Come Follow Me – James

Introduction

I come to the book of James with some interesting preconceptions – it’s the works side of the faith vs. works debate I’ve had many times in my life, “Faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”, “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (James 2:18)” and that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). All of which seems to be in direct tension with Paul, who said “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5;1) and through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God  (Galatians 2:19).

For Mormons, James takes on a special importance. Every missionary memorizes the verse in James 1:5, that moved Joseph Smith to seek answers to prayers in the woods in an event that has become foundational to kickstart our religious movement that turned into a worldwide religion. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” (James 1:5).

What I was surprised to learn in just a little research is how much of James is overlooked or disregarded. Martin Luther called James “an epistle of straw” that “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it”. And it seems James isn’t really used frequently as source material for many protestant faiths. And that with the exception of a few verses quoted above, even my own faith often neglects much of James.

This may partially be because James is so short. And Mormons (and likely most religions) tend to narrow the vast Biblical record down to key verses.  But I think there is a lot to be learned from James. Marcus Borg in his introduction to James from his book Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, said:

Finally, we note that James echoes more sayings of Jesus than any document in the New Testament other than the gospels themselves. Its fiery passion reflets the passion of Jesus himself.

A careful reading of James brings this out which I will get to but I think the question of authorship is interesting.

Authorship

According to Borg, most scholars don’t believe the author of James was actually the brother of Jesus mostly because the language and grammar of the original Greek is “quite sophisticated”, more sophisticated than a brother of Jesus born into a peasant class would have been capable of. Aramaic being the more likely spoken language.

But nobody knows for sure. The letter doesn’t clarify, James was a common name at the time. But the author must have been intimately familiar with the teachings of Jesus. And James the brother of Jesus and earliest Christian leader would credibly have had the ideas found in James.

James mirrors much of Jesus’ provocations. For me, based on this alone, it feels correct that its author was an intimate, first-hand witness of Jesus’ life and teachings.

His Statements on Wealth

The beginning of James chapter two is worth contemplation. In verses 2-4, he lays out a hypothetical, one I’m positive we’ve all experienced in one way or another. Imagine being at church, and a rich, well put together, educated family enters first, followed by a more ragged, more obviously poor family. Which one gets preferential treatment?

Ward leaders almost invariably think the rich family would be an asset in the ward, generous givers of time and money, competent, capable, willing to serve in responsible positions. Their hearts sink a little when the poor family enters – another burden on the ward likely already burdened.

Consider what James says however in chapter two:

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

Christianity, when really considered, is radical. Our God was born in poverty and died ignominiously. His ministry was short. He spent his time with the poor, the sinners, the sick and when he did speak harsh words, he always punched up – reserving the greatest condemnation for the elite in power. When he spoke, he often spoke in paradox, turning the world upside down – to find your life, you need to lose it, the first shall be last. His ministry was to raise up the weak and bring down the strong. Not the best message perhaps to grow an institution.

James hits on similar themes, in chapter five:

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

What is James saying here? I think the answer can found in the first chapter:

Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted:

10 But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.

11 For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.

James reminds us how short, fragile and ephemeral our lives really are. We are just like the flower that is beautiful and vibrant for a moment but then fades away in the sun. We can’t live life like this is all we have. If we find prosperity, we need to use these resources to make room for those with less. Our hearts need to be wider and deeper then our own self-interest and much more focused on eternal concerns.

What Does James Mean by Works

Paul’s primary focus over and over again was that the law by itself brings death, but faith and grace brings life. What kind of life does it bring? And what exactly did Paul mean by the law? His focus was on Jewish law, circumcision often, but the entire law of Moses – a religious life purely focused on a certain kind of living, where righteous works became an end in itself.

This is not the type of work James describes. Let’s dig into it.

James 1: 22-25:

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:

24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.

25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

What does this mean? I think it means hearing the word and then allowing it to sink deep within one’s heart, so that we are forever changed, becoming its living embodiment. It’s works filled with love, so that as we walk away from the mirror, we don’t forget, the word remains.

More directly James 2:15-16

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

and James 1:27:

27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their afflictionand to keep himself unspotted from the world.

What concerns James was not circumcision or particular dietary requirements. Ratherm, he was concerned with love and care – that our faith, grace and mercy moves us toward kindness, compassion, generosity, that it moves us away from ourselves toward each other.

Final Thoughts

James has some beautiful and important passages on good speech, warnings against envying and strife. It’s as if he foresaw social media and the kind of platform that would pin us against each other.

James 3:17 is beautiful in this regard:

17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Without partiality – non-partisan, non-ideological. Full of mercy, easy to be entreated, gentle. I think it also means, we should listen more and speak less – I think this is great advice given there are so many people to learn from and listen to. We should listen and learn from everyone we come in contact with, which will by design, limit how much we’re able to speak.

We should read ten times as much as we write. This used to be easy, but in the world of social media, many of us are writing ten times more than we read. There is wisdom out there, absorb that wisdom, synthesize it, make it our own, then respond to it. We need to respond and interact not talk over, interrupt and insult.

I think there is some real wisdom in this very short letter. Wisdom in its provocations. James is difficult, but important.

 

My Thoughts on the (New) Temple Recommend Questions

Introduction

In my late 20’s, thinking it may be my last chance for such an adventure, I spent three and a half weeks in New Dehli, India on a volunteer vacation. The organization that organized the trip tried their best to try to leverage my computer and math skills to help the very poor. For me, the trip was my way of experiencing a country and culture as different from my own as I could possibly experience. Even here, however, I was surprised to discover a small Mormon branch and decided to attend. I don’t remember much of that service, but I do remember the branch president pulling out his temple recommend as he testified of the importance of having a current recommend even if actually attending a temple was not viable. Even on the opposite side of the world, in the midst of a country with a culture and history so different from my own, so very far from any then existing temple, I was surprised to hear this type of emphasis on the temple recommend.

Temples for the LDS church are where we perform marriage sealing ordinances for the living and other ordinances, including baptisms, for the dead. We consider these buildings our most sacred places. Our church values temples so much so that Joseph Smith, early in church history, while facing persecution and deep poverty, sacrificed nearly everything to build or attempt to build them everywhere they spent any amount of time in, including Kirtland, Nauvoo, all over Utah and increasingly, now, all over the world, including notably to my story, India.

Temples are not public spaces. On the contrary, even lifelong members of the church have to qualify to enter.  To qualify requires sitting through two interviews with ecclesiastical leaders, the first with either the bishop or one of his counselors, the second with one of the stake president’s counselors. The bishop leads the congregation the member attends, the stake president presides over a group of congregations.

Both leaders must ask the exact same set of questions and in order to qualify, the individual must answer all the questions correctly, twice.

The stakes for a temple recommend can be pretty high, most especially because most LDS weddings happen there. When two active, faithful Mormons marry outside the temple, they advertise to everyone that they probably did something serious enough to keep them out, and most people assume that something was sex. In that sense, it can be a big, red scarlet letter. If a family member is unable to secure a temple recommend in time for a temple wedding of someone close to them, they have to wait outside so they can be there for the family pictures traditionally done on temple grounds. It’s another kind of scarlet letter, just not as big. I was married in the temple. Some of the closest people in my life couldn’t participate in what has been the most important event in my life – and I felt that sense of loss, experiencing that important event while loved ones waited outside.

