Humility and Politics

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been receiving links from friends about the rise of the Christian left. Christian progressives are now coming to Jesus, and learning to vote for the Democratic Party. After all, if the Republicans are doing it, why can’t we?

I, myself, understand the attractions of partisanship. I respect the complexities of aligning any group of people around a specific cause. I also appreciate that most people have degrees of passion for the party, ranging from the ideologically pure to the unsentimentally practical. My own personal litmus test has been reproductive health, and at this time only one party seems to have room for it. It was not always so.

My own personal journey has swung wildly from one place to another, and now I find myself as a Red Tory, an Anarcho-Monarchist, a skeptical Democrat who would have made a good Laguardia, Millicent Fenwick style Republican. I’ll throw my hat in the ring as a citizen, but it’s not because I’m a Christian, but because I believe government should work on behalf of all people. One can be a good citizen without having Christian beliefs.

Some Christians, however, mislead themselves if they believe that a Christian faith leads to easy, single, “Christian” answers to specific policies. Nor can Christianity be the proper platform for a political party or vice versa.  Episcopalians, of course, have our jokes: there was a time where we were the “Republican party at prayer”; and “How do you tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in an Episcopal Church? The Altar Rail.” The Republicans represented the good-government pro-property rights establishment, and priests tended to be more supportive of anti-discrimination policies.

Then, however, priests were respected as conversation partners. And that’s what they were. They wouldn’t have told people how to vote or made much of the parties. In a church context, relationships may be prior to righteousness. But that sort of understanding is slowly eroding.

In our current context conservative evangelicals have been seduced by political power, demanding an ideological rigor that mainline, Episcopal churches should reject. They will get their reward. I offer that the alternative to provide deeper spiritual foundations – to inculcate habits of reflection and relationship that are prior to engaging the public square.  While I do think conservative evangelicalism is false and dangerous, as a religion and as a political force, I do not confuse it only with policies with which I disagree.

Not all of my beliefs about politics arise from my faith. My trust in demand side economics (St. Keynes), for example, or my opposition to the war on drugs (St. Friedman), or even my vague trust in American Diplomacy (St. Fulbright), don’t arise only from my theological position. I distinguish between the Marxist intuition that capitalism changes everything and the contradictions cannot hold from my catholic one which says, we’re still all sinners who we need each other, or you can’t serve both God and Wealth. They are distinct, and alternately harmonious, and contradictory. 

We should strive to inculcate the ability to handle, even with discomfort and tension, nuance, complexity, and ambiguity in the world. This arises from the virtue of humility. Instead, on social media, cable news, and politics, we reward leaders who enter the public from a position of hubris, where portraying vulnerability, caution, and prudence are seen as weaknesses.

This makes it harder for politicians to adjust when they understand more deeply than their constituents. They are penalized for learning, and so push through agendas and policies they may not even understand themselves. They are not equipped to serve the common good, but only those who will vote for them, because they are surrounded with people who confidently defend, through money and power, their own narrow interests.

Obviously humility does not easily develop in persons who enter business and politics. Most public officials must appear decisive and display a sense of confidence and righteousness to be convincing. It’s a double bind because on one hand we want our politicians to be honest, but we penalize them when they try to bring together constituencies that often have opposing interests. A crucial way through is for us to recognize that one can have direction and humility.

Peter Werner wrote in the NYtimes that humility allows us to understand the world is unfathomably complex. Our knowledge is incomplete. Humility is not to be confused with indecisiveness, but is a confidence in being able to change our minds. In our current context, however, too often we seek vindication rather than truth.

The alternative, certainty, abdicates our responsibility to think more deeply and understand the values of those who think differently.  But a practice of humility recognizes we are “better off if we have within our orbit people who see the world somewhat differently than we do…. this requires us to actually engage with, and carefully listen to, people who understand things in ways dissimilar to how we do.”

But as this article notes, many Christians have “traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates the least of these for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses.” They’ve traded the gospel for machismo.

We have something to contribute. In an article, “The World Outsmarts Us,” the author shows that we are not built to address of the complexities we now face. The way forward, he writes,

“It’s time we asked whether political frustration, anger and resistance to conflicting ideas results in part from a basic lack of ability to sense how the present world works. The best defence against runaway combative ideologies isn’t more facts, arguments and a relentless hammering away at contrary opinions, but rather a frank admission that there are limits to both our knowledge and our assessment of this knowledge. If the young were taught to downplay blame in judging the thoughts of others, they might develop a greater degree of tolerance and compassion for divergent points of view. A kinder world calls for a new form of wisdom of the crowd.”

