Thursday, January 17, 2013


Some months ago my mother-in-law followed my parents into a retirement centre in Pennsylvania. One consequence of their moves was the sudden acquisition of mementoes from their cottages. Without the space to keep them, their children took what they wanted. In general with remarkably little disagreement over who would get what.

We got a copper tray from my folks, a reminder of 20 years of service in Zambia and Zimbabwe; and (for my Dad) of another nine years growing up in Zimbabwe. A beautiful copper tray, but the memories of people and service carried on the tray outweighs the copper considerably.

A lamp with a driftwood base and a lovely (but fragile) top made its way to our house as well. Alison carried it on her lap from Greenville to South Bend, packed into a car carrying more than it was designed to. We packed it carefully (so as not to damage it) when I drove it north across the border to our home. Memories for Lois of her love for the Southwest, and memories of her home for so many years in New Madison.

Then the water pitcher. A beautiful antique water pitcher that had belonged to M. G. Engle. There's history for you! The pitcher reminds me of a curious coincidence (providing I have my facts right). Lois' great-grandfather, M. G. Engle, was a prominent bishop and leader among the Kansas Brethren. After his first wife died, he married again -- to an evangelist among the Brethren whose knowledge of the Word and ability to expound from the pulpit was equal to his own. My grandfather performed the wedding ceremony in which they were united.

I love these memories. Carrying them up from the States was hard work. Our little Corolla was filled to window height inside, with a packed trunk, when I arrived at the border. The Customs official looked inside the car. "Are you bringing anything back with you that you did not take down?" he asked, somewhat incredulously. I motioned at the pile of stuff. "My parents and my wife's mother moved into a retirement centre. This is the stuff they told us to take home with us." Several moments of silence while he digested the news. "Any alcohol or tobacco?" "No." "Welcome home." He was not about to tamper with that pile of stuff, calculating correctly that there was no money there, just lots of dusty memories.

And I love them. Reminders of where I come from, my ancestors living on in my blood and thoughts and house, as long as I can remember them. And Lois and me living on in our sons and whoever comes after, as long as they remember. Memories.

Friday, January 11, 2013

In Praise of Hypocrisy (sort of)

Red Green has a nice piece (in The Green Red Green, p.185): “I was driving in the middle of a pack of cares on the highway this week. We were all speeding. No problem. Suddenly, a police car pulled out onto the highway and we all hit the brakes, trying to ease our way down to the speed limit. Luckily, the cop didn’t notice. He just thought his car must have tremendous power to be able to catch up on all of us that quickly. So we all moved at the same speed in a huge mass joined together by guilt. Thankfully, the cop got off a couple of exits later and we could all get back to breaking the law. But we’re not criminals. We just think there are a couple of laws that you obey only when a policeman is present. So when officers are around we pretend we always drive at a safe speed. And they pretend to believe us. It’s kind of an unspoken agreement between the two sides—like not swearing in front of your kids and vice versa.”

I like this! Sometimes we think of hypocrisy as the worst vice one can have. But surely this kind of hypocrisy has a good side.

When parents and children agree tacitly not to swear in front of each other, they restate and embrace the ideal, even if they fail to live up to it. When drivers (and police) play the game RG describes, they restate and embrace the ideal of following rules designed to help us live with each other safely. We break the rules too, but we admit that others are important.

Sometimes people respond by saying: I’m going to be transparent and live the way I really feel. Transparency and authenticity are good traits; but the unspoken assumption behind this attitude may be destructive. There is the idea that we can cure hypocrisy by throwing out rules for living. How about if we embrace RG’s version of hypocrisy above, and then cure the more serious forms of hypocrisy by embracing the ideals they reflect?

One fact behind hypocrisy is precisely that we do know what is right and wrong, and whatever we say, we want to be good. So the good in hypocrisy is that it reminds us that right is right, and wrong is wrong. Debates about the precise shape of right and wrong should continue, but please don’t throw out the quest to become good in order to get rid of the vice of hypocrisy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

New Year 2013

This New Year arrived with the anxiety that Americans feel over what they are calling “the fiscal cliff”, alongside visiting with family and friends in Indiana and Pennsylvania.

The visits were good, although tiring. There is nothing quite like home after a long trip; but we enjoyed playing games (Lois and I each won a game of “Ticket to Ride” for the first time) and talking and singing (not nearly enough) and simply being with people we love.

Politics, on the other hand, were simply a source of anxiety. I have two primary concerns, recorded here once more.

First Concern: The American political system cannot work until Americans—and their representatives in politics—stop simply blaming their opponents for their problems. A simple example: Democrats blame Republicans for pursuing policies that will hurt the middle class and so destroy programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Republicans blame Democrats for pursuing policies that will hurt wealthy employers and so destroy programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Both sides set up the blame game in such a way that whatever happens they can blame the other side. But with the baby boom generation reaching the age that they draw Social Security and use Medicare in unprecedented numbers—with fewer taxpayers in the younger age brackets than before—the system will come under great strain regardless of who is in power, and regardless of what policies they pursue. There is no painless path into the future, given the demographic and economic realities we face.

A corollary of this is that the worldwide economic system is more responsible for the cycles of the American economy than we admit. Clinton should not receive all the credit for the good economic cycle of the 1990s, nor should Reagan for the same in the 1980s. Domestic policies make a difference, but larger forces are even more important. Therefore neither the Democratic nor Republican party can claim to fix the American economy without regard to what is happening around the world.

So first thought: Stop blaming each other and start looking together for policies and practices that will help us negotiate an uncertain policy.

Second: The two parties have adopted a strategy of seeking the total destruction of the other party. One sees this in the way that Tea Party advocates sometimes talk about Democrats as though they are not also Americans—“We need to take back our country!” From whom? The USA belongs to all Americans, not simply to those of the right or the left.

I fear this policy of total destruction. Republicans have adopted a hard line on immigration, giving voters who are recent immigrants the impression that the Republican Party does not want them. As a result, I think the Republicans will lose the long term battle. I don’t want to lose the Republicans and what they represent from our national conversation on policy. The conservative belief in individual responsibility, along with its willingness to listen to the lessons of history and tradition, are valuable traits we dare not lose.

And if the battle goes the other way we would lose just as badly. The Liberal desire to find equity and freedom for all people must remain in our national consciousness. The truth is that Liberal and Conservative, Democrat and Republican, share more than they realize. But either perspective becomes hegemonic and tyrannical if it is not held in constant conversation and tension with the other.

We need each other. The challenges of the future are too great for either party or ideology to confront alone. We will make mistakes, but we should make them together. Then we can correct them more quickly and productively.

My wish for 2013? Stop blaming; start working together; embrace each other all across the political spectrum; continue to work for what you believe is right, recognizing that sometimes you are wrong and your opponent is right. Happy New Year!