The temple recommend, then, can be a kind of a sorting hat. If you have one, you’re an exclusive insider. If not, your outside the club and it’s at weddings where this sorting is made public.

Fortunately, President Nelson softened the blow a bit. Now, if a couple really wants everyone, including all of the non-believers, the fornicators, the smokers, the non tithe payers, and apostates in attendance (more about all of this later), they can have the all-inclusive wedding without having to wait an entire year to eventually seal it in the temple.

Marriage sealings are by far the most important social reasons to carry the temple recommend but there are other obvious benefits as well. Many of the more important positions at all levels of the church require a temple recommend. And the temple really is a sacred, holy place. Participating in the ceremonies, rituals and ordinances, dressed all in white, leaving all of your devices locked away, taking on the name of a deceased person places that person out of time and into eternity. Every time I’ve experienced the temple, I feel a little more whole.

The Questions

With all of that as prequel, let’s get into the actual questions. What do the changes to the questions mean for the average member of the church. I think this summary explains the intent of the changes fairly well. This quote in particular indicates the intent for the changes are to clarify rather than modify entrance qualifications.

Temple recommend questions have been periodically clarified or adjusted to meet the needs and circumstances of God’s children. These current updates clarify, but do not change, worthiness requirements to enter the temple.

There are 15 questions but some of the questions have parts. Rather than dealing with each question individually, I’m going to group them by category.

One last thing before I jump in – amazingly, these are binary, yes/no questions. You know, the kind of question you should never ask your teenager. The ultimate goal when entering a temple recommend interview is to determine whether or not the person qualifies to enter. That determination can and should be made ahead of time. The questions are known, the person should prepare ahead and as much as possible wrestle through to answers. These questions can trigger bigger conversations with the leader in the interview and for some people that can be valuable, but the goal will always be to get to either a yes or no. Answering a single question incorrectly can mean not receiving the recommend. Only perfect scores count.

The Have Questions:

Faith in the Godhead: Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost?

Testimony of the Atonement: Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and of His role as your Savior and Redeemer?

Testimony of the Restoration: Do you have a testimony of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I’ve lived with these questions for decades now. I’ve always treated these in particular gimmes. But as I’ve walked deeper into my faith journey, they have opened up in ways that have forced me to really confront their complexity. Depending how I interpret testimony and faith, I could honestly answer both yes and no to all three of these questions. I could write out fully flushed out reasons why for both answers. These are heavy words, testimony and faith, with complex, confusing definitions. We can treat them superficially or we can dig into them.

What does it even mean to possess a faith in God, or God’s son. Given that Christians believe Jesus, an historical figure, was born from a virgin mother, lived a perfect, sinless life, voluntarily allowed himself to be crucified for the sins of the world and in three days rose from the grave, not just a man but a God. Having faith in such unbelievable, unverifiable specifics doesn’t make complete sense to me. What does it mean to have faith in the Holy Ghost, a spirit guide for all who live righteously. What does it mean to have faith in all three?

That last of the faith questions is a little odd if taken too literally. How does one have faith in an historical event, one that either happened or didn’t? I don’t think that’s possible (same is true for a literal, physical resurrection by the way). But if the restoration really is something with possibility and currency in our own lives right now and not something that happened 200 years ago, and if we’re all invited to participate in it, then perhaps having faith in the restoration means being willing to devote our lives to something that requires our participation. Saying yes means being committed to it, or at least not sleeping through it. Same, really with God, grace, and the spirit. The answer relates to their reality now in the ways we choose to experience life.

The interview demands an answer, but these questions carry a lot of weight.

The Sustain Questions:

There are two questions here:

  • Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?
  • Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local leaders of the Church?

I think they could more practically be asked in this way:

  • Do I support the good people running this church? More specifically, will I remain in faithful participation even when I don’t disagree with some of the policies and procedures passed down to me through the organization? Will I at least pay attention to what they are trying to teach me? I don’t think sustain means agree with. For the top leaders of the church, I’m not sure sustain practically means support. There is only so much I can do for them personally hundreds of miles away, part of a global organization with millions of members.
  • Do I support my local leaders, most of whom I know personally and am well aware of their weaknesses and mistakes? Am I willing to pray for them and help them succeed sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, despite their own efforts otherwise?

It’s hard to sustain well, but a yes answer to these questions is a commitment to try.

The Strive Questions:

Chastity: Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?

Sabbath Day: Do you strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, both at home and at church; attend your meetings; prepare for and worthily partake of the sacrament; and live your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?

Honesty: Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?

There are now three questions with the word “strive” when previously there was just one. I appreciate the word strive here because that feels like all we can do. No one is perfectly honest or perfectly clean or perfectly keeps the sabbath day holy or perfect in anything.

I don’t believe for any of these questions, perfection is expected. Just strong, fervent attempts – I strive for Sabbath holiness, I strive to keep my thoughts and behaviors filled with a deep love and concern for others.

See my post on the celestial glory for a hint why I word it this way – the short answer is that I think sex is fundamentally a relationally, loving, intimate act and one that should be done only with a committed by covenant partner, anything less than that falls short of the ideal. But having said that, we all have to deal with hormones and at various degrees and at different times of our lives, hormones may be harder to control. Sometimes our thoughts betray our more noble selves. Even Jimmy Carter, famously, admitted as much.

Adam Miller describes it this way in his phenomenal book, Letter’s to a Young Mormon:

Chastity is not a kind of perfection. You may have arrived in this world innocent, but chastity is some-thing more. Chastity is not something you are born with and then break or lose, it is something that is made. It is something that must, with years of patient and compassionate effort, be cultivated and grown and gathered and sealed.

Miller, Adam S.. Letters to a Young Mormon . Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Kindle Edition.

Lifestyle Questions:

Chastity again: Do you obey the law of chastity?

Tithing: Are you a full-tithe payer?

Word of Wisdom: Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?

Garments: Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple, including wearing the temple garment as instructed in the endowment?

Child Obligations: Do you have any financial or other obligations to a former spouse or to children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?

I think the spirit of these questions is to determine whether the person clears the minimum bar required to enter the temple. The word of wisdom question can be a barrier of entry for someone who chooses to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, or more baffling, coffee or tea. This could be tough for someone mired in an addiction. Or it could be, especially with coffee and tea, simply a way to signal a personal commitment to the church. Some legimitaly argue that keeping someone struggling with addiction out of the temple removes a useful tool that could help them heal. I don’t have data to back this up, but for those who step away from the temple, drinking coffee might be a good way to signal that intention, and then when an out and proud coffee drinker waits outside for a temple wedding, everyone expects it.

The chastity question is even more complicated. First, it covers a huge range of behaviors. Some have argued that sexual sin (without any specificity included) stands next to murder in seriousness and I think that’s right but only at the extreme edges. For conservative churches, any sexual activity outside of marriage is sin, but that includes both the relatively innocent sexual act between a couple weeks before their wedding day as well as violent sexual assault and everything else in between. As it stands now, any and all misdeeds within that range of behavior will keep you out of the temple, the only question, typically, is for how long.

