Friday, July 29, 2011

Just Say No to Absolutism

Do you remember the old joke “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist?” The answer was “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

If you remember it then you probably also remember when it was funny. When terrorists were people you could negotiate with. When demands were made and hostages were released. That all seems a very long time ago, doesn’t it?

I don’t think that joke has been funny since 9/11 when a kind of terrorism you can’t negotiate with became real to Americans in a way we couldn’t have imagined when we were making jokes about liturgists and terrorists – who are both in their different ways absolutists.

According to Merriam Webster, “absolutism is the ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them.”

Absolutism is behind people who fly airplanes into buildings and send suicide bombers into marketplaces. Absolutists are so absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause that the consequences don’t enter the equation so there is nothing left to negotiate. There is nothing to compromise on.

We’ve learned quite a bit about that “ethical view” in the Episcopal Church over the last decade. The mission and ministry of our church has, in a very real sense, been held hostage by absolutists in Anglican clothing – by those so convinced they have Sole Possession of the Absolute Truth that tearing apart the Anglican Communion rather than compromising with those with whom they differ is – well – non-negotiable.

Not that we didn’t try. To negotiate. To work through our differences. To compromise. Over and over and over again we brought our (in retrospect) naïve faith in the traditional Anglican comprehensiveness that has historically allowed us to bridge differences and to celebrate diversity. In fact I remember saying – more times than I can count – that if we Anglicans could manage to be both catholic and protestant in the 16th century, surely we could manage to be both straight and gay in the 21st.

But over and over and over again we found that there is no negotiating with an absolutist. It was a hard lesson to learn. But I think we’ve finally figured it out. And so maybe we can help John Boehner with his learning curve. Because somebody had better do something.

Because they’re cut from the same absolutist cloth – the Tea Party Zealots and the Anglican Schismatics. Just as there was no negotiating with the Schismatics who were willing to blow up the Anglican Communion if they couldn’t recreate it in their own image there is no negotiating with the Zealots who seem willing to blow up the American Economy if they can’t “get their country back.” You know the one: before FDR introduced the New Deal in the good old days of robber barons and segregation; before social security, Medicare or that pesky 14th Amendment.

Think I’m being too harsh? I’m not the only one. A couple of quotes from news reports on today’s Capitol Hill Craziness:
"They have forgotten history if they ever knew it. What I'm afraid they're doing is coming in with such zeal and absolutism, they're going to eat American's seed corn with some of these cuts." [Senator John Kerry]

"You have folks who are so black-and-white, who are so absolutist, that we are in a process now where we are on the brink.” [Senator Lisa Murkowski]
On the brink. On the edge of disaster. And to get off that edge -- away from that brink -- we're going to have to stop being so damn polite and call bullshit on the absolutism holding our constitutional democracy hostage and name invincible ignorance when we see it in action. Here’s what Paul Krugman has to say about that:
Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault … The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.
They say the truth will set you free and the truth is we can’t afford to make this problem any worse. We can’t afford to pretend you can negotiate with absolutists. And we can’t afford not to learn from our past.

If Solomon could figure out which was the true mother by who was willing to let the child be ripped in half and who was willing to compromise for the child's sake, shouldn't we be able to tell which is the true patriot by who's willing to have this country ripped apart by financial default and who's willing to compromise for the nation's sake?


Just Me said...

Playing "devil's advocate", I don't see any difference between between the two sides (whether it be related to Tea Party vs Progressives or right-wing vs left wing).

A little honesty and humility on both sides reveals just how small the differences are between the two. The bullets points of what they want achieved may differ, but their behavior does not.

You (Susan) wouldn't have the schedule you have if you didn't absolutely believe you were right. The same goes for those you consider to be opponents (is that spelled right? Just had a biopsy the other day so I'm a little groggy still) At the end of the day, those you oppose are fighting with every thing they've got because they truly believe they are right. To expect less from them would mean to expect less out of yourself.

The people (the majority) reside in the middle of the spectrum and view both sides as extremists. Whether you agree or not, like it or not; middle America doesn't see any difference between Harry Reid and Allen West, Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi or +Jon Bruno or +Robert Duncan.

The problem, the real problem, in this country is that the extremists are the ones running the show ~ leaving middle America to suffer the consequences.

Patricia Brush said...

I posted the link to this post on my Facebook page. In Canada, we have seen our Prime Minister and his minions heading in the direction that the US has recently taken, and that scares me.

