Of Presidential Vacations and Diminished Leisure

Posted today in Tikkun Daily

At a time when too many people are out of work and too many others are holding down two or three jobs just to survive, it might seem a bit frivolous to lament the lost art of leisure. But leisure—restorative time—is a basic human need. And fewer people are getting the benefit of it, apparently even when they’re on paid vacations.

A new Harris survey finds that more than half of all U.S. employees planned to work during their summer vacations this year—up six percent from the previous year. (Email is a prime suspect in this crime against leisure.) Soon enough, all of us will be taking presidential-style vacations like the one starting tomorrow. That’s when the Obamas arrive on Martha’s Vineyard, no doubt just in time for the president’s first briefing on national security.

In my mind, no one has gone to the philosophical and theological heart of this matter more tellingly than the German American thinker Josef Pieper in his 1952 classic, Leisure: the Basis of Culture.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if man himself is capable of leisure,” he wrote. In Pieper’s book, workaholics are not the only ones who might be leisure challenged. Some of the most avid vacationers, with clear goals in mind for their getaways, might also be missing the point.

To understand why, one must appreciate the degree to which leisure is a state of mind, “a condition of the soul,” as Pieper styled it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness. “Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” he explained, resting on St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that virtue resides in “the good rather than the difficult.”

Those looking for useful tips on how to get more out of their leisure will not find them in Pieper’s meditations. Leisure is not something we do to “get” anything, in fact. According to him, it is worthwhile in itself, not merely a means toward an end.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. “Messing about” was how G.K. Chesterton put it. So a Chestertonian leisure activity could be almost anything—say, tennis. But the purpose wouldn’t be to “work on my backhand,” as they say.

What is the ultimate form of leisure? Pieper’s answer is not what many would give, including those of us who have experienced the unrest of being with fidgety children in a house of prayer. But for Pieper, the very image of leisure is divine worship.

Celebrating God in a holy place is leisure at its most sublime because it’s something we do purely for its own sake (or else it is not divine worship), Pieper taught. He explained that when people are truly at leisure, they are transported beyond the workaday world into another realm. And this is what transpires in the rituals, he submitted: “Man is carried away by it, thrown into ecstasy.” I’d call it a “mystical” realm or simply a “restorative” one before I’d say “ecstatic.”

It’s getting harder to plumb those depths of leisure, even if you’re blessed with paid vacation time (and increasing numbers of Americans are not). Still trickier, it doesn’t really work if you’re trying. …read more

In the NSA Debate, Where’s the Common Good?

TheoPol is off its weekly schedule, running occasionally during the summer.

As I scan the headlines and hear the radio talk about the federal surveillance program, one thought keeps coming to me: Why don’t I give a poop about any of this?

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand the implications of collecting domestic telephone data. Or maybe it’s because I cling to the rustic notion of the common good, in which personal liberties are of course balanced with the needs of community. That would basically mean balancing my right not to be surveilled with our need not to be bombed.

There’s a chance I’d react differently if the NSA’s algorithms were to spit out a particular innocent person—me. And I guess there are real questions that need to be answered about the NSA program, questions framed well by the Times today. But I don’t feel that the government is necessarily trampling upon my liberty, by scanning for networks and patterns of telephone use. Google already knows more about me than I know about me.

And then there’s that quaint idea of the common good. What is it, anyway? Someone in the field of Catholic social ethics once said that defining the common good is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But that hasn’t stopped theologians and church authorities from hammering away at it.

For instance, the Second Vatican Council defined the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members ready access to their own fulfillment.” There goes the gelatin, dribbling from the wall.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to get more of a handle on the concept, by breaking it up into pieces. The Catechism cited three components of the common good: 1) “respect for the person” (including individual freedom and liberties); 2) “social well-being and development” (including rights to basic things like food and housing); and 3) peace—“that is, the stability and security of a just order,” the Catechism said.

It’s abstract, but I like it. The Catechism’s rendering makes it clear that this principle is about balancing, not choosing between, various personal and social goods.

