Does Civility Work?

In commenting on the reasons for the latest deluge of vitriolic negative advertisement released by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, a political pundit gave a simple explanation: “Civility doesn’t work.”

But there is a prior question that must be addressed before one can discuss what “works,” or not: What is one trying to accomplish?

If the primary goal of politicians is to get elected or re-elected, then there is ample evidence that negative advertising works and civility doesn’t work.

But imagine with me the possibility of politicians being committed to the goal of “governing;” proposing and passing legislation that promotes the common good. For that hypothetical goal, it is clear that “incivility doesn’t work;” civil political discourse is required. Politicians on both sides of the political aisle must listen to the each other’s points of view, and talk respectfully about their agreements and disagreements as they seek to forge legislative common ground.

The prevalence of political posturing in place of a commitment to “govern well” is likely to become painfully obvious once again in the aftermath to the recent tragic massacre in Aurora. What possible reason is there to allow any U. S. citizen to purchase an assault weapon? Freedom without limits is license. Why is it so difficult for those on both sides of the political aisle to find the common ground of legislating “reasonable limits” on the freedom to purchase guns? I think that a major reason for this failure is that taking a courageous stand on gun control is viewed by many politicians as committing political suicide (for an extended conversation on gun control, see the “Alternative Political Conversation” on that topic, to be launched elsewhere on this web site on August 8).

As if the call to politicians to commit to the goal of “governing” is not radical enough, try to also imagine what seems like an even more utopian goal: Political discourse that is informed by a commitment to creating a polity where all persons are treated with the decency and respect that is due to another human being. For that lofty hypothetical goal, it is also clear that “incivility doesn’t work;” civil political discourse is required. To accomplish that goal, we must respect each other enough to listen well and then engage in civil conversation about our disagreements.

I can only imagine the protests of some of my readers: “get real, Harold, that isn’t the way politics works.” That shot of realism is well taken, given present practice in the political realm. But if politics is the endeavor by which citizens seek to uncover and promote a common good that will enable human beings to flourish, both individually and collectively, then the problem lies not with the two lofty goals that I embrace, but with the impoverished goal of just getting elected.

So, what to do? A possible place to start is with us, the Electorate. We reward those who resort to viscous negative advertising that demeans other human beings by electing them to office. We reward those who resort to political posturing in place of governing by electing them to office. We provide little external incentive for politicians to “govern well” or to treat their political opponents with dignity and respect.

And some of us who profess to be followers of Jesus are among the worst culprits. Too many of us have uncritically jumped on the bandwagon, adding our voices to the prevailing incivility of political discourse. That is especially tragic since my two loftier goals are deeply informed by a Christian faith perspective (at the same time that they can be shared by all persons of good will because of our common humanity). To commit to governing in a way that seeks a “common good” is a deep expression of what it means to “love my neighbor,” to which Jesus has called all Christians (Mark 12: 30-31). To create a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me and to talk respectfully about our disagreements is another deep expression of what it means to love that person.

As the political pundits are quick to point out, “Christian Voters” are a significant portion of our Electorate. So, now would be a good time for Christians to stand up in huge numbers and say “we are fed up with the incivility in political discourse;” “we will cast our votes only for those who are committed to “governing well” and for treating their political opponents with dignity and respect;” “our Christian convictions will settle for nothing less.” That dream pushes utopianism to a new unprecedented level. But, through the eyes of faith, I dare to envision that possibility.











Honoring God in Red or Blue

I wish to call your attention to an excellent newly released book that has been authored by Amy Black, who teaches political science at Wheaton College (IL) and is one of the six regular commentators for the Alternative Political Conversation (APC) that is hosted on this web site.

Amy’s book is titled Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason (Moody Publishers). Here is Amy’s summary description of the content of this book.

At a time when public discourse is too often harsh, divisive and hateful, Honoring God in Red or Blue calls Christians to take a more reasoned and humble approach to politics. I describe key points of tension that make political dialogue so difficult and offer practical, straightforward guidance for how to engage in political discussions, analyze political issues, and evaluate candidates in ways that honor God.

Whatever your political affiliation, I highly commend this book for your summer reading as we approach the November elections, Written in a  very readable style, it provides clear guidance for Christians who wish to model respectful and God honoring conversation in the political realm, as a deep expression of what it means to love those who may disagree with you on contentious political issues.

Christians Doing Politics take Another Beating

This latest beating was administered by Andrew Sullivan in his essay “The Forgotten Jesus” in the April 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek.

Sullivan asks, “What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?” To be sure, many Christians doing politics have succumbed to this temptation. Those Christians who believe that their calling in public life is to “coerce” others into embracing Christian values have indeed forgotten Jesus. Jesus taught us to engage others with love, nor coercion.

