21 January 2021

Refreshing "first principles" for a new era

Source: PBS News Hour.  

Just over four years ago, on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, I wrote a blog post about the tumultuous times we were about to enter -- a period with special challenges for those with the kind of Christian values and ideals that Quakers generally hold. I particularly wanted to think out loud about principles that could shape how we, as disciples, respond to the controversies that were certain to come.

Yesterday, the USA inaugurated a new presidential team, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, both of whom are very conventional politicians when contrasted with Trump. It may at first be hard to evaluate their performance as leaders precisely because of that contrast. Do we automatically give them the benefit of the doubt simply because they do not generate fresh traumas every single day? Or do we penalize them for not being the super-agents of divine intervention that some of us might have been praying for? In sum, what are some fair principles of public assessment?

At least two additional points complicate the picture:

First, Biden and Harris are entering into office facing major crises that demand urgent work. Assigning blame for these crises may be both important and emotionally satisfying, but must not divert resources from their solutions. The pandemic, the related economic emergency, the revolution of rising expectations in racial justice (and the extremist backlash), and the approaching irreversibility of global warming, all have causes that go well beyond the corruption and incompetence of the last four years.

Second, our social fabric has been torn, and it's not obvious whether and how it can be repaired. If we don't rebuild a public arena where most of us share substantially the same pool of information and definitions, will the unraveling continue? Example: notice the distorted and jaundiced descriptions of such themes as "progressive," "revisionist history," higher education, the civil rights movement, and "systemic racism," in the final report of the 1776 Commission. Will this fragmentation result in ever sharper suspicions and further growth of violent extremism? Will Trump continue to be a standard bearer in the service of division, or will he be discarded in favor of new demagogues with smoother approaches?

So, getting to work...

What would you add to, or subtract from, these first principles for addressing public controversies in the Biden/Harris era?

1. Everyone we respond to is a child of God, loved by God just as much as you or I. 

Implication -- we deal with what was actually done or said, not appearance or ancestry. In the Trump era, I was constantly shocked by how acceptable it seemed, among people I normally agreed with politically, to mock Trump and his fan club based on class norms or supposed markers of sophistication.

Another implication: we don't assume that our opponents are totally unreachable. I don't mean that we should soften our arguments at all, but couch them, when possible, in a calm, respectful, conversational voice. Instead of "only an idiot would believe that Ocasio-Cortez wants windows to be tiny" to "The goal is to upgrade buildings and construct new buildings to 'green' standards, so that in ten years all our buildings meet those standards. Let's talk about whether and how that could be done, and how many workers would be employed in the effort. What are your doubts?"

We probably all have our own ways of reminding myself that our opponent in any controversy is nevertheless created in the image and likeness of God. For me, what works best is to pray for that person. This is one of the great lessons I learned from Gordon Browne when I served on his staff at Friends World Committee for Consultation. He participated in an organization of Quaker leaders, and at least one of the other participants consistently seemed not to respect him or take him seriously. It was this organization's custom every year, before ending their annual gathering, to be divided up into pairs who were to pray for each other regularly during the year. Gordon was assigned to pair up with ... guess whom? He followed through on his commitment. I don't know if these two unlikely prayer partners got on better after that, but Gordon reported that his own attitude changed completely.

2. We support the new leadership when we can, criticize when we must. 

First of all, we should be vigilant that Biden and Harris do not exploit the freedom Trump claimed to ignore norms of procedure and behavior. They should restore the firewall between the White House and the Justice Department, for example.

Beyond those minimums of good order and decency, many of us have policy expectations that we should not let go, no matter how much relief we feel as a result of the restoration of relative normalcy in the White House. Among people I agree with politically, I find there's a lot of cynicism about how little the new team will achieve in, for example, promoting justice for Palestine (the signs are not good), expanding access to health care, reducing our global police role, and responding to global warming. I worry that this cynicism will lead to pre-emptively criticizing them for things they have not yet failed to do (partly to polish our progressive credentials to insider audiences!) rather than lobbying creatively, and then praising progress whenever we honestly can. Of course, when there is failure, let's say so clearly.

In foreign policy, I don't entirely believe the left's conventional wisdom that Biden is utterly trapped in old thinking, but the USA's habits of "trying to run the world" are deeply embedded, not just in the foreign policy establishment, but also in the military-industrial complex that cunningly spreads its procurement contracts throughout the fifty states. This is an area where Trump's skepticism was valid, although he was unable to press his point intelligently. I'd love to see us open up the conversation to ordinary voters as well as specialists: how do we build genuine friendship into all our global connections? For example: how can we send more of our students, businesspeople, scientists, journalists, and artists all over the world, subverting the gatekeepers in every country; and how do we make sure their counterparts in those countries are welcomed here? Let's not just wish, let's work.

