This has been quite a year for Friends in Common, not to mention the entire planet. During the fall election season, we became acutely aware of the political diversity within our group. With the pandemic it became increasingly clear that our responses to it were also divided. I worked on wording that would not sound judgmental, though I have to admit that of course, I was. The terms we agreed to use were Covid conscious and Covid casual. And so, we developed two groups. One met by Zoom regularly. The other met in person on Wednesday evenings after the official “stay at home orders” were dropped in Idaho. Bruce and I chose to not meet in person for much of the time until this spring. Having both been vaccinated, we returned to meeting in person recently. Interestingly, the Covid conscious group continues to meet via Zoom intergenerationally one Sunday morning a month because it has been a great venue to have the children share. Families can gather on their couch at home to share what they learned after completing a lesson together during the previous week. The distractions of meeting as a larger group in person are gone and participation is far more inclusive.
Just a few weeks ago the Wednesday night in-person group asked me to repeat the intergenerational lesson on Fairness, Equality, and Equity. I’ll share a few highlights of that lesson this morning because it leads into the topic that I want to explore today.
We began our lesson by watching a video reading of a children’s book entitled Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing. Here are my favorite illustrations from that book.
***Animals should definitely not wear clothing . . . . . . it would be disastrous for a porcupine, because a kangaroo would find it quite unnecessary, because opossums might wear it upside down by mistake, because it might make life hard for a hen.
. . .because it would be disastrous for a porcupine,
. . . because a kangaroo would find it quite unnecessary,
. . . because oppossums might wear it upside down,
. . . because it might make life hard for a hen.
We agreed the animals should not wear clothing because they just don’t need them.
We then moved on to a story entitled Fair is Fair. In this story a hare, a giraffe, and an elephant are friends in a zoo. One day they discover that the zookeeper gives them vastly differing amounts of food. They decide that’s not fair. So, they decide to take all their food put it together and divide it equally. Soon the hare is buried deep in rotting food, the giraffe is so fat she finds it hard to move around her enclosure, on the elephant is turning skinny and grumpy. The zookeeper makes this statement, “Fairness isn’t everyone getting the exact same thing. Fairness is everyone getting exactly what they need.”
The next step in the lesson was to note the difference between equality, giving everyone the same thing, and equity, giving everyone what they need, using some familiar illustrations.
The first illustration shows people of differing heights. For each to be able to pick apples, the people need different sized boxes to stand on in order to reach them.
The second illustration shows people of the same height trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. This time the people are all the same size but the ground is uneven. We had a great conversation about all the different ways that life brings us uneven ground
We then watched the following video which extends the concepts to include sensitivity to differences and the idea of privilege.
At this point in the lesson everything was going great, everyone was on track, we were moving right along. The younger kids were excused and we moved into a discussion about the parable of the vineyard owner and workers from Matthew Chapter 20. In this parable a vineyard owner goes early in the morning to hire workers. The early morning workers agree to work a full day for a fair day’s wage. He returns for more workers four more times during the day. The last group works for only an hour. At the end of the day the workers gathered to receive their pay. The workers hired last were paid first. They received a full day’s pay. Those workers that were hired first then expected to receive greater pay because they had worked longer hours. This was not to be. All the workers received the same day’s wage. The workers complained to the vineyard owner. ***The parable states.
“He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’”
The great thing about parables is that they allow for a wide variety of interpretations and our interpretations reflect our worldviews. Our discussion of this parable certainly did that. AND THEN I shared the following blog post on the parable. Before I share it with you, I would like to offer the disclaimer that I shared it because I thought it was interesting. I was not necessarily advocating this point of view. Here is what I shared from a blogpost entitled The Partially Examined Life:
Jesus’s political philosophy would fall between social democracy and communism. There’s a hint that exists about his (Jesus’) approach to equality and fairness. “You have made them equal to us” the first workers grumble (v. 12), which is ironic because the landowner has not actually treated them equally. In a society based on treating everyone strictly equally, workers would be paid an equal wage for their work, and this would only be equal if it was in proportion to how much work they had done. But that isn’t what happens in the parable. Likewise, an ideal of equality would require that the landowner be equally generous to all the workers, paying the first twelve times what he pays the last (assuming they worked for twelve hours). Hence, although there is an egalitarian thread running right through Jesus’ philosophy, it’s clear that with this parable he’s not calling for an economy where people are treated strictly equally.
