Our “Terrible Good” Democracy

Our Terrible Good Democracy

Ralph was a large gruff voiced man, tough exterior with a tender soul. Mostly he hid the gentle side, but the tenderness leaked out more and more as you got to know him.

He was in his seventies by the time we met. He stood straight and tall even as there was evidence of aging. If one watched for it, there was a twinkle at the edges of his eyes, like a small mouse sneaking around the corner of a room. On any given Sunday, after church, I would greet Ralph with, “How are you today, Ralph?” I knew his answer ahead of time. This retired, successful man, in a gravelly voice would reply “Oh, I’m terrible good. You?” Hearing the words TERRIBLE GOOD always caused me to chuckle. It was vintage Ralph, summarizing a rough exterior covering a gentle spirit. His response, his pose, his practiced gruffness meant “I’m very good or I’m doing exceptionally well.” It was always followed with his one word question: “You?”

Terrible Good is one way I think about our national experience of democracy in the United States today. There is a terribleness, a meanness, much more threatening and ugly toward others than Ralph’s gruff demeanor. Somehow civil discourse has been devalued and too often set aside. Public governance has been turned into yelling matches across ideologial divides. Some of the interchanges in school board meetings or even in the U.S. Congress are more like a scuffle on a elementary school play ground than a display of honest human differences. It is ugly and unless we are careful it can be destructive to our future. There is so much that is good about us as a people, as a nation that, I fear, gets lost in the bellicose rudeness. Why is this so? And, what can be done to better display the goodness of our people? I have three hunches to offer.

  1. The Media Made Us Do It.” This is not a new explanation and is, in fact, the most common one offered. Marshall McLuhan was perhaps right, “The medium is the message.” From social media interactions to talk radio to the cable television channels, for many in our nation the offering of information has been set aside and instead exchanges become an ongoing battle, a bludgeoning of “the other.” Complex challenges are distilled into easy answers and turned into verbal brickbats tossed across any convenient ideologocial or cultural chasim.
  2. “There are Fewer Parking-Lot-Conversations.” As a clergy person, I would often see persons engaged in parking-lot-conversations following a worship service or meeting. Sometimes these conversations would last a half an hour, or would move to a nearby restaurant or watering hole. People got to know one another in regular, healthy human exchanges, where differences were freely shared. I recall a lot of teasing about sports teams (Cardinals vs. Cubs; Colts vs. Bears, etc.), or joking about the best college or university, or, yes, disagreements about politics. I heard many such conversations and teasing between Republicans, Democrats and Independents on the asphalt. Sometimes the conversations were serious but almost always to my memory, respectful. I saw this behavior in other arenas as well. For example, I still recall the gatherings following a school board or city council meeting where persons of opposite parties would gather at an establishment and engage in post meeting banter. There was much laughter and often a testing of alternative approaches to problems. Several things happened to change this over the past twenty years. First, churches became more and more ideologically/politically segregated, leaving space for fewer such teasing opportunities. I think the same is true of our politics. Mostly gone are the days when opponents like Tip O’Neal and Ronald Reagan jovially visited after a tough day of battle in Washington. COVID hasn’t helped — there have been fewer people attending fewer public meetings.
  3. “We are fogetting how to practice local democracy.” Local democracy, and by “local” I mean at the grass roots, subatomic, or subpolitical party level. I mean meetings at the PTA, garden club, bowling league, League of Women Voters, church board meetings, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks or dozens of other social or service clubs. While I am not arguing that Roberts Rules of Order should be followed by every group, I do wonder if at the local level we are forgetting how to make fair and democratic decisions. If Roberts Rules are assumed, then some simple things like setting an agenda, learning how to make a motion and call for a vote are helpful. There are other ways to proceed (Consensus, Democratic Rules, Atwood Rules, Group Discernment, etc.). To my mind, if there is no agreed upon way to proeed, an option many will chose is trying to “win” by yelling more loudly than others. There should be some agreement about process. In too many organizations we have turned to the practice of electing officers/leaders and then leaving all the work to those persons, later to grumble about decisions made. My friend Parker Palmer once spoke of visiting an African American Sunday School Class years ago as they were electing officers for the upcoming year. He noted that even in a small class of fewer than ten people, everyone held an office. After the class Palmer asked a friend why everyone held a post and the answer was simple and elegant. “We are practicing.” I believe it is time to give much more attention to the practice of local democracy.

If asked how democracy in the United States is doing today, I would respond that we are “TERRIBLE GOOD.” Of course, to prove this is true, a majority of us would need to answer as Ralph did and ask, “YOU?” More practice at listening to the voices of others and knowing how to fairly make decisions at the local level is something all of us can focus on doing better.

Our Unmaskings

Colin Murray, Soldier Field, 6/16/21

The weather was as good as it gets – one of those days I have been waiting for well over 475 days. My grandson, Colin Murray was graduating from Whitney Young High School. Where better in Chicago for such an event than at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan? June 16, 2021. Most of us in the large crowd of proud friends and relatives were wearing masks. It was great to be in a public place doing “almost normal things.” Lots of sunshine and cool breezes and reason to celebrate the 515 students were graduating. These 2021 grads were off to the next passages in their lives. The graduation bulletin listed their destinations to places around the world. Impressive. I confess to choking back some tears as I watched this diverse, talented group of youngsters. These graduates represent the future of our great multicultural society. Huzzah for them, and for our nation, and our world!

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of anti-mask protesters who attended other large gatherings over the past year. Otherwise intelligent persons consciously choosing to display their “liberty” by NOT wearing masks. And, too often, a few weeks later, the community where these “liberties” were displayed saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 related illness and deaths! It’s a crazy world, isn’t it? There is recent legislation allowing firearms to be carried in the open in some states, with few restrictions on weapon sales, and at the same time significant new limits are being placed on when, where and how persons can vote. Seems more than a little upside-down. All of this while the number and frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. is increasing.