LGMarshall said...

I agree with Just Me, you've got to respect that both sides are passionate in their beliefs. I wouldn't want it any other way. Think of the alternative... passive, leafs blowing in the wind... that's worse.

Like Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea... 'since you are luke warm, I will spit you out of my mouth!'

IT said...

Just Me, I hope you are well and the biopsy is benign.

Meanwhile, it is not true to say both sides are extremists. The Dems and the Pres offered a bill that should have cheered the Republicans, that sold out the Democratic base, and what happened? The Dems offer it despite the howls from the edges,and the Republicans won't even consider it.

What people want is compromise TO the center. Only one side has moved. The other remains intransigent. There is no equivalence here.

More here

uffda51 said...

The real problem continues to be the situation described by a senior Bush aide to Ron Suskind in the New York Times in 2004.

The aide said that progressives live ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.''

Conservatives believe the deficit was caused by our black Kenyan-born Muslim president and not the Bush-years tax cuts, the unfunded Bush-years wars, the unfunded Bush-years Medicare-drug program and the Bush-years unregulated financial meltdown. Conservatives continue to believe that trickle-down economics actually works. Conservatives believe that an unlicensed therapist in Minnesota can “cure” homosexual “barbarians.”

Discernable reality simply doesn’t work for these people. Culture-wars bogeymen continue to be invoked to coerce conservatives to vote against their own economic best interests. As Jim Wallis has pointed out, American religion continues to promise easy certainty at the expense of deeper reflection. As David Stockman has said "It's very dismaying to see that 30-year descent into the kind of nihilism, know-nothingism that is represented by the Republican Party today."

The current discernible reality is that power and money have corrupted our democracy to such an extent that corporations are considered to be people and money is considered to be speech. The people who ran on a platform of “America First” are ready to default on our national obligations in the name of conservative ideological purity, no matter how many Americans are hurt and no matter what unintended consequences may occur. No “solution” is needed.

If American voters (the small percentage of our allegedly ultra-patriotic population who bother to vote) can’t distinguish between qualified – and not, between responsible – and not, we’ll continue to get nothing done.


LG and Just Me ... remedial reading assignment.

Click on the link in the blog to the piece by Paul Krugman.

Read it. (Or read it again ... this time for comprehension.)

There is a critical difference between people of good will with differing opinions working together to compromise toward solutions to challenges facing the country -- or the church -- and absolutists who are willing to blow either up rather than compromise.

Krugman is absolutely right about the "cult of balance" ... and if we're too blind or ignorant or stubborn to move beyond it to challenge it we deserve what we get.

Evan said...

Susan, I agree with what you say re: the current situation in the US government, but I'm hesitant to endorse fully your complete condemnation of "absolutism," at least as far as the Meriam Webster definition goes. After all, I am an "absolutist" with regard to certain issues. For example, the issue of the full rights of LGBT persons to ordination in the church is non-negotiable to me. That makes me an "absolutist" on that issue, one might say. I refuse to be a part of any discussion that puts the rights of my fellow human beings on the table as a chip to be bargained away.

Or to give a non-ecclesiastical example: atheist writer Sam Harris wrote in his book The End of Faith that he believes that if a government avowedly an enemy of the United States were to acquire nuclear weapons, we would be justified in launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike, killing countless innocents in the process, in order to defend ourselves. I completely and absolutely disagree. I cannot envision any circumstance under which I would consider such an action to be justified. So in that sense I am an "absolutist" on that as well.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are some issues on which I cannot imagine any viable "compromise" which I would consider just. We see those sorts of "compromises" coming out of the higher-ups at the Anglican Communion who have been demanding for years that we "do the theology" over and over again before according equal rights within the church to LGBT brothers and sisters.

I don't have a general principle concerning when one should abandon a commitment to absolute beliefs, but as I said, I'm reluctant to condemn "absolutism" writ large, because there are some issues on which I don't think any stance other than an "absolute" one would be morally acceptable. Anyone who would answer "yes" to the question as to whether there are some actions that ought NEVER to be done, no matter the circumstances, is at least partly an "absolutist."

LGMarshall said...

Obama wishes his leftist 'spread-the wealth' Economic Policies would work in American Govt., but I'm telling you there is a real Disconnect going on with him because just under the surface...[he's a closet Conservative.]

