Christianity’s Two Outward Faces: Charity and Justice

twofaces

After loving God (see previous blog post), the second job for a follower of Christ is to love others. “Others” covers a lot of ground, but this post focuses on the outward looking face that Christianity is called to present. I believe that outward orientation has two aspects: charity and justice.

In this post I won’t be talking much about caring for those who are within the Christian community. That care is important: in fact, Christ warns about becoming overly focused on the poor and neglecting each other. The church’s mission to the poor is so central that it can be easy to mistake the church for a poverty activism group (which was the disciples’ error in rebuking the woman who anointed Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13)). Followers of Christ are called to be loving to all, including your fellow followers, and that in-network support is crucial for maintaining a strong community. But I recognize that it’s usually easier to take care of those who are “in the club.” There’s nothing distinctively Christian about caring for family and friends. As Jesus said, even Hitler was nice to his family. (wink)

When I was growing up, my family was embedded in just such a Christian community, and my mother was a strong participant in the caring casserole network… at least in one direction. She was glad to extend Christian charity to others, but she did her best not to accept charity from others if at all possible. With all the moral acuity of a smart-ass teenager, I remember pointing this out to Mom, noting that if everyone felt like she did, then there would be no one to accept the charity she offered. (She was not impressed.)

But there is something here about Christians’ inability to admit their own weakness to each other. A strange reverse one-upmanship, a kind of potlatch charity, can arise in a Christian community. It’s one thing to admit that it’s more blessed to give than to receive; it’s another to refuse to receive because it’s a sign of weakness. Receiving charity isn’t an admission that you are weak; it’s a recognition that we all need God’s grace in the form of each other’s caring actions. Philip Yancey says that the church should act more like Alcoholics Anonymous, where people freely admit their powerlessness and their wounds as soon as they walk in the door. As the old saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. By giving and receiving care, we participate in a spiritual network that recognizes our common humanity and our common need.

But in this post I’m focusing on the outward face of that love. Depending on which version of the Bible you have, the same word may be translated as “love” and “charity.” Love is central to following Christ, and that word “charity” has morphed over time. I will call the outward, face-to-face expression of that love and care “direct charity.”

Here I’m trying to activate a fairly old-fashioned use of the word. “Christian charity” meant doing things for others as a way to serve as God’s hands and feet in this world. What I wish to emphasize is the directness of that touch, modeled on Jesus’s personal actions on earth. Direct charity (as I’m using it) is love in action that is up close, not at a distance. It’s caring for the welfare of others on a one-to-one basis fueled by a higher purpose. It’s a personal interaction between one child of God and another.

By the time we got to the 19th century, people began to doubt the effectiveness of direct charity, particularly to those outside the Christian community. Giving money to a poor immigrant on the streets of America’s growing cities might result in that beggar spending that money in a tavern. Once the population grew past the size that could be monitored, it became clear that direct charity might actually contribute to a life of dissolution. There’s an undeniable racial/ethnic aspect to this moment as immigrants come to America in huge numbers, and those who are different from you seem more innately untrustworthy, more in need of a parental guiding hand.

Also part of the moment is the rise of the modern corporation, which taught us to address social problems in the same way that we organized industrial production: through rational management and large scale. “Charity” began to take on its more modern meaning: an organization that pools financial donations and leverages them in instrumental ways across a large group. I’ll call this form “corporate charity.” And so the two forms of management intermingled: Henry Ford offered a dollar a day to his factory workers, but their lives had to be inspected by managers who insured that the money was spent on morally approved “uplifting” pursuits.

And so foundations emerged as a way to spread the wealth and manage it for good, and this remains the typical understanding of the word “charity” today, with the older, more direct form feeling a bit outdated. And I do believe that the more modern corporate charity has a lot going for it. The liquidity of capital has many advantages; we can now quickly move wealth from where it is to where it’s needed. But I also believe there’s something crucial about the direct form of charity.

Luke’s gospel says in the Sermon on the Plain, “Give to everyone who asks you.” (6:30) Full stop. No qualms. Now certainly there were beggars in Jesus’ era who would take the money and spend it on wine (our modern era didn’t invent addiction), but there’s no mention of that here. There are no added conditions to make the commandment more rational (“give to everyone that you can reasonably expect might not misuse the funds”). Such giving is an act of participation in a radical alternative economy, one where we are accountable for our own generosity and not for what happens after the giving. This economy operates by faith that a very different Invisible Hand is at work to multiply and manage the value of a single act.

Both parties benefit from such exchanges. This keeps your love grounded in reality, because sometimes those in need may not be particularly Christ-like in the way they receive your love. This reminds us that none of us are particularly deserving, that we share with the poor and needy not because of what they do or say but because we recognize the image of God within them. That image can be hard to see sometimes, so extending a physical act of charity can be a terrific reminder that we need not be noble or good in order to receive grace.

I’m articulating these two forms of charity because I think it’s easy to believe that the second form (corporate charity) can take the place of direct charity (or to believe that corporate charity is better because it’s better managed). The second, modern form is certainly easier and cleaner. And yet I cannot find a loophole in the straightforward commandment to give to everyone who asks, a commandment from one of Jesus’ most central sermons (he also says, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” (Luke 6:29) I’m glad no one has tested me on this one.) I’m very aware that I’m writing this as a man and that operating as a woman in an urban environment is a very different thing with different fears. I don’t know what to say about that. I do think that followers of Christ are called to do some form of direct charity (I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone). I believe that If Christianity operates only at a distance, it loses a crucial personal touch. The call to charity is corporeal first and corporate second.

The other Christian call in dealing with others is justice. If direct charity seeks to repair the body in need, justice intervenes in the body politic to try to prevent harm from happening to more people.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of language that’s explicitly about political justice in the New Testament. Most of that is in the Old Testament prophets. We tend to think of the word “prophet” as meaning “one who foretells the future,” and Old Testament prophets do that, no doubt. But they spend more time doing the other activity of prophets, which is speaking truth to power. Numerous prophets call on Israel to repent. Nathan confronts King David with charges of infidelity and murder. Continuing that tradition in the New Testament, John the Baptist both foretells the coming Messiah and criticizes King Herod, leading to his imprisonment and death. “Prophecy” isn’t always about seeing the future; it’s about seeing the present clearly and speaking out to those who can make a difference.

One could make the case that Jesus’ ministry explicitly stayed away from explicit political activism/criticism, being careful not to criticize the Roman Empire, certainly a government that didn’t care so much about the rights of others (“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is an extremely cagey response. When Jesus did speak truth to power, he attacked the religious establishment, and that thought should give every denomination pause).

And so while I clearly disagree with the idea that an emphasis on social justice is a misrepresentation of Christ’s message, I can see where this assertion comes from. Strangely enough, the Christians who are bothered by the notion of “social justice” are often the same folks who espouse a “I believe the whole Bible” religion, and speaking truth to power is all over the Old Testament, as I said. Even Martin Luther King had to fairly explicitly connect the dots between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament love for Christ’s followers in his time. MLK talked a lot about loving your enemy; he also talked about letting justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) He understood the limitations of Christian charity, both direct and corporate. One can care for the poor and needy as individuals without changing the social/political conditions that contributed to their plight. Charity has a bias toward the status quo; it is a balm that treats symptoms, not causes.

Mainstream religion is full of middle class citizens who have access to local power through civic organizations (or through the basic familiarity with operating in a bureaucracy that comes with middle class life), and accordingly I believe we have a special responsibility to work for justice. (Again, preaching to myself as much as to anyone) Direct charity is important both for the giver and the receiver; social justice is its Judeo-Christian partner. (Click here for a powerful articulation of social justice in the gospel)

Following Christ is an enormous challenge. It’s humanly impossible to do all that Christianity asks, and so we share the load. One always falls short in some aspect of following Christ, whether it’s the call to individual holiness or the command to care for others. Christianity is an aspiration, a higher calling. Most followers of Christ have a preference in their service, leaning toward serving within the church or reaching out to the unchurched, orienting themselves either toward the healing labor of charity or the activist work of justice. We all naturally gravitate toward some part of the mission, often toward the work that seems easiest to us. This post is a reminder (to myself as much as anyone) that the love of Christ faces outward (often uncomfortably so) toward individuals and structures alike.

