Sunday, September 14, 2008

Political Naiveté

Very rarely do I make public my thoughts and convictions about politics, but I’ll make an exception here because there are Christian principles behind my position. Admittedly I don’t know very much about politics. I understand politics to be the way people work with one another as they devise a system for governing a body of people, or when they put that system to use. Because people are sinners, any political system will be flawed. To me it is clear that the American political process is affected, and often driven, by favoritism, shortsightedness, rigidity, hypocrisy, and all the other sins common to humanity. But in a fallen world there may be no better way to govern our nation, so the political process needs constant correction and rebalancing. Sometimes, on occasion, it works well. Or appears to. As I say, I don’t know much about it.

Political parties are generally made up of people of more or less like-mindedness on whatever issues are before the nation. Like groups or parties within the Church, no one party has a corner on the complete truth. For truth to prevail, then, parties must work together, i.e. people of different convictions must listen to one another and learn to work together—without denying their convictions but also with a willingness to hear what someone else has to say so that all may benefit. That is, one must hold fast to one’s own convictions while working also for the good of all.

The prophets of the Old Testament often supported the king, but whenever necessary—which was frequently—called the king and people to repentance. The prophets’ commitment was to the Word of the Lord above all, and not unconditionally to a particular political person or position. The Christian Church, and individual Christians as they have opportunity, must do the same. The Church must support Democrats when that party wants to assist the poor; it must support Republicans when that party opposes abortion. The Church, in short, must preach the Gospel to all the political parties. The parties, all of them, sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong.

Commitment to truth, for me, is a top priority in the political system. I learned recently (haven’t verified it) that in the ancient Greek culture (which loved philosophy and debate), whenever two people were going to debate their philosophy, before the debate could begin each person had to give a summary of what his opponent believed and get that person’s agreement that his position had been stated accurately. Only after that had happened, could the debate begin. Without beginning in that fashion, the debate could have no value for the arguments offered could have no foundation. That practice seems to me to be quite sound. Bearing false witness against one’s neighbor, mudslinging, trying to get ahead by denouncing your opponent, twisting facts, attacking others anonymously, hitting below the belt, etc. are all contrary to truth or virtue or both, no matter which party or individual does these things. No one can get to the truth by lying about his opponent.

Because of my convictions, when our parish’s Discernment Committee was working to come to a consensus about what to do in the current Episcopal controversy, at the very first meeting I gave the members axioms from which they were not to deviate as they did their work. These axioms included: no name calling, no crediting any rumors or other unsubstantiated material (i.e. use only first-hand material in its proper context), no violation of Scripture (e.g. admission of lawsuits), listen to those who disagree with you and make sure you understand what they believe before reacting to it, act always in full charity. The Committee followed these principles and did a marvelous job.

I believe that those in the political process must do the same. Of course, I know that they won’t—or won’t very often. But still, any party or individual acting for a party that violates these same principles will have no credibility for me. I believe that any political assertion must honor every individual by telling the truth and allowing each person to speak for himself. Only in such a circumstance will I have the best chance to learn what someone really stands for. Truth, honor, love, virtue, etc. are principles that must guide our contacts with other people at all times, including in the political process. I fault nearly every political party and process for failing to uphold these principles consistently.

I admire Barack Obama because he seems to be enacting the American dream (and therefore is a testimony to the greatness of many American strengths), and for some of his convictions. I admire John McCain for his perseverance and some of his convictions. Both men have greatness in them, both are patriots, and both have failings.

Frankly, I usually tend to vote as a one-issue person: where a candidate stands on abortion tells me a great deal about his understanding of life’s central issues. I know that the realities of the world and what faces the nation are much more complex than any single issue, but that one issue of abortion is the most important for me because in it millions of lives are at stake. Related to it are issues of tobacco, the death penalty, and gun control. No one candidate I know of, or party, has a clean or consistent position on these issues, which are all about the value of life.

I know I am idealistic in these convictions; maybe more than a few would say I am naïve. I am willing to be educated but I won’t compromise my ideals no matter how few people might agree with them, how many people believe them to be unrealistic, or consider me to be naïve because of them. I believe that holding these convictions and applying them is part of living and proclaiming the Gospel, and the Gospel is the only solid and reliable foundation for truth, love, life, and action. Without such a foundation, one is left completely at the whim of fads, fancies, fallacies, opportunism, money-motivated goals, and the like.

