January 29

The Foolishness of the Cross

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Two weeks ago, I posted a Word that God gave to me. One of the things it said was:

When the word fails, will not any father turn to the rod? In that day, you will ask, “What does God want?” but I will not answer, for it has not changed.

What does God want? Does he long for churches or cathedrals built in his name? Does he long for songs of praise? Does he judge us on how much we put into the collection plate?

Clearly God must want something, for the Bible speaks of covenant, an agreement between two parties. God made promises to us. What does he ask in return? Hebrews (8:6-13) points us in the right direction:

I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.”

Do you hear echoes of Deuteronomy 6 in that passage? Hosea? I do.

God gave his law in written form in Exodus. The problem with written law is, there’s wiggle room. Just look at Matthew 15:4-5.

God told us clearly what he wants, and Jesus repeated it:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

How much do I have to love God and my neighbor? My family has a three-bedroom house. Do I have to give up one or more of those bedrooms for someone who can’t afford a house? That would be crazy. I have responsibilities to my family, right?

That would be foolish.

The point is, if this law is written on my heart, I’m not looking for wiggle room. I’m living the law God set out for me.

Was Jesus serious when he said that those who don’t feed and clothe the poor are headed for “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:45-46)? Was God serious when he commanded us to love the stranger, the alien among us (Dt 10:19)? Was the Beloved Disciple serious when he said that those who have, but who close their hearts to a person in need, cannot claim that they love God (1 John 3:17)? Was Jesus serious when he said we should forgive those who sin against us as many times as necessary (Mt 18:22), and that we should love our enemies (Mt 5:44)? That we shouldn’t worship so long as someone has something against us (Mt 5:23-24)? That our own forgiveness from God depends entirely on whether we forgive others (Mt 6:14-15)?

Seriously, that doesn’t work in the real world. (How many times have readers told me that?)

That’s just foolish.

And yet, if God’s law was written on our hearts, we wouldn’t question it. We wouldn’t look for wiggle room. We wouldn’t add the exclusion, “If it makes sense to do so and doesn’t cost too much.”

When I say “we,” I include myself. Because what God wants is impossible in the real world, and I live in the real world. Some of the time, anyway. Yes, I fall short. Every day I fall short. I am of Babylon, and I shall suffer its fate.

I know this, because I can read, and I have read. The prophets reviled Israel and Judah for their greed, their corruption, and their selfishness. I am not exempt from that judgement. Nor are my country, my people, my brothers and sisters.

Today in church, we read Micah 6:1-8, in which God makes a prosecutorial statement against Israel. He’s challenging them to a court case! Israel replies by asking how much worship will satisfy God. (Worship in those days meant sacrifices.) God replies with these famous and oft-quoted verses:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

It’s not about how much I worship God. It’s not merely a matter of professing Christ with my lips. Yes, I have been given grace–that’s God’s part of the covenant. My part is, how do I live in the world now that I’ve received that grace?

God declared Israel to be in breach of contract. They hadn’t fulfilled their part of the covenant.

Have we?

January 23

Love and Politics

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)

The current political situation has become even bitterer than before. A lot of people are angry. A few are asking, “What can we do to find solutions?” Fewer still are asking, “What went wrong?”

I think I have an advantage here. I’ve lived in a major city, and I understand why Trump terrifies people. I’ve lived in rural communities, and I understand why so many people would never vote for Hillary and the status quo. (I think we need to get honest about the fact that we were given two lousy candidates to choose from, but that’s another story.)

Do we accept the premise that people voted for Trump because they’re racists? Then how do we explain that Hillary won the fewest counties of any Democrat since 1984? Counties that voted for a black president suddenly became racist and voted for Trump? That makes no sense. We have to look for a better reason that rural voters chose Trump despite his racist remarks.

Are liberals willing to listen to the litany of complaints about how the federal government has mistreated rural areas over the past sixteen years? It’s not about Obama’s birth certificate, though that became an easy tagline. It’s about the militarization and overreach of government agencies, the failure of rural economies to recover, and the erosion of rural values. And yes, many of these can be laid at the feet of President Bush. It’s also about how ACA screwed many small business owners, and there’s a higher percentage of small businesses in rural areas. It’s about how home-cooked school lunches were discontinued under Obama, and standard cafeteria lunches (i.e. junk food) imposed. I doubt that change had much impact in urban settings, but in Parowan, UT it was a dramatic shift for the worse, and was seen as gross government interference. And yes, it’s about the loss of control, and the perception that cities are getting favorable treatment, and that no one is listening to the vast rural areas of this country. Some of the worst poverty in this country is in rural areas, but it’s far less noticed and discussed.

Are conservatives willing to listen to the complaints of liberals? Cities are by nature diverse. They want to get along with their neighbors of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. (No one wants a repeat of Los Angeles in 1992!) They want more equity, and better access to health care in places where the cost of living may be twice as high, or more. They want education so they have access to the better quality jobs the city makes available. They want better infrastructure, because they have more infrastructure. And they want to see limits on weapons that can so easily kill large numbers of people– because there are large numbers of people.

