Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Peanuts, Power and Policy

Below is an essay I just sent off to Bethany Seminary for an essay contest: What Story Will a Peace Church Tell the World?

There's not much new content here from my other musings on power, but I thought I'd wrap it up in a fresh package and see what the Church of the Brethren thinks. :)

Peanuts, Power, and Policy for a Peace Church

While traveling with my wife and young children a few years ago, we reached that point in our journey where rising agitation from the back of the van needed to be swiftly quelled by a snack of some kind. My resourceful wife opened a jar of peanuts that she had ready for just this situation, and we each took a handful and passed the jar back. There was a short moment of relative peace, followed by sharp outcries of injustice and suffering. Our eldest daughter had dumped the entire jar into her lap, out of reach from her siblings (who were now sobbing and gnashing their teeth). We confronted said eldest child and demanded to know what in the world she was doing.

Without missing a beat, she replied “I just wanted the peanuts so I could share them with my brother and sister.” She then proceeded to give small handfuls of her enormous pile to each of her siblings.

History teaches us that it is common for people to gather all peanuts unto themselves, and that it can almost always be explained as simple greed or desire. It is trickier when peanut gathering is done in the name of providing for others. It is admirable to want to be God’s hands, but we run the risk of mistaking our own desires for God’s. Whether we gather peanuts for good or ill, one thing is certain: peanut distributors are the ones in charge. They will eat far better than others and will become all too acquainted with places of honor at banquet tables. To their eventual sorrow, they will discover that peanuts are loaded with hidden saturated fat, and that they will suffer from heart failure if they continue to eat more than their share of them.

Whether it be peanuts or armies, the fundamental problem we all must face when attempting to do good is the double-edged nature of power in this world. We need power to do good, yet power tends to corrupt even the best intentions. That corruption may not fully blossom into depravity, exploitation, or an invade-other-countries-for-the-glorious-benefit-of-God kind of arrogance. But even reconciling a comfortable life with all the suffering that exists in the world is a small corruption, a turning away from Shalom. We all have blind spots, and power without accountability often ends up being a greater opportunity for sin than for good. Whether we are children, kings, nations or peace churches, we should be wary of gathering power in too few places, and we should encourage social policies that ensure power is properly distributed among many.

- - - - - -

The natural course of the world is to collect power into mighty kingdoms that demand allegiance above even God, but which eventually and inevitably crumble as corruption eats at them from within. History affirms this sad reality century after century. But must that reality apply to the Church as well? At its worst, the Church has been a shadow of the State, seeking power and control over others to increase its influence. In post-Christendom times, these impulses have reduced the Church to blessing the violence of the State in exchange for whatever shreds of power the State decides to trickle down to it.

However, at its best, the Church is a counter-weight to the reality of power. It is a voice crying out from the sideline, urging the rich and powerful to share their wealth and privilege and calls them to account when their corruption becomes too enormous for others to bear. What makes the ancient books of Israel remain so unique and relevant for our time is not that God spoke to a tribe in the desert, but that one’s very loyalty to God is put to the test by one’s care and concern for the oppressed in society. The victimized share space in the same sacred text as the stately kings and priests, and to remain faithful to their calls for justice is no easier today than it ever was.

The source of the difficulty is that power presents us with a paradox: We can gain power to do good but also gain hidden corruptions along with it. Or we can avoid power altogether and lack much influence with which to do God’s work. Historic peace churches have struggled mightily with this paradox over the centuries. Choosing variously between engagement and withdrawal at different times, we keep circling around, hoping to find a faithful balance. We often find ourselves between the rock of faithfulness and the hard place of effectiveness.

Part of the problem is Jesus’ ambivalence towards power. He rejected political and ecclesiological power offered by Satan, and in so doing revealed that his kingdom was something quite different. But in the Parable of the Talents, he demanded that those with money and power use it to good benefit or risk losing faithfulness. Is he recognizing that power is something humans can get addicted to, yet is a necessary temptation to accomplish kingdom work?

The answer may lie in what Jesus was unmistakably clear about: advocating for the least among us. Instead of concentrating solely on individual salvation through forgiveness of sins, perhaps we should focus more on community salvation, through the practical results of children clothed, bellies fed, and power equalized. This is the story Jesus told, through his unwavering insistence to care for the poor and the suffering, through his message of an upside-down-kingdom, and through his proclamation of the year of Jubilee. If we view the arc of Jesus’ message as a call to distribute power to minimize human corruption, we are given not just a story but a guiding principle of social organization towards our work in the larger world.

Indeed, what progress has been made towards human dignity in the course of history has come through this basic but effective strategy. Democracy, the rule of law, and institutional checks and balances are all strategies to distribute power, and while they do not succeed in eliminating corruption, they do dampen its effects. We’ve also experienced (all too recently) the tragic effects of subverting those checks and balances by those in power. The church need not compete with secular energy in these areas - at its best it has been the conscience and forerunner of social causes like slavery, poverty, and civil rights, all of which righteously distribute power.

