Sunday, July 27, 2014

Justice for All

Gaza Boys Fenced In, Dale Spencer, Gaza, 2009

Heavens above,

rain down justice;

let the clouds pour it down.

Let the earth open,

so that salvation springs up,

and justice sprouts with it.

                 (Isaiah 45:8)

This week I’ve been carrying the word “justice” with me like a prayer.

Stories of downed airplanes, shelling of refugee shelters in Gaza, frightened children held at the US border: my heart whispers “let justice rain – and reign.”

Justice is one of those words encompassing a rich mix of multiple meanings, illuminated by interchangeable translations between the Hebrew words mishpat and tzedaqah and the English words justice, righteousness, equity, mercy, victory, salvation, “doing all that’s good and right.”

Mishpat has been described as “rectifying justice” – giving people their due, as when an offended  victim cries “I want justice!”

But track mishpat through Hebrew scripture and it takes on new dimensions. First is the insistence that courts and judges view all offenders or complainants as equal regardless of wealth or status. That alone is a goal still poorly realized, when our prisons are full of poor kids serving time for trivial offences while white collar criminals responsible for the theft of billions continue unimpeded

But mishpat went far beyond to work of the courts to insist on rectifying inequity, insisting that the most marginalized (widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor) receive their fair share of the community’s goods and blessings.

As Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author of Generous Justiceexplains:
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.” 
But mishpat is only one of the words that is sometimes translated “justice.” Tzedeqah is the other, even more expansive than mishpat: 
Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.
From what I can tell, primary justice, tzadeqah, is both goal and action, end and means. Passages in Psalms suggest that God’s justice, righteousness, and love are so inextricably linked that we can’t know one without seeking, receiving, and sharing all three: 
The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5)
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.  (Psalm 89:14)
There are Christians, like Keller, and churches, like Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian, that are deeply committed to both seeking and sharing justice. But for far too many who claim to follow Christ, justice is considered optional, or even objectionable. I grieve at the many times I’ve heard thoughtful voices dismissed with “oh, he’s one of those social justice Christians.”

If God is a God of justice as well as love, I’d argue that justice should be part of every Christians’ DNA – and I’d argue, as well, that the church’s lack of credibility and effective witness is in direct proportion to its lack of interest in seeking and maintaining justice. 

In a short video introduction to the 2011 Justice Conference, Walter Brueggeman invited the listener to rethink the connections between love of God, love of neighbor, and a life of justice and righteousness: 
One of the misfortunes in the long history of the church is that we have mistakenly separated love of God from love of neighbor and always they are held together in prophetic poetry. Covenant members who practice justice and righteousness are to be active advocates for the vulnerable and the marginalized and people without resources. And that then becomes the way to act out and exhibit one’s love of God.
 So love of God gets translated into love of vulnerable neighbors. And the doing of justice is the prophetic invitation to do what needs to be done to enable the poor and the disadvantaged and the neglected to participate in the resources and wealth of the community.
 And injustice is the outcome of having skewed neighborly processes so some are put at an unbearable disadvantage. And the Gospel invitation is that people intervene in that to correct those mistaken arrangements. 
We are surrounded by vulnerable neighbors. How do we intervene?

A friend, responding to my post last week about liberty and constraint, wrote of the injustice of a legal system that provides nothing for poor families seeking justice for their murdered daughters: 
In an 8 month trial, families learn to constrain themselves, and to expect very little from the system that cares so deeply about principles and the accused, while the poor and vulnerable struggle in the land of plenty.
 I find, it does not matter what language is spoken, liberty is a construct defined by the educated elite that has no real bearing on the working poor.
I hear in her lament the “mistaken arrangements” that ignore the needs of grieving families and pay little attention to the underlying inequities that spill over into violence and despair. 

No need to look far for other examples: another friend told me this week of the urban school where her children struggle in crowded classes with no extra aides or special programs, while just miles away the classes are smaller, with extra attention for children with learning difficulties, a choice of after school activities, plentiful resources. She is deeply aware of the “unbearable disadvantage,” and struggling to move her children to a better school.

Another conversation this week called attention to local companies that make life hard for older workers, hoping those workers will resign (without severence) so younger employees can be hired at lower wages. One member of the conversation had just lost his job after weathering months of attempts to make him quit; all the others had suffered layoffs of their own.

“So how is that supposed to work?” one woman asked. “I mean, for the company, they save money, right? But where are all those older workers supposed to go?”

The Gospel invitation to intervene points us back to the need for wisdom. We may see ways to offer care to individuals affected by injustice, but it's far harder to see ways to address root causes or call for change in entrenched systems that benefit the privileged and powerful. 

