A new kind of independence

240 years ago today, a group of brave men staged the first Brexit. I doubt any of them had a clue what they where getting themselves into- in the form of the struggles and tragedy of war against the world’s greatest super power of that day, as well the amazing nation that they were bringing to life.  Nonetheless, these men committed wholeheartedly– pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The leadership and dedication of those men is noteworthy. It is also unfortunately very much absent from national and world leaders today.  This morning, the leader of the anti-EU party in Britain quit, saying,

“I have never been, and I have never wanted to be, a career politician. My aim in being in politics was to get Britain out of the European Union,” Farage told reporters.

“During the referendum campaign, I said ‘I want my country back’. What I’m saying today, is, ‘I want my life back,’ and it begins right now.” -Nigel Farage

That’s it.  He got what he wanted, and now he’s leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.

Lest we think such boorishness is confined to our British friends, we should examine the political leaders in our own country.  How many of them are willing to forego their own personal resources, ambitions, and very lives to advance the cause of their nation?  In this age of super PACs and national parties funding multi-billion dollar campaigns, I don’t see a lot of leadership that has “skin in the game.”

Backing up one step further, though, I find myself asking whether the investment of our leaders reflects the investment of their constituency (meaning us)?  Just about every pundit with a voice, and every citizen with a social media account is bemoaning the demise of our nation/world, regardless of their personal political bent.  But is that possibly because our interests have shifted from the good of the many, to the good of me? Maybe we need a new “revolution” where we begin by putting our self interests a half-step behind the interests of our fellow citizen and fellow man?

Just an Independence Day thought.

Happy Birthday, USA!

Shame on Falwell

A few days ago, the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., encouraged his students in a mandatory weekly gathering of all undergraduate students, to enroll in a free concealed carry course, and to carry concealed weapons on the campus.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he proclaimed to the loud unrestrained applause of students. “I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” (Huffington Post, 12.07.15)

Headlines and editorial pages are exploding, and the Facebook memes won’t be far behind.  Both sides of the political and Second Amendment arguments are stridently taking positions, and classifying the opposite side as subhuman, in intelligence level, if not in actual DNA composition.

As usual, my thoughts on this particular incident are complex, and have enough nuances to offend everyone.  I wish I were able to condense my thoughts on significant issues to the size of a Tweet, but I work hard to see the complexities and to consider the positions and concerns of all sides of a disagreement.  That unfortunately leads to long posts.  Fortunately for my readers, I don’t charge by the word.

I am a Christian, and a pastor.  A survey of my key theological beliefs would match up well with the Evangelical camp that Falwell calls home, and to which Liberty University caters.  I’m also a firearm owner, and believe that properly trained and qualified individuals should be able to carry firearms (more on the qualifiers in a moment).

With that introduction, let me tell you that I have a few problems with Falwell’s statements.  As in, I gave myself a bloody nose with the facepalm.

Let’s start with the practical:

