voice

 “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:3-10

Advice is a good thing.  And when the advice comes from your mother, it’s usually worth listening to.  This passage from Proverbs is reportedly an oracle from the mother of King Lemuel.  Some think that Lemuel was one and the same with Solomon.  At any rate, the advice was sound and the thoughts worthy of consideration.

In this teaching, the wise man relates to his listeners and readers that anything that might cause a distraction or detract from sound judgment must be avoided.  The wise woman tells her son that women can be a problem if he pays them too much, ahem, “attention.”  If Lemuel were indeed Solomon, he should have listened to his mother—as numerous modern day leaders should have, as well.

She continues on to say that alcohol can muddy the mind and should be reserved for those with woes to forget.  Seems reasonable.  However, this has been used to exclude any and all use of alcohol outside such “therapeutic” uses.  That is not what the rest of the Bible says.  As we have observed before, drunkenness is condemned, not all use of wine.  Use is one thing; abuse is another altogether.

As I have often reflected on many passages, the first part of this teaching is remembered frequently and given general observance as it specifically warns against some things that we wish to warn against: ill-advised sexual relationships and alcohol.  The latter part of the passage is too often forgotten, and yet it is as applicable if not more so to general teaching and the general public.

Lemuel’s mother tells him to speak for those who have no voice: the destitute, the poor and the needy.  Then as now there are those who would seek to forget the poor and those who have needs of various kinds, not only those lacking in wealth and goods, but those with conditions that limit their abilities.  Too often, those who are most guilty of doing these things are the ones who wrap themselves in a shroud of religion, touting family values and traditional morality.  I have nothing against family values and morality.  I would only hope that anyone who holds to these ideals would not just cling to those that are politically or socially expedient at any given moment and forget the rest of the package.

In past essays, I have explored the commands to see to the needs of those in distress and those less fortunate.  It is inescapable, although many religious people have done a pretty fair job of ignoring the issues.  If we are to live our faith, we must not neglect even those teachings that make us uncomfortable.

So here goes another attempt to speak for those without a voice.

It’s time to change our attitudes about people with mental illness, developmental disorders, and intellectual disabilities.  Maybe I’m more sensitive these days than I used to be, and for good reason.  I have a son with autism.  It is hard going some days just getting him ready for school and getting him on the bus.

That would be the “short bus” that so many people joke about.

It’s time for that to stop. 

To use that expression is to demean the people who ride that “short bus” with the “SE” number on the side.  The intent is to say that a person on the short bus is sub-standard, is not as valuable, or is less important than anyone else not riding that particular bus.

But when I step aboard that bus in the morning to get my son strapped in his seat, I am greeted by beautiful children with smiling faces.  Some are tired and catch up on some sleep as they make their early morning journey to school.  Each and every one is like every one of the rest of us in a very important way: we are all God’s handiwork, and we were meant to look out for each other.

I have been impressed with businesses and institutions who hire people with developmental or intellectual disabilities to perform specific tasks.  These are not glamorous jobs.  But they give these wonderful people a sense of worth.  I remember a young woman with Down Syndrome on the serving line at the local primary school.  She seemed to take pride in her work.  At the university cafeteria, there are people who appear to be autistic or may have other intellectual disabilities who work at cleaning the tables and other things that many people would not want to do.  I applaud these places for taking the chance and letting these people contribute in whatever way to their organizations.

So, plus one for the employers, but minus a big one for some people I have heard who have made remarks about these workers.  That’s right, I have heard several disparaging comments about these very individuals.  And it breaks my heart to hear it.  Mocking the speech of a disabled person is not funny.  It is demeaning.  Making fun of their performance is not funny.  It is petty and small-minded, even if the person making the remarks is highly intelligent.  And what is so sad is that–like every one of us–the person who makes that sort of comment may be only a head injury away from a similar condition.  There but for the grace of God….

I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live years ago when someone was giving directions, and one of the landmarks was to turn left at the “retarded kid selling fireworks.”  I hear people lightly use words like “retarded” to describe a thoughtless act or remark that they themselves may have made.  They may easily joke with friends, calling each other retarded, or simply “retard.”  I know people do these things because I did those very things in my younger and far more foolish days.  Are such comments really that different from the recent report of a bunch of young punks who doused a stripped down autistic teen with a vile concoction of human waste and cigarette butts in a mockery of the “ice bucket challenge”?