3. Shun categories, emphasize shared values. 

In the Washington Post, religion reporter Michelle Boorstin played on a common theme in describing today's official inaugural prayer service, based at the National Cathedral with video feeds from many other locations.

In addition to [William J.] Barber’s homily, the service is also scheduled to include remarks from a who’s who of faith leaders associated with liberal causes. Additional participants in the service include: the Rev. Jim Wallis, evangelical and founder of the social justice group Sojourners; Sister Carol Keehan, former president and chief executive of the massive Catholic Health Association and an ally of the Obama-Biden White House on passing the Affordable Care Act; the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; as well as officials from Union Theological Seminary and Claremont School of Theology.

I guess I understand why she would write "a who's who of faith leaders associated with liberal causes" -- the very idea of a predominantly Christian service that emphasizes diversity and includes non-Christian voices may seem like a manifestation of liberalism. However, doesn't the rush to apply a label effectively smother the ideals and values promoted by the event? Aren't those values shared by many who wouldn't describe themselves as "liberal"? Those values deserve their own day in the sun.

For a powerful example, Otis Moss III of Chicago's Trinity UCC Church prayed, "Enable us to be a people of peace among ourselves, and a blessing to other nations of the earth." I love the thought of reframing USA's "power" and exceptionalism as the mission of becoming a blessing to all nations. What would it really mean to be a "blessing"; how would we know when it is happening? 

As for Barber's effective homily, calling us all to be "repairers of the breach," his challenge also deserves to be taken seriously without resorting to glib categories:

We don’t have to put up with things as they are. We can contradict the breach with every prayer, every policy, every sermon from every pulpit, and every call to the people.

If we the people, with God’s help, repair the breach, revival and renewal will come. Weeping and mourning may endure in this night of our discontent, but joy will come in the morning. Love and light will burst through. God will hear our prayers if we do the work of repairing society’s breach.

No, America has never yet been all that she has hoped to be. But right here, right now, a Third Reconstruction is possible if we choose.

Cynicism is spiritual poison, and I detect a lot of poison in our civic life. One antidote: remembering and spreading the actual content of this inauguration prayer service -- and of the whole costly process of the peaceful transfer of power -- instead of falling back on old categories and the passivity they encourage.

Seriously: in terms of first principles, what have I left out?

If you have been following the "political thriller" (a Russian friend's description) that is Aleksei Navalny's story, you already know that he returned from Berlin to Moscow last Sunday. A few minutes before his scheduled landing at Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of supporters had gathered, his flight was diverted to a different airport. Upon landing, he made his way to passport control, a place Judy and I know very well. There he was arrested. At the police station where he was jailed, he was brought before a judge the next morning. She agreed with the prosecution that Navalny should be held for thirty days. All of this process was apparently improvised rather than provided for in laws.

On the following day, Navalny let loose a torpedo of his own, releasing a nearly two-hour video on Vladimir Putin's alleged corruption from his German KGB years on, culminating in the "world's largest bribe," the $1 billion "Palace for Putin" that is being built in Gelendzhik. The YouTube video (with subtitles) is accompanied by a Web site with script and documentation.

When I saw the video two days ago, it had logged 4,844,000 views. At this moment, the total is 53,464,000 views. All this for a man whom the nation's leadership had just dismissed as a "blogger of no interest to anyone."

In the meantime, Navalny's allies face a new round of repressions.

Once again, I linked to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty story above. I was relieved to see that Michael Pack, whom Trump had appointed to run RFERL's parent organization, has resigned.

Yet another article on the new prominence of liberal Christianity. Is it possible that so-called liberal Christians are doing more actual evangelism than evangelicals? (That's not entirely a rhetorical question.)

Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Serviceberry ... and the ethic of reciprocity. "All flourishing is mutual." (Thanks to Carrie Zelnar Hutchinson for the link.)

Another Rhythm Scratchers full-length online concert, this time with James Harman.


Bill Samuel said...

Thanks for the link to the Robin Wall Kimmerer article, which is brilliant. The whole basis of economics in mainstream society is fundamentally flawed, and she points that out beautifully. I hadn't even known that economics is often defined in terms of dealing with scarcity.

I have long felt that a fundamental failing of our society was its assumption of scarcity. This is also a fault of much mainstream environmental thinking, which is why I don't associate much with mainstream environmentalism. Jesus clearly called us to a model of abundance. However, how often do Christian writers and preachers talk about that. I agree with Kimmerer that assuming abundance as central is absolutely critical. If societies in the last few centuries had based their economics on the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity, I firmly believe we would not be experiencing global climate change.

Johan Maurer said...

Happy New Year, Bill! Yes, I agree -- the article is rich.

Derek "Longshot" Lamson said...

Just checking in to say thanks again- and again- for the quality of your attention and commentary. Your gifts here would be so... useful... for a larger readership. Much larger readership. I want to share you with the world. As Quakes, we’ll always have bragging rights........