All posts by Dr. Charlie Self

Toward Principled Compromise: Reimagining the Common Good, Part Two

Continuing our conversation on the common good and better pathways for solving seemingly intractable problems, here are some more arenas crying out for creativity.

Education: Current Reaction: Write off a portion of student debt without reforming the bloated, inefficient systems that lead to the debt. A Better Way: Let’s open trade school avenues for high school grads (with remediation in general education available) so that we can fill the millions of job openings with skilled workers and prepare a new generation of qualified women and men for the exciting changes ahead. Let’s get out of the loan business altogether and increase scholarships for qualified students, while making schools much more efficient, focused and less political. Avenues for redeeming poor K-12 experiences through community colleges are worthy of support, and we must repent of the immoral practice of accepting loan money for students ill-prepared for higher education.

Education (K-12): Honor teachers, pay them better, reduce overhead costs, and rid schools of foolish programs having nothing to do with a real education for the future world of work. Learn from successful charter schools. Give parents choices, for a competitive landscape will improve quality. Federal ethics and general guidelines matter, but administration is always better locally and we should eventually have a very small Department of Education.

Climate Change: Recognize that the American carbon footprint continues to decrease while China, Russia, India, and others are responsible for most emissions and pollution. Recognize that all the current UN and treaty solutions, even generously interpreted, only minimally reduce global temperatures. This does NOT mean a return to old policies, but a wiser approach to environmental sustainability without exaggerated apocalyptic rhetoric and economically destructive solutions, including coercive transfers of wealth.

Gender and Sexuality: Affirm adult freedom to identify as they choose, while acknowledging the sincere beliefs of billions of people who hold more traditional beliefs. Toleration is not affirmation – it is living peaceably with different views of the world. End the war on the biological nuclear family and work on the crisis of fatherlessness (something President Obama cares deeply about) and help a new generation understand that their choices of intimacy and welcoming a child include immense responsibilities. 

And two deeper issues (for future essays): We need conversations on anthropology and epistemology. With compassion and respect, we need robust dialogue on what it means to be human and biologically male and female, and the implications for the family, education, and society. Epistemology speaks to the nature of knowledge. We are in a crisis concerning objective understanding of reality. Living with deep differences of perspective is a sign of liberty and maturity. Refusing to listen to other perspectives and attempting to suppress opinions (I am not speaking about direct evils or threats) is unhealthy for our future.

There are thoughtful pathways forward, if we have humility and love, listening ears and clear heads.

Toward Principled Compromise: Reimagining the Common Good, Part One

In a genuine spirit of potential bipartisan consensus, I offer the following insights leading to progress on some of the most challenging issues of our day. I have no illusions that ideological captives of Left or Right will applaud; indeed, so many have invested heart and soul in their narratives that it will take a spiritual awakening for openness to triumph over subjectivity and creativity to win over anger. For the thoughtful, here are some ways to reimagine an inclusive common good.

Energy policy: The aspirations of a fossil fuel-free world must be tempered with economic and social realities for the most vulnerable and the real timeline of transition. Canceling the Keystone Pipeline was a shortsighted political move, angering our Canadian friends, and destroying thousands of jobs with no pathways for replacing the energy and employment at a reasonable cost. We can remain independent and create private/public partnerships that explore efficient alternatives and make sure that the working class is not the primary victim of changes. Elites love electric cars, even though their end-to-end cost to the environment is equal or worse that an efficient gas engine compact car.

Health Care: Simply promising the world to voters fails to consider the negative and positive lessons learned in the last decade. Instead of hype and huge premiums for middle-class folks, call a new bipartisan health care summit and create working teams from public and private sectors and imagine a grassroots management system informed by federal ethics instead of a bloated, inefficient D.C. Leviathan. Some have benefitted from the reforms of a dozen years ago. Others have suffered. We can do better.

Immigration: We need comprehensive reform that honors DACA promises, prepares pathways for citizenship, and improves security. No more demonizing ICE, Homeland Security, local law enforcement, or the migrants looking for a better future. There is a bill about to come to Congress…I am hoping it is well-crafted. It is vital that criminal elements be contained while millions of hardworking folks are given opportunities.

