Sunday, September 27, 2020

If the Shoe Were on the Other Foot

 The issue of power has been raised this past week - the power of position. 

With the death of Justice Ruth Ginsburg, the President and Senate Republicans are rushing to fill the vacant position before the election on November 3. (This rush suggests they are afraid of losing the November 3 election, but that is another story.) This effort contradicts what Republican members of the Senate said just five years ago when a vacancy opened during the last year of Obama's presidency. It also goes against a tradition of filling a vacancy during an election year (which the Republicans argued five years ago). Their rationale for their reversal of position and current effort is "if the shoe were on the other foot, the Democrats would do the same thing." 

This effort is about power. The Republicans hold a majority in the senate (which is apparently being threatened by the upcoming election). They are in the power position. Thus, they are choosing to use this position of power to impose their will in regards to the Supreme Court vacancy. Of course, this type of thing is something they have done throughout the time they have held the Senate majority (blocking legislation, opposing Obama's initiatives, etc.). Yea, I know: "if the shoe were on the other foot ..."

Using power in this way is a part of their political agenda. And if/when the Democrats win a majority, I assume we will see them follow suit. "If the shoe were on the other foot ..."

This use of power - by whichever party is in the majority - is a natural byproduct of our democratic form of government. It is built on us-them thinking and functioning. It creates a winner-take-all mentality. And, it seems to me, it loses sight of the common good. In this way of functioning, the common good is best served by imposing "my" way of thinking (Republican or Democrat), not by cooperation that seeks a way forward that is mutually advantageous. (Yea, I know: there goes my idealism again.)

This use of power is also an expression of the human ego. It is an expression of the ego's self-focused, self-serving nature. In my opinion, it is an expression of our most base (immature) nature, not our best (most mature) nature. This use of power is like being ruled by an ego-centric child or teenager who thinks only of what they want, when they want it, not by a mature, level-headed, thinking adult. 

This use of power associated with the majority position raises an issue for me: what is a righteous use of power? My question arises out of thinking theologically as a follower of Jesus (something I see far too little of, but highly recommend!) 

The use of power - whether by an individual or by a group or by a nation - lies at the heart of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and, consequently, at the heart of Jesus' ministry, and, consequently, at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. Jesus's teachings, following the Hebrew prophetic tradition, are clear: power is to be used to serve. "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45, NRSV). 

Note the contrast: those who do not know God and the ways of God (the Gentiles) use the power of position over, down against others, for personal advantage at the others' expense (lord it over, tyrants). Jesus's disciples use power to serve - alongside the other, on behalf of the other, for the other's good at personal expense. The followers of Jesus use power to serve because Jesus uses power to serve. Jesus's use of power, in turn, reflects how God uses power. God uses power to create life and bring it to maturity. That's what we mean whenever we speak of God as Creator. God uses power in life-giving, life-nurturing ways. God uses power to serve. 

The servant use of power is only possible when we move beyond the self-focused, self-serving spirit of the ego-governed self. The servant use of power requires a servant spirit, a servant heart. The servant use of power requires the heart-transforming work of the Spirit. 

In the Hebrew prophetic tradition, this understanding of the use of power was expressed by two terms that were almost always linked together: justice and righteousness. When the Messiah came, he would rule with justice and righteousness. See Isaiah 9:7; 11:4-5; Amos 5:24. Justice and righteousness would produce peace and abundance (shalom). 

Justice was the prophets' term for the servant use of power. Power was to be used on behalf of the powerless - to protect, provide for, and advocate for the most vulnerable in their society. "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). For the prophets, justice was more than a legal term. It was a covenant term. It was a relational term. It spoke of how power was used in their society as an expression of their covenant with Yahweh. 

Righteousness was the companion of justice. Like justice, righteousness was a covenant term that spoke of how the people lived in relationship with one another. It was more than a religious or moral term. To live righteously was to live rightly in relation to one's neighbor. It was to practice justice, that is, to use one's power to help one's neighbor. To be righteous was to use one's power - in all its multiple forms - not just for one's own advantage and well-being, but on behalf of one's neighbors, particularly the most powerless and vulnerable. This understanding of righteousness is reflected in Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan used his power - in its many forms (time, knowledge, resources, money) - to take care of the stranger in need. Note that Jesus ended the parable by saying "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). Go and practice righteousness. Go use your many forms of power to address the needs of others. Go and serve. 

This servant use of power stands in stark contrast to what we see being played out by the President and Republican majority in the Senate this week. (And if the shoe were on the other foot ...) 