Take a Holiday from a Political Emotion

Holiday

My recommendation for how to begin your new year is to take a holiday from a political emotion.

I’m not suggesting that emotion is bad for politics or that it is necessarily counter to reason. A lot of my scholarly work has been about how emotion and cognition can work hand in hand. But the left and the right have particularly tempting emotions, and if these become dominant – if they become part of your everyday stance toward the world – then they can hijack your political attitudes. (One thing I’ve learned in my scholarship is that emotions have inertia. They tend to self-perpetuate; if you are feeling down, you tend to seek out parts of your environment that confirm that emotional stance over and over. That’s part of the power of emotions.)

If you’re on the right, I suggest taking a break from anger. If you’re a liberal, may I suggest a holiday from sanctimony.

I recall watching Jon Stewart soon after George W. Bush had taken the White House along with a majority in both the House and Senate.  The Daily Show showed a speech on the floor of Congress in which a Republican was spewing vitriol, which caused Stewart to ask, “What is he so angry about? They control the government. Who is he mad at?” Anger had become such a common stance among the Republicans that it continued even when the opposition had been politically defeated.

Anger is a terrific motivation to marshal the troops. Beginning with abortion and the Moral Majority in the 70s and continuing through focus on immigration in the most recent election, the Republican party has gotten very good at finding trigger issues that anger and mobilize their base to go to the polls. It’s easy to get hooked on the righteous rush of political anger.

But anger is not so helpful when you’re trying to work together to run a government.  The difficulty is being able to pack that oh-so-useful anger away when getting down to the ordinary business of building coalitions and crafting legislation. When anger becomes a habitual stance, it feeds itself in ways that are counterproductive to basic governance. I suggest that conservatives take a holiday from anger so that they can recognize how much of a habit that emotion has become.

For liberals, I recommend taking a break from sanctimony (yes, I realize that sanctimoniousness is more of an attitude than an emotion, but I’m sticking to it). My experience has been that conservatives find a liberal’s holier-than-thou attitude to be infuriating.

As sins go, I think that sanctimony is not such a bad one. After all, being holier-than-thou at least means that you’re aspiring to some moral high ground. But it really seems to rankle many Americans, perhaps particularly conservatives who feel they’ve been painted as immoral, racist, unfeeling. Even if liberals do believe that conservative policies are immoral, a sanctimonious tone is hardly the way to convince conservatives of their error. Self-righteousness feels great, but it’s a cheap sensation, and the person on the receiving end recognizes how unearned that superior air can be. It tends to provoke a defensive reaction, the exact opposite of a productive dialogue.

This doesn’t mean that I believe we should give conservative policies a moral pass. Far from it. But I think that if we on the left want to do more than make ourselves feel superior, if we want to establish bridges and move forward, if we want our moral charges to be heard, then we need to find a way to talk slowly, compassionately, and without condescension about moral issues. Take a break from sanctimony, and see if that has become a too-easy prop for your own ego.

So historically speaking, sanctimony and anger are long-term temptations for the left and the right. And yet I wonder if we liberals haven’t been learning the wrong lessons from conservatives lately, if we haven’t been adopting a bit of the anger they’ve displayed for years.

Anger no longer feels like quite the same distinguishing characteristic that it did a decade ago. Lately many of us liberals seem to have adopted it almost as much as conservatives have. The temptation to anger is considerable, and, as I said, so is the political payoff. But unbridled anger makes civil discourse almost impossible. I believe that we on the left cannot abandon the great hope of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can reason with each other and convince each other through argument. I am not ready to throw that intellectual and political heritage away, to sacrifice it on an altar of anger, in spite of contemporary evidence to the contrary.

In such matters, I look to Martin Luther King as one of my patron saints, and I encourage both liberals and conservatives to do so (MLK belongs to all of us; he’s history, not just black history). If anyone deserved to speak in anger, if anyone felt disenfranchised, it’s a black person in the 60s. But how did MLK publically express that anger? Through moral language that was forceful without being dismissive, through action that was peaceful and public.

Certainly very few of us today have the same claim to anger as King did; how then do we rationalize namecalling and insults as justifiable expressions of anger? Maybe we need to take regular holidays from our default political emotions. I recommend New Year’s Day; maybe the next scheduled one should be Martin’s birthday.

As I mentioned, one of my academic research fields deals with film and emotion, and recently I had the privilege of hearing one of the most famous emotion researchers (Joseph LeDoux) speak at my university. For somewhat technical reasons, LeDoux said that he will no longer talk about “fear responses;” instead he will talk about “threat responses.” Anger and fear are both responses to perceived threats; the latter is an avoidance response (fleeing the threat), the former an approach response (encouraging us to attack the threat).

One might say that this is just an academic rearranging of words, but it started me thinking about how perception of a threat is crucial for fear and for its cousin, anger. If we focus on political opposition as threat, that leads to fear and anger responses. It leads to a siege mentality that encourages us to think only of eliminating the opposition, not working with them. Perhaps the key to taking a break from our habitual political emotions is to recognize the danger posed by thinking of political opposition as threat. I encourage us all to take such a holiday.

On Loving God

love                In the gospels we get a couple of versions of a rabbinical discussion about what the greatest commandment is. In Luke, Jesus asks the questions and confirms the answer. In Matthew, it’s Jesus himself who provides the two-for-the-price-of-one answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

A couple of observations to make right at the start: we followers of Christ tend to react to everything Jesus does by saying, “Oh, that Jesus… he’s so smart!” I can sense my Jewish friends rolling their eyes. After all, the “loving God” commandment is part of the Shema, the ritual prayer said each day. This is an answer that any observant Jewish child should be able to come up with (though I’ll admit that the “loving your neighbor” addition is a nice touch). The Luke version launches directly into the parable of the Good Samaritan as an elaboration on the follow-up question about who your “neighbor” is, and my experience in church is that we get a lot more attention to the Good Samaritan story than we get to the first part of that discussion, about loving God.

This emphasis on loving other people makes intuitive sense to me, since “loving your neighbor” is a human-to-human act. We can imagine what this looks like pretty easily, although it’s difficult to do. It’s much more difficult to picture what it would look like to love an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing god. That’s so different from our human experience of loving family and partners. And yet we frequently skip past that “love God” commandment as if it’s obvious how to do that. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on how to love God? We are told that we should, but how? And yet it’s clear from both Old and New Testaments that this is Job One for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The standard Christian explanation is that we love God because God first loved us. The more elaborated version goes something like this: God exists, and God loves us. As an act of love, a part of God came to earth and took on human form (Jesus). Although Jesus lived a sinless life, he gave himself as a sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus loved us so much that he died on the cross to take our sins upon himself.

As I’ve said before in this blog, this is not the simplest scenario to understand theologically. You have to recognize that your own sins were significant enough to require such a sacrifice, which is difficult for those who look at their life and think that their actions are not that immoral, comparatively speaking. You have to accept that the shedding of blood was the only way that omnipotent God could figure out how to atone for those sins. I can connect those theological dots, and I do so in a way that makes this theology emotionally and spiritually resonant for me, but if I step back outside of my Christian comfort zone, I recognize that this is thorny, complicated stuff.

It’s also a weird way to justify the commandment to love God. First of all, who loves because they are commanded to do so? Who has that kind of control over their heart? And who loves someone just because they give us something that we didn’t ask for and didn’t necessarily know we needed? This makes God sound like some sort of divorcee parent or stepparent trying to buy a child’s love. That typically doesn’t go so well.