So, Sullivan’s criticism of the way some Christians do politics is well taken. But when he elaborates on his legitimate concern, he embraces an either-or false choice that I reject. He asserts that “The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles… They were saints because of the way they lived.” His assertion appears to preclude the possibility of Christians living as saints within the political realm, which I believe is a viable possibility.

But, on a more positive note, Sullivan is not arguing for “the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere.” He notes that there “are times” when “great injustices – slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation – require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will” (italics added). I heartily applaud this observation, until Sullivan rejects politics as an exertion of “power” that is antithetical to “nonviolence.”

In brief, my problem with Sullivan’s take on Christians doing politics is his equating of political involvement with coercive power plays. To be sure, there is ample evidence to support that equation. But this reflects a failure to imagine the possibility of Christians modeling an alternative way of doing politics, a way that is not characterized by power plays and coercive tactics; a way that is characterized by nonviolence and love, and that focuses on the “public witness” that he seems to embrace.

In this brief response, I will point to two ways in which Christians can model such a “loving” way of doing politics, and provide an example in each case of how this is actually being done. The first way focuses on the “content” of potential public policy legislation. The second example focuses on the manner in which Christians should engage those who disagree with their proposals for public policy legislation. Each example aspires to “remember” the life and teachings of Jesus.

As to the content of potential public policy legislation, the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 are compelling. Christians are called to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, health care to the sick, and visitations to those in prison. A common characteristic of these callings is commitment to helping the most needy in our midst, especially those who have been marginalized.

A common response to these teachings of Jesus is that Christians are to practice obedience in their private lives or through their Christians communities, not by political means. But that overlooks two severe limitations of this “private charity” approach. First, it overlooks the fact the evil does not just exist within persons (personal evil); it also exists within broken societal structures (systemic evil). And history shows us that systemic evil cannot adequately be overcome by only addressing personal evil. For example, we need to remember that the civil rights legislation that addressed the systemic evil of segregation would never have occurred if we waited for segregationists to change their personal beliefs and practices. As important as private charity is, it fails to respond to systemic evil.

A second limitation of the “private charity” approach to addressing the pressing needs of those in our midst is that it does nothing to “give a voice in the public square” to the marginalized among us. In most current political discourse, one seldom hears from those who are hungry, thirsty, unwelcome strangers, in need of clothing, sick, or sitting in prisons. The silence is deafening. Who will speak for them in the political realm, if not those who remember the teachings of Jesus?

Let me illustrate this alternative way of addressing the content of potential political legislation with a concrete political initiative that is currently emerging in northwest Iowa, where I live. A handful of residents of Sioux County decided that “remembering Jesus” includes following his example of welcoming the stranger and caring for the marginalized persons in our midst. Our thoughts turned immediately to the growing number of Hispanic immigrants to our community, both documented and undocumented. How could we show love toward these our new neighbors? Rather than sitting around a table theorizing about that possibility, we started by talking with (not at or about) our new neighbors, as well as with those in our community who work most closely with the Hispanic community: clergy, employers, educators, social workers and law enforcement officers.

What emerged from these conversations (held weekly over a period of eight weeks) was a deep conviction that the current system of immigration laws is broken and needs to be fixed, as well as numerous good concrete ideas for fixing the current laws (short of the needed comprehensive immigration reform that appears to have little chance of being legislated in the current political climate). The most noteworthy result that emerged from our conversations was a realization of the devastating effect that current immigration laws were having on the stability and unity of the families of our Hispanic neighbors, as revealed by heart-breaking stories told by some of our new neighbors.

In addition to launching some non-political initiatives as a follow-up to these conversations (e.g., an annual Festival Latino that will celebrate Hispanic culture), we decided that “following Jesus” requires that we take the political initiative of launching a petition drive intended to get the attention of our local, state and national political representatives. The substance of our petition statement, titled “To Fix Our Broken Immigration System” reflects the good ideas that emerged in the extensive conversations we had with our Hispanic neighbors and those who work most closely with them, and can be accessed at As of this writing, we have 514 signatories from northwest Iowa and we can envision, through the eyes of faith, at least 1000 signatories as we expand out target audience to other regions in Iowa.

But isn’t launching a petition drive a form of “coercion?” Not at all! It is a matter of “bearing witness” to a the dehumanization that is resulting from our current broken immigration laws, and providing a “political voice” on behalf of our Hispanic neighbors whose voices are not being heard.

The alternative way of doing politics that I can envision through the eyes of faith also deals with the way that Christians ought to engage those in the political arena who disagree with them about the content of potential public policy legislation. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to surmise that the current state of political discourse is pathetic. It is painful to listen to politicians talking to, or about one another. Personal attacks are rampant. Most political opponents revel in demonizing one another and impugning each other’s motives. They generally listen only to an echo of themselves, and typically hold to fixed positions with little openness to learning from those with whom they disagree.

