Colson: Good-bye to a joyful man

23 Apr

Charles Colson (1931-2012)

I never had a short conversation with Charles Colson. We talked only twice and I came away convinced he had too many thoughts and too many tasks to squander on small talk.

Colson died on Saturday at the age 80. The obituaries have noted his life and career: Nixon White House operative (famous for saying he’d be willing to run over his grandmother for the president and other tidbits). Watergate figure who did prison time for obstruction of justice. A  “born-again Christian” who started what became the largest prison ministry in the world. A public thinker, author and frequent gadfly who, to his credit, aimed to appeal to the brains of skeptics and believers–and not just their hearts–in his articles, books and the Wilberforce Forum. But as several commentators have said since he died, Colson’s most memorable legacy may be his life, a picture of redemption.

The first time we met was in July 1990, when he was a keynote speaker at a church convention in Kansas City. At the time I was editing a small Christian magazine called The Lookout and arranged an interview. Actually, I thought I would just be part of a press conference, but only I and an editor for a small Filipino Christian magazine showed up–and after a few questions, the Filipino editor left. It was Chuck Colson and me, one on one for 45 minutes.

He seemed a little annoyed, maybe because no Kansas City media showed up, but he patiently answered my questions and in the process gave me a lesson in interviewing. I had my agenda, but it didn’t take long for the old lawyer and politico to skillfully and subtly take charge. I didn’t even notice until I looked at my notes later. I don’t remember much about the interview or the resulting article itself. What I remember most clearly is his energy, his Yankee-lawyer drive (not to mention his clipped cadence), his finely sharpened mind, and, when he talked about his standing before God, his humility. He didn’t laugh often during our conversation, but he exuded what they would call in the 19th century “good cheer.” Here was a joyful man.

Colson during his White House days, with President Nixon (left) and aide Ken Clawson (right) in May 1972.

I spoke with him again at length almost nine years later. Another interview, but this time  it was for a job. We spoke by phone since I was holed up at the suburban Washington offices of Prison Fellowship and Colson’s think tank, the Wilberforce Forum, and he was in Florida. I had arrived just ahead of a February ice storm, the same one that prevented him from traveling to D.C. Colson was my last interview of the day. I sat in an office alone with a phone, and we talked for about a half hour. He asked a few questions about my family and my background, and I think we spent about 10 minutes or so actually talking about the job–but then he took off for intellectual highlands and brought me along.

The interview changed altitude quickly, almost naturally: From the job to the goals of the Wilberforce Forum and his writing, to the shifts he saw in Western culture and in the church. He’d talk a few minutes and then punctuate his remarks with a question: What did I think of this author or that trend? What did I make of this historical connection he had made? He was testing me, of course, but at some point the mode shifted from interview to conversation. Through the phone lines, I could feel that familiar passion and good cheer.

I can’t claim Chuck Colson as a friend or colleague. (It didn’t work out for me to go to Prison Fellowship, probably the best result for all concerned.) The time I spent with him was a blip in the course of his 80 remarkable, turbulent, redemptive years. But I’m grateful that we met and that I got to join those heady, challenging conversations with him. And like so many others, I’m simply thankful for Chuck Colson. He realized, maybe as few people do, that he was a rescued, reconciled man, and he spent his days aiming to pass on that gift.

 

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Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

18 Apr

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

Is this cat in heaven?

16 Apr

Stache

My cat, Stache, died almost six weeks ago. More precisely, I had him “put to sleep,” as the euphemism goes. Kidney failure finally brought him down, but it was only a matter of time in any case. He missed his 17th birthday by only a few weeks.

That cat was around for most of our family’s life. We watched him being born, one-fourth of a litter. He and his brother, Biggin (as in “Big One,” because he was), moved back and forth across the country with us and, odd as it seems, they became one of the few constants in our lives during those years.

I wrote this note and posted a photo on my Facebook page the night Stache died:

“RIP Stache (1995-2012), beloved and affectionate cat. (Pronounced “Stash,” as in ‘Moustache.’) Traveler (Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee), adventurer, hunter, sometime lord of the manor, and a virtual member of the family for almost 17 years. Peacefully “put to sleep” today with advanced kidney failure. Stache and his twin brother, Biggin (d. 2007) make me hope that animals are in heaven.”

The response astounded me: dozens of notes of sympathy and assurance, including this one from Paul, an esteemed church historian: “Yes, there will be dogs and cats in heaven, but the cats and dogs will lie down peacefully together next to the lions and the lambs. Really sorry to hear this, because pets are family members and they ‘make history.’”