“Luck eqalitarianism” is an approach to fairness that strives for equality of opportunity (rather than equality of outcome) by equalizing the effects of luck, on the rationale that distinctions of luck are arbitrary, having no moral import (Anderson, 154-5_. In the case of the prarble, this theory holds it fair that the last workers are paid the same as the first, because they were all trying to work for the day, it is just that the first were lucky enough to be hired earlier.”Peter Hardy, partiallyexaminedlife.com
What followed sharing this blog was an impassioned discussion that led to one person becoming visibly upset, choosing to leave the meeting. Instead of walking carefully to avoid the disruption and discomfort of our political diversity, we chose to address it directly. Our friend, Stephen, sent the following message: “Hey, good people, there’s an old saying that you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Since we ain’t about “polite company”, and we’ve already broken the religion rule, maybe we should dive into politics this Wednesday?”
We agreed and at our next time together discussed the following queries which were quite helpful:
What is one aspect of our political system that you find beneficial and helpful?
What is one thing you would like to see improved?
In what way do these preferences reflect your values?
Where is it important for you to have an influence on political decisions and why?
We had other good queries, but our sharing around these first ones motivated my thoughts for today. Several persons shared that their primary value was personal freedom. Freedom was definitely a theme in the discussion. I came away with the need to dig deeper into this topic.
I began by reviewing some of our nation’s historic documents.
***The Declaration of Independence states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
***The Preamble to the Constitution of the United Sates uses the phrase “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.
***The first time we see the word “freedom” in the U.S. Constitution is in the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
***Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address described our nation as “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He ended his speech with the hope that, “this nation shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Liberty and Freedom. Are they the same thing?
***The Oxford language dictionary defines liberty as the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.
***The same dictionary defines freedom as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
Professor Butler Shafer from Southwestern Law School who is known for writing libertarian books states,
“Freedom is the condition that exists within the mind. It’s the inner sense of integrity. It’s an inner sense of living without conflict, without contradiction, without various divisions and so forth. Liberty is a condition that arises from free people living together in society. Liberty is a social condition. Freedom is the inner philosophical and psychological condition.”
When wrestling with a subject, particularly one with ethical implications, I often turn to the Bible. It’s in my soul. So much of my upbringing was centered not so much on WWJD (What would Jesus do?) but WDTBS (What does the Bible say?) It was so clear way back then. Despite the complexities and ambiguities of faith in my life now, I still find the Bible a reliable reference point for ethical quandaries. So, I came with the question, ***“How might I think about personal freedom and civil liberties as one seeking to follow Christ?”
I found great guidance in the book of Galatians. I’m going to read the verses that seem to summarize how this book connects to the topic of equality, equity, fairness, and freedom. I’ll be reading mostly from chapter 5 without much commentary. Though the book of Galatians is addressing people compelling others to adhere to the mosaic law, I see parallels to our current deeply divided politics. I am reading from The Message version of the Bible.
I, Paul, and my companions in faith here, send greetings to the Galatian churches. …I greet you with the great words grace and peace! (Gal 1:1,3)
This section from chapter 3 summarizes the context of the book of Galatians.
You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. …Let me put this question to you: how did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s message to you? …
Answer this question: does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?…
Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the mosaic law. … But now you have arrived at your destination: by faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God.
Paul is contrasting here a life of religious and moral obligation to a life of free-flowing union with and in the Spirit of God characterized by grace and peace. The next chapters elaborate on some of the characteristics of this life in the Spirit.
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female, among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. (Gal. 3:28,29)
Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! (The NKJV translation says,” Standfast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” Gal. 5:1)
For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love. (Gal. 5:6)
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; That’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s word is summed up in a single sentence: love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out – in no time at all you’ll be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then? (Gal. 5:13-15)
My council is this: live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law dominated existence? (Gal. 5:16-18)
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another were worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. … Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (Gal. 5:25-6, 6:4-5)
The creative best I can do right now is to embrace the wonderful and annoying diversity that exists in my faith community and the world at large without judging the people that hold viewpoints that differ from my own as better or worse, worthy or unworthy. I can choose to view each person and viewpoint as valuable and necessary. I can hold the ideals of liberty and freedom as precious understanding that the most helpful exercise of each holds at its roots selfless love for my neighbor. ***In each political discussion and decision, I can lean into the Spirit’s guidance asking: How are equality and equity represented in this issue? How are a person’s needs being met in this moment or with this decision? (What’s fair here?) Is this an issue where personal freedom, civil liberties, and love of neighbor are out of balance? If so, what is needed to care for my neighbors?
What are the values that inform your political viewpoints and guide your conversations around contentious issues?
How do you understand freedom in the context of your faith?
This message was delivered to Spokane Friends Church by Leann Williams on Sunday, June 13, 2021.