There is no humor in making fun of someone who cannot defend himself, whether by some premeditated cruel and heartless prank or by a derisive remark in passing.  There is certainly no humor in belittling an entire segment of the population.  Or in running down someone that I love.

Several years ago, country music singer Mark Wills recorded a song by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin titled, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”  The lyrics are worth exploring.  They touch on many different human conditions, from physical differences to unfortunate circumstances that lead to depression.  The bridge challenges, “I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall / I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all?”

The chorus admonishes,

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

 We have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot, who have no voice at the table of society.  In Isaiah, the Lord asked what almost seemed like a pair of rhetorical questions, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  Isaiah spoke up, and said, “Here am I.  Send me!”  When the moment arises that someone disparages the intellectually disabled or a person with autism or a person with a mental illness, remember Isaiah.  Stand up and speak out.  Ignorance is only forgivable when there has been no chance for enlightenment.  Beyond that, such behavior is merely rude and boorish.

There may be no direct profit in shutting that sort of juvenile bad-mouthing down.  It may lose you a friend or two.  But you will have done the right thing.  Ask Lemuel’s mother.

The Great Deficiency of The Bible

I’ve been thinking about why so many people have trouble with getting past things like pattern and organization when it comes to religion, when Jesus stressed changes in heart and life and action. As I thought about this earlier, I was reminded of something a dear friend once said to me. It went something like this, “You people in the church of Christ only pay attention to the letters of Paul. You should be called the church of Paul.”

In a sense, he’s right. We spend more time dealing with the details of Paul’s interactions with and instructions for the early churches who were experiencing specific issues from growing pains, to poverty, to inertia, to misconduct the likes of which was not even tolerated by the pagans of that day.

When we were children, we heard the stories of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Every child in Sunday school knows about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Esau, Elijah, David, Solomon, Samson, Daniel and the other exciting stories. In the New Testament, children hear about Jesus and the apostles. And this is well and good. But somewhere along the way, we read about needing strong meat, and not milk and we get the idea that the gospel story of Jesus is just milk, maybe because we tell the stories mostly in Sunday school. Paul serves up the meat in the New Testament. All the other stuff is just background. That seems to be the perception, at least. And I was told by a wise dean once that perception becomes reality.

I believe with all my heart that we have gotten things turned around.  The gospel message of Jesus is as strong a meat as any in our practice of religion.  We need to tear apart every story about Jesus in the gospels, every teaching he presented, and get every bit of truth and meaning from each and every one of them. Jesus is the focus of the gospel message. His life is the one Paul said he was emulating.

So what is the deficiency I am talking about? First off, that was just one of those “made you look” phrases. Writers call them hooks. If you’re reading this far, the hook has been set, and I hope you will continue through the conclusion of the essay.

The deficiency is not so much with the Bible itself, but in our understanding of it. The Christian life, or the Way as it was called in those days after the Crucifixion and that first Pentecost after it is not an organization. It is indeed a Way of Life. It is Jesus, translated into the life-language of every follower.

What did Paul say in Philippians 1.21? “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Contrary to what some seem to think, Paul never said, “To live is church….” So what did he mean? I think he was saying that it was needful for his friends that he not die at that juncture, but carry on and teach and serve and encourage them. To live is to act.

Paul’s writings are rich with truth. Make no mistake. But many of his letters were addressing specific issues experienced by the groups to which he was writing. Personally, I have never been tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I don’t think I would be offended by it if anyone did. I have never known of a case of step-mother/step-son incest in any church with which I have been associated–not that there cannot be such. Certainly, principles applied in dealing with those situations have value and merit and are instructive to us.

But the letters are not histories, either. They tell us precious little about how people lived and what they did. Paul alluded to some of these things throughout his letters, and a rich cache of comments praising the actions of many of Paul’s friends and associates is found at the close of Romans and in other letters.

