Thursday, October 3, 2013


Democracy predates Christianity.  The Ancient Greeks developed a system of political self-determination in the 5th century BCE.  So, we have to be careful when mixing our faith as Christians with debates over legal policy.  Christ did not invent democracy and he did not champion it. 

Over the centuries, there have been absolute monarchs who professed to be devout Christians.  Christian lay people and clerics have earnestly supported dictatorial regimes in their countries--even in recent memory.  Thus, a democracy is not the only political system a Christ follower can endorse. 

Nonetheless, like most Americans, I personally do believe that democracy is the best way to ensure human rights and to avoid tyranny.  I've read and traveled enough that I really appreciate living in a country where average people can participate in determining our nation's laws--at least indirectly through elected representatives. 

But we should be careful to not try to make our political process into a religion.  Again, it did not emanate with Christ.  And democracy is not perfect.  It is messy.  Frankly, it can be unpleasant.  It requires listening to others despite our own passionate opinions, finding common ground, and negotiation to make decisions jointly for the good of our country and its inhabitants.  The political process is not a good context for absolutes and inflexibility. 

The basic thrust of democracy is that we have the responsibility to convince others to join our cause, but we cannot expect to get everything we champion every time.  Prior to becoming president, George W. Bush famously commented on the nature of democracy: "You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier."  There is a lot of truth in that statement. 

In a democracy, to some extent everyone ends up disappointed with the end result because rarely does anyone get 100% of what they sought in the political process.  But the alternative is concentrating power in the hands of one or a few individuals who are unaccountable to those who are ruled.  As we see in the cases of North Korea, the PRC, Syria, among others, such concentration and lack of accountability leads (more so than in a democracy) to human rights abuses. 

As a result, regardless of our theology, I believe that as Americans, we need to be concerned about the health of our democracy and be ever vigilant to keep it strong.  We don't want it to degrade and become less democratic. 

And frankly I believe that as the oldest modern democracy, we in some sense have a responsibility to the world to demonstrate what representational government looks like and how it functions best.  I believe that in recent years, we have been failing at this.  In a sense, I think that this has come to a fever pitch this week with the shut-down of the federal government.

Before I get some amens and hear choruses of "let's throw the bums out," let me say that I don't think the politicians are completely to blame.  In a democracy, we are all accountable.  As voters (or people who were eligible to vote but did not), we must share responsibility for our current state of political dysfunction.  We elected the men and women who have gotten us into this mess. 

Politicians merely reflect the will of their constituents.  Indeed, they often put aside their own values for political expediency.  If a candidate wants to raise taxes or increase military funding, but those positions are unpopular in his/her district, the candidate is highly unlikely to embrace those positions and be elected.  To the extent we have politicians who are inflexible and unwilling to negotiate, they are reflecting the will of the majority of their constituents.  The problem is not just the politicians, the problem is us. 

This is not unlike other social problems plaguing our country.  We aren't suffering the ills of meth and greasy burgers SOLELY because of unscrupulous drug dealers and evil corporate marketing.  The dealers and corporate food sellers would not be doing what they are doing if there were not a huge demand for their products.  Until we quash our appetites for meth and cheap fast food, lives will continue to be ruined by drug addiction and health will be impaired by childhood obesity, respectively.

We need to stop being self-righteous about our problems in this country and recognize our own culpability.  It helps no one to believe our self perfect and without fault while the other guy is entirely to blame for every problem.  Playing the blame game may feel good for a while, but it is counterproductive and lazy.  It shifts responsibility away from ourselves and on to others.  One of the costs of democracy is that we are all responsible for how our nation is run.  In a dictatorship, we could legitimately whine about the unaccountable leaders with whom we disagree.  Not so in a democracy.

In that vein, I've been very disheartened by some of the rhetoric of average folks this week as Americans have debated and griped over the shut-down of the federal government.  I appreciate good faith attempts to discuss ideas and debate policy.  But a lot of what I've read and heard this week don't fit that description.

Here are a couple things that I have observed this week to be particularly destructive as we struggle with the current political impasse:

(1) Name calling and insults.  In a democracy, we have to use what we parents often describe to our kids as "big boy words" or "big girl words."  We have to take the effort to communicate concerns, fears, objections and other ideas to our compatriots--particularly those who disagree with us.  Just calling someone with a different perspective "dumb" or "crazy" or a "moron" is a cop out.  It is lazy and incredibly destructive.  It demeans the other person and makes it very unlikely they will want to have a serious discussion with you.  It also, in my experience, denotes a sense of superiority that is often coextensive with class and educational privilege.  In a democracy, at least in the political realm, we're supposed to be equals.  Democracy requires respecting people even if you disagree with them.

(2)  Dismissing others due to the mechanics of their communication.  Yikes.  I've seen a lot of this in electronic media this week.  When people don't know how to debate ideas or they're too lazy to do so, they sometimes gripe at each other's grammar, spelling and punctuation.  In my observation, this is related to the first item I described above.  However, political debate is neither the time nor the place for lessons on the mechanics of the English language.  In a democracy, we need to be open and try to consider the ideas of our compatriots, not attempting to dismiss them on the basis that we believe they did not master the curriculum of English 101. 

