Sunday, January 24, 2021

How About Unity of Purpose Before Unity of Opinion?

 This was posted first on Facebook and has been copied here.

Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I’m not anxious about conservatives. I’m not one, or at least not one in ways that would be acknowledged by most folks who call themselves “conservative” these days. But, the thought that someone presents as conservative doesn’t automatically put me off.

That takes me back to a conversation I had some years ago. I was at perhaps my first clergy conference in the Diocese of West Missouri. Being Episcopalians, there was social time after the evening activities. Being Episcopalians, there was beer. And, being clergy (pretty much of any tradition) there was a lot of conversation.

I found myself in conversation with a colleague from a congregation down around Springfield. Folks who know Missouri will know that the general environment around Springfield is notable more conservative than that in Kansas City. He was also more conservative than I. We have a long and thoughtful discussion about poverty and how to address it. We didn’t come to a conclusion (who could imagine we’d have enough time to talk that out in one evening!), but I do remember that we came to important agreement. We agreed that poverty in American society was a real problem; that it caused real suffering; and that it was worthwhile to work on ways to address it. 

And once we’d agreed on that, we had plenty of reasons to keep talking, and even to find common ground. He was definitely more conservative than I, but he did realize that there were some problems that should be addressed through government because only government involves, and also is accountable to, all of us. I was more progressive than he but I agreed that we needed to have some expectations and requirements of folks who were being helped. Sure, we didn’t come to a final conclusion, but we definitely found grounds on which we could work together.

As I still think about it, I still feel the most important thing about that conversation was that we agreed that there was a real problem and real value in addressing it. We have a number of problems like that. We’ve been talking about infrastructure problems for years. and roads and bridges have continued to age. We’ve seen all too clearly in the pandemic that the gaps of economic poverty vs stability, and of urban vs suburban vs rural make for tremendous issues in health care. It seems to me there is a lot we might do if we can first agree there is a problem that is worth fixing, so that we can then put our collective minds to how.

These days “unity” seems to be the theme of the day. A lot of folks want it, but some at different ends of the spectrum seem committed to the idea that “unity” can come only when it means “everybody comes around to my way of thinking.” To me that sounds like a pretty cerebral, pretty academic sense of “unity.” Maybe we would get more done if we started finding our unity in agreeing on the problem to be solved and in committing our efforts to solving it. To me that seems a pretty conservative idea, really, even coming from this progressive.

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Leadership and Focusing on Facts

This was posted first to Facebook and has been copied here.

 Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

So, you know I’m a preacher, right? When I was in seminary, we talked about a big change in how we do things (in Western culture) that took place in the 13th Century. With the teachings of Albertus Magnus and of Thomas Aquinas, European culture made the change from seeing the world based on the teachings of Plato to seeing the world based on the teachings of Aristotle. Without getting too deep in the weeds (but, please do invite me! I love the weeds!), the difference was about what you could know and how you could know it (and what follows is a clearly Christian way of using these categories). For followers of Plato, the truest truth was in the mind of God, and if you thought long and hard enough you could intuit the truth as God saw it, or as close as you could get. For Aristotle, you couldn’t know God’s mind directly but you could see what God had done in the world; and by carefully observing you could see that and from that deduce the truest truth, or as close as you could get.

My professor of Christian Thought and Systematic Theology (same professor, different classes) had a clear understanding of why Aristotle’s position quickly became dominant in Europe: “it built a better cannon.” It was by observing, trying, and adjusting that you improved useful and effective things were, and in those days better siege weapons were considered really important. Sure, cannon would not come to western Europe until the 14th Century, but in those days that was “quickly.” Still, they were clear that observing, trying, adjusting, and observing facts was more effective than simply imagining in making things work better.

We’ve come a long way with those principles, even if we don’t always use those terms. One shorthand we have for that approach is the scientific method. In keeping with our European cultural heritage, we’ve used it to make better bombs. We’ve also used it to make better medicines. The scientific method was critical with getting us to new vaccines for coronavirus that are going to help bring us out of this pandemic (along with mask wearing and social distancing, also supported by scientific method). 

We’ve used them in our industries. Whether we’ve heard of it as performance improvement or continuous quality improvement (CQI) or total quality management (TMQ), we’ve seen how it reformed the Japanese auto industry and then the American auto industry, and many other industries besides. They stopped just imagining what might work and started finding and focusing on facts of how things worked, and used those facts to make things work better.

With all that demonstration of the value of using facts for decisions, perhaps we should expect the same things of our leaders.  If our leaders focus on facts rather than simply on theories and principles, they should be able to offer better programs, better government. If we focus on facts rather than simply principles, or worse, rumors, we should be able to select better leaders who will then offer better programs, better government. Principles have a place because they can help us think about how to use facts. I am after all a Christian and that certainly informs how I might want to respond to the facts in front of me. But I can best apply my principles if I start with observing and testing facts.

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Accountability, Unity, and Voting

This was posted first on my Facebook stream and has been copied here. 

Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I am thinking about unity and accountability. Actually, I’m thinking at the moment about unity and accountability and voting.

In most of these United States, at some points convicted felons receive again the right to vote. We heard a lot about that this past year in light of changes (before 2020) in Florida. Felons there could regain the right to vote, but only after completion of sentence, completion of any probation, and payment of any outstanding restitution and fees. Now, some think the requirements are too great, and that the system can be set up to make it practically impossible even it it’s theoretically possible. What I think we can agree on, though, is that this is unity that is possible, but only after accountability.

Unity after accountability is really pervasive in our culture. Kid misbehaves? Send said kid to bedroom or sit said kid in the corner, and only after that accountability can that child return to the community, to friends, to chosen activities. I was (rarely but occasionally) spanked as a child; and once I had endured that I was returned to my own (hopefully) better choices and behavior.

It makes sense, too, in so much that has shaped our culture. Since I’m a preacher, I can think particularly of our religious texts. All those sacrificial laws in the Hebrew Scriptures were about unity after accountability. I’m among those who has preached about atonement as “at-one-ment,” to emphasize that it was through accountability, and not without it, that one could return to right status in the community. Jesus in Matthew 18 gives a format for reconciliation when one member of the congregation sins against another. In that format, reconciliation requires accountability, even if there’s no punishment per se. The sinner has to own the sin - to be accountable - to be reconciled.

So, I think many of us would agree that there can be unity, but there has to be accountability first. Felons in Florida, and in most other states, can regain the right to vote after sentence is completed - accountability and then unity.

Which brings us to last Wednesday. After last Wednesday’s assault on elected leaders and a completed election, there are some who want to talk about unity. Well and good; and in our tradition, that should also require accountability. And if unity after accountability should apply to the drug user and also to the drug dealer, it should apply to the ones who stormed the Capital and also to any person whose rhetoric helped them think that was an acceptable thing to do. 

Of course, I can only speak for myself.