Thursday, December 29, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 3

This post is the third in a series of musings about Trump's election in which I identify five concerns and then suggest a response to each (follow these links to read the first and second posts).
  1. Concerns that Trump's win points toward a fracturing of the Union, e.g., as liberal, more youthful populations, who live along the coasts find themselves increasingly alienated from older, less affluent, less educated, more conservative populations who live in the nation's broad middle
(For more on the demographic disparities between Trump supporters and foes, read this article from the Washington Post.)
Generational divides are not new. What troubles me about this divide is its geographic component, i.e., the US is increasingly segregated as people choose to live in homogenous neighborhoods defined primarily by shared values. In many respects, this is the most intractable of my list of concerns about a Trump presidency and best addressed through acting on the recommendations in response to the other four concerns.
  1. Trepidation that Trump's election moves the US toward an authoritarian dictatorship, a fear heightened by Trump's repeated and flagrant disregard for facts, the ongoing involvement of his children in both his business and the government, and his evident reluctance to step completely aside from his business interests in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The US is a nation in which the rule of law, not the rule of individuals, prevails. A written Constitution, independent judiciary, and adversarial legal system combine to support the rule of law. Vigilant observation of Trump administration personnel, their actions, and their decisions followed by courageous and unswerving efforts to prosecute legal transgressions are the best defense against replacing the rule of law with the rule of persons. Some Trump opponents have already committed publicly to following this path.
People best exercise this option prudentially. Numerous and unrestrained legal maneuvers can reduce the public credibility of these efforts (as happened with the dozens of cases filed against the Obama administration by GOP foes) and unintentionally undercut other efforts to reform or move the political process in constructive directions.

Impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate, followed by removal from office is the ultimate legal sanction. Trump appears headed in that direction for at least two reasons. First, his involvement of his children in government affairs may violate nepotism laws enacted after JFK nominated his brother as Attorney General. Second, some of Trump's global businesses partner with foreign governments, creating a prima facie violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause that forbids any US government official from accepting benefits from a foreign government.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The meaning of Christmas

As a progressive, post-theist Christian, I find that two ideas capture the meaning of Christmas.
First, Christmas acknowledges that every person, every aspect of the cosmos, is embraced by the light. That light is also called God, Buddha, or ultimate reality. By any name, the light that embraces us nudges or lures one in the direction of more abundant, loving life. The story of Jesus' birth dramatizes that embrace and invites its hearers to live more deeply into the mystery of being embraced by the light.
Second, Christmas by inviting us to live more deeply into the mystery of being embraced by the light invites one to recognize and nurture the capacity for being loved and loving that is an integral element of every human. Jesus, embraced by the light, experienced such a powerful awakening of his capacity to love and be loved that people described him as both fully human and divine.

So, during these twelve days of Christmas, welcome the light's embrace and then respond by deepening and broadening your capacity to love and be loved, i.e., to live and to walk ever more fully in the light.
MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Few people today know that the Nazis tried to remove Christ from Christmas:
For the perfect Nazi Christmas, you had to hang glittering swastikas and toy grenades from the pine tree in the living room and, in your freshly pressed uniform, belt out carols urging German women to make babies for the F├╝hrer rather than worship the Jewish Baby Jesus. Then came the moment to light the pagan candleholders — hand-made by laborers at Dachau. (Roger Boyes, "How the Nazis tried to take Christ out of Christmas," The Times, accessed November 17, 2009.)

More surprisingly, significant manifestations of the Nazi efforts to remove Christ from Christmas remained embedded in German culture throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Germans continued to sing carols and hymns, revised by the Nazis to excise references to Jesus and the Christian story, often unaware of how the Nazis had altered the lyrics. For example, Unto Us a Time Has Come became a hymn of praise about snowy fields instead of lauding God's gift of the Christ-child.

Unlike what happened in Germany with Hitler's propagandists centrally directing the effort to transform Christmas from a celebration of Jesus' birth into adulation of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich, today's growing disconnection between Christ and Christmas is more insidious and operates without any central authority.

Unfortunately, two strawmen are often lightning rods for Christian efforts to keep Christ at the heart of Christmas. These strawmen are irrelevant distractions. First, the growing disconnect between Christ and Christmas has nothing to do with removing Christian symbols, including Christmas decorations and Nativity scenes, from public property. Using state resources to promote a particular religion in a secular, multi-cultural democracy inappropriately demeans non-Christians and their freedom to practice their own (or no) religion. In short, Christian displays on public property reflect a lack of love for our non-Christian neighbor. Christian displays belong on Christian owned or leased property.

Second, complaints about substituting the now seemingly ubiquitous Xmas for Christmas reflect an inappropriate desire to control the speech of others and a lack of understanding of Christian history. The Greek letter chi, written in Greek as X) was one of the first Christian symbols. Rightly interpreted, Xmas denotes Christ's mass, a Eucharistic thanksgiving or season of commemoration for God's gift of the Christ child, which is what the word Christmas itself means.