Perhaps I am wrong to judge the President and Senate majority against the standard of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and the teachings of Jesus. Who knows if I will do the same with a Democratic majority if/when the shoe is on the other foot. I trust I will. But, after all, we proudly and loudly claim to be "a Christian nation." (I personally do not see it - but that's the theme of another blog.) The President ran for the presidency with the motto Make America Great Again. It is his rallying cry and the identifying logo of his supporters, many of whom identify themselves as evangelical Christians: MAGA. In the midst of their cry I hear the faint voice of the Hebrew wisdom writer: "Righteousness exalts a nation" (Proverbs 14:34). 

What makes a nation great? Is it its economy (GNP) or its form of government or its military strength or its standing in the world? According to the Hebrew tradition, a nation's greatness is inseparably tied to righteousness - which is tied to justice - which is power used to serve the powerless and most vulnerable. In other words, a nation's greatness is based on how it uses its power.

At least, that's my conclusion as I attempt to think theologically. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Other

Underlying the polarization in our nation (and in The UMC), fueling our either-or, black-and-white thinking is a characteristic that is a normal part of our human condition. It is a part of our base nature, an expression of our most emotionally immature self. It is something we all do until we grow up emotionally-relationally-spiritually. We view those who are not like us as "other." 

We all do it. It's inherent to our human condition ... when we live out of anxiety and fear.

We humans live out of unrecognized anxiety and fear. (I identify this anxiety in my book Discovering Your True Self: A Guide for the Journey.) Anxiety about being hurt or abandoned, inadequate or insignificant lives just beneath the surface of our awareness, shaping our lives. Consequently, we are always looking for a place where we will be safe and accepted, where what we can do is respected and who we are is valued. That translates into associating with people like us - people who look like us and think like us, people who share the same socioeconomic status and community standing. 

The flip side of associating with those like us is how we view and relate to those who are not like us - those who are different. Operating out of anxiety, we naturally focus on how we are different from one another - ethnically, culturally, sexually, educationally, religiously, politically, socioeconomically, etc. The differences represent something unfamiliar and strange, something unknown to us. Those differences lead us to view the one who is different as "other" - not like us, not one of us. We default into us-them thinking. 

Us-them thinking naturally involves comparing and competing. As we note the differences, we unconsciously question "Who is right? Which way is best?" Of course, we invariably conclude the we are right, our way is best. Thus, we not only operate out of us-them thinking, we also operate out of better than-less than, right-and-wrong thinking. 

Here's what the progression looks like:

anxiety →  differences → us-them thinking → comparing & competing → 
right/wrong →  better than-less than thinking

This anxiety-driven us-them, better than-less than pattern of thinking governs how we view and relate to the "other." Our anxiety and fear lead us to view this "other" and their strange ways as a threat. Our anxiety and fear lead us to distance ourselves from them in order to feel safe. (Segregation is an all-too-normal pattern in human relationships - a pattern driven by fear and anxiety.) 

This anxiety-driven pattern of thinking is not just a factor in how we see the one who is different. It is a factor in how we see ourselves. It feeds our sense of identity: "I am not that. I am not like them. I am better than them." In this pattern of thinking, we need the "other" in order to feel okay about ourselves. We use someone not like us - someone whose ways we identify as wrong, someone who we look down on as not being as good as us - to prop up our fragile, anxiety-driven identity. Our sense of value and standing comes at the expense of the "other."

But there is more to this anxiety-driven pattern of thinking and living. In addition to segregating ourselves from the "other" and associating only with those like us, we take the next step: we seek to protect ourselves and our way of life from the "other." Because we view the "other" and their ways as a threat, we are afraid the "other" will destroy our way of life ... and maybe even destroy us! So we seek to protect what is ours: our wealth, property, jobs, status, standing, privilege, opportunity, rights, etc. We use our power against the "other." We exclude them. We seek to control them and keep them in their place. If necessary, we attack them and destroy them. Our us-them thinking has given birth to me & mine thinking. 

Me & mine thinking is scarcity thinking. Scarcity thinking is another aspect of fear-based thinking. It is the fear that there is not enough for all. Scarcity thinking makes the "other" a competitor for limited commodities. It implies that whatever the "other" gains - wealth, status, opportunity, rights - somehow diminishes what I have. 

Again: here's the progression:

anxiety  → differences → us-them thinking → comparing & competing → 
right/wrong →  better than-less than thinking  →  me & mine thinking → scarcity thinking

It seems to me this pattern is on full display in the polarization of our nation. We are operating out of anxiety and fear. We are reacting out of the most base dimension of our human nature. We are viewing and treating one another as "other." Operating out of us-them, me-& mine thinking, we are playing a win-lose, winner-take-all game. We are walking the path of self-destruction. 