We have been down a similar road before. There was the debate over seat belts back in the 1970s and the opposition to the polio vaccination, or adding fluoride to the water when I was a child. I certainly understand the need to be cautious and wise with regulations. Still, even with measures in place to protect the larger population, there is a desire by some to see conspiracy instead of a desired well-being-for-all that is intended.

I am far from being a constitutional scholar. Even so, the preamble to the U. S. Constitution is clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The idea of “promoting the general Welfare,” seems straight forward and a good foundational basis for healthy and enduring civic life. The framers of the Constitution understood the inherent competing interests of individual liberty and social responsibility. Public health measures sing in harmony with Constitutional intentions. Things like face masks, vaccinations, quarantines, building codes, safe food and drug production/sales, licenses as to who can operate an automobile, practice medicine are all part of the general welfare.

We will find our way forward from this I do believe. Even in sensible gun measures one day soon, I pray. At Indiana University there was a regulation students arriving in the fall would need to display proof of a coronavirus vaccination. Sadly, the state legislature tried to intervene and claimed such basic public health efforts were illegal. There was a recent small protest at the university against such a requirement. I loved the way the university acted like the “adult in the conversation” by saying, “Okay then, we won’t be policing the students. But guess what? We will offer incentives.” There will be a drawing open to all who provide evidence of their vaccination that includes great gift cards for the book store and other purchases around town. There will be electronic devices and for at least one lucky student, a year of free tuition. Now that is promoting the general welfare in a creative way.

It seems to me that what has been unmasked during this pandemic is the way some have believed their individual liberty trumped the promotion of the general welfare. In a word, it is a way of seeking to justify self-centered-ness. It was all about the “ME” with an absence of any sense of the “WE”.

Micah 6:8 is a fine summary of what is expected (make that required) of God’s people. It is to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” One of the great unmaskings coming out of the pandemic is the way bad theology shaped the practices of many in our churches. One day in the future, we will be able to see the relationship between political and religious gatherings where masks were discounted, even ridiculed, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 related damage done in a community.

A “religious” anti-masker protesting outside a grocery store challenged me for wearing a mask as I entered. The challenge was, “Give me one good reason you are wearing that thing.” I wanted to respond “I can give you over 600,000 good reasons. Those who died.” I didn’t. Parking lot debates are usually not very productive! Already, today, the evidence is clear. In city after city, and health care facility after health care facility TODAY those hospitalized with COVID are all folks who refused or for some other “reason” were not vaccinated against the virus.

Early in the pandemic, St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado offered masks with the Micah text. It has become my mask of choice over the past fifteen months. While my prayer is that we can be sufficiently past the pandemic, just in case we are not, I am looking into finding a mask that simply reads, “Promote the General Welfare.”

I find this moment hope-filled. A time to believe there is a better future is possible. Why? Because yesterday I saw 515 reasons to be hope-filled… and this is just at one school in a nation where millions of our children and youth have struggled through the pandemic and I believe the vast majority have witnessed an important unmasking. They no longer believe there are easy answers to complex public challenges but there is a path forward.

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Hope and Freedom are inextricably linked — twin sisters of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America. Both are best defined and lived out in the future tense. Mark Twain put it this way, “Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope-tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” In three days, I pray a tidal wave of voters in the United States will choose Hope and Freedom. It is a critical moment for the nation to move forward and step away from the politics of division, despair and fear.

I miss the easy sense of hope and freedom I knew before the COVID-19 pandemic savaged our nation. Still I am most fortunate; I know this. I have benefited fully from HOPE and FREEDOM. So my struggles in this time of pandemic are minimal, modest. My challenges center in a missing touch with family and friends, mask wearing, safe grocery shopping or the absence of gatherings like Sunday worship.

In a strange way, pandemic offered opportunity to join others in online worship. On a typical Sunday, I check in on my home congregation and then roam across the internet. Sometimes checking out three or four other congregations. Okay, I know this is atypical — make that downright strange! Call it an occupational hazard of a retired preacher. Better, know it is the joy of discovering gifts other women and men offer as they lead worship. From New York to Colorado to California I watch. There is the exceptional pipe organ offerings of Jaebon Hwang in San Diego or the profound words of my friend Michael Mather in Boulder.

Most Sundays since the pandemic began, I drop in on music and preaching at St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This past Sunday, October 27, I sat straight up in my chair as Mark Feldmeir quoted from Toni Morrison: The function of freedom is to make someone else free.” Yes,” I thought. That is what makes this election so important! Freedom should never be quarantined to self absorbed, individualistic, personal freedom — or, even to the idea that freedom should be restricted to the boundaries of one nation. Freedom is to be shared. Hope is to be shared. So, borrowing from Morrison, let’s say that the function of hope is to offer others hope!

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road having just left Jerusalem. They are heart-broken by the crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger joins them who asks why they are so downcast and defeated. According to Taylor they reply:  “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” She then notes: “We had hoped Hope in the past tense, one of the saddest sounds a human being can make.  We had hoped he was the one.  We believed things might really change, but we were wrong.  He died.  It is over now.  NO more fairy tales.  No more illusions.  Back to business as usual.” (Gospel Medicine, p. 21)

++++++++++++

Hope is a thing with feathers,  
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.   - Emily Dickinson 

Prayer:  Remind us, O God, that the warp and woof of creation are hope and freedom. It is in these we discover joy. In these we are called to delight and praise. May we know the tremors of bliss, the winks of heaven, the whispers of hope, the pathways of freedom that signal the grand consummation of all things. Amen. (adapted by P. Amerson from Thomas a’Becket) +++++