The real threat to keeping Christ in Christmas in twenty-first century developed countries is the commercialization of the holiday, transforming a spiritual event into a season generally filled with widely extravagant expectations of partying, decorations, and unaffordable gift giving. This is a battle that Christians fought once before and won. As John Buchanan, the editor of the Christian Century, has observed,
One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard - one of the very few I actually remember - was a Christmas Day sermon preached by Charles Leber. At the time, he and Ulysses Blake were co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church on Chicago's South Side. Leber's sermon was title 'Another Roman Holiday.' He explained that the early church chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus' birth even though everyone knew the birth had happened sometime in the spring. December 25 was the beginning of the Romans' year-end holiday, which Leber said was quite a bash: seven straight days of eating, drinking, and reveling. The Christians did not participate in these revels. They decided to draw attention to themselves by rejecting the celebration. And so, to provide an alternative and to help them resist the sensual temptations of the Roman holiday, they came up with Christmas. ("Song in the City," Christian Century, 13 Dec 2005, 3)

Christians still comprise a sizable and influential percentage of the US population and a sufficiently substantial minority of ten percent or more to be able to exert considerable influence in most other developed nations. We need not lose the current battle to keep Christ in Christmas.

To keep Christ in Christmas, live into the story of Christmas, which is a synopsis of the gospel, by intentionally cultivating practices such as these:
  • Becoming spiritual leaven instead of becoming co-opted by the holiday's secular, commercial ethos
  • Giving alternative gifts congruent with Jesus' love, e.g., a gift of a goat to a hungry family in the name of the person to whom one wishes to give a gift
  • Focusing, as did Jesus, on relationships and people instead of things and fleeting pleasures
  • Developing counter-cultural Christmas observances that tell the story of the birth of the Christ child and that invite people to explore that story's meaning in ways appropriate to a biblically illiterate society.

Whether we in the twenty-first century succeed in keeping Christ in Christmas may well hinge upon our answer to this poignant and memorable question that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have posed:

Christmas is not about tinsel and mistletoe or even ornaments and presents, but about what means will we use toward the end of a peace from heaven upon our earth. Or is “peace on earth” but a Christmas ornament taken each year from attic or basement and returned there as soon as possible? (The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), p. 167)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 2

This post is the second in a series of musings about Trump's election in which I identify five concerns and then suggest a response to each (follow this link to read the first post).
2. Fears that the Trump appointees and policies will trample the rights of women to choose their own healthcare options, discriminate against the LGBT community, implement initiatives that worsen climate change and tear down important environmental safeguards, misunderstand the threats the US faces, favor the rich at the expense of the poor, etc.
Donald Trump is a narcissist with an oversize personality who likes to dominate whatever stage he occupies. As President of the US, he may experience a rude awakening.
The US political system is not a dictatorship and although the powers of the presidency expanded during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, those powers still face significant limitations. Congress consists of 535 politicians, each of whom has his/her own political base and agenda. The President may exert considerable pressure on a Representative or Senator but cannot control that person's vote. A President has even less control over the Supreme Court. As history repeatedly has shown, no assurance exists that a nominee, once confirmed, will continue to hold the same views or to vote as anticipated. A President has virtually no control over the Constitution, the written basis of our government and a document with which a President must comply or face the possibility of impeachment and conviction. The interlocking web of politicians, civil servants, lobbyists, interests groups that enshrouds our federal government can be intractable to presidential desires or manipulation.
In sum, Trump's administration may implement egregious policies and programs that harm many people. However, a politically active coalition of groups opposed to Trump's agenda can largely derail that agenda by fighting a thousand battles. Low levels of political engagement allowed Trump to prevail in the general election. Outrage over his election, unless it energizes intentional political engagement will similarly change little or nothing. The size, complexity, and design of our political system all favor organized dissent over central control.
  1. Anxiety that Trump's win will directly or even indirectly align itself with a freshly energized white supremacist movement, further exacerbating racial tensions
The US is on an irreversible trajectory towards becoming a truly multicultural society in which no single racial or ethnic group comprises a majority. Some of us eagerly embrace that shift, recognizing that diversity enriches rather than impoverishes life. Residents of Hawaii, San Francisco, and some other parts of the US already enjoy living in truly multicultural settings.
Unsurprisingly, the change from a white dominated culture to multicultural diversity may cause more fear than optimism among some people.
Evil flourishes when good people sit idle. Hard core white supremacists are unlikely to change their attitudes. However, the white supremacist movement attracts people on its periphery for multiple reasons, many not directly related to white supremacy. Advocates of diversity can beneficially reach out to these individuals. Diversity does not have to entail disadvantaging one racial or ethnic group at the expense of another group. Diversity can be a win-win proposition for all involved. Furthermore, achieving diversity is not merely a matter of legislation and judicial action but requires attitudinal change. While the US has made significant progress in mandating diversity, attitudinal change has persistently lagged and is now manifesting itself, at least partially, in the surging white supremacist movement.