I’ve been reading Deepening the Soul for Justice, a little book (just 44 pages) by Bethany Hoang of International Justice Mission. She talks about the danger of burn-out, or of feeling so overwhelmed by injustice we do nothing, and ties effective involvement in injustice to ever deepening spiritual practice. I’m impressed by her description of the way IJM staff begin each day in “stillness,” spending time in prayer before facing into the horrors of human trafficking and the abuse and violence confronting poor women and children. 

I’m also impressed with the way Hoang ties justice to worship: 
Justice is always connected to worship. consider Proverbs 14:31 and the inextricable relationship between how we treat the poor and our worship of God: "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker; but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.'
The entirety of Scripture emphasizes that true worship, by definition, must always have us thinking about our neighbors in need, just as loving our neighbor should always flow out of our worship. 
Justice is always connected to worship, because both worship and justice are about the right ordering of the world. Both worship and justice proclaim and declare God’s lordship over all–including evil, including oppression. (36-37) 
Hoang points out that most of us will not be first on the scene in situations of human trafficking or domestic abuse.

But we can still make seeking justice part of our every day engagement with the world around us.

Here are some practical steps. Please feel free to share you own.

1. Learn to notice and acknowledge injustice and spend time in prayer about ways to engage. 

2. Think carefully about how we use our influence to include or exclude, to oppress or restore, and take time to treat those around us (cashiers? servers? colleagues? children?) with equal respect and care.    

3. Make purposeful choices that prioritize justice: pay more for fair trade products, buy goods and services from companies that treat their workers well.

4. Review our own privileges and look for ways to share them. Education? Cars? Homes? Vacations? Books? Clothes? Contacts? Energy? Time? 

5. Look for ways to encourage and support others in understanding and pursuing justice.

This is the third in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Other, earlier posts on justice: 
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places? October 20, 2013
How Much Does Justice Cost? September 1, 2013
Seeking Justice, January 20, 2013
Justice, Mercy Parasites? August 19, 2012
Power.Money.Justice.Love? January 15, 2012

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.   

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Liberty and Constraint

The Synchroblog topic this month is "Liberty", a great word to savor on a sunny summer day. Kayaking on my nearby lake, I savor the word and revel in its possibilities: no schedule to answer to, no immediate needs demanding attention, water beckoning for a refreshing swim. 

But even the water around my kayak reminds me of the challenges of balancing liberty and constraint.

Farmers and homeowners whose properties drain toward the lake are free to use whatever chemicals they like, in whatever quantities they like. In consequence, the lake is partially covered with algae bloom, and no doubt slightly toxic to swim in. The green heron I normally see seem to be missing; they like to fish from a branch over the water, but with the water surface green and cloudy, it appears at least some have traveled on in search of clearer waters.

Liberty is a word much in fashion in recent political discourse, with arguments for less regulation, unfettered markets, privatized goods and services.  

What’s less often discussed is the way that attempts to protect one form of liberty often diminish other forms, in the same way the farmers’ freedom to fertilize at will darkens the lake, taints the local water supply, obstructs the herons’ search for food.

President Lincoln, in a speech given in 1864, acknowledged the deep divide between different views of liberty, and the tension when one person's freedom encroaches on another's: 
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.
Nearly a century after Lincoln’s address, scholar Isaiah Berlin, responding to a different historical moment, offered his own analysis of types of liberty. His seminal essay of 1958, "Two Concepts of Liberty", defined "negative liberty" as freedom from constraint or coercion, and "positive liberty" as freedom to accomplish or move toward a greater goal or value.

His view of these was not in sync with the terms he used. Born in 1909 to Jewish parents near Petrograd, Russia, he had witnessed the revolutions of 1917, then moved with his parents to London to escape mounting anti-Semitism. In his experience, the idea of positive liberty was too easily linked to totalitarian rhetoric: communism and fascism both spoke of “freedom” and “liberty” while destroying individual rights. 

Berlin’s warnings against positive liberty have been put to good use by Libertarians, who label government initiatives as socialism or communism, describe regulation as a blight on human liberty, and assert that “the free market . . .  is the most just and humane economic system and the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known," to quote Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty. 

Yet, if the language of positive liberty can be misused in the interest of oppressive regimes, the language of negative liberty can be equally misused. In a much quoted and discussed 2011 Guardian commentary, George Monbiot explored "How Freedom Became Tyranny": 
In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.
As I consider these ideas of liberty, I find myself thinking about the Apostle Paul’s understanding of both “freedom from” and “freedom for.”
I Corinthians 9:19  Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.