I’m phrasing this blog post pretty aggressively so that those who are used to this kind of easy Christian gloss on “loving God” can see that it’s not so easy. Loving God is unlike any other kind of loving relationship. We spend very little time talking about how to do that, and I think we do so at our peril. If we spend too much time discussing our “beliefs” and not enough time establishing a living bond of love with God, then it’s all too easy for those beliefs to fall apart in spiritually challenging circumstances. If “loving God” is not a regular part of your life, if it remains an abstraction, then you remain spiritually vulnerable. Beliefs don’t sustain us, but love can if that love is real. Loving God is the primary call of following Christ; it also can be one of the most foreign aspects of religious experience.

So how does one learn to love God? I’ve been emphasizing the many ways that loving God is different from loving anyone else on earth, but there are some similarities. When you love someone, you want to share what’s going on in your life with them. When good things happen, you want to pick up the phone and tell them the news. During rough patches, it’s helpful to complain or bitch or get angry in unattractive ways that only a loved one can accept. The goal is to get into that kind of relationship with God, not an obligation to pray but a desire to share your thoughts and feelings about your daily experiences. That takes time and repetition, developing the habit of telling God the kinds of things you’d tell an intimate partner when you come home.

Little by little you build God into the structure of your everyday life. Eventually it can become just as unthinkable to withhold your anger and joy from God as it would be to keep information from your human life partner. Although the idea of a “relationship” with God is so overused that it’s hard to hear it with new ears, “relationship” is probably the best word. Relations are built through a thousand little interactions. Such intimate relations are resilient because they are emotionally real. They are not built on “belief” (that language feels entirely wrong — I never think about whether I “believe” in my wife). These shared experiences become part of who you are.

So my advice is to get into the habit of telling God what’s going on in your life, just as you do with a life partner. Like any habit, this takes some conscious effort up front. I suggest that this activity dovetails nicely with my previous suggestion about gratitude. As I said about gratitude, this takes fairly minimal “belief.” You can call this “prayer” if you like, or simply “talking.” (You can get awfully hung up on whether you’re doing “prayer” the right way) Such talk builds intimacy (though it’s admittedly weird to think about intimacy with an inanimate being). Although we don’t talk in much detail about how to love God, it’s Job One for a reason: loving God is life-sustaining.

On Talking To Each Other about Fear and Threats

This blog post was inspired by a Hidden Brain podcast that posited that the central difference between liberals and conservatives is their different reaction to threats, that fear is a more powerful trigger for conservatives than liberals. Without getting into possible nature/nurture considerations, I want to take seriously the idea that many liberals and conservatives respond to the world differently when it comes to danger and threat and to think about how we can talk to each other from our different worldviews.

The idea that a different response to danger is at the heart of the right/left split is an old one: “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” As someone who has been mugged (over thirty years ago now), I can testify that the experience brought up some dark, unexpectedly racist thoughts. An urban friend gave me good advice: “Be vigilant. Don’t be stupid. But don’t let this change your relationship to the city.” That encouraged me not to withdraw into a fearful, protective stance.

The centrality of fear-based appeals (and the resulting narrative of “protection”) helps explain the political conversion stories for some people who are close to me. My late father-in-law (who inspired the political portions of this blog) was a liberal for most of his early years before he switched to become a staunch conservative for the rest of his life. Guns became a large part of Bob’s life (he kept a “Dirty Harry” gun in his living room in his final years), and I suspect that the liberal opposition to guns played a big part in that shift from left to right. I think many liberals think of gun ownership as a hobby when it comes closer to being an identity for many folks (at least in its contemporary form). The NRA has been particularly effective in arguing that a criticism of gun ownership is not a criticism of your possessions but it is an attack on who you are. The narrative of guns as “protection” is an emotional touchstone for many, and if we criticize this as being fundamentally misguided, we risk losing those folks entirely as political allies. If you talk sensibly with many gun owners, they will acknowledge that conditions have to be exactly right for the “protecting myself with a gun” scenario to work (after all, many trained police officers mess up under such circumstances). But that doesn’t mean that the possibility of successful protection from a threatening world isn’t emotionally important for them.

There are relatively few examples of people switching political teams nowadays based on argument about issues. One of those possible turning points appears to be guns, or rather the combination of fear/threats with the narrative of protection through guns. My late father-in-law’s story demonstrates this, and to a certain extent my son’s story does as well. After a lengthy stretch of occupying geeky fan territory (Doctor Who, Firefly) as his central identity markers, he has pivoted more toward the emotionally powerful narrative of being an armed protector. Asking my son not to do concealed carry is not a simple request like taking off his hat indoors; it is a challenge to his values and identity. He has channeled these beliefs into a socially valued form (I am proud to say that he’s a corpsman in the Navy), but I recognize up close the transformative power of the threat/protection mythos in our culture.

I am struck by how our media consumption and fan allegiances play a role in all this. Following Doctor Who involves embracing a broadly humanist set of values emphasized in the show (which also de-emphasizes the idea that the Doctor is essentially a vigilante, albeit a vigilante with humane goals and a sonic screwdriver). One of the cultural axes activated by the current superhero boom is the need for the vigilante to overcome the obvious breakdown of official institutions. The omnipresence of apocalyptic fictional universes feeds the WTSHTF mentality (that’s WHEN The Shit Hits The Fan, not “if”). The survivalist version of this may seem paranoid, but it’s not that far off from the imagery that circulates.

I am certainly not making an attack on the “evils” of popular culture here. I am writing this as a comic fan who mourns the end of the superhero book Invincible and who is a Walking Dead follower (both the TV and comic series). The pleasures of pop culture can’t be simply read from the pop texts by an outsider. Pop culture can be both apparently simple/direct on the surface and surprisingly complex/polyvalent when it’s adopted into people’s lives. (Superhero stories, for instance, continue to allow people who are marginalized by race, age, body image, gender identity, and sexuality to feel what power might feel like and to envision alternative worlds.) But there are certainly aspects of our pop culture environment that can bolster a fear-based outlook on the world: a need for a Dirty Harry or a Captain America to operate outside the system, which can only squelch or hinder their righteous pursuit of justice; the seeming inevitability of social collapse as a way to envision the future; the apparent utility of the gun in dealing with threats (it’s much more difficult to shoot accurately than it appears on The Walking Dead). The combination validates a stance: shit can go down anytime, anywhere (true); you can’t depend on anyone else to protect you (also true); therefore you should approach the world with constant vigilance and maximum defense.

More official media sources boost our fear quotient, too. (I believe that I can recognize Fox News just by hearing the vocal intonation, which is always at crisis fever pitch.) There’s still a strong “if it bleeds, it leads” factor across all news reporting (though it takes a large amount of brown people’s blood shed outside of America for such tragedies to register in mainstream news). Although “the media” are often accused of having a liberal bias, this tendency plays in a conservative direction, stoking the fires of fear. Culture (official and popular) presents us with pieces that we can use to erect a terrifying edifice.

We need to recognize that fear is a product that can be sold and to recognize that it is economically advantageous for businesses (security firms, insurance, gun manufacturers, news organizations) and politicians to sell that compelling product, even if it’s not an “accurate” picture of the world. This should make us all suspicious of whether we’re being sold a bill of goods when we hear fearmongering claims. Conservatives (who tend to react particularly strongly to fear and threat) should be particularly vigilant, knowing their tendency.

Liberals, on the other hand, should recognize that it’s perfectly reasonable to see the world as threatening and to feel the need for more protection. (There’s always more protection you can purchase. It’s never enough) We are unlikely to convince conservatives that their fears are misguided, misplaced, or overblown. The confirming data circulate all around us, after all. But if we don’t learn how to talk about threats with conservatives, we will lose them as potential partners for the future. Talk about fear doesn’t have to be irrational. We can learn to talk about how to evaluate threats without having them becoming all-encompassing.

Maybe we liberals need to say to conservatives, “I understand how scary the world can look. It makes sense why you believe we need such strong protections, given what you see in the media. While I do recognize that bad things happen, that doesn’t mean the world as a whole is dangerous. Protection can cause problems, too.