The better way that I can envision for politicians and citizens to talk with each other about controversial public policy issues is that of “respectful conversation.” This entails listening carefully to the contrary political views of others, trying to understand the genesis of those views, and then seeking for the common ground that is necessary for promoting the common good. To provide such a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to safely express that disagreement and to be open to learning from someone who disagrees with you is a deep expression of what it means to love the other person, to which Jesus has called all Christians (Matthew 22:39).

Lest you think that is all naïve utopian thinking, I refer you to the “Alternative Political Conversation” (APC) page on this web site, where six politically astute evangelical Christians who situate themselves at various points along the political spectrum (from “far left” to “far right”) are indeed modeling such respectful conversation relative to a number of controversial public policy issues.

I close with two possible rejoinders to my response to Sullivan. The first rejoinder, expressed by Sullivan and countless others, is that Jesus had no political agenda. That appears to be true. But we are no longer living in first century Palestine, where Christians were a persecuted, minority sect, with little hope of exerting a political influence. We live in pluralistic 21st Century America, where, thanks to the wisdom of our founding fathers, Christians have the opportunity to give voice to their religious commitments. To be sure, as Sullivan and many others have pointed out, many Christians have abused this opportunity by trying to exert the power of coercion. But, there is a much greater kind of power, the power of love, that Christians should be exerting in the public realm, including speaking up on behalf of the voiceless, and we have truly forgotten Jesus if we fail to exercise the power of love in the political realm.

A second possible rejoinder is that politics is so hopelessly broken that non-coercive political strategies, like launching petition drives, have little hope of making any difference. For my long answer to this rejoinder, see my speech “Planting Seeds of Redemption” on the “Speeches” page of this web site. My short answer is that Christians are called to be “agents for God’s redemptive purposes,” faithfully planting small seeds of redemption, one seed at a time, one day at a time, leaving the issue of “success” in God’s hands and entrusting the harvest to God.

If planting small seeds sounds too inconsequential to you, I know the feeling. Getting less than two percent of the residents in our corner of Iowa to sign our immigration petition is nothing to write home about. And modeling respectful conversation among a handful of evangelical Christians in our “Alternative Political Conversation” may hardly be noticed in the current wasteland of political mudslinging.

But when we are tempted to think that our attempts to do politics in a new way, a Christian way, are of little avail, then we need to remember the parable of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree; so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13: 31-32).

So, my plea to Andrew Sullivan is that at the same time that he legitimately points to the non-Christian way in which many professing Christians are doing politics, he should be open to the possibility of a genuinely Christian way of doing politics, a “loving way” that has not forgotten Jesus.


Truth-telling seems to be in short supply these days in political discourse. Fact-checking groups are having a field day as they seek to uncover “truth” in the assertions of those who seek political office. Some of the assertions are found to be simply false. It is more common to uncover the subtle telling of partial truths meant to distort or misrepresent the positions of political opponents. In either case, truth-telling is sacrificed for the sake of political advantage.

As a person who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, I am called to exemplify a better way, that of “speaking the truth” (Ephesians 4:15) in all my interactions with others, political or otherwise.

My recent reading of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, written by the late Christopher Hitchens, uncovered an ample supply of truths, falsehoods, and partial truths that distort or misrepresent the nature of religious faith.

On the side of truth, Hitchens is absolutely correct when he points to some of the atrocities perpetrated on humans in the name of God, such as the Crusades, or the more recent carnage in Belfast, Ireland, where he “interviewed people whose relatives and friends had been kidnapped and killed or tortured by rival religious death squads, often for no other reason than membership of another confession” (p. 18). Persons who profess commitment to religious faith should never lose sight of these sad truths that Hitchens cites about the destruction wrought by some religious persons or groups.

On the side of falsehood, Hitchens is wrong when he makes some universal assertions, such as in the sub-title of his book: “Religion Poisons Everything” (italics mine). One had better be careful when making assertions about “everything,” since such an assertion can be conclusively refuted by citing just one counter-example. A monumental refutation of the assertion that religion poisons “everything” is provided by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and others in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s whose motivation for seeking justice and equality for peoples of all races was deeply informed by their Christian beliefs.

Of course sub-titles are usually chosen to sell books, so Hitchens may well have been “exaggerating for effect.” But, this book contains other statements that are simply false: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago” (p. 7); “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic …” (p. 47 – italics mine). Once again, the universal claim of “necessity” is false. To be sure, there are religious believers for whom the findings of science are problematic. But that is not true for me.

This latter example is an illustration of what I find most distressing in Hitchens’ narrative: the many assertions he makes about religious faith or religious believers that contain “partial truths”, but that distort or misrepresent the “whole truth.”  I will note two more examples. 

