Greed, II

As I have been thinking lately about greed, I have been thinking about things that money can and can’t do. It’s an interesting exercise, really. I mean the Beatles said, “Money can’t buy me love.” An old adage asserts that, “Money can’t buy happiness.” So I got to thinking about what can be done with money.

 For example,

 You could hoard it, but then it isn’t actually doing anything but causing concern and worry about keeping it, and usually getting more.

 You could use it to buy politicians and even a government, but you’ll never be able to buy true loyalty, especially from the people.

 You could spend it on the best health care available for yourself, but you can’t spend enough to buy enough life to ultimately avoid death.

 You could spend a magnificent sum on a single and singularly sumptuous feast; but in the end, food is food, and it only ends as does all such matters.

 You could spend it on the most expensive books, but if they are never opened and read, they are worthless trifles.

 You could spend money to make more money, but in the end, all you have is more of something that you really don’t need.

 I was thinking that even if I had all the money in the world, and could afford the very best of anything and everything, there is no sum of money that can take away my son’s autism. No matter how much wealth I could shovel at it, it will never go away.

 The measure of a man is not in his bank account, no matter what some may say. The measure of a man is in the values by which he lives, and in what he is willing to offer, whether money or time or effort, to a cause or to someone in need, with no expectation of return. The greatest among us achieve greatness not by getting, but by giving. Think about it: who has had greater impact on history: a Rockefeller, a Vanderbilt, a Koch or a Walton or Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Jesus of Nazareth?

Greed is the enemy of progress in fighting environmental problems. The very industries at fault in generating most of the offending pollution have generated phenomenal wealth. And with wealth has come power. And that power has been used to make ever more money, with no concern for correcting the wrongs that the wealth has caused. The greatest hindrances to the development of sustainable and clean energy have been the giant oil corporations and the greedy men at their helms.

 Where might we be if not for greed? The world would be cleaner because the expense of cleaner technology would not be an impediment to doing the right thing. The world would be safer, because the cost of implementing safety protocols would not deter conscientious business leaders and government from doing what is right. There would be less disease and less suffering as a result of an inability to afford medical care and medications, because profit, while necessary for any business venture, would not supersede compassion.   There would be less frivolous and costly litigation, because when we are convinced that others are indeed acting in the best interest of all and not only themselves, we will be more forgiving. The impetus to litigate would diminish, because cooperation and altruism are not only forgiving in response to the actions of others, they are fundamentally giving in the first place, providing a foundation for positive interaction. There would be less emphasis on insubstantial superficiality such as monetary income and more emphasis on human dignity.

 It is an impossibility to embrace greed and be good. To be good is to do good. I continually return to a favorite passage from the book of Micah (6.8),

 “He has told you, O man, what is good;

   and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

   and to walk humbly with your God?”

 Greed is the antithesis of justice. It would pervert justice whether judicially or socially at every juncture. Greed is in diametric opposition to kindness. In fact, greed cannot coexist with true kindness, because kindness is born of compassion and love for people, not possession and love of money. And finally greed precludes any person, old or young, male or female from walking humbly with God. There is no humility in greed. At its core is a desire to be superior to all others.

 Consider the following argument: John tells us that God is love. Paul explains that “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13.4-6). Greed fits none of those descriptors, thus greed cannot be from God nor can it glorify God, because God is love.

 I realize that this argument is hollow to any who might not embrace a life of faith. However, to those who do, I hope that this gives a reason to think seriously about our attitudes toward money and wealth. We must not idolize or honor those who are defined primarily by their money.

Everyone knows and frequently quotes the first part I Timothy 6.10: “10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” But Paul continues on in the second part with a warning: “It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” These are apparently universally understood truths, as witnessed by the observation of the Taiwanese proverb, “Greed will cause pain.”

 Greed is not good. It outwardly hurts others to gain more needless wealth for the greedy, and inwardly destroys him like an aggressive cancer of the soul. But unlike a physical cancer, those who suffer from greed tend to refuse treatment, choosing to feed the tumor until it consumes them completely. The odd thing is that we usually feel sorrow and sympathy for the one with bodily cancer, but some show admiration and respect for the one with greed. And yet, both are lethal.

 I would prefer to live in a world where there is peace among mankind. Money can’t buy that. I would prefer a world where I could depend on my neighbor and he could depend on me. Greed would only allow that if there were a significant enough reward. Perhaps if we wake up to the dangers of greed, we might some day decide to put it in its place. In my opinion, there is only one place for it: the past. But it must not be forgotten, however, because if it were, we would only be susceptible to its unwitting and pernicious recurrence.

