Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Midday in the Garden of Good and Evil

A few years ago I went to a largish conservative evangelical church in a largish town in Northern California. One Sunday a group was stationed in the foyer registering voters and passing out voter guides. When I read the guide it advocated for traditional "Christian values" and provided suggested votes on various propositions up for consideration.

One issue discussed was a proposition that would put a 1% tax on any personal income above 1 million dollars and put that money towards providing services for the state's mentally ill population. It would be used to fund programs that I had seen work. Opportunities for them to obtain stable housing, supportive community services, or divert them to treatment rather that to jail when they encountered the criminal justice system.

I have come into regular contact with this population for years and have seen programs like this change people's lives. I've also seen programs like this dry up and blow away as they are written out of the budget on a state level, leaving the previous recipients of services to fend for themselves, sometimes leading to further negative involvement with the criminal justice system. Trust me, no one saves money by sending these people through the court system, paying for the time of the judge, attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, and probation officers, as well paying for housing in the jail (often times single celled due to behavioral issues, and requiring special medical attention), and maybe later prison. This is not to mention the moral concerns of criminalizing mental illness.

The voter guide advocated for voting against the proposition. It offered that we should not put a 1% tax on the rich for the sake of the mentally ill because they did not feel that the money already given was well used by the state mental health system.

What does that have to do with being a Christian? How does that position express the values of the Kingdom of God?

"Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" At that moment the spirit left her."
Acts 16:16-18 NIV

Put yourself in the situation. You've got a girl who is being exploited by someone else, is apparently demonized, and is engaged in fortune telling for the profit of her masters. If we set aside the controversy over whether there are actually personal evil spirits (I tend to think there might be) and whether fortune telling is wrong (I tend to think any attempt to gain insider info is egoistic) and grant them, simply for the sake of argument, the value that the writer seems to place upon them, there is something further to consider. The girl is telling bystanders to listen to what you are saying. What do you do? It's simple to look at the text and give the answer already provided, but that would be cheating. :) Remember, it took several days of Paul being troubled before he knew what to do.

Do you tell others not to listen to her, thus causing onlookers to wonder what to do with the fact that she is advocating for you? Does this mean they should or shouldn't listen to you? After all, look at what you do to those who advocate for you?

Do you do nothing and simply accept her acclamation? This might be perceived as a validation of her fortune telling, and a tacit acceptance of her demonization and status as an exploited slave.

Or do you do what Paul does and take the time to ferret out the evil from the good, explicitly reject what is wrong in the situation and redeem what is worth saving?

It's all too easy for us to be robbed of the truth when its made to walk along side a lie. When presented with stewardship of the environment coupled with a deification of the same we often fail to separate the two. We might either reject stewardship because we don't want to worship nature, or take care of the earth because "She is our Mother."

We can marry the immorality of drug or alcohol use to the addiction that is both the cause and effect of it and either absolve the addict of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions as a victim of circumstance or brand him an unredeemable criminal who should simply receive the the punishment due his crime.

We can mistake the religious rhetoric of the far political Right coupled with civil religion for the voice of God, or we can react to this melange of political ideology and religion and in our compassion reject any religious affiliations or thoughts and buy the party line of the political Left.

We can equate legitimate struggle with questions on the nature of a prepackaged (correct or not) view of God (or Scripture, or Church, etc.) with rejection of obvious "Truth", or assume that matters of faith are not worth consideration because of the mindless acceptance of oversimplified positions we can encounter.

We like simple answers so we gravitate to the poles on the scale. We want shortcuts to being right. We want someone to chew our food for us.

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