“If you agree to consider the possibility that the world’s threats are particularly vivid for you (they are real but they aren’t perhaps as pervasive as you are encouraged to believe), I will agree that we can target the most specific threats facing us. I’m not going to oppose increasing security in certain areas that really need it; I’m not going to tell you that your view is unfounded or to repossess your gun. You will agree that a limited response to threat is what is needed. Let’s agree that threats may look different to both of us, and let’s find the largest threats that we both can agree on. There are real threats, but let’s agree that the whole world is not under siege.”

Perhaps we need to take a break from apocalyptic thinking. If we believe that we’re headed toward the end of the world, why should we be concerned with repairing damage to the social contract? After all, we’ll inevitably end up at each other’s throats anyway in either a race war (the right-wing apocalypse) or an ecological disaster (the left-wing apocalypse). The apocalypse is an economic product that’s going through a boom cycle. If we let it have too strong a command on our vision of the future, it can discourage the energy needed to work together.

I planned and started writing this blog a few days before a couple of highly publicized acts of hate-inspired political/ethnic violence (pipe bombs sent to leading liberals; a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue), and I could almost feel the argumentative ground shift under my feet. I sense how many of my left-leaning friends are beginning to think of the world as a fearful place, how the emotional gap I’ve been talking about between liberals and conservatives may be closing (except with different visions of “the enemy”). In the face of such events, I feel how tempting it is for the left to adopt and adapt a fear-based politics of our own. After all, we’ve seen how effective fear-based appeals are at rallying the troops for the right. But fear is a greedy emotion. It is the perfect commodity; it calls to be fed endlessly with no end in sight.

I’m not advocating a politics of pure logic with emotion expunged, as if such a thing is possible. Passion is part of politics. But I do believe that one of the roads back to a shared politics is for us to dial down the fear. That’s easier for liberals than for most conservatives, and I believe my people (left-wingers) have a responsibility to model what a politics of decreased fear looks like. We have to keep the faith.

Thoughts on Identity Politics Inspired by a Football Documentary

HappyValleysm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, so when I watched Happy Valley (a documentary about how the Penn State football community dealt with a child molestation scandal), it suddenly seemed like a perfect laboratory to observe how mainline identity politics works in its rawest form. After all, there is no right-wing or left-wing side in this struggle. The moral lines are clear: criminal assault against children is a more important issue than football. But watching how Penn State fans reacted to protect their community helped me recognize some standard rhetorical moves that mainline groups make when their identities are threatened. In this blog post I’ll lay out some of those strategies in hopes that we all can see them better when they appear in our politics.

This exercise worked particularly well for me because I know full well the power of sports tribalism. The longest-running emotional relationship in my life is the one I have with Duke basketball. That was formed through my participation in the interactive organism that is a Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, which is still one of the most powerful collective experiences of my life.

Sports affiliations, like all identity politics, are about pride and love. They also thrive on something that’s not quite hatred, though it can look and sound a lot like it. It’s perfectly ok for me to tell Carolina to go to hell (in my lifetime I have shouted many more obscenities at the North Carolina Tarheels than I have at any political group). There’s a ritualized antipathy that is simultaneously good-natured and truly heartfelt, and it operates within well-established historical norms. Those norms function much like the prescribed boundaries of the playing field where official rules try to protect the players from unfair injury. As a fan I take on the language of the sports participants: possessives (“my team,” “our season”) and martial verbs (“attacking” and “defending”), although my efforts have little to do with the outcomes (though I still mystically participate in that collective by waving off televised opponents’ free throws from my living room).

All is ok when sports remains within the boundaries of the magic circle. What happened in the Penn State case is that the ugliness of the real world intruded into the protected space of football. When that occurred, then it became clear that the identities formed through these ritualized activities had never entirely stayed within their apparent boundaries, that they bled into the hearts and minds of fans. And once “my team” is “attacked” (though those “attacks” are really “criticisms”), I defend my people regardless of the charges against them using whatever means I have.

For those who may not know or remember the history examined in Happy Valley, longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of minors during his time at Penn State, attracting enormous media attention. Everyone interviewed in the film admits that Sandusky was guilty, and they all condemn his actions. The thornier sticking point is how complicit legendary head coach Joe Paterno was.

When thousands of Penn State fans demonstrate on campus in support of “Joe Pa,” they physically attack reporters, overturning a television truck. Throughout the controversy, fans express considerable hostility toward the very presence of “the media.” In the less violent version of this hostility, they rail at the media for not achieving some impossible level of fairness:  Why are they reporting on us? There’s a lot more corruption in football elsewhere!

The obvious reason that people were reporting on Penn State was the simple fact that there was evidence of wrongdoing. Reporters don’t survey the entire landscape, collect data from all parties, weigh the relative levels of transgression, and then report solely on the worst case. They work on the evidence that is available to them. By saying “there are worse places; go there,” that excuses you from paying attention to problems that you know. (This is similar to people who say that WalMart shouldn’t be boycotted because of its unfair business practices: “After all, I’m sure everyone does that.” Well, when you get the evidence about other businesses, I’ll listen. In the meantime, I’m avoiding doing business with the wrongdoer I know.) Having evidence of wrongdoing is enough to justify the need for investigation. If we assume that the worst wrongdoer should be dealt with first, then the present allegations get a pass.

In the name of “fairness,” these insider fans also seem to want a full accounting of the pros of Paterno’s career (the high graduation rate for Penn State players, for instance) to “balance” any new developments about criminal activity and possible coverups. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what “breaking news” journalism does. Other forms (opinion pieces, longer features, investigative journalism) can spend more time placing events into context, but “breaking news” obviously emphasizes what is new over what is well-established. The fans seek an impossible level of fairness, and when the press inevitably fails, when the message is not crafted exactly as the fans desire, then that allows the community to discount the charges as being “biased” or not “balanced.”

Of course, providing feedback for the press about their “fairness” is fair game. We should monitor the press, just as the press needs to vigilantly monitor the institutions of power for the good of the republic. But finding them inadequately “fair” is not an excuse to ignore the substance of the press’s (or anyone’s) claims, particularly since “fairness” is an impossible, infinite horizon. You can always demand that your treatment should be more fair, more balanced. Charges of unfairness don’t feel like personal defensiveness because they lay claim to an impersonal standard. But if you’re focusing on the messenger’s lack of fairness or balance rather than on the substantive claims they’re making, then you may be defending your identity/community more than you are listening to what people are saying.

Penn State fans rush to “Joe Pa’s” defense even when they couldn’t possibly know the details about what happened behind closed doors. They do so because Joe was a “good guy,” and the “good guy” defense is an emotionally important one within a community, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A significant part of Happy Valley involves an artist’s decisions about whether Joe Paterno should have a halo in a public mural he painted. There are very few of us who deserve halos, but communities tend to offer them to their leading figures. The understanding of Joe Pa that emerges in the documentary is one that almost everyone can agree on: Paterno did a lot of good in Penn State; he is also quoted as saying he should have done more about the sexual abuse he knew was happening. One can certainly still be a “good guy” in public actions and engage in ethically questionable conduct in private.

I use the term “good guy” intentionally, fully aware that we offer this defense quite often to men through what Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” (For more about this, listen to Scene on Radio’s terrific podcast on “Men,” particularly this episode.) As the podcast notes, we extend “good guy” protection much more freely to white guys than black men (and, I might note, more often to men with class/wealth/position than to lower class men. The nickname “Joe Pa,” by the way, is a lovely acknowledgment of paternalism). I am struck by how often Trump’s defense of individuals is a variation on “he’s a good guy; I can’t believe he’d do that.” The world isn’t a morally simple place that sorts people into obvious “good guys” and “bad hombres” as if they’re out of central casting. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and so we should all acknowledge that one’s public “good guy” persona may not be relevant in discussing their private or sexual behavior.

