August 29, 2009

Choosing Our Truths

Many years ago, my church was involved in a pissing match with its own academics who were examining church history from a dispassionate scholarly perspective. Before taking drastic action (eventually several professors were excommunicated) one of the church's Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, gave an address that was meant to rein in activities that had been deemed overly critical. His remarks have haunted me ever since. Among them Packer made several statements that have since been repeated at various times when the church experienced one embarrassing episode or another. The central theme of his address can be summarized by the following excerpt.

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.
This begs a question: Useful for what purpose? Packard goes on to describe the effort to explain church history as a kind of war--a war in which members should take strong positions.
In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel...In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be given equal time to the adversary.
(The entire discourse can be found at:

There is so much in his comments that sadden me, as it's a perfect example of the problem of apologetic thinking. Packer profers the Mormon view that the church is "true" (i.e. perfect and correct in all its particulars) as an undisputed fact and condemns any action that would question it. By getting members to agree to this thinking, the only option they have is to build upon the premise without ever considering its value. He essentially says, "Don't worry about the truthfulness of the church. That has been established. Your duty is to do everything in your power to depict the church as true--even by ignoring evidence that contradicts the premise."

This idea reminds me of what happened during China's cultural revolution (not to mention other horrific episodes in our earth's history). Ying Chang Compestine, who was a child living in China during the 60s, summarizes the advent of the cultural revolution by saying: One day children were encouraged to ask questions--the next day, they were told they didn't need to know. In this way, to tell members that there are things they don't need to know about their church--things that are perhaps true, but not useful--is little more than an attempt at mind control.

There are all kinds of ways to effect mind control. All it takes is to prevent otherwise curious people from asking questions. Today's debate on healthcare, which appears more focused on ideology than fact, is a case in point. Recent coverage of town hall meetings record a public discourse that has become a shouting match full of unproven and hollow assertions, where people seem more concerned with scoring points--even to the extent of distorting the truth--than in ascertaining what is best for the public good. Arguments are couched in terms of their consistency with the ideals of our nation's founders, when those who make such claims are clearly no more familiar with the Constitution as they are with Shinto scripture. Shouting down people's questions and misquoting Jefferson are two ways to prevent an "un-useful" truth from getting heard.

August 28, 2009

The Only Excuse

I used to think there was only one excuse in life and it was this:

I didn’t want it badly enough.

I honestly believed that the only thing keeping people from achieving their greatest aspirations was the kind of desire that led to perseverance and hard work. For myself, I literally thought no accomplishment was beyond my grasp. If I so desired, I could be a billionaire or president of the United States (not that either was ever my goal). All it would take is uncompromising single-mindedness and hard work.

That personal philosophy made me incredibly intolerant. (Actually, my wife had a better word for what it made me: an asshole). I had no patience for the castoffs of the world. I reckoned they had nothing to complain about, since they simply hadn’t wanted the alternative—a productive and fulfilled life—badly enough. And now that I think about it, that viewpoint led me to believe all people got what they’d wanted most. So what if after a few life lessons and their attendant consequences, the castoffs would now opt for a different set of circumstances. That, too, was obtainable. All they had to do is want it.

Then something happened. First, one of my sons got sick. That was certainly something I couldn’t will away. Though he has since recovered and is fine today, dealing with the illness and its aftermath stole much of my former optimism and replaced it with a recognition that there’s something deceitful and mean in my old worldview. Other disappointments followed, leading me to understand that humans are incredibly fragile creatures, despite their chest-pounding demonstrations of toughness. The truth is, for all of us the difference between a good life and a miserable existence will occasionally be measured in a second’s hesitation, or an inch in the wrong direction.

Many accomplished people believe their successes are the rewards of great desire and stick-to-itiveness. Since that’s partly right they’re welcome to their belief, but they should also know that many others are just as deserving, but didn’t get the luck of the draw. This idea is central to Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken. It's not so much about the value of choosing the less-traveled path, as how much of life is left open to chance. Seemingly innocuous decisions (should I go right or left?) can “make all the difference.”