  • Concealed carry licensing requirements in EVERY state in the US are a joke.  I was unable to obtain the details of the free training that Falwell is offering Liberty students, but I did check what is required in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Basically any firearm or hunter safety course, including those that consist only of classroom instruction, or an honorable discharge from the military, suffices to meet the state requirement that the applicant “has demonstrated competence with a handgun.” I’m not a hunter, and have never attended a hunter safety course, but I am retired from the Army, and can assure you that an honorable discharge from the US military in no way demonstrates “competence with a handgun.”  Many soldiers will go their entire enlistment without ever even handling a handgun, let alone demonstrating competence.
  • Beyond basic weapons proficiency, or lack thereof, the more important issue is that most people carrying handguns today neither train regularly to maintain basic skills, nor do they spend time developing the proper mindset and muscle memory to be effective in an active shooter scenario.  Despite the claims of the NRA and most gun rights advocates, most people carrying concealed today are a hazard to those around them, because they aren’t trained well.  College students, and presidents, shouldn’t assume that because they’ve hit a paper target, they’re effective gun-fighters, no matter how many video games they’ve played.
  • Security at a large institution should not be left to several hundred independent operators.  Imagine being a first responding law enforcement officer and arriving on a scene with two bad guy shooters, and 200 good guy shooters–who are your legitimate targets?  For that matter, even before the law enforcement arrives, assume you hear shots, draw your concealed weapon, look up and see several people with handguns drawn–who is the bad guy?  Most concealed carry permit holders don’t consider these scenarios.  Adding more untrained, armed people to the mix won’t help.
From an “influential leader perspective:
  • “ending those Muslims before they walk in”– yes, I know he clarified the next day in a press release that he meant the terrorists, but that’s not what he said…  This whole phrase is STUPID (to borrow Trump’s terminology).  It’s inflammatory, insensitive, and wrong.  How about we decide, and state, that we’re going to defend against terrorists, who are the problem, instead of an entire religion?
  • “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here”–more ignorant, harmful blustering.  I love John Wayne movies more than most, but cowboy bravado has no place in public leadership.  Taking lives, even terrorist lives, shouldn’t be about “teach(ing) a lesson.”  It should be about defending innocent lives.  And it shouldn’t be spoken of cavalierly by the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning in the world.  It sounds like high-school bluster.
  • IF you feel it is necessary to ignore all the thoughts above, and you choose to run your mouth, and IF you feel it is necessary to announce to thousands (millions, really) of people that you carry a concealed weapon, at least be well-trained enough to know whether or not pulling it out on stage, in front of thousands of people, when there is no imminent threat, is legal!!! (In case you missed it, Falwell said, “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know.”)  If you don’t know, you have no business carrying it, and you just acknowledged your lack of competence to the world.
  • As the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning, you bear an incredible responsibility to set a good, Christ-like example.  Pandering to the audience’s fear, and in so doing, a) encouraging your considerable audience to judge an entire religion by the actions of a small minority, and b) giving further credence to radicals’ claims that Americans, and Christians, are out to kill them, is grossly irresponsible.

Finally, from the Christian perspective:

  • Before Falwell, or anyone else who professes to be a follower of Jesus for that matter, starts advocating armed action against others, it would be wise to examine what God’s word says.
    • First, throughout much of Old Testament history, we see the Israelites being instructed by God to wage war.  Of note is that they were instructed by GOD.  In at least one instance where the Israelites decided on their own to take up arms against others, it didn’t go so well for them (Numbers 14).
    • Luke 22:36 is the only passage where we see Jesus advocate any form of taking up arms; a passage that Falwell’s supporters are quick to point out.  However, in just a few hours Jesus rebukes his followers for drawing their swords (22:49-51).
    • More instructive to what Jesus expects from his followers is the following 50 years of history recorded in the New Testament, where his followers are attacked, imprisoned, and even killed, but never respond with violence.
  • I don’t believe that Jesus was the pacifist that many want to portray him as; neither do I believe that he wants us to take up arms to defend him, or advance the Christian religion.  I do believe that the body of Scripture supports defending innocents against evil.  That doesn’t justify a religious war against opponents of Christianity.  The Apostle Paul identifies the opponents of Christianity not as humans, but as spiritual forces of evil that set themselves up against God.  The weapons Paul proscribes for the follower of Jesus in this fight against spiritual forces are not physical weapons, but spiritual weapons.
  • Revelation 19 is pointed to as a justification of physical violence against the opponents of Jesus, but one must interpret the book of Revelation with caution.  Even with the most literal of interpretations, the reader must recognize that the followers of Jesus are just that: followers.  Getting out in front of Jesus is probably not wise; it certainly isn’t Biblical.
  • Given this quick examination of Scripture, I would propose that while it is not imprudent for Jesus’ followers to arm themselves, they should do so with caution, that they not be tempted to take lives cavalierly, or in aggression.