1 Corinthians 10: 23-24 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
Romans 6: 16-18 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.  
“Freedom from” insists we can eat what we want, say what we want, shrug off every constraint like a angry teen slamming the door in the parent's face and speeding off, tires screeching. There's a part of us all that craves that kind of freedom.

Yet if liberty is defined only by throwing off constraints, we will never resolve the unyielding tension between conflicting freedoms: between the freedom to pollute or the freedom to enjoy clean air and water, the freedom to forgo taxes and the freedom to enjoy good schools, safe roads and bridges. 

If liberty is defined by removal of constraints, we will never be fully free. As any addict can tell us, as we throw off one set of constraints, we become enslaved to another. We are slaves to sin or righteousness. Constrained by our own disciplines, or by the painful consequences of our lack of discipline.

"Freedom from" puts the individual in the center of a kingdom of one, fighting for rights with the kingdoms that surround us, and with our own exhausted selves. 

“Freedom for” puts us in service to something greater, invites us to master internal conflicts and respect external constraints, so we are more available to accomplish the greater good. 

Yes - there's a danger there. Wisdom, as always, is needed. And an aware and educated public.
"Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree." (Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell, 1805)
Ideas have consequences. Our ideas about liberty and constraint will shape our behavior, our beliefs, our politics.

Green Heron, George Tallman, Exton Park, 2014
My goal in this series is to offer practical applications. But in this, I find myself with questions. Maybe a start would be to think these through:

1. Am I committed to my own personal liberty to the detriment of others?

2. Do I see freedom as avoidance of constraint, or as opportunity to serve?

3. Is liberty a goal, or a tool? 

4. Whose liberty am I willing to defend? From what constraint? For what end?

5. How do my views of liberty shape the way I vote?

This post is part of the July Synchroblog, "Liberty." Other posts are linked below:

This is also the second in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while helping to renew a web of compassionate engagement. Last week's post: Wisdom

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014


I’ve been listening this week to the troubling story of unaccompanied minors detained at our southern border.

52,193 arrived between October 1, 2013, and June 15, 2014. More are stopped at the checkpoints every day.

As that story unfolds, with accompanying political posturing and pronouncements, I’ve been reading another text as well: the opening chapters of Proverbs, the daily readings from Scripture Union’s Encounter with God. 

Those chapters talk about wisdom: wisdom calling, building a house, offering protection, instruction, safe passage through the tangles of daily life.
from Jim Bridenstine, Oklahoma,

Those children desperately need that wisdom.

So do we all.

Last week I posted about the ancient agora of Greek democracy: the place where citizens gathered to discuss dilemmas and determine a course of action.

Our current political discussions take place in Facebook rants, accusatory sound bites, passionate harangues that fail to enlighten and leave us hostile and divided.

Impeach the President?

Bus the children home?

I find myself thirsty for wisdom.

Hungry for voices that address the complexities of our current situation, that blend compassion, justice, righteousness, understanding.

As I read through Proverbs, I see two ways of thinking set in opposition: 
  • Wisdom and its close counterpart, understanding, yield order, calm, humility, respect, integrity, patience, justice.
  • Folly, with its mocking refusal to listen, yields dissension, strife, pride, deception, laziness, oppression.
That second list sounds depressingly familiar. The first is in short supply.

In a situation calling for great compassion, careful conversation, and deep discernment, we have politicians pointing fingers, positing ridiculous causes, offering politically-motivated non-solutions.

It’s not my purpose here to discuss the specifics of our immigration policies, or the impact of trade agreements and drug enforcement on our nearest neighbors, but to grieve the bombast, belligerence, and lack of understanding occasioned by the sad saga of small, unattended children crowded on our doorstep.

They aren’t here because of some nuanced change in our immigration law.

from Jason Chaffetz, Utah,,
Or because someone’s been fudging the numbers on our current deportation rates.

No parent sends a child, small or not so small, on a harrowing journey across mountains, rivers, deserts unless the reasons are compelling.

No child sets out on such a dangerous journey unless there's no safe haven more accessible.

The American Immigration Council offers a carefully worded evaluation of the situation in a June 10 report: “Children in Danger: A Guideto the Humanitarian Challenge at the Border.” 
Researchers consistently cite increased Northern Triangle violence as the primary recent motivation for migration, while identifying multiple causes including poverty and family reunification. A report by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), citing 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) data, highlighted that Honduras had a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. El Salvador and Guatemala had homicide rates of 41.2 and 39.9, respectively. In comparison, the war-torn country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from which nearly half a million refugees have fled, has a homicide rate of 28.3 per 100,000 people. 
Read that paragraph again and grieve.