Once people do accept the criticisms of the community, there’s a tendency for the community to demand that we just move on. Now that this unpleasant incident is over, let’s get back to the important stuff: football. The “just move on” strategy allows the community to feel virtuous (after all, the wrongdoer has been punished) and then to shift the blame onto those who irrationally want to dwell on what happened. By my time clock, we’re ready to get past this. But other people may have a different clock, particularly those who were directly affected (such as the victims of abuse, who can’t move on as quickly as the community wants). Policing other people’s “timing” has been a great way for communities to protect themselves from criticism. “You need to wait; people aren’t ready for this yet.” “We need to move on; it’s not good for you to wallow in this stuff.” Somewhere between those two prescriptions is the elusive “right time,” which is almost as difficult to find as the right “balance” of criticism and contextualization. The community asserts its authority about when we should “move on” to a time when they no longer are being criticized, which is a paternalistic way to shut those criticisms down.

So when a community says “Other people are doing the same or worse!” or “You aren’t telling the full story! I don’t have to listen to this!” or “He’s a good guy. Let him alone!” or “We’ve already dealt with this. We should move on,” we should stop to consider what these statements are doing. Are these truly claims about “fairness” and poor “timing,” or are they attempts to shift the focus off my community? (After all, we seem to make these claims much more often about “our people” and tend to be much less concerned with fairness and poor timing with other groups) Recognizing these tactics can help us hear the identity defensiveness behind our pronouncements. Hopefully we can pause first and think about how such statements can simply be veiled versions of “Stop picking on me!”

Quotable Quotes

Epstein

 

I have long been a lover of aphorisms. At 16 I started a commonplace book to keep such quotations (long before I knew that I was creating something called a “commonplace book.” The earliest entry – a quote by Anatole Broyard – shows just how earnestly I aspired to be an intellectual: “Even Freud, who was a pessimist, conceded that the neurotic thinks big.  The grandeur of his delusions is the last gasp of the epic or heroic mode in the twentieth century.”) I have maintained that book (now a commonplace Word file) ever since, stuffing it with quotes that catch my fancy. This is my longest running collection, longer than the longboxes of comics I own and much more efficiently stored.

Something clearly appeals to me about a good pithy quote (one that might provide the opportunity to use the word “pithy,” for instance). It allows me to have the fantasy that wisdom can be encapsulated in an easily portable fashion. (A related fantasy makes me overly fond of Post-It notes. If my entire to-do list – in tiny handwriting — can fit on a 3”x3” Post-It note, then my life can’t possibly be getting out of control.) This also has something to do with my Southern Baptist upbringing where people memorized Bible verses to use on each other with great regularity (for some reason, my mother was fond of telling me that “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” (Prov. 22: 1) The problem was that I didn’t know anyone who was offering great riches, so it never seemed like that much of a choice to me.) The Bible has a whole book of ‘em called “Proverbs” just ready for deployment. It’s hard now to remember the ubiquity of Reader’s Digest in that era, but I mined the “Quotable Quotes” feature regularly for what would eventually become (in today’s parlance) memes.

The saying at the head of this blog post is from my favorite essayist: Joseph Epstein. It seems that neither Epstein nor I can pass up a good quote (he wrote the forward to the Yale Book of Quotations, and he put me onto one of the oddest biographical works I’ve ever read: Louis Kronenberger’s The Last Word: Portraits of Fourteen Master Aphorists, a collection of short literary biographies of writers who are particularly quotable. Turns out that Shaw, Wilde, and La Rouchefoucauld don’t have much in common other than their quips). Epstein’s personal essays (his true achievement: start with Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life) are full of delightful digressions where his own voice is interrupted by a bon mot from someone else.

At another time I’ll pass along an appreciation of Epstein’s work, but it only seemed fitting that my first selection from my commonplace book to appear in my blog should be this meta-quote from the master. From time to time when it’s taking me too long to write my next blog entry, I’ll pass along a quotation from my collection just to keep the blog monster fed. I promise not to make them as highfalutin as the Broyard quote, but hopefully they will serve as little stimulants to thought.

About the label “Christian”

From time to time in my blog, I’ll make a suggestion to those who practice Christianity about how to transform themselves by the renewing of their mind. This is one of those suggestions.

I’m taking a break from using the label “Christian” to refer to myself. I recommend “follower of Christ.”

“Are you ashamed of being a Christian?” some may ask. Nope (or, rather, no more than normal, given Christianity’s checkered history). After all, I am writing a public blog that focuses on my approach to Christianity. The statement “I am a Christian” encourages you to think of your religion as something you are, something you have as a characteristic of your being. I think it’s more useful to think of Christianity as something you do.

I can anticipate the standard theological reaction to that statement. “Wait a minute, bub. Salvation isn’t earned. You don’t get to heaven based on your own good work. Salvation is through grace by faith, not by works. Once saved, always saved.” Amen and thanks be to God, brothers and sisters. But I’m less concerned with the theology than I am with the all-too-human habits that this theology encourages. Treating Christianity as something you are doesn’t emphasize how important it is for you to pull up your big person pants in the morning (or take up your cross daily, depending on which metaphor you prefer) and do Christianity.

What I mean by “doing Christianity” is not necessarily or exclusively “doing good works.” As I noted in a previous blog entry, you don’t need religion to do good in the world.  In the everyday mundane/sacred world, Christianity is less theology and more practice. It’s a conscious reorientation of your place within your surroundings. It involves linking what you do with other followers of Christ in a mystic community for a higher purpose. The things you do to follow Christ are (at baseline) prayer, meditation, contemplation of sacred writings, reconnection to God.

And so I think “follower of Christ” has its definite advantages because it emphasizes that this is something you choose on a regular basis, not something that is a legacy of a past moment where you were “saved” (I prefer to think that God is still saving me) or something I own (even if it is unearned). Because I believe in grace and forgiveness, I can say “I’m a Christian” every day. It’s a different thing to say “I am following Christ” today. Some days I do that; some days I clearly am pursuing my own agenda. Following Christ (or not) is a conscious choice, not a property of who I am. On any given day, I can lose my status as a “follower of Christ” without losing my status as “Christian.” Re-committing myself to following Christ helps keep me from taking my spiritual birthright as a child of God for granted. It reminds me that Christianity is a discipline.

You may think this is just another example of an academic making a big deal out of words. But one of the central claims of this blog is that words matter (it’s also a central tenet of fundamentalist religion, by the way, which pours over the meanings of particular words). Your choice of words influences your habits of heart and mind. Choosing different words can be an important part of renewing your mind, of seeing the world in a new way.

So I recommend substituting “follower of Christ” for “Christian” as a devotional practice, as a way of reminding yourself how it is incumbent on all of us reconnect with our spiritual source. But I am increasingly aware of the dangers of treating “Christian” as another identity in a world that’s wrangling over competing identities. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, and I wonder if Christianity has become first and foremost an identity in today’s society. I’ve seen a lot of Facebook postings along the lines of “I’m a Christian/Liberal/Conservative/Republican/Democrat, and I can’t wait to see who’s brave enough to share this,” and I’m struck by how similarly those identity proclamations function. “Are you or aren’t you? Which team are you on? If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”

Once your religion becomes a badge you wear more than it is a thing you do, bad things tend to happen. Lines get drawn around “my people,” and once those lines are drawn, the tendency is to switch into battle metaphors, to protect your camp against “attacks” from “secular humanists/atheists/Muslims.” And so we need to fight back just like everyone else who is defending their turf these days to preserve “our way of life” from “them.”

Of course the history of Christianity is a history of divisions into “thems” and “us-es.” The Catholic Church broke into East and West; Protestants split off from Catholicism; the Protestant Reformation led to the splintering of denominations (Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists), and those split into separate denominational bodies (in the US, often around the issue of slavery or along liberal/conservative theological lines). At the local level, congregations can split over innumerable issues (my father helped start a new church when a group disagreed about deacon ordination, of all things). Fundamentalism actually depends on schisms, as one group seeks to return to their vision of what the “fundamentals” of their religion are, a vision that has seemingly been lost in the mainline religious community.