Here’s the deal:  I’m not opposed to well-thought out security measures, including appropriately trained private citizens carrying concealed weapons.  I’m not opposed to the university president carrying a concealed weapon.  But talking smack on a stage in front of thousands of people, who are forming their own political and spiritual beliefs based in part on what you say, is no place to play cowboy.  Advocating violence based on a religion (and that’s what he said, whether or not it’s what he meant–and if he can’t communicate more accurately and effectively than that, he needs to find a new vocation) and pandering to the fear and mob mentality of a crowd of college students, is foolish, unprofessional, and not Christ-like.

Falwell screwed up.

We won’t win a war with jihadism, but we can sure lose one

One week ago, terrorists attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 132, and wounding hundreds more.  The Islamic State (IS), which isn’t really a state, regardless of what they call themselves, claimed responsibility, and has since released at least two other videos claiming plans for future attacks in the US.   French President Hollande declared, “We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world.”  While it is an appealing sentiment, and probably necessary to galvanize his nation, declaring armed combat on a tactic, or even an ideology, is absurd on multiple levels.

Just identifying a definable enemy makes the declaration ridiculous.  While IS has at least made identifying them a little more feasible with the creation of a flag and by attempting to occupy and govern territory, IS certainly is not the totality of “terrorism, jihadism,” or the popular term “radical Islam.” The reality is that since President Bush declared a “War on Terror” on September 20th, 2001, we have been engaged in a mostly military campaign against an ideology that isn’t constrained to a nation or specific people group, and has seen mixed results, at best.

Besides the lack of an identifiable enemy, combatting an ideology (radical Islam, or jihadism) or a tactic (terrorism) with military force is illogical from the simple fact that you cannot shoot, bomb, or kill an idea.

The ideology of radical Islam, or jihadism, has proven a formidable foe to military attack.  Since 9/11, this ideology has been under constant assault from the most formidable military force the world has ever known, and much like trying to punch a mist, it seems to give way to force, only to regroup again.  History is replete with failed attempts to defeat an ideology with military force.  Successful examples are rare, and limited.  If one considers the fascism of Nazi Germany an ideology, then the true defeat of the ideology occurred not on the battlefield so much as in the decades of occupation and reconstruction that followed military success, that controlled the culture until a new ideology was formed.  Perhaps more appropriate for this discussion would be consideration of the Cold War defeat of Soviet Communism–which was not won on the battlefield at all.  Fighting against an ideology that is rooted in religion becomes even more difficult, particularly when the religion rewards martyrdom.

Terrorism itself is not constrained to use by jihadists, as the British (Irish Republican Army) and Germans (Red Army Faction) can attest.  Terrorism is a tactic adopted by many different minority groups in an attempt to elevate their cause.

Before all my brothers in arms write me off as a pacifist, let me affirm that there are instances where military force is appropriate, and arguably this one.  But first we need to identify an enemy that can be defeated by military weapons.  As we witnessed in Afghanistan, military force can be successfully applied against a combatant organization such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.  The Islamic State presents itself as a viable military target–they are a specific group of people who are generally occupying a distinct physical territory.

OK, so we can attack the IS militarily.  Note that this is not the same as warring against terrorism, or jihadism.  Rather, it is attacking the most recent organization representing these concepts. Several questions must be considered before we start loading the C17s.

  • Do we have the national will to engage in this fight?
  • Do we have sufficient international support, or lacking it, are we willing to accept the international opposition?
  • Will battlefield success solve the larger problem?

I could expound on each of these questions for days, and still not adequately cover all the nuances.  Instead, I want to focus on the last one, because it is the key to my assertion that we can’t win a war with jihadism, but we can lose one.  Because the problem isn’t IS; the Islamic State is just the most recent symptom of the true problem.  President Hollande rightly identified the problem as bigger than a belligerent organization; the problem is an ideology that approves of murder, fear, and compulsion to advance its agenda.  Complete military defeat of the Islamic State won’t solve the problem presented by jihadism.  Quite the opposite, it is likely that military success will only serve to reinforce the narrative that helps drive this ideology.

