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.

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