The challenges of this time call for our best thinking, not anxiety-driven thinking ... for maturity, not the reactivity of emotional-relational-spiritual immaturity ... for both-and, not either-or thinking ... for the willingness to hear and be heard, not "I'm right, you're wrong" close-mindedness ... for working together, not win-lose and winner-take-all postures ... for the common good, not us-them, me & mine thinking.

The question is: who will step up to provide more mature thinking and functioning? It seems to me that the followers of Jesus would be leading the way.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Chaos and Creation - the Message of the Genesis 1 Creation Story for Us Today

It seems to me our nation is in a state of chaos. 

We are highly polarized, viewing those who hold differing political views as enemies to be feared and to be defeated. We no longer have any objective source of truth. The news media is viewed as biased and untrustworthy - fake news that is not to be trusted. The work of scientists  is discredited as a hoax - from the COVID pandemic and how to address it to the challenge of global warming. Conspiracy theories promoted by fringe groups are treated as reality. The work of our national intelligence agencies is dismissed as political propaganda. The news you believe is determined by the political party with which you are aligned as is the leader you believe. We are turning on one another with fear-baited anger and open hatred. We have seemingly lost the capacity for civil conversation or the capacity to hear the concerns being voiced by one side and the fears expressed by the other side or the capacity for a compassionate response to anyone whose experience is not our own experience. 

We are engaged in a cultural civil war in which one side is seeking to establish its view of who we should be as a nation and the other side is seeking to preserve who they believe we have been as a nation. The two sides operate with differing understandings of our national history. One side argues that they are not treated equally under the law; the other side seeks to preserve the way things have been. One side pushes for more diversity and inclusion and voice; the other side seeks to protect the power and privilege and position it has historically enjoyed. It is as though we are having to deal with the issue of race yet again ... as though the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement never happened. (Black Lives Matter and protests about police brutality are race issues. The angry reactions to BLM and the protests are race-based issues. The resurgence of white supremacist groups is a race issue. The struggle - refusal ? - to recognize the systemic issues of white privilege is a race issue.) A nation engaged in civil war is a nation in chaos. 

The COVID pandemic has compounded the chaos, exposing the fault lines in our society. Our politicizing of the pandemic has wrecked havoc on our economy, not to mention the health of our citizens. The death toll from COVID is over 190,000 ... but that number, too, is refuted and dismissed as part of the hoax. Our polarization prevents us from pulling together and working together to defeat this faceless foe. We can't even agree that we have a problem to address ... much less how to address it! 

We are a nation in chaos. We seemingly have nothing that can pull us together as one. We seemingly have nothing that can provide stability or strength or direction in the face of the chaos. We even fight over how to interpret our founding documents - the constitution and its amendments - while seeking to manipulate the institutions they created to our personal advantage.

No one - well, almost no one - likes chaos. We like stability. We like predictability. We like feeling safe. We like being in control. We like having things our way. 

Chaos is what we experience when we are not in control. Chaos is what we experience when those things that provide stability and predictability are taken away. Chaos is what we experience when the way things have always been is questioned or challenged. Chaos is what we experience when the familiar and comfortable is replaced by that which is new and different and unfamiliar. Chaos is what we experience when things are not going the way we want. Chaos is what we experience when our sense of right and our sense of place and our sense of power are threatened.

We don't know how to deal with chaos.

Because chaos stirs fear, we react. We frantically fight to get back in control. We seek to protect and preserve those things that make us feel comfortable and safe. We fight to protect and preserve our sense of place and power and right. We fight to protect and preserve "our way." In doing so, we react with anger toward those whom we perceive as a threat to "our way" and the way things have always been. We see them through the lens of our fear and anger. Consequently, we see them as an enemy to be feared, attacked, and destroyed. 

Reacting out of fear blocks our ability to think. We cannot be afraid and think rationally at the same time. Acting out of fear and thinking rationally are mutually exclusive. They come from two different parts of the brain.

We like to believe we are rational. Just listen to us argue, defending our position as right and attacking the other as wrong. Our arguments are generally just fear-based rationalizations, used to reassure ourselves because we feel threatened and out of control. We just beat the same old drum, parroting what we have always believed. They reflect more fear than thought. They do not reflect critical thinking in light of a new reality.  

Ironically, chaos calls for our best thinking ... and it gets our fear-driven reactivity. 

Which raises a question: what role does faith play in the face of chaos? 

For faith to come into play in the midst of chaos, we have to move beyond fear so we can think theologically. 