Am I advocating doing nothing, or cowering in fear?  Certainly not.  But before we take action, we should decide what our desired outcomes are, and what actions are feasible to achieve those outcomes, then if we as a nation are willing to fully commit to those actions.  You see, our original goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were achievable, but we did not have the will as a nation to achieve them.  To truly achieve the defeat of jihadism would have required a long-term commitment to the occupation and transformation of those two countries, much as we demonstrated during our post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan.  While to many it seems like we’ve been engaged in those countries for a long time, our efforts pale in comparison to our work in Germany and Japan in both duration and level of engagement.  The jihadists were banking on the fact that we would grow weary of our efforts, and would redefine victory in a desire to disengage.

The atrocities committed by IS in Syria and Iraq make most of us want to wipe IS off the planet.  But we aren’t going to do that with airstrikes; it’s going to take conventional and SOF forces on the ground, for years.  That is complicated further in the case of Syria, where we would be trying to destroy a non-state entity in the midst of a civil war in which the national government is supported by Russia and Iran.  Just sorting out the allegiances of the various players can become an insurmountable task.  Do we, as a nation, have the will to take on the war necessary to destroy IS militarily?  I would submit that recent history indicates that we do not.  And anything less than total victory will result in our defeat.

Most importantly–defeating IS won’t solve the root problem.  The root problem is a conflict of ideology, and that conflict is not resolved with military force.  As we learned in the Cold War, military force is necessary to shape the ideological battlefield, but the weapons with which we will win are not operated by armies, and the victory will go to those willing to play the long game.

I’m not saying we don’t engage in this ideological battle.  In fact, I believe we must engage, but we need to know the battle, and we must commit to what it will take to win.  More to follow…

The Presidential Speech You Didn’t Hear

 

Recently, President Obama gave a speech that would astound most Americans.  The topic was faith.  He made three points to answer the question,

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious (sic) for their own murderous ends?”

His three points?  Humility, freedom of religion, and the universality of the Golden Rule to most religions and all of mankind.

He strongly condemns those who abuse religion for their own purposes:

“We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

He quotes Colossians 3:14.

He says, “Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.”

In his closing remarks, he made the following appeal:

“If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

WOW!  Why didn’t we hear about this speech in the news?

Well, you did.  You just didn’t hear about this part of the speech.  See, these were the key points from his speech at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast.

Why didn’t you hear about these points that most Americans, and certainly all Christians should be able to agree with?  Because the Twitterverse exploded in real time over a brief aside in his introductory remarks, and the right-wing blogosphere was in full attack before he began his first point.

Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, said in a statement that Mr. Obama was trying to “deflect guilt from Muslim madmen.” He said the president’s comparisons were “insulting” and “pernicious.”  Mr. Gilmore said the comments go “further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

and

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” (New York Times, 2/5/15)

DOUBLE-WOW!!! What could be so heinous as to offend “every believing Christian in the US?” 

Warning:  The following quote can be highly offensive–please don’t read while eating, or in the presence of young children:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Yup.  That’s it.  The headlines have screamed how Obama has said Christians are just as bad as ISIL!  How the President is defending radical Islamists.  The pundits left out the next sentence, where he condemned violence under guise of religion in India.  They also totally ignored the next words out of his mouth, which led to him introducing his three main points, which were a spiritual (Christian, but watered down for a national ecumenical audience) response to the violence in the name of religion running rampant in our world:

“So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

This point is crucial!  See, I read this as the President saying we should be on guard to ensure that we don’t twist our beliefs to our advantage, at the expense of others.

Me?  I see a great example of introspection and humility.  Jesus spent much of his latter ministry challenging the pious religious leaders of his day to examine themselves–a message which we should all continue to heed today.  Unfortunately, many American Christians today consider ourselves as superior to all others, as God’s chosen people, above criticism.  As the frothing commentators seem to clearly demonstrate, from our high horse, it’s easy to see that the atrocities of ISIL are a whole different level of ugly than anything we could ever do.  How dare the President drag up 1000 year old history and try to call us righteous Christians?  That was then.  We’re better than that now (interestingly enough, the point of typically liberal Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson).