Here's proof: I bet you $1, that he does NOT use the same Money-Management Principles with his daughters [Sasha & Malia].

Can't you just see him & Michelle saying when asked [yet again] for more money...'No girls, we already gave you your allowance for the week. If you spent it already, that's just tough!'

MarkBrunson said...

What I find both amusing and appalling is that so many of those who keep saying "absolutely not" and decrying "socialism" and "communism" in government programs consider both those things just as absolutely the works of evil and consider themselves Christians!

Bit embarrassing, really.

Just Me said...

Hey IT, thank you; I'm fairly confident at this point that the tumor is benign. It will be nice to have it confirmed though ;-) I'm not calling Democrats extremist; I'm saying that both "parties" have extremists within them. The bills that Congress is pretending to fight about are nearly the same. Both raise the debt ceiling and neither cut spending. It isn't about compromise; it's about snow-boarding.

UFFDA51, the wording in your response makes you sound like an extremist to middle America. The right extremists blame Obama; the left extremists blame Bush. Congress controls money, laws and regulations. The president is confined to term limits; congress is not.

Susan, we will get what we deserve; there's no way to avoid it now. I'll let the "remedial" slur slip by only because I know that's your passion speaking.

Evan, thank you for your honesty. You made my point quite well and I commend you for your passion. When it comes to matters of the heart, I pray we never live in a world where people stop standing firm for what they believe.

Mark, great words! "Appalling", "amusing" and "embarrassing". Yep, that pretty much sums up how many Americans feel right about now. I suppose it's the one thing that makes us united =)


My point is not about failing to stand for what you believe in. My point is that politics is the art of the possible and abolutism makes compromise -- a crucial component in the politicial process -- IMpossible.

uffda51 said...

Someone who cites a moderate Bush administration official, a moderate Reagan administration official and a moderate evangelical to make his point in a blog about the deficit will be considered an extremist by “middle America?” Really?

I think middle America is smarter than that. A belief that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality is not an extremist position. That’s how we got to the moon. That’s how anything of value gets done.

At the beginning of the Bush presidency, the United States debt limit was $5.95 trillion. Despite promises that he would pay off the debt in 10 years, Bush increased the debt to $9.815 trillion by the end of his term, with plenty of help from the four Republicans currently holding Congressional leadership positions: Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl.

As IT pointed out, there is no equivalence of extremism in the current climate. Tea party members and non-tea party members of Congress want this president to fail – at any cost.

LGMarshall said...

When the Bible teaches to 'do good and share with others', it means within the Bible Faith Community. [if you can find one scripure that contradicts this let me know.]

It doesn't mean the whole world, or the whole country, or even the whole state, or city. [nor is that even feasible, can you name one Communist country where that works?]

Conservative/Christian Republicans do take issue when the Fed Govt forces us to share [more than the 33% taxes alloted for society] our wealth with those outside our religious community.

How come Liberal Christians don't understand the concept that their type of Social Gospel/Govt spending is untenable - unable to be maintained?

SCG said...

Your last statement about Solomon's wisdom is dead on point! I've made it my Facebook status for the night (with attribution).


LG ... Seriously???


Thinking that'll make next Sunday's sermon ...


LGMarshall said...

To SR: 'seriously'... I'm not a mind reader. please explain in polite terms. :-) what is it that you disagree with...? thank you.

[do you believe in Separation of Church & State?]

also... could you provide scripture that backs up your point of view....?


LG ... You've been reading this blog long enough to know I don't play "but the Bible says."

But seriously ... the idea that the scriptural warrant to care for the widow and orphan; the stranger at the gate; etc, etc, refers to the Bible Faith Community (whatever that means) is such a stunning example of Christian exceptionalist tribalism that all I can really think to say is ...


LGMarshall said...

Ok I'll do the scripture part..."Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this; to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world..' james 1.27

this pertains to the Hebrew widows and orphans ... not the pagan peoples in the outskirts of Judea , which God already said do not get involved with.


"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." ~ Mahatma Ghandi

uffda51 said...

LG, does Mathew 25, v. 31-46 ring a bell? Verse 45 reads “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Some figures to consider: The bottom 80 percent of American households have lost ground in share of income since 1979. The top one percent, meanwhile, has seen its slice of the pie increase more than 120 percent. What these shifts translate to is this: The top 10 percent of Americans earn nearly three-quarters of all income in the country, leaving the poor with whatever is left. We have privatized wealth, nationalized risk and punished honest labor. It’s been well documented that on a world wide basis countries with the greatest disparity between the rich and poor have the greatest social inequality as well.