We have to move beyond fear-based thinking and reacting. "Be still, and know that I am God!" (Psalm 46:10). "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid" (John 14:27). Jesus's original language was "stop letting your hearts be troubled; stop letting them be afraid. You are troubled and afraid; move beyond it." Paul said the same thing in Philippians 4:6, "Do not worry  about anything." The original: stop worrying - you are doing it; move beyond it by means of prayer. The result: the peace of Christ will guard your hearts and minds (Philippians 4:7). Faith cannot shape our response to chaos until we move beyond our fear-based reactivity. 

Moving beyond fear positions us to think theologically. 

God does God's best work in the midst of chaos ... when we are powerless. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perhaps God is able to work best in the midst of chaos because we are finally open to that work. As long as we are determined to be self-reliant and seek to be in control, we cannot know the strength that comes from God. 

Chaos - facing the uncertainty of the unknown - being out of control - puts us in a position to experience God's grace, know a strength beyond our own, and be a part of the new thing God is doing (Isaiah 43:18-19). 

Israel's experience of exile in Babylon underscores this great truth. They lost everything that gave meaning and structure to their lives when Babylon defeated and destroyed their nation. They lost their homes, their Temple and worship (their means of connecting with God), their king, their nation, and their land. Everything but their lives was taken from them. And they were deported to live in a place that was foreign to them, far from the land they viewed as God's gift to them. Their experience of chaos robbed them of everything. 

As would be expected, their experience of exile created a theological crisis. They questioned their identity as a people chosen to live in covenant with God. They questioned God, God's power, God's love, God's covenant. As they struggled to understand their experience of chaos and to make sense of what had happened, they came deeper understanding of God and their identity as the people of God.

Their deeper understanding is reflected in the great poem we know as Genesis 1, the creation story. The story proclaims how God worked in the midst of chaos to bring forth that which was good, very good. (Although the poem if found at the very first of our Bibles, it was composed during the Exile in Babylon - after 586 C.E.).  

The story begins with a description of the heavens and earth as "a formless void" (Genesis 1:2). That two-fold description provides the structure for the poem - formless, void (empty). It reflected the experience of Israel in exile. Everything that gave structure and meaning to their lives had been taken from them. Their lives were formless and void (empty). The description is amplified by the phrase "darkness covered the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:2). For the Hebrew people, darkness was the realm in which evil worked. The deep or the sea was a symbol for chaos - that which was beyond their ability to control. Again, the people's experience in exile is mirrored. The life they had known had been destroyed by evil (Babylon's violence) so that chaos reigned. So the heavens and earth were a formless void in which evil and chaos reigned. But "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2). The wind or Spirit of God was moving over the face of chaos. God was at work in the chaos. The Spirit's work led to the six days of creation. In the first three days, God created structure in the midst of that which was formless (note the separation: light from darkness, verses 3-4; waters below and above, verses 6-8; water below from dry land, verses 9-10). In the next three days (days 4-6), God filled that which was empty and void: sun, moon, and stars in the light and darkness, verses 14-19; fish and birds for the sky and seas, verses 20-23; living creatures and humankind for the land, verses 24-31. And the result was good, very good. The chaos was replaced with structure and fullness that was good, very good ... through the work of the Spirit.

The New Testament writers proclaimed the same truth. They spoke of resurrection - new life on a deeper level that comes through death. Paul proclaimed to the Roman churches that God was at work in all things for good, to conform them to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). He proclaimed the great truth that nothing in creation was beyond God's ability to transform for our good. Nothing, including our experience of chaos, "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). 

We do not like chaos. We do not like feeling out of control. We do not like the loss of stability, predictability, and comfort. But chaos provides a unique opportunity for the Spirit to work ... to bring forth life and that which is good, very good. Chaos provides the opportunity for us to experience God's grace. Chaos provides the opportunity for the Spirit to mature us spiritually-emotionally-relationally. Chaos provides God an opportunity to give us what we would not receive any other way. 

If we can move beyond our fear and reactivity, if we can think theologically!

(BTW: this truth applies to our churches as they struggle with the impact of the corona virus. How might God work in the chaos the virus has created to lead us to a different, deeper expression of what it means to be the church? If we can stop reacting long enough, stop fighting to preserve what was!)

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Character Matters

 Character matters - in a nation, in leaders, in politicians, in individuals. In my opinion, character matters more than any other factor.

Character shapes what a person does, particularly in difficult times, with difficult issues. Character determines how a person views and treats another, particularly those who are vulnerable, powerless, and easily exploited. Character shapes how a person uses power - in all its forms - especially the advantages s/he enjoys. Character determines what a person values and how s/he lives out those values. Character determines what a person gives themselves to and what they pursue. 