But I think the common good will always be subject to the Potter Stewart rule of knowing it when you see it. I see it in a raft of initiatives like gun control and progressive taxation, and yes, maybe even in Obama’s surveillance program. The critics of that program have real concerns about personal liberties, but these ought to be balanced with “social well-being” and “the stability and security of a just order.” The common good would seem to call for that. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 1

Minimum wageIf the word “democracy” means anything, it means that the people usually wind up getting their way—after careful deliberation by representative bodies and broad public debate. Much has been made of the fact that the American people haven’t gotten their way lately with regard to gun control. Recent polls indicated that nearly 90 percent of Americans thought universal background checks were a sensible idea, but 54 members of the U.S. Senate disagreed. As a result, a modest bill to that effect was gunned down.

Gun control is probably not the most eye-raising case of public sentiment ignored, however. That distinction might well go to a bread-and-butter issue: the minimum wage.

The people began favoring stricter gun laws only recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, and it appears the trend is already letting up. On the other hand, for decades polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage rocketing somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, depending on factors including the size of the raise. Americans aren’t polarized on this issue; the politicians are.

In March, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of the people favored President Obama’s proposal to lift the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be the largest increase ever passed by Congress. Past polling indicates that if people were simply being asked whether they support an unspecified increase in the minimum, or a somewhat lesser amount, the backing would be even stronger.

50 Percent of Republicans

Try to identify a single major subgroup of Americans that doesn’t want to see the minimum wage go up.

You’d think, for example, that self-identified conservatives would be pretty down on the idea. They aren’t, according to the Gallup survey. They favored the $1.75 hike by a clean 54-44 percent margin. Meanwhile the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent). Republicans were the only subgroup that didn’t give clear majority support to the proposal—but even they backed it by a plurality, 50-48 percent.

And keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively big jump for the minimum wage. The numbers, again, would undoubtedly be higher if the boost were smaller. Very, very few people would be opposed to a raise, in principle.

There appears to be a common moral sense among Americans that a full-time wage shouldn’t keep a family in poverty; it should get a family out of poverty. Whether the federal minimum wage is the only way to do that is, of course, debatable (there’s also the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance). In any event, Obama’s $9 an hour wouldn’t get a family there. It would deliver a $3,000 a year raise to minimum wage workers, a bump up to $18,000 a year. That’s more than four thousand dollars below the official (and badly outdated) federal poverty line for a family of four.

And that’s why liberal Democrats recently pushed a bill that would have ramped up the minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Even that higher amount is quite a bit lower than what the minimum wage would be today if it had merely kept up with inflation since the late 1960s. There were no takers, however, on the other side of the aisle.

On March 15, Republicans in the House of Representatives unanimously rejected the $10.10 proposal. Six Democrats joined them, in voting it down 233-184. If there’s a common moral sense on this issue, it doesn’t seem to be broadly shared in Congress.

Note: for Part 2, go here. …read more

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

Even Less Moral

Niebuhr on Time’s cover, March 8, 1948

In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.

The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.

One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”

The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.

For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.

Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:

The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.

As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”

Plutocracy Revisited

Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”

The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.

Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.

Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.

Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.

At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.

Niebuhr Now

Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.

At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.

Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.

With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power. …read more

Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …read more

The Lost Art of “Messing About”

G.K. Chesterton: "Leisure is being allowed to do nothing."

Americans have a fraught relationship with leisure, as might be gleaned from two stories that spilled through a news cycle recently. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the press reported that the Obamas have decided to spare us the annual debate over their summer excursion to well-heeled Martha’s Vineyard by skipping the trip this year. Meanwhile, the Romney clan spent a full week jet skiing and speed boating along the family’s sprawling compound in New Hampshire. The president’s politically calculated move was seen as prudent at a time of voter distress over the economy; the Romneys were chided for having a bit too much fun in the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

We the people are ambivalent about leisure, and not just when it comes to our leaders decamping to privileged havens. Throughout our history we have often viewed leisure with suspicion, as a form of idleness or a flight from responsibility. Maybe that’s why there’s an unmistakable quality of busyness in our leisure, a feeling of urgency and determination.

As the writer and architect Witold Rybczynski noted in his landmark 1991 book, Waiting for the Weekend, people used to “play” tennis, but now they “work” on their backhands. He and many other commentators have noted that leisure has become unleisurely in this and many other respects. Or perhaps it was always so in a country molded (in some salutary ways) by the Protestant work ethic.

