Sunday, October 5, 2008

As we approach the Nov 2008 elections....

"The Left mocks the Right. The Right knows it's right. Two ugly traits. How far should we go to try to understand each other's point of view? Maybe the distance grace covered on the cross is a clue."
—Bono Vox of the band U2

Blogs often take on the tone of radio talk shows. It seems their purpose is to showcase how witty one is, and just how awfully good he or she is at being right. If my blog ever takes on that tone, please take a bucket of ice water and pour it over my head, so I'll come back to my senses and remember what it is I'm really after here. The reason I write about the things I do is not because I have all the answers, but because I'm convinced of the importance of the questions, and in expressing views I hope to provoke conversation that might help shed further light. The blog is named "Thinking Aloud" to underscore its provisional, exploratory nature.

Perhaps there is no area more provisional in my thinking than politics. But as we prepare for November and I listen to the opinions of friends and loved ones and others, I thought I'd share a few comments of my own that I hope will serve as food for thought.

First I will discuss what I feel is a highly distorted and harmful way in which religion and politics are interacting in our society. Then I will propose what I feel is the vital contribution religion can and should make. Then, as a test case to see whether people of widely varying opinions can really listen to one another, I will reveal some of the specific thoughts about presidential candidates that are weighing on my mind as I prepare to go the polls this November, and ask you, the readers of this post, to send me your thoughts. Finally, I'll suggest one thing each of us can do to bring about real positive change in America and in the world.

Politics is undeniably important, and politics in the U.S. is especially important, because the actions our government takes affect everyone on the planet.

That said, I wonder if some of us don't tend to greatly exaggerate that importance….

I have to remind myself not to make an idol of politics perhaps more often than most people, due to the peculiar circumstances in which I was raised. Politics was considered extremely important in the family I grew up in. It was the measure of what you stood for ultimately, of which side you were on in the great cosmic battle of good and evil.

At least that is the message that got instilled in me as a child when, six to nine years younger than my older adolescent siblings, I had to take cover night after night amid the heated dinner table crossfire of warring family members of Left and Right. There was my oldest brother, in the thick of the 60s and the new values of a rising generation. And there were my parents who were stalwart Goldwater conservatives. Actually my dad was more moderate than he sometimes sounded. To be sure, in a given moment in the fall of '68 I could hear him making a favorable comment or two about George Wallace, but I'm almost certain he voted for Nixon. There I was, just seven years old, taking all that in. How many other families do you know where the atmosphere would lead a small child to pick up so much on the importance of politics? It seems every family has its share of weirdnesses, and this was one of our many! Forty years later, though we all love each other, whenever the political discussion gets going, to some extent it still seems like our family is a microcosm of the fierce culture wars that are ravaging our land.

Religion also got enlisted in this role of determining which side you are on, but, as I recall it, it came second both in time and in importance to politics. To my recollection, religion only came to the fore in my family's culture war after my parents left their mainline church because of its membership in the National Council of Churches which was supporting Marxist UCLA professor Angela Davis, and after my mom found herself at home in a fundamentalist church that also happened to espouse her conservative politics. Now people today sometimes forget such a time existed, but the bulk of fundamentalist Christians in America at this time were remarkably apolitical—Baptists, it was said, were potentially the most powerful political block in our state, but they only actually went to the polls to vote against legalized gambling and liquor by the drink. Some years later the Christian Right would emerge, awakened by the alarm of Roe v. Wade and finding expression in the Reagan Revolution, with my mom in the thick of it all. Much as I loved my late mom, in retrospect I think this kind of tagalong adjunct role of religion in bolstering a set of political convictions is hugely distortive of religion, and makes it hard for people on either side of the ideological wars of our cultural moment to really consider religious matters in their own right. Christians of most times and places would recognize the idiosyncracy of this moment in American Christianity much more readily than either believers or skeptics who are stuck in the middle of it all.