Hitchens notes, accurately, that religion has been a “source of hatred and conflict” (p. 255). But religion has also been the motivation for much that has been noble and praiseworthy, as in the Civil Rights movement previously noted. He also asserts that “The three great monotheisms teach people to think of “Life itself [as] a poor thing; an interval in which to prepare for the hereafter or the coming – or second coming – of the Messiah” (pp. 73-74). To be sure, there are religious people who fit that description. But that partial truth doesn’t describe me. I embrace life, in the here and now.

Hitchens’ most troublesome partial truth is his view of the “faith” that is held by religious believers. He seems to equate faith with “blind belief” (p. 249) for which one cannot present “reasons.” This assertion is contrary to the essence of my faith as a Christian, which most fundamentally refers to my commitment to faithfully following Jesus. And my commitment to follow Jesus does not preclude my having good reasons for such commitment, reasons that I believe can be stated in terms of my Christian perspective on life, the world, and my place in that world making the most sense of my world of experience. 

It is Hitchens’ inadequate view of the meaning of “faith” that leads him to further assert that “faith is helping to choke free inquiry” (p. 137). Once again, Hitchens does capture a partial truth, for there are religious believers for whom faith is a blind belief that is the “enemy of … inquiry” (p. 229). But that description does not fit me.

Here then is the problem with the many partial truths that are sprinkled thoughout Hitchens’ narrative: When a partial truth is presented as the whole truth, it is a “conversation stopper.” But when it is acknowledged as a partial truth, it opens up the possibility of further conversation intended to arrive at a better grasp of the whole truth. 

By erroneously presenting a partial truth as the whole truth, Hitchens closes the door on the possibility of ongoing conversation in search of a broader truth. And that door is locked shut by his penchant for name-calling when he disagrees with someone. Starting with the more modest examples and working our way up (or is it down), he asserts that the British evangelist Malcolm Muggeridge was “silly” (p. 145); those involved with the intelligent design movement are “boobies” (p. 269); the late Jerry Falwell was a “fraud” (p. 290); “Sir Isaac Newton … was a spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind” (p. 65); and “Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus” (p. 64).  

Name-calling is not a good way to start a conversation. A much better way is to begin the conversation by listening to someone who disagrees with you, trying to empathetically understand the reasons that person has for his/her views; then expressing your contrary views, and your reasons for your views, in a gracious non-coercive manner that invites ongoing conversation; and then engaging the other in respectful conversation about your differences with the goal of attaining a better grasp of the “whole truth” (uncovering what Michael King has called “mutual treasures” in a book that King and I edited titled Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse). 

This better way to start a conversation is an elaboration of the remainder of the exhortation from Ephesians 4:15: “Speaking the truth in love” (italics mine), since providing a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement, and then respectfully engaging that person in conversation about your disagreements is a deep expression of what it means to love that person, to which Jesus calls me and all others who claim to be his followers. 

It is my hope that “speaking the truth in love” will be modeled in the “Alternative Political Conversation” (APC) eCircle that will be launched on this web site on February 1. In stark contrast to the hyper-partisan, often vitriolic political discourse that you will be exposed to by most of the mainstream media up until Election Day 2012, we will present an alternative discourse in which six Christians who are astute political observers situating themselves all along the political spectrum, from “far left” to “far right,” will post position papers every 3 or so weeks on pre-announced public policy issues (e.g., the Federal budget deficit, immigration, abortion), after which they will respond to each other’s postings and interested readers will be given the opportunity to submit responses. Rather than being “conversation stoppers,” the postings from our six regular commentators will be “conversation starters,” expressed in ways that respect those who disagree about their respective glimpses of the truth regarding important public policy issues. You are invited to join that conversation. 

My prayer is that come Election Day 2012, we will be able to look back on the record of this APC conversation and point to marvelous exemplifications of “speaking the truth in love.”

Listening Only to an Echo of Yourself

My hope for mutual learning when persons who disagree with one another engage in respectful conversation is an impossible dream if you can’t get those who disagree into the same room.

In an opinion piece in the April 20, 2008 issue of the Los Angeles Times, titled “Talking to Ourselves,” Susan Jacoby tells of her experience of delivering a lecture on the history of America secularism at Eastern Kentucky University. Concurrent with her lecture, the Campus Crusade for Christ organization on campus had scheduled a competing lecture, reflecting their stated strategy to “counter-program secular lectures on college campuses.” As a result, both lectures were attended almost exclusively by persons who already agreed with the speaker. Jacoby’s conclusion is that “Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold,” demonstrating a strong reluctance “to give a fair hearing – or any hearing at all – to opposing points of view,” wanting to hear only an “echo” of themselves.