On this particular score, I’ll take G.K. Chesterton over Luther or Calvin. The English Catholic writer pointed out that leisure is not just the liberty to do something. More profoundly, he said (as cited by Rybczynski): “Leisure is being allowed to do nothing.” Chesterton also once quipped, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was extolling the pointless pursuit of play.

Of course many people are leisure-deprived. Well before the economic crisis, average Americans were working longer hours just to stay afloat or hold their ground; couples were pressed into what has become the 90-hour family workweek. As for the jobless, they’re not exactly enjoying an extended vacation. That is, unless you agree with those wooly-headed economists who regard unemployment as voluntary and thus a form of leisure.

Still, even if everyone were blessed with livable wages and adequate free time, we’d still have a leisure problem, at least according to a noble tradition of ethical thought on this matter.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if … man himself is capable of leisure,” the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote in his 1952 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In other words, leisure isn’t just two weeks of paid vacation. It’s a state of mind—“a condition of the soul,” as Pieper phrased it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness.

“Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” Pieper wrote 60 years ago. Here, the philosopher was tapping a tradition that goes back to Aristotle and owes as well to St. Thomas Aquinas, who stressed that virtue resides in the good rather than the difficult. In that way of thinking, the truest and most restorative leisure is never something done as a means toward an end, like improving a backhand. It’s something we do purely for its own sake, for the sheer, goal-less joy of it.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. Chesterton’s pastimes were sketching and collecting weapons, but in spirit he was, as he put it, just “messing about.” …read more

The Bonhoeffer Café

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian, pacifist, almost assassin of Adolph Hitler—continues to fascinate. This summer will bring the perennial crop of academic conferences about the German Lutheran’s life and legacy. The Beams Are Creaking, a biographical play about Bonhoeffer, is currently being presented by Houston’s A. D. Players. And I just heard this past week about a new café not far from where I live—Bonhoeffer’s, in Nashua, New Hampshire, which uses proceeds to aid orphans and refugees in impoverished countries.

Bonhoeffer was on the menu this past February at the always-strange National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. During his keynote speech, bestselling conservative author Eric Metaxas claimed that George W. Bush had recently read his 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer. Then he handed a copy of the 608-page doorstop to the man sitting a few feet away from him—Barack Obama—and said jejunely, “No pressure.” With Obama straining to smile, Metaxas also suggested that legal abortion was akin to Nazism.

Bonhoeffer is in perpetual “vogue,” as the Christian literary review Books & Culture has pronounced. That’s an ironic way of commending the clergyman who railed against superficiality in all matters religious, and could not indulge what he called “cheap grace,” the easy path to discipleship.

One lesson of Bonhoeffer’s witness is that the Christian Church must always be a church, must always pay ultimate loyalty to God, not to false gods, which for Bonhoeffer included Nazi ideology. While still in his twenties, Bonhoeffer, who began his theological career at the University of Berlin, emerged at the forefront of the Confessing Church, an ecclesial movement that arose in 1934 with a call for German Christians to resist the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer’s Choice

There are incongruities in the Bonhoeffer story, and the most tantalizing has to do with the choice that sealed his martyrdom. He was a pacifist who never renounced his belief that violence is antithetical to Christian faith, as revealed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet beginning in early 1938, he joined in a succession of conspiracies to murder Hitler, while spying for the Allies. This turn from pure nonviolence has led some, including conservative Christians like Metaxas, to fancy that Bonhoeffer would have cheered America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this conjecture seems to miss an essential point about the man and his thinking. Scholars note that Bonhoeffer—who recorded his thoughts in letters smuggled out of prison—did not rationalize his actions other than to say that the situation was extreme. The theologian felt that his decision to join in the conspiracies against the Fuhrer “was not justified by law or principle, but rather was a free act of Christian responsibility, for which he threw himself on the mercy of God,” Clifford Green, a Lutheran minister and eminent Bonhoeffer scholar who taught at Hartford Theological Seminary, told me a few years ago.