Face it: we are much better at dividing than we are at uniting. We are much better at holding onto our labels than we are recognizing the humanity and spirituality of those who worship differently than we do (or those who don’t worship at all). I’ve always been impressed with the Catholic Church’s ability to house liberation theology and charismatic Catholics under the same theological roof. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the centrality of ritual in Catholicism; regardless of whether your beliefs lean toward the progressive or the conservative, Catholics can still share the same mass together. Although there are many, many, many problems with Catholicism, Catholics do take their name seriously, attempting to provide a “universal” road to Christian experience through shared practice.

And so I believe an emphasis on the discipline of Christianity – on following Christ – can help us overcome the tendency to treat Christianity as an identity that needs to be protected. Christianity has simply fallen prey to this too many times. Whether it’s Protestants against Catholics in Ireland or in the U.S. Ku Klux Klan, Christians vs. Islam in medieval and contemporary times, or Christianity against modern secularism, we should loft fewer holy hand grenades at the other side, or rather stop identifying sides in favor of following Christ’s example. Any defense (or – heaven forbid – an offense) that might be necessary for “Christianity” needs to operate in a different way than other turf protections. It needs to look and feel counter to the defensive ways of the world, where identities need shielding often because they feel so vulnerable. Within Christianity, we aspire to hold to an unshakable (and unearned) sense of who we are; we are children of God. We need to reconnect to that mystic truth without using it as a justification for hostility and judgment that seem so much a part of today’s world.

In my blog I’ll try to avoid using “Christian” as a noun, though I may slip into that from time to time simply for linguistic ease. (I will admit that “follower of Christ” can get a little clunky, but that clunkiness is part of the point, encouraging us to think about how we describe ourselves.) Since I’m thinking more about identity, my next blog entry will deal with that from a political standpoint. In the meantime, try taking a break from “Christian” as an identity. Focus instead on recommitting regularly to the discipline of following Christ’s example.

Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality

gratitude

If you want to move along a spiritual path, where do you start? Or where do you re-start if you’ve become disconnected from religious practice? Or where do you begin your day when you’re on your path? My advice is to begin with thanksgiving. Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality. And for me, giving thanks begins with noticing the world around you.

Religion is often criticized for doing the opposite, for overemphasizing the promise of “pie in the sky bye and bye” rather than paying attention to the world that we are merely “passing through.” Religion for me is actually fed by attention to the world around me, and that is an endless source of fuel for the religious fire. My glimpses of heaven can wax and wane; my access to the miraculous and beautiful of the material world, however, is only limited by my perception. Religion for me is an encouragement to engage with the world and its splendors.

It’s all too easy to think of ourselves today as the provider of our own world and to think of that world as made up of functional objects for us to use and consume. After all, I earned my place in life; I worked hard and pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I raised my kids to be good people. I bought and paid for stuff, and I own that stuff.  I, I, I, or as two-year-olds say, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” This way of being-in-the-world encourages you to think of yourself as fully deserving of what you have and to take the world for granted. Today you can sculpt a world in your own image.

As I said in my previous post, religion for me is an awareness of and a participation in the workings of a larger, transcendent universe. Religion involves seeing the world as a gift, not simply something you earned because of our own efforts. Yes, I did buy and pay for my house, but that way of thinking doesn’t acknowledge the limits of my actions and my knowledge. I have so little real knowledge about how electricity or internet signals come into my house or about where sewage goes or the physics of how joists support the frame of my house. I paid for those things, but that doesn’t negate their wondrousness. Owning something and having it in your everyday world doesn’t necessarily domesticate its marvelous qualities.

A religious perspective involves acknowledging your own limits. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but many of the opportunities I have been given have depended on others. I am not a totally self-made man. So many of the universe’s gifts come to me through forces that are beyond my own efforts and knowledge.  Religion involves altering your perspective toward a continuing awareness of the beauties and blessings that surround us. It asks us to repeatedly perform a mental transformation of the mundane into the transcendent.

When people talk about such reenchantment of the world around you, they usually focus on seeing God’s hand in nature: clouds, starlight, the smell of honeysuckle. Such talk typically has a “the best things in life are free” bent to it. But as a film and television scholar, the best things in my life include streaming video and downloadable music (as well as hot showers, good coffee, and, oh yes, clouds, starlight, and the smell of honeysuckle).

I cultivate an attitude that these things made by human hands are miraculous and beautiful and that I can see God’s hand in them as well. These well-made objects are part of my material existence in this world. Yes, I have spent rapturous moments hiking, but religion for me is not a call to see the sacred in nature and to ignore it in the rest of my world. It is a call to transform my whole world (human-made and natural) by a renewing of the habits of my perception. We can talk another time about Christianity’s radical preference for the poor and what that may mean about our place in the material world. For now, I’ll just note that this shift in outlook and response is available to all.

Once you begin to be aware of the miraculousness of the world and to consider how little you have done to deserve it, I believe that prompts an obvious, honest, emotional response: gratitude. I like to begin with gratitude for things I can see, touch, smell; that keeps me grounded in the world. Christianity has a tendency to get fuzzy, to move toward abstractions such as “grace” and “salvation.” Those are enormously important aspects to the practice of Christianity, but it’s hard to start there, particularly if you don’t have that firm a grasp on these theological concepts.

There’s an awful lot of stuff that you have to believe before you can get to a statement like “Christ died for my sins.” I prefer to start small and work my way up toward expressing gratitude for the big theological gifts. Otherwise, it’s very tempting to construct your faith out of churchy language, and I don’t believe that tends to hold up well in trying circumstances.

So you start your day (or your path) by being grateful for the blessings (physical and spiritual) around you. This raises an obvious question: thankful to whom? You have admitted that you are not the measure and source of all things. Where do these gifts come from? One could say “natural science” or “the economy,” and religion doesn’t deny those explanations, but it says that they lack something. Different religions propose different versions of the divine, but they all point to a numinous world that exists beyond what you can see.

Gratitude is a grounded entrance toward experience of the spiritual. It connects what you perceive to the forces that provide these gifts, whether you call that “God,” a “higher power,” whatever. It is a source of connection that never ends, regardless of your life circumstances. You can always transform some aspect of your day into a consolation. Developing this habit builds a firm relationship between you and the source of the miraculous, much firmer than abstract theological beliefs. The connection you forge between what you experience and the transcendent becomes a real part of your everyday life.

(For those of you who are in particularly contemporary Christian churches, you may want to put forward “praise” as the best starting place for connecting to God. Praising God certainly does a lot of what I’m saying: it acknowledges your rightful place in the universe in relation to an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent divinity. And as a church musician, I am very aware of the power of corporate praise. Praise is definitely a better way to start a communal worship experience than how most traditional churches services begin: listing announcements for the community. Beginning with praise makes the right statement about a church (God comes first here), and it can be a powerful way to link your life with the life experiences of others. My problem with starting with praise is because there’s so much belief that is implicitly folded into praise. Singing the praises of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is in many ways stepping to the head of the theological line (doing so in emotionally powerful ways, I’ll admit). Gratitude involves many fewer steps: I acknowledge the beauty of the world around me; I recognize the limits of my contribution to those wonders; and I am thankful for the forces that provide them. And so for me thanksgiving has advantages in renewing your spiritual perspective.)

In the modern world, slowing down is a vital part of finding this perspective (called by some an “attitude of gratitude”). Whether through meditation, walking, or other practices, slowing down helps us focus our attention; it alters our perception so that we can cultivate wonder (one of the great purposes of religion. See my previous post). At some point I’ll pass along tips for the discipline of focused, contemplative prayer, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with the possibility that the simple repeated act of thanksgiving can open up a gateway between the world around you and a larger world where you can experience the presence of God.

Why Religion?

cross-question

Let’s start with what should be an obvious point: you can lead a good, moral life and make the world a better place without having any connection to religion whatsoever (there are plenty of examples). One can certainly argue that organized religion…well… ORGANIZES people pretty well to do good, but so do lots of secular groups. If that’s all you need religion to do, you can join one of those groups and still sleep in on Sunday morning. If you don’t have a need that religion can fill (and lots of people seem to get along fairly well without religious experience), then I suggest you move on to the other parts of my blog. I’m not going to try to convince you.