This should not be news to faithful, apostolic Christians in the Benedictine tradition. The emphasis on practice, rather than an easy moralism, builds the spiritual and emotional skills to handle the complexities that humility teaches us. Both the the great Organizational Design theorist Edgar Schein and the Benedictines agree that one of the most useful and spiritually insightful practices is humble inquiry. It’s a willingness to admit ignorance, to cultivate curiosity, and to desire to understand. It’s even in the baptismal blessing.

The fundamental work of Episcopalian Christians is to develop practices of reflection and relationship. As our great saint Vida Scudder once said, we are to cultivate the powerful habits of “voluntary self-control and a sympathetic imagination.” With these in mind, the goal of having the humble stance.

Our knowledge is limited. Our understanding, incomplete. And so, we move, even though the paradoxes, tensions, and nuances that make of up our common life will always be present. We can eschew perfection in favor of the good; we learn from our mistakes and  correct them.  Through this, we can diminish the vitriol that diminishes a healthy partisanship, and rebuild the fundamental networks that – through the various churches and other social and spiritual institutions around us – have made our republic possible.


Reflections on Trump after Super Tuesday

Is this a hangover?

No, it’s not the same as Germany. Don’t exaggerate. No, I’m not nervous.

I’m a little nervous.

No, I’m not. I’m in New York.

Trump likes the uneducated, he says. They like him.

He mentioned women’s health, so there’s that.

Italy survived Silvio.

You can’t fire me. I live here.

Keynsianism needs better ratings, anyway.

He’s not a conservative. America was never that conservative.

Racism is also an emotional tax on white people to feel better about themselves.

It costs less than a better wage.

Schwarzenegger could have been worse.

Shouldn’t government be entertaining?

Shaming white people will not end white privilege.

Take me off the merry-go-round.

Do smart people tell you they are smart?

Government is a business where employees tell the owner what to do.

Trump scares both brown people and bankers.

Would he be sexist if he emphasizes the right of rich, hot women to choose?

I’m uncomfortable with my intellectual opponents now supporting the Democrat.

Social conservatives will frustrate libertarians, which is why they live in different states.

Libertarianism corrodes social conservatism.

I know why the ostrich buries his head in the sand.

The battle lines: guns on one side and women’s health on the other.

Money solves a lot of problems.

Better to be on the side of the bully than the victim.

Who deserves their fortunes or miseries? Not one. We are desire, luck, and hope, embodied.

When did it become ok to be an asshole?

Money can’t buy the pearl.

I see empty bottles this morning.

I don’t think aspirin will stop this pain.

Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

Mapping the Current Cultural Conflict

It’s about money, sex, and race.

Since Reagan, financiers and conservative evangelicals have been semi-functional allies under the umbrella of the Republican party. Each had their own specific needs that GOP could deliver because it combined both money and people power. The evangelicals became the foot soldiers for getting out the vote, not unlike how the Chicago Machine operated for the Democratic party.  Through manipulating cultural anxieties about sex and race, they motivated those concerned first with order and security, in spite of the rhetoric of liberty often applied.

Financiers got the better end of the stick. They tend to live in liberal states, so are sheltered from the encroachment of social conservatism. Their daughters can get abortions, and they send their kids to schools that teach evolution. Social conservatives, however, have little to show for their efforts: Abortion remains legal, gays now marry, and the protective sheen of white America seems to be losing is sure foothold. Yet, the monied class is doing far better than they could have anticipated.

Conservative evangelicals sought politics on the cheap. For there are ways to reduce abortion and to strengthen families, but they are expensive on the front end. Further, opposing abortion or gay rights requires little sacrifice on behalf of its most rigorous adherents. It’s easy to prohibit rules for other people; it’s harder to spread resources that would make having children or sustaining families viable.  Prohibiting the bad is less expensive, and less effective, than incentivizing the good. It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn.

Conservative evangelicals have ignored how economic freedom, or capitalism itself, corrodes the bonds of social obligation that undergird traditional social mores. The market allows people opt out of the restrictions that chafe our desires, and the “work ethic” that conservatives and capitalists claim to share, conceal the vices beatified by the financial class. In short, Wall Street conned Main Street. Admittedly there are limits, for eventually economic freedom threatens to diminish the heart of all exchange, the virtues associated with faith, especially trust.