When I went to bed that same night, I felt myself waiting for him to jump up and curl behind my knees. I mentally checked myself and then sat up and cried like a baby. It took about three weeks for me to stop looking for him to come out from the flowerbed or greet me in the driveway when I pulled in from work or jogged back after a run.

A 17-year habit is hard to break. A 17-year relationship, even with a cat, is hard to let go.

I let the subject slide until last week. Then a Time cover story (April 16) about heaven appeared, summarizing the view that heaven is more tangible than we often think. Would that include animals? (This followed a Feb. 20 cover story about animal friendships.)

And then Christianity Today published a forum in its April issue, specifically asking: “Do Pets Go to Heaven?

So between articles in major magazines, the overwhelming response from friends, including some I haven’t heard from in years, and my own experience (and the fact that Americans spent almost $51 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association), this seemed like a subject worth thinking about.

The three Christians who responded in the Christianity Today article, all evangelical Protestants, were hopeful but noncommittal. Reuniting with Fido (or Stache and Biggin, in my case) is a warm and fuzzy idea, but there’s not a theological consensus.

That’s pretty much the case if we look more broadly. The Roman Catholic Catechism, for example, doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other. It does, however, distinguish between “animal souls” and “eternal souls.” Thus, many Catholic and other Christian thinkers follow the logic and say that because animals’ souls aren’t eternal and because they can’t choose to believe or follow God, they can’t be in heaven.

Others, however, point to all the biblical verses that affirm the value of animals as part of God’s creation, as symbols of his “peaceable kingdom” (Isaiah 65, etc.), and even objects of his salvation. (Take a look at the last verse in the book of Job.) All this, many Christians say, would say that animals are part of God’s eternal plan.

We haven’t even considered what Jews and Muslims think. That’s in the next post.

Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

9 Apr

Count to 10. Easy, right? Almost automatic.

Now, count to 10 again—but in alphabetical order. That’s different.

Now mentally trace a route you often drive or walk—to your job or the grocery store or school. Again, simple.

Now, imagine that your normal path and even the next most obvious route to the same place are blocked. What’s your third- or fourth-choice route?

That little exercise illustrates the difference between what psychologists call “low-effort,” or “automatic,” thinking and “controlled” thinking. Most researchers believe we manage most of our days with automatic thinking, which frees our brains to focus on more complex, unfamiliar or difficult tasks. That’s how I can make a tuna sandwich or pump gas or drive to work while I think about details for my daughter’s wedding or how to revise a class schedule or deal with the insurance company.

That’s the kind of difference Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues discuss in a recent research journal article. The title might explain why it’s generated a lot of friction.

Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” published online in March in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, states a simple thesis, summarized in a news release: “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response. This low-effort thinking seems to favor political conservatism, suggesting that it may be our default ideology.” (The paper identified “political conservatism” with three common traits: “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”)

To be clear, the researchers added, “We are not saying that conservatives think lightly.”

Or that they’re stupid. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of several conservative bloggers.

Study: Conservatism ‘linked to low brainpower’” according to the aggrieved TeaParty.org. “Study ‘Proves’ Conservatism Linked To Stupidity” The Ulsterman Report sarcastically proclaimed. The Conservative Review harrumphed: Conservatism Comes From “Low Brainpower?” Not So Fast, Eggheads At University Of Arkansas. And you have to love the headline from the Washington Examiner: “Study: Dumb drunk people are more conservative.”

During a phone conversation on Friday I asked Eidelman if any of these headlines were accurate interpretations. In a word: “No.”

Scott Eidelman, Ph.D.

While he’s happy people are talking about the research, Eidelman confessed he was “a little disappointed” in how the study has splashed onto the blogosphere.

He compared the reaction to a game of telephone: When social scientists use a term like “low-effort thinking,” they’re using specific jargon to describe the normal, automatic thinking we all do—counting to 10, driving to work—in contrast to the “second-phase” thinking we do when we have time to ponder a subject.

But apparently some knee-jerk commentators saw “low effort” and “translated” it to mean “no-effort” or “lazy” or even “stupid.” Those mistakes got picked up and amplified by others. The “quotations” in the headlines are actually from other commentators, not from the scientists. For the record, the following words don’t appear anywhere in the original research: stupid, stupidity, stupidly, brainpower (low or otherwise), dumb. Not even prove or proves. And not, um, egghead.

