I heard this great discussion on the radio last year and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It drags at a few points, but the highlights are well worth it. Jim Wallis provides the most insightful aspects. Click the link above, then on the page, click the speaker icon near the top where it says “LISTEN”. It’s about 50 minutes long.
It is a discussion about activism, cynicism, the role of government, how we decide who to help and how much. And within that, they look at the problem of The Left and The Right misunderstanding each other. It is one of the most balanced and useful political/religious discussions I’ve ever heard. There is ample religious language, but it doesn’t require the kind of translation that religious discussion often does.
It’s really a political discussion, but it is from the point of view of the people not the politicians. As Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman says, “You can’t legislate people’s heart, only their actions.”
One major theme is expressed in a quote provided by Jim Wallis originally from Abraham Joshua Heschel, “There are few who are at fault but we are all responsible.” When there is a problem that we don’t think we caused, we look for scapegoats. When there is something that we want to fix, we look for silver bullets. If we find either one, we don’t look back at the outcomes of those choices. A short term solution usually ends up with more problems and blaming others rarely helps anyone.
In the middle of the talk there is some discussion of the “nones”. Those are people who, when they are polled about their religion, check the “none” box. This gets interrupted by a commercial and I’m not sure if anyone got their points across, but it leads to a political discussion about the differences between conservatives and liberals.
Jim Wallis says the best idea the conservatives have is to focus on personal responsibility. It’s true that people don’t lift themselves out of poverty without taking personal responsibility. He also says the best idea liberals have is social responsibility. People can’t lift themselves out of poverty if there is no pathway.
They all agree the war of political ideologies makes no sense. They see too much emphasis on social responsibility creating a sense that individuals should not bother to have hope and too much emphasis on personal responsibility leading to blaming the victims. Either the system is so rigged that there is nothing you can do to better yourself, or people are so lazy there is no point in paying them any attention. Neither approach works. Paul Slack sums up how it should be, society builds the schools and the kids have to do the school work.
Jim has applied what he preaches too. He talks to kids in inner city schools and he doesn’t talk to them about political change. They are too young to vote and don’t need a long of explanation of how oppressed they are, they already know that. He talks to them about personal responsibility. They know they don’t have as many chances as a kid from a rich suburb, but they need to recognize a chance when one appears. He also has a great story about connecting a suburban church to those schools.
Scattered throughout is a theme; we all just need to keep working at it. I think it is a fault of Americans to believe that things can be fixed and then no maintenance is required. Truth is, the fight is always ongoing. We constantly protest our government and we throw people out of office all the time. It’s called an election. But we have come to focus too much on single issues and personalities and we’ve forgotten what we are really working towards. We all want healthy smart kids. We want safe streets and clean water. We need to be talking about balance, not polarizing over our differences.
Stories of people escaping poverty abound, but those are stories of individuals, they don’t add up to anything equal to the numbers still impoverished. People who are against giving kids another chance point to a program that failed or a person who was helped then returned to their self defeating ways.
But is that it? Isn’t that the problem? That these kids only kid get one big opportunity in their lives? If they miss it, too bad. “Having opportunity” means having multiple chances, it means having a safe place to return to after failure, a chance to assess what you’ve done. It means hearing the basic lessons of life from more than one person until it sinks in.
The handful of people on this program understand that. They don't care if you label it liberal or conservative. Hopefully their ideas will spread.