But does voting Democratic or Republican in the U.S. really merit being elevated to such a level of ultimate, almost religious importance? It's amazing, as I reflect on it, just how much Democrats and Republicans really agree on fundamental matters. Practically all of us favor, whether we admit it or not, some combination of socialism and free market capitalism. On the one side you have Republicans who emphasize the importance of keeping the engines of wealth creation greased. Raise taxes too much, and you'll kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, they say. Democrats respond asking who benefits from the golden eggs? Are they getting shared around enough to keep people warm and fed? Few if any Republicans or Democrats take these emphases to the possible extremes, whether libertarian laissez faire on the one hand, or Marxist-Leninist state control of the means of production on the other. I think all but the likes of Ron Paul realize that such positions, though they may seem more airtight philosophically, produce the horrible results of having either a whole lot of golden eggs for too few, or hardly any golden eggs for anybody. Republicans sometimes wax libertarian in their rhetoric, arguing it is morally wrong to rob the industrious haves to help the lazy have nots, but few would argue for abolishing, say, public schools, without which the middle classes would never have emerged from grinding poverty. And even "tax and spend" Democrats are concerned to see industry flourish; they hardly take Cuban socialism as their model.

Now religion is, by its very nature, about matters of ultimate good and evil. And that makes it all the more a colossal and dangerous error to elevate political stances, generally speaking, to this kind of plane. Politics too often and easily boils down to advocating whatever policies favor the interest of one's class or interest group, rationalized by highly tendentious appeals to "principle." To elevate such "principles" to a religious level of ultimate good and evil is not only extremely dangerous, it impedes religion from doing the kind of healing work in the heart for which it is most properly intended.

It is important to understand that the battle between good and evil takes place primarily in the human heart; religion at its best speaks prophetically to the motivations of our hearts. It challenges, often painfully, the false idols (e.g. money, others' approval, power, and innumerable other addictions) on which we are depending for our sense of wellbeing, and places us on more solid ground. It does not, I believe, speak in any comprehensive way to the content of our policy positions, at least not with respect to the relatively moderate positions that generally prevail in our democratic society.

It is interesting to note along these lines that the apostle Paul, faced with the reality of a long-entrenched system of slavery in the Greco-Roman world of his time, did not advocate its violent overthrow. The thought probably never even occurred to his mind, because it would have been obviously foolish and doomed the fledgling Christian movement to extinction. [It perhaps helps to remember that, in spite of occasional brutality, many slaves in the context to which he wrote enjoyed high social prestige, in some cases rivaling that of high level managers today. Today's CEOs have the freedom to retire, but considering the high percentage of them who die shortly after they retire, after losing the thing they lived for, can it really be said that they are less enslaved?] Instead, Paul did something far more powerful and subversive. He told slave-owning Philemon to welcome back the runaway slave Onesimus as "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother." This is how what Jesus calls the "yeast" of his kingdom works to "leaven the lump of dough." It works on this level of our deepest attitudes, prying our hearts loose from slavish dependence on the things of this world that give us temporal advantage and comforts, and redirecting our deepest trust to God for our well-being, and thereby redefining our relationships. Not violence, but undermining their very basis, is the way God works to overthrow the dark powers of this world. Cf. the unstable "feet of iron mixed with clay" in the statue of the world's kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter two.

And on this level I think religion can legitimately suggest some worthwhile questions we should ask of ourselves as we go to the polls. To those on the Right it can ask: Are you truly concerned about your poor neighbors in the world, or are you just voting your pocketbook? To those on the Left it can ask: Are you truly concerned about what will keep the system running for everybody in the long run, or just what will benefit your class in the short run?

Some of you may think I'm being trite in talking about examining the motives of the heart. You may think you have much more important things to do than engage in this sort of reflection, maybe things like going out and getting more votes for your candidate. But this kind of reflection really is the important matter! This kind of "heart work" really is the hard work, and the work that matters the most. It requires regular investments of time, over a lifetime. Political action is easy by comparison. It is more important than political action because our natural selfishness is the creeping rot that brings any political-economic order to ruin, however socialistic or market-oriented it may be in its approaches. A rich capitalist can be compassionate or brutal in the use of wealth and power, just as a government worker can serve the public or be a lazy and self-serving apparatchik that drains the system of its effectiveness. If more people challenged their own sure sense of rightness long enough to took an honest look inside with the help of God, we might eventually see more balance and harmony in our society that has been ideologically ripped down the middle. I can't speak for other religions, but Christian religion, at its healthiest and truest to itself, has never been so much about doing the right thing as becoming the kind of person who does the right thing.