Bull.

Of all people, Christians should be the first to take a hard look inside, because we have a unique theology that tells us that even when we are inhabited by the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, we are still fighting a battle against our sinful human nature (see Romans 7:14-24).

Sure, we can point out that Christians such as William Wilberforce led the abolitionist movement.  But read Dr. King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.”  This amazing document was penned in response to CHRISTIAN leaders who challenged his actions in standing up for human rights.  Just a few sentences before his “verbal rape” (yes, Star Parker really said that!), the President made the point that faith has, and is being used for both good and evil:

“…we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.”

Seems like his critics are doing the latter–they’re playing upon America’s polarization to drum up dissent, by twisting the President’s faith (professing Christian, and demonstrating more Christ-likeness in words and action than many of his critics) as a wedge… or a weapon.

I hate to break it to the former governor of Virginia, but this Christian is not offended by the President’s remarks.  I am in agreement with them.  I’m offended by all the people who are attacking him for speaking truth, while ignoring his broader points.  We American Christians can’t claim any moral high ground here.  Here’s a picture from less than 100 years ago.

jesse-washington-lot13093-no.38

That’s the body of Jesse Washington.  The full account of his lynching is here, but the short version of the story is that, after a questionable murder trial in Waco, Texas, Jesse was declared guilty, grabbed by a mob, dragged into the street to this tree, doused in oil, had his fingers and genitals cut off, was hung from the tree over a bonfire, where he was repeatedly lowered and raised over the next two hours, while he burned to death in the celebratory atmosphere of 10,ooo spectators.

Here’s another one (sorry, no pics of this one):  According to the Associated Press coverage of her death, “Mary Turner had made ‘unwise remarks’ about the execution of her husband, and that ‘the people, in their indignant mood, took exception to her remarks, as well as her attitude’.”  How did they take exception?

“There, before a crowd that included women and children, Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the grown, gave a cry, and was stomped to death. The Constitution’s coverage of the killing was subheaded-lined: ‘Fury of the People Is Unrestrained.” (Wikipedia, “Mary Turner”)

Betcha most of those folks went to church next Sunday.

“Yeah, but those stories don’t have anything to do with Christianity!”  Except they came from a time when it was common to teach in church that blacks were subhuman (click the link “carroll.pdf” on the page to download your very own copy of the book “The Negro a Beast…0r…In the Image of God”).

“Yeah, but that was 100 years ago.”  Well, first, the President’s point was that atrocities were committed by people who claimed to be Christians, and claimed to have Biblical justification for their heinous acts.  Second, just Google Christian Identity.  This hosed up, racist hatred is whitewashed “in the name of Jesus” and claims to use Scripture to justify their vile beliefs.  And there are thousands of adherents to this and similar beliefs in our world today.

 “So are you blaming all Christians for these lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and nutball white supremacists?”  No.  But I hope I’ve presented enough evidence to get you off your horse.

Or should we explore all the Jews killed during the Crusades–in the name of Jesus?

 

 

Un-knot your undies, at least on my behalf

The internet and my Facebook page are exploding with posts, memes, and articles apoplectic over the “cuts in military retirement and disability pay” in the appropriations bill on its way to the President for signature.

As a disabled veteran whose military pension is his primary source of income, I am fully qualified to tell all of the pundits to “just chill.”

First, NO ONE’S BENEFITS ARE BEING CUT.  That’s right, no one will be earning a single dollar less than what they are entitled to.  Not people already retired, not those who are on active duty and might someday retire (which, by the way, is only a small portion of those who actually serve in the military.

What the bill does is set a limit on the COST OF LIVING ADJUSTMENT effective in JANUARY 2016 (that’s two years from now).  Cost of living adjustments were never part of the entitlement, folks, just like they’re not guaranteed for the vast majority of defined-benefit pension plans, public or private, in the US (Great Britain, by law, guarantees inflation adjustments to pensions–but that’s socialism, so we don’t want to do that).  In most years, the DoD budget includes increases to pension benefits to adjust for inflation, and I’m glad they do, but retirees have never been “guaranteed” a COLA, and right now, it’s important for our nation to cut deficit spending.