That’s why we must do everything in our power to make sure all people have access to medical care. Perhaps you won’t need the guaranteed coverage, but you can never tell about the luck of the draw. Besides, someone you love might need it and all you'll be able to do is watch and wonder why there isn't help available.

August 12, 2009

Heal the Sick

I've been on vacation the last week, which partially explains why I haven't written here lately. I was in the American heartland, in an area where the majority of people seem to think our president is a Muslim terrorist. Despite that prevailing worldview, I enjoyed my vacation, but there was an unspoken agreement between me and those I'd gone to visit: We would not broach the subject of politics. In the past, doing so had only lead to rancour between us.

Yet, I suppose the temptation was too great and the topic did come up once when I was asked if I was still glad that I'd voted for President Obama. My answer lead to two follow-up questions, both of which were asked with utmost incredulity:
  • Even with respect to cap and trade?
  • Even with respect to healthcare?
There was a lot I could have said about both topics, but I didn't. I knew a response would lead to no good and I'd promised myself that I wouldn't be goaded into any arguments. So I walked away.

But my inquisitors don't read my blog--just like I don't read their emails speculating about where the president might really have been born--so let me offer a couple of observations. Regarding the first follow-up question, as I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog, though I don't believe the Bible to be the final arbiter on the subject, I can highly recommend its commandment to replenish the earth. While the history of civilization suggests we're more inclined to rape and pillage the world we live in, the least we can do is to put limits on our actions and minimize their effects. Apparently, however, there are a great number of people in the world who don't believe global warming is caused by our rampant consumption of natural resources.

If anything, I'm even more emotional about the second follow-up question--so emotional, in fact, that I'm willing to offer this bitter pill and risk offending others: Anyone who is working to derail our chance at making healthcare available to all, cannot in good conscience call him or herself Christian. I base this assertion on the following claim Jesus made:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Isn't it clear that Christ would have us minister to all the sick? But even if I didn't believe in His gospel, I would still be an ardent supporter of any reasoned attempt to make heathcare available to all. Why? Because: 1) I have empathy for people and 2) I know that despite the best of intentions and plans, human beings--through no fault of their own--occasionally find themselves in the most precarious of circumstances. Here is how it can happen.
  • Despite the messages of their schmaltzy commercials, the objective of most insurers is to make money, not to help people. They will rescind policies any time it makes economic sense to do so. The possibility of losing public trust is all that stands in the way of capricious behavior on the part of insurers. When they get in trouble, policy rescission becomes an integral part of their business strategies. And it happens at the worst possible time--when a health condition has been diagnosed and the policy is most needed.
  • Insurers occasionally go bankrupt, in which case policyholders with pre-existing conditions are left with few--if any--options.
  • For young people just starting out, health insurance premiums can be prohibitively expensive. My son, Matthew, can't get his wife covered by his graduate school's insurance policy due to university budget cuts. The cost of private insurance is over half his take-home pay.
  • Coverage can change or be eliminated with a boardroom decision made by an insurer or a group policy sponsor. If you're diabetic (or suffer from any range of chronic ailments) and you lose coverage, where do you go today for healthcare?
  • And at this time in which an unprecedented number of people are unemployed, how can anyone say they're safe from a loss of coverage? Of course, there is COBRA, but in the event that coverage was curtailed due to job loss, who can afford to pay COBRA premiums (not to mention mortgage payments) without a job?
  • During any temporary loss of insurance, the development of pre-existing conditions can limit people's insurance options and even render them uninsurable. Chances are by the time a typical child becomes an adult, he or she has undergone a surgical procedure or drug regimen that can be indicative of a pre-existing condition. Someone I care about dearly was recently denied coverage because of a drug regimen prescribed to her that might have indicated the occurence of OCD.

At the very least, we should be engaged in a thoughtful conversation about healthcare and avoid screaming epithets and clever sound bites at each other. Before derailing the effort, let's put a face to the problem and think of what we might do if one of our own children were sick and uninsured. But as a final word, I'm going to repeat my earlier assertion: Anyone who is working against the effort to bring healthcare to the least of these, cannot in my mind be called a Christian.