Eidelman did not point out the irony of how such shoddy treatment only reinforces the kind of “stupid” stereotype that the commentators are complaining about. You can leave that to me.

“It’s not that political conservatism promotes low-effort thought,” he told me. “What we found is that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same.”

Eidelman drew an analogy: He might carry an umbrella because it’s raining, but that’s completely different from saying that it’s raining because he carries an umbrella. In other words, while low-effort (or “first-response”) thinking tends to promote political conservatism, being conservative doesn’t tend to promote low-effort thinking.

This conservative tendency is roughly reflected in clichés about “comfort zones” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” As Eidelman noted, certain “conservative” characteristics are built into humans for our benefit, such as the tendency to save our energy or avoid unnecessary risks.

“If you want to look at evolutionary history, people were more likely to survive if they assumed a person approaching was a threat,” he explained. “It was smarter to assume that unknown plant was poisonous rather than edible. Or the sooner you know your place in a society, the better your chances to thrive.”

Sometimes those “first responses” were correct: the stranger was indeed hostile or the plant was really poisonous. But sometimes the stranger would turn out to be an ally or the plant a healing herb. In those cases, the “first response” would be … well, wrong. Finding out if the first (“low-effort”) thinking was correct could be discovered only with “second-step” thinking.

“When people don’t have the opportunity to engage in political thinking, when you strip away the effortful thinking, they tend to be conservatives,” Eidelman said. “But that’s only concerning the first-step thinking. We don’t have much on what the second step is. It’s an open question if that first response is correct. We haven’t measured outcomes. We think the scales are tipped toward conservatism. But whether it’s good or right to challenge that depends on people’s values and goals.”

Eidelman wondered if this “low-effort” tendency might help explain at least one aspect of current American politics.

“Liberals might understand conservatives more than other way around, because liberals, in a way, started at the same place,” he suggested. So here’s a thought: could empathy explain why congressional Democrats are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to compromise more often on legislation than their Republican colleagues?

As we finished talking, it occurred to me that America’s Founding Fathers were literally invested in the status quo of the British colonies. They valued hierarchy, as their later writing of the Constitution proved. They preached personal responsibility. They sound a lot like political conservatives. But Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others did anything but stop at “low-effort” thinking. If they had, we might never have seen the American Revolution.

Citified America and other facts of life. Deal with it.

27 Mar

Cities on our minds, even back in the day. Life magazine, Dec. 24, 1965.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum bragged about his appeal to small-town, rural America last week, even pitting himself again urbanites. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We all have our audience.

But if Mr. Santorum really wants to be president, then the math of small-town America is working against him. Like the rest of world’s population, which became mostly urbanized in the last decade, most Americans by far live in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau. That’s not news; that’s been the case for decades.

The most recent figures from the Census Bureau show that 79 percent of Americans live in urban areas. (In 1790, the days of the founding fathers, only 5.1 percent did.) The trend toward urbanization has slowed a little, but it continues.

So I find Mr. Santorum’s souring on cities a little confusing. Even an electoral map of last week’s Illinois Republican primary shows where most people live. He won the greater number of counties in the state, but thanks to Chicagoland, Peoria and Springfield, not the greatest number of voters. In fact, Mitt Romney won the state by almost 12 percentage points–a difference of more than 100,000 votes out of fewer than one million cast.

Mr. Santorum’s emphasis on values taps into a certain nostalgia and romanticism about small-town life. I know its charms firsthand. My earliest memories are of New York City, but the moves of my life since childhood have taken me to ever-smaller places. The town I call home now boasts a population of about 63,000, and sizable swaths of farmland still exist inside the city limits (although housing and commercial developments are gradually erasing them). Emotionally, the intersection of Norman Rockwell Boulevard and Disneyfied-Main-Street is a very inviting place.

But that’s not where most of us live. Not anymore. So Mr. Santorum or anyone else who wants to be president must deal with the fact of cities. Like it or not.

Mr. Santorum’s dilemma prompted me to think about other assumptions about American practices and ideas that don’t really match reality, at least anymore. A sampling:

  • Marriage rates are decreasing. In 1990, 9.8 people out of a thousand were married; in 2009, the latest figure available, the rate was 6.8—a 30 percent drop.
  • But divorce rates are decreasing too, from 6.1 per 1,000 to 3.8 in 2009.
  • These days, most children born to women under 30 years old are born out of wedlock.
  • The conventional wisdom used to be that couples who lived together without marriage were more likely to get divorced. Not anymore—not if they’re engaged when they are cohabiting.
  • Man as the breadwinner? Going, going … Present trends suggest that “by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men,” writes Liza Mundy in a new book excerpted in Time magazine (March 26). She continues: “Not since women entered the workforce by the millions after World War II has America witnessed economic change on this scale. Some of this is driven by the dramatic rise in single-parent families, but it is increasingly true in two-earner families as well. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures are available, nearly 4 in 10 working wives outearned their husbands–an increase of more than 50% from 20 years before.”