Character reflects who a person is at the core which, in turn, determines everything else about them. 

The character of a nation determines whether it is truly great. The character of a nation determines how it treats its citizens - all its citizens. The character of a nation determines how it relates to other nations. The character of a nation determines how it uses its power. The character of a nation determines how it uses its resources. The character of a nation determines what it values. The character of a nation determines how long it will survive.

The character of a leader determines how s/he leads. The character of a leader determines how s/he uses her position and the powers inherent in it. The character of a leader determines how s/he treats those s/he leads. The character of a leader permeates and impacts - for good or evil - the organization-institution-nation s/he leads. The character of a leader, more than his/her vision or skills, determines the leader's effectiveness.

Character determines a politician's politics. Character determines how the politician uses the position and office, particularly the influence and access that go with it. Character determines what the politician values and how those values are lived out. Character determines who the politicians serves - those s/he represents or self. 

Character is essential. 

This truth is reflected in who God is, i.e., God's character. On Mt. Sinai, Moses asked to see God's glory - God's essence, what made God to be God. The LORD responded by revealing God's character. God's character is described by two Hebrew adjectives: merciful and gracious (Exodus 34:6-7). The New Testament writers used the word love to define God's merciful and gracious character. God's character of self-giving love governs everything that God does. It determines how God views us. It determines how God relates to us. It determines how God uses power (hint: always to serve, to nurture life and growth).  

Jesus was the in-the-flesh expression of God's character. The writer of Hebrews spoke of him as the radiance of God's glory (Hebrews 1:3). The life of Jesus reflects what the character of God looks like in human flesh. His teachings give us glimpses of the ways of God, i.e., the Kingdom of God. (The Kingdom is found in any community where the character of God shapes the community's life and the ways of God are lived. I identify four central characteristics of the Kingdom in my book A God-Shaped World: Exploring Jesus's Teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Implications for the Church Today.) 

The character of God, in turn, shapes the character of God's people and the followers of Jesus. The ancient Hebrew prophets confronted the nations of Judah and Israel when the practices and policies of their society did not reflect the ways of God. They proclaimed justice and righteousness as essential characteristics of the nation's character. Justice and righteousness, for the prophets, were reflected in how the powerless and most vulnerable were treated. For the prophets, justice was not a legal term; righteousness was not a moral term. Both were relational terms that spoke of how to live in relationship with one another in a community shaped by the character of God. Justice is power used to advocate for and empower the powerless - the widow, the orphan, the immigrant (Isaiah 1:17). Righteousness is to live faithfully (rightly) with one another. 

Character matters. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Either-Or Thinking Is Killing Us

One of the characteristics of election cycles, such as we are in, is the abundance of either-or thinking. Either-or thinking is simplistic thinking. It attempts to reduce complex issues into either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong propositions. Sadly, life and the issues it raises are not that simple. 

(Full disclosure: this blog was prompted by a post that identified where each political party stood on a variety of hot-button issues. The post was inaccurate, in my opinion, designed to inflame angry reactions that would sway the reader to support the position of the person who posted the information. It successfully stirred a reaction in me - by its inaccuracy.) 

It seems to me, simplistic, either-or thinking does not help us. It seems to me to contribute to the problem rather than helping us resolve it. 

Simplistic, either-or propositions create emotional reactions. It seems to me they are designed for that purpose: to create an emotional reaction. They traffic in fear. The reactions they elicit are fear-based reactions. Fear of the other. Fear of differences. Fear of what will happen if the other position prevails. (Did you notice how both political conventions appealed to this particular fear?) Fear of change. Fear of anything that challenges my truth. Fear of the loss of my sense of being right and the standing I enjoy in it. Simplistic, either-or thinking traffics in fear in an effort to gain support for a particular party and to defeat the opposing party. 

In appealing to fear, either-or propositions short-circuit thinking, particularly mature thinking guided by principled truth. It seems to me the complexity of every issue calls for mature thinking, not fear-driven, emotional reactivity. 

Simplistic, either-or propositions polarize, creating an us-them mentality. They create an environment poisoned with "I'm right ... you're wrong" attitudes. They create a win-lose environment that discounts the other, devalues the other's experience, and dismisses the other's perspective. They are designed to promote a reality shaped by my way of thinking. They are an attempt to impose my will and my way on others. They pit us against one another, preventing us from working with one another. They are a obstacle to honest dialogue in the pursuit of mutual understanding and "the common good." They are a barrier to the broader, more encompassing perspective that diverse thought makes possible. 