And yet fundamentalists Christians who pay more in taxes than GE gladly parrot the “Obama’s left-wing redistribution of wealth” meme - even though the reality is that conservatives have engineered the biggest transfer of wealth since the gilded age. Thanks for making my point from my earlier post for me, LG.

Just Me said...

"Someone who cites a moderate Bush administration official, a moderate Reagan administration official and a moderate evangelical to make his point in a blog about the deficit will be considered an extremist by “middle America?” Really?"

Not at all; what makes someone perceived as an extremist by middle America are statements like this; "Conservatives believe the deficit was caused by our black Kenyan-born Muslim president and not the Bush-years tax cuts, the unfunded Bush-years wars, the unfunded Bush-years Medicare-drug program and the Bush-years unregulated financial meltdown.”

Again, a president (any president) doesn't have that kind of power. This is the USA; not the USSR.
Middle America doesn't blame Bush for everything and they don't Obama for everything- they blame Congress. Who's writing the bills? Who's writing the blank checks? Who's funding the unfundable? Middle America is amused and appalled by the Bush-bashers and the Obama-conspirators. Middle America wants three things and three things only;

Throw out our current tax code; it's archaic, inefficient and filled with loopholes. Flat tax / fair tax; they don't care, just pick one.

Term limits for all members of Congress; no human being can be detached from society for 30 years and know what society needs.

Cut spending. Funny how that trillion dollars they're trying to cut could be easily wiped out by rolling back the raises Congress has given themselves since 2008. Hmmm; six figure salaries and free benefits for life? How about we start there. Any takers?

dr.primrose said...

"When the Bible teaches to 'do good and share with others', it means within the Bible Faith Community. [if you can find one scripure that contradicts this let me know.]"

Several examples come immediately to mind (and I'm sure there are more).

1. Elijah takes care of the widow Zarephath, which belonged to Sidon, part of Phoenicia, and cures her son. 1 Kings 17.

2. Elisha cures Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, who was Aramean. 2 Kings 5.

3. Jesus cures the daughter of the Caananite woman. Matthew 15. Or the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. Mark 7. Or both (depending on whether these are variations of the same story or two different stories).

None of these people were part of the "Bible Faith Community."

IT said...

When the Bible teaches to 'do good and share with others', it means within the Bible Faith Community.....Conservative/Christian Republicans do take issue when the Fed Govt forces us to share [more than the 33% taxes alloted for society] our wealth with those outside our religious community.

I think LGM has officially jumped the shark.


... which is a kinder/gentler metaphor than "give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves" ... which is what I was thinking.

dr.primrose said...

And another example of doing good for someone outside the "Bible Faith Community," as an example from the early church:

4. Paul and Silas order the spirit out of the slave-girl at Thyatira. Acts 16.

Matthew said...


Its been working just fine in Scandinavia for centuries and continues to do so. There is a state church. All pay taxes to it. Taxes are high. Standards of living are also high. The state church is popular with the people and yet not everyone is a Lutheran.

JCF said...

Aren't we all glad the Good Samaritan (proverbially, and all the "Good Samaritans" that have ever followed him) Did Good outside of *his* faith community?


C'mon, JustMe: false equivalency much? This whole "extremists on left and right alike" meme can only be *willful blindness*.


I think Joe Biden spoke for me today. When a Congressional liberal (like Me! Me! Me!) said "We're making a deal w/ terrorists", Biden replied "Well, at least we're taking the Weapon of Mass Destruction [default] away from them."

What's happening isn't good. But (like Nancy Pelosi voted), it's necessary.


Happier Note: wasn't it wonderful to see Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the floor of the House? :-)

MarkBrunson said...

If Jesus meant for us just to care for and serve the like-minded, he should've married and settled into a career in carpentry, because his sacrifice meant absolutely nothing.

Sad, sad, sad. Conservative "christians" wouldn't know community if it fed them . . . as it does.

MarkBrunson said...

What should unite us, Just Me, is that we are human beings - or we are supposed to be.

Just Me said...

JCF; It isn't the ideologies that are equivalent; it's the behavior. My point was that after a while, both sides begin to sound alike because all you hear is name-calling, insults, finger-pointing and whining. It's difficult to hear anything the 2 sides say when what could be considered a valid point gets drowned out by "you're a stupid poopie-head".

