Why the Wisconsin Teachers Unions are Wrong

It is with much trepidation that I venture into the world of political commentary but here goes.

If you have followed the news at all over the past week, you probably are at least somewhat familiar with the protests over proposed legislation in Wisconsin changing the contribution levels of public employees (including public school teachers) toward their health and pension benefits as well as curtailing the type of collective bargaining that public employee unions can engage in with the state government.  Let me preface these remarks with a couple of observations.

1.  Public school teachers do a vital and difficult job.  There has been a great deal of commentary over the past week that minimizes what these teachers do.  (Most of it has been along the lines of…”they only work 9 months a year and they make more than the average private sector worker).  I think that this commentary is misguided to say the least.  The calendar of the school year is not the issue and their current level of compensation isn’t the issue in and of itself, either.

2.  The rank and file teacher in my opinion should be paid better.  I think that if they were the quality of teacher who entered the field would improve and the quality of instruction would improve as well.  I just think incentives work.  Education is important and the way many teachers are paid shows how little much of society thinks of it.

With that being said, the Wisconsin Teachers Unions are wrong.

They are wrong not because of the specific economics of the current proposal.  They are wrong because the system that they are seeking to uphold is corrupt.  Teachers in Wisconsin are public employees.  That means their compensation (salaries, benefits and pension) are directly paid by the taxpayers of Wisconsin.  Past state administrations allowed the public employees in Wisconsin to unionize and to collectively bargain in an attempt to increase their compensation.  The public employee unions collect union dues from their members, which means they collect tax revenue.  So in effect, they are using taxpayer money to lobby for more taxpayer money.  This puts them in a classic conflict of interest position.  The dues that they collect are not spent just for the operation of the union (i.e. office space, official salaries, computers, printers and light bills).  These dues are spent to lobby for specific legislation.  They are spent in campaign contributions, ostensibly to support candidates who would favor policies that resulted in higher compensation for public employees.  So tax revenue is being spent, not to provide government services on behalf of the public, but to feather the nest of government personnel.  What makes it even more objectionable is that these lobbying activities and campaign contributions are spent almost entirely in the service of one political party (in the case of Wisconsin the Democratic Party).  So these unions are in effect a partisan political organization.  It works to get Democrats elected, who in turn reward their supporters with better contracts.  It is Tammany Hall politics, the “spoils system” in all of its glory.  As an aside, the economics, particularly of the pension benefits that have been developed within this system are unsustainable and if left alone will ultimately bankrupt Wisconsin.  But that isn’t even the main point, it is just the flashpoint that has ultimately brought this issue to the surface.

Let me pose a counterfactual and see if it adds clarity.  There is a group of government employees who consistently trend Republican in their voting patterns, significantly so.  They are not allowed to unionize or collectively bargain.  They are active duty members of the Armed Forces.  Studies have shown that in recent Presidential elections the military vote has trended 60-70% Republican.  What if soldiers were allowed to unionize and not only collectively bargain for their compensation and benefits, but also to act as lobbyists and make organizational campaign contributions in the millions to support Republican candidates?  Wouldn’t this reasonably result in higher military budgets?  Typically Republican administrations tend to support higher levels of defense spending.  What if in return for these campaign contributions Republican candidates promised the military higher salaries and more generous benefits?  It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to envision scenarios where the constitutional civilian control of the military would be compromised, making the U.S. a much more militarized state.  If the military was in effect a partisan political arm of the Republican Party couldn’t that result in the abuse of military power to quash political opposition?  Allowing a sector of government employees, state or federal, to become in effect a tax subsidized political arm of a particular political party is bad for our society.  It skews our political process and compromises the delivery of important government services which are supposed to benefit all of society.  That is what has happened in Wisconsin (and lots of other places in many state governments and to a significant degree in the federal government as well.  This really shouldn’t be a partisan political issue.  It should be a matter of good government.  If you don’t believe that, then why did that noted right-wing politician and anti-unionist (I speak tongue-in-cheek of course) Franklin Delano Roosevelt oppose the unionization of public employees?  It is because he understood that it compromised the very delivery of government services in a way that would hurt all of society.

