Saturday, September 15, 2007

Seeking an End to Soul-Sucking Politics

In that awful, wonderful Cecile B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments, made in 1956 and starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, the final plague against Pharaoh -- the visitation of the Death Angel that took the lives of the first-born son of any whose house was not protected by the blood of the lamb -- was portrayed as a gray fog that crept into the streets and seeped through the cracks beneath doors and windows; a deadly vapor that gradually but relentlessly infiltrated the entire city, punctuated by the ever increasing cries and laments of the suddenly grieving.

Harry Potter devotes might think, instead, of the Dementors, those darkly shrouded, wraith-like, soul-sucking figures that mysteriously and silently swoop down out of the sky in hoards for a kiss that drains anything of significance and vitality from their victims.

Vaporous Death Angel wafting through the streets; Dementors descending from the night sky with their vacuous mouths open for a kiss. Both images came to mind this week during a conversation on faith in public life. We were asked by the leader to tell a story about some real, practical ways that the next President of the United States should affect our lives, and all I could think of was the soul-sucking, suffocating character of the political climate of our day. Permeated by fear and suspicion, judgmentalism and accusatory innuendo, political discourse has become the language of negativism rather than the vocabulary of hope, animated by the specter of terror rather than the spirit of possibility. Candidates over-talking each other; political parties savaging each other; special interest groups oversimplifying and insinuating slander. It has become the very air we breath -- or the very air that is suffocating us.

The real, practical way I wish that the next President would affect my life is by speaking a different kind of word. I know there are significant policy issues to address. Of course I want the next President to advocate on behalf of health care reform and protection of children and stronger support of education and more. I want the next President to work on rebuilding relational bridges between our country and the world. But all of those initiatives depend on the partnership of others -- Senators and Representatives, courts and states and more. Perhaps the only thing a President can do completely on his or her own is to use that significant pulpit to set a tone. And I am weary of the dark and life-destroying place into which the whole of public discourse, whether Republican or Democrat, has sunk.

Harry Potter would say that I am looking for a kind of political Patronus Charm to counter the Dementors. In biblical terms I suppose I am looking for some kind of blood to smear on the lintels of our common house that will hold this deadly discourse at bay.

I would like to think I am simply looking for a President who shines light rather than casts darkness; who inspires collective and hopeful participation rather than vague but paralyzing foreboding; who reminds us of and calls us toward the best that we can be; who is ready to launch among us a kind of "Marshall Plan" for our political character and culture instead of taking the easy way of finding one more "bogeyman" to fear or hate, demean or fight or legislate against.

I don't think that's asking too much.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

1956 Was, For Me, A Very Good Year

It's hard to imagine my mother being wheeled into the delivery room on a gurney. It's hard to imagine my Dad pacing the waiting room floor. But here I am: 51 years to the day after such requisite events most certainly occurred; happy, if not conspicuously wealthy and only occasionally wise.

Change that. I am fantastically wealthy. The currency just doesn't happen to be money -- although by world standards that wouldn't be quite true. I have everything I need and most of what I want, with fewer ripples in my pond than I deserve. I am surrounded by love and encouragement, forgiveness and grace, along with the creative vocational space in which to thrive. I have opportunity, adequate tools, fascinating toys, ample music, and bright colors. There are even surpluses -- like my waistline, though that is hardly a plus. And there are conspicuous deficits -- most significantly in the category of habits of exercise and health.

But hopefully we are changing all that, Lori and I. For as many birthday and anniversary presents as we are willing to calculate forward, we have given ourselves a new piece of exercise equipment. We had actually worn out the treadmill it replaces -- based, at least, on the trade-in value the fitness store was willing to offer. And now we are trying to add deposits to our physical "bank account." Gifts of health, as it were, to each other. So far the record is good: 5 consecutive days and counting -- if, that is, we can continue to afford the ibuprofen. It can hardly be considered, at this juncture, a habit, but we are gaining on it.

In the meantime, I'll blow out my candles with breath for which I'm profoundly grateful, along with all the other blessings that permeate my life as the very evidence and residue of grace. So, happy birthday to me: happy, happy, indeed. Thanks Mom and Dad. I couldn't have done it without you.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Agreement Does Not Equal Truth

A Polk County judge on Thursday concluded that Iowa's law against same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and unfairly discriminates. District Judge Robert Hanson ruled that "the law violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution." No small matter, certainly, this issue of fairness and equality under the law. Predictably, there were equally loud outcries of ecstasy and agony. "Finally," said some. "Outrage," said others. Also predictably, the judge issued the next day a stay on the order, preventing its implementation pending appeals.

But whatever one's views on the merits of the issue in general and this case in particular -- whatever one's views on marriage -- it was the exclamation by one Iowa lawmaker that has given me pause. In vowing to "to take more steps to change Iowa law to prevent same-sex marriages," House Minority Leader Chris Rants, a Sioux City Republican, exclaimed, "I can't believe this actually happened in Iowa." What it means is that one person has decided they know better than the whole Legislature."

That last sentence. That's the one that interrupts me. I recognize the long tradition within democracies of "majority rules." Although there are typically safeguards in place to protect minority voices from being routinely tyrannized, we haven't really come up with an alternative to simply counting up the votes. We can change the definition of "majority" -- "simple" majority or "super" majority, for example -- but it still boils down to the "voice of the many" having say over the "voice of the few." That, I suppose, is democracy.

While I don't discount the importance of the majority's opinion, I wouldn't attribute to it too much substance. Weight? Yes. Substance? Not necessarily. Especially from a Christian point of view.

I haven't gone back to read the actual votes, but I'm relatively sure that the majority of legislators in various southern states during the 1950's and 1960's saw no problem with racially descriminatory laws that were currently the "law of the land." The majority.

While most American colonists were getting fed up with the heavy-handed policies of Britain, I would be willing to bet that the majority disapproved of the actions of a few who heaved crates of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

As I think about the biblical story, it was the majority opinion of those in charge that led to Jesus' crucifixion and Stephen's stoning. If a vote had simply been taken after the renegade Paul began to baptize uncircumcised Gentiles, most of us would not be in the church today. And reaching a bit further back, it appears that the majority of Israelites voted to return to Egypt. It was that "wild, activist judge" Moses who insisted they go forward toward Canaan.

All of which is to say that sometimes, every now and then, Mr. Rants, the majority -- even the "whole legislature" -- gets it...