Posts tagged ‘The Atlantic’

Politics, Power, and Sacrifice

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Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to watch last Monday’s presidential debate.  But my curiosity got the best of me, so I turned on the TV.  I have seen many on social media bemoan the state of our politics in this presidential election and, I suppose, I would sympathize with their chorus.  The tone of this election is grating.  The discussion about this election often borders on and even ventures into the banal.  And the goal of this election appears to be little more than an undisguised race for power.  People across all points on our political spectrum are desperate to see their person in power so their interests can be furthered while others’ interests are overlooked, or, in some instances, even crushed.

Power is a funny thing, in part because it is such a dangerous thing.  In the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Power ought to come with a warning label: “Handle with care.”

Power, of course, isn’t always bad.  God has plenty of power – indeed, He ultimately has all power – and is quite adept at using it.  But it is also important to point out that God’s power always comes with a purpose.  He uses His power in order to sustain the world.  He uses His power in order to constrain evil.  He uses His power in order to rescue us from hell.  Power, for God, is a means to some very good ends.

The concern I have with so many in our political system is that power has become the means and the end.  Politicians want power because, well, they want power!  And this means that when they get power, they often use it in a most detrimental way – not to help others, but to help themselves.

Yoni Appelbaum discusses this reality in an article for The Atlantic titled, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate.”  The way he describes America’s situation is jarring:

Civil religion died on Monday night.

For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.[1]

He goes on to describe how traditionally Christian-esque values were not only not extolled in the first of our presidential debates, they were proudly repudiated.  Virtues, Appelbaum says, were reframed as vices.  Altruism was painted as a sucker’s game and sacrifice was left for those who are losers.  “The Clinton-Trump debate,” he concludes, “was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions – all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose.”  Yikes.  I hope he’s wrong.  But I couldn’t help but notice that not one transcendent concern made an appearance during the debate.  We, as a nation, have become so obsessed with the exercise of power in the material realm that we pay little regard to the transcendent One who gives power as a gift to be stewarded rather than as a weapon to be wielded.

When the high priest of political pragmatism sirens us into trading cherished values like altruism and sacrifice for the formidable forces of power and control, something has gone terribly wrong.  Such a trade fundamentally undermines the very purpose of power – at least in any Christian or morally traditional sense – in the first place.  Power is to be used for the sake of altruism, not to dispense with it.  Power is to be used in concert with sacrifice, not to insulate oneself from sacrifice.  Any of the men and women in our nation’s Armed Forces can tell you that. Jesus certainly expressed His power in sacrifice.  The cross was a place of no power and great power all at the same time.  On the cross, Jesus gave up all power, even power over His very life, as “He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).  But through the cross, Jesus exercised great power, conquering sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus’ power, to borrow a concept from the apostle Paul, came through weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

Political power might not involve dying on a cross, but it sure would be nice if it involved taking one up.  It sure would be nice if politicians used their power to do the right thing, even if it involved some measure of sacrifice.  It sure would be nice if politicians fashioned themselves more as public servants and less as demiurge saviors.  It sure would be nice if voters stopped cynically leveraging the power-obsessed sins of an opposing candidate to minimize and rationalize the power-obsessed sins of their own candidate.  A willingness to see sin as sin, even if it’s sin in the politician you happen to be voting for, is a first step to an honest and healthy analysis of our problems politically.

I understand that politicians are not always Christian, and I understand that non-Christians can be competent politicians.  I am also not so naïve as to think that every politician will see his or her elected office as a cross to bear rather than as a career to manage, even if they should.  I furthermore understand that the civil religion of which Appelbaum speaks in his article is not coterminous with – and in many ways is not compatible with – Christianity.  But the virtues of Christianity it promotes – charity, selflessness, and humility, among others – are good for our world even as they are good in the Church.  We need them.  We need them because, to quote another proverb from Lord Acton, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”  The curbing of despotic power may not be the ultimate reason to foster and preserve Christian virtue in our political system, but it sure is a good reason.