The happiest man is the one who can find contentment. He will never be greedy, and his greatest wealth will be the fruit of his generosity, the good will that he freely gives and humbly receives.

I Hate Halloween

I hate Halloween.

There. I said it. I know what you’re thinking: you’re an old stick in the mud. You have a problem with the Druidic origins of it. Or the Satanic implications that some have made of it.

But that’s not it at all.

Well, maybe hate is too strong of a word.

I deeply dislike Halloween and I have since I was young. I never liked going around begging for candy on a threat of being tormented by some foul trick or act of vandalism.

I never liked getting the daylights scared out of me, either. Like when my parents got together with some other parents and pulled off one of those super scary Halloween parties, complete with dipping your hand in simulated corpse innards, etc. I just never liked it.

But more recently, I dislike Halloween for what it has become. If it had stayed a low key event for children with superhero, clown or un-scary Casper-like ghost, or princess costumes, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. If the parties were more harvest festivals, maybe they wouldn’t be so bad, either.

But I go to my door on Halloween and see six-year-old kids with masks that drip blood. I see people that think that cleavers to the head and dismembered bodies are funny.   I know it sounds ridiculous to some people, but I wonder if our acceptance of horror as entertainment has desensitized us to real horror. I think of Christians and other ethnic groups in Iraq and Syria facing real horror every day from a contemptible band of organized terrorists.

I turned on a television show last night, and thought I’d watch a bit of it. But when it appeared that a military leader was encouraging a young boy to behead a captive, I turned it off. It was too real. It was too disturbing, even for me, a middle aged-man.

I dislike Halloween because in so many places around the country, it is seen as an excuse for very bad behavior, including criminal acts. Property is damaged and losses incurred, all in the name of observing a holiday.

When is the national help your neighbor holiday? When is the holiday we observe by doing good deeds for others? When do we undo the damage of Halloween?

Sometimes I think that maybe I would be better off if I just jumped in and did like everyone else. Then maybe I wouldn’t be so disturbed when I hear of children being brutally killed. Or NATO planes intercepting 19 military aircraft in a show of Russian military might. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad when disabled people are the butt of foul, demeaning jokes. Maybe I wouldn’t care as much as I seem to care now.

I might be better off. I might sleep better.

But I can’t.

I do let the bad things of the world bother me. The correct response in any case would be to try and see how we can alleviate suffering and reduce the damage. We should try and restore order to a fallen but once very good creation. As a person of faith, I am instructed not to dwell on bad things. Paul told the Philippians how they should think in chapter 4 of his letter to them. He put the emphasis squarely on the positive. He said,

“8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

That is where I would prefer to put my time and interests. I would rather nurture the good than embrace the bad, even a caricature of it. I have enough chaos and mayhem in my life already without celebrating it even one day a year. If we could go back to a more innocent time when bloody corpses and undead vampires and zombies and mass murderers were not the center of the celebration, I would be all for it. But we left that time a while ago. And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no returning.    

Yes, this makes me sound like an old curmudgeonly stick in the mud. But my feelings on Halloween have not changed since I was young. I didn’t like it then, and don’t like it today. My reasons for not liking it are every bit as valid as yours for liking it. So go ahead. Simulate bodily injury. Drench yourself in ersatz blood. Hide your identity from the evil spirits that will chase you mercilessly. I won’t judge you for joining in if you don’t condemn me for not doing the same.

For me, the best part of Halloween is the realization that it’s less than a month to Thanksgiving. So in that one small respect, maybe Halloween isn’t so bad after all.

Greed

I’ve been thinking a lot about greed lately. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and wondering what I have accomplished in life. I have not through greed amassed a great fortune, although I suppose I make a comfortable living. I have no great desire to do be unthinkably rich, either, unless it might give me the freedom to provide more help to people who need it.

I have been perusing a number of thoughts and ideas on greed, but one really struck me as being odd. Actor and conservative pundit Ben Stein reflected that, “Greed is a part of animal nature. Being against it is like being against breathing or eating. It means nothing.”

Really, Ben?

Other than Ben Stein and the denizens of the rarified 1%, few people would subscribe to the idea that greed is good. Stilted, self-important hate-monger, Ayn Rand perverted scripture much as did Satan with Eve, when she preached through her character in Atlas Shrugged that, “Money is the root of all good.”