Of course our natural tendency is to say, yeah, those folks on "the other side" really need to look within! Let me just ask you this right now: Are you willing to let God really get to you? No matter how you understand God—whether you believe you have some idea of who and what God is, or whether you're not even sure "he" exists, are you willing to let him ask you questions that could challenge and reorient the deepest assumptions and attachments of your heart? Not to suggest I'm doing any better in this department than you, but Jesus clearly said to worry more about the log in our own eyes than the speck in our neighbor's. How many people, Christians or others, really take that seriously? Too often, I'm afraid, squabbling over things like politics (and religion!) is just one of the many smokescreens we use to convince ourselves we are healthy and better than others, and avoid lying down on God's operating table.

Certainly I think there are some issues in politics that cross into a clearly moral realm and invite a direct response from religion. Religion certainly can and must speak to the moral tragedy of the genocide that took place in Rwanda, for example, even if it does not spell out exactly how other nations should go about resolving such problems. Personally I feel that it also speaks to the moral failings of the Republican Party as it was taken over a couple of years or so ago by people with extreme positions on immigration. In my home state ideology and fear trumped human compassion when they passed a law in the fall of 2007 making it a crime to rent housing or otherwise "assist" illegal immigrants. My home city went one up on that, training police officers to do the work of border patrol agents. Literally thousands of families, including many who for years had been stably employed and whose children had graduated from or were close to graduating from public schools, made the decision to leave the state. There are a variety of positions on this issue that I think are morally acceptable, and there are genuinely difficult issues posed by the reality of illegal immigration such as its impact on schools and hospitals. But I believe this wave of furor that has taken ahold of Republicans in my home state and elsewhere imbibes the spirit of ethnic cleansing, and my religion, as I understand it, speaks directly and forcefully to that.

If you ask me to "weigh in" on the current candidates on the ballots, I must confess, I don't have the strongest of opinions this time round. But it might be informative for some of you who find yourselves lined up clearly on one side or the other to hear some of the things that trouble one who is less committed—for the sake of understanding one another, at the very least. Maybe you can share some perspectives that will inform my thinking as well.

But before I go there, I'd just like to warn that if we venture to share our specific opinions with one another like this, we will be taking an important test, a test which too many in our hotly divided nation are failing. The test is whether we can listen to another's point of view, striving (because it takes concerted effort to do this) to put oneself in the other's shoes, and not fly off the handle or write off the other person everytime something he or she says violates our entrenched opinions. Are you ready to take that test? If so, here are my current opinions, and feel free to email me yours….

Honestly, the choices being served up are not making this decision easy for me. Neither an inexperienced yet highly intelligent Barak Obama, nor a highly capable yet aging John McCain, would be my preferred choice for president. Sarah Palin's soccer mom cheer may be winsome to many, and her capabilities may have been underestimated by some in the media, but at the end of the day, I'd rather see a more experienced driver in the driver's seat should McCain die in office.

Now here is where the test could get especially difficult for some, because I have to talk about a very controversial issue that impacts how I feel about the candidates. That issue is abortion. Now we know going into this that whether I'm "pro-life" or "pro-choice," I'm going to offend the strong feelings of roughly one half or the other of the population. Those who share my views may tend to accept what I say more or less uncritically, and include me in the category of "correct-thinking" people they like to surround themselves with. Those who take a view contrary to mine will be tempted to write me off and shy away from ever discussing anything with me again. But, you see, this is the very problem we have in America right now. We are divided into two huge camps, each of which only talks with its own members, usually with the purpose of confirming their existing opinions and prejudices and assuring one another that they are wiser and more with it than all those people in the other camp who are crazy or evil or otherwise not worth listening to. Over time, the walls get thicker and thicker, and we do less and less listening, and so we become extremely and bitterly divided without even gaining a true understanding of the other side's point of view. If you agree that we need to get beyond that, and you're willing to try to listen empathetically to views you have strong feelings about, then, congratulations, you are already doing well in this test! Brace yourself, and read on….