The internet and cable TV have surely magnified this tendency to only listen to an echo of yourself. Whatever your opinion about a given issue, you can go online and find volumes of support for your position. And, if you find enough people online who agree with your viewpoint, it too easily serves to confirm your fixed position, and you are tempted to believe that your position must be true, even if it is blatantly false. And, the same listening only to an echo of yourself takes place if you get your cable news exclusively from FOX News or MSNBC.  An exclusive diet of either Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz will never lead you to entertain the possibility that your point of view on the issue at hand may be wrong, and that you may actually learn something by listening to someone who disagrees with you.

This tendency for persons to only want to hear an echo of themselves came home to me personally in a recent program that I shaped and implementing as an Adult Discipleship offering in my home church (American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa). In light of the growing migration of Hispanic persons to Sioux County, a number of us have been seeking ways to support and encourage our new neighbors. My initiative focused on my conviction that current immigration law needs to be reformed. In that context, our church offered an eight week series on the theme “Christian Perspectives on Immigration in Northwest Iowa” that included conversations with some of our Hispanic neighbors, discussions about relevant biblical and theological principles, a conversation with a local immigration lawyer, and conversations with local residents who are actively engaged with the Hispanic community (educators, social service providers, employers, and law enforcement officers).

This series was well received, extremely informative, and reasonably well attended (ranging from about 30 to 100 attendees per session). But there was a lot of “preaching to the choir,” since those who attended were typically very sympathetic to the challenges faced by our new Hispanic neighbors. Despite this series being broadly advertised, including personal invitations sent to the pastors/parish priests at over 100 churches in Sioux County, few people, if any, showed up who would argue for strong measures to identify and deport illegal immigrants rather than considering possible pathways to citizenship. And there are many residents of Sioux County who take that position, led by our congressional representative, Stephen King.

In a nutshell, we were often just listening to an echo of ourselves. A golden opportunity for mutual learning among those who disagree with one another on this contentious issue was squandered. A lesson we learned is that it just does not work to issue broad invitations, with the hope that those taking both sides of the issue at hand will gather together for respectful conversation about their differences, especially when, as in this case, the church sponsoring the series has a reputation for greater openness to diverse views on contentious social issues than most of the other local churches.

What can be done to counteract this tendency to only listen to an echo of yourself? Rather than just issuing open invitations and hoping that “they will come,” a better strategy is to identify friends and acquaintances who you already know are likely to take different views on the issues at hand, and invite them to a smaller group conversation about their differences (which could also include a general invitation to those who would like to initially listen to the presentation of alternative perspectives, and then engage the presenters in conversation).

In our particular case, as a possible follow-up to our immigration series, a small sub-group of attendees is considering the possibility of drafting a statement on our perceived need for comprehensive immigration reform, and then personally inviting a small group of friends and acquaintances who we believe will disagree with our statement to meet with us to discuss our statement as well as an alternative statement that they may wish to formulate, with a larger audience also being invited to attend.  If this materializes, I will report in a later Blog musing whether we were successful in getting beyond our tendencies to want to only hear an echo of ourselves.

Neither Withdrawal nor Conquest: Planting Seeds for Redemption

I am dismayed that the stance many Christians take toward the societies in which they live is either “withdrawal” or “conquest.” I reject both of these options for a strategy that I call “planting seeds for redemptive change.”

Many Christians who advocate for withdrawal from society are motivated by intentions that should be applauded. Accurately observing the destructive effects on society of individual and collective sin, as well as the brokenness caused by systemic evil, they focus on the need for Christian communities to model a better way, to bear witness through their communal life of Christian values such as compassion, justice and peace. So far, so good. Possibly our non-Christian neighbors would “sit up and take more notice” if more of our Christian communities actually lived out these values rather than just giving them lip service.

But that good focus on communal modeling of Christian values is hardly an argument for withdrawal from society. Why can’t we have it both ways? I believe that at the same time that we aspire to model Christian values within our Christian communities, we should be agents for fostering these values within the societies in which we live.

Of course, that strategy raises the specter of “conquest.” According to this stance, Christians are called to bring their societies into conformity with Christian values. After all, the entirety of God’s Creation groans for redemption from the destructive effects of sin and evil (Romans 8:22), and God intends to “reconcile to himself all things” through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20). So, those advocating conquest argue that we Christians should do whatever needs to be done to bring in “the Kingdom of God.”

But the demanding biblical teaching is that the kingdom of God will not be brought to fruition by conquest, but by the counter-intuitive means of love. And the biblical teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God is that it is “the already, but not yet” (referred to by theologians as “realized eschatology”). What could that possibly mean?