While there are those who would squeeze the scriptures to find commands and patterns to follow and bind them on all, there is a wealth of examples that we have rarely ever considered, at least not in the light of “living Christ.” So who did “live Christ” in the New Testament? In Acts 9, there is the story of Dorcas, or Tabitha of whom it was said, “…she was always doing good and helping the poor.” Sounds like Jesus to me. In Romans 16, Phoebe is commended as a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Later in the same chapter, Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis, all were praised as women who had worked or were working hard in the Lord. Rufus’ mother had been a mother to Paul–that takes action, not words. Urbanus was a dear co-worker. Mary worked very hard for the Christians in Rome. Sounds like Jesus to me.  What about Paul’s description of Timothy as showing genuine concern for the Philippians’ welfare like no other: it was not just spiritual welfare.  It was  their physical, temporal well-being, as well.  Epaphroditus was commended as one who saw to Paul’s needs, and was distressed for his friends at their concern over him in his recent, near-fatal illness. Sounds like Jesus to me.

In these examples and in many others, the emphasis is on action, not perfect, lock-step conformity.  In Matthew 25, at the scene of the great Judgment, the separation of sheep from goats was based on acts of service and mercy, not doctrinal purity and organizational correctness.  I am in no wise saying that those things are not important.  They are.  But they must not be pursued to the exclusion of justice and mercy. 

 Jesus addressed such issues throughout his ministry.  Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by Jewish law, but Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain and winnowed the kernels in their hands, working for a bite of sustenance. Jesus gave relief to the suffering on the Sabbath in direct violation of the Law, and made the point that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In each of these examples, an action was taken to address a physical need. He reminded the Pharisees of the prophecy, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His brother James reiterates that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, in any time and in any culture, carries the connotation of action in service to another.

So to set the record straight, The Bible is not deficient. We are. When we fail to see the shadow of Christ in the merciful actions and service of every disciple mentioned even in passing, we are deficient. When we plow the field searching for shards of buried commands and cover over the precious jewels that are the wonderful characters who lived Christ, we are deficient.

We should always remember Paul’s comment, “To live is Christ.” We should internalize it, and live Christ, too. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life that leads to a better and unending life. Let the world see Jesus in us, not just Peter, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or Alexander Campbell or any other reformer who tried to light the way back to Jesus.

To live is Christ.

That should certainly give us a lot to think about.

And much more to do.

“star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith” is now available at the Kindle Store

I am pleased (and maybe a little proud) to announce the publication of my second Kindle book, a collection of essays titled star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith.  This work represents a group of essays that attempt to bring together the logic and practice of science skills to religious themes, while remaining true to a core of Christian faith.  

This effort has been a labor of love, including a love of learning, a love of nature, and a love for the author of it all.  I must be true to the evidence I see in all realms or suffer the bleak misfortune of being intellectually dishonest.  The following excerpt is taken from chapter 1, and sets the stage for the succeeding essays.  If you find this interesting, I invite you to follow the link at the right to learn more about star stuff*.    

Life, or what we know of it so far, is indeed a wondrous thing.  The person of faith exults with praise to its creator.  That there are those among people of faith who can observe it and not want to know why it works or know more about any and every aspect of it is odd to me: learning more reveals the mind of God. The scientist wants nothing more than to understand.  That there are those among scientists who can observe its complexity and not be in awe is also puzzling to me. 

For a moment, consider a purely naturalistic view of everything.  According to Stephen Hawking, the universe is, it exists because of gravity.  Perhaps it is overly simplistic, but the complex interplay of matter and energy happened because gravity exists.  Hawking declared God redundant when he made this pronouncement.

 That’s all well and good, but from a purely naturalistic perspective, the story is never complete. I have no problem with a Big Bang.  It makes good sense.  But I do have trouble with why.  And from what.  That pesky one step back from what can be extrapolated, that question of first cause, is the fly in the ointment, at least to me.  It is impossible to answer that by science.  And the science side of me is annoyed by that.

 But I accept that there is indeed more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the naturalistic philosophy of science.  I believe there is more to life than can be experienced by the senses.  It is not measurable by scale or ruler. It is not observable by the most powerful microscope or telescope.  The more I firmly believe in and accept simply is.  If gravity is Hawking’s creative force, in a sense his god, mine is more.  My God is more complex.  More intelligent.  More responsive.  More compassionate.  More forgiving.  More merciful. 

 More.