No...wait a minute.... What I have just said does not really do justice to the difficult thing I am asking you to do. Because some of you, when you hear my views on this issue that so divides our country, will be greatly pained. You will feel aghast. You will cry. You will feel a disheartened sinking feeling. You will be sincerely troubled as to how anybody could think the way I do and still be human, unless I am just atrociously ignorant of essential facts of the matter or of the incredible hurt or injustice my views, if carried out, would inflict on so many human beings. You will feel that the dearest principles you stand for are being trampled. All this will be the case to one group or another, no matter which position on this issue I take. I want you to know, that in mentioning my views on this issue, I am not asking those of you who disagree with me to weaken your moral will, to give in out of weakness, to care any less than you do. I am asking you to do something far more costly, far more sacrificial. I am asking you to remain strong in your moral resolve, and yet willingly and humbly submit to this painful process of mutual listening that all of us on both sides of the cultural divide of our day will have to go through if there is to be healing in our land. To listen with genuine empathy to views that run counter to core values involves pain. Bono mentioned the cross of Christ, and that is very much to the point. The easy thing would have been for Christ to go to the cross in anger, in bitterness, in violent resistance. Another easy approach would have been to cower in moral weakness, to surrender to the Romans' base values, to accept and tolerate and legitimize the abuse of the oppressor. But such a response to abuse is not the costly and sacrificial way of love. What Christ did was infinitely more painful and loving. And what I am asking you to do, simply by listening to views that seem to trample what you hold dear, also requires sacrifice, also requires a willing taking on of pain, out of love. And yet, even knowing the pain this is going to cause one group or the other of you, I still ask you to do it, because it is the very thing we all are going to have to learn to do if we are to break down the walls of division in this country. Of course it is my hope that, as we listen to one another, even on topics on which we are hotly divided, that one or the other or both of us will change our minds in regard to some practical policy issues, not by giving up core values, but by discovering that there is another approach to the matter that upholds all the essential values that all sides are seeking to uphold. But even if that does not happen, and we fail to find common ground on a given issue--like the issue of abortion I am about to discuss--the pain of mutual listening is still the way to mutual love and respect. There is no real love if we do not go to the cross for one another. And without that there will be no resurrection, no healing and new life in our land. Are you convinced that is so? If so, and if you are willing and ready, let us proceed....

I believe unborn babies have a greater claim to legal protection than the pro-choice view of the Democratic Party recognizes. Just to say this is to offend many people's strong feelings. Yet, again, if I expressed any other opinion on this, it would offend others' strong feelings, and the honest truth is, I respect and love you all! Just for the record, my position would call for legal sanctions far, far short of what we apply to those who kill adults, because I don't think abortion is premeditated intentional murder, and I don't think the rights and nature of the fetus at a given stage can be established one way or another beyond all reasonable doubt, though the case for their rights is plenty strong enough at the point of conception, and harder to deny with every passing day of development. Precisely due to this uncertainty, I think abortion constitutes a reckless endangerment of human life, so that abortionists should be sanctioned sufficiently to move them to seek alternatives means of making a living. I also think legalized abortion, far from elevating the rights of women, ultimately sends a cheapening and dehumanizing message to the distressed women who are often pressured by boyfriends and parents and oppressive social and family systems into seeking this desperate "solution." There are many women who have had or contemplated abortions in the past who agree with me, even as there are many others who do not. By the way, literally millions of Catholics and others of otherwise Democratic leanings would agree with my policy position, even if they are more dogmatic than I am about the status of the fetus, but these people are given no real voice on the matter in the Democratic Party. There is much more to be said than I can say in this article in defending my position, in exploring how appropriate or effective legal sanctions may be, in exploring what other actions on the part of government and civil society are necessary to really tackle the problem effectively, etc. But in regard to the current candidates, suffice it to say that I found Obama's comments that the Supreme Court's upholding of a law banning "partial birth" abortion was a setback to women's rights to be no less than chilling. What other voiceless constituencies will have their rights trampled on by an Obama administration? Newborn infants? To be sure, cultural circumstances won't let that happen anytime in the foreseeable future, but I'm left wondering what there is in Obama's philosophy that would otherwise prevent it. By being more extreme and intolerant of diversity on the abortion issue than Republicans ever have been, Democrats make it very hard for millions of people to vote for them with a clear conscience. They have that in very large part to thank for their not being in the White House for the last 8 years.