First, it means that the realization of Kingdom values is not reserved for some future time. It was inaugurated by Jesus. But its full realization is in the future. What is to be done in the meantime? The response of Jesus is pointed to in one of his parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13: 31-32).

My agency on behalf of God’s redemptive purposes does not involve conquest. It involves my faithfully planting small seeds of redemption. And I plant without the illusion that my work will bring in the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Rather, I can at best create intimations of the full realization of kingdom values to come, much like a sunrise hints at the full noonday sunshine to come.  Although I can’t begin to imagine how it may be possible in our broken world, it is through the eyes of faith that I believe the day will come when human conflict, injustice, oppression, environmental pollution, ignorance and ugliness will be no more. God’s good intentions for Creation will be perfectly realized. In the meantime, I am called to faithfully plant seeds, one day at a time, toward the accomplishment of these worthy ends, entrusting the harvest to God.

One can readily see many ways to plant such redemptive seeds, such as the food pantry and glass recycling programs that my local church has established. But how about the rough and messy world of politics? How can one plant redemptive seeds in political discourse without deteriorating into a push for conquest? For my long response, I refer you to chapter 20 of my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking, where I address two questions: Should Religious People Do Politics? If So, With What Agenda?

My short response starts with the recognition that there is no such thing as “value-neutral” politics. Every legislative proposal is informed by value commitments No one leaves their values at the door of the legislative chamber. Some come to political discourse with values informed by the Christian faith. Others come with proposals informed by other religious faiths, or secular faiths. In the midst of such pluralism, a safe and welcoming space needs to be provided that enables all voices to be heard, expressed in terms that are understandable to all, followed by respectful conversation about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of each proposal as politicians seek to identify a common good that reflects our common humanity.

Hopefully, Christians involved in such political discourse will give evidence of the Christian virtues of humility, patience, and love, and will model that rare combination of commitment to their own Christian beliefs and openness to learning from others by empathetically seeking to understand differing points of view. By creating such a welcoming space, Christian politicians will provide a good opportunity for Christian perspectives to gain a fair hearing on a level playing field with all other perspectives. In the corridors of power, the power that Christian politicians may thereby be exercising can be thought of as the power of love, for creating welcoming spaces for those who disagree with you is a deep expression of loving them. That way of exercising power is surely a utopian ideal given our current political climate. But Christians in politics must aspire to that ideal.

Chutzpah and Humility

“Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens a democracy needs.” I had never seen these two words used in the same sentence, until I read Parker Palmer’s excellent recent book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (p. 43).

Parker defines chutzpah as “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” I know a lot of people who have chutzpah to spare.

Parker defines “humility” as “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all.” I know fewer people, especially those with chutzpah, who give much evidence of such humility.

My experience suggests that it is rare to find a person who exemplifies both chutzpah and humility. In current public discourse, especially in the political realm, I often hear persons who do not hesitate to express their beliefs on the issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction, and I applaud such chutzpah. But seldom do I hear a strong argument for one’s position followed by the words “I could be wrong, what do you think?” Palmer describes this much needed rare combination as follows: “I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other,’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction,” where by “the other” he means those persons who we would not consider to be of “our own kind” (p. 38).

Through the eyes of faith and hope, I can envision a much improved mode of public discourse, in our churches, schools, and political venues where we create a safe, welcoming space for everyone who has gathered to express their views with clarity and deep conviction, followed by a respectful give-and-take that reflects the honest acknowledgment by each of us that “I could be wrong,” and could therefore learn from the persons who disagree with me.

Class Warfare or Not

President Obama is inciting “class warfare.” That is the charge of numerous Republicans in the wake of Obama’s Jobs Bill that proposes increasing tax rates for millionaires. The war that is feared is between the wealthy and the rest of us. Whether Obama’s proposal amounts to class warfare depends on your response to a prior question: What does it mean to be a human being?

My views on human nature are deeply informed by my Christian faith. I embrace “individuality,” by which I mean that each human being is a unique individual, endowed with gifts that he or she ought to be able to exercise. That is part of my understanding of what it means to be created in the “Image of God.”

But I also embrace “connectivity.” An essential aspect of the human condition is that we are social beings who are connected to other persons, and we have a responsibility to care for the well-being of others. For Christians that is our response to the call of Jesus for us to “love our neighbors.” There is a plethora of biblical teachings that elaborate on this responsibility. For me the most compelling is the teaching of Jesus that those who will “inherit the kingdom” are those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and visits to the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 34-40).

Biblical teachings that focus on our connectivity are not limited to the words of Jesus. Both testaments of the Bible are replete with the call do justice, which includes caring for the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, the stranger, the disenfranchised and oppressed, and all those less fortunate than us (for a rich compendium of biblical teachings on justice, see Timothy Keller’s recent book Generous Justice).