This might explain why Trump has done well, much to the chagrin of those who espoused the traditional alliance of the monied and the faithful. He offers the most necessary, satisfactory crumbs about opposing abortion and believing in Christianity. But his populist economic rhetoric especially appeals to those who don’t know much about church but have lost ground in our modern economy, the ones who enjoy the wisdom that reality TV offers.

There is, however, another value both share, even if it is tenuous: a taxonomy of values associated with masculinity: protecting one’s family; bringing home the bacon; toughness; liking guns, hot chicks, and winning.

I have no truck for or against any of these, but the posturing is tiresome.

This gendered moment may explain why two most powerful non-governmental organizations that epitomize our current cultural conflict are the NRA and Planned Parenthood. The venn diagram between them is not necessarily opposed – both overlap when defending themselves with the rhetoric of liberty.

But one embodies the current state of masculinity, with all its fear and pride, its contempt for the weak and vulnerable. It fears the loss of distinctiveness between men and women, the roles that many have invested their own meaning. The other lives, however, in the reality of women, seeking first to gather and care for bodies.  If George Lakoff is right about orienting political metaphors, the NRA embodies the strict father, and Planned Parenthood embodies the nurturing parent.

Let us not ignore race, which casts its shadow everywhere. It remains the primary reason why economic populism has never gathered the popularity that it might have. Race divides both liberalism and conservatism. The universalist tendency, which simultaneously justifies both economic progress and yet conceals bigotry’s stubborn hold on institutions, loses its force at the specific needs of identity politics.

Some liberals dislike economic nationalism because it doesn’t specify the needs of African-American populations and repair the perpetual theft of black labor and wealth. Conservatives, on the other hand, see that any universal state intervention helps the undeserving and lazy. Each side reinforces the other, inhibiting any sort of economic solution from having traction. Thus why Bernie Sanders New Deal proposals are unappealing for many black activists, and mocked by conservative ones.

Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. The equality implicit in the Christian tradition brings an intensification, a focus, upon the diminishment of the weak and powerless. Perhaps the ferocity of our current witness may signify progress. It may be that an economically populist Trump illustrates the unveiling of the Republican party’s sophisticated deception of the white working class. Black Lives Matter signifies the untenability of governments based on the receipts of poor people.

In either case, let us not be overwhelmed by the theater that is constantly before us. Let us continue to do our work locally, to build bridges rather than walls, to love one another as best as we are able. I believe that it is the third sector that has a the primary role to solve our most direct problems. It is our work, finally, that matters most.

The Debate

Admittedly, I was listening while on my way to go salsa dancing. The theater has become somewhat predictable.

Like Bernie, I’m sympathetic to the impulses of the FDR and progressive wings of the political party (either Democratic or Republican). I also don’t think he is a socialist, in spite of what he calls himself. Not in the traditional definition of the word.

And whenever someone calls Hilary a witch or a bitch, I immediately find myself a bit sympathetic to her. Most of the critiques about who she is can be explained in a couple ways.

  1. Like most politicians, she compromised
  2. She understands power
  3. Just because she takes your money, doesn’t mean she loves you
  4. A politician can change their mind
  5. Just because she knows Kissinger, doesn’t mean he’s her guru
  6. 2003 was old news
  7. She’s not Bill, also

As someone who doesn’t buy the politics of the transcendent (even when Obama ran) and is instinctively wary of the rhetoric of revolution, I find most of her critics to be smart intellectuals who don’t understand the work of politics: groups of gangs who take action. This does not let her off the hook; but then who themselves has clean hands. For as we will begin to see, even Sanders has made some choices that the puritans might find troublesome.

That said, I’m unconvinced that Sanders would be ineffective as president. I think he enjoys politics and might galvanize a broader coalition in the country to better organize. That said, organizing is hard work that takes a lot more tenacity than people understand. It requires the spiritual discipline to work through disappointment and failure, and the wisdom to live with messy decisions.




The Christian Century highlights an article by William Willimon, Why Leaders are a Pain.

One of the challenges within any institution is the work of aligning people to do the work. Pastoral care, the work of caregiving, becomes the priest’s central role. But there are some unintended consequences: taking on the emotional weight of a parish often leads to burnout and ill health. To be sure, all clergy are called to be kind and should have the skill to be tenaciously present with those around them. But it is through the sacramental life where we must primarily enter this work. We cannot be psychotherapists, nor is the burdens of others always our own.

