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.


JPN said...

Thank you John, I appreciate that very balanced and faith-focused response. I couldn't agree more.

rick in cos said...

i'm saddened by what I'm seeing back there in WI. Reason and compromise aren't even part of the equation it seems. Just another example of the polarized society we've become, and how lonely it is to live in the middle....