Positive politics: a little bit of foundation

Before I start in on specific political topics, I want to lay out some foundation that will lie under the specifics.

First, I’m a Christian, so my approach is necessarily rooted in Christian values and a belief that the Bible gives us God’s direction for what is best for human flourishing.

Second, the Bible provides very little direct instruction on what a government should look like other than some basics like punishing evil, encouraging good, being righteous and just. There has been a lot of teaching and assumption in the American evangelical church over the past 40 years that “Christian values” are closely aligned with Republican party positions. I’m going to challenge that assumption while hopefully not irrationally rebelling against it.

Third, politics is the art of the possible, and inherent in good politics is compromise. If all stakeholders are a little bit happy and a little bit unhappy with an outcome, it’s probably a good result from a political viewpoint.

Fourth, I believe that tolerance and freedom are values that should be promoted in our society. While I am a Christian, I do not believe that the best government would promote the Christian faith over other faiths. This includes not compelling uniquely Christian rules or practices simply because they are Christian. The government should foster a society that encourages the flourishing of all its members, regardless of their faith.

Finally, while I would hope the evaluation framework I’m borrowing from Brian Zahnd (as amended by my friend Misty Granade) is rather self-evidently good, I’d like to briefly outline my justification for each principle.

1. Is it good for the poor?

God cares deeply for the plight of the poor, as is demonstrated across the full sweep of Scripture. Old Testament laws command farmers to leave food on the edges of their field for the poor to glean and define jubilees that revert bought/sold property wealth. The New Testament gives instruction to provide for the poor and examples of offerings being taken up for them. This one seems pretty clear.

2. Is it good for the planet?

God is the creator. The earth displays His handiwork. Man’s first task is to care for the garden in which he was placed. God’s ultimate plan is for restoration of all things, including creation. In the same way the government should promote human flourishing, it should also promote the flourishing of all creation.

3. Does it promote peace?

I’m going to hope this one is self-evident. While peace is not always possible, it is always the goal.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

These two are closely related. It’s a given that there will always be power imbalances, and this isn’t inherently wrong or unreasonable. But power corrupts. Look at any government and you’ll see too many in power who are using that power not as good stewards promoting general flourishing but instead as selfish stewards out for their own gain.

James Madison summed it up brilliantly in Federalist #51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

As such, having systems designed to challenge the powerful and let the marginalized have a voice are good because they put an elements of self-regulation into the system.


With that set of background and caveats in place, I think it’s time to start writing on specific topics.

Thinking in more positive terms about political issues

From time to time over the past year when I’ve been tempted to write political rage posts, it has seemed to me that even though they’d be cathartic, that wouldn’t be all that constructive. And while I haven’t studied political theory or public policy much, writing helps me work through my thinking on issues. So, my thought goes, maybe I should spend some time thinking through and writing constructive opinions on various political topics.

Then I came across this tweet from Brian Zahnd (this was before my social media fast, honest!) that seems like a good framework to work from:

Off the top of my head, some topics I’d like to consider:

  • Taxation
  • Religious Liberty
  • Health Care
  • Gun control
  • Foreign trade policy
  • Foreign military presence
  • Middle East policy / terrorism
  • Racial justice issues
  • Social programs / social safety net
  • Education
  • Internet / technology policy
  • Campaign finance
  • Term limits
  • Science & space
  • Environmental issues

I’m not working through this all to get Brian Zahnd’s vote – I’d need to run for office first! But it might be constructive to think positively about what policy should be instead of just saying “well, that’s a bad idea”.

Image credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Jesus’ Appeal to Human Emotion and Reason

Some really fascinating thoughts from Richard Beck this morning on Jesus’ appeal to human emotion and reasoning as a part of His teaching:

Jesus also used human experience as a hermeneutical and theological tool. In Matthew 12 Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and finds a man with a withered hand. The way the Pharisees interpreted the Sabbath laws prohibited Jesus from healing the man.

But Jesus disagrees, and he makes an appeal to human experience to argue for a different hermeneutical approach to Sabbath keeping. Jesus doesn’t appeal to Scripture or tradition, he asks a question about how something would feel.

“How many of you,” Jesus asks, “if a sheep of yours fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, wouldn’t pull it out?”

Jesus asks the Pharisees to imaginatively place themselves in this situation, asking them to consult their feelings, experiences and reactions. Jesus expects this appeal to experience to lead to an affirmative answer: They would grab the sheep out of the ditch, even on the Sabbath.

This intrigues me. The conservative circles I inhabit are fond of dismissing claims to human emotion and reason as a hermeneutical tool. (Or at least when that emotion and reason doesn’t challenge the conclusions of the existing theological framework.) If we are totally depraved, the reasoning goes, our emotions and reasoning are also totally depraved and therefore untrustworthy.

I tend to think that our intrinsic moral reactions, while fallen, still hold the echoes of what it means to have been created in the image of God, and as such, they shouldn’t be easily dismissed. Beck gives me another angle here to consider that thought.

Experimental Theology: Jesus and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

A Social Media Fast

The holidays aren’t typically a time we think of fasting… but it was time. I’ve been a perpetual user of social media for just about as long as that media has existed. I had an account on Facebook they day they opened it up to more than just college students. I was an early adopter and evangelist of Twitter, and while I don’t tweet as much as some people do (maybe 32k tweets in 10 years… which is still 10 a day, I guess) I’ve had a Tweetdeck window perpetually on my computer desktop and Tweetbot on the front page of my iPhone.

But social media has been wearing on me this year. I’m sure our current political situation hasn’t been helping. Twitter seems mostly to be about immediate response and angst these days, and while it’s helped propel some valuable trends (#MeToo comes to mind), it got exhausting feeling like I needed to keep up. For a while I thought I was doing good things by posting strong opinions on Facebook. Eventually I think though everybody that might’ve disagreed (who I was hoping I would reach) likely unfollowed me or the news sources I was sharing. And so it became mostly just an echo chamber. So Monday morning I closed my Twitter and Facebook tabs, deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, and decided it was time for a fast.