We the people should expect of our politicians – and of ourselves – something more than a blunt exercise of power, even if that power happens to promote our interests.  We the people should expect real virtue, both in the people we elect as well as in ourselves.  Do we?  If we don’t, there’s no better time than the present to change our expectations.  Remember, the people we elect to public office are not just products of a corrupt political system, they are reflections of the values we celebrate and the vices we tolerate.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a good, long look in the mirror.

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[1] Yoni Appelbaum, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate,” The Atlantic (9.27.2016).

October 3, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments

The Panama Pilferage

Panama Papers 1

It used to be that Switzerland was the place to hide money.  Now, apparently, Panama is the place.

A week ago Sunday, a massive cache of some 11 million financial documents from the Panamaniam law firm, Mossack Fonseca, was leaked to the media.  These files contained information about an “extensive worldwide network of offshore ‘shell’ companies – including ones with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin – that allow the wealthy to hide their assets from taxes and, in some cases, to launder billions in cash.”[1]  Several world leaders are implicated in this leak including the prime ministers of Iceland, Argentina, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, and the former prime ministers of Georgia, Jordan, and Qatar.  According to Lexi Finnigan of The Telegraph, the files “also contain new details of offshore dealings by the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron.”[2]

Some of what has happened in these offshore accounts may be legal.  As Ms. Finnigan explains in her article:

There is nothing unlawful about the use of offshore companies. However, the disclosures raise questions about the ways in which the system can be used – and abused. More than half of the 300,000 firms said to have used Mossack Fonseca are registered in British-administered tax havens, which Mr. Cameron has vowed to crack down on.  And in one instance, an American millionaire was apparently offered fake ownership records to hide money from the authorities.

What has happened here is certainly troubling, even if it is not, at least for me, particularly surprising.  Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s may be a biblical mandate, but it is not a pleasant experience – even, as it turns out, when you happen to be Caesar.  Nobody wants to pay taxes.

It should be reiterated that, in some instances, what appears to have happened with some of these accounts is little more than tax sheltering, which is legal and, according to many accountants, advisable.  Others, however, have crossed a line into tax evasion, which is a crime.  Still others have out and out used offshore accounts to try to launder dirty money.

Most world leaders are certainly not poor.  So why would such a number of them be so allergic to paying the very taxes that ensure their gainful employment and continued power that they would engage in shady offshore deals?  Perhaps it’s because Solomon was right: “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).  Even a lot of money is never enough money when a person loves money.

Lust for more, of course, is not only a problem for world leaders, it is a problem for many people.  Studies have shown that, proportionally, those who have higher financial means give less, as a percentage of their income, than those who have lower financial means.  As Ken Stern reports for The Atlantic:

In 2011, the wealthiest Americans – those with earnings in the top 20 percent – contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent –donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.[3]

Just because a person has more doesn’t mean he will give more.  Indeed, oftentimes, the more a person has, the more a person seems to think he needs, so the less he gives.

Perhaps we should keep in mind what Solomon says about money and the love thereof right after he explains that people who love money always want more money.  He writes, “This too is meaningless.”

The love of money may be tempting, but it is not meaningful.  It is not fulfilling.  It is not worthwhile.  This is a lesson, I fear, that these world leaders may have learned too late.  May their folly be our warning.

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[1] Greg Toppo, “Massive data leak in Panama reveals money rings of global leaders,” USA Today (4.5.2016).

[2] Lexi Finnigan, “What are the Panama Papers, who is involved and what is a tax haven?The Telegraph (4.7.2016).

[3] Ken Stern, “Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity,” The Atlantic (April 2013).

April 11, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Honor, Dignity, Victimization, and Power

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much to offend people these days. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything at all. This is what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue in their paper, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.”