At tension with the view of pastor as primary caregiver is the old community organizer’s adage: never do for people what they can do for themselves. Instead, the pastor’s role within the church is to help align parishioners to do the work of that specific church. They have the role of offering feedback to a parish, challenging them, creating tension that requires action.

The church gets stuck. Our familiar codewords – “evangelism,” “stewardship,” etc become a fairly insular language that inhibit us from engaging and transforming the world.  Instead of being satisfied with such vocabulary, priests are called to train people to do the work of listening, collaborating, and acting. This requires people change how they think church should be. It will always require reorganizing.

The skills of institution building require learning. The Anglican and Benedictine tradition, if taken seriously, are deeply congruent with these skills. And they are necessary in a world where individuals feel their power truncated. On one hand our technology makes it seem like we have the world literally at our finger tips. But our inability to work together to build strong foundations demonstrates what power we have lost.

It’s easy for congregations and clergy to be satisfied. But when we have done the simple task of sitting down with each other and listen to what makes us passionate; when we have gone into the world to discover where we are dissatisfied, then we may know where the spirit is leading us. It’s difficult work, because it means acknowledging that we are dissatisfied.

But the reward may be great.

Non Sequiturs after the Pope

Where is the treasure?

The pope has not changed Catholic teaching.

Catholics may disagree with the pope. As may non-Catholics.

I don’t know everything about the world, and I am sometimes wrong.

I admit, sometimes I’m not sure why ordination is that special, in spite of my ordination.

I’m in love with the man.

The default position for humanity is not male.

Beware Leviathan, he says, even the benevolent kind.

Queer people will shop, eat bagels, sing, dance, and party even without the church’s approval.

Nuns matter.

Church teaching is not school, therapy, or discipline. It’s data.

Why do we not value lives offered for service?

Jesus didn’t ordain anybody.

What the church says, and what happens on the ground, remain distinct.

The pope is a beautiful bride.

Everyone does pray for him. That’s power.

He is an elected, non-hereditary monarch without an army.

I’d rather the Vatican have its wealth than a banker sell it.

We need an Anglican martial monastic order.

The church is revelatory theater. I’m not always sure what it reveals.

He is a symbol. Symbols matter.

This is all performance art.

The pope is an anarchist.

Someone must refine the money of the murderous.

This is the body. That is the body. The broken body.

Feed me. That’s good.

The Italian Sandwich with a glass of Malbec is delicious.

I’m hungry.

The pope is a fool. Exactly the point. Believe.

It used to be that if you were a conservative you valued tradition.

Not if it offends capital.

It’s nice when a public figure isn’t a douchebag.

I didn’t feel like watching him from afar.

Two members of my congregation died this week, Holy Father.

No individual, catholic or not, is obligated to give up their own conscience.

That’s actually what the Catholic Church teaches.

But I am not always right, and my conscience may be misplaced.

Confession: I am a petty tyrant on some days. Admit it, you would be also.

The pope makes less money than the Donald.

If we met, we would probably begin with other topics than Planned Parenthood.

The pope moves as a person who says “consider the lilies.”

This is the truth: even the vicar of Christ stumbles as he walks up the stairs.

Matthew 6:24.

The Pope and Abortion

For the next year, the pope will permit priests to offer forgiveness to women who have had abortions during a year of jubilee.

This is not a completely radical change. Certain confessors could already offer absolution. But this does signify a different sort of approach, one Pope Francis has been known for, prioritizing the pastoral to the doctrinal. It also lifts the other crucial part of Catholicism: the virtue of staying connected.

I’m not sure how many Catholics women will take advantage of this option: as Catholics for Choice remarked, Catholic women have been making alternative arrangements for some years now. After all, in some historically catholic countries, women do get abortions.

One may believe abortion is morally repugnant but should be safe and legal. A Catholic in a secular nation state might fall into such category (as might black Jewish, philosophers in the preceding link). I think such a view, while apparently contradictory, is practical and realistic. I am not of that school, but that is where I seek some mutual understanding with more devout Catholic or others who find the procedure itself signals something, in our culture at least, is wrong.

Unlike the liberal tradition, the Catholic one does not elevate choice as the highest moral good. Instead, in its deeply communitarian ethos, it understands persons as relational. It comes to it’s anti-abortion position not as the evangelcals do, but because the fundamental moral unit is never just a single person.

It is not a view that is particularly appealing in this age.