What Congress just approved, was a bill that set the 2016 COLA  to 1% less than the inflation rate, and then only for retirees between the ages of 40 and 62 (like me).  The thought here is that many, but certainly not all, of these retirees go on to start second careers, so they are not solely surviving on their retirement checks.  I’m 48, so this change will affect me for 12 years, beginning two years from now (assuming Congress takes no further action in the next 14 years, which is not a valid assumption, as sooner or later, the political and economic winds will change, and Congress will adjust the appropriation to address this, if history is any indicator).  Let’s make this a little more concrete:  For simple calculation purposes, let’s say I receive a pension equal to $40k/year, and that inflation averages 3% per year.  ASSUMING (which isn’t valid, but we’ll do it, to make the point) that Congress were planning an annual COLA equal to inflation, my pension would increase 3% per year, but this bill changes that increase to only 2% per year.  Beginning in 2016, and through 2027 (when I will turn 62–man, I’m getting old), my real income would decrease slightly, although my nominal pension will continue go up.  How much?  In that 12 year period, I’ll receive a TOTAL of $10, 729 than if my COLA had matched inflation.  However, since there is no guarantee of inflation-proofing with military retirement, or most other defined-benefit pensions, for that matter, I’m NOT losing money, I’m just not receiving as much inflation protection as I would like.  The bill also provides for a one-time catchup when I turn 62, so that from that age on, when I’m less likely to be working, and more likely to truly need that pension to provide for myself, it will then maintain real spending power for the rest of my life.  I haven’t really taken the time to do the math, and I haven’t found the actual bill to read the details of the catchup provision, but I’m comfortable that my analysis is close enough for purposes of discussion, as well as for my long-term financial planning.

Most of our country has been up in arms about the runaway federal budget deficits.  We don’t typically want to pay more taxes, and most insist that the government should live within its means, which means cutting spending.  This budget deal cuts spending.  The problem seems to be that we are all for cutting government spending, unless it’s on something WE think is important!  Here’s the rub:  for every government dollar being spent, SOMEBODY thinks that expenditure is important.  In 2010, a bipartisan commission took a hard look at fiscal reform to address deficit spending and develop proposals to put the federal budget on track for long-term prosperity and economic health.  They did good work, and on page 45 of their final report they recommended the very actions established in this bill for reforming federal workforce retirement programs.

We’ve been demanding reform.  Now we’re getting it.  The pain is widespread; veterans should not be exempt.  I’ll leave you with some thoughts from the Preamble of the report cited above.  This is the collective work of some very smart people from across our political spectrum who devoted themselves to difficult, careful study of the problem, and what it’s going to take to solve it:

 The problem is real.  The solution will be painful.  There is no easy way out.  Everything must be on the table.  And Washington must lead….  we share a common belief that America’s long-term fiscal gap is unsustainable and, if left unchecked, will see our children and grandchildren living in a poorer, weaker nation…. None of us likes every element of our plan, and each of us had to tolerate provisions we previously or presently oppose in order to reach a principled compromise.  We were willing to put our differences aside to forge a plan because our nation will certainly be lost without one…. In the weeks and months to come, countless advocacy groups and special interests will try mightily through expensive, dramatic, and heart-wrenching media assaults to exempt themselves from shared sacrifice and common purpose.  The national interest, not special interests, must prevail. We urge leaders and citizens with principled concerns about any of our recommendations to follow what we call the Becerra Rule:  Don’t shoot down an idea without offering a better idea in its place.

Many of you probably have already forgotten about this commission or its report.  It didn’t catch on.  Seems everybody had some favorite program that was targeted in their recommendations, just as the authors predicted.  So we just abandoned it, and kept right on spending.  It’s too bad.  This was probably one of the best efforts put forward by our national leadership in quite some time.