Campbell and Manning cull their definition of what constitutes a microaggression from Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions are:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[1]

Two things are especially notable in Wing Sue’s definition. First, microaggressions can be either “intentional or unintentional.” What counts is not what a sender intends, but what a receiver perceives.  Second, words like “indignities,” “hostile,” and “derogatory” in Wing Sue’s definition cast microaggressions in a vocabulary of victimization.  Microaggressions, no matter how pint-sized they may seem, are really part of a broader caste system that relentlessly oppresses certain groups of people.  The cry of those who perceive themselves as having been microaggressed, then, is really the cry of those who have been systemically victimized by this system and its cultural and socioeconomic assumptions.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning argue that, for all the complaining that the microaggressed may do about being victimized, our newfound concern with microaggressions actually encourages a culture of victimization rather than discouraging it:

Victimization [is] a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization … We might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim … has risen to new heights.

In an article for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf cites one example of a blossoming culture of victimization in an exchange between two students at Oberlin College. In the exchange, a white student invites a Hispanic student to a game of fútbol who takes offense at the invitation, writing on an Oberlin blog devoted to calling out microaggressions:

Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? … White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth![2]

A big blow up and a public shaming over a single word. Welcome to the world of microaggressions.

Of course, things were not always this way. Before there was a culture of victimization, Campbell and Manning point out that there was a culture or honor.  In this culture:

One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing … Because insulting others helps establish one’s reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult others.

After a culture of honor came a culture of dignity, where:

People are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others … Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is commendable to have a “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults.

Though vestiges of these cultures of honor and dignity remain (compare Campbell and Manning’s definition of a culture of honor with some of the things Donald Trump has said in his presidential campaign and you’ll quickly realize that even though honor culture is on the decline, it is certainly not dead), they are quickly losing ground to a culture of victimization.

But why?

The answer seems to be “power.” Victimization, in our culture, can often be the fastest track to status and power, just as, in previous ages, honor and dignity were inroads to influence. For instance, in recent clashes over same-sex marriage, many in favor of the institution claim discrimination and victimization while many against same-sex marriage claim discrimination and victimization as well. Both groups hope that, by portraying themselves as aggrieved, oppressed, and victimized, they can engender sympathy and, ultimately, the upper hand in this debate. In other words, both sides are hoping to gain cultural capital, or power, by means of their own victimization.

Certainly, not all instances – indeed, not even most instances – of victimization represent grabs for power.  One thinks of those who are sexually assaulted or emotionally abused.  Such tragic examples of victimization have nothing to do with power.  Rather, they represent grave injustices and deserve our prayers, our sympathy, and our action.  But in cases of microaggressions and similar self-declared cries of victimization, for all their claims of powerlessness, they often turn out to be nothing more than cynical means of leveraging power.

It is here that we find that, for all of their differences, the cultural systems of honor, dignity, and victimization hold something in common: they are all means to an end of power. And this is where all of these systems run into trouble.

In His ministry, Jesus sometimes fought for honor, sometimes upheld human dignity, and sometimes embraced victimization. But His goal was not that of gaining power. When Jesus fought for honor, it was the honor of God Himself for which Jesus fought, refusing to allow the religious elites of His day to honor God with their lips while blaspheming Him in their hearts (cf. Matthew 15:8). When Jesus upheld dignity, it was the dignity of the ridiculed and marginalized He championed, like the time He rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (cf. John 8:2-11). And when Jesus allowed Himself to be victimized on a cross, He did so not as a backdoor to power, but in order to ransom us from our sin (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus, it turns out, picked up on elements from each of these cultures without endorsing the shared goal of all of these cultures. He used honor, dignity, and victimization as ways to love people rather than dominate them.

Like Jesus, His followers should feel free to fight for honor, uphold human dignity, and even see themselves, in some instances, as victimized. But none of these cultural constructs, in the economy of Christ, should be methodically used as mere means to power. Rather, they are to be used to love others.

So for whose honor will you fight? And whose dignity will you champion? And how can your victimization lead to someone else’s restoration? Rather than eschewing these cultural constructs altogether, let’s use them differently. Let’s use them for love.  For when we use these things for love, even if we do not gain power culturally, we exercise power spiritually.  And that’s a better kind of power anyway.

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[1] Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” Comparative Psychology 13 (2014): 692-726.

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” The Atlantic (9.11.2015).

October 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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