An Open Letter to Our Nation’s Leaders

    As the dust begins to settle in this recent election, it is apparent that we remain a nation divided.  On the other hand, maybe not.  The news media is describing the mood of the country as having a great deal of “anti-democrat” sentiment or as having an “anti-incumbent” sentiment and while I suppose both of those exist, I think that there is a larger unifying theme that joins many of us regardless of our general political leanings.  As such, today’s blog is an open letter to all of our elected officials from our local city councilpersons and county commissioners, all the way up to the current resident of the White House.  Here, I want to say a few things that our leadership would hear from all of us over a long lunch, and a few things that I’ve learned from my family, my friends and from life in general.
To all of our elected officials of every kind,
    If you were recently elected (or re-elected) I would like to caution you not to get a big head.  There is a good chance that your election had little to do with you, personally, and a lot to do with the performance (or lack thereof) of your predecessor.  Lately, we voters are all kind of tired of what we are seeing and we’ve been in the mood to throw out leaders who are not living up to our expectations.  As you begin your new terms, here are a few things to watch out for:
1)      Keep your promises.  To you this may seem trite or even quaint but for a lot of us, honor is still important.  We understand that it’s common for politicians to promise the moon so that they can get elected, but be careful what you promise, because, despite the rumors to the contrary, we’re not stupid and we will remember what you said.  George Bush promised “No new taxes” but failed to keep his promise.  We remembered.  Barak Obama promised that his administration would never vote on legislation without having a minimum of seven days for the public to look it over.   That didn’t happen.  This week’s election is a hint that we haven’t forgotten your promises… even if you did.
2)      You can’t spend more than you make.  This is so simple it seems silly to have to point it out.  Every couple of weeks I get a paycheck and every month I get bills for stuff that I have to pay.  This happens to everyone that I know, for every business that I know and for the church where I work.  Once in a while I can spend more than I make.  I took a huge pay cut when I became a pastor and went to seminary.  Our pay cut was so large and the bills for seminary were so big that things didn’t even out.  To make up the difference, we spent some of the money we had from selling our house.  We knew it couldn’t last but we also knew that my time in seminary would only last for a few years.  When people spend more than they make, whether it’s because they bought a house or a car or a flat screen TV, sooner or later they need to pay for it.  For about fifty years now, our leaders have been spending more than our government takes in.  Lately, it has only gotten worse.  We can’t understand why you don’t think it’s a problem.  We know it’s a problem.  It worries us.  We expect you to fix it (or at least get started).  If you ignore this, again, we will replace you… again.
3)      People don’t like change regardless of how much they say they want it or need it.  This one is harder to understand but I’ve seen it enough times in my community and in my church that I know it’s true.  When my school system needed a new school building they had a hard time convincing people that we should build a new one.  Our old school was almost a hundred years old, had dozens of building code violations, wasn’t handicap accessible and was full of asbestos.  On top of that, the state of Ohio was willing to pay for more than half of a new building which mean that a new building would cost millions less than the cost of repairs to the old one.  Still, the school board took over a year, with dozens of special meetings to convince the community that it was necessary and the vote was still close.  I’ve known people with serious health problems who endured months of suffering before they were convinced to go see a doctor.  We get comfortable in our routine.  We want you to do your job, but you need to know that change is scary.  Before you make changes, you need to explain what you are doing, let us think about it for a while and then proceed slowly and carefully so we can see how things are going.  This is especially important because our trust in you is not particularly high right now.
4)      The bigger the project, the more support you need.  You will probably not find this anywhere in your history books but this is a place where our government has created division and animosity between its own citizens.  Last year, I was interviewing pastors who had been involved in merging churches or in church building projects.  These are two of the biggest changes ever experienced in the life of a church.  One of the rules that emerged from these interviews was that if there was not a minimum of 70 to 80 percent support for the change, then they would go back and start over.   In a church, failing to gain a super-majority of support for a big project will likely mean that people will be so angry that they leave the church.  In our nation, when you pass really big projects with only a slim majority, you create animosity and division instead of unity and cohesiveness.  You don’t need to wonder why our nation has become so polarized because you are the ones who did it, Republicans and Democrats alike.  
    Don’t think that because you’ve won the election, that you can do whatever you want.  Don’t think that because you have a majority, that you can do whatever you want.  In recent decades we’ve seen several major shifts from Democrat to Republican and back again.  Please remember that it isn’t about what you call yourself, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or whatever, it’s much more important that you do the things that we sent you to do.