It seems to me that what we really have is a terminal case of selfishness.  We demand sacrifice from all others, so that we can preserve what we have.  In the end, no one is really willing to sacrifice themselves, so we continue full speed ahead on the course we’re on.   I’m not playing that game.  If by reducing the amount of annual increase I will see in my pension, we can start reining in the spending that has resulted in a national debt which former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen cited as the most significant threat to our national security (see cited report, page 20), then I’m willing to make a bit of sacrifice for the benefit of our nation.  Please don’t be offended on my behalf.

With fear and trembling…

I’ve been preparing to write this post for months, and putting it off for the last several weeks.  Truthfully, I don’t want to write it, because I’m actually expecting a lot more backlash and disapproval than I expected (but surprisingly, didn’t get) from my most-read post:  “The Post That May Just Offend Everybody.”  But I’ve been alluding to writing about this for some time, and have done a lot of research in preparation, in hopes that I can present a clear, detailed perspective that just might clarify one of the biggest issues facing our nation right now.  That, and I think this is one of those ones that God told me to write (OK, truthfully I know God leads me to write all of these, but this one seems to be one he won’t let up on).  So, with that ominous introduction, I will attempt to share my understanding and position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). (1)

Bear with me on this one, I beg.  I know it’s all over the news, but I’m hoping I can provide some reasonable perspective.  I won’t claim to be totally objective, or unbiased, because I’m not.  I’m getting kind of passionate about the topic of health care reform.  What I hope to do, though, is to be clear what my biases are (as I understand them), as well as trying to address other perspectives as objectively as possible.  I’ll lay out my biases and motivations shortly, but my objective in tackling this controversial subject is to try to advance a reasonable dialog that might just provide an impetus to achieving real, productive improvement to our nation’s health care system.

I’m going to have to break this up over several posts, because it’s a complex subject, and trying to cover it in People magazine-style, let alone TV news sound bites, or Tweet-format, is not only impossible, but also a recipe for inaccuracy (see, for example, “you can keep your plan”).  Part of my reluctance to start has been simply that I wasn’t looking forward to all the disagreement, but I would hope that we can have a more reasoned discussion here, among friends, than is taking place in the media, or the halls of Congress.  The rest of delaying has been in trying to figure out how to organize this thing.  I’m probably going to tax WordPress.com’s publishing capabilities (I’m certainly going to exceed my abilities to use the site to organize a complex document), but I want to ensure that I provide good jumping off points for further research, or to at least demonstrate the due diligence I’ve performed in my research.  To that end, I’ll be posting a “bibliography” of sorts.  I’ll try to link to specific sources for statistics or quotes I reference.  I’m also going to provide my definition the problem as I understand it.  I will describe several possible approaches to solving the problem, and how those approaches are incorporated within the ACA.  Either embedded in that discussion, or separately (depending how all this comes together for organization purposes and readability) I’ll identify what I see as the strengths and the shortcomings of ACA.  Finally, I hope to talk about what I believe is the best path forward.  Somewhere in all that, I’m going to try to tackle a lot of the misperceptions that are out there today.

I mentioned earlier that I’m biased, and indeed passionate about the topic of  health care reform.  I guess the passion comes from the fact that I used to be pretty strongly biased against anything that smacked of government assistance.  I wrote papers in my undergrad days decrying the need to provide health care, unemployment, welfare, or any other type of handout.  I’m guessing my old Econ professor has probably departed this earth by now, but if he hasn’t, and were to read this today, he’d probably be dead from shock before he finished.  At one point, while acknowledging that the welfare system had become a multi-generational issue, I went so far as to advocate for systematically and forcefully removing all children from these dysfunctional welfare homes in order to break the generational cycle (one of the reasons I don’t get too excited about what any public figure over the age of 40 wrote, studied, or read while in college!).  As the saying goes, though, there’s nothing worse than a reformed smoker, or in this case, reformed ultra-conservative.  I believe that in the richest country in the world, that spends more per capita on health care than any other nation in the world, that people should not be impoverished because of catastrophic health issues, nor should they be forced to go forego necessary treatment because they can’t afford it.