I want the Wisconsin teachers to be paid as well as they possibly can be.  And I want the quality of education provided there and everywhere to as high as possible.  But I also want budgets to be balanced and more importantly even than that.  I want government to be of the people and FOR the people, not for the government.

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Stories – part 2

There are several ways to look at the stories of the past.  One can be termed historicism, that is the belief that by studying the past we not only learn “historical” truth but also metaphysical or transcendental truth.  For all Christians in the end history has some sort of divine plot.  God is at work in the ultimate story of the world.  But I believe that outside of the historical narratives of Scripture itself, this can end up being a bit dangerous.  We can end up being very sure of who is right and who is wrong without knowing all of the facts and knowing the hearts of those involved.  Sometimes this is pretty obvious.  It doesn’t take a lot of discernment to decide that Hitler was bad or that slavery is wrong.  We can be reasonably sure that William Wilberforce was a great statesman or that Albert Einstein was a great scientist or that Mother Theresa was a saint (although you can find people who disagree with that, surprisingly enough).

Most stories don’t have an obvious connection with the central theological story of the world, that grand sweep of Creation, Fall and Redemption.  More often we are satisfied with stories being told either as an attempt to accurately account the events of the past or in the case of fiction to simply give the pleasure of a good story.  We can learn other things as a result of these stories and the best of them have a mythic quality that relates to us at least echoes of something that is ultimately true about life.  Ancient storytellers also had a sense that they were discharging a debt to the heroic deeds of their ancestors and that they were adding to the perpetual memory of their people.

But what about our own stories?  What about the events of our lives?  Most of us don’t see our lives as having a powerful significance.  We may see a broad connection of our lives to the great story of God’s work in the world at least in the sense that Jesus died for us and is interested in saving us.   But we don’t make that connection more particularly.  We don’t grab hold of the thought that our life is suffused with meaning.  We live day to day as if ordinary is about as good as it gets.  Now we do catch moments of gratitude.  Our eyes do open a bit wider when one of our children is born or something out of the ordinary invades our existence at least momentarily.  Significance pokes through here and there.  But the truth is that our lives are much more significant than we think.  Eternity ripples out through our every word and action.  The part of us that loves a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows that.  And we even mockingly reach for it through Facebook and Twitter as if the world really needed to know about our every like and dislike or random thought.  We might even be tempted to use modes of communication like those to dress up our lives with a “kick-ass” facade (like the Facebook profile picture that features someone with a random celebrity that they met once upon a time, as if they were living the dream every day).

One of Frederick Buechner’s books is titled “Listening to Your Life”.  It is a collection of daily meditations that speak about his attempts to learn to discern God’s voice and actions in his everyday life.  This gets at what I think the most important aspect of stories are.  Much of the transformation that God wants to accomplish within our lives can be seen as the experience of reading our lives rightly.  This means that we need to learn to see our present circumstances, our past experiences and our future hopes for what they really are.  We filter all of these things through our core beliefs and oftentimes misinterpret the reality of God’s actions and intentions toward us.  We disregard the reality of the spiritual battle that is raging all around us and twist reality into the story of our lives that seems to be true.  We live in these stories as if they were true and in a very real and often tragic sense they become true for us.  We mistake our fallenness for God’s rejection.  We interpret our loneliness as God’s abandonment.  We think our smallness equals insignificance.  The clever lies of our Enemy sound true and we nod our heads in agreement.  We need to be awoken from the dream that we are living.

