Russell and Duenes

Archive for February 2015

Power Is Where Power Goes

leave a comment »

LBJLyndon Johnson once said: “Power is where power goes.” He meant that it was not particular political jobs or offices that brought power to men, but rather, certain men gained power by what they themselves brought to any particular political job or office. Power followed such men, and Johnson had a master’s gift for drawing power to himself wherever he went. Indeed, as Robert Caro remarks, “All his life, Lyndon Johnson had been taking nothing jobs and turning them into something, something big.” Johnson went to a small college in the hill country of Texas, where student government meant virtually nothing, and became the most powerful student on campus, determining which students would and would not get jobs to help pay for their tuition. Once in Washington D.C., Johnson again took a “small potatoes” position and made it a powerful one, making himself the political conduit between oil money in Texas and northeastern political influencers. Same story in the Senate, where Johnson angled for and got the Majority Leader position, where he ruled the Senate with a powerful hand.

As with so many other things in Johnson’s life, there is the complexity of human nature here. There is something inspiring and compelling about Johnson’s ability to take seemingly meaningless positions or institutions, see the possibilities for power and influence, select and develop the key relationships and turn those positions and institutions into sources of influence. If done for the right reasons, toward the right ends, with proper accountability, I cannot see anything wrong with this. For some people simply must be in power. It’s not a question of “whether” some will be in power, but “who.” Indeed, I believe, along with Dallas Willard, that men and women whose character has been significantly formed by Christ are best positioned to engage in such a course. And Lyndon Johnson was not entirely without virtue in the power he sought and wielded.

But Johnson also sought power because he liked power. He wanted power, and according to Caro, used it sometimes just because he could. He brown-nosed the key people who could help him get power, and then once the power was obtained, he lorded it over those same people. Such self-aggrandizing hunger for power could not help but have harmful consequences for our nation, some of which are likely well-known, and some of which may not be known to this day, at least to their full extent. I don’t believe this was a case of power corrupting Johnson, but rather, the corruption already in Johnson’s heart marred what he did when he got power.

Thus, I find myself desiring to emulate Johnson in seeing possibilities for influence where others may not see such possibilities, and then taking those opportunities, particularly when it comes to advancing God’s purposes in this world. But I find that I must also note well my own penchant for pride and self-assertion, of which Christ so often warns, and not assume that my own desires for power and influence are pure and noble. The pursuit of influence must be carried out in humility, in submission to godly authority and wisdom coming from others in Christ’s body. It must surely be a difficult road to travel, pointing up the importance of character and spiritual formation.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

February 28, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Fracturing the Genetic, Gestational and Social Components of Parenthood

leave a comment »

joyce_kennardFormer California Supreme Court Associate Justice, Joyce Kennard, in her dissenting opinion in Johnson v. Calvert (1993), brings home a number of concerns about commercial surrogacy. Quoting from the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, she reminds us that “the gestation of children as a service for others in exchange for a fee is a radical departure from the way in which society understands and values pregnancