Why We Must Render unto Caesar

The water crisis in Flint has been troubling me on many levels for days, but I had one of those ah hah moments about it while listening to any NPR piece in the car today about a related but different issue. I’ve been having a depression inflicted writer’s block for several weeks, and was so glad when this light bulb lit up. I couldn’t wait to get home to write down my thoughts. Sorry church, Sunday’s sermon will be on hold for just a little longer.

The NPR story was about New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie, and his political career. Christie is a Republican I had hope for back in the Super Storm Sandy days, and have been dismayed as he has swung to more extreme right-wing views for obvious political reasons. Such views are what sell in our fear-laden society. But I got new insights into the pressures that cause such shifts in political positions and ambitions listening to the radio. (I apologize that I cannot cite the author who was being interviewed, but I believe it was on the “Fresh Air” program, January 25, 2016.)

The author described the great success Christie had early in his term as a Republican governor in a very Democratic state, and his skill at bi-partisan compromise, the very thing that is so sorely needed in government at every level these days. In particular Christie negotiated a deal with public employees that was designed to address the financial crisis in the state employees’ pension funds which had been created by government “borrowing” those funds for other purposes. As a public retiree in Ohio and a Social Security recipient, my ears perked up on that all too familiar and personal topic.

To oversimplify, the agreement was that the public employees agreed to take some cuts to their benefits from the state in exchange for Christie’s promise to put more money into the pension funds to stabilize them. It was lauded as a wonderful, pragmatic, bi-partisan solution that other states and federal governments should emulate. Combined with Christie’s exemplary leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, his success in New Jersey launched him into the national spotlight as a potential Presidential candidate.

And that’s where personal ambition enters stage right (pun intended). The brilliant solution to the pension crisis was derailed. The public employees kept their end of the bargain, but in order to keep his Christie would have had to raise taxes. That of course is the kiss of death for any one hoping to succeed as a Presidential candidate in the increasingly conservative Republican Party. (Eisenhower, Lincoln, and even Reagan would not recognize the Grand Old Party they proudly represented, but that’s a topic for another day.)

You are probably wondering by now what this has to do with clean water for Flint, Michigan’s 100,000 predominantly black and poor citizens. (And Flint is just the most egregious example of this problem. A school system in Northeastern Ohio is closed today as I write this because of testing for lead in their water system.) These very serious health problems are just symptoms of a much larger crisis facing the American people. They are the tip of an iceberg of crumbling infrastructure that is being ignored while politicians fiddle. Instead of addressing failing bridges, highways, underground sewer and water lines, public transportation, and a host of other critical issues that would create jobs and put people back to work, politicians on both sides of the aisle are held hostage by an ideology that makes raising taxes so we can pay for essential public services an eighth deadly sin.

And in the process we are ignoring one of the real deadly sins, greed, or even promoting it as the private “free” market-driven solution to what are complex public problems. There is no free lunch. Like it or not, we need government to provide essential public services and structures that profit-driven companies cannot provide. And that’s why when asked about paying taxes, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21) The answer is not to kill government but to reform it and make it work.

Bottom line, companies resent government regulation, but human greed and selfishness require it. Dostoevsky’s famous line from The Brothers Karamazov is applicable here, “If God does not exist all things are permitted.” The same is true without good government. A recent article in The Columbus Dispatch pointed out that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was charged with developing regulations for the rapidly expanding fracking operations in Ohio in 2014. Nearly two years later they have created one minor regulation and are mired in political and bureaucratic wrangling over any significant attempt to address the potential health risks and dangers of this new technology. So do we throw the baby out with the bath because government is not working well? Or do we find a way to address the gridlock caused by political ambition, unfair gerrymandering of political districts, and fights over voter rights? I didn’t say it would be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is.

The truth is, we don’t have a choice. As appealing as it sounds, we cannot live without government. The streak of selfishness in human nature requires a structure of public responsibility and accountability. No human-created governmental system or structure has ever been or ever will be perfect. Anger and extremism are not the answer. Holding the responsible parties accountable for poisoning the water in Flint or creating earthquakes and contaminated ground water from fracking accountable should be done–but not just for retribution and punishment. The real reason for digging into such messes is not for revenge or political advantage, but to learn from our mistakes so we don’t make them again.

To play the blame game and demonize our political opponents simply makes the necessary work of bipartisan, collaborative communication more difficult once the much-too-long season of mud-slinging and character assassination is over. That’s why Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will certainly hang separately.” And it’s why Jesus said, to paraphrase, “I didn’t say you had to like it, but taxes are a necessary evil to maintain a workable society. So pay up and realize that to solve this country’s problems and the world’s is not going to be cheap. But ignoring them is not a viable option.”

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