Constructive steps forward include working to change attitudes, replace exclusionary identity politics with more comprehensive political agendas, affirmatively embrace the least and most vulnerable amongst us, and truly honor the dignity and worth of all.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 1

Recently, my blog has focused primarily on my cancer. However, I've written one post about Trump's victory (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/2016/11/thoughts-on-trumps-electoral-victory.html).
Consternation over Trump's win seems unabated if not growing. That consternation has several, not mutually exclusive, causes including:
  1. Objections that the Electoral College ignores the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by almost 3 million votes
  2. Fears that the Trump appointees and policies will trample the rights of women to choose their own healthcare options, discriminate against the LGBT community, implement initiatives that worsen climate change and tear down important environmental safeguards, misunderstand the threats the US faces, favor the rich at the expense of the poor, etc.
  3. Anxiety that Trump's win will directly or even indirectly align itself with a freshly energized white supremacist movement, further exacerbating racial tensions
  4. Concerns that Trump's win points toward a fracturing of the Union, e.g., as liberal, more youthful populations, who live along the coasts find themselves increasingly alienated from older, less affluent, less educated, more conservative populations who live in the nation's broad middle
  5. Trepidation that Trump's election moves the US toward an authoritarian dictatorship, a fear heightened by Trump's repeated and flagrant disregard for facts, the ongoing involvement of his children in both his business and the government, and his evident reluctance to step completely aside from his business interests in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Each of those five factors merits reflection, which I do in the remained of this post and my next two Ethical Musings' posts.
  1. Objections that the Electoral College ignores the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by almost 3 million votes
First, one function of the Electoral College is to prevent a tyranny of the majority. The substantial disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote points to a growing divide in the US. A nation so divided will not long stand. Changing the Constitution is a lengthy, torturous process that seems unlikely to succeed or, by succeeding, to open the door to further, perhaps less desirable, changes. Instead, we need to bridge the divide. In 1868, 48% of the US population consisted of farmers; today, less than 2% of the population engages in farming.
Politics, according to an ancient adage, is the art of compromise. Our political leaders decreasingly practice that art. Centrists, from both the Republican and the Democrat party, are opting not to run for re-election, leaving Congress comprised of politicians opposed to compromising their hard- right or hard-left principles. The refusal of the Republican dominated Senate to consider President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court in spite of Obama having more than nine months left in his term, exemplifies this move away from compromise.
The answer to this problem lies in not in reforming the Electoral College but in recovering the art of compromise – in terms of a pragmatic ethic – the ability to get along with one's neighbor while respecting both the neighbor's dignity and one's own. In resolving conflict, humility requires acknowledging the possibility that your neighbor, and not you, is correct, or perhaps the preferred option is a third, as of yet undetermined option.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Rethinking one's use of time

I belong to a generation that sends Christmas cards. While in the Navy, my wife and I seldom wrote more than a few brief lines in the card, if even that much. Instead, we included a form letter describing to family and friends what we had done in the preceding twelve months. Several years into retirement, we stopped writing an annual missive. We wrote a personal note in each card, although we continued to use our printer to address the envelopes.
This year, our printer could not accommodate the size of the envelopes that came with our Christmas cards. Moreover, I wanted to practice my penmanship. Never very good, my neuropathy (a side effect of the chemo) has significantly degraded my penmanship. Unable to pursue the activities with which I had planned to fill my life in Hawaii (see the prior Ethical Musings' post for details), I had time over several days to address the envelopes.
What initially felt very tedious became an opportunity for fondly remembering shared experiences and people who, at least at one time if not still, had been important to me. I began wondering to what extent the slow food movement should expand into a slow life movement, encouraging the savoring of every task and moment.
When the envelopes were complete, I began to write the cards. My wife helped some, but my cancer and other physical problems have resulted in her taking on a disproportionate share of life's chores. So I resolved to write a majority of our Christmas cards (my wife prefers to write a few of them, especially to her family of origin and friends).
I worked on the cards slowly – my penmanship became worse when I tried to write too fast. In addition to a second opportunity to reflect on relationships that had been or still are important to me, writing the cards entailed repeatedly retelling the story of my cancer and how it had changed our lives. Story is powerful, a truth important in Hawaiian culture and a life lesson that I learned long ago. But writing the cards made that truth personal and transformative. In the retelling, my acceptance lack of control over my cancer and my life grew. Writing the cards became a therapeutic exercise.
In working slowly on the cards, I also wondered how often I had shortchanged myself with respect to life's important aspects, some of which are accessible only through unhurried reflection and living. Perhaps quality of life is more precious than quantity of life. That assessment certainly applies to the hospice and assisted suicide movements (these are two separate although sometimes overlapping movements intended to allow people to die with dignity). Admittedly, this assessment of the importance of quality over quantity of life flies in the face of how a huge number of Americans live and how I have lived much of life.

For Christians, Advent is the season of preparation for commemorating Jesus' birth. Sadly, Advent too often becomes a source of stress as individuals struggle to find time to send Christmas greetings, buy gifts, decorate, and party. This year, I have discovered the joy and gift of slow living: remembering relationships, growing in my acceptance of things over which I have no control, and discovering anew the importance of savoring the quality rather than the quantity of one's life. I hope that Advent will bring you similar gifts. My life in 2017 will not be what I had long hoped, but it will be good and full of God's gracious gifts.