Church

Association

Shock about turnout is sinking in two days after the election. Many, many more people voted for the incumbent than polling suggested would. I don’t have a polling take or a sociological analysis, but I’ve thought a lot since Tuesday about something I witnessed at a church meeting years ago that suggests a partial explanation.

At a presbytery gathering, an overture was submitted by a session (the elected governing board of a congregation) that was related to a hot-button issue. This presbytery was deeply divided over this issue, as everyone knew. The overture was sent out to members days ahead of the meeting, so everyone showed up knowing that this would be on the agenda. I expected drama.

When the overture was introduced and the floor opened for discussion, the Moderator instructed those speaking for and those speaking against to line up at opposing microphones, so that he could call on them to speak in turn. Immediately a handful of bodies queued at the “against” microphone. Nobody stood in support. The Moderator called on the first “against” speaker, who said what she came to say and was rewarded with hearty nods from her against compatriots, and then the Moderator turned to call on someone at the “for” microphone, but there was still nobody there. He chuckled nervously and then turned back to the “against” line and called on another speaker.

When the second speaker finished there was still nobody at the “for” microphone, so the Moderator began to plead. “Is anyone going to speak in favor of the overture?” After several seconds of silence, someone finally stood and issued a few halfhearted sentences of endorsement from his seat. He didn’t even walk the 15 feet between him and the microphone.

Several more people spoke against and not another soul spoke for, so that when the time came to vote defeat was assured. And, as expected, the overture was defeated. By one vote.

I gasped. My perception of the people I was sharing that room with got spun around and upside down in an instant. I had mistaken the conversation for the reality. Half of the voters knew their vote before it was called for and didn’t feel the need to change a single mind about it. I suspected immediately that the pro camp had coordinated ahead of time, though I could never prove that, and even if they had that would be their right. Still, the incident shook my confidence in what I know about what is really going on during deliberations.

Democratic decision making (which my church uses) associates public statements with intention. I’ve long questioned that association.

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Church

Ignorance

There seems to be a strategic ignorance built in to the administration of American elections. At least in the precinct I served as a pollworker on Tuesday, each of us knew just enough to get voters through the process at a snail’s pace, using the provided manual as a guide for the first several. We had separate functions that were not coordinated, through which we rotated as the day went on, under the watchful eye of two Election Coordinators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican (the pollworkers were split evenly between the parties too). All of us were first timers, and none of us had met, except the student pollworker and I, because he goes to my church.

Strategic ignorance.

We could not have perpetrated election fraud if we’d wanted to. I suspect that is the case with the overwhelming majority of polling places across the country.

Ignorance is (democratic) bliss.

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Church

Loyalists

When someone you care about is in a relationship with a person who treats them badly, they are often unable to hear your critical assessment of that person. They will tell you that you don’t really know her or that you simply misunderstand his behavior. When you criticize the person your friend admires and relates to, you almost certainly secure their devotion them. If you persist in pointing out flaws, your friend may turn against you, though those flaws be severe or even dangerous. If your friend is to see the object of their affection the way you see her and assess her behavior with the standards used by everyone who isn’t in love with her, it will not be because you made a persuasive case about her shortcomings. It will more likely be because your friend got hurt and saw it for themselves. You won’t relish your friend’s injury, but your sympathy will be diminished by the hurt of being ignored and of having your motives maligned.

People who are enthralled with a leader are no more receptive to criticism of that leader than your friend. Pointing out graft, dishonesty, and incompetence–vices carried out in broad daylight and scrupulously documented–will only increase many peoples’ devotion. More than the leader’s vices, those people will be angered at you, and when it comes to choosing whom to believe the contest won’t be close. If the leader shoots someone on Fifth Avenue, loyalists will demand that you prove it was really him, and provided that evidence will question the source. The only way the shooting irritates the loyalist is if they’re the target, in which case you will remind her about all your warnings, though by that point you both will have much bigger problems to deal with.

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“I Love You But I Disagree”

Does love of a friend or family member require agreement with their political views? Of course not (see James Carville and Mary Matlin). Love is aided by shared conviction, but it doesn’t depend on it. Persisting in a loving relationship with people with whom they disagree intensely is something mature people do.

Yet our relationships deserve better than to let “I love you but I disagree” be the last word–and that statement always aims to be the last word. Loving someone does not demand converting them, but it asks more than abandoning them to views that are wrong or harmful. Why isn’t “I love you so let’s keep talking” better than “I love you but I disagree?”

Some people I love are influenced by misinformation, and it doesn’t feel loving to shrug my shoulders and call it “their opinion.” I hope they wouldn’t leave me in a similar state.