I have some sympathy for the church’s position here. Sexual activity is fraught. My experience with it is limited but the science resonates – sexual experience deepens feelings of love and attachment with a partner. Doing this too casually can be emotionally brutal and can potentially cross lines into criminal behavior. But honestly, religion sucks at sex, and equally as honestly, so does everyone else.

For each of these questions, the person will have to inspect their own lives to determine whether or not they meet the criteria because the standards remain fairly vague. Some church leaders will take a harder-line than others. Everyone has a different interpretation of what it means to pay a full tithe for example. But like all of the questions, they really just want a yes or no. The individual can seek guidance or advice, but that guidance often varies from bishop to bishop and can feel a bit like playing leadership roulette.

I have no idea why the lifestyle questions are limited to these. Murder, physical or emotional abuse, violence of any kind in fact and criminal activity does not even make the list. Perhaps that is why we have the next category.

The Catch-All Questions:

Follow the Teachings of the Church: Do you follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ in your private and public behavior with members of your family and others?

Are you a believer: Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Serious sins: Are there serious sins in your life that need to be resolved with priesthood authorities as part of your repentance?

Your own worthiness assessment: Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?

First of all, I’m pretty sure you can’t hold a temple recommend in prison – which kind of sucks for the poor and minority populations who end up in prison at disproportionate rates and therefore we effectively end up piggybacking temple recommends to a not-so-just justice system.

Pushing that to the side, the problem with these questions generally and especially these vague catch-all questions is that they can disproportionately punish the most sensitive and conscientious among us.

In the most recently published podcast by This American Life, entitled Anatomy of Doubt, they describe an incident where a rape victim keeps changing her story to the police, even admitting at certain times, she wasn’t raped at all and had made the whole thing up. But of course she had been raped, the perpetrator was eventually caught and the evidence of the rape corroborated her initial accounts. Trauma is messy. We doubt ourselves as a matter of course. Many of us walk through our lives worried we’re not measuring up. If someone were to ask us if we are worthy, answering no feels like for many the most honest response.

Imagine, for example, a recent victim of rape, sitting in a bishop’s temple recommend interview having to answer the chastity question? But even more broadly, we all deal with our own regrets and we’re typically our own worst critics. Jordan Peterson, in a recent podcast, argued that the constitutional principle of “innocent until proven guilty” protects us not just from false accusations but also from ourselves. He cautions against too quick admissions of guilt when the stakes are high.

In more intimate and trusting relationships, we should admit to guilt quickly and generously because we’re doing dumb stuff all the time. Being quick to apologize and quick to forgive can make these relationships endure through difficult times.

But in high stakes situations, and a temple recommend interview I think counts here, we should error on the side of generosity. If we truly are struggling with something difficult, perhaps we should work it out first with someone professionally trained to help navigate us through difficult internal terrain.

The “are you a believer question” is particular fraught and is a significant change from the older question.  Like many of the other questions, it’s broad and subject to interpretation. A person may advocate for a political position that another could claim runs counter to church’s doctrine of love and compassion.  LGTBQ activism may be scrutinized. Concern for 1:1 bishop interviews with children could be seen as a violation of this question. Any concern, if publicly expressed could be reasons to answer no. This essay right now may be in violation.

An unintended and unfortunate consequence could be that some may become worried out of thinking for themselves or being afraid to express themselves in public conversation. I hope not.

If we engage sincerely, with authenticity and real concern, without a desire to destroy or tear down, I think we should feel confident in a no answer here.

In Summary

Most active, lifelong members of the church, organize their lives around these core questions. They get into a habit of expressing fervent testimony of the basic gospel principles in monthly testimony meetings and in other venues. They carefully avoid substances specifically mentioned in the word of wisdom even as they might indulge in unhealthy eating and drinking habits outside of the banned list. They marry young and stay committed in their marriage. They never question and always try to obey. Being careful to stay within bounds, they secure the recommend and enjoy the benefits of being a lifelong temple recommend holder.

Others, though, who for one reason or another struggle with one or more of these questions often can be driven right out of the church. If they can’t participate fully why participate at all?

I’m not sure the exact intention of these questions. I’m not sure they are living up to the purposes they are trying to serve. But I think they have potential. They provide an opportunity for deep self-assessment, shadow work, and further faith exploration. Doing the work these questions invite us into, I believe can provide the framework for inner sanctification and a journey of holy goodness.

Perhaps there are better questions. There’s nothing on the list about love, service or sacrifice, not directly anyway. Perhaps we can add our own questions to the list as we do this inner work. Having to hear these questions out-loud twice in a row from an ecclesiastical leader and responding out loud with either a yes or no can be the motivation for necessary, regular inner work that should continue as we use that recommend to attend the temple regularly.

Ultimately,  if we desire to attend the temple, we should be as generous to ourselves as possible. Desire, a willingness to strive, a commitment to participate I think is at the heart of all of these questions. If we are willing, if we desire, we are “called to the work“, and regular temple attendance can be a sanctifying assist in our regular engagement to assist and bless others.

My Thoughts on the Mormon church’s New Youth Program

The Old Youth Program

About one year ago, my church announced the decision to drop boy scouts and personal progress. Listening to this news, I breathed a sigh of relief only wishing this news had come earlier. My son was about 13 at the time and technically could have had his eagle by then. Realistically, most boys squeeze in their Eagle project right before the age deadline at 18 years old (I have no data to back this up, just anecdotal experience), and my son was basically on track to do this if he wanted to do it, but with this announcement, he had a year to finish up or find another scout troop to finish.

Honestly, though, scouts within the church is usually at best half-baked. The leaders have been called into these positions from within the congregation, mostly untrained, often without their own boys in the program, many not all that far removed from being youths themselves. They are busy with their own lives. And the scouting program is crazy complicated with complicated requirements for badges and advancements. When done well, the program can be enormously valuable, but I’ve never seen it done well, mostly I’ve seen it done barely at all.

And that was my son’s basic experience. Even though he attended scout camps, many of the campouts, and the weekly activities, he did not advance. I complained about this sad fact and he eventually progressed to his Star and probably could have gotten Life, but not long after the announcement, we dropped it. The program was barely operating and my son basically lost whatever interest I tried to inject into him.

Something New

The church youth program has been on a holding pattern ever since with promises that a new program would soon replace it. That new program was introduced last Sunday, although I expect more details are still to be forthcoming.

Based on what I know right now, they pared down the youth program so much I’m not sure it’s worthy even to be called a program at all. Perhaps more meat is still to come, but it basically boils down to the youth working out goals along the four quadrants modelled after Jesus’ youth life described in Luke 2:52.

And Jesus aincreased in bwisdom and stature, and in cfavour with God and man.

Following Jesus’ example, each youth should set intellectual, physical, social and spiritual goals and then the youth program should organize to assist the youth accomplish these goals. In other words, just do whatever you want but make sure the youth have some voice in it, and make sure the activities enrich and develop each youth in ways that are relevant.

This all sounds great. I believe this “program” has the same goals previous programs did, but without the prescriptions, awards, and complications. But it also removes the oversight, the progress tracking and the infrastructure. It’s easy to see how this could devolve into just playing basketball every week which looked… awfully similar to my own youth experience – I ended up playing a lot of basketball.

