In a poll taken before the last election respondents indicated strong disapproval of congress (31% approve/63% disapprove) as a whole, and yet by an almost equal margin (60%/33%), they indicated approval of their own congressman (Fox Poll 10/13/06). This type of result occurs repeatedly in polls. I’m just using those numbers as an example. Similarly polls (and general observation) shows that people disapprove of attorneys as a profession, but like their own attorney, or certainly want a good, hard-hitting attorney on their side if they are in trouble.
It’s very likely that these differences in perception have something to do with who each of those people are working for. My congressman has to try to serve my district, for example by trying to keep military bases here, get federal road projects here, and so forth. There are 434 other congressmen who don’t share his priorities on those district based items, and thus it is very unlikely that the people in any single district will approve of the whole of congress as much as they approve of their own.
We face a similar situation with attorneys. Other attorneys get excessive judgments for undeserving plaintiffs, make sneaky deals to get guilty defendants off on technicalities, and arrange questionable tax shelters for fat-cat businessmen. My attorney, on the other hand, gets me just recompense for wrongs done me, arranges for justice to be done when I or a family member is acquitted of a charge, and keeps me from paying more than my fair share.
What we don’t tend to think about in any of these cases is that the person on each side might well be the same one. What changes is our perspective. When the congressman in a neighboring district makes a deal to keep his base, he’s doing his job as a congressman (at least as it’s perceived now), but those in my district will perceive him as a supporter of pork. Of course, the base that was saved here was a necessary element of national defense. Of course, both congressman were doing what they had to do for their constitutents, because that is what constituents demand.
The problem here, I believe is that we do not take a consistent and principled approach to this type of issue. It would perhaps be excessive to expect us to, but nonetheless I think we would benefit as a country, a society, or in our social and religious organizations if we were to make more effort to do so.
As I noted in a previous post, we expect contradictory things of our government. We would like balanced budgets, but we cannot get any consensus on what we need to cut. Sometimes politicians suggest, and even implement across-the-board cuts of a certain percentage in order to help balance the budget, but such cuts simply avoid making the necessary decisions. Indeed, many people want tax cuts at the same time as spending is increasing, and yet will claim to desire balanced budgets. You can’t do it at home, and you can’t do it in government.
Speaking of inconsistency, however, there are those who support increases in the minimum wage, and yet are angrily opposed to agricultural price supports. Others support price supports or other forms of government aid for categories of business, and yet on principle oppose increases in the minimum wage. Now there are arguments for and against each of these positions, but in the way that they are argued, those may not always be clear. A pro-business politician may argue for some kind of support for an industry so that there will be jobs for constituents, and yet argue against minimum wage laws because they are an unjustified intrusion into business, or because they will put marginal enterprises out of business.
In public policy some Christians have become angry because a congressman wants to take his oath of office with his hand on a copy of the Qur’an, while others are angry because a graduating senior is refused permission to refer to Jesus in her graduation speech. I believe that both of these people should be allowed to carry out their religious convictions. The Muslim congressman should be able to put his hand on his own holy book, while the valedictorian should not have been cut off in her speech either. But we generally tend to be much more sensitive about what happens to us personally or to our own group than we are to what happens to other groups.
In the Bible, we find the story of David and his adultery with Bathsheba, and murder of Uriah the Hittite. Nathan the prophet took an interesting approach when he rebuked David for this. He told a story that allowed David to judge a similar situation, but of course a situation that applied to somebody else. (You can read the whole story in 1 Samuel 11 & 12.) David’s judgment was swift and harsh, but he didn’t realize that the prophet was talking about him.
That’s so typical of human behavior generally. We don’t recognize our own behavior when we see it or hear it portrayed in other people. And that often prevents us from being consistent and principled. In churches we display this trait when we are much harder on other people’s sins than we are on our own. We read the Bible and find all of the things that other people need to reform, while missing the things that point directly at our own lives and hearts.
In Philippians 2:4 Paul tells us not to seek our own well-being, but that we should each seek the well-being of others. I would love to see this in action in church. The folks who want a traditional worship service become the advocates for those who need a place for a contemporary service. The contemporary worshippers make sure that the traditional folks have an opportunity to worship as they desire. The older folks become advocates for the needs of the young people, while the youth take on the care of the elderly. Ideally, if we followed Paul’s suggestion (and Paul’s suggestion is based on the example of Jesus!), nobody would need to be an advocate for himself in church.
But what would it do to Christian witness if Christians took that verse out into mainstream life. It would mean that Christians would be the advocates for the rights of Muslims, Wiccans, Jews, and atheists, amongst others. (I mean nothing in particular by the order or selection of those groups.) We would truly do to others what we would want done to us. We would treat our minority neighbors as we would want to be treated if we were in the minority.
And yes, we would treat those whose lifestyle we might disapprove with full human dignity, if for no other reason because we realize that other folks might disapprove of our lifestyle.
I don’t mean to suggest that we need to quite enforcing criminal law, nor to suggest that we decide that all those of other faiths are equally right, nor that we have to approve of every lifestyle. Let debate continue! But let each and every person be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated.
Personally, I think that would be a better and more effective witness than any quantity of talking.