I’ll avoid some of the standard discussions about why you need religion — forgiveness of sins, admission into the afterlife. If those are resonant for you, there are lots of other places to look for those appeals. I’m also not going to try to argue logically for religion. There is precedent for that being successful (C.S. Lewis being the most prominent case), but that’s rare. Pascal argued that you might as well wager on the existence of God, but I think that’s not a particularly compelling motivation to stick to religion, which is damn hard work.

Religion is not necessarily illogical, but it is grounded in experience, not pure rationality. And so I will talk in this post about needs (not arguments) that religion is particularly well suited to address. Why religion? Because it can fill certain basic needs in ways that are difficult (but not impossible) to do in the modern era.

One thing to get out of the way first: “religion” to me means “an awareness of and a connection to a world that exists outside the direct perception of our senses.” You’ll notice that I didn’t put the word “belief” in that definition. I’ll return to this a good bit in this blog, but I think that Christianity in particular gets way too caught up in what you “believe” (a fraught and complicated word. More about that another time). And so my definition emphasizes an awareness (ongoing, renewed) that there are forces that exist beyond what we can see.

Mere acknowledgment that there is a God doesn’t quite meet my definition, either. There needs to be (ongoing, renewed) access to or connection with this (literally) super-natural world or else you’re not actively practicing that religion (then it’s more of a passive “belief”). That practice can take multiple forms, depending on your religion: prayer, ritual sacrifice, meditating on sacred texts, devotional music, building a shrine to ancestors, sacred dance, creating iconography, and so on. (“Morality,” if you’re looking for definitions, involves conduct guided by principles. You can have that without a recognition of the divine, as in Confucianism, conservatism, or liberalism.)

Religion can provide a sense of awe and wonder. That may not sound like a particularly strong need, but I think it actually is. We are creatures of habit. Habit helps us be efficient, but it also necessarily dampens our engagement with the world. Phenomena that are pretty astonishing when you think about them (thunderstorms! Highway tunnels under bodies of water! GPS navigation!) become mundane, and then they either become part of the background or they become tiresome sources of frustration. Why do people always have to slow down when they drive through this tunnel? Why does my map app get confused when I’m driving on an overpass where one interstate crosses another? Why doesn’t this software (or hardware or interaction with a service worker) proceed more efficiently? We grind the world more finely, becoming more and more critical, increasingly aware of how less than optimal our existence is. It’s easy for the modern world to become populated with such annoyances; such a world quickly can turn angry, dark, and cynical.

Not everyone needs religion as an antidote to the soul-killing tendencies of modern life. Some scientists, for instance, can get this sense of wonder from their work by understanding in detail the marvelous interworkings of the world. Most of the rest of us have to accept that someone knows the physics to keep a bridge erect or that someone understands the specifics of how cell division and evolution work. For us, the universe can look like an arrangement of poorly understood but (thankfully) dependable, mechanistic processes. Religion for me is not a denial of science, but it is a reframing of the world. Because I don’t have the scientific training necessary to have a deep sense of wonder produced by my knowledge of the universe’s intricacies, religion helps.

Religion encourages me to see the world as a miraculous set of consolations when times are difficult.  One of my favorite quotes says, “There is no life so hard that is without consolation.” On difficult days, the consolation may be as impersonal and clichéd and brief as a sunset, but that doesn’t mean that these consolations aren’t real. You just have to look for them (as Alice Walker said, the color purple demands our attention and reverence); to remove the filters that prevent you from experiencing wonder (the thought that sunsets are clichés, for instance); and to connect what you see to forces bigger than yourself. If you’re a scientist, you probably don’t need religion to give you a sense of awe. For the rest of us, religion helps to rekindle wonder, which is a marvelous inoculation against anger, cynicism, and despair. If any of these are a problem for you, may I suggest that religion might help.

Religion can also provide purpose (I promise I’ll be less longwinded about this one). Through religion we find a continuing motivation to participate in the great good work of repairing the world through prayer, education, helping the poor and oppressed, working for social justice, and providing solace. As I said at the beginning of this post, many secular organizations do similar work, but I do think that religious purpose does provide some advantages.

Religion allows us to connect our individual efforts through the larger network of forces that operate behind the visible world; this magnifies and sustains our labor. It provides crucial encouragement when we inevitably encounter frustrations and obstacles in trying to change the world around you for the better (particularly when working within volunteer organizations of other humans). Religious purpose expands what you do, putting it in context of something larger than yourself. Again, if you have a strong sense of mission (through your vocation, your political action, whatever), then this may not be a compelling need for you. But if your life lacks purpose and meaning, religion can provide this.

Religion can be an enormous source of comfort. We all need comfort at some point in our lives (maybe the opposite of the quote above might be “There is no life so easy that it is without suffering”). If you have built a network of supportive friends, family, and/or mental health professionals that can sustain you through hard times, good for you. You may not need religion to serve that role. If you haven’t developed that support, religion can help.

It can bring your individual suffering into a larger context, and conversations with God can provide consolation in the quiet moments when no one is around. (And just to be clear, by “conversation” I also include bitching, moaning, complaining, and other unattractive but all too human forms of communication) There’s a danger of thinking of religion as something you activate only in moments of crisis, and there it can fail badly if you haven’t previously built a strong foundation of interaction with God. In fact, one powerful justification for continuing to work on your relationship with God during good times is that it prepares that bond to sustain you during tragedy. Again, religion is more about experience than belief for me, and people have found sustenance in religion for millennia. You might try that, too.

Lastly, religion can provide community. Yes, I do believe that you can practice religion on your own without connection to an organized body (there is a tradition of the hermit monastic, after all). Yes, I do recognize that much violence and oppression has been done in the name of organized religion. But I do believe that the solo practice of religion is difficult. It’s all too easy for religion to warp into a justification of your own preferences and interests if you don’t weigh it against the experiences and revelations of others. I am enormously grateful for the way that worshiping with others provides a regular challenge to my understanding of God. Plus the communal worship magnifies your experience in a way that individual meditation simply can’t duplicate.

I’ve always liked the comparison between a church and a gym. You can develop your body by working out on your home exercise equipment, but many of the most devoted athletes haul their butts to the gym. You participate in a community that way; the community supports you when you don’t feel like exercising, they spur you on toward better discipline. If you’re interested in physical development, the gym is an obvious place to find others who are interested in similar pursuits. You’ll find people who are further along the path, and you can learn from them. You’ll also find people who you can mentor through some of the struggle you have overcome. Throughout this blog I will come back to the notion that I think Christianity is a practice, a discipline. A good spiritual gym is a good place to work on that.

(You’ll note that a lot of the needs I talk about in this post are interrelated. Comfort frequently comes from community, which also can provide purpose, and so on. )

So: if you experience wonder on a regular basis; if you have strong purpose in life; if you’ve got comfort and consolation taken care of; and if you have a community, then I really don’t have much to say to you about the advantages of religion. If any of those are missing, then may I humbly suggest that religion can help. In this blog I’ll lay out what I see as fundamental principles of Christianity (my own religion). I hope that this discussion will usefully clarify certain ways toward experiencing the divine.

Next time: where do you start on a religious/spiritual path?

Small Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others. Big Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others.

LittleBIG

Ok, I will admit that this is a somewhat underwhelming place to start to find common ground for the political left and right, but I suspect that even this limited assertion may need justification in some quarters. At times the rhetoric of either side can admittedly sound like they’re emphasizing either big or small government as the ultimate good.  (Though, to be fair, even Reagan’s famous anti-government sound bite is more limited when put into its original context:  “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Emphasis added.) I’d like to restore a bit of Reagan’s subtlety (and boy, I never thought I’d say that!) to the discussion and move things away from the Grover Norquist I’d-like-to-be-able-to-drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub excesses. There are obvious situations where a smaller government works better than a larger government, and vice versa.