Feel free to ignore us…
…but then again…
…your predecessors did…
…and they’re not here anymore.

Who Can We Blame?

It seems that every day there is more to read about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I understand that this is a huge news story that affects millions of people along the southern coast of the United States and I am really not too concerned that the media is (typically) overplaying the story. What concerns me is the way that local residents, and politicians of all stripes (local, state, and federal) are turning a horrible accident into a bizarre circus of finger pointing in the extreme. Legally, I understand that the cost to clean up the mess will be enough to bankrupt several major corporations and that BP may not survive to pay for it all. I understand that BP will want to shift some or all of this financial burden onto whichever other corporate entities may have had a role in allowing this accident to happen. What I have a problem with, is the tendency that people have for wanting to make this tragedy personal.

Folks are pointing a finger at the CEO of British Petroleum and saying that it is, personally, his fault that this happened. They point fingers variously at President George Bush and President Obama and the commander of the Coast Guard and anyone else that seems even remotely convenient and somehow construe the facts of history to make it that persons fault. Yes, mistakes were made. No, things happened that shouldn’t have happened. Shortcuts were taken that shouldn’t have been. All that can be true and still, it doesn’t have to be any single person’s “fault.” That’s why they call them accidents.

Many of the policies in place were enacted by the Bush administration but they were likely voted on by many members of the opposing party. Many of these policies were changed by the Obama administration and the enforcement of these regulations fall to that administration as well. In either case, I doubt very much that either President Bush or President Obama had any specific knowledge of what was happening on this one particular drilling rig. Likewise, I doubt that the president of BP, who is (or at least was) not an American and who does not live in the United States (BP stands for British Petroleum, remember?) knew anything about the specifics of what was happening on one of the hundreds of drilling operations his company was conduction around the globe. Certainly none of this was intentional. The spill alone is horrible. The environmental damage is unimaginable. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and eleven men lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon. No sane person would have intentionally caused this to happen or even allowed it to happen. It was an accident.

Psychologists tell us that when people are under stress they look for a place to focus that stress. It happens in churches that are undergoing significant change. When people are under stress they want someone to be responsible for the stress they feel and will often reach out to any convenient authority figure. I have been the focus of such stress. All sorts of elaborate stories can be created to direct that stress, or blame, upon these convenient figures regardless of the facts or the truth. Reality just isn’t that tidy.

The reality is that churches that are undergoing change have often come upon that change in a process that spanned many years and involved many more people. The reality of the accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon is that its causes were undoubtedly many and involved persons from the drilling rig, its owners, BP, regulators and members of state and federal government. Even worse, pressures were put on all these players by market forces by which each and every one of us played a part. Face it, when I get off the freeway to buy gasoline I really don’t give a rip about who has the best environmental record, I just want the cheapest gas. The pressure to produce fuel cheaply and to develop an abundant domestic supply while abiding by the various restrictions placed upon them undoubtedly played upon some of the poor decisions that were made and which led up to the accident. Besides that, accidents happen despite the best intentions or preparations of any of human being. That’s why we call them accidents.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a complete and thorough investigation, there should and if criminal acts were committed then those acts should be punished. Neither am I saying that BP and its subsidiaries and subcontractors should not pay for the damages caused and the cleanup that is required, they should. What I am saying is that I doubt that we will ever find a smoking gun. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to say that any one person or that any specific group of people are, personally, responsible for this accident.

As people of faith, especially as people of faith, we need to be clearer about that. Instead of becoming belligerent and argumentative, instead of busying ourselves pointing fingers at people who were far removed from actual events, we need to have a different focus. As people of faith, we need to let the justice system do its job and conduct its investigation without our interference. As people of faith, we need to focus our attention on the least and the lost, to try to help those who have been harmed by this disaster and who have no safety net to catch them. As people of faith, instead of looking for people to blame, we need to show a little grace.