That greed is natural, even normal, even virtuous seems to take a dismal view of all of humanity.

I choose to disagree with Mr. Stein for a number of reasons. Outside a cadre of money-centered business people, the mantra of the 1980’s that said, “Greed is good,” is hollow. There is little point to gaining more than you can possibly use. Money is of no good unless it is a tool to achieve an end. Sir Francis Bacon astutely observed, “If money be not thy servant, it will be thy master.  The covetous man cannot so properly be said to possess wealth, as that may be said to possess him.” He also noted, “Of great wealth there is no real use, except in its distribution. The rest is just conceit.” Now, no offense to Mr. Stein, but in 350 years, I am confident that thoughtful people will still be seeking the wisdom of Bacon, but most will not remember Mr. Stein’s words of back-handed defamation.  

Greed is indeed a common feature of our species. However, I view it more as a mutation, and not the norm. As social creatures, we would benefit more from cooperation and altruism, not conflict in the accumulation of wealth, and the constant concern and worry over keeping it.

The Bhagavad Gita says that greed is one of three gates of hell, along with anger and lust. The Bible says that money is a root of all kinds of evil. A well-known Cherokee proverb says, “There is a battle of two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins? The one you feed.”

Proverbs 11.24 says, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” Here, I see one who gives much, and receives much, although it may not be in material wealth. The one who withholds, who guards his hoard of gold, only wants more, and may become consumed by that lust for gain. The same story was immortalized by Tolkien in his character of Gollum, the once gentle being who succumbed to an all-consuming greed for a ring of power. The allegory is obvious.

In the words of the Chinese warrior/philosopher, Sun Tzu, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Greed is the enemy of all humanity. So much human suffering is directly tied to it, from the pursuit of greed by the wealth seeker to the denial of wealth to the poor. Only by knowing it, recognizing it for all that it is and all that it does and all that it harms can we defeat it. And it can be defeated.

To say that greed is an unavoidable part of humanity is to say we lack the vision to see our faults. Greed may indeed be a natural part of life, but so is cancer. Accepting its existence and acknowledging that it happens does not mean that we do nothing to fight it. Life is precious, and far more so than wealth.

As I think about wealth and greed, I have often dreamed of what it would be like to be wealthy. I know I never shall be rich in conventional wealth, although I am now richer than the greater mass of humanity on earth. Nor do I really want it, except to be able to do more good with it. My greatest joy comes with helping people. I shudder to think about the money wasted on trivialities when others are sick and cannot afford medicine. Others are starving, while we throw away food. There is so much suffering that could be alleviated if people would wake up to the evil that is greed.

When CEOs make millions and their workers are on Food Stamps (now SNAP benefits), greed is in play. When governments are run by those who prefer their own wealth to saving the lives of poor children or seniors, greed is in action. If we some day fall as a nation, it will likely be because of our unwillingness to reach out and help our neighbors.

I hope that never happens. I hope that we awaken to the dangers of unbridled greed and see money for what it truly is: a tool with which to make a better world, not just for a few wealthy people, not just for some who want to remake society in their image, but for everyone.

The weight of rational humanity is against Mr. Stein’s fatalistic philosophy. Greed has been viewed with disdain by every great moral thinker in every culture that I can recall. There is no positive virtue in greed, only an endless, pointless, and ultimately fruitless quest for more. And while it may only reveal my limited, provincial and moralistic thinking, I still assert that the old proverb is indeed true: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” (Proverbs 16.8)  

A Question of Heaven: Entering the Kingdom Means More Than Checking Off Boxes

People are an interesting lot.  I enjoy watching people, talking to people, being around people.  While I’m a person who needs time to be alone, at other times, I’m very much a people person.

So in my observations, I have seen people who are religious, and people who are not.  Of those who are religious, I have seen people of the broader Christian faith, and some who are not.  Of those in the Christian faith, I have seen those who are of one church, and some who are of a different church.  Pretty much anyone who espouses a form of Christianity believes in some form of afterlife, and I would imagine that they would want that afterlife to include Heaven. Some churches define who is going to heaven much more strictly than others, but most if not all of them are pretty sure that people of their particular heritage are going. 

But Jesus essentially said, “Not so fast.”