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Church

Mockery

I have less and less appetite for prankery and humiliation-as-entertainment as I get older. In college my friends and I held weekly watch parties to screen “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary about a community theater troupe in small town Missouri, quoting every stupid thing the movie’s buffoonish characters said, but when I re-watched it a few years ago the delight was markedly diminished. North of 40, I’m less amused by mockery of the earnest and unsuspecting than I was at 20.

Which is why I have no time for Borat. The brief clips of it I’ve seen trade in the humiliation of people who, though they represent reprehensible attitudes and behaviors, are being immortalized as the worst versions of themselves captured under false pretenses. It is the lowest form of cultural commentary. It makes us all meaner and less informed.

The way out of polarization is surely not Kumbaya fantasies of worldwide hand-holding, but neither is it gleeful disparagement of the worst tendencies of those we disagree with, even dislike. People need persuaded, and embarrassment is the absolute wrong tool for that.

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Both

Within minutes of the final out I had text messages from two friends, one exuberant and the other bereft. Being a fan of neither team, I was invited to experience victory and defeat simultaneously through these two, identifying with the joy of one and the heartbreak of the other.

“It’s ridiculous how happy this has made me.”

“Baseball is stupid and I hate it.”

Yes and yes. Always.

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Church

Lies

I can’t adequately account for clicking on the political ad atop my YouTube feed when I opened the app on my phone yesterday. My best defense is that I’ve been seeing–and ignoring–those ads several times a day for weeks now, and I’ve been a good boy, not clicking on a one, even if it was obviously a booster to my preferred candidate. Surely a click of one by the other guy out of curiosity would be harmless. It might even be virtuous.

Lies. All lies. All the lies.

Shock at dishonesty online is a tired posture in 2020. We are over 20 years into the internet era by now, and we have had nearly a decade to get used to algorithm-driven and advertising-supported social media. That this information ecosystem is exploited to mislead and confuse its users cannot come as a surprise.

But it must be resisted. Improving the trustworthiness of mass communication channels is as morally urgent as any change we seek, because, as opponents to change know well, confusion aids the status quo. Meaningful correction of climate change, advances in racial equity, redressing the wealth gap, expansion of health care–none of these stand a chance of persuading a needed majority unless changes are made at the personal and regulatory levels to curb the ability of opponents to lie about them. Of course, this means that we must not lie about them either.

We are six days from an election, and everyone is tired of the heightened tension and animosity that is driving our politics, including yours truly. Yet I suspect that’s the point to peppering the public with infuriating claims that are demonstrably false: to wear us down. Once we are too tired by it all to keep checking for facts and questioning sources we have been neutralized.

Let’s not be neutralized.

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Church

They

They won. They cheated. They lied. They don’t care about us, they only care about power. They are hypocrites. They stole. They will do it again.

Who we identify as “they” makes a world of difference to who we are becoming. Are they a relatively small group of disproportionately powerful actors taking advantage of a flawed system, or are they an entire community constitutionally bent toward vice?

How we think about who is responsible for the wrong we see in the world is a huge part of our character. Immaturity views it either simply–individual choices made by equally enabled agents–or conspiratorially. Both of those rely heavily on anecdotal evidence and limited personal experience.

A maturing understanding of why things are going the way they are probably comes from engaging decision-making systems and processes directly and seeking constructive engagement with the “they” we believe is working against the things we care about. That feels harder and harder to do, not just because of the pandemic, but also because the media environment we inhabit runs on the less mature alternative.

Still, there’s nothing stopping us in this environment from connecting, both to understanding and insight and to people.

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Church

Youth Zoom Sunday Zoom Sunday Youth Sunday Zoom Youth

A Confirmation leader announced that she bought a treadmill, prompted by a student’s sharing last week that her dream job was to be a Peloton instructor. “That’s what you said, right?”, the leader asked the student. The student mutely shook her head no. I asked the leader if she can get her money back on the treadmill. She didn’t laugh.

An 8th grader shared that he built his own computer, then chastised me for being impressed. “Anyone can do it,” he said.

A senior high student confirmed that he and I will be serving as election judges together at the same precinct.

A 6th grader perfectly recalled the mneumonic I taught last month for remembering the major narrative parts of the Bible (hat tip to Mark DeVries).

In response to the gospel story about Jesus being tempted by the Devil, one student types in the chat, “My friend tried to summon Satan she’s weird.” Not completely sure “she” means the friend.

A junior high leader led a game of Family Feud, and I was wrong to answer that jumping on a trampoline is something you would avoid if you are afraid of heights.

Junior high leaders suggest trading our end-of-the-hour debriefs for extend socializing time with students, who are eager to stick around and chat.

Zoom is not preventing youth ministry from doing what youth ministry does.

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