This what stories do.  In the Gospels, Jesus is asked over 80 questions by his disciples, the religious leaders of his day and the common people who listened to Him speak.  He only answers those questions directly a few times.  Most of the time He tells a story.  Why does He do this?  Because it gets around our defenses.  It defuses our built-in biases.  It forces us to think differently.  And as my friend Bob Hamp might say, to think differently is to live differently.  This is what Romans 12 means when it says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Today I had the opportunity to spend a few hours alone, with no other agenda than to listen to God.  I don’t do it often enough.  I tend to grab these times on the run, filling in the few cracks that exist in other obligations and desires.  But today I listened to my life a bit.  What a difference a little time makes.  I didn’t see any visions or have an earth-shattering revelation.  I just heard a few words from the voice of the Holy Spirit.  And those words were more than enough to fill me with peace, gratitude and assurance.  As I drove home, the sun just seemed to shine a little brighter.  When I walked into my house, my wife just looked that much more beautiful.  My children were that much more wonderful.  Nothing had changed except for me.  This is what transformation looks like.  Maybe the story that I just told you can have the same effect.

Because there is nothing better than a good story.

Paideia – final thoughts for now

A few final, loosely connected thoughts regarding Paideia.

The model of discipleship that most of us (at least here in the U.S. Evangelical world) is missing something in my opinion.  I say this for a variety of reasons.  Think of the way discipleship has happened for most of us.  It generally involves two major settings.  The first is in larger classroom type settings where we listen to teaching.  This can be teaching from the pulpit or programatic type teaching.  Some programs try to incorporate small group dynamics into the mix (think cell groups or studies such as Experiencing God or the various Beth Moore studies). Others are much more lecture oriented.

The other is individual participation in spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, fasting, solitude, etc.).  There is no formal oversight or accountability in this for most of us.  There are “accountability groups” that meet but this is almost always informal in nature.  So the effectiveness of this is very dependent upon the individual’s incorporation of these disciplines in their lives by their own efforts.  At the end of the day, there isn’t any way around that type of individual responsibility but given the radical individualism of our culture I wonder if we lean upon this less because of a sense of responsibility than a sense of isolation.  That is to say, we emphasize this a great deal because we just don’t know any other way to do it.

One other thing that I should mention is discipleship also takes place in the conference or retreat within our culture.  We are willing to go to seminars and listen to a lot of lectures or maybe even a retreat where we get a short-term guided type of experience.  These can be effective and life-changing but it is still lacking the element that I have thinking of lately.  What is missing within our model I believe is the ancient practice of spiritual direction.  This takes place more frequently within older, more hierarchical church settings (such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy or the more Anglo-Catholic elements of Anglicanism) but very little within classical Protestantism, Evangelicalism and the Charismatic/Pentecostal settings.

Spiritual direction is a unique kind of individual relationship that involves formal mentoring and the assignment of specific tasks or exercises.  The closest that most of us would have experienced of this kind of relationship is counseling, a financial planner or a personal trainer.  Two things likely discourage most of us from seeking out or participating in this kind of relationship.  The first is the lack of availability of spiritual directors.  I don’t think I know anyone who is specifically trained in spiritual direction although this practice goes back to the very earliest history of Christianity.  The other involves willingness to surrender what we perceive to be a bit of our personal spiritual autonomy.  I wonder if we are missing something.  I look at the pattern of my life and I am willing to pay money for financial advice or physical training.  I have also gone to counseling at various points in my life quite willingly.  But what about spiritual direction?  Am I willing to be mentored?  If I am honest with myself I think I need it.

 

 

Stories

Maybe it is just because I have young children.  Maybe I am just getting older.  But I find that I love stories now more than ever.  I have less of an appetite to argue than when I was younger (those who knew me back then could probably testify that I did have a pretty good appetite for argument).  Sloppy thinking and poor arguments do still bug me.  But I am less inclined to fire back than before.

