Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Thousand Tongues, a Trillion Snowflakes

Denominational polity battles are to me a lot like having a pack of cigarettes in your pocket: you know they’re bad for you, but as hard as you try, you eventually get bored or distracted enough to let yourself indulge.

I stupidly squandered my afternoon reading the various arguments and counter-arguments surrounding a couple of cases withing the PCA, the denomination I call home, and found myself increasingly tired and discouraged. Trying to clear my head, I threw on a jacket and took a walk.

The birds have been heeding their internal clocks and are moving back through my part of the country. A flock of ravens in the trees across the street were bickering in a shrill, discordant dialog, none seeming to listen to the others. I couldn’t help but form unfavorable mental comparisons. I grew angrier and angrier with the birds, the inescapable analogy making me wish for the spiritual equivalent of a 12-gauge, just to clear the air.
I was about to storm back inside when the snowflakes started falling. Big, unbalanced snowflakes, glutted in the clouds until they could drink no more and then slipping down to the earth. The air around me was suddenly thick with them, and I couldn’t look away.
The ravens kept on arguing, oblivious to the bounty of the heavens, but I couldn’t really hear them anymore. A blanket of swirling silence was cast. I smiled and looked up at the heavens and took comfort.
It’s not so much that the snow falls on the wicked and the righteous. It’s more that the snow falls – in heaps and waves and eddies, as far as I can see. There are a million million snowflakes for every screeching raven, and confronted with that magnitude of scale, perspective changes.
The Lord is good. The Lord is on His throne. All the bitter invectives of all the misguided saints of all the churches in the world are covered by His mercies, a million million mercies for every angry tongue and every breaking heart. Stop for a moment, and lean against the porch railing. Hold out your hand and watch the mercy melt into your skin.
I’m licking snowflakes off my lips. I nod to the ravens, and I smile.

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Everything is Connected

I promise I’ll be writing some pieces on something other than politics and economics, but my interests and the cultural conversation cannot be sidestepped. So, here we go…

As the purveyors of folk wisdom tell us, everyone knows how to raise their neighbor’s kids. It’s easy. The irony, of course, is how miserably everyone does at raising their own. From the outside looking in, any problem seems simple. If we fiddle with A and get rid of B, everything should be set to rights. But on the inside, it’s much more complicated. A and B, it turns out, are part of some irreducibly complex, chaotic web of algebraic functions and symbols that would make Mandelbrot curl up into a fetal ball and cry. The truth about childrearing is that everything is connected. When you take your neighbors’ children out of the sterile context of your backyard and place them into the mess of life, with all the failures of communication, bad days at work, and emotional investments of real life… how the mighty inevitably fall.

This same issue consistently encroaches upon our social discussions. In small-town Nebraska, I grew up with what I lovingly call “diner policy.” If you walked into the local diner around mid-morning, you’d find a group of leather-skinned old farmers sitting around drinking cheap coffee. Between talk of football and crop prices, you would hear these men’s takes on how to solve the world’s problems. “If I were in Washington, I’ll tell you what I’d do…” And what followed would be a bombastic but common-sense solution to war, poverty, education, taxes, and the repair of human nature.

Of course, nobody pays much attention to diner policy. But give these farmers a degree and some grasp of literary composition (or, worse, a spot on cable news or talk radio) and what emerges is something much more nefarious: pundit policy. We get solutions which, while perhaps more insightfully realized or worded, are no less simplistic. One would think that, with such a collection of solutions available, the lion would lay down with the lamb and all would be well. When it isn’t, the blame is laid on politicians or members of another partisan group.

The truth, however, is that pundit policy fails for the same reason you (think you) know how to raise your neighbors’ kids: problems never exist in isolation, and neither do their solutions. Everything is connected.

Let me offer an example. I recently read an article pointing out that the amount of corn used to produce ethanol could feed hundreds of millions of people. Tragic, isn’t it? All those damnable SUVs guzzling up food that could instead feed the world’s hungry? Let’s stop production now!

But consider how we got to this place. Corn is currently a lucrative crop because the federal government subsidizes ethanol. The government took this course because of environmental and political concerns. Thus, the issue of ethanol subsidies are connected with issues including American relations with the Middle East, drilling for oil in nature reserves, the war in Iraq, agricultural and environmental lobbies, scientific study of alternative energy, and a transportation-based economy. When you consider that the decisions made in these other areas were made by politicians who represented an agenda including other issues, this explodes outward even further to accompany debates about taxation, abortion, foreign policy, religion… and I could go on. To be really honest about policy, we have to recognize that our current production of fuel corn is an unintended consequence of a million unrelated choices in every sphere of life. What’s more, any policy change we make to ethanol production will have just as many other effects in just as many other spheres. Everything is connected.