You can probably think of other stereotypes or dreamscapes that don’t fit reality anymore. (Feel free to add them in comments after this post.)

We might love or loathe any particular change, but that’s not the point. The point is: Certain facts reflect the current American landscape, and we must figure out how to navigate it rather than deny it or simply throw brickbats at it. Like it or not.

Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

Notes from England: A Christian socialist on faith, politics and Thatcher’s legacy

8 Mar

Terry Wynn, MEP

In the last post, I introduced Terry Wynn, a long-time friend from England: Wigan native, rugby league fan, Methodist lay preacher, veteran of the shipping industry, Labour Party leader, former member of the European Parliament, author of two books that outline his beliefs about the relationship of faith and politics, Onward Christian Socialist (1995) and Where are the Prophets? (2006).

I emailed him a few questions last week, asking him to reflect on the Thatcher years, when my family and I lived in England, and to find out what he thinks now. What follows, slightly edited, are my questions and his answers. (I’ve kept the British spelling.)

Dahlman: What do you think Margaret Thatcher got right for the long term? (She served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.) What did she get wrong? What did the UK gain as a result of her premiership, and what did it lose? What might Europe learn from those years?

Wynn: My industry was shipbuilding, and it was wiped out because it was being subsidised. New yards were closed and ships were then built in Korea or Japan. She did the same with the mining industry and there have been lasting legacies. … So I could have lingering anger at what she did.

However on reflection (and I speak from a centre-left perspective, having moved further right as I have got older), she was ahead of many in Europe who saw subsidising traditional industries as the norm. Over the years I have come to realise that most industries have to work in the market.

Having said that, I’m not too sure that profitable industries, like the energy sector, needed privatising. The privatisation of gas, water and electricity just gave massive resources to a small group who bought them. When water was sold off, huge tracts of land, the water catchment areas, went with it. … This really was giving away the family silver and it applied to other sectors.

Taking power from the trade unions was inevitable; they had gone too far under Labour. (Thatcher’s) trouble was that she was ruthless, and once she knew that she could get away with whatever she wanted, with no-one advising against, she just went gung-ho in what turned out to be a suicidal course.

Tony Blair (prime minister, 1997-2007) had a lot of respect for some of the things she did, and I suppose his attitude remains mine. Not many Brownie points in the Labour Party for saying that.

Terry and Doris Wynn, at home in 2003

The long terms pluses were a slim-line economy ready to face the challenges of new technology.

The downside was that she created a me-too society, where caring for one’s neighbour was less important. Looking after number one was what mattered most. The UK became a selfish society, and she did say, “There is no such thing as community.” It was the time when materialism took centre stage.

I think Meryl Streep’s portrayal (in The Iron Lady) was pretty good, but I know Labour colleagues who didn’t like it. I thought it a great movie.

As for Europe: The single market demanded a free-market economy and many countries had to come to terms with competition. (Thatcher) had put the UK at the forefront and it was a benefit.

How have your politics changed over the years? I thought of your book, Onward Christian Socialists. If you were to revise it, what would you change, if anything?

I re-read (the book) some years ago and decided the only thing I would change were the two or three typos that I found.

I’d like you to finish this sentence, in your own voice: “Jim, if there’s one thing I want you to learn from your time over here, particularly about putting faith and politics together, it’s …”

“… it’s that if you live by the teachings of Jesus, you can’t help but to be political. Whether that be as politicians or being involved in everyday local politics, even church politics. Jesus demands that we act, we are our brother’s keeper, we have to love our neighbour. But above all we have to stop being judgemental of others and learn to empathise and understand their plight.”

 “Socialist” has become an even more loaded word in the U.S. than it used to be and can be easily misinterpreted. (I think some readers’ heads might explode when they see “Christian” and “socialist” together.) So how do you define the word “socialist” or “socialism” in this context?

Can Americans accept that Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela would describe themselves as such? … Don’t forget the old Labour Party Clause 4, which Tony Blair had to ditch for electoral reasons, is straight out of (the book of) Acts: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s my kind of Christian socialism.

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