Agreed Mark; agreed. We're not always very good at treating each other as human beings, though. The whole "treat others as you want to be treated" seems to get forgotten all too easily these days.

LGMarshall said...

@Dr. P, SR...God is concerned with those that belong to Him , as in every case... 1Kings17, 2Kings5, Mark 7, Matt15, etc... ALL are examples of people of Faith in the God of the Bible, receiving healing & favor, AFTER they showed Faith. [Elijah did not cure any one. God did.]

1Ki17- the woman whose son was healed, says 'Now I know that the Word of the LORD from your mouth is Truth..' therefore, she was a Believer, inside the Bible belief family.

1kings5- Upon being given instructions in how to be healed, Naaman gets angry, and balks, but when he decides to be Obedient to God of the Bible [not his pagan god], he is cured of Leprosy. [No one obeys something they don't believe in.] Naaman said:'Now I know that there is no God in all the world, except in Israel..' So he too is inside the Bible belief family.

Mark7 -- The Syrian Phoenician woman begged [!!] Jesus to take the evil spirits from her daughter. [when you beg someone, that shows Faith.] Jesus scolded her, since she was a non Jew. But her Faith had humbled her, as she was willing to call herself a dog....'Yes, LORD',[only the faithful call him Lord] 'even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs...' Jesus was moved by her Faith, and healed the daughter of demons that she had called upon in her pagan religion. Here we have another Bible faith believer[s], as probably the daughter came to a saving faith too.

Matt15-The Canaanite woman [same woman as Mark 7] whose daughter was demon filled, came to him and knelt before him...'LORD, help me!'. [She called him LORD, which proves her Faith in Him, and she asked for help, which proves her Faith.]

Jesus & God do business with the the Faithful, not those who reject Him. Those that go astray, yes, he woos them back, but not those who do not acknowledge Him.


LG -- "God is concerned with those that belong to Him .."

Cue music: "He's got the whole world in His hands."

MarkBrunson said...

Absolutely, Just Me.

I'm rather glad I don't have a great deal of money, or prospects of getting it, because I'd leave the whole damn mess of civilization behind and let everyone kill everyone and good riddance - and does make me any different? Forced to stay, I'm forced to interact and care.

Doesn't mean I have any real hope for the human race - including the alleged "christians" LG - just that I have to care. A wounded healer, at my best.

MarkBrunson said...


Then your god is a tribal god, not a universal one, therefore not the Christian God. QED.

Just Me said...

I don't believe that about you for one minute, Mark. Money doesn't change people; it magnifies their character (good or bad). I admit that I don't know you personally, but I don't have a sense that if you came into a large cash stockpile, you would walk away. I believe that you would use that money to help others (as many others with money do). You wouldn't take the money and run; you would do "big things" for "little people".

LGMarshall said...

@/MB...The God of the Bible is not a Universal god. [there is no such thing.] He is...the God of Adam & Eve, the God of Moses, the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of Joshua, the God of David, the God of Solomon, the God of Samuel , the God of Benjamin, the God of Isaac...Sara, Moses, Rahab, Samson, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John...Mary Magdalene, Paul.. Yes, The 'Tribal God'... The 'Tribe' of God's People. Those that Believe in His WORD, that Worship Him, that Glorify Him. Open to all Nations, open to any and all who will bend their knee. MB: Will you bend your knee and join the tribe?


Give it a rest, people. Go donate some money to Somalia. Find someone who had their retirement savings wiped out in today's market dive and give them a hug. Voluteer at the LGBT Center hotline and talk some kid out of jumping off a bridge because he thinks God hates him because he's gay. Visit somebody in the hospital. What the heck ... go polish some silver in the sacristy.

Whatever floats your boat.

We're now WAY past any kind of debate or discussion on the original post ... and LG has repeatedly and kindly made my point that negotiating with an absolutist is ... well like unto what Benjamin Franklin said would happen if you tried to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

So let's quit wasting time on this one and all breathe and come back to argue another day.


LG ... maybe you didn't hear me when I said we were done here.

MarkBrunson said...

Absolutely, Susan. No point arguing with a pagan, anyway.

Somalia's great, btw, but try looking in your own community for people to help, first. Suffering is suffering, and its end spreads outward from the center that is each of us.