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]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:
"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]
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?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.
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.
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?