 I have no scientific evidence for any of it, despite the volumes written professing to “prove” the existence of God.  But my sense of wonder is not confined to the physical.  Beyond nature is a realm vaster than the universe.  It is a reality beyond the physical, which has been variously characterized, but generally considered to be that of the spiritual.  The physical and spiritual are by no means at odds with each other.  They are complementary in every way.  Each supports and refines and clarifies its counterpart.  The trick is in knowing how to listen to each.  It is in knowing that each realm is the palette and playground of a boundless God.  He is greater than our theories, but welcomes our investigations.  He is beyond our dogmas, but welcomes our exploration.  To me, life is a journey of discovery in both worlds, a balancing of what can be observed in the physical realm with spiritual truths that can only be known by faith. 

 The greater wonder is in celebrating both.  To dismiss either is to lose a dimension, an integral piece of the puzzle of existence.  We are more than atom and molecule, flesh and bone, breath and blood.  We are star stuff and then some: we are the image of the one who conceived those stars. 

Of Broken Lives and Broken Dreams

NOTE: This post is not a cry for sympathy, or just random, self-absorbed, self-pitying or venting.  This is real.  This is what it’s like to deal with a never-ending stress every day of your life.  Many people have no idea how much baggage we carry around as parents of a special needs child.  We don’t have extra skills or abilities to deal with it.  What we have is simply stretched to the limit and beyond.  And our situation is far less severe than that of some.  But I wanted to give you a small glimpse of how life looks from the inside of this particular fishbowl.  It’s not always pretty.

Life happens.

No matter what the best-laid plans may be, there will always be something that will come along to upset the apple cart, and all the polished produce goes flying beyond your reach, becoming bruised and maybe even damaged beyond use.

When I was a young man, like so many other young men throughout history, I dreamed of finding a wife, starting a family, having a quiet but successful career, growing old, retiring, enjoying life, reflecting…. I dreamed of normalcy.

Long story short, the first part happened, and so did the second, but after that….oy.

My wife and I had both spent years in college and grad school and beyond, preparing for a career in higher education. We met soon after we both were hired into the same department at a middle sized, student oriented school. We became friends. And good marriages are made with good friends.

After our first child was born, we discussed whether or not our family was complete. Ever the pragmatist, I suggested that two children would be a good number, so that when we get old, the burden for decisions about our care would not fall on one. So we had a second child.

Then, the world caved in. That quiet life to which I aspired became a life of not-so-quiet desperation in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Our son was slow to reach the early benchmarks of development. His mother saw it, I refused. He continued to experience developmental delays. His mother saw it, I refused. With each new problem that cropped up, it became more and more difficult for me to keep my eyes closed.

And then one day, we were faced with the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.

The last several years have been filled with medical appointments, therapies, meltdowns, school suspensions, school conferences, more medical appointments, showdowns with disrespectful people in public, the odd police report…. In short, a nightmare of sub-epic proportions.

The epic part may yet arise.

We have experienced more lows than highs through the years. More than once I have nearly reached the end of my rope. And more than once, the stress on our marriage has been so severe that I have wondered if staying together was worth it. Of course, the realization that one of us would then be even more responsible for the daily care and upkeep of a child with autism was more than I could take. I couldn’t do it alone. And I know that she couldn’t either, nor should she. He is our responsibility. We must both share in it.

I have seen figures that the divorce rate among parents of children with autism is in the vicinity of 80%. Recent studies have disproven that figure, and the actual numbers may be lower than the national average. One writer speculated that it may be because of the support the couple provides for each other. But if I were a betting man, the scenario I just described is more likely the reason why. The marriage may be in shambles, but the shame of running away and the sense of responsibility are so great that a person of integrity will carry on despite the pain and agony every day may bring. As trite as it sounds, it feels like you stay together for the sake of the children. You hope for the best. You hope to rekindle civility if not passion; friendly tolerance, if not sustaining love.

The deeper pain there is not the loss of romance, although that’s stressful in and of itself. It’s in the terrible feeling I get sometimes that I may have lost my best friend, and I hate autism for having come between us. Make no mistake: I love my wife. But after the third argument or sternly serious (and usually well-deserved) “discussion” of the day regarding my inadequate actions and poor displays of parenting, I sometimes wonder if she still loves or even likes me anymore. I can’t blame her. She is the mother lion defending her cub.