These youth program changes, though, got me thinking about what precisely do I want from my church’s youth program. What I want may be different than what my children want and likely different than what other parents may want or need from church programs. But my desires are quite modest.

What I Want From a Youth Program

Deep friendships with others on the same spiritual path, with the same spiritual goals, within the same spiritual framework

I’m not sure whether or not my children will end up staying within Mormonism, statistically, it’s likely that at least half of my kids will leave.. But I want my kids to develop a spiritual life, a faith in God and a knowledge of their religious heritage. Mormonism has been my gift to them, I’d appreciate it if they would accepted the gifts within it even as they struggle with the challenges that come along with it as well.

The other day, one of my son’s friends shared dinner with us. He talked about how he had set goals to go on a mission, get married and have a family of his own. Milestones deeply important within Mormonism. Within the rigors of a college prep academic life and in secular culture writ large, our society has emphasized career over everything else. Our economy and associated markers for success have focused primarily on economic status, income and career. Societally speaking, we’ve run into some serious ditches along the way. I think our religious marginalization has something to do with some of the dysfunction we’re currently experiencing.

I think the church has been long set up to provide the contextual framework for deep youth friendships. Growing up, many of my closest friends were Mormon. Mid-week activities, Sunday meetings, weekend adventures, just getting youth to interact together regularly, that’s really all you need for friendships to blossom. Time has always been a big part of Mormonism.

Spiritual Mentors

Teenagers have a love/hate relationship with their parents. Raising kids takes a village. Being surrounded by caring adults, providing a lot of different kinds of role models, but each of them vetted for their deep commitment to love, service, kindness and spiritual connection. My wife and I have all kinds of gaps. Having other adults in my kids lives is a gift.

My kids are already involved in a lot of activities. They have teachers, coaches and advisors providing mentoring and support along academic, athletic and artistic dimensions. They need spiritual guides as well. People to model deep prayer, meditation, knowledge of the scriptures.

Mormonism has seminary that provides much of this, but it’s early and teenagers need more sleep. I wish seminary could be reduced to a 15 minute morning devotional, share a scripture and a thought, and then gather together to pray and be still for a moment of silent contemplation. I’m not sure how this would work for teenagers, but I think in the long run, this kind of spiritual practice minutes before the beginning of school would be much more valuable than dragging kids out of bed, making them sit at a desk, trying to pound through the scriptures.

And That’s Basically It

I don’t think our youth program really needs to be complicated. As our society has become more complicated, I see that our church is simplifying. I think that’s good. Let soccer leagues provide soccer. Let school provide school. Let music teachers teach music. The church should provide spiritual mentoring and training and that requires faith, some regular time, and a deep devotion to our young people.

So, I support the new church program, because it’s not really a program. Just get together and do stuff.

Keep Yourself Unspotted From the World

Annually, our church has what they call “Standards Night”. The leadership in the region, encompassing multiple congregations, invites the youth in the area together to have a discussion on navigating life’s difficulties while maintaining high standards of Christian living. The discussion mostly focuses on avoiding sexual related temptations, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and staying away from bad language and inappropriate material through the various media channels coming at us these days. Last Sunday, part of the discussion centered on a phrase that put me in a wrestle – “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world”.

Before I dive into that, let me say I have no idea how to teach teenagers spiritual lessons. I’m not doing a great job of it with my own children. I’m on my own individual spiritual journey, gaining insights, learning lessons, but I’ve had decades now of wrestle, starting at a young age. My life resides in a completely different context than them – born as I was into childhood poverty, raised by an autistic mother in a crumbling house without air conditioning in the Yuma desert. They have no idea what I went through, why I am where I am, why I’m concerned with what I’m concerned with, how I came to the insights I have. It’s really difficult communicating any of this to them. They are on their own journey and need to learn their own lessons on their own mostly from scratch.

Their context is just different. They are overwhelmed with a school system that is far more demanding than mine, with parents desperate they receive opportunities that alluded me. They have advantages I didn’t have, but disadvantages as well. I leaned hard on God in my difficulties. A difficult childhood deepened my faith, loyalty and devotion to the church who nurtured it.

My children’s paths are different. Difficult in many ways, but not obvious in ways that will lead them into the same type of spiritual conviction mine did. I’m not sure they will continue down the religious path they were born into. Will they find another path? Will they do what so many of their peers will likely do and opt out of religion altogether? This choice will  be theirs. I want them to have a spiritual life. I have no idea how all of this will turn out.

Given all of that, I understand the point of Standards Night and I understand the need for the church to distill the gospel down in ways that young minds can hold onto as they navigate a complex world. And I desperately depend on the church to provide a structure of spirituality fine-tuned for young minds. There’s institutional wisdom in the church far better than my own. I depend on it.

This post is not meant to criticize or push against the messages contained at standards night, just an opportunity to dig into one idea that came up. Just what does it mean to be “unspotted from the world”. Doing a search of the scriptures I found just two references to this phrase:

James 1: 27

Pure areligion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To bvisit the cfatherless and dwidows in their eafflictionand to keep himself funspotted from gthe hworld.

Doctrine and Covenants 59:9

And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself aunspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of bprayer and offer up thy csacraments upon my dholy day;

There’s not a lot of specificity in either verse, but I do like the context. First in James, pure religion requires us to take on the burdens of the most vulnerable – the fatherless, the widows, those in affliction, the poor, the sick, the dying, those in prison, really all of us because we are all vulnerable and in affliction. Is there some connection between orienting our lives in service for others and remaining unspotted from the world?

There must be.

We need to avoid habits and behaviors that puts us in an inward, selfish orientation. In my church, we often conflate being spotted with sexual sin. In this view, we become spotted if we look at pornography, or engage in heavy make-out sessions with someone we just met, etc. We clean ourselves from these spots as we confess and forsake our sexual mistakes. There’s something to this. Sexual desire can be handled selfishly but it can also be an essential expression of deep intimate love with a committed partner.

But I’m wondering if an over-emphasis on avoiding sexual sin (or drug use or alcohol or whatever) can be counterproductive as well, in all the same ways an over-emphasis on following God’s laws led the New Testament Jews astray. Being too devoted to our own personal righteousness feels like spots to me. It makes us self-obsessed and inward focused, keeping us from the pure religion James describes.

Doctrine Covenants 59:9 adds another wrinkle. To remain unspotted we need to “go to the house of prayer and offer up sacraments”. There’s something sanctifying in regular ritual. Attending our church meetings with an open heart and a willing mind, united in humble prayer with others nearby, committing ourselves to each other in holy, sacred sacrament.

We need to come to prayer each Sunday and then to commit ourselves to take on the afflictions of others through the week, avoiding distractions and addictions that keep us in our heads.

Perhaps we find cleanliness in pure, selfless connection. We become spotted in isolation or as we use others for our own self interests.

I think this is a message I can communicate to my children. Spirituality comes through pure religion, selfless service, sacred communion in rituals, regular meditative prayer. None of this is easy. It’s a journey. Perhaps, we are born spotted and we spend a lifetime learning how to free ourselves of these selfish impulses so that we can finally live within the pure religion James describes.

Sunday School Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1-13

1 Corinthians 13:

1 Corinthians chapter 13 reads like poetry. This small nugget of a chapters is the most beautiful, provocative chapters in the entire cannon.

