Humility and Equipoise As Fundamental Civic Virtues

David Brooks in two recent New York Times’ columns discusses humility and equipoise (the ability to hold various opinions or identities in equilibrium) as two fundamental civic virtues.[1]  Here are his arguments for these conclusions.

The truth is pluralThere is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth. Sometimes immigration restrictions should be loosened to bring in new people and new dynamism; sometimes they should be tightened to ensure national cohesion. Leadership is about determining which viewpoint is more needed at that moment. Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all.”

Beware the danger of a single identity. Before they brutalize politics, warriors brutalize themselves. Instead of living out several identities — Latina/lesbian/gun-owning/Christian — that pull in different directions, they turn themselves into monads. They prioritize one identity, one narrative and one comforting distortion.”

It is a myth, according to  Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters. . . . In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.” And the “more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. . . . [Moreover, these multiple identities or attachments should enable an individual] to practice equipoise [which is] . . . the ability to move gracefully through your identities—to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.”

With such equipoise, one more easily can “turn the other cheek, love your enemy. Confront your opponent with aggressive love.” This was Brooks’ indirect quotation of a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 27-31):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“Creativity is syncretistic[Wise politicians and citizens] . . . don’t just pull their ideas from the center of the ideological spectrum. They believe creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible. They might combine left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law. Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise [politician and citizen]. . . can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.”

“Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.”

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The [wise politician and citizen] . . . is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.”

In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the [wise politician and citizen] . . . operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith. He understands that most of the choices are among bad options (North Korea), so he prefers steady incremental reform to sudden revolutionary change.”

“Moderation [The wise politicians and citizens, for Brooks, are moderates, who] do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.”

“Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”

In support of this conclusion Brooks says he has been inspired by “the great book Faces of Moderation” (Univ. Pa. Press. 2016) by Aurelian Craiutu, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University.

Conclusion

Especially important for me is the recognition that all human beings have multiple identities that should be honored and that all of us need to keep reminding ourselves of this fundamental truth. Everyone is a child of a mother and father, usually grows up in a specific place with a specific nationality and perhaps is a brother or sister to other siblings and a cousin to others. With adulthood everyone may choose to become a spouse or partner of another human being and perhaps a parent of a child or children. Everyone may choose be an adherent of a particular religion or of no religion. Everyone may choose to change some of these identities and to adopt other identities such as attendance at a specific college or university in a specific class and participation in a specific occupation or profession.

One could also agree with Brooks that partisanship is blinding, that politics is a limited activity and that its lows are lower than its highs are high and, therefore, conclude that one should avoid all political involvement and stand on the sidelines as an “independent.”

But that is the wrong conclusion, especially in a representative system of government. Instead, one should be so involved. This is where the virtue of moderation comes in.

More fundamentally Brooks’ conclusions  remind me of Biblical passages. The Lord requires us mortals “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  “[A]ll of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5) (emphases added.)

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[1] Brooks, What Moderates Believe, N.Y. Times (Aug. 22, 2017); Brooks, In Praise of Equipoise, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017). Earlier blog posts discussed a book by  Brooks and his presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on :The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

 

 

A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American Peoples

This blog has been chronicling Pope Francis’ 10 days of missions to the Cuban and American peoples in anticipation of the Pope’s having a significant impact on their spiritual and political lives.[1] Whenever possible these blog posts have included the complete texts of Francis’ speeches and homilies so that anyone can examine them for himself or herself as I intend to do in subsequent posts.

I first stand in awe at his humility. He concluded nearly every set of remarks with a request for the people to pray for him and if they were not believers to wish him well. He did the same with children, detainees and victims of abuse, and one could tell that he truly loved all with whom he met.

Francis also consistently preached the Good News of the Gospel: God loves us. God forgives us all for we all fall short of what God asks of us. We all are sinners.

I also stand in awe of Francis’ intelligence and stamina. Undoubtedly with the assistance of others at the Vatican, before he left Rome for this trip, he had to think and write at least 27 important speeches and homilies to give in the two countries. He had to travel by plane from Rome to Havana, Santiago to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia back to Rome with shorter plane trips within the two countries. He delivered four lengthy and important speeches in a language (English) in which he was not completely fluent. He had to have been briefed on the thoughts and personalities of the many people he would meet. He did all of this as a 78-year old man with occasional sciatica pain. As a man only two years younger with the same type of pain, I especially empathize with Francis on this last point.

Finally I must register my outrage at the commentary of a Roman Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat, who obviously favors the traditional Church “faith” and practices.[2] In the first paragraph of a recent column Douthat accuses Francis of having an ”ostentatious humility,” i.e., a pretentious or false show of humility or conducting a cynical ploy to curry favor with those wanting to see change in the Church. The second paragraph goes on to say that Francis is “the chief plotter” to change Church doctrine to “allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null.” Douthat should get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness from Francis and from God.

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[1] Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People: First Day, Second Day, Third Day and Fourth Day. Pope Francis’ Mission to the American People: First Day, Second Day, Third Day, Fourth Day, Fifth Day and Sixth Day.

[2] Douthat, The Plot to Change Catholicism, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

God’s Humility

Humility is the second of five themes for Lent this year at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The New Testament Scripture for humility was the following passage from Acts (8: 26-40) (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.
  • Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
  • Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard [the eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ [The eunuch] . . . replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
  • ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
  • The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
  • Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
  • As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
  • But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

The complete passage from Isaiah (53: 1-9) (New Revised Standard Version) that the eunuch was reading was the following:

  • “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and        like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
    and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
  • Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
  • But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  • He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
  • Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

When I first read these passages, I was puzzled as to how Philip or the eunuch exemplified humility for us today.

The March 16th sermon, “What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Humility,” by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen eliminated my puzzlement.

He emphasized the passage of Isaiah as prophesizing the humility of God in coming in the human form of Jesus, who was “despised and rejected,” who experienced “suffering and infirmity,” who was “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” and who was “oppressed and afflicted.”

Christian faith, the sermon said, “is founded on the paradox of an all-powerful God submitting to suffering and the shame of an ignominious death. Pride hangs on the cross and dies, forever linking Christianity to a humble God. We cannot genuinely follow Jesus and keep our pride and ourselves at the center.”

The sermon also noted that the Isaiah passage and hence the Christian message were especially powerful for the Ethiopian man in a time when some young boys were captured, enslaved and castrated to render them unthreatening to the family they would be enslaved to serve. The Ethiopian man was a “slave, robbed of his capacity for family” and “not seen as a full human being by others.”

Hart-Anderson also said the message of humility was directed at “the powerful, not to the weak. They are a warning to those who lord it over others, not to those on the underside of history, where God is to be found.”

As I thought about this passage from Acts, I was struck by the fact that the man from Ethiopia does not have a name. He is identified only as the “eunuch.” I do not like this.

Too often today in the press and elsewhere we refer to someone as a “felon” or as “an illegal or undocumented alien” or as a “drug addict.” Yes, this is a convenient shorthand way to talk about someone in the context of a particular discussion. But the practice can easily cause us to believe, at least subconsciously, that this label completely describes a human being and to advocate or adopt public policies that are unfair.

For example, I am opposed to laws in most U.S. jurisdictions that forbid voting to “felons” or “ex-felons.” In my opinion, all U.S. citizens should be able to vote, including those who have been convicted of a felony, whether in or out prison. This was brought home to me in the Fall of 2012 when I was door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in north Minneapolis, which has a high percentage of African-Americans. I met several people who told me that they could not vote, which I interpreted as an implicit admission that they had been convicted of felonies.