As a guiding principle, distribution of power is quite useful in unpacking the social issues of our time. Instead of asking whether a particular social policy is conservative vs liberal or secular vs religious, we need merely ask: Whom does it benefit? If the answer is that it will give more power and privilege to those who already have it, then we should be highly suspicious of whatever benefits it claims. If one of our jobs, as Christians, is to work towards increasing the power of those who don’t have it, then we need not be embarrassed to pursue social policy that attempts to achieve it. We may be fearful of being labeled unpatriotic or socialist, but we must claim our motivations as properly Christian - a natural result of following Jesus’ social ethic.

Here are some ideas for applying the principle of power distribution to a few current social problems:

Wealth: To rely on optional charity to distribute wealth is to rely on those with the peanuts to share them at their pleasure. Tax policy that distributes money also distributes power. Progressive tax policies need not be apologized for when the money is being used for social services and wealth redistribution strategies, be it education or basic welfare. It is when taxes are used to militarily control the resources of other countries that we should be concerned about what taxation is accomplishing.

Health Care: Current American allocation of health care resources goes to those with jobs at companies that provide health care benefits. This is just another way of distributing privileges only to those who already have some power. A universal health care system would ensure that the power of health is more evenly distributed.

Media Conglomeration: The media is an extremely powerful tool to shape social perception. When all the major media outlets are owned by a small number of global corporations, the voices of those without power are usually shut out. Social policy that prevents media monopolies or encourages alternative media outlets should be supported.

Policing: Corruption is common in police forces because the power of legally sanctioned violence is so strong. Without being accountable to a truly independent investigative body, police abuse is inevitable. Citizen reviews boards with real authority to sanction officers should be a check within our system of policing.

Voting. One of the many ways our democracy is broken is how lawmakers get elected, via large donations from moneyed interests. Public financing of elections would reduce the likelihood of representatives who are beholden to special interests. Alternatively, entirely changing the system to representational government or instant run-off voting would allow more than two parties to have practical access to office, which would help distribute power electorally.

The examples above are but a sample, and certainly open to argument as to whether they would actually achieve the goals of distributing power. But using distribution of power as a goal at least provides a proper framework for the discussion of social policy. For too long we have had to endure the loud complaints of the most privileged and their certainty that they still don’t have enough. They believe that the least among us deserve their poverty, and should be provided with nothing more than spare peanuts, and that only at the whim of those with power. If we hold to distribution of power as a worthy goal, we undercut selfishness as policy, and turn the discussion instead toward the direction of Jesus’ social ethic.

Is distribution of power really such an all-encompassing solution? Can’t people still commit terrible evils even when they have limited power in balance with others? Don’t high school movies teach us that geeks immediately start ignoring their friends when they gain the power of popularity?

Possibly - it is a very blunt tool, after all. It is not an ethic, but a strategy to reduce the likelihood of sin. In fact, sometimes, it is necessary to temporarily centralize power to address local injustice, such as civil rights. In this post-modern world, choosing a path isn’t usually a way to eliminate all problems, but a way to choose which set of problems we prefer to have.

Distributing power is like storing old newspapers, oily rags and matches in different places to avoid unnecessary fires. It is keeping bullets away from guns, and guns away from children, and even preventing guns from being in the house in the first place. It is a structural way to avoid problems and temptations. It does not stop those who want fires and gunshots in their lives, but it does limit their damage.

Unequal distribution of power harms everyone. Left unchecked, it eventually puts massive numbers of people under the yoke of injustice and oppression. But it also encourages those in power, who might behave better otherwise, to be in opposition to God’s will for themselves and for humanity. Resisting the temptations of power may start with peanuts, but if we are to be serious about reflecting God’s desire for us here on earth, it must end in practical, power-distributing social policy.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Ensemble Experience

At my wife’s urging, I joined a choral ensemble this year at AMBS. I did not join because I have any singing talent - quite the opposite - I joined because I thought I might be able to improve myself without being too big of an anchor tied around the necks of the other choir members. Or at least my wife thought so. I was not convinced.

Throughout my life, I have been an atrocious singer and an even worse musician. After 18 years of living with my music-major wife, she has only been able to patch over some of my most glaring deficiencies. I no longer mistake the rhythm of the melody for the beat, and am now aware that picking any handy, semi-matching note is not how to sing a 4-part harmony. In exchange for these wondrous gifts, my wife is now able (after 18 long years) to hit, catch and throw a softball.

My two doomed attempts at playing instruments (piano and cello) have left me a kindergarten-like ability to “read” music. While others around me translate in real-time the circles and squigglies on a page into actual music, it is mostly accidental when any sounds coming from my mouth resemble the pitch, tempo, or volume of what is written.

In the midst of this functional musical illiteracy, choir also requires me to look up every so often at the director to receive arm movement instructions. I can roughly understand the intent, even though I am mostly unable to comply, as I struggle not to lose my place while also still desperately trying to match pitch. There are also a lot verbal instructions in foreign languages, like “mezzo-forte” and “adagio”, plus secret-coded English phrases, like “articulation of rhythms.” Everyone else nods in agreement and makes appropriate notes in their music. I also nod intently, and use the time to mark little arrows next to what I hope is the tenor line, so I don’t lose my place from page to page.