First of all, in the opening three verses, Paul becomes more and more provocative. Even I am the most eloquent, even if I have the tongue of an angel, it means nothing if I’m not filled with love. Makes sense. There are a lot of smooth talkers out there.

He goes further in verse two. Say I’m filled with the gift of prophecy and I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries. Yeah, nothing if I’m not full of love. But wait, even if I have all faith and all power, so much so that I can command the mountains to move. Nada, without love, it’s meaningless. Verse three ups the stakes still further. Say, I give up everything, everything I have to the poor. Say, even if I give my body to be burned. Still… meaningless without love.

There is literally nothing I can do that matters. No commandment I can keep, no sacrifice I can make, no gift I can bestow, no talent I can acquire that can make up for the lack of love. Love has to be at the root of all we do. Love is at the heart of religion if it’s to mean anything at all.

What type of love is Paul describing here, then? He breaks it down, in rapid succession:

Love suffers long, we are patient with ourselves, with others, with the world that is often exasperating.

Love is kind. With love, we have no envy, we celebrate and appreciate the gifts and accomplishments of others.

With love, we don’t elevate ourselves over others. Love operates within proper context (is not unseemly), love recognizes it’s not about us. We aren’t easily triggered by others when we operate within a loving context. We don’t think ill of another. We rejoice in truth. We believe, we hope, we endure.

Paul concludes this chapter the way he begins. We just cannot know everything. We know so little. We are fools. We see through the glass darkly. Prophecies fail, our words eventually cease, we’ll never know enough. But no matter, we can always love, no matter where we find ourselves, in our limitations, we can always love, the greatest of all.

1 Corinthians 12:

Chapter 12 is almost as important as 13, almost as provocative. Paul makes the case that we need each other. We can find unity in diversity. We all have different spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same spirit. Some of us doubt, some of us wrestle, some of us are wise, some of us are good with words, some of us have a believing heart, but we’re all essential in the body of Christ.

“The body is not one member, but many.”

Paul makes this point even clearer, those members of our congregation who are the most marginal, our weakest members, we elevate and honor them above all. “And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.”

1 Corinthians 1-11:

Paul is writing this letter from Ephesus during his third mission. He’s received word that the church community he created during his earlier missions are running into trouble. Paul spent a long time in Corinth.

In this letter, he addresses specific problems, answers specific questions. Apparently Corinth was rife with divisions. People got caught up in elevating certain leaders over others – some factions for Paul, others for Apollos, some for Peter. There were the long running concerns about circumcision. Many converts struggled with idolatry. One of the chapters focused on sexual concerns. Paul wrote about marriage. Some of these chapters sit well within the context of the time.

But I love the bits about the wisdom of the world, that it is foolish. We are all children struggling to drink milk. We need to be one and united in our differences. I love Paul’s descriptions of the way apostles interact. With Jews, Paul is a Jew. With the weak, he’s weak, with the Greek, he’s Greek, and so on. So much of what we obsess with doesn’t matter. We have our idiosyncrasies. We come to church in our own context. Some of us are democrats, others republicans. Some are more educated, others less so.

But we all come, trying to develop agape, God’s love, universal, unconditional, often unrequited. We all come, in unity, as fools, limited, in weakness, but with a desire to serve and learn with each other.

This is the gospel of Christ.

Sunday School Lesson – Acts 16-28 – Part 1

I think most of us Christians take Paul for granted. I’m not sure how many of us, especially those of us swimming in a Christian context the entirety of our lives, believing as we all do in a resurrected Jesus as an inevitable fact, can fully appreciate the world the early Christians were reckoning and the mission Paul, in particular, chose to embark on.

Trying as I am to get a crash course on the contextual world at that time, leaning heavily as I am on NT Wright’s biography of Paul has helped me a bit to put myself into that world.

First of all, consider Paul, he grew up a devout, in his words zealous pharisee in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, a city teaming with intellectual diversity, Romans, pagans, philosophers, and Jews spanning that devoted spectrum. Paul, notably, was a Roman citizen but also notably a devote, perhaps a prodigious scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. His knowledge of philosophy, scripture and languages become evident in his writings and interactions on his multiple missions.

But early on, his zealous membership in the pharisaical tradition placed him in a violent collision course with the early Christians. The Jews at this time were desperate to shed themselves of Roman rule and reinstate the Jewish kingdom in Israel. They knew the scriptures, and they believed what it would take to get their was complete devotion to the one true God, and complete adherence to the law of Moses. Any deviation from that path could not be tolerated and in that vein, violence was deemed necessary to stamp down heresies.

We know what happened next. Paul has the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s blind for three days, in total darkness, realizing his worldview has been completely turned upside down. He’s miraculously healed, joins the early Christians and re-absorbs what this means. Acts traverses this time period rather quickly, but in reality, he spends quite a bit of time reorienting himself with this new paradigm. Restudying the scriptures, discovering fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus, but in a way he never anticipated.

Soon after, Peter receives the revelation to share the message of this gospel to the entire world.

So, now consider the world at this time. Paul is about embark on multiple missions, walking hundreds of miles, talking to zealot Jews desperate to overthrow the Romans, expecting a Messiah to help them get that job done, conversing with Romans and non-Jewish pagans, who have established complex societies steeped in a deep historical culture of philosophy, multiple gods and a Roman empire whose head is considered near deity.

Many, likely, never heard of Jesus. Many who had, knew him as a radical, sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the most ignominious punishments at the time.

In Acts 17, Paul spends some time in the synagogue in Thessalonica. He ends up organizing a small community of believers here but not before incurring the wrath of the Jews. In verse 6 they say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;”

They were right about that. Paul’s mission was to turn the world upside down. And for those of us now living in it, it’s easy to forget just how successful he ended up being in that mission.

Sunday School Lesson – The Resurrection and Acts 1-5

Imagine what it was like for Jesus’ closest followers, loved ones and family members the day after he was unjustly crucified. He had a remarkable and revolutionary three year ministry – took on the Jewish power structure, amassed loyal followers and left an imprint of service, revolutionary teaching and compassionate action culminating with an ignominious crucifixion among thieves.

Jesus was buried on Friday, the Jews observed the Saturday sabbath. Then, early Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, another Mary – likely Jesus’ aunt and other women came to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus. The four gospel accounts differ on the specifics. In Mark and Luke, they arrive to find the stone already moved. In Mark, a young man in a white robe sits in the tomb and tells the women that Jesus is risen. In Luke, they find an empty tomb and pause in wonderment when two men appear near them to announce the news. In Matthew, a great earthquake erupts, while an angel moves the stone in what seems to be timed roughly at the moment the women arrive. Mark and Luke make no mention of guards, but Matthew does.

John has the more fully fleshed out resurrection narrative that drives the way it’s typically described in church talks and movies. In this narrative, Mary Magdalene arrives alone to discover the moved stone and immediately runs back to tell Peter. Peter and another apostle run to see for themselves. They discover the empty tomb and then leave. Mary returns to the empty tomb, but lingers, weeping. It’s here Jesus appears unrecognized, mistaken for a gardner, asking “why weepest thou”?  When Jesus calls her by name, she recognizes him and is told he must ascend to his Father but tells her to tell the events to the disciples.

