Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we no longer engage in civil discourse

Civil discourse – meaningful conversation about issues important to democracy – rarely occurs in the US today. Unmet requirements for civil discourse among politicians, public figures, opinion makers, and others include:
  • Trust – Trust presumes honesty. Civil discourse has no room for “alternate facts.” Even the most honest person will occasionally get the facts wrong or say something later regretted, e.g., an ad hominem remark or an overly broad generalization. When this occurs, a retraction and an apology are offered. Continuing to insist that a falsehood is true erodes the foundation of trust required for civil discourse and democracy.
  • Civility and mutual respect – This excludes personal attacks and requires focusing on the issues and not personalities. I may disagree with a judge’s ruling, but that disagreement does not entitle me to attack the judge verbally nor to question the judge’s fitness to sit on the bench.
  • Willingness to compromise – No person, organization, or political party has all of the right answers. Not every issue is worth a fight to the death. I disagree vehemently with many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions and views. However, he is well qualified to sit on the Supreme Court and deserves an up/down vote in the Senate. Similarly, President Obama’s nominee, Judge Garland Merrick, was also well-qualified and deserved an up/down vote in the Senate. Democrats who advocate refusing to have confirmation votes on one or more of Trump’s judicial, cabinet, or other nominees contribute to the breakdown of civil discourse and democracy. Senators reasonably vote against the confirmation of any nominee whom the senator deems is unfit to hold the office for which the person was nominated. However, unfit is not synonymous with policy differences, an inevitable byproduct of any democracy in which there are winners and losers.
  • Commitment to the common good – US government is of, by, and for the people. Seeking the common good denotes seeking what is good for all US residents. Public schools and their supporters should welcome visits by Education Secretary DeVos (the more visits she makes, the greater the likelihood that she will see the vitality and importance of public schools). Conversely, the Secretary should seek to strengthen public education for all children regardless of the type of school that the child attends.
  • Public discourse – People from all sides of an issue must listen, really listen to one another. If those with whom I disagree really had nothing to contribute to the discussion, I believe that the vast preponderance of them would adopt another position. Emotions as well as logic can determine a person’s views. For example, widely held fears (of change, of economic loss, of displacement, etc.) are issues every bit as real as technological change (e.g., substituting robots for human labor) that make goods more affordable by reducing cost. Good solutions take into account all of a problem’s dimensions, often requiring compromise based trust, upon recognizing that all participants seek the common good, and civility that presumes mutual respect.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Choosing between fear and courage

In response to both cancer and terrorism, an individual has two basic choices: fear or courage.
In the short run, fear advantageously heightens a person’s senses, thus increasing vigilance along with the potential to improve the rapidity and quality of one’s response. Over the longer term, including fights against cancer and terrorism, fear’s disadvantages outweigh that advantage:
  • Fear loses its power over time, the altered condition becoming the new normal.
  • Life is inherently risky. No prophylactics exist to ensure that one will not develop cancer. Similarly, no guarantees exist to prevent one from becoming a victim in a terror attack. Indeed, counterterrorism authorities unanimously agree that there are too many potential targets to protect all of them.
  • Fear inherently degrades one’s quality of life.

Conversely, courage tempered by prudence (avoiding that which is rash) has only advantages:
  • Courage is a moral habit that develops and strengthens with practice.
  • Courageous living is essential for living abundantly.

President Trump’s policies and pronouncements about terrorism are a call to live fearfully. I, for one, refuse to live in fear, whether fear of terrorism or fear of cancer. I choose life. I choose to live courageously. What is your choice?

Monday, February 13, 2017


The Old and New Testaments both reflect widespread, theologically rooted belief in the idea that the sin is the cause of illness. For example, when Jesus heals a man who was born blind, some of the people in the crowd ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9)
Who sinned and caused my cancer, my parents or I?
My parents were by no stretch of the imagination perfect. However, to posit that two of their five children would die of incurable cancers (one of my brothers died of colon cancer almost twenty years ago) because of egregious sins my parents committed is unreasonable. First, my parents – like most people – did not commit horrendous sins. Second, punishing children for sins committed by their parents is unjust. Old Testament declarations that the sins of the parents will affect their children make sense only in limited contexts, e.g., parents who pollute the earth invariably harm the lives of their progeny or pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages will often cause detrimental consequences for their newborn.
I’m with Jesus: in general, parental sins do not cause illnesses in their children.
Similarly, an individual’s sins sometimes cause harm in that person’s life. Illustratively, cancers frequently occur in the lives of adults who knowingly work with asbestos without taking proper precautions and those who smoke in spite of the well documented link between tobacco and cancer. Individuals sin when they fail to practice reasonable safeguards in caring for their life.
However, such explicit links between sin and disease of any kind is the exception and not the norm. I tried to take care of my body. I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and avoided known health hazards. Indeed, scientists do not know the cause or causes of multiple myeloma. Likewise, my brother who died of colon cancer had a healthy lifestyle and left behind a loving wife and two young children. His death punished them as much as it may have punished him.
Again, I’m with Jesus: in general, an individual’s sins do not cause illness in that person’s life.
Positing a link between sin and illness expresses a desire for justice, i.e., the sinner should be punished for wrongdoing. Life is not that simple. Indeed, life frequently appears to be unfair. Good people suffer and die unjustly. Evil doers enjoy wealth, power, and privilege.
The cosmos’ trajectory appears to arc toward justice, but that does not mean that every individual experiences justice in his or her life. One of my seminary professors told me that Christians must believe in life after death because only then do all receive justice.

Again, I’m with Jesus: the cosmos functions on a paradigm of love rather than justice. Jesus healed a few; the vast contemporaneous multitude of the world’s sick, lame, blind, and hungry lived and died in misery. God calls us to love those whose lives intersect with ours. The larger questions of justice for all, even of love for all, remain mysteries best left to God.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Respite or reprieve?

The pace of executive orders and other changes issued by the Trump White House appears to have slowed.
Is this a respite or reprieve?
According to senior Trump administration officials, the administration has hundreds of draft executive orders ready to be finalized and signed. The slower pace at which Trump is signing these orders may optimally reflect President Trump’s belated recognition of the desirability of staffing the draft order through the departments and agencies that will be responsible for implementation. For example, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly, has acknowledged that the Trump administration should have better staffed the executive order on immigration before issuing it. If so, this may represent the beginning of a positive learning curve for the Trump administration.
Furthermore, President Trump is no longer assured of being center stage in the daily news, nudged (or shoved, depending upon one’s perspective) aside by other people and events, e.g., Super Bowl LI.
Finally, President Trump is encountering the limits of presidential power. He has no direct control over the judiciary, as evidenced by a federal district judge blocking implementation of his immigration ban. He is discovering that his words matter. Unlike in business, where inflammatory rhetoric, even if it is false, may help the speaker achieve a negotiating advantage, in politics and foreign affairs inflammatory rhetoric – especially if false – may exacerbate a bad situation, provide opponents irrefutable ammunition, or otherwise work to the speaker’s disadvantage.

A respite from the flurry of Trump’s initial presidential actions is welcome; a reprieve would be a sign of hope that the chaos, dishonesty, and incendiary efforts intended to cause conflict are ending, moving the US and the world away from potential catastrophes that an unreformed Trump might cause.