The core message of Christianity is that every single person is precious, valuable and of infinite worth. Christ taught and showed by example care for the individual, no matter who they were, be it a child, a crippled, someone seriously diseased, a sinner, a beggar. I’m sure this isn’t unique to Christianity, it is or should be at the core of every world religion. And it’s certainly found within Mormonism. Joseph Smith wrote in the Doctrine and Covenants:
10 Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;
11 For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.
12 And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.
13 And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!
14 Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.
15 And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!
16 And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!
The implications of this teaching, though is radical. In the beatitudes, Jesus taught that rather than an “eye for an eye”, we should turn the other cheek, and that we should love our enemies, doing good to those that hate us and strive to do unto others what we would like them to do to us.
So, yes, we have an obligation to show concern and to help the sick, the elderly, the young, the marginalized, those who can’t meaningfully care for themselves, despite the inefficiencies and the inconveniences doing so imposes upon us. There’s something beautiful when a young person takes a moment out of their lives to make room for an elderly person suffering from dementia – to give with no hope of receiving anything in return.
But we should also care for, nurture and make space for all those who have something to contribute, who might have something insightful to say. This isn’t just for Christian purposes, there is an important economic lesson here as well. We optimize our economic output and improve our ability to innovate when we allow everyone an opportunity to give all they can give into the economy. But we fall far short here as well, suffering as we have and as we still do, with all sort of ways society prevents certain types of people from having full access to the economy – whether it be racism, sexism or classism. Prejudice and bigotry in all its forms hurts the economy because it prevents those affected from reaching their potential and making the kinds of contributions into society that they otherwise might.
If we blend these two ideas together – that society and individuals have an obligation to care for those most vulnerable, and that society has an economic incentive to ensure all have full participation in the economy. These two ideas are at the core of both my politics and my theology, even if I don’t often live up to the ideal. I support policies and politicians that strive to provide opportunities for all, and support and help those in need.
I hope these principles are not controversial but their application to specific policies can be complicated. Both major political parties in the United States have a legitimate argument that their policies do live up to these ideals. And there are certainly many ways to get there. Saying that I believe we should love one another is the jumping off point toward a fruitful debate not the end of one.
Bigotry and Prejudice
But I immediately and summarily dismiss any politician or policy that specifically and intentionally stands in opposition of this general idea. I reject bigotry in all its forms. I reject any policy that harms or limits Muslims, immigrants from any country, women, and LGBTQ. Again, there are no straight forward answers here, but I tend to lean toward more open-ended immigration policies, I believe in the virtues of commerce and free-trade, I believe in broad access to health care and education, I believe we need to work harder to make sure talented, poor kids have access to the same opportunities that rich kids have. I think universities should be universally accessible, but I also believe those without college degrees should have pathways toward meaningful careers. I believe the benefits of automation and globalization need to be shared broadly even if it means a smart wealth redistribution.
Crime and Justice
I also believe that our judicial system should be run with an eye toward both compassion and justice and that justice works both ways. A just system makes sure punishments are not excessive, that not every criminal needs to be incarcerated. And we need to make sure there are ways to re-integrate back into society with a restoration of basic rights. For example, I believe convicted felons should have the right to vote. I would like to see more resources put into our prisons to make sure adequate access to health care, psychiatric counseling and education.
I also believe that the victims lives should be respected as well. If a women is sexually assaulted, they have the right to be listened to, taken seriously and believed. And that the perpetrators, no matter what standing they hold in society, no matter how privileged or respected or powerful they may be, should be made to account for their crimes. While incarceration is not a just punishment for every crime, it’s more than appropriate to separate those from society who are a danger to others, who have harmed another and may harm again, giving the criminal space and resources to think about what they’ve done and if possible make restitution for the damages they’ve incurred.
Soccer vs. Basketball Problems
In Malcom Gladwell’s sixth episode of his Revisionist History podcast, My Little 100 million, he differentiates between basketball problems and soccer problems. You win basketball games by having the best star. The fifth or sixth best player is not nearly as important as your first or second best player. The reason is because, in basketball, it’s really easy to get your best player the ball. The star has the option, in this sport to dominate the action, take the majority of the shots and control most of the game.
Soccer is not that way. It’s a sport where one mistake can prove costly, and it’s a sport where the best player is much more dependent on the worst player. In soccer, it’s more important to make sure every single player on the field is good than it is to have the absolute best player in your team.
Most real-world problems are soccer problems, but most of our politics assume we’re playing basketball. In this particular podcast, Gladwell excoriates those donors who have millions of dollars to elite universities, schools that already have huge endowments and serve a tiny fraction of the world’s most elite students. Innovation is hard and solutions can and should come from everywhere. We need a nation of tinkerers, not just coming up with the ideas, but trying them out, improving on them, find ways to fit them into our lives. We’re playing soccer, but our superstars are getting all of the resources.
Finland has one of the best educational systems in the world in terms of test scores. They got there because rather than focusing on making sure some of their schools are world class, rather they made sure every single student had access to quality education.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
Finland is playing soccer, while we keep trying to play basketball. They don’t worry about constant testing, becoming a teacher is difficult, teacher training programs are highly selective, they are paid well and given a lot of autonomy and responsibility. They make sure education is free, of high quality to every student.
Right now, our two oldest kids are in school system, one is attending Tempe Prep, the other Aspire at Academy within Connolly. Aspire is a gifted school within a school that you have to test into to attend. Tempe Prep is a charter school that in theory take everyone, but it’s fairly inconvenient to attend and extremely difficult to thrive. Tempe Prep has six classes, all of which give regular homework which can easily require 2 to 3 hours of homework on most nights. We support her, check her homework, she has her own desk and an environment for quiet, focused study. But even with these advantages, she’s still getting C’s in a few classes that we hope she can pull up into B’s.
What I’m saying is that neither school is diverse. Only children with supportive families need apply. It’s difficult as a parent not to want to send my kids to the best possible school, and in fact, if they couldn’t get access to these or other schools, I would feel slighted. The opportunities my kids are getting at both of these schools should be broadly available.
As a parent, I obviously love my kids and I believe they are pretty smart and special. Most parents think so. In the book Matilda, Roald Dahl said as much:
In any event, parents never underestimated the abilities of their own children. Quite the reverse. Sometimes it was well nigh impossible for a teacher to convince the proud father or mother that their beloved offspring was a complete nitwit.
But you know, I’m not wrong and despite what Dahl says here, every kid is gifted, smart and special. We all have God-given gifts. It’s our challenge as a society to make sure every child is given every opportunity to thrive and develop these gifts.
And it’s our obligation to treat every person we encounter as someone of value – the immigrant, the homeless, the weird, even the criminal. Everyone.