It seems to me that those who promote simplistic, either-or thinking often come across as arrogant. They go beyond stating a position. They declare "I'm right!" But they don't stop there. They go the next step of discounting what the other thinks and demeaning them for thinking it: "You're wrong! I can't believe you could believe that. How stupid can you be! You're an idiot for not thinking like me." They, of course, do not recognize the arrogance in what they say, exhibiting little or no self-awareness. This arrogance reflects the fear behind their position. It reflects their need to protect their truth and the world as they view it. (My professor would say, "if your truth can be destroyed, it needs to be.") It blocks their ability to hear the other's perspective. It stifles any sense of empathy or compassion for the other. It keeps them stuck in a narrow way of thinking. 

Pick any issue: abortion, racism, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, support of the police, law and order,  protests, respect for our national history (statues of Confederate heroes), respect for our military (symbolized in respect for the flag), personal liberties, the second amendment right to bear arms, wearing of masks during a pandemic, Nationalism and American exceptionalism, a capitalistic economy that demands that each person stand on their own two feet, welfare, health care, education, the sanctity of marriage and traditional Christian values/morals, LGBTQ+ issues, the place of prayer in schools, Christian religious symbols on government property. The list goes on and on. 

In our current national environment, each of these issues is generally presented as an either-or issue. Such simplistic thinking ignores the many layers involved in the issue. It demands a right-and-wrong response. It creates a win-lose proposition. It drives wedges between us. It demonizes the other and discounts their perspective and life experience. It pits us against one another. It denies the gifts of diversity. It robs us of our strength. It weakens us as a nation. It leads us to misplace our energies and our focus. It leaves the underlying (real) issues unaddressed and unresolved. 

It seems to me, simplistic, either-or thinking is killing us as a nation. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Thing about Law and Order

One of the inevitable results of the polarization in our nation is us-them, either-or, right-wrong thinking. Complex issues are treated as black-and-white issues with either-or solutions. 

This kind of us-them, either-or, right-wrong thinking is fundamentally self-serving. It allows us to blame the other for the problem, making them responsible for fixing it. (Fixing it means doing things our way.) It exempts us from any responsibility - for the problem, for fixing the problem, for helping, for caring. It makes us "right" and validates our anger-condemnation-judgment of the other. It shields us from having to do any self-reflection or exercise any self-awareness. It allows us to avoid the hard work of thinking. It frees us from having to feel compassion or empathy for the other. It does not require us to change. It means we win and the other loses. 

Us-them, either-or, right-wrong thinking creates a false dichotomy. The choices it presents are not real.

One of the false dichotomies being promoted today is law and order versus protests ... All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter versus Black Lives Matter ... Back the Blue versus Defund the Police. This false dichotomy pits those who support police, representing law and order, against those who protest the misuse (abuse) of police authority and power. Both sides paint with a broad stroke that ignores the multiple layers involved in the issue. Both sides struggle to hear the concerns and fears of the other. 

This one false dichotomy is but one of many being tossed about during this presidential election cycle. The only thing such false dichotomies and their underlying us-them, either-or, right-wrong thinking produce is more rigid polarization. Resolution that addresses the concerns of both sides (yes, it is possible) calls for better, more mature thinking.

Just as healthy boundaries are a prerequisite for healthy relationships, so structure (law and order) is an important part of any society. But those of us who advocate for law and order tend to overlook a fundamental feature of law and order functioning: law and order works to the advantage of those who have power, position, and wealth. It often works to the disadvantage of those who have little power, position, or wealth. In our society, law and order supports a culture structured by white people for the advantage of white people because white people have been the majority. (This reality underlies the concept of white privilege that white people struggle to recognize.) As diversity grows in our nation, this aspect of law and order functioning is being challenged.  

The protests that have occurred this summer are not about law and order. They are fundamentally about power and place ... or, more specifically, about the lack of power and standing black people have (and have historically had) in American society. 

Blacks are not the only ones who have held a "one down" position in American society. Throughout our nation's history, other groups have been denied equal standing and opportunity guaranteed by the constitution: Chinese, Irish, Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants from non-European nations, Muslims, gays, the poor. Those in positions of power and affluence (read: white people and the affluent) have historically used their power against these groups, in effect telling them to "stay in your place." That place is a place of disadvantage, without power or voice or standing. Protests are an attempt to claim what the constitution proclaims: equal standing under the law. 

