Thursday, July 21, 2011

Intransigence, Principle, and Faith

As our national legislature bellows and postures its way closer and closer to the edge of fiscal disaster, I find the whole spectacle oddly familiar.

Three years ago, the Korean congregation with which my community was partnered fell into a completely intractable conflict.  The pastor and a group of new members he'd brought in sided up against the old guard of the congregation, meaning the elders and the choir.  I knew and liked folks on both sides, and so I made a point of meeting with both to see if compromise could be reached and healing could occur.

It was an exercise in futility, and even at the time, I knew it.  The pastor was a womanizer and a child abuser, whispered his foes.  The elders were thieves who stole the money of the church to funnel into their businesses, shouted their foes.  Under no circumstances, came the refrain from both sides, could we ever even consider finding common ground.  Why would we give in to them?  We are in the right!  It's a matter of principle!

And so ruin came upon that house.  A seventy-five person congregation became twenty five.  The former pastor's wife still haunts the church, literally, sneaking in and walking the halls like a wraith, unable even after years to spiritually disconnect herself from the fervor and intensity of that conflict.

And as human institutions are in microcosm, so they are in macrocosm.  As gobsmackingly obvious and not-all-that-hard as the solution to our debt crisis is, we just can't get there.  Letting the Bush tax cuts expire, standing our imperial military down to levels appropriate to a constitutional republic, raising the social security retirement age to seventy, a few nips and tucks, and we're pretty much there.

But principle is involved.  For the far right, that principle is that taxes can never, ever, ever be raised.  For the far left, that principle is that benefits can never, ever, ever be cut.  Those two trains may be on the same track, but they're headed right at each other.   So as standing on "principle" leads to trainwreck, the question that pops into mind is:  If this is the end result of clinging absolutely to a principle, does the fault lie with being principled?  If you define yourself completely according to a particular view of the world, and cannot take any actions that violate that view without destroying your sense of integrity, do you interface with those who don't share that governing principle?

More significantly, how do you engage with those people in the public square? In the context of a democracy, the functioning of the society is entirely dependent on individuals and groups being able to reach common ground, to give a bit and take a bit.  Absolutism sabotages the functioning of the system.  Where compromise comes to mean "I give nothing, and you agree with me or else," then a republic can't operate.

Here, I think the challenge is that the principles that drive so much of our debate have become idols.  Instead of looking at one another as fellow citizens...or human beings...or children of God...we only see the thing we have created for ourselves.  We use pledges and political purity litmus tests as the measure of the worth of fellow citizens.  Rather than standing on the one principle that unites, we let our constructs come between us, and that, unfortunately, is the very essence of idolatry.

I find myself lamenting that in all likelihood, those who pastor the folks who are so full of fervor about their own rightness are unlikely to be teaching that from the pulpit.