The clear advantage of a more localized government is that it’s more responsive to the specific needs of the community. For example, almost every tiny incorporated town has its own law enforcement and firefighting units. Although this is costly to duplicate these services across multiple townships, the idea is that speedy response is so crucial for these services that even small communities will pay for the added expense.

The obvious related point is that relying on many localized smaller government units is often more expensive than a larger, more centralized government. Although we rarely discuss this, this is self-apparent. The federal Internal Revenue Service is more efficient at collecting taxes than if we dispersed this function. Every large corporation understands this basic principle, that there are economies of scale. Once you build a mechanism for, say, tax collection, it doesn’t cost that much more to run it a lot. There’s simply no way that 50 different state departments of revenue can be as efficient as a single more centralized unit. We could potentially consider cutting down expenditures by expanding the federal government a bit and eliminating the jobs that are duplicated across 50 different tax revenue services (particularly in this electronic era when so much of the individual variation in tax schemes is taken care of by programmable state tax forms). I’m not necessarily advocating such a tax overhaul; I’m just using this as an example of the overall logic. One could think of an emphasis on more localized, smaller governmental units as a jobs program. After all, multiple small government units means broader employment. But we rarely talk about “small government” in this way: as a jobs program that is expensive but worth it (because it is more responsive to the subtleties of local environments).

And so once again I find myself talking about the way we talk about government/politics. The “big vs. small” government question is, like so many political topics, deeply imbedded in code words. “Big government” is typically a code word for the federal government, and “small government” is a code word for state/county/city/town authority. But this slippage allows us to expand government overall (and its expenditures) while we are shrinking “big” (read “federal”) government. The classic example of this is welfare reform under Clinton. By shrinking federal welfare programs, this pushed the burden onto the states. One response was to shift the emphasis onto disability programs (the number of people qualifying for disability has risen dramatically since the Clinton welfare reform), and so we have traded expenditures that are limited in time (welfare) for expenditures that extend for a lifetime. Again, my point here is not particularly about disability; my point is that we should view government as an ecosystem. Any upward or downward pressure on a single part (federal, state, local) can have an effect on the other portions of the system. You can biggen the government overall by reducing “big” government.

There’s another bit of sleight-of-hand involved in the dictum that small/localized government is more responsive to the community. Of course, that depends on who gets to count as the “community.” Having just made a fairly economic argument above, I’ll reiterate what I said in my previous blog post. I don’t think that the big/small government argument is primarily about money. I think it’s about a preference for localized authority or national authority. I believe that there’s often a simple test question that can predict whether you tend to favor small/localized government: would you have been well served by local government 60 years ago? Would you tend to trust that 1950s local government to have your best interest at heart? If so, you are probably more likely to want to return to that form of government.

This is another way to say that race matters. For black people, the local government in the 1950s was a point in recent times when oppression was viscerally felt (though federal redlining programs certainly made their palpable contributions to discrimination). The local government was the one you couldn’t trust to have your back.  It was governors and sheriffs who blocked the path; the federal government stepped in in very powerful and visible ways. The situation is similar for Hispanic Americans, too; the face of discrimination tends to be local (though the federal government is certainly doing more than its share lately). And so part of the racial underpinnings of left and right in America is a question of trust. Although “big government” can’t entirely be trusted either, it’s more trustworthy than the excesses of “small government.” (There’s a similar racial divide in attitudes toward whether the police can be trusted or whether they are suspect. Law enforcement, as noted above, leans local.) This isn’t ancient history; it’s fairly recent, and there has been little in recent history to boost the trust of people of color in localized authority.

Progress in the legal status of races is an obvious example of how the federal government can quickly implement change for the good. (One could certainly argue that the top-down implementation of Brown v. Board wasn’t exactly quick – in fact, it’s still ongoing – but implementing change from the ground up in every school system in America would be unimaginable) It’s hardly the only example, though (for those on the right who are tired of the left constantly returning to the civil rights era). One of the things that a strong federal government is good at doing is enacting minimum standards for living: the minimum wage law, for instance. Although the raw economics of supply and demand would insist that no minimum is needed, such federal laws protect against the excesses of employment and labor. Therefore a town whose politics is dominated by a single employer cannot reduce the cost of labor as much as the industry might like. The federal government limits the possible mistreatment that local authority is capable of, particularly when dealing with those who are not seen as a valued part of the “community.”

One of the biggest achievements for the Republicans in recent decades comes from their understanding that so much of politics is indeed localized. Concerted efforts to put Republicans on school boards, city councils, and other relatively boring governing bodies have been enormously successful, while too many Democrats have focused their hopes on a string of top-down rulings from the Supreme Court to protect their rights and privileges. And this battle continues today. Only a few years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was considering running for the local school board. My friend was approached by someone who encouraged the potential candidate, saying that “we have to make sure to keep the blacks off the board.” My friend said nothing, and to my shame, neither did I (my only excuse was shock). I was astonished at the brazen openness of acknowledging that certain members of the community should not be represented and the assumption that we were all united in this. Pardon me for feeding the fears of black people, but it’s not paranoia. This shit is still going on, and nice liberal white people like me are complicit.

I’ve been talking about the comparative advantages of “big” and “small” government, but there are also comparable disadvantages. An emphasis on local government opens up many more opportunities for corruption; a larger centralized government maximizes the damage possible by any single instance of corruption. Having many local government units multiplies the number of places where graft, favoritism, and nepotism can enter. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify that “who you know” is an incredibly powerful advantage in a community. Having many local police officers opens up multiple opportunities to exert illegal influence on how laws are enforced. People may bemoan the strictures of dealing with the federal government, but having to adhere to federal policies and procedures limits the reliance on “who you know.” Standardized bidding for government contracts opens up possibilities for those who aren’t so cozily on the inside (again, it seems to me that how well you would have been treated by local government 60 years ago is a good litmus test. If you would have benefited from a system of “who you know,” you not so surprisingly think we should emphasize local government. If you would have been excluded from the closed circle of local influence, you are less likely to think of small government as benevolent). The system is hardly flawless, and yet the American federal government is remarkably low in graft and corruption compared to many other nations.

A large federal program, however, does magnify the impact of corruption and ineptitude far past the local level. A strong centralized government can do considerable damage. Everyone’s favorite example of this is the Soviet Union’s unitary, top-down implementation of horribly misguided agricultural policy, which nearly ravaged the food supply in the entire USSR. Regardless of how bad nepotism, incompetence, and corruption is at the local level, there’s a limit to how far its influence can extend. I can see the sense in opposing a large, strong, federal government under a “first, do no harm” mentality. But once again I think it’s useful to think of governance as an ecosystem. If we shrink federal governmental influence, this spreads the opportunity for local governments to favor some people over others. The question is: in what situations are we best served by “big” or “small” government?

My own preference tends toward a trust in the larger federal government, and I do think “trust” is an essential factor in the “big” vs. “small” government argument. One factor that I think has swung in favor of supporting a strong federal government is the recent decline in journalism as a profession. As fewer and fewer journalists are employed and local news organizations shrink or evaporate, the difficult and boring job of keeping tabs on local government becomes harder. With fewer journalists devoted to the arduous work of monitoring city councils, county courthouses, and boards of education, it’s very hard to maintain the necessary oversight that keeps local government honest. One of the advantages of national programs is that they are centralized; a team of journalists can investigate a bureau and know that its influence will be widespread. A national program creates the opportunity for a big splashy news expose; smaller governmental units make for much smaller news stories. Given the state of the infrastructure of journalism at this moment, I think this is a particularly dangerous time for us to move toward more powerful local governments. To do so would be a move to shift power to where there is little likelihood that corruption will be exposed.

I think there is an important argument to be had about the tradeoffs of “big” and “small” government: an argument about money, about efficiency, about whose interests are represented, and about how oversight occurs. The starting point for that argument, it seems to me, is the simple, intuitive, yet seemingly rare admission that “big” and “small” government both have advantages and disadvantages.

(For those of you who have been wondering where the “Christianity” portions of this blog are, my next post will address the question “Why do religion at all?”)