It seems to me those who advocate law and order today are those who have enjoyed the advantages law and order provides. They are predominantly white and affluent and older. They are quick to defend the symbols of our nation, particularly the flag and the military. They unapologetically speak of our nation's greatness. They are quick to label the victims of police brutality as criminals (as though criminal activity justified their experience of an excessive use of power). They complain "If they would just obey the law, they wouldn't get in trouble with the police!" They have never been followed, viewed with suspicion, treated with disrespect, stopped, or questioned (profiled) because of the color of their skin. Thus, they cannot conceptualize such a reality, much less empathize with it.

It seems to me those who have dared to protest are those who have not enjoyed the advantages of law and order. They have experienced law and order as authority and power used unfairly against them. They and members of their family have been profiled by police and people in positions of power. The only voice they have is that of protest. (Those who advocate for law and order argue that their vote is their voice. They overlook the way the votes of Blacks have been and are being suppressed.) 

The law and order position almost always represents the status quo ... the way things have always been ... to the advantage of those who have power, standing, and affluence. In order for all to enjoy equal standing under the law (as promised by our constitution), the law and order status quo must be willing to hear and honor the voices of those who have little or no power, standing, or voice in the status quo. The law and order status quo must be willing to hear the message being voiced by the protests. In order to hear what is being said, the law and order status quo must move beyond being reactive and defensive to being open and responsive. In other words, it must be willing to die to its current reality in order to grow into a more mature expression of what law and order could be ... for all. 

An interesting feature of today's protests is the involvement of people who would be classified as white, many of whom are younger people. The awareness that law and order does not serve all people equally is being recognized and challenged by more than those in a "one down" position. A more mature society may yet evolve. 

Many (most) of those who advocate for law and order identify themselves as Christians. They seemingly fail to recognize the prophetic voices of their Hebrew tradition that confronted the abuses of power and affluence in the nations of Israel and Judah. These voices advocated for the poor and the powerless - those in a "one down" position in their society. They seemingly forget that Jesus empowered the powerless. He treated every person with dignity and worth, particularly those who were treated with disrespect by those in positions of power. Jesus opposed systems that took advantage of others. He challenged social customs that kept people in positions of powerlessness and disadvantage. He challenged the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others, self-indulgence to the neglect of others, and wealth-based standing and status. In other words, Jesus challenged the law and order status of his society. 

Which raises the question: would Jesus align with the law and order position in our society or with those who are in a powerless, disadvantaged "one down" position? 

Which raises another question: what position does the Church take? and what is the rationale for that position?

These are hard questions - questions that call for mature thinking, not simplistic, either-or, polarizing answers. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Shooting at the Wrong Target

I have grieved the deep polarization in our nation and struggled to understand it. The rancor with which it is expressed is disturbing. The anger seems to be more than just being angry. Our anger is extreme, reactionary, irrational ... often bordering on hatred. In our anger, we attack the other, not just their position. We demonize the other. We judge, condemn, discount, demean, and seek to destroy. We unleash the whole arsenal of our anger at those we now view as the enemy. Gone is any effort to hear and understand the other, much less any sense of compassion or empathy for them. It is as though we are at war with one another. 

But it seems to me we are fighting the wrong war. We are attacking the wrong enemy. We are shooting at the wrong target. As a result, we are biting and devouring one another (as Paul said in Galatians 5:15). We are in a self-destruct mode. 

As I struggle to understand this polarization and rancor, it seems to me we are avoiding the real issue. As a result, we are displacing our anger. 

Anger is a mask that fear wears. Thus, our national anger is really the face of fear ... fear of what we believe we are losing. Our fear and anger are dimensions of grief ... grief we do not recognize because we have not recognized or named what we have lost.  

We as a culture do not do well with loss or grief. In the case of a death, we are at a loss for what to say or what to do. We are accustomed to being able to fix things, but there is no way to fix the pain of losing someone we love. So we mumble empty platitudes that make us feel better but which do nothing to touch the other's pain. We fill the other's kitchen with more food than they could ever eat - perhaps in an attempt to fill the empty space in their hearts created by the death of the one they love. We tip our hat at the loss with sanitized funeral services, rushing past the death as quickly as possible. Our haste isolates the person who experienced the loss, condemning them to cope alone. 

Beyond the death of a loved one, we experience losses of all shapes and sizes all the time, but we have not been taught - or given permission - to recognize those losses, name them, and grieve them. We have been told to "suck it up" and get on with life. As a result, we live with the emotional pain of unrecognized and unaddressed losses that have piled up through the years. We live with a boatload of unresolved grief. 

It seems to me our personal experience of unresolved loss and grief is duplicated in our national experience of loss and grief. The losses we have experienced in my lifetime pile up, one on top of the other: the assassinations of President Kennedy, of MLK, of Bobby Kennedy; Viet Nam; the civil rights movement; the Challenger explosion. 