So what happened to bring about this radical change in my thinking?  Several things.  First, somewhere along the way, I figured out that I had been the beneficiary of blind luck (ok, I don’t believe in luck, but providence gave me something that I never once sought or planned for).  I have had (virtually) free health care for all of my adult life, courtesy of the US government.  Even when I retired from the military, my annual expenditures for health care for my entire family, including annual premiums, co-pays, etc, was less than the monthly premium most people paid for private sector health insurance, not even considering deductibles, co-pays, and other out-of-pocket expenditures.  I wasn’t some genius who planned out how to achieve this level of health care security; I just joined the Army to jump out of airplanes.  Free health care came with the package–not that it meant anything to me when I signed the contract.

But my free government health care alone wasn’t enough to reform me; for many years my mantra was that I earned it through my service.  What really started me doubting my convictions that anybody could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, was when I started discovering friends who had worked way harder than I had, and were much stronger than me, whose bootstraps had broken.  I have a friend who owned a construction company, who literally built million dollar homes.  His work was amazing, and his business skills were quite good, but he lived in a rented duplex, and couldn’t afford health insurance for his family.  He wrenched his shoulder one day helping me get my snowmachine unstuck, and still has problems many years later, because he never went to the doctor to get the damage repaired.  He couldn’t afford it.  He eventually had to shutter his business, and go to work at a large company that offered benefits, just to take care of his family’s health needs.  I have another friend who is an amazing mechanic, and worked for many years on military vehicles as a civilian contractor.  Bouts with cancer and other medical issues, even with employer-provided medical insurance, bankrupted him, and continues to wreak havoc with his finances.  I just recently discovered that since he was medically retired, he no longer has the insurance he needs to pay for his liver transplant, and has been removed from the list.  Neither one of these guys were welfare bums; heck, they work harder than I do!  They are both smart, talented, and hardworking; they just ended up on a different life path than me; not through destructive choices, but because they decided to open their own business, in one case, or contracted some nasty disease in the other.

The final straw was when I started studying Christianity–that belief system that I have devoted my life to trying to live by.  The Bible says that man is created in the image of God; that all human life has intrinsic value.  Jesus didn’t give us the option to pick and choose who we would love or show Christian charity to; in fact in response to a religious legalist, who was looking for justification that he was loving his neighbor, and thereby obeying God and earning eternal life, Jesus told a health care parable.  Around the same time I was confronted with my own hypocrisy, the health care reform debate was going on in earnest, and I’d started blogging.  I wanted to engage in the discussion, but I wanted to do so from an informed position, so I started researching the issue, and writing about it.  (If you click on the “Health Care” category in the right column, you’ll get a list of posts I wrote starting back in 2009 on this topic, before ACA became law).  The more research I did, the more I discovered that our health care system in our country isn’t getting the job done, and lives are lost, and ruined, because of it.

Jesus said that I’m supposed to care for “the least of these,” and through his life and teaching demonstrated that I don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of my love and my care.  I don’t get to decide who doesn’t deserve adequate health care because they don’t meet my expectations of supporting themselves, or because they had too many babies, or whatever other reason I find for them to be unworthy.  The Bible is VERY clear that judging others is outside my scope.  I’m just supposed to love them.  That doesn’t mean think fuzzy puppy thoughts about them, that means meet their needs.  Jesus was in the healing business.  Unfortunately, too many folks in the US think us Pentecostals are crackpots, so although the same healing power that Jesus used is available to his followers today (see John 14:11-14, despite the desperately twisted hermeneutics John MacArthur and his friends try to employ to deny it), until such time as more Christians of this country are all filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re going to have to go to plan B or plan C.

More on those in the next installment.

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1.  The Affordable Care Act is the name for the 2010 legislation commonly (and derisively) referred to as “ObamaCare”.  I’m going to refrain from using that term, and instead stick to “ACA,” to try to take some of the venom out of the discussion. 

Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.