Racial Justice: Listen to the locals who live in the neighborhoods most in need of improvement! One day I was in a conversation with community leaders and a veteran of many programs said to the folks at the table: “What some call gentrification we call exile. No one considers the people who actually live here.” Let’s create pathways of access and opportunity. Look for indigenous leaders and groups with successful track records. Enforce current laws. Bring people of all cultures and classes together and honestly assess the failures and successes of the last 50+ years and the nearly $20T of public funds that have been poorly managed. True reparation creates just systems without stifling agency and creativity.

Recommended reading: Robert L. Woodson, Sr., Lessons from the Least of These
For churchleaders and members: Rev. Dr. Irwin Ince, The Beautiful Community

The Danger of “My Truth: Our Current Crisis of Genuine Knowledge

There are two words we need to stop using so glibly: “My truth.” While we are free to express our opinions and need to allow others the same, these two words reveal a serious crisis of knowledge in our reactive, subjective social media world. History, philosophy, and science used to be fields of proximate objective inquiry, testing hypothesis, expanding knowledge, and evaluating arguments. And in many places, these and other disciplines admirably contribute to our knowledge.

Sadly, the shriller voices are self-absorbed subjectivists, arguing that being “good” or “moral” is more important than “facts.” What matters are the “narratives” we create or affirm, not the complexities of the data. This is not a Left or Right issue. This subjective and often irrational perspective subverts the public good and the ability of diverse folks to discover the truth of any matter and bring wisdom to real challenges.

We can transform neighborhoods, but not by the D.C. Leviathan parachuting personnel and resources with no understanding of the locale.

We can improve our schools, if we will listen to the facts of 30 years of research and liberate students and teachers from ineffective systems.

We can improve health care, foster new energy sources, open avenues of economic access…if we will learn from the mistakes and successes of the last half century instead of repeating tired mantras.

A young student who claimed to be an, “anarcho-syndicalist” and devotee of Marx, when confronted with the record of history, could find no evidence of his ideas ever working in a sustained and humane way. His refusal to modify his thinking was evident when he declared that the facts are unimportant, and devotion to the ideal is all that matters. The same mindset pervades awful fascist and racist groups on the extreme Right. White supremacy has no place in a pluralistic republic.

Renewing “the pursuit of truth in the company of friends” (my Cowell College UCSC motto – go Slugs!) will require humility, openness, love for neighbor, and constant refinement of thinking. Our dear friend, the late Miriam Self, once said about this, “Sounds too much like work,” Her humor helps us see the point well. As we decide to pursue the truth of any matter, we will still often diverge on both the data and the policies, but if we stay inquisitive, we may find hidden gems of wisdom and principled ways of fostering human flourishing hitherto buried under the noise.

In closing, I want to thank my late dad for making learning an adventure, my many older spiritual mentors modeling humility and inquiry in their eighth and ninth decades, and all of you that love thoughtfulness…thank you!

And above, underneath, and all around is our loving Lord, the Logos, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

From Disappointment to Determination: Christian Mission Liberated from Political Ideology

As the Biden presidency and a Democratic-led Congress assumes power, it is right that we reflect on not only the new policies, but the deeper issues affecting Christian believers in the USA. The awfulness and immorality of the violent protests of January 6, 2021 forever stained what little legacy the Trump Administration may have had. There was some progress on important issues in the past four years, especially economic policies, pro-life initiatives, diplomatic successes in the Middle East, and some first steps in ending mass incarceration. At present, these forward steps are lost in the political and public reactions.

In the next six to twelve months, thoughtful Christians that voted for a Biden Presidency will be encouraged by the new tone and a few of the policy changes, especially climate change, immigration, and perhaps pandemic policies. But many of these voters will discover that voting against the previous administration or taking a “Never Trump” posture will backfire as more radical policies and continued polarization afflict our nation. The hostility of the new administration toward traditional morality, abortion, affordable energy, and people of religious faith will take its toll on many.