But it explains why the church holds both views that are anti-commerce and anti-abortion. Bodies, and their lives, should not be abandoned or sold, and abortion is one choice along many others that diminishes our shared life. They note also, that being pro-choice does not make one a feminist: patriarchy itself can elevate the abortion of fetuses, especially those of girls. That said, although these are arguments can sharpen the issues, in our broken world such decisions must remain medical decisions that women make with their doctors.

The pope’s move should be understood not as a change in the church’s view toward abortion, but a clarification of a pastor’s role. In this way it seems very Anglican. The benefit is that it seeks to diminish the shame and acknowledge the reality of women who make such choices.

This instruction should not, of course, be anything new to Anglicans. Our theology already tends to arise from the pastoral, the practical, and the liturgical. We can give thanks that the Pope has decided to take a cue from the Anglican playbook.

Black Lives Matter

A white officer was shot in cold blood by a mentally ill black man in Texas. Given the context, some interpret this as an example of how #blacklivesmatter is anti-white. Charles Blow responds beautifully.

Countless amounts of ink will be poured and video shot misdirecting this outrage. I don’t have much to add. But when a policeman gets shot the might of the state will be behind him. It’s always illegal to murder someone, but when it’s a policeman, the consequences are justifiably severe.

But when a black man gets shot by the state, the presumption is guilt. So when someone says #bluelivesmatter I think, yes, we know that. All our public institutions will now be defending the legacy and family of the dead officer. As they should. They are fundamentally public servants.

But black people, however, don’t get that luxury. The default position is blame.

At its core, black lives matter asks for one simple thing: fairness. It’s not fair when any person shoots any other person and gets a free pass – even when they are policemen. And although nobody denies justified shootings – thats the implicit contract with the state, the public deserves to know when and how such shootings are justified. And police, like every other citizen in the country, must be held accountable. Nobody should be above the law – especially its enforcers.

Given the amount of video footage of cops performing poorly, it’s now even more apparent we must find ways to prevent the shooting of innocent people. This is the claim that so many white people refuse to recognize: the shooting of an unarmed innocent person is always morally repugnant, no matter what the intention of the policeman is.

I’m incredulous when I hear people implicitly defend the shooting of an innocent. Because no matter how any person interacts with a cop, when they are not threatening him, they don’t deserve to die. Just because a cop is afraid doesn’t give him the justification to kill someone else. Nobody has that right. When you choose to be a cop you must learn other criteria: for example, you are afraid, and the person has a gun.

I have not touched on racism. But it’s racism that permits this blind spot. We call it “institutional” in part because it’s not about any single racist person, but a series of practices that circumscribe black life.

A friend of mine who’s father was a cop said that what’s discouraging to him was that cops know that some of them are unfit. But instead of creating a process to correct the institution, they create a wall of silence. This disserves the police who try to do their work with integrity.

The police refuse to recognize the arms race that the #NRA has forced them into. Of course they’re afraid of the public. Because guns are everywhere. And they’ve bought into the myth that it’s impossible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Further, if the policemen believe they are at war with the citizenry, that means there’s a serious problem with our public life. They must not be defensive, but seek to be a part of the solution, taking ownership for their mistakes.

People often say that if a criminal wants a gun, they can get a gun. But that’s not true. Making owning a gun risky drives the price up. Trying to get a gun on the black market for $150 is going to be a lot different when the penalties are higher. As the comedian Jim Jeffries jokes, the black market for a gun in Australia now is $30,000. Criminals generally don’t have that kind of money.

Unless they’re on Wall Street.


Kim Davis

I get that Jesus might save us after a dissolute lifestyle.

I even get the sentiment Jesus might not approve of homosexual desires. It’s not a sentiment I share, but I’m not the sort to get in the way of one’s personal view of who Jesus was.

But what I don’t understand is why Jesus would condemn someone who is permitting the state to offer a certificate. If you’re worried about your soul for just doing your job, then you’ve got a rotten God. This isn’t murder.

Kim Davis isn’t marrying them. Perhaps God might judge the state, or the priest / and pastor who chose to officiate the wedding, but the holder of the county clerk? Nobody is that important. And so for this reason, her logic is confused.

In the tradition, sometimes we must discern issues of conscience. And when we do we pay the consequences. In this case, perhaps Ms Davis should trust that the God she believes in will judge what is in her heart, and allow her to the task at hand. And if that is too much, perhaps she is called to a different role.

Let God make the decision she is so terrified about.

Or perhaps this isn’t about God at all, but about her own deepest fears.