The narrative proceeds similarly in the four gospels. The women see the angels, then Jesus. They tell the disciples who often don’t believe at first. Jesus suddenly appears, to Mary, to different disciples and finally to them all in various ways. Invariably, he’s unrecognized at first. Luke describes the two disciples on the way to Emmaus who unknowingly discuss the events of the past few days with Jesus. They don’t recognize him until when urged to abide with them longer, he joins them for a meal. In the act of breaking and blessing the bread, they recognize.

In John, only Thomas is shown to disbelieve until he can see for himself. In John, when Jesus appears, they recognize him. Later, though when some of the disciples decide to fish, while on the boat out in the water, Jesus calls out to them. They don’t recognize him until Jesus suggests they throw their net on the right side of the ship, echoing the events when they were first called to be his disciples. At that point, catching so many fish they are unable to haul them all in, they realize this is Jesus.

How important are the contradictions and discrepancies between the narratives. Not much. Each author felt the urge to record this important event highlighting different details. What’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t expect any of it. They didn’t recognize at first, they often doubted. Recognition often came in Jesus’ actions, when he acted in ways that he had acted before, or when he calls Mary, in particular, by name.

It took them time to understand and appreciate the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of the gospels, most poignantly and personally in John, they are called deeply into the ministry. In John, Peter is commanded that if he truly loves Jesus he would feed his sheep, three times.

Finally, in Acts 1, Jesus leaves. Some had hoped Jesus mission would be to restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory. They ask Jesus in Acts 1:6 “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”. What they got, instead was a call to do as Jesus did, to serve, to talk truth to power, to heal, to organize a church, to speak with boldness and authority and to spread the good news.

In Acts 1-5, we witness that transition in action. In chapter 1, they call a new disciple to replace Judas Iscariot. They narrow the field to two worthy candidate, emphasizing the need to choose someone who had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. The leave the final selection to revelation, ultimately selecting Matthias.,

Acts 2 highlights the fact that these early Christians were still Jews, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost. The spirit rushes in like a wind, the disciples begin to teach and everyone, many who have gathered from foreign lands, understand language in their own tongue. Some assumed they were drunk and its to them Peter delivers his first address, testifying of Jesus, quoting scripture and accusing them of the crucifixion.

They heard this and ask the question each of us should ask, “What should we do?” Three thousand people are baptized that day. With these new converts, they organize a community focused on mutual care, sharing all things in common.

In Chapter 3, Peter’s new life continues to echo Jesus. With John, as they enter the temple, they encounter a lame man from birth begging for money. Peter gives him so much more, healing, telling him to arise and walk. Peter continues into the temple with the newly healed man and teaches those within of Jesus.

Speaking truth to power gets them arrested in Acts 4, where they are questioned. Here, the narrative takes note that neither Peter or John are educated, they are common, but speak boldly anyway. Not sure what to do with them, they release them with an admonish to quit this preaching.

Finally, the last chapter, Acts 5 describes a rather disturbing story. Converts Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for failing to honestly report the sell of property, echoing a bit the old testament story of the man who was struck down trying to steady the arch. It’s harsh punishment and difficult to understand. I get that this kind of deceit could undermine the community they were trying to build up. But capital offense for it seems uncharacteristic and out of step with Christ’s core message.

Acts 5 finishes with another imprisonment of the apostles. An angel releases them at night and they go to the temple to testify despite previous orders not to. They are brought before the council for more questioning. They continue to testify with boldness enraging those in power. Gamaliel talks the others in the council out of killing them, saying if their work is of man, it will fail, if it’s of God, you will not be able to stop it.

In that, Gamaliel is right. And that is the story of Christianity. From these humble beginnings it has filled the entire earth. Its a message that could not die with the death of even Jesus. But it’s through that death, ironically enough, that the message has touched an untold number of lives, multiple generations later.

 

Prayer: A Quick Autobiography

I remember most the loneliness of the weeklong scout camp some time during one of those long summers between junior high grades. I didn’t have a close friend in the group which means, as a desperately shy kid, I trusted no one. I did not trust the scout leaders in charge of this event. Well, I trusted they wouldn’t kill us, but felt like I was always on the edge of angering or frustrating them in some way. I especially did not trust my parents, who while they did not come on this trip, had no idea how to make sure I was properly prepared for a week long trip in the woods. I did not trust myself to say or do the right things to win the respect or friendship of the other boys on the trip. Given all of this, I determined to make myself as small and unnoticed as possible.

I have passing memories of that week in the woods. I remember getting my own tent and taking some comfort in having control of that little space. I was (and still am) a bit of a weakling. I remember attempts on a lake on a row boat, trying to manipulate the oars to move across the water. I remember the other junior high boys’ impatience with my unsteady efforts. I remember in my chore rotations, my turn to help wash the dishes, accidentally cutting a towel while trying to dry a knife and hearing the leader ask accusingly, “didn’t your parents teach you how to wash dishes?” No they didn’t actually, feeling horrified that I had been found out, shrinking a little more.

I remember working on our Wilderness Survival badge requiring each boy to build a shelter in the woods using only found material, then sleeping in it overnight. No way did I trust myself with this task. I found a couple of other boy I could hitch myself with, doing whatever they wanted me to. I do not remember anything about the night. I do remember another kid, that next morning, pulling himself out of a little cave he made by covering a couple of down logs with sticks. I remember feeling really grateful I wasn’t that kid.

What I remember most of all, though, was a lost shovel. The leaders called on all the boys to help find it. I felt responsible, probably the culprit. I prayed desperately to find it. Almost immediately I felt a prompting where to go and then finding it and returning it to the leader grateful that this particular disaster was averted. The lost keys prayer that everyone kind of makes fun of.

I’m not sure the accuracies of these memories. I trust how I felt and how I interpreted the situation more than I trust the specifics. But I remember more than anything that I felt especially close to God that week. I felt God’s love and no matter how small I tried to make myself, God noticed and cared anyway. I trusted implicitly God heard and answered my prayers. I leaned heavily on that. When I trusted no one else, I trusted God.

This time in the woods was a common childhood experience. I prayed before every test, the prayer intensity increasing with the stake of the test, but really every test felt high stakes to me. I remember praying each night that my dad would find a job during those years of economic instability. I don’t ever remember praying about what my church told me to pray about, whether the church was true or Joseph Smith was a prophet. I took that as a given, immersed as I was in that world view.

But then I went on a mission. For the first time in my life I had two years when I did not have to think (much) about finances or grades or what I should be doing with my time.  For two years I committed nearly all my time serving for my church and giving all of my time to the rigidity of someone else’s rules and schedules. Up by 6:30am, three hours committed to prayer, scripture study and daily preparations, then another ten hours trying to find people to teach.

I prayed as a manner of course. I prayed because I was told to. I prayed because I did not want to waste my two years and of all the many areas I lacked control, whether someone joined my church, or whether my companion and I got along, I controlled my prayers. That habitual, follow the rules type of praying continued after my mission, like clockwork before every meal, before I left my house for the day, before I closed my eyes at night. My prayers were most intense when I needed them the most or when I felt scared or lonely. I prayed for others sometimes, but most often I prayed for myself.

