Saturday, June 22, 2013

Telling the truth: The limits of 'civility'

Promoting "civility" in our political discourse these days is all the rage. No one who pays attention to the scene these days can deny that we as a nation are as polarized as we've ever been -- that is, in my just over 52 years of life. "Why can't we just come together, compromise and 'split the difference'?", you might ask.

That sounds nice, but it's not necessarily desirable or even realistic.

A number of evangelical Christians have complained that we live in an age of "moral relativism," where there are no absolute truths and everything is driven by worldview and/or personal opinion. To a certain extent I agree, because often missing from these discussions are actual, hard-core facts not subject to debate.

Trouble is that many of these same Christians emphasize certain Scripture passages and ignore others -- because, again, they want to promote a certain ideological agenda which may or may not represent the heart of God, thus exacerbating the problem they say they want to solve.

And that's why the church, as well as the nation, is divided.

Basically, we need people who are willing to tell inconvenient truths and ruffle feathers, which is something that may of us are trying to avoid. But we can't avoid it if we want to.

Last year the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" placed almost all of the blame -- in my view, appropriately -- for the dysfunction in Washington squarely upon the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Authors Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Orenstein gave specifics of how and when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was able to sabotage the institution and reputation of Congress for mere political gain. When that book came out, however, they were never invited to discuss their findings on the Sunday morning talk show circuit -- because they went against conventional wisdom that both sides are to blame.

But the evidence is overwhelming that such isn't the case. Republican leadership generally opposed anything that Bill Clinton did, though they were able to cut deals at one point. It's become even worse under Barack Obama, what with the distractions of his citizenship or lack thereof, his alleged ties to former Weather Underground figure Bill Ayers and former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, their blocking appointments of Federal judges and Cabinet positions -- the list goes on. (No, liberal Democrats do not do this -- one, they don't have the belly; and two, they still respect the political process.) Right-wing talk radio, with all its lies and distortions, certainly doesn't help matters.

Anyway, there are theological implications to telling, or not telling, the truth no matter who's offended. We can't tell people that "Jesus is the only way" and not try to be fair, just and honest in our dealings, overlooking facts that don't jibe with our opinions and calling anyone who challenges our worldview as "biased." (Of course, they don't consider that they themselves might be biased.)

I was once accused of suggesting that conservatives often act in bad faith, and the person who said that was frankly right. Until that's addressed, we have no chance of establishing "civility."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is Keynesian economics actually Biblical?

I haven't studied much economic theory, but of late I've come to appreciate the writings of Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times and an economics professor at Princeton University. Krugman has identified himself as a disciple of John Maynard Keynes, the 19th-Century British economist who, if I have my facts straight, supported government (read: political) involvement in the economy. Needless to say, Krugman gets a lot of flak from conservatives for that belief because of their dogma that government "meddling" can make things only worse.

But one thing that Krugman consistently writes is that the biggest threat to American economic well-being is the stubborn rate of unemployment, especially among the young. And his argument that present-day "austerity" programs that cut government spending are simply counterproductive in the long run makes sense to me.

Why is that? Well, one thing that cannot be denied is that a healthy economy has money circulating through it on a consistent basis, which is why Keynesians support government spending -- what's known as "priming the pump" -- when times are bad. Indeed, the primary difference between poor and rich neighborhoods is the number of times money "turns over" in a community before it leaves.

Of course, that doesn't go over well with critics of Keynesian economics -- "folks have to live within their means, and that includes government." But it misses the point that those with the means to do so need to invest -- to take risks, in other words -- for the sake of economic growth.

That simply isn't happening, however, especially with the 1980s advent of "supply-side economics" -- which not only didn't work but, I would submit, was never really supposed to work. It just allowed those with more means and power to sit on their cash and not release it for the sake of making more. But when you focus only on the bottom line you end up with a stagnant economy and the sclerotic politics that results from people focusing only on keeping whatever they have.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? Well, let's consider the year of Jubilee that was instituted in ancient Israel, at the end of the book of Leviticus. Every 50 years all debts were to be cancelled and land returned to the clan that originally owned it, so that no one became obscenely rich or, more importantly, desperately poor for long stretches. (There is no evidence, however, that this system was actually carried out.)

The basic principle is that long-term concentrated economic power is eventually ruinous to a society because, well, the more you get the more you want and you'll manipulate the system -- and pervert Biblical justice -- to keep it.

And in this country a lot of Christians are filthy rich. I'm not knocking that per se, only that the wealth can actually become a spiritual snare because then you can feel entitled to what only God gives for specific purposes. This is why "charity" doesn't suffice to help the poor, who under such a system are still at the mercy of the rich.

None of this is to say that the Scripture favors one economic theory over another, but Krugman and, by inference, Keynes hit on an important truth that we need to consider: Our culture of "hoarding" doesn't do anyone any good. So perhaps we need to change policy so that people who don't have can possibly "get."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The weaknesses of 'courting'

About a decade ago I became aware of a new trend when it comes to building relationships with the other gender: A new "courting" movement, the primary proponent of which is one Joshua Harris, just out of his teens when he published the book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" that became a hot seller in Christian circles. A follow-up, "Boy Meets Girl," really went "old-school" in which a girl's prospective suitor asks for her father's permission.

So what's wrong with that? Well, from the perspective of this perpetual "outsider," the concept smacks of more rules that you have to abide by as a Christian "ideal."

Some assumptions that the "courtship" movement maintains: You come from a strong, close-knit Christian family, especially with a strong father figure, and attend a good church where your parents are active and with lots of teens and young adults at your disposal and "safe" ways to get to know people in that age group. In that context it's thus likely that you would already know a potential partner.

But if none of these apply to you -- for example, if you're a convert, especially a male who doesn't come from that kind of background -- you're frankly handicapped. In many cases you can't spend time with other guys because they're already involved in relationships, and the girls often can't be bothered.

Having read the former book, I'm wondering how you can build such a relationship with females in that context when you just don't have the chance and you're not even around them. In most things men and boys need practice, and if you don't get those opportunities early on you might not get them later.

As you can imagine, I'm speaking from my own experience. The first woman I dated more than a couple of times I met at a small-group Bible study during my first year at my second college; although that relationship never "went anywhere," we've remained friends -- even after all this time and her marriage of 29 years. (I knew her husband before they started dating, and I did attend the wedding.) She didn't come from an ideal situation either, with her parents being divorced and none of her three parents, including a stepmother, being believers.

I understand that Harris is trying to keep young people, especially girls, from heartbreak. But I'm not convinced that more rules would do it.