The stress of trying to physically manage a boy who is big for his age, his weight disproportionately so because of the vicious side effects of medications, is getting more difficult with every day. He has outgrown my wife’s abilities, so the physical redirection tasks have fallen to me almost exclusively. Outbursts and meltdowns in public are harder to contain. Physical interventions are misinterpreted by well meaning people who think the child is being abused or abducted. The indignity of having the police called is one of the worst things I have experienced, but then it is not out of the ordinary for parents of children with autism in today’s society. Recently, I have started developing a lot more pains from overstressed muscles and tendons. I often reflect that this kind of parenting is a younger man’s game. And I’m never going to get any younger.

The stress of preparing for the future is daunting for anyone, but when autism is factored in, it goes off-scale. How will we provide for our child after we are gone? For typical children, there is hope and expectation that they will grow up, get the training they need to get a job, find a job they love and become successful, even more so than we have been. But the future for a child with autism is not as bright, no matter what rosy pictures are painted in the movie of the week.

Through it all, we are expected to be happy and involved and engaged with society. The reality is that we are prisoners of autism. Sometimes, it seems that for every step we make in progress, we lose two in other things. Trying to make sure a sibling gets enough care and attention is hard, and there is always the nagging question as to whether we have done enough for either of them.

When your life feels like it is in a downward spiral, faith should be a refuge. I have no complaints about my fellow church members at the tiny congregation where I worship. They have shown nothing but love and concern as we have gone through this crucible of a trial, and I love them dearly for it. My concern is with the specific emphasis of the teaching that goes on in so many churches. Sometimes I come away wondering why I bother anymore. The teaching focuses more on frequently ineffective evangelism and first principles and minutiae of doctrinal differences among denominations and less on things that I, for one, so desperately need. The emphasis is on getting people in, but when they get there, they are supposed to be fully self-sufficient and functional to make the rest of the trip on their own. Too often, the teaching they get deals more with the “correct” organization of the church than dealing with real-world trials and problems.

There are so many things I need to hear from a pulpit, and so many things I either don’t hear or don’t need to hear. I need practical things that help me get through the next hard day and the next endless week, or even the next public meltdown. I need to be encouraged to keep going even when it feels like I can’t go on at all. I don’t need to be told that many of the painful thoughts and feelings I have revealed in this very essay could get me eternally damned. I need to know I am not alone, that God really does care about me, and about my suffering family, and that things can get better. I don’t need to be told to buck up and pull my weight. I need to hear ideas and suggestions for dealing with this difficult, soul-quenching life, not a constant barrage of dogmas and damnation.

When you get right down to it, life is more than church membership. It extends beyond the doorway of the so-called “sanctuary.” It’s out there in the streets and in the home and in the workplace and in the marketplace where people interact, maybe in tense conflict. What spiritual armor will protect me from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  How do I cope with all I have to deal with, day in and day out?  Why is there so little emphasis—especially in the conservative churches—on helping people in the here and now? Why did Jesus heal the sick, and relieve people who were oppressed and afflicted with many other things, from accusations of sin to evil spirits? It was not only to show his power and divine nature. It was to show his compassion. I need that compassion and understanding and deep comforting help.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many other people are feeling the same thing.   I need help with this life. If I can’t fix my life here, I’ll never make it to the next one. And just focusing on the sweet by and by only means admitting defeat in the not so sweet here and now. It means we give up on trying to make things better here, because all of our suffering will just make that ethereal bliss of heaven sweeter.

I can’t buy it. I can’t give up, and I won’t. But there are things I have come to know as I have floundered about these last years in a seemingly losing attempt to find my way. In order to get to where I need to be, I need more action and less axiom. More faith and less formula. More compassion and less condemnation. More Savior and less system. More love and less law. More emphasis on the church family and less emphasis on the church organization. More Christ and less conflict.

“Pray about it.” I have. “Work on it.” Always. But sometimes, I just need to shout down the pain and stress and turmoil.

We will continue to provide everything in our power to help our son. But we need to remember to save something for ourselves and for each other, too. I know Jesus never promised perfect comfort in this life. He told his friends to expect hardship. But he also told them to love each other and bear each others’ burdens, no matter how heavy.

Right now, I’m about as broken as I’ve ever been. My hopes and dreams lie scattered, shattered and fading. I could use some mending.

Oh God, I could use some mending.

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