But I didn’t pray when I met the woman who would be my wife, at least I don’t remember it. At first, I obsessed over it. Talked through it over and over again with friends. I kept asking her on dates, dutifully so, liked how I prayed. I wanted to see where it would go, date a girl until it either worked out or didn’t. Rinse and repeat. Despite my algorithmic dating, I fell in love anyway. Right before proposing, I thought maybe I should pray about it, but I don’t remember doing it, I’m sure I did. I don’t remember an answer but I proposed anyway. From the moment we held hands, I felt sure about it. I wasn’t rewarded with an overwhelming emotional response – the way my church teaches me answers to prayers come. Well, until on my wedding day, kneeling as we do wedding ceremonies in our temples, looking into her eyes that day in the Salt Lake temple, saying yes to those commitments, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt right. It felt like God sanctioned the decision.

I continued to pray, of course, after marriage. It was part of our wedding goals we made on our honeymoon. But now eighteen years into marriage, some time along the way, I stopped praying. Not completely and not completely for reasons I can put my finger on. My faith has changed. I have read a lot of Mormon history, got involved in a lot of social media discussions with skeptics. I know friends and family members who left the church. I also feel less desperate, more in control of my life more confident in the generous nature of the world.

Mostly, it didn’t feel that necessary, too transactional, too habitual, too rote, too self-interested. Or was it? I definitely believe I lost something significant when I lost prayer. But I also felt like I never really had prayer either, not really. Because I think prayer is necessary, but not in the way I was doing it. There are too many ways life can go sideways if we’re not paying attention, careful, thoughtful attention. Prayer done right is a way to help one pay attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really want to rediscover prayer anew. And I’m being too hard on myself. I trust my positive experiences with prayer.

What I want to do is a kind of a deep dive on prayer, both in study and in practice. I want to dive deeply what the Mormon tradition says about prayer. Mormonism is part of the larger Christian tradition, so I want to explore prayer in broader Christianity as well. From there, I want to see what more progressive, secular and eastern perspectives say. Prayer and God are inextricably linked, so I think to understand prayer, one must understand God.

Finally, I want to bring prayer more fully back in life but in a more meaningful, thoughtful less self-centered sort of way. I hope to do so in a series of posts. Wish me luck.

We Need to Deal with MMT

download (2)Introduction

A rising segment of the democratic party is taking a left turn which means, apparently, proposals for huge spending increases without necessarily increased taxes to pay for it. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) provides justification for what would otherwise look like a reckless buildup of national debt. Critics claim MMT’s proponents use it to justify never-ending government expansion without compensatory revenue streams. In fact, proponents also believe this, allowing liberal politics the freedom to run on sugar without any of the medicine.

I joined the democratic party in order to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 democratic primaries and because I felt the party acted as a moderate response to the more radicalized Republican party. That party under George W. Bush of the early 2000’s or Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the 1990’s has grown more ideological and uncompromising. It was the party of reckless foreign interventions, growing military spending, a callous shredding of the safety net and ever growing debt and deficits.

Barack Obama’s candidacy promised compromise, responsible governing, a more modest, realistic foreign policy, and more fiscal constraint. Unfortunately, Obama inherited a global economy in collapse that required massive stimulus and bailouts and a military enmeshed in two seemingly intractable wars in the middle east. Liberal economists felt his stimulus was too small and the resulting economic recovery was as a result too long and too slow, incurring painful social consequences, placing large segments of our workforce in painfully long bouts of unemployment.

Ezra Klein Hosts a Debate on MMT

With this background, and in response to a disastrous two year Trump presidency, three years if you include his insane candidacy, a wave of young, liberal and vocal rising stars of the democratic party have swept into Congress eager to set the agenda for both the party and the country writ large.  The rising liberal faction’s first objective is to take control of the democratic party by taking on the more moderate old guard, using kids if necessary.

Ezra Klein recognizing this inter-party disagreement, recently hosted a debate between an MMT proponent, economist Stephanie Kelton and President Obama’s chief economist, Jason Furman, an advocate for the more traditional economic theories that drove Obama’s presidency. Living through the 2008 economic crisis forced me into quite, a bit of deep analysis on the causes and appropriate responses to the economic down-turn. Obama spent eight years governing slightly left of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, who actually triangulated his way into a moderately conservative presidency. Despite Obama’s moderation, he faced unprecedented obstruction and a mindlessly angry conservative response for daring to take even baby steps away from the 1980’s conservative Reagan consensus.

I think the debate between the more moderately constrained old-guard of the democratic party and the more liberal and energized newcomers is both important and interesting and echos pretty closely the 2016 primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

MMT, according to Kelton, proffers that monetary policy should be more focused on inflation rather than debt. In this view, taxes do not have to match spending as long as inflation stays within acceptable targets. Too much money chasing too few goods and services raises prices causing inflation. Government pulls money out of the economy through tax increases using it to pay down its debt, reducing the supply of money and therefore reducing inflationary pressures. Raising taxes or cutting government spending during low inflation is counter-productive and results in higher unemployment and risks deflation.

When asked if tax increases should accompany the massive spending proposals within the Green New Deal, Kelton’s answer to this is “it depends”. She would ask for six months and a team of economists to evaluate how much inflationary pressure such spending proposals might cause and then introduce just enough taxes to keep inflation in check. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes the Green New Deal investments funds itself and so at this extreme the bill requires no increases in tax revenue to pay for it at all. “For every one dollar invested in infrastructure we get six dollars back.” This statistic may or may not be true and depends largely, I assume, on the effectiveness of the infrastructure spending.

Furman responds in a number of fairly subtle ways. More traditional economic models already does the work MMT attempts to do. The government should respond to deflationary pressures and low unemployment through temporary spikes in deficit spending rather than permanent spending programs. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve keeps inflation in-check by altering interest rates, so tracking inflation is the wrong metric anyway.

Furman believes the US should follow the European model in that all new and especially permanent spending proposals, such as medicare for all or a jobs guarantee should be paid for 100%. It’s not that Furman is a deficit hawk. He believes in Keynesian stimulus especially in times of high unemployment, but he denounces the idea to assume high unemployment in future projections.

Republican Counters?

In practice, MMT provides an economic framework that tracks what actually happens in government under both political parties. Politically speaking, the voters demand high deficit spending, they want government to do stuff for them, but they don’t want to pay for it. We all want free stuff and politicians respond to these political incentives accordingly. We’ve been in this mode for a long time now, decades in fact, and we haven’t seen high inflation since the 1970’s and that happened for a number of complicated reasons we have yet to replicate since.

In practice the two parties behave like they believe in MMT although they play lip-service otherwise. What differentiates the two parties is in policy. Republicans want a large federal government devoted to security enforcement, walls on the border, a lot of resources policing the streets and a lot of prisons for those we can’t tolerate in our society. They also advocate a large military, policing the globe attempting to promote US interests and to keep terrorists threats far from our borders.

The Democratic party prefers a large federal government devoted more to domestic concerns, providing universal access to education, health care, strong infrastructure and enough money to aggressively reorient our economy to avoid the devastation climate change may cause.

Deficit hawks and a shrinking libertarian wing of the Republican party would like to see a smaller government, lower taxes and a balanced budget, but they are moving more and more to the fringe of the party.