Though abortion is one important issue bearing on my thinking about the current candidates, there are many other important matters weighing on my mind, most of which will occasion less heated controversy. Most readers, I think, will be able to breathe at least a little bit easier in what follows....

Earlier I referred to "voiceless constituencies." But I have to wonder, for all the Republicans' talk about the rights of the unborn, if they really are paying attention to millions of other human beings on the planet whose voices are not being heard. Which Republicans, for example, are lobbying hard to permanently remove all punitive trade barriers against Central American exports, and to pressure the E.U. to lift similar barriers against manufactured goods in Africa, so as to enable producing economies in those countries to get off the ground? Never mind that such policies that stifle development in those countries could lead to future terrorist threats closer to home (and in fact already are fueling illegal immigration and the spread of violent criminal gangs all over the continent)—keeping domestic producers sufficiently appeased is what wins elections now. And who is pushing a concept of "free trade" that recognizes that it can only work for the benefit of all concerned if there is relatively free (albeit screened and regulated) movement of labor as well as goods?

Add to all this the sheer complexity of the issue of the war in Iraq and the world situation, and the difficulty I have personally in keeping up with enough information to be able to form solid opinions of which candidate's proposed policies make the most sense. I know all this may be crystal clear in the minds of some of you, great military and geopolitical strategists that you may be. I see enormous downsides to every conceivable possible option. Push come to shove, though I'm not the least bit competent to make this kind of decision myself, I'd place my bets on doing whatever can be safely done to free up military resources for areas other than where they are currently deployed. Sadly, it's not really a question of avoiding all disasters, it's a matter of deciding which disasters are most important and possible to prevent or contain. For all the rhetoric of the candidates concerning the war, I'm not even entirely sure either of them would really act that much differently in office, once the votes are cast and they are free to adjust their positions to changing circumstances. The question then becomes who has the most sober head. Again, I might have preferred a younger John McCain or an older Barak Obama at the helm….

In sum, there is much I admire, and much I am concerned about, in both major candidates. For the moment, count me undecided…. I could go on, but I think I will stop there in regard to my views of the candidates.

The more I ponder these candidates, the more I'm drawn back to the observation that candidates are only as good as the state of awareness and discussion in the general public concerning policy issues. As we engage in the work of thinking and talking important issues through, we will have even better McCains and Obamas to choose among. And listening empathetically to one another, keeping dialog open, are the habits a society needs to make democracy work.

I would urge that learning to listen empathetically to others, especially those with whom we disagree, is the singlemost important thing we can do to bring about positive change in our country and world. And it all starts with you and me, one interaction at a time….

There are three specific challenges I think we need to overcome if we are to improve our listening skills and raise political dialog in our country to a more civil and productive plane. First, we need to work hard at truly listening even when it offends our strong feelings, without instinctively dismissing the other person as stupid or ignorant or evil. Abortion is a case in point, and if people of pro-choice conviction email me their views, I will face the same challenge of truly listening that I gave them in the discussion above.

Second, I think we need to develop a stomach for greater complexity and nuance in discussions, in what we're willing to read, in the kinds of conversations we're willing to have. Are you frustrated that the media only give us sound bites without substance? Why complain? All they are doing is giving people what they want. Simplistic thinking is really what works best if the goal is to massage one another's prejudices in our own group while putting down and deriding all the "wrong-thinking" people in the other group. Meanwhile, certain media pundits see their ratings and personal incomes soar by catering to the prejudices of one group or the other, being sure to keep things as simplistic and heated as possible. But reaching across the divide with meaningful discussion will require contemplating more complex models of reality. Embracing greater complexity will also reduce the power of special interests, by making it more difficult to manipulate the public with slogans and rallying cries.

