Electioneering on Evil

Amongst all of the gradual posting about our trip, which I just thought would be nice for family, I suppose I need to get back to business some. School’s about to start again anyway, so let’s get serious. I was actually very excited to see the two presidential candidates answer questions at Saddleback, which probably relates to me being an optimist and a starry-eyed idealist… it wasn’t so great, in my book. Two things I noticed:

Republicans inherently understand that every appearance is a political appearance. Democrats like to believe that there’s actually a public forum that can be a teaching moment, or a personal moment, or what have you. This is infinitely preferable to me, yet not so useful in today’s media market.

Second, it stands as a good reminder that politicians are just that. They are pretty lousy theologians. (Which makes a pretty good argument about church and state, considering. Politicians would do a pretty bad job at interpreting spiritual issues anyway.) So guys, does evil exist?

I actually think Obama gets himself in more trouble by trying to answer this from a more theological bent, where McCain is just ignoring the fact he’s in a church altogether. The political answer is simple: yes, there is evil (people that do bad things), and we will “get” them. The theological answer is hard to sell, but I think really useful. If there really is a theological “evil,” a force beyond humans that is opposed to good, we run into some problems. (All of which requires a lot more theological work than this, but just to be cute…)

God created everything. Did God create evil?
No. (Phew. After all, God said it was all good!)
Well, so, did evil exist before creation with God, as some sort of bizarro God?
No. God is God, creator of all. Evil as some sort of co-God or anti-God doesn’t fit within dogma.
So, did we humans create evil later as a force that must be overcome by God?
Well, sorta’, but any “evil” we might create is (just as we are) subject to God and already overcome by that very fact.
“Evil” ends up being a symptom (in this theological system) of our inability to understand our true nature as creation, as good.

Harsh news for the pols? Not so much with any spiritual force called evil. Lots of people can go further into why we see so much brokenness and pain in the world around us despite this fact. I recommend this guy and this guy, followed with a long explanation from this guy, who taught me somehow. For me, I’ll say this: It’s easier for me to see a world in which all of us share love of our neighbors when we stop trying to attribute people’s actions to some sort of ultimate evil that we must eradicate, and instead think of them as fellow humans trying to come to grips with their own place in creation.

What we mean when we say "faith-based?"

So I’ll start this post by simply saying that according to the “Belief-o-matic” – which joyfully takes all the fuss out of actually deciding which of the serious faith traditions of this planet appeal to your addled, text-msg polled, Myspace-apped brain, by asking you a series of the most leading questions possible – places me either as exactly what I am (a liberal/progressive mainstream Protestant) or an Orthodox Quaker. Which is just funny if you’ve ever seen my sense of drama and worship in the context of a meeting of Friends. It’s kinda like a brass band walking through a library.

Anyway, I’ve been being over-dramatic and tossing occasional things at the TV this week as I’ve watched a certain progressive candidate get stomped all over by progressives for coming out in support of “faith-based initiatives.” It seems extraordinary that a simple term like this has been allowed to run over so many clear lines in the sand as I see it. People get huffy and talk about the separation of church and state a lot these days, and – let’s face it – most of the time I come down on being very much in favor of that great plastic SOLO picnic plate that is our system of government. Yet I can’t help but think that when it comes to the charity and true giving of not-for-profit organizations based in faith we need to strap on our wading boots and actually get into the finer distinctions.

There is a distinction between an organization that is based in faith and primarily exists in order to perpetuate the belief of that faith, and one based in faith that uses that faith to drive secular actions for the good of others, regardless of faith. There are “faith-based” initiatives that have received support in order to pursue ministries that hope to lobby politicians to define marriage in a particular way.

Yet there are initiatives that have fed the homeless, provided career training for the unemployed, and visited the sick and imprisoned. The distinction is that the faith that drives these later institutions in no way determines the access that the people have to their services, and proselytizing is not how they do business … the whole intent of separation clauses in the first place. (… the most explicit separations I’m aware of in the constitution – Article 6 – are those that prohibit the imposition of a test of faith for SERVICE to the people, i.e. holding public office.) In order to provide the black and white separation I’m hearing some of my progressive friends advocate, isn’t the new test of faith for service to the people… “REQUIRED FAITH = NONE/WINDOW DRESSING”? There’s of course a finer distinction to be made about the best use of the people’s money, but the candidate in question said it right when he said that faith communities have been the most successful at reaching certain sections of the population, so, in fact even from a purely secular view, it may be that churches are the most efficient way to reach certain core groups. Sigh. There’s a lot of gray out there, people… let’s relish the complexity of public life and prove ourselves worthy of it.

Sussing Out the Source

The most intriguing political debates I’ve been having lately all kind of relate to some introductory reading I did on the prophets. Namely, how do we figure out who really has inspired (or inspiring) speech? My favored candidate gets a bit of a rough reception in my family’s house, mainly because they assert the speech associated with the candidate with the term “inspirational”, which for them seems to code-word for that which is unlikely to ever take place. Certainly, the conversation about “change” has gotten to the ridiculous level. For many, this makes them more cynical of candidates that encourage thinking with a “revolutionary” vocabulary. The theory being that change is unable to take place at any level of our government at this point in time. My father actually hints that he thinks a real revolution (like with pitchforks and torches) will be necessary to cause change for the better in our government. Well regulated militia, my eye.

As a Constitutional nerd, I take great hope in the “change” candidates simply because we’re a big ship, and it takes a lot of rudder and a lot of time to change course. Fearful of regional conflicts that could endanger the Union, and even more driven by a desire to forcefully show the crown that a democratic form of government could be more than a simple revolutionary tool, the framers valued stability over mechanisms for quick adjustments and reforms of government. Mainly, we can agree with this, because other fledgling democracies call those “adjustments” military coups. Given the stability of the system, it can often seem like we are hopelessly adrift from where we would like to go. Surely from the fact that we are here at all, however, we can see that change can happen, it just happens within a unit of time which we’re no longer very comfortable with. So, I’m all for those that inspire us to dream of where we might go, and to throw all of our combined weight into the tiller. Also, I refuse to give enough credit to the current administration to suggest that they have somehow caused IRREPARABLE damage to our governmental system. No doubt, we’ll be banging the dents out for many a year to come, but we can start by refusing to give up our national imagination. So, bring on the fairy tale. For me, that’s inspired.