To put it in perspective: Philadelphia's rate was 15.96 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2013; San Pedro Sula’s, in Honduras, was 187.14

The report assesses the outcry over changes in immigration law and angry calls for more border patrols and tougher enforcement: 
  • Recent U.S. immigration enforcement policy does not appear to be a primary cause of the migration. . .
  • There is little evidence to support the proposition that the border must be further fortified to deter an influx of children and families. . .  
  • Treating the current situation as simply another wave of illegal immigration misses the broader policy and humanitarian concerns that are driving it. In fact, many children are turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents upon arrival and are not seeking to evade apprehension. 
Short term alternatives are challenging, long-term options are complex and incomplete, and the report doesn’t pretend to address the deeper, decades-old forces that have destabilized the agricultural economies of Central American, narrowing economic opportunity, uprooting whole communities, and plunging large sectors of affected countries into violence and despair.

Are solutions possible without wisdom?

Is democracy possible without wisdom?

Not just on the part of leaders, but on the part of citizens as well?

What happens when economic self-interest, rather than wisdom, defines our vote, our voice, our trade, our foreign policy?

Last week, I suggested the start of a new series: 
I want to dig more deeply into the possibility of being salt, light, or a voice of hope or wisdom in places mired in anger or confusion.
I want to suggest ways to engage, not just by signing a survey, or making a phone call, but by serving our communities in love while helping to renew a web of compassionate engagement. 
How do we sow seeds of wisdom in places mired in anger or confusion?

Four thoughts:

1. Learn before speaking.

We can’t all be experts on every issue that confronts us, but we can take time to learn before we voice opinions. If we haven’t taken time to look a little deeper, hear both sides of the story, understand the pros and cons,  maybe we should ask questions and listen rather than repeat accusations that stir our anger but not our understanding.

2. Evaluate ideas rather than judge people.

Too often we listen just long enough to label those around us: with us or against us. Socialist, Commie, Fascist, Feminazi. Narrow-minded Christian. Tree hugger. Bigot. Those labels deepen our divisions, keep us from exploring real solutions, and demonstrate our lack of wisdom.

3. Recognize folly and avoid it.

There are TV shows I choose not to watch because they promote a mocking spirit. There are radio broadcasts I don’t listen to because they deliberately stir division. I work hard to find sources that are balanced, thoughtful, more interested in finding solutions than fixing blame. If more of us chose our sources more wisely, maybe those sources would be easier to find.

4. Pray for wisdom, for yourself, our leaders, churches, communities, citizens.

Growing up, I saw more than my share of division, pride, anger, deception. I wanted something different. When I first read James 3, I caught of glimpse of what I hungered for. I’ve been praying for that, for myself and our world, for four decades now. Please pray with me!
 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  (James 3:17-18)   
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.  


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Seeking the Agora

The Corinthian agora
This Fourth of July weekend I've been considering, with gratitude, the freedoms I too often take for granted, and wondering how much longer this experiment in democracy will continue.

During our March trip to Greece I was reminded that while the first democratic governments began in the Greek city-states, for most of the last two thousand years, “demokratia,” literally “people power,” was banished from Greek and its beautiful islands, as various empires, invaders, and monarchies held sway.  

In Corinth, our Biblical Tours guide, Costos Tsevas, made very clear that the “agora,” often translated “marketplace” in English-language Bibles, originally had nothing to do with buying and selling. The agora was the center of political discourse – the place where citizens came to share their views, to make their case, settle disputes, determine policy.

For four hundred years, roughly 800 to 400 BC, over a thousand city-states rimmed the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Sea shores, “like frogs around a pond,” according to Plato. Some of these were monarchies, some oligarchies where power was held in the hands of the powerful few, but many were governed by versions of direct democracy.

By the time of Paul, Greek democracy was just a memory, swept away by King Philip 2 of Macedonia and his son, Alexander the Great, then by the Roman empire. Yet even in Paul’s day, the agora was a place for sharing ideas, celebrating victories, and condemning traitors. Paul was accused, beaten, then released in the agora in Corinth, accused, beaten, and sent to prison from the agora in Philippi.

In Athens, I spent a morning wandering by myself through the ancient agora, far larger than the Roman agora that later took its place, far grander than the marketplaces that sprang up around it.

Where is our modern agora?

At first, I found Costos’ insistent distinction between agora and marketplace perplexing: so what?