To give an example of this need to embrace greater complexity, often the disagreements I have with people on the "Left" boil down to differences in our understandings of how the economy works. The frustrating thing is that most such people I talk to don't have any interest in contemplating policy outcomes in the light of economic theories. The truth is, my understanding of economics may be way off base, but policies will obviously fail to achieve their intended outcomes if they run afoul of economic reality, and the only way anybody is going to be able to lead me to a more realistic understanding of economics is if they are willing to enter the discussion at some level of complexity and show how their understanding better accounts for things. As another example, often the disagreements I have with people on the "Right" concern the environment. And the frustrating thing is that most such people I talk to do not seem to have any interest in really engaging with what people in the mainstream scientific community are saying. They arrive at their foregone conclusions, bolstered by secondhand accounts of minority view scientific studies funded by organizations with a vested interest.

It may be objected that it is impossible for everybody to gain an understanding of such complex matters. But this brings us to the crucial dilemma of democracy, does it not? There is no denying that the amount and kinds of knowledge required by voters to make intelligent decisions is formidable. Yet the alternative of ceding all power to an elite intelligentsia is not an acceptable one. Though their decisions may be better informed, they will not serve the interests of the society at large, they will serve the interests of their own elite! There is no perfect solution to this, only a relative one—the better informed the public is, the better government we will get, and the more power the people truly will have.

We all see through a glass darkly, and can only do the best we can in this regard. We all have limited time and mental space for pursuing the knowledge we need for our careers, for our relationships, for our roles as citizens in a democracy. But if we at least remain open to having our current thinking challenged by the insights and perspectives of others, we can at least grow and arrive at much more balanced approaches than if we remain locked inside entrenched opposing camps that do not even seek to understand one another. And we may then become more willing to engage with others' concerns at the same level of complexity with which we routinely tackle the concerns that are closest to our hearts (e.g. re our careers, or the particular angles of policy issues we're naturally most prone to dwell on).

Third, if we find that the only voices we routinely hear are those within "our camp" which merely confirm our current thinking, we need to proactively seek opportunities to listen to people whose thinking is different from ours. Five steps: 1. Let's each have a conversation with ourself and challenge our own tendency to be "wise in our own eyes" (Proverbs 26:12). What factors may be contributing to my own biases, such as socioeconomic status, personal history, my self-centered focus, etc.? In what ways have my life circumstances and prejudices narrowed the field of voices that can speak meaningfully to me? 2. Let's read some articles from a point of view very different from ours, and ask ourselves, What are the valid driving concerns that are important to the author and others who share his or her views? Why have those concerns never been as important to me as they are to them? Is there any good reason I should not consider those concerns important? Third, find one or two people who typically hold a different viewpoint to have a conversation with, and resolve to do nothing more than listen. At some point be sure to ask the person, "You know, in the past I have not thought the way you do on these matters, and I'm just wondering if there are some blind spots, some things about my circumstances or background that I'm not consciously aware of, that have been influencing me and causing me to be biased. What do you think some of those things might be?" 5. If and only if the other person asks to hear your opinions, schedule a time to meet again. But tell the person, "I would really like at least a day or two to process what you have just told me before I share my views. Thanks for helping me think things through from angles I had not considered." If you can, do this before November 4, 2008. More importantly, keep doing it, as a regular habit, over the next four years! Can you think of anything more powerful that we can do to make our society healthier and happier?

Back to the role of religion, I can't help but wonder.... Might our ability to humbly listen to others be an "acid test" of how well religion is functioning in our lives? On the other hand, if our religion makes us proud and arrogant and stuck in our prejudices, might we be missing the whole point? God help us!

As we prepare to go to the polls, I'd just like to leave all my loved ones and fellow citizens on each side of the great divide with one final thought: If you vote differently than I do, you will still have my respect. I will not conclude that you are ignorant or an idiot, just because you think differently from me. You are all in "my group." Nor will I suspect you of being in league with the dark forces of the universe. I hope you will treat me the same way. In the end I hope we can all try to better understand and extend a bit of charity to one another.

When the elections are over, we should all give each other a tearful hug and spend some time on the lighter side of life. Rumor has it that George W. Bush has taken up dancing. (See Maybe we should do the same.

[Now listening to: "Hands," by Jewel.]