I've noticed that people who do this kind of nit-picking tend to be well-educated.  In my observation, even if they have a bleeding liberal heart, they are on some level elitist and do not really respect those who are less educated if they have a different perspective.  The most nauseating example I saw of this phenomenon this week was one person who took another to task for not properly using the subjunctive mood and the other person responded to that criticism in Latin.  Most people don't even know what the subjunctive mood is, and few people in the 21st century United States have studied Latin.  The whole thing was clearly about nothing more than stroking one's own ego as intellectual elites.  Go stroke your ego on your own time, not during a political debate.

Look, my mom was an English teacher, and as a lawyer/professor/parent, I am second to none in wanting people to write better and use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.  But I also recognize that most Americans have not had the educational advantages that I have.  I have been very privileged in that sense.  That privilege does not mean that my political views should carry more weight than anyone else's.  People with less education have just as much right to participate in the political process as I.  I have no right to demean them for their lack of knowledge or mastery of the rules of the English language.  If they don't catch a typo, that doesn't mean my position is substantively better.

(3) Clinging only to labels.  So much of what currently passes for modern political debate is actually just the regurgitation of labels, the actual definitions of which we've often lost sight over time.  Using terms like "progressive," "conservative," "radical," "socialist," "Nazi," etc. can be a helpful short-hand to condense big ideas into more manageable speech.  But if we over-rely on such labels, they can be blinding.  We need to look past simplistic labels, which may not even be accurate, to listen and consider the actual beliefs and concerns of the other person.

(4) Only playing with those who are likeminded.  One of the most demoralizing things I've seen this week is when some person goes a bit off their normal topic to share their views on the government shut-down, but then some of their followers or readers on social media retaliate by disassociating with them.  They refuse to listen to someone on any topic if they disagree with them on hot button issues.  That is so sad.  Democracy can't function properly if I pack up my toys and move to another part of the playground if you don't agree with me 100%.

Like most folks, I am a busy person.  There are only so many hours in the day.  There are so many things competing for our attention.  I completely appreciate that we have to be judicious with our time, and prune away things that are not bearing fruit.  But if you have been reading someone's posts and had in the past found them to be a good use of your time, it breaks my heart that you would drop them because they espouse a different view point--even on a huge political event like the federal shut-down. 

We are both a democracy and a diverse society.  For those two aspects of our country to co-exist peacefully and productively, we must seek out different perspectives and try to understand people who have beliefs distinct from our own.  One of the most dangerous threats to our democracy is the modern tendency due to the wider availability of technology to associate only with those who are like-minded.  We need to resist that tendency.  We need to seek out and befriend people who have different opinions.  Often they aren't as different as we think. 

I have a dear relative who posts to social media political memes that frankly just horrify me though I love her very much.  (I'm quite certain she feels the same way about most of the things I share!)  But then she'll go and shock me by hitting the "like" button on something I share on a social justice topic.  It is always a good reminder to me to not assume that everyone in a particular party or embracing a particular label is in agreement on every issue.  Even within parties and labels, there are divergent views.

So what does all this have to do with the focus of this blog?  Glad you asked. 

Our habits with regard to our religious beliefs are often similar to our habits in the political context.  If someone shares information or ideas about our religion that are new and perhaps different from what we've known in the past, we often call them names, saddle them with labels instead of really considering their ideas, and/or we refuse to listen to what they have to say.  In short, just as we tend to be close-minded in the political context, we tend to do the same thing in our faith life.  I don't think that is healthy or productive, however.

As I've flagged before, it is arrogant folly for us to assume we fully understand God and his will.  Indeed, most Christians agree that Bible Study is an important part of our faith journey.  We need to constantly work to better understand his Word to grow closer to God and better live out his will for our lives. 

However, many of us are only willing to engage in such study to the extent it enables us to continue down a set path of understanding.  Any ideas that contradict our prior understanding are shunned. 

This has been the case throughout the history of Christianity.  Early Christian communities kicked out those who were deemed to espouse heretical teaching.  Later Christians went farther, torturing and killing those considered to be heretics.  Now days, we fancy that we're more enlightened and more tolerant than that.  However, we still tend to stick to our echo chambers.  We seek out only pastors and teachers who teach what is comfortable and with which we already agree.  But that is not really learning, that is mere reinforcement of previously held beliefs.  To truly learn, we must be open.  Learning is about accepting information and understanding from others.  It is not about building a stronger case to justify our previously entrenched perspective.

Indeed, it is important to remember that over the years, we Christians have not always gotten it right.  Galileo and Martin Luther were each considered heretics in their day, but most would agree today they were on the right side of history.  (I've even heard Martin Luther quoted and praised by Catholic priests in sermons!) 

In the 19th century, many devout and sincere Christians believed that the enslavement of African people was not only morally acceptable but was biblically sanctioned.  Such a belief is virtually unheard of today except perhaps as embraced by a few radical white supremacist groups. 

History can be an insightful reminder that our collective understanding of Christianity has not been static, but has changed over time.  What may seem unacceptable to some at one point in time may become the prevalent view later on.