Where I Stand

I’m sympathetic to MMT’s promises and I believe they’ve largely been confirmed in practice. I believe lip service to fiscal prudence and a more humble approach to what the federal government can actually accomplish provides a much needed constraint on aggressive government expansion that comes from both parties.

In theory, the government can mobilize the country to effectively respond to global and environmental challenges. In practice, government tends to behave inefficiently and with a significant amount of corruption.

Obama governed softly, using the markets to do much of the heavy lifting, nudging it in one direction or another. This seems appropriately right to me. Will it be enough to correct global warming? Probably not, but you never know. I’m not sure government will ever be up to the task on its own either. And it’s possible this is a problem we really cannot adequately solve.

The Green New Deal – A Few High Level Thoughts

I’m obviously not an expert on this, but here are the best points from different sources.

The Argument

First of all, if you want to get a really good, high-level vibe on a policy proposal or other national political controversy, “The Argument”is a really great podcast. It’s concise, extremely civil, a smart, thoughtful panel, and a diverse point of view. Their latest is on the Green New Deal and I recommend listening to it for a basic overview.

Ross Douthat compares it to some of the wackier ideas that have come from the right during their presidential primaries – the flat tax, the 9-9-9 plan, the elimination of entire departments, etc. The left has historically mostly shied away from moonshot primary proposals, but it looks as if they feel emboldened to make bigger policy statements if only for symbolic purposes to potentially get long-term movement in this direction.

The panel describes it as more vision than policy, a kind of a blueprint that anticipates a political realignment away from 1980’s Reaganism that has dominated our political system for more than three decades now. This realignment is a long time in coming. Although, the vision has been uniformly supported by the democratic presidential candidates, there’s a lot of room for differentiation as the vision gets more specific. Although the candidates support the idea of a “Green New Deal”, they may not support every policy proposal found within.

As far as practicality, Goldberg believes it has just as good of a shot at getting passed as the more centrist ideas proposed to fight global warming, most notably the carbon tax. Imposing a broad tax in order to make carbon consumption more expensive is obviously going to be politically more difficult than simply spending money on green infrastructure. It’s a long shot but everything is in these hyper-partisan times. And spending money, verses spending cuts or raising taxes is an easier political pill to swallow.

The Atlantic

One way to look at this proposal is within the context of how most liberals view global warming. If you see it as a slow-moving global disaster that will likely impose catastrophic costs on the global economy on the order of our previous centuries’ global wars, then re-orienting our economy along those lines seems imminently reasonable.

A re-orientation of our economy around climate friendly technologies will be naturally disruptive so there are a slew of seemingly unrelated policy proposals thrown in to make that transition less painful.

VOX

Just to repeat the point above, we have two completely opposite political party responses to the potential global warming catastrophe. One party denies its existence and the other is certain of its catastrophic consequences to human existence. That neither party has any coherent response to it only makes sense for the Republican party. It’s imminently reasonable, then, that the democratic party is organizing itself around a proportionate response to the perceived danger.

Although many of these ideas have been percolating around the democratic party since the early 2000’s, some of which made it into Obama’s stimulus, and further back within Ralph Nader’s campaign, or in op-eds in liberal and even centrists opinion papers over the years, this particular proposal has been crafted by legislative newcomers who swept in during the 2016 anti-Trump wave election. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leadership have, so far, given it the “stiff arm”, believing, likely rightly, the bill is too extreme, too ambitious, and gives too much ammunition to Trump’s reelection campaign.

Forbes

One salient criticism of the Green New Deal is that it’s an aggressive spending program with no viable way to pay for it. Robert Hockett has a nice breakdown in this article explaining why it’s more complicated than a simple matter of aligning outflows with inflows. The bottom line here is that the US treasury can print all the money it needs. The trick is to make sure we properly balance the money supply with the goods and services our economy produces. Spending money on infrastructure, if done right, given this calculus, is kind of a magic trick in this regards. The government prints money and then uses that to generate the goods and services the new money can chase. This, in effect, keeps inflation in check.

The primary problem in our modern economy has not been inflation, but deflation. As our economy has become more efficient through automation, globalization, specialization, and education, we have not properly increased the money supply to match an increase in our production capacities.

Investing in ambitious new programs like the Green New Deal, is a way to counteract that to a degree.

National Review – Jonah Goldberg

The conservative criticisms of the “Green New Deal” are rather obvious, but Jonah Goldberg makes a less obvious criticism here. That government spending programs almost invariably favor big corporations with the political clout to influence and divert those funds in their favor.  I’m not sure how you can really work around this inevitability. In a marketplace, big businesses have all sorts of disadvantages to more nimble upstarts. They are entrenched in a business model that may become obsolete as the markets shift. New companies built from the ground up can drive market shifts and respond to them much faster.

These disadvantages can be assuaged in a couple of ways and big corporations use them all the time. They can collude and dominate market niches by forming oligopolies or monopolies and use their market power to either acquire or bury smaller, less resourced competitors. Or they can influence the government to prefer them in both regulatory laws or investments. Our politics is oriented right now in a way that makes these consequences inevitable.

For the Green New Deal to be effective, the benefits have to outweigh this likely negative.

Goldberg Again

This criticism echos the first alluding to the dangers of massive government intervention in remaking the economy as drastically as this vision lays out. Goldberg likely rightly describes the vision fantasy. But then, notably, pushes back on AOC’s assessments of the free market’s failure to address environmental concerns. His push backs are fair. We are and have been pretty successful at navigating powerfully effective markets while, in many cases, imposed regulation that effectively cleaned up our act without destroying the markets ability to function. Even with climate change, we have and are making improvements in CO2 emissions.

The American Conservative

I think this article is representative of the most straight forward criticism – it’s too expensive, we can’t afford it, and AOC’s plans to pay for it are accounting gimmicks that won’t work in reality.

My Take

First of all, we’re a long way to get anything as comprehensive as this passed. The Republican party as we know it would have to disappear. Given the way the electoral map is organized right now, the Republican party has basically locked themselves into a pretty stable minority-rule position. As long as they can get close to 50% of the popular vote, they get access to considerable power in the US government.

I personally don’t take the proposal seriously, politically, but it doesn’t make it a non-serious proposal. It is. The Democratic party is organizing itself for the long-haul as demographics potentially shift in their favor.

I believe that global warming is a significant threat worthy of significant proposals to address it. I don’t believe free-market only forces are ever going to be adequately aligned to address problems like these effectively. It’s going to require more broad-based cooperation to resolve it. I don’t believe our government or our corporations are hopelessly and so thoroughly corrupt that they can’t be trusted to do the right thing for the right reasons.

It’s incredible the Republican party has so fully bought into anti-science global warming denying that they have not only have failed to come up with policy solutions of their own but they actively block any attempts by the opposing party to do so as well. That’s a crime.

But let me say, I also believe global warming is one humanity ending catastrophe among many other possibilities. I don’t think we can predict the future very well and it’s possible scientific projections could be drastically incorrect. This is not an excuse to do nothing, but it does mean we have to assess all of the risks, all of the ways we can invest our finite resources, and make smart decisions accordingly.

I don’t think the Green New Deal really does that.