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Here’s a short lesson in Providence. I had an idea about tying in the mess in DC with seemingly intractable problems in the church, but if I waited until it was my turn to post again on October 14, I thought my post would be stale. So I asked Tom Goodhart yesterday if I could trade with him. He said my request was an answer to prayer; he’s been flat on his back passing kidney stones and didn’t feel like writing. We happily swapped. Later in the day, I received word that my mother had died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease in California. I was able to see her and say goodbye two weeks ago, and knew the end would be coming soon. Due to my switch with Tom, I will not post again until October 28, giving me several weeks to process all that has happened before trying to write some of my thoughts and feelings. Now onto this entry and our fractured world.
It is an understatement to say I’m discouraged by the level of public discourse in our country. What I’m reading on Facebook this week is as ridiculously one-sided as the comments coming out of DC. Like you, I have my opinion of what’s going on, whose fault it is, and what it all means. I’m going to try my best to keep those opinions to myself.
Instead, I want to draw some parallels between the problems in Washington and problems in the church. How can seemingly intractable problems be solved? I especially want to speak in praise of the underappreciated practice of choosing to live with a conflict and not force its resolution. I am writing today in support of “kicking the can down the road.”
Would the government be shut down if October 1 had not been chosen as an arbitrary deadline? What’s the difference between October 1 and September 1, other than one was chosen as a deadline? As divided as we were on September 1, the government still functioned. Not so on October 1. On September 1 you could still visit a national park, call up the National Guard, and make WIC payments to the poor. On October 1 you could not. Sadly, the current situation harms lots of people. The exceptions to that are elected officials, who are still getting paid. Is anyone glad those officials created a deadline?
Deadlines force multi-faceted problems to become binary. In Washington, there are at least this many factions – liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, Independents, moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. That’s six different points of view. But there are not six ways to vote. There are only two. Complexity and nuance are lost and one simply has to pick a side. Yes or no. Right or wrong. Black or white. In or out. Up or down. Win or lose.
The problem with winners and losers is someone (actually a large group because voting forces all factions into two groups) loses. And losing doesn’t create unity. It creates different and often worse problems. I offer this example – look at all the disastrous things that happened as a result of World War I. Not only World War II and the Holocaust, but many present problems in the Middle East can be traced to the end of World War I. Through the lens of history we can see no side really won World War I.
Now look at the church – it’s well known that the issues de jour in the church revolve around human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. I’ve heard scholars say there are at least six biblical points of view on same-sex relationships. But those nuances get lost in either / or choices.
Without fail, those in denominational leadership always try to postpone voting, and every time a motion is brought to a denomination’s version of General Synod for further dialogue or to delay action until a future synod, someone says, “We cannot kick the can down the road and ask a future generation to do what we don’t have the stomach to do.”
But what if delaying is the best idea? The government would still be functioning if they’d delayed. They need to delay – there is no grand bargain coming. It’s just impossible to please both sides in this debate. Conflicts can only be truly resolved when all sides agree that they are ready, and neither side in Washington, DC, is ready. Compromise currently is a dirty word, meaning to give up your principles. Until each side is ready to actually bargain, there will not be an amicable agreement, only some version of war with winners and losers.
Ministers in the Reformed Church of America take an ordination vow to work for unity, purity and peace. I’ve been to my share of ordination services and have yet to hear anyone point out that unity and purity are contradictory sentiments. Look at the current divide over sexuality. Each side has such a different definition of purity that it makes unity impossible. As a result there is no peace, and we have a denomination that mirrors the American public – simultaneously preoccupied with and exhausted from conflict.
Someone needs to say that unity and purity are ideals, not achievable realities. They are meant to be held in creative tension with each other. The more any group pushes on one end or the other, the more likely we are to divide. Delaying is the best tactic.
Jesus told a parable in Luke 13 about an impatient landowner who wanted to destroy a fig tree because it was not bearing fruit. His gardener said that instead he should give it some time, throw some manure on it and wait before making a decision.
Today’s problems already come loaded with manure. They need time. The best we can do is wait. Is this avoidance? Maybe. Is it reality? Yes.