Here is the good news: these deep disappointments with political leaders, parties, and ideologies are a divine opportunity for Christians to engage the public square in wiser, more effective ways. For almost fifty years, there has been a split between conservative and progressive factions of Christianity, with both groups believing that the Gospel and Scripture support their perspectives. The divides have grown greater over time and the anger between the two groups is palpable: “You cannot be a Christian and vote for _____ [fill in Democrat or Republican; Biden or Trump, etc.]!” Conservatives focus on abortion, marriage, individual responsibility, and respect for America’s heritage of freedom. Progressives advocate systemic changes for gender and racial equity, compassion for the poor, and expose the serious injustices of our history. How can these groups do more than tolerate each other? Where is the common ground?  (I am speaking of serious followers of Christianity that believe in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible, and importance of the local church, not folks that deny cardinal doctrines or want to “remake” Christianity.)

There are four keys that can unlock a new unity among believers, with enormous impact for the common good of society:

  • First, all Christians must recognize that “ideology is the enemy of theology” (Donald Bloesch) and carefully examine whether they are cherry-picking their favorite Bible passages to fit their political beliefs.
  • Second, all Christians and church communities must stay engaged in the political arena with prophetic distance (encouraging and critiquing both friends and opponents) without capitulating to the lust for power. 
  • Third, churches and Christians from all traditions can unite for the common good, affirming the integration of spiritual and social vitality, compassion for the vulnerable, ethical free enterprise, support for families, and peacemaking, one zip code at a time.
  • Fourth, Christians want for all neighbors the liberties they desire for themselves. Living peaceably with those that have a different view of the universe is the genius of a free and virtuous society.  One can desire the conversion of a friend while working together for the community. Our faith was born in the midst of pluralistic empires, and it thrives when its institutions are not coercive, but persuasive.

We can begin a new chapter of unity without uniformity, of community with a conscience, and a Table where very different people are welcome. Our nation needs voices free of rancor and filled with wisdom.

Remembering Well: The Holocaust: Humility and Hope

This week we remember the unfathomable and unimaginable evil of the Holocaust. Six million Jews and millions of others perished at the hands of Nazi Germany’s systems of enslavement, mass shootings, and industrial murder. This moment of demonic horror is not the first or last genocidal episode in history; however, it is the most morally reprehensible, because a civilized world looked on and did almost nothing to stop it. The few thousands who helped their Jewish neighbors deserve great praise, and Yad Vashem honors them as The Righteous Among the Nations. The harrowing reality of passivity in the light of such evil is a cause for deep reflection, repentance, and a renewal of resolve that declares, “Never Again!”

Some prominent survivor voices can help us reflect:

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” (Elie Weisel)

“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” (Simon Wiesenthal)

“The Holocaust manifested the veneer of civilization so thin and fragile that repetition is possible.” (Sam Kaltman)

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

As we humble ourselves and remember this moment, how can we cultivate hope and build a more peaceable future? Here are some insights arising the ashes of the Shoah:

  • We must resist anti-Semitism wherever it is found, especially since it is often disguised in protests against the State of Israel. The BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movements that question Israel’s right to exist and shout, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” are actually calling for the end of Israel and the destruction of millions of people.
  • We must call on Palestinian leaders to stop denying or minimizing the Holocaust and denying the rights of Jews to live in their ancient homeland. We must oppose all false revisions of history that only serve a political narrative and sanction racism. Leaders advocating for a new Palestinian state are declaring it shall be “Jew-free” (a phrase from Nazi Germany) while demanding that Israel absorb hugely inflated numbers of refugee descendants of the 1947-49 conflict.
  • Going broader and deeper, we must purge intolerance and racism from our hearts and our speech. I am not muzzling free expression in the public square, but calling for love and wisdom in how we think, feel, act, and speak.
  • Positively, we can celebrate the lasting contributions of Jewish traditions to our world, including Monotheism, the moral compass of the Ten Commandments and the Hebrew Scriptures, and the foundations for private and public ethics, human rights, and restorative justice.
  • Christians in particular must recover the Jewish roots of our faith and stop misreading biblical texts that turn the shouts of a mob into blood libel and religious violence against the very people from whom our Messiah comes. 
  • Finally, we must resist all forms of Holocaust denial and revisionism that try to lessen the evil or minimize the impact of this moment. Instead, we must accept the challenge of Richard Rubenstein, who declared, “Before the Holocaust, one could profess Christian identity and we accepted it. After the Holocaust, you must prove it.”

May we pause and ponder, reflect and repent, and renew our resolve to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”