Stoa of Atalos in the ancient agora, Athens
But the more time I spent in the agoras of Corinth, Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Athens, the more I began to wonder: which is more important, separation of church and state, or separation of commerce and state?

In a way, neither is fully possible. As humans, our beliefs, economics, political views are interwoven so tightly we can never separate them.

But what happens when the marketplace drives our common life and shoves aside all discourse about the common good?

And what happens when there’s no gathering place for dialogue, for sharing vision, for confronting challenges as fellow citizens?

In early June I attended the national convention of the League of Women Voters. The League is a non-partisan organization formed on the eve of women’s suffrage in 1920 to study issues, educate voters, and create space for dialogue outside of party lines.

For almost a century now, the League has been hosting debates, providing voter’s guides, and looking for ways to understand issues on a deeper level.

A repeated concern expressed at the convention was the influence of money in every stage of the political process. Corporate lobbying shapes regulation; deep pockets sway local elections; global industries place invisible pressure on trade agreements and foreign policy decisions.

Many observers suggest American democracy is already dead, supplanted by a transnational plutarchy (power in the hands of a wealthy few) cut free of national allegiance. Author Chrystia Freeland analyzed this increasingly dislocated group in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, (summarized in a similarly titled TED talk). The inordinate power held by this small group has helped fuel protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to a recent March for Democracy in California, which proclaimed:
The history of this country is marked by the tragic contradiction between its rightly esteemed principles—of fairness, freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness—and the destitute behavior of its government, ever willing to exploit, oppress, and make war on behalf of a tiny economic elite. Simply stated: We do not live in a democracy. This is a plutocracy, government for and by the wealthy. 
Other observers argue we need a new term to describe the current political situation: corporatocracy. As defined by The Oxford Dictionary:
NOUN (plural corporatocracies)
A society or system that is governed or controlled by corporations: in this age of corporatocracies, the money goes not to the inventor, but to the company.
For the League of Women Voters, the issue is important enough to warrant a major two-year study on the constitutional amendment process (are amendments needed to block corporate influence in elections or to clarify the difference between the rights of people and corporations?), the use and abuse of money in politics, and the role of redistricting.

One of our convention speakers was Peter Levine, professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University, author of several books on the future of democracy, most recently “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” In his convention remarks, and his book, he describes the troubling failure of key American institutions:
We have put 2.2 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the history of the world. . .  Yet imprisoning millions of Americans does not make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.
We spend more per child on K-12 education than almost any other country in the developed world, yet one-third of our young people drop out before they compete high school.
We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world . . . Even if the Affordable Care Act of 2010 meets expectations, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst health outcomes for poorer people.
 Levine’s assessment:
Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful: it is deadly. They are not just broken: they are corrupt – making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us.
The solution Levine offers is not that we need better government, but that we need better citizens: the kind of engaged, informed, actively involved citizens that gathered in the ancient agora to share concerns, debate solutions, then go build walls or gather boats to carry out the shared conclusions.

It’s easy to sit at home and denounce the evil dunces whose policies we’ve heard caricatured on the evening broadcasts that share our political leanings.

It’s harder to understand the complexities of the problems around us.

Even harder to find ways to engage in practical solutions.

We’re busy.

We’re distracted.

We’re deeply divided.

And we are less and less willing to listen carefully to other points of view, less willing to participate in any kind of group that doesn’t share and endorse our own perspectives, less willing to engage constructively in civic organizations.

I go back to the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Athenians in their place of assembly.

He took time to listen and observe.

He saw the obvious: temples to a wide array of gods.

But he also observed the less obvious: an altar to an unknown god.

He listened carefully, and gave credit where he could: “I see that in every way you are very religious.”

He stated his own point of view without personal attack, while making clear that he had heard and considered other voices, quoting and validating what he could:  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.

He introduced points of difference, but saw no need to have the final word, and stopped speaking while at least some listeners wanted to hear more: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”

As we head into a new election season, I’m planning to blog again on issues that confront and divide us. But as I do, I want to hear from people whose views are shaped not by party politics, Fox News or CNN, but by their own experience in the complexities of daily life.

I want to dig more deeply into the possibility of being salt, light, or a voice of hope or wisdom in places mired in anger or confusion.

I want to suggest ways to engage, not just by signing a survey, or making a phone call, but by serving our communities in love while helping to renew a web of compassionate engagement.

This is the last in a series of reflections, Texts in Context, revisting two formative weeks spent in Greece in March 2014. Earlier posts:  
And it’s the first in a new series - yet to be named -  exploring issues that confront and divide us.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.