In more recent days, 9-11 shook our nation to the core. Our sense of safeness, our (mistaken) sense of invincibility, our sense of being exceptional in the world, our very identity as a nation was lost. But we never took time to identify these losses, much less grieve them. Instead, we declared war on terrorism, surrendered personal liberties to government overreach, and began to adopt an isolationist mentality. (Donald Trump's "America First" policies are the inevitable product of this isolationist thinking.) Because terrorism was such a nebulous target, we ended up shooting at the wrong target by attacking Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. 

9-11 is not the only identity-shattering loss we as a nation have experienced but not grieved. The Supreme Court's decision to recognize gay marriage struck at the heart of what many considered "the sanctity of marriage." The Black Lives Matter movement pointed out the problem of police profiling and police brutality against blacks, attacking the respected symbol of law and order. Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality was interpreted as a disrespect for the flag and the military, both symbols of national pride. The nation elected its first black president (who was opposed and vilified at every turn - a not-so-subtle expression of 21st century racism). The white-based, white-dominated, white-oriented culture with which many of us grew up was (is) giving way to greater diversity. Outside the urban area, family farms have been swallowed up by large scale corporations. Rural communities are shriveling up and dying. (The community in which I grew up is an example.) In short, we as a nation are experiencing seismic change that involves the loss of the way things were. All the while, we continued to fight a war on terrorism in strange places like Afghanistan, sacrificing the lives of American soldiers in yet another war we cannot win. 

In the face of such significant losses, we have reacted with anger, shooting at the wrong target. We are attacking the wrong "enemy" and fighting the wrong war. We have turned on each other. The Religious Right has joined hands with the Republican Party to lead the attack against "the liberal left wing that is destroying our way of life." The liberal left, in turn, has attacked the radical right-wing nationalists as the problem. As a result, the nation is polarized in a new civil war to determine which side will dictate what the new norm will be for our country. One side wants to reverse what is happening in an effort to go back to a white-dominated culture of the 1950's; the other wants to move forward into greater diversity in which people of all colors enjoy the promises of our constitution. 

And then you add the COVID pandemic - a faceless virus that lurks in hiding, waiting to ambush us at every turn. It has robbed us of so much - primarily the freedom to do as we please but also our normal routines and activities, our contact with one another, our ability to worship together, our jobs and income (for some), our economy as a nation, our schools and the freedom to send our kids to school without fear, our ability to celebrate weddings and graduations, the opportunity to celebrate a life that has ended, etc. Normally, when we are struggling or hurting, we can turn to one another for support and encouragement. But the pandemic's shelter-in-place restrictions have isolated us from one another. And we all are experiencing the same struggles at the same time. We have little left over to help one another even if we were not isolated. 

Our reaction to the pandemic is in line with our grief-avoiding pattern as a nation. We politicized the shelter-in-place restrictions and the wearing of masks. We allowed the pandemic to fuel the polarization. Rather than recognizing and grieving our losses, we turned on one another in anger. We attacked one another. We shot at the wrong target. 

The healthy response to these many losses is grief - the recognition, naming, and grieving of what we have lost. Healthy grieving helps us come to terms with what we loss and helps us turn loose of it. The failure to grieve keeps us stuck in pain and fear and anger. 

Grief is a powerless feeling. After all, we can't undo the loss. And we don't like being powerless. It leaves us feeling vulnerable to more loss. It gives birth to fear inside us. Anger, on the other hand, gives us a sense of power. So instead of grieving what we have loss and feeling afraid of more losses, we get angry. In our anger, we stop thinking clearly or rationally. We attack one another with our anger. We end up shooting at the wrong target.

I believe we as a culture are stuck in unrecognized and unresolved long-term grief. It is one of the factors in our polarization - a major factor in my mind. We have once again misdirected our anger and are shooting at the wrong target: each other.

We have no way to win a war when we are fighting the wrong war. As long as are fighting the wrong enemy, our energies are wasted. We will never resolve anything.  We will only end up destroying selves and the thing we are fighting to protect: our nation. 

Perhaps we need to reclaim the Hebrew practice of lament - giving voice to our grief in the context of worship. 60 of the 150 psalms (40%) are lament psalms. 

I believe we as a nation need to grieve ... with each other ... lest we destroy each other because we are shooting at the wrong target.

If the Shoe Were on the Other Foot

 The issue of power has been raised this past week - the power of position.  With the death of Justice Ruth Ginsburg, the President and Sena...