The need to create a proper balance between individuality and connectivity, often holding the two in tension, is pointed to in the Apostle’s Paul teaching about the nature of “Christian liberty.” Paul teaches that Christians have indeed been given “freedom,” an idea that fits well with an emphasis on individuality. But, he explains that such freedom is bounded; it does not provide license to do as you please. Rather, Christians are called to give expression to their freedom by “being servants to one another,” because “the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5: 13-14).To be sure, this teaching is directed to Christians at a particular place and time. But I believe it is a universal teaching intended for all human beings because of our common humanity.

To be even more meddlesome, I point to another teaching of Jesus: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12: 48). President Kennedy appropriated this teaching of Jesus when he told the American people that “To those whom much is given, much is expected” (The Uncommon Wisdom of JFK:A Portrait in His Own Words).  This teaching does not preclude the earning of wealth. But it suggests that we use our wealth for the greater good that reflects our connectivity with others.

Note carefully that the many biblical teachings that point to our human “connectivity” are not meant to negate our “individuality.” But they do negate an abuse of the our individuality that Alexis de Toqueville, a French visitor to the United States in 1831-32, called “Individualism;” which he defined as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (Democracy in America, trans. J. P. Meyer, Anchor Books, 1969, p.508; quoted in  Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p.  41).

My problem with the claim that President Obama is inciting class warfare by proposing an increase in tax rates for the wealthy is that it buys into “individualism,” thereby ignoring our connectivity that calls all human beings to care for one another.

Of course, the above reflections do not settle the issue of how we should care for one another. A possible response is that we should care for one another through private initiatives and charities; government should not get involved.

My short response to this position is that with the growing gap between the rich and poor in our country, the magnitude of the current problems faced by the poorest and most vulnerable persons in our society is simple too great to entertain the idea that all these pressing needs can be met though private philanthropy. Government must play some role beyond keeping individuals from getting in each other’s way. But this governmental role must be carried out with vigilance to maintain a proper balance between individuality and connectivity (since exclusive concern with connectivity can deteriorate into a “collectivism” that smothers all individuality by making us part of a collective that allows for no individual creativity and initiative).

And this balance between individuality and connectivity will enable Warren Buffett to exercise his entrepreneurial skills in ways that make him wealthy. But that balance should also require that his tax rate not be lower than that of his secretary.  To require that is not class warfare between the wealthy and the rest of us. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are all members of the same class: connected human beings who have a collective responsibility to care for one another.

I am Pro Life, but…

A “but” does not get much of a hearing in public discourse. It is erroneously categorized as being “wishy-washy.” The words that follow cannot fit on a bumper sticker or in a 60-second sound bite. And positions in-between either/or extremes dampen the polarization that the media and many politicians and citizens thrive on. To illustrate this problem, allow me to summarize, albeit too briefly, my views relative to the contentious pro-life/pro-choice abortion debate.

I aspire to be consistently pro-life, believing that physical life is a gift from God that needs to be both protected and helped to flourish. Therefore I oppose “abortion on demand,” independent of how one answers the thorny question of when physical life begins, since a form of life that is a “potential person” is of value.

My aspiration to be consistently pro-life takes me places where some pro-lifers refuse to go. It is not only the case that the life of the fetus ought to be protected. After a baby is born, steps must be taken to care for and nourish that person throughout life. Therefore, those of us who oppose abortion on demand should also be committed to addressing the circumstances that lead some expectant mothers to conclude that they cannot adequately care for a newborn, including addressing the persistent problems of poverty that sometimes contribute to the choice for an abortion. We also need to provide more encouragement for alternatives to abortion like adoption.

To be consistently pro-life also requires that attention be given to helping the elderly to flourish and to die with dignity.

To be more radical, my pro-life stance includes opposition to the death penalty. It also informs my commitment to being a peacemaker (although whether I am a “pacifist” depends on what you mean by that word – for an explanation, see Chapter 21 in my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking).

But, I also believe there may be exceptional cases where having an abortion is a morally correct choice. For example, consider the following hypothetical case.

If my wife were pregnant and medical experts told us that if the pregnancy was not terminated, it was almost certain that my wife would die, then that would be a compelling factor pointing to our choosing to have an abortion (noting that it is impossible to point to all other possible factors for or against choosing an abortion in such a hypothetical situation divorced from real life, but I cannot imagine an overriding factor in this case).

My reason for this compelling factor pointing toward the choice of abortion is that my wife has established loving personal relationships that the fetus has not. Therefore, in choosing to have an abortion, we would be sacrificing one value (the physical life of the fetus) for what we would judge to be a higher value (the combination of the physical life of my wife and the sustaining of existing positive personal relationships that my wife has already established).