Going through the motions is one thing.  Really living the Way is a different thing altogether. That was one of the real take home messages from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  Near the close of his message in Matthew 7.21-23, Jesus drops a bombshell of a pronouncement.  21  “”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

I’ve read that many times over the years and heard it expounded upon, and pounded into the heads and hearts of listeners by preachers who are trying to get them to see that it takes a specific set of conditions to meet the requirements of entry into Heaven. I can’t argue with that.  In my experience, this has usually been applied to those who are of a different religious background, faith heritage or denomination.  I think it reasonable to take issue with that, because there were no denominations at that point in time since the church itself had not formally come into existence.  Jesus was talking about people, their hearts and their behaviors.

But I can see some things that I think many of those preachers have missed.  Their focus is on getting the steps right: in the church of Christ tradition, that means a five-step “plan of salvation.”  In many of the sermons I have heard this in, that has been the focus: you can’t short cut the process.  You can’t just believe (which requires first hearing the message, which is usually focused more on what to do rather than why it is done), you must also repent, confess, and be baptized.  Five steps.

But Jesus wasn’t just talking about five steps.  Now, I will not dispute those steps.  I believe that the human response to grace is important.  But there is so much more that Jesus wanted his followers to know and do.  So many preachers stop at number five.  Some may add a sixth step, which is living faithfully until death, as in Revelation 2.10, but that often focuses more on not committing overt or covert moral sins and maintaining doctrinal purity. 

In my faith heritage, there is almost no attention paid to the essentiality of grace in salvation. But ignoring it does not make it go away.  Grace surrounds, strengthens and gives foundation to the other five (or six).  The first five (or six) place the responsibility squarely on man.  In fact, I recently heard a preacher say, and I quote, “Salvation is an individual responsibility.”  But grace gives God the final say.  

That pleading group of doomed “Christians” had gone through the motions.  They had prophesied, cast out demons, done mighty works all by using the name and authority of Jesus.  They had followed the program.  They had checked off the boxes.  They would have had all five (or six) steps in place.  They had surely earned admission to Heaven.

“Not so fast.”

When it comes to salvation, the bestowing (or withholding) of grace is the deciding factor that supersedes all others.  That Jesus would pointedly condemn these obviously religious people (who made a show of following him, no less) should show a disappointing contradiction to those who support a universal application of grace to save everyone.  Certainly, if God wanted to do that, he could.  However, this passage does not suggest it, nor does it support that overly optimistic doctrine.

Who, then, can enter the kingdom of Heaven?  Those who do the will of Jesus’ Father in Heaven.  Not just the father.  Jesus’ Father.  In this, he stressed his own divine nature.  He also emphasized more than box-checking.

But what else is there?  Surely the five (or six) steps must cover the admission requirements.

Matthew 5.20 really gets to the heart of the matter.  Law-keeping was, of course, good and expected of any righteous practicing Jew, and no one was better at rule keeping than the Pharisees.  But Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  There is more to getting it right than just getting some of the parts right. 

G.K. Chesterton admirably observed, “God is not a symbol of goodness.  Goodness is a symbol of God.” But that goodness does not merely depend on following a set of instructions.  For example, I have very limited musical ability.  But I understand that there is a difference between getting the notes on a page played correctly and making those same notes truly sing.  I can buy everything on the grocery list, but as long as the ingredients stay on the pantry shelf, there is no feast to enjoy.  In the same way, I can get some steps right, but getting the heart right is essential to entering the kingdom both now and forever.  When we do that, we will not pervert justice or fail to provide mercy.  Those are also key elements of doing God’s will, and have been since the very beginning.

To every person who may stumble upon these words as you search for one thing or another, I make a heart-felt plea: don’t just stop at checking off the boxes.  Let your commitment be deep and your actions selfless.  Let your mercy define you, not your dogmatism.  Let your humility be your lasting impression, not your arrogance.  Let yours be the goodness of God, not self-righteousness born of pride.  Be a living conduit of grace, not a barrier to it.

It takes more than just five (or six) steps to get into the kingdom of Heaven.  Not only must we humbly receive grace and demonstrate our faith by humbling ourselves symbolically in compliance with received directives, we must become beacons of that grace to others.  When people see us or hear our names, they must be able to consciously or subconsciously equate us with goodness, service and humility.  That is what Paul was getting at when he wrote of “putting on Christ”; unlike other garments, the mantle of Jesus comes in one size that really does fit all. 

…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.

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