Watching and reading the news lately has been even more distressing than usual. It isn’t just the content, although that has been particularly grim. As one who grew up with Walter Cronkite every night, the news increasingly resembles a school playground with pre-teens shouting at each other.
I was thinking of my colleague, Ken, the other day. He died a couple of years ago after a protracted battle with myasthenia gravis and I miss our lunches. Ken was what we call a retread; he retired as a colonel in the Air Force during the Vietnam era. He went to seminary, he said, “to do penance.”
Ken was a conservative. We disagreed on a vast array of things political, theological and social. In spite of that — no because of that — we had lunch together often and we never avoided any topic. The purpose was not to convince or persuade, to earn points or to be right. The purpose of our lunches was conversation.
Even on areas of disagreement, I respected Ken’s intellect and what I really wanted to know was how he arrived at his positions. I think he felt the same way about me. I really don’t remember if either of us changed the other’s mind, but I am pretty convinced that each of us grew as a result of hearing what the other said and believing at the core of things, that we each had the best of intentions.
That kind of conversation is getting rare. We no longer talk about complex issues. I’m not sure we even listen anymore. We slap either the conservative or liberal label on it and then we just don’t have to deal with it. It’s neat and clean, but of course it solves nothing.
A recent commentary here in the AFN used the time-honored tactic of blaming the victim. The circular argument was essentially that big government needs poor people to stay big and the poor people rely on the big government to avoid having to work. The article also suggested that mental illness is the refuge of malingerers.
The early church had a much different approach. In Acts, Luke tells us that property was held in common, possessions were sold and the proceeds addressed any and every need. The poor and disabled were not cast out of the community as unclean or blamed as sinners for their infirmities; instead they were drawn back into the community for support and nurture.
In my lifetime, I have seen the church reach and move beyond a fork in the road. One side seems focused on issues of personal morality and bringing order to society by adhering to clear principles. The other side seems focused on social justice, not just in the criminal sense, but also in the fair distribution of resources and equal protection under the law.
I think my old friend Ken was probably on the first side of that divide and I will admit to being on the second. The difference was that we did not move so far beyond the fork that we could not see the virtue on the other side. There are really good people on both sides of the fork, I hope we have not moved so far beyond it that we can’t go back and engage those on the other side in meaningful conversation and productive problem solving.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.