My opinion in this hypothetical case reflects my belief that in our broken world there are rare cases of “tragic moral choice” where all the available options are destructive of a value to which one is committed and one has no option but to choose the least destructive alternative, in which case I believe that I should choose in favor of what I judge to be the “higher value.”

The above two paragraphs will make many pro-lifers cringe, being quick to dismiss the possibility that I am a genuine pro-lifer, because a true pro-lifer would not allow for any exceptions whatsoever. I respectfully disagree. The “but” word, and what follows that word, must be allowed, even encouraged, in public discourse about abortion.

That is not just true for the abortion issue. The options that need to be discussed when dealing with complex issues cannot typically be placed into neat air-tight either/or, black-and-white categories. I would welcome hearing the following on my TV or radio: I am for cutting the federal deficit, but…; I am for a free market economic system, but …; I am for tighter border security to deter illegal immigration, but …; I am for working to prevent future terrorist attacks, but …; I am for supporting the right of the state of Israel to exist and flourish, but … .

I am saddened by the fact that many politicians and citizens and many members of the media have little time for the more nuanced positions that typically follow the “but” word. But that is needed to work toward a healthier and more productive public discourse on complex issues.

Being Hard or Soft on Immigration Law

Advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is often viewed as “being soft on the law.” As a strong form of the argument goes, those entering the USA illegally broke the law and they should therefore be punished to the full extent of the law, which currently calls for deportation. To do otherwise is to provide “amnesty.”

I agree that illegal immigrants have broken the law, and therefore some form of punishment is appropriate. Therefore I am not in favor of “amnesty,” if what you mean by that word is “no punishment whatsoever.” But I question the prevalent truncated view of criminal justice, which suggests that such justice is accomplished when someone who has broken the law is given suitable retribution by government.

A richer view of the meaning of justice is provided by the “restorative justice” movement. The vision of restorative justice does not preclude some form of punishment. But it is broader in scope than just punishment. It focuses on meeting the needs of all persons affected by the breaking of a law, not just the offender, but also those who are victimized by the breaking of the law, and the communities in which both the offender and the victims live. And the ultimate goal is to restore harmonious relationships between all persons involved and promote the flourishing of all these persons. A tall order indeed (two excellent books on the Restorative Justice movement are Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr and Beyond Retribution by Christopher Marshall).

Looking at the issue of immigration law through the lens of the Restorative Justice movement highlights the need for comprehensive immigration reform on several fronts. For example, the well-being of the families of illegal immigrants needs to be fostered, including their children who have US citizenship by virtue of their birth in our country (which the recent failed attempt at legislating the Dream Act sought to address).

Appropriate measures need to be taken to deal with employers who hire illegal immigrants. What is the appropriate punishment for these employers who are also breaking the law? What steps can be taken to assist employers who wish to hire legal immigrants, in ways that do not disadvantage our non-immigrant workforce, for the needs of this workforce also need to be taken into account.

Appropriate steps also need to be taken to provide adequate social and educational services to all immigrants. The challenges faced by law enforcement officers must be addressed, since they are also included in the wide web of persons affected by illegal immigration.

Steps also need to be taken to improve border security, to minimize, if not eliminate, the influx of illegal immigrants. It can also be argued that the USA needs to do what it can to foster economic growth and prosperity in neighboring countries to minimize the incentives for illegal immigration.

And foremost, in my estimation, illegal immigrants need to be provided with a pathway to citizenship that includes appropriate punishment for their having broken the law, such as the levying of fines and “getting in the back of the line.” There is room for legitimate debate as to the magnitude of such punishment. But as long as there is some form of punishment it is inaccurate to label what I am proposing as “amnesty.”

The above reflections will be written off by many as the ramblings of someone who is “soft on the law.” Not at all! I believe that existing laws should be enforced. But I also believe that existing laws can often be improved upon. And in my estimation the comprehensive reform of immigration law for which I advocate would be a vast improvement over existing immigration law.

My proposal is also consistent with my understanding of the teaching of Jesus that as important as the law is, there are some things that are even more important, such as “mercy” (Matthew 23:23). The comprehensive immigration law reform that I envision will strike a proper balance between respect for the law and the call of Jesus to be merciful.

Given the sad state of current political discourse, the possibility that congress will soon reach agreement on the elements of comprehensive immigration reform is virtually non-existent. Not to belabor too much what I have argued for extensively on other pages of this web site, the problem is that in the never-ending quest to get elected or re-elected, politicians too often take a “full-loaf” approach to doing politics, not settling for anything less than all that they perceive their constituencies to want. The idea of getting half of what you want, while those on the other side of the aisle also get their half, is anathema. Comprehensive immigration reform will be possible only when politicians get beyond such a polarized view of doing politics, demonstrating a willingness to consider reforms that lie in-between the extreme views of both the “Left” and the “Right.”