I say this not to recommend a certain course of action on ethanol. That’s beside the point. Instead, I say this because pundit policy never considers these unintended consequences. Their focus is always on one problem: starvation, say, or helping the American farmer. Their solutions usually do an admirable job of solving this problem.  And, unseen by the pundit, thousands of people would starve as a result.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s the simple truth. The price of oil effects Supreme Court nominations, and tariffs on sugar effect health care costs. While nobody can forsee all of these consequences (they’re called unintended for a reason), failing to think them through as much as possible is simply irresponsible.

With all that said, let me recommend three conclusions I think stem from this discussion:

  1. We must be humble and realistic about any proposal. We don’t have it all figured out; not even close. In particular, our insistence on thinking that we have all the answers while we haven’t even begun to wrestle with the magnitude of our interconnectedness is silly and repugnant. Chances are good our neighbors’ kids might be cussing because they learned it from ours.
  2. As a corollary, we must think through and introduce social changes slowly and tentatively. The world’s problems often whip us into a panic, but quick decisions out of fear are the most likely to uncontrollably snowball. Far better to fiddle with one knob than mash all the buttons at once.
  3. While I realize this conclusion will be more controversial than the first two, I also think this reality cries for as much localized decision-making as possible. Given the exponential number of variables, keeping decisions and their effects into as small an area as possible helps us see and correct for unintended consequences. In particular, this means that giving individuals all the facts and then allowing them to make up their own minds is more reliable than trying to figure out the answers for everyone at once.

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Missing the Marx

(A note to those interested: I might be blogging a bit this semester after my long hiatus. Stay tuned, but don’t get your hopes up.)

In a recent conversation with several people I go to church with, we ended up talking about the Beatitudes and the priorities of Jesus’ kingdom. In particular, we were discussing what Scripture had to say about the poor. Several things stood out to me in this conversation, and I think their relationship is particularly instructive to Christians wrestling with political issues.

As we talked, some people in the conversation repeatedly said that my position – that Jesus is using such passages to teach the priorities of the Kingdom in that God focuses His concern on and exercises His power through people and things despised and oppressed by the world – was Marxist. I found this ironic on two levels.

First, those of you who know me realize that my political convictions are anything but Marxist. My tendency is rather to sympathize with a Friedman-esque libertarianism that sometimes borders on anarcho-capitalism.

Second, this comparison shows something deeper about the Christian mindset, and this is what I’d like to unpack a little bit. I would argue that the dualism which underlies my friends’ assumptions about this text (it’s about spiritual poverty, it’s about offering the poor “Jesus” in some way detached from their physical needs) actually end up fostering and encouraging the godless, utopian political tyrannies they so despise.

Here’s what I mean. In a robust view of the kingdom it is through the church, indwelt by the Spirit and empowered by Christ’s resurrection, that change comes to the world. Since the church proclaims the gospel, it has the power of God to transform hearts and make the new humanity. Since she worships the God of all creation, this gospel transformation will reach into every sphere of life – experiences, relationships, economics, politics, etc. However, these spheres are all subordinate to Him. I can meaningfully speak into the political sphere because I’m not relying on it to accomplish something. I can long to make it just and equitable and free precisely because I don’t need it to solve all the world’s problems.

When we embrace a dualism that puts the worlds problems outside of God’s concern – when we believe God’s only answer to hunger is that we’ll be fed in heaven and His only answer to injustice is eternal punishment – where do we turn when the brokenness of this world rears its ugly head? If we can’t avail ourselves of the power of Christ, we must make use of idolatrous power instead. This is where Marxism comes back in. It is the dualist who gives license to its claims, because it is the dualist who cannot offer a more excellent way.

I have no need of socialism (or, for that matter, fascism or liberalism or conservatism). The God of Scripture cares for every human need – for spiritual intimacy and forgiveness of sin, but also for hunger and injustice and sex and beauty. None of our petty political deities can compare with Him, and none of their social programs can compete with Him. I still have political convictions, but they are now in proper perspective – as one goal of God’s plan rather than the means to accomplish it.

This is why, in my concern for the poor, I could never advocate Marxism (or any other political -ism). It shares some parts of God’s vision, granted, but it is ultimately unnecessary and counter-productive. God has given us the means, through generosity and love, through the Spirit and worship, and through our possessions and prayers, to address every problem this world faces. Every one of them. The beatitudes teach us that poverty must be addressed, but they also teach us the deeper irony – that the means of healing for poverty will come not from the halls of wealth and power but from what is weak and despised by this world.

A dualistic, “spiritualized” God cannot offer us a better hope than Caesar, but Jesus Christ can.

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