But there is still more. I am asked to sing louder here or softer there or lightly or with enunciation or crescendo-y. Breathe here, but not with your chest and root yourself to the ground and round your Os and pronounce that hard G. There are apparently notations for each of these as well, as everyone continues to scribble in their music. I’ve already finished marking the tenor line, which is the only marking I’ve found to be useful.

My job in the choir, as I have defined it, is to surround myself with as many tenors as I can and attempt to amplify whatever it is they are doing. So, my singing often resembles an annoying person trying to mimic a storyteller in real-time. This role became evident in our spring performance. We apparently started one of the movements out of sync with each other, so much so that the organist simply stopped playing for a page or two until we got back in sync, which we eventually did. I say apparently, because I didn’t notice. I was standing between two outstanding tenors, and they were in agreement as to which notes we were supposed to be singing, so I just followed happily along. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor that describes my contribution to the ensemble. My standard image for failing at something is that of the slow gazelle being eyed by a hungry lion as the herd passes. But that doesn’t quite work here, since it isn’t clear who the lion is. It would need to be the Slow Gazelle of Skill being run down by the Hungry Lion of Humiliation.

I’m the weak link in the chain. The faint black line drawn across a fine painting. The trivia partner who knows only what all his team members already know, but is slower to answer.

But it’s all OK. Too much of my life is spent avoiding situations that might reveal my weaknesses. My self-identity requires that I always be the one who is competent and talented. I want to be one who provides grace and mercy to others when they mess up instead of needing it myself. Choir is the exact opposite of this, and an opportunity to provide some perspective from the other side. I know I need help and must trust others to provide it.

And provide it they do. These are Mennonites, after all. You can randomly yank 20 Mennonites out of any potluck and you’ll have enough vocal talent to match the choir of any Catholic church I’ve attended. Plus, they love nothing more than to provide grace and mercy to others. Especially those slow gazelles.

This ensemble (and its infinitely patient director) was particularly strong, and easily able to accommodate an outlier like myself. But if it was all just confusion and compassion, I’m not sure I would have survived.

What kept me coming back were those transcendent moments at the end of a movement where everyone sings at their peak capacity – full throated and without inhibition. When they do, the sound is so strong and so powerful that my music sheet literally vibrates in my hand, and I feel it deeply within my chest and body and soul. It is here, and only here, that I am finally able to let go. The note is mercifully long enough that I am able to confidently find the right pitch. After withholding my voice for so long for fear of messing up, I can just let it rip, and sing as long and as strong as my voice will allow, joining with the rushing tide.

We’ve reached a destination that I can take no credit in achieving, and yet it gives me a profound appreciation for the gifts and talents of others in taking me there. There is a surrender of self in simply putting my elbows out and being carried away by a rushing crowd of those who are stronger, faster, and greater.

Finally, in these moments, I am fully a part of something greater, not only than me, but greater even than the sum of all of us in the ensemble. Our voices resonate together and fill the space between us all. For just a moment, we seem connected, somehow the collective embodiment of God that our spirits yearn for. And it is good.

Unless I forget and move before the sound dissipates.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Salvation Candy

The June issue of Sojourners reported on this gem, under the heading of “Real Product”: Salvation Candy Tubes. You can buy sugar for your children, and have them match the color with the message on the tube. Jesus' Blood is red, sin is of course some kind of dark, unpleasant color, and heaven is apparently yellow. Who knew?

I don’t know what it is that cracks me up about entwining Jesus with consumer products. It has something to do with the sacrilege of it all, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I do make a point of sending a semi-sacrilegious product to my brother every year for his birthday. He has received a Buddy Christ, a statuette of a Jesus playing basketball with young boys (inappropriately, it seems to me), a Moses action figure, and a "wash away your sins" soap bar with a small nun statuette entrapped within it (presumably with nail marks on the inside of the soap where the statuette has desperately tried to claw its way out before suffocating).

I suppose one way to look at Salvation Candy is that the company owners love Jesus so much that they want to spread his message of love and compassion via the sacred act of candy consumption. Another way to look at it is that they are using Jesus as bait to sell sugar to schoolchildren. Either way, it seems cruel to get children all hopped up on sugar and then make them feel guilty that they are suddenly physically unable to act like Jesus would want them to.

This particular product is the perfect metaphor for what I’ve long believed: that religious experience often resembles a manic sugar high. Churches pass out the spiritual equivalent of chocolate bunnies and peeps and everyone gets high on God for the morning. It’s all about being saved and feeling good about yourself. But there isn’t much connection between that and ethical choices for the rest of the week.

Many go the opposite way, and eat spiritual barley all day long and are healthy enough, but lack any kind of joy at all. That is one-sided too, and reduces spiritual life to rote ethical duties, devoid of any kind of spirit at all. Our spiritual lives need to be a nutrient-filled, healthy balance between joy and obligation, binding and loosing, spirit and flesh, sugar and vegetables.

How can we tell the difference between deep joy and communion and merely a sugar high? Can we even do God’s work when we are all sugared up? says, of course you can – just load up on Salvation Sugar and Candy Pebbles Crunch Art of Sin, and be on your way!