This decision is not without trepidation. I’ve had many social media relationships turn into real friendships over the past decade, and many local friendships enhanced by the online communication. I’d hate to lose that. (I am keeping Slack installed, which provides a lower-intensity communication path to several of my closest friends.) Maybe after a detox I’ll be able to find healthier ways to get my fix of online debate and pictures of the nieces and nephew without feeling tied to it.

So in the mean time, if I have something I want to post, it’s going to go here on my blog instead of Facebook or Twitter. The blog will automatically cross-post to those services, but I won’t be responding there. We’ll see how it goes. Mainly I need less mental distractions… and these are the ones that need to go. Here’s hoping.

I have heard it said…

I have heard right-wing types say, approvingly, that if you’re younger than 30 and not a liberal, you have no heart; and that if you’re older than 30 and not a conservative, you have no brain.

However, this tweet captures a sentiment that seems much more true to me:

Love and compassion for a broken world is our calling.

Some Thoughts on Thoughts and Prayers

The familiarity of yesterday’s breaking news alerts almost muted the shock. Half a church dead, the other half wounded. I’m old enough to remember the Luby’s shooting, which at the time was nearly unimaginable. And we can name the shootings that followed in the next 25 years in a horrific litany: Columbine. Sandy Hook Elementary. Virginia Tech. San Bernardino. Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Las Vegas. And now, hardly before the crime tape was down in Vegas: First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

The online response comes in three stages and is by this point, sadly, completely predictable:

Stage 1: Thoughts and Prayers
House Speaker Paul Ryan called for prayers.

Same from Texas Governor Greg Abbott. And from Senate Majority Leader McConnell. And from the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee. And on and on and on.

Stage 2: The Backlash
These range from the political from Senator Elizabeth Warren:

to the full on blast furnace from Wil Wheaton,

(who later tempered his remarks just a bit.)

Stage 3: The Persecution Complex

Christians, offended by the anger against the expression of prayers, start feeling put upon. Such as this example from First Things editor Matthew Schmitz:

And so it goes, back and forth, until the shooting passes from the news cycle either by natural decay or by the violence of yet another tragedy.

I have sympathies on both sides of this one.

I’m a Christian. God tells us to pray. I believe that prayer is effective. I’ve seen it work. Sometimes we pray and God works in direct, miraculous ways. But other times (and in my own limited experience, the majority of the time) we pray, and God works through someone else. Sometimes God even uses us to work out the answer to our own prayers. So I want to be sympathetic with the prayers of Christian political leaders. They go up with my own.

But I’m also sympathetic with the ragers. Wil Wheaton is no Christian. I don’t expect him to believe that prayer is effective. I think he’s angry with Christians like Paul Ryan not because they’re praying, but because they don’t seem to be doing anything else.

I don’t think legislation is the 100% solution to gun violence, but Republican leaders could push for real changes that would help things. To proclaim that you’re praying but then not do whatever else is within your power to address the issue is hypocrisy. And that’s reason enough to anger believers and unbelievers alike.

And to those who immediately start feeling hurt that people are criticizing the church? Maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. Maybe we deserve that criticism. Maybe we should provide them examples of Christians who are praying and also acting.

As I am finishing up this post, Tyler Huckabee has a twitter thread that captures this a lot more pithily than I have. Here’s how he brings it home:

That’ll preach.

Finished reading: fiction!

Two weeks, two business trips, it was time for light reading. Trolling the fiction shelves found me these:

Price of Duty by Dale Brown

Dale Brown has managed to crank out 21 books in the Patrick McLanahan series over the past 30 years. I’ve read far too many of them. They crossed the line into ridiculousness several books back… and this one is no different. This one reads more like the script for a direct-to-video action movie (a genre, I fear, that has been killed off by Netflix!) than a proper novel.

Tom Clancy – Point of Contact by Mike Maden

Tom Clancy is long dead and buried but his name and book series lives on. According to Amazon, this book is “Jack Ryan Universe book #23”, which is roughly the same output as Dale Brown’s series in roughly the same timeframe. This one was thin enough that, writing this post a couple weeks after finishing the book, I have exactly zero recollection of what this one was about.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Now this one was worth my time. While it starts out seeming to be about ‘the return of magic’, it’s much more an adventure in time travel combined with some humorous observations about how bureaucracy can take over and ruin even the best ideas. I had a lot of fun here.

Land of My Sojourn

A Rich Mullins song as timely today as it was when it came out back in 1993.

And the coal trucks come a-runnin’
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin’
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin’
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them
And I’ll sing my song and I’ll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

And the lady in the harbor
She still holds her torch out
To those huddled masses who are
Yearning for a freedom that still eludes them
The immigrant’s children see their brightest dreams shattered
Here on the New Jersey shoreline in the
Greed and the glitter of those high-tech casinos
But some mendicants wander off into a cathedral
And they stoop in the silence
And there their prayers are still whispered
And I’ll sing their song, and I’ll sing their song
In the land of my sojourn

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it
And how you’ll never belong here
So I call you my country
And I’ll be lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me

And down the brown brick spine of some dirty blind alley
All those drain pipes are drippin’ out the last Sons Of Thunder
While off in the distance the smoke stacks
Were belching back this city’s best answer

And the countryside was pocked
With all of those mail pouch posters
Thrown up on the rotting sideboards of
These rundown stables like the one that Christ was born in
When the old world started dying
And the new world started coming on
And I’ll sing His song, and I’ll sing His song
In the land of my sojourn