This ethic may be too subtle for retail politics, but it’s powerful still. In the most acute moral emergencies, we can do what we have to do, to stop a tyrant or head off genocide. But let’s not fool ourselves. There will be plenty to atone for, and little cause for self-congratulation.

What is indisputable is that Bonhoeffer accepted “the cost of discipleship,” which are the title words of his 1937 classic. On the morning of April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, he was stripped, led naked to the gallows, and hung for his part in the plots to assassinate Hitler. At that moment, historians say, Bonhoeffer could hear American artillery in the distance.

He was 39 years old. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated the city. …read more

Penitence and Politics

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998

Some recent political volleys invite another go at the much-parodied line from Love Story that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The 2012 take might be that loving the United States of America means never saying we’re sorry for its misdeeds. Thus we have Mitt Romney’s campaign book No Apology: Believe in America, and the accusation by him and others that President Obama has flown off on “apology tours,” which is by and large a fantasy but involves a few instances in which Obama—like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him—has tendered apologies to people abroad for things done in America’s name. In February Rick Santorum chided the president for apologizing after the U.S. military inadvertently burned Qurans in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Santorum popped up on the apology circuit himself, telling interviewers that America owed one to the families of 16 Afghan civilians massacred by a U.S. soldier.

Contrition can be as dishonorable from a certain patriotic view as it is desirable from a theological perspective. But as the Christian season of Lent draws to a close, it’s worth noting the times when a spirit of penitence has helped transform relationships at various levels of fractious societies.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which fashioned a peace there in 1998, was built in part on myriad acts of apology. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders helped set the tone by exchanging mutual apologies for atrocities committed historically by their communities. Paramilitary leaders on both sides followed with their own gestures of repentance, some more heartfelt than others.

In a number of strife-ridden countries, apology and its near twin, acknowledgment, have lighted paths to justice and social healing. In South Africa, those who committed human rights crimes during decades of white minority rule were given a choice: tell the truth for all to hear or face prosecution. In Rwanda, repentance became the signature piece of national reconciliation efforts following the tribal genocide in 1994.

Ritualized Lamentation

At times theological resources have helped bring crucial acknowledgments to the surface. In one of the longest-running efforts at post-conflict reconciliation, people who took warring sides in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s have come together for ecumenical and interfaith seminars in church basements. These are mostly laypeople from the Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and ethnic Albanian Muslim communities. With the help of third-party facilitators, they have dug deeply into the tradition of laments, the communal expressions of grief and distress in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Rev. David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister and an American conflict-resolution expert, led many of the original seminars in the wake of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans. He explained to me recently that the purpose of ritualized lamentation in ancient Israel was to “offer up to God all injury and hurt so that God could heal the pain and bring justice.” Steele’s own purpose is not simply to help people voice their grievances against other communities. He also brings them to the verge of acknowledging wrongdoing by their own groups. This too is part of the lament motif. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, identifies the suffering of the Jews but also asks his people to critically examine themselves and their society.

In another conversation I had with Steele almost a decade ago, he related that during one Serb-Croat seminar, it was time for the Croats to acknowledge how they as a community have afflicted the Serbs. One Croat man reversed the dynamic, however. He began recalling a horrible atrocity committed by Serbs during the war, in which soldiers dragged patients out of a hospital in eastern Croatia and executed them en masse in a field nearby.

As he was talking about it, he was getting more and more agitated, more angry. Finally, one Serb who had been a soldier during the war, a layperson, simply spoke up and said: “That happened. I know it happened. And it was wrong.” And there was silence at that point. And what happened was, even though this Croat was turning the whole thing around, attacking the other group rather than his own group, this Serb man was sensitive and courageous enough to recognize that this needed an acknowledgment that it was a terrible crime. And that was enough, at least at that moment, to satisfy this Croat.

The process can be volatile, whether in a post-conflict setting or in the election-year partisan crossfire. Different groups may have drastically different perceptions of the reality surrounding their conflicts. And there’s always a chance of miscalculation: in the Balkans, people were constantly worried that a confession of terrible deeds done to their enemies would only serve to justify retaliation.

Still, a contrite word has often given people what they seem to need the most—not vengeance, not even procedural justice, but a painfully honest telling of injuries they have suffered. And that’s worth acknowledging. …read more

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