The concerns of rural people are quite different. Their crime rates are typically lower, and for a rancher a gun is a tool. They react to gun control the way a carpenter might react if someone proposed banning “just the biggest hammers.”

Not all of these concerns are mutually exclusive, but some are. We cannot simultaneously have both more guns and fewer guns. That’s the flaw in a system that proposes a “one size fits all” solution. One size does not fit all. And whoever tries, half the country is going to hate. (And seriously, when urban people point to California as a model for gun control, and rural people see that California’s crime rate is still higher than theirs, why would they want that?)

When we live in our own little bubble (as most of us do), it’s hard to understand why the “other side” thinks the way they do. They must be ignorant. Or crazy. Or evil. Or racist.

They aren’t. I didn’t vote for Trump. He scares me. But so did Clinton. And that doesn’t make the people who voted for either of them evil. It shows they have different concerns, which apparently are so divergent neither side can understand (or even hear) the other.

Evil happens when we stop trying to understand. Evil happens when we make the “other side” the enemy. Even if we think they made us the enemy first!

Sure, we can react with anger and violence. Especially if we think they’ve already reacted to us with anger and violence. But what does that solve?

Instead, we might take a more Christian approach: Love our neighbor, even when he or she disagrees with us. Try to understand. Seek compromise. To paraphrase Jesus, if we wait for our enemy to come to us and ask for peace, what more are we doing than they are?

January 21

Time to Plan

I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.”

(The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”)

My friend Kim flew across the country to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC today. I applaud her commitment to voice her dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the way things might change for the worse in the near future. But the question remains: now what? Will a demonstration of a hundred thousand or a million or even a billion people change anything? How does that translate into political power? The government regularly takes actions that most of its citizens oppose. Unless there’s a lever to translate that opposition into consequences, they do it anyway.

First the obvious bad news: Trump will be our president for the next four years. This would seem to be bad news for much of the country, which currently gives him a favorable rating of 37%. And if you look at who his policies are likely to hurt the most, the people who currently support him are probably (as H.L. Mencken put it) going to get it good and hard. But it could be worse. If Trump steps down, we get President Mike Pence, and not many people want that. I’m reminded of the 1973 movie, “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which the best guarantee of the President’s safety was that the VP was an idiot, and not even our enemies wanted to see him in office. (Naturally the President’s plane goes down and the VP becomes president just as we are having a crisis with China…)

But maybe this isn’t all bad news. People need motivation to consider change, and perhaps time will motivate us.

Put another way, there’s a need for change and an approaching window of opportunity.

It’s time to plan.

As it happens, I have some experience with this sort of planning. For nine years, I worked on peace strategy in Sri Lanka. My team helped bring about a six-year cease-fire.

For the purpose of this brief discussion, the planning process can be oversimplified into three steps:

  1. Identify goals
  2. Humanize and build bridges
  3. Apply political pressure

This is where it gets tough. Because the first question is the hardest: what do we want? Vague ideas of equality aren’t going to cut it. We’re facing a system that promotes the status quo at best. It divides us, the electorate, roughly along urban/rural lines. And it’s supported by a media system that pits intellectual elites against the working class, dividing us further. And when you look at who does get what they want, it appears to serve corporations and the financial elite, not any of the divisions of the broader electorate.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The first principle of a sub-group trying to rule a majority is distraction. The most common means is to identify an outside enemy, while dividing any possible resistance from within.

The point is, we need to know what we want to change. Corporate influence on politics? The dualistic two-party system? Centralization of power that insists there is one solution for the entire country? D. All of the above? A constitutional convention implementing a parliamentary system? Dissolution of the Union? Some or all of these will appeal to people in different situations. It’s important to know what we want before we move forward.

We need a vision.

Then comes humanization and bridge building. We’ve been divided. We’ve been taught that “the other side” is the enemy. That’s a deception. They aren’t. We have to make the effort to reach out to them and try to understand why they see things the way they do. Urban voters are unlikely to understand why a militarized Bureau of Land Management is such a big issue for rural voters. And rural voters can’t really understand what infrastructure means in an urban setting. We’re going to have to sit down with each other and talk it through. Spend a week on a farm, or (for farmers) with a family in the city. We’ve got to bridge the divide if we hope to accomplish anything.

There will be resistance. Those who divided us in the first place don’t want us to humanize the other side. It suits them for liberals to believe that all Trump voters are racists, and for conservatives to believe that Hillary voters are gay socialist devil-worshipers.

But the alternative is continuing the slide, or dissolution, or civil war.

Only when we have identified a vision and built bridges can we consider applying political pressure. Otherwise, it’s just partisan politics as usual. Or it will become partisan politics as usual, as soon as the two parties get involved.

Which means we need to start now. Plan now. Build bridges now.

There will come a window of opportunity when everyone is fed up. Will we be ready?