Consider, for example, Jacob Weisberg’s column “The Big Idea” in the September 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek (page 41). The title of his column is, “What Happened to Family Values?” In that column the author attacks Sarah Palin’s pro-life position, which he describes as “extreme”. He states, “The availability of legal abortion actually supports the kind of family structure that conservatives once felt so strongly about: two parents raising children in a stable relationship, without government assistance.” This shocking absurdity is the central message of his column. That message, as I read it, is: Give people the right to terminate the lives of the unborn they don’t want, and what will be left are lives that are wanted, and wanted lives make for happy, committed parents. (It didn’t pass me by that he used the term “stable relationship” rather than “marriage”.) This assertion is utterly devoid of any values or standards other than convenience or preference. I haven’t heard or read such a dispassionate proposal of appalling and brutal utilitarian eugenics seriously put forward since the Nazi philosophy sought, by mass murder and genocide of undesirables, to create the Aryan society of the blond and blue-eyed. Work is freedom. Abortion is a family value. Death is life. Black is white. Hell.

What is always at stake in every human encounter, small or large, including the political system, are Gospel truth and love. I choose these without compromise.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Beyond the Circles of the World

“We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” These are the last words of Aragorn, spoken to his wife Arwen. (From The Lord of the Rings, appendix A, a part of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, by J. R. R. Tolkien)

J. R. R. Tolkien died just a little more than 35 years ago. I remember reading a brief obituary at the time in a national magazine whose title I have forgotten. A short time after that I received a note from a friend that closed, “P.S. Sorry about Tolkien.”

I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when the latter was in its second wave of popularity—the mid-1960s. As C. S. Lewis’ imagination had been “baptized” when in 1915 he first read Phantastes by George MacDonald, these works of Tolkien transfigured my imagination and more. I still recall purchasing The Silmarillion when it was first published, and opening the cover over lunch at a restaurant near the church where I was working at the time. I smiled grandly, though I was alone, as I began to read.

A few years ago, taking advantage of the Prayer Book’s permission to add commemorations to the calendar, I placed Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams into our cycle of annual observations. (Subsequently, Lewis was officially added to the Episcopal calendar.) I had to come up with psalms, other readings, and a collect (suitable prayer) for each entry. I recall that the selections and compositions I made for Tolkien were easy. The day I chose for his commemoration was September 3, the day after the date of his death on September 2, 1973. (September 2 was already taken; on that day we commemorate the martyrs of New Guinea.)

As I celebrated the Mass today and preached on the lessons, it came to mind why I am so affected by the writings of Tolkien. He himself, as far as I can conclude from various writings about him, could be rather a curmudgeon—maybe more easily hurt than most, bothered by grudges, a bit of a complainer. He had a difficult life—his father died far away while his sons were still quite young, his mother was cast out of her family when she became a Roman Catholic. She also died while her sons were still small. Tolkien was raised in straitened circumstances, and even when he became a professor he was not well paid and often had to pinch pennies. He was traumatized, as were many young men of his generation, by the trench warfare of World War I.

With this background, where did his astonishing vision come from? Tolkien himself, an ardent Christian and daily communicant at Mass (which he experienced for most of his life in Latin), did not live a life often given to adventure, quest, peril, or heroism. He described himself once as “a hobbit”—preferring simple things like good food, fellowship, and the out of doors, and studiously avoiding adventure. Yet his vision—which he also described as intentionally “Christian and Catholic”—sets forth in incomparably rich and diverse myth the Gospel story of great events taking millennia to come to fruition, small heroes, gods and demons, goodness and evil, light and darkness, despair in which valiant action is still chosen, death and destiny, song and poetry, gold and silver and iron, magic and mystery, prophecy and choice and chance, rebellion and repentance, oath and power, battle (with many casualties and much cruelty) and serenity, fire and still water, sun and moon, dance and smoke rings, beauty and horror… but always, always the achievement of the will of Iluvatar (the “All-Father”) who is God.

In short, Tolkien opened my innermost heart to the saga of salvation, the elements by which our world was saved. He transformed for me, for ever, ordinary things like stars, shadows, moonlight, chill evening breezes, trees and leaves, the seasons of the year, gray clouds, firelight and brass and dark wood, so that they became portals into wonder, and therefore means by which I perceive the presence and activity of God.

Everything except mushrooms. Tolkien hasn’t made me like mushrooms.

Here is the prayer I wrote for the commemoration of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien:
Father of all, who inspired the heart and mind of your servant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien with visions of eternal goodness, truth, and beauty both on Earth and beyond the circles of this world: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be bold to resist evil and obedient to your call to humble service, knowing that in your plan it is most often by small things that the great events of salvation are brought about; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in everlasting splendor.