Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Calvin goes to Madison, Wisconsin

The heated battle over the state budget is the single most divisive issue to unfold in Wisconsin in the nearly thirty years I have lived here. I cannot pretend to neutrality in the matter—I am married to a state employee, a professor in the UW system who will likely have no choice but to retire early if the budget bill passes in its present form. But while I admit to having a dog in the hunt, I grieve even more deeply the “take no prisoners” tone of the battle, the complete absence of discussion and debate, and the demonization of the opposing view that is coming from both sides of the aisle (even though one side of the aisle has gone missing, so to speak).

Every faith tradition has specific forms of wisdom and experience to offer in contentious public conflicts such as this one. My own tradition is Reformed Protestantism, which is deeply rooted in the teachings of John Calvin. Calvinism has always insisted that the essential nature of human beings is sinful and corrupt, which makes us appear a grim bunch to those who insist that human beings are essentially good and decent with a spiritual essence made up of puppy dogs, rainbows and unicorns. To them we reply that we are merely realists, and that acknowledgement of our sinful nature is essential if we are to have any chance of overcoming it.

So one perspective that a Calvinist brings to any contentious public policy matter is the knowledge that one’s own virtue is suspect and one’s own opinions are likely flawed, because truth and wisdom belong to God alone. This is why Calvinism has a long tradition of lively debate. “Debate” does not mean screaming at one’s opponent, but rather listening carefully and openly to one’s opponent before responding. We have a great fondness for Isaiah 1:18: “’Come now, let us reason together’ says the Lord.” In practice, this has sometimes taken the form of requiring you to state your opponent’s position to his or her satisfaction before stating your own. When you know yourself to be a sinner and your opponent to be a sinner as well, you are less likely to come out of your corner swinging. You need one another’s partial grasp of the truth if you are to have any hope of getting closer to the actual truth. When you understand the pervasive power of sin, you are more likely to be humble.

Another perspective offered by Calvinist thought is that the quest for truth cannot be rushed, for the Spirit does not act in accordance with our hurried timetables. In our tradition, if there was conflict in the community—not an uncommon event—and reasoning with one another hit a wall of stubborn pig-headedness, a wise elder was likely to call for a “season of prayer.” All discussion and debate was set aside, sometimes for days or even weeks, so that those holding opposing views could pray for and with one another. Only when all in the community agreed that they were in “right relationship” with one another was discussion permitted to resume. If they hit a wall again, well, time for another season of prayer. The goal was not for one side to emerge the winner, but for the entire community to come to consensus on how they might best put God’s will into practice. It sounds quaint; very 17th century, but I think there is wisdom here that speaks to our own era, in which politics has become a blood sport.

Given all that is at stake in the budget battle and how many lives it will impact, including the lives of future generations, there is much to be said for slowing things down and backing away from the ugly acrimony in order to reason together, even pray for one another. When anyone says “there will be no negotiation and there can be no compromise,” Calvin would say that is the voice of human sinfulness. I have strong opinions about this budget debate, certainly, but I know that they are shaped in part by my own self-interests. Knowing that, I must be prepared to compromise with those who disagree with me, who are neither better nor worse people than I am. Real solutions are born only when we acknowledge our own limitations and reach out to one another.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, Democracy and Facebook

"The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience." ~Howard Zinn

We are constantly swimming in a sea of information, sometimes too much information. Intelligence agencies are continuously monitoring the activities of both governments and individuals, appearing to know everything about everyone. How remarkable, then, that major social upheavals can still take us completely by surprise. Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall. And now Egypt. Largely non-violent, these revolutionary events have changed the face of the globe, and nobody saw them coming. Even though the initial protests were quelled, Tiananmen Square proved a pivot point in China’s journey towards embracing capitalism and greater openness. The fall of the Berlin Wall cast its ripples throughout the Warsaw Pact nations, leading to the demise of the Soviet Union.

What sort of ripples will a newly democratic Egypt spread through the entire Arab world? It is much too soon to say, but it would be betting against history to underestimate its impact. I suspect that many other heads of state in the region are beginning to ponder Plan B. What millions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in warfare could not accomplish in the Middle East has now been achieved by young Egyptians with dreams of freedom and self-determination, walking with candles rather than marching with weapons.

American democracy in our time is at best a messy affair (as each election season reminds us) where special interest groups with deep pockets wield far too much influence. Democracy is an imperfect and dangerously vulnerable system of government. The only thing you can say it its favor is that the other systems are far worse. We take the best in democracy for granted and likely exaggerate its flaws. Our first response to what Egypt has accomplished should be one of deep gratitude for the blessing of democracy. The second should be renewed determination to make American democracy worthy of imitation by those who hunger for this blessing (we have some work to do on that one).

It is interesting to reflect on the role of communications technology in these dramatic social upheavals; faxes and emails in the first two, and social media in Egypt. It appears that the entire Egyptian revolution began with a single Facebook page. The free exchange of ideas and information has always been the most formidable enemy of dictatorship, and we have now reached the technological threshold where even the most sophisticated government censors cannot seal their borders from the world. The next time I find myself griping about the pointless frivolity of Facebook I will remind myself of its very real power and potential as a force for freedom and justice. Were I in charge of American foreign policy and military power, I would build fewer tanks and make more Facebook “friends.”