But I love stories.  I love the stories of peoples’ lives.  I love hearing about what makes them tick.  I have been reading Beatrix Potter stories to my boys and I think I enjoy them more than they do.  We are reading “Little House in the Big Woods” as well and I want to read ahead even though I already know what happens next.  I got sucked into the Biography channel’s story of the Bee Gees last night.  I am not even a particular fan of their music (although they were undeniably an amazing talent).  But the story sucked me in nonetheless.

Why does story have such attraction for me?  I think  it is because stories are much closer to the way real life unfolds.  Our lives aren’t a series of facts and arguments.  They aren’t even the sum of the events that take place.  Our lives tell a story.  The events that make up our lives aren’t the story.  The story includes the events but it also includes how we interpret those events.  It includes what we believe about those events.  One of my core beliefs is that our story is also about God’s activity in our lives.  If you don’t believe God is active in your life then you will certainly look at your life a different way.

What are your favorite stories?  What do they tell you about yourself and the world around you?  What do they tell you about God?  I would love to hear them.

What is the Paideia of Our Culture?

We are being trained.  It is happening to us whether we like it our not.  We are either being conformed to this world or transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2)  It all depends upon what we present ourselves to as an act of worship.

But what is the paideia that we experience in our culture?  How does the world around us train or discipline us?  What does that look like?

I think that one of the most powerful influences that we experience in the world is what C.S. Lewis referred to as the temptation of The Inner Ring.  What is this?  It is the desire to be accepted into what “everyone” accepts as the right way of thinking.  This can obviously mean different things in different settings at different times of our lives.  But at any given moment we can be susceptible to the desire to be approved by whomever is “in”.  It rarely presents itself directly, but mostly in the subtle hints that mark the invisible boundaries of what is acceptable in any given setting.  For one person it may be the temptation to go along to get along at work even though the common way of doing business within that setting is unethical.  For another it may be the temptation to join in the gossip of one’s social network that is hurtful to others (or at least would be if they knew).

In reality it is the same thing that the Serpent offered Eve.  The Serpent offered Eve the special knowledge that  makes people into gods with the ability to determine who is accepted and who is excluded (which after all is just another way of deciding what is good and what is evil).  To value this knowledge more than the knowledge of God and obedience to His voice is what caused Adam and Eve to fall.  Its results can play out in very different ways in our lives.  For some, it can result in a rigid, passive conformity to all that is “accepted”.  For others it results in a more rebellious stance which defines itself over and against what it is not, which in the end is nothing more than its own brand of conformity.

So how do we avoid this insidious process?  We are presenting ourselves to something as an act of worship every day.  We are either going to consciously choose to be shaped by something or we will be unconsciously shaped by something else.

In the end I can’t tell you what the Inner Ring looks like for you.  But what we present ourselves to will shape us.  We will either crave the acceptance of some circle or we will choose to live in the acceptance that is already being offered to us in Christ.

When I went off to college, I was pretty free in expression of love toward God.  I went to a Baptist undergraduate school which took great pains to present itself as a Christian atmosphere but I found very early on that my freedom of expression was a bit beyond the pale.  The prevailing culture took a dim view of the “holy roller” style of Christianity and happily pointed out the follies of the wilder and woolier aspects of charismatic Christianity.  Slowly and surely, I toned myself down, conforming myself to the prevailing culture.  In seminary, the Baptist style was frowned upon, the prevailing culture was clearly farther left politically and much fuzzier theologically.  In fact almost any and every theological wind was tolerated and embraced (except for historical orthodoxy, that is).  I didn’t throw orthodox faith overboard, but I had conformed myself to the prevailing culture more than I ever intended.  A few years later, I found that I had without even realizing it, I had surrendered a great deal of the core of my own identity.  I had distanced myself from what I truly believed.  I had become profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin.  Was it mere peer pressure?  Was it sloppy theological thinking?  Not really.  More than anything it was a lack of intentional presentation of myself to God as an act of worship.  It was a lack of living in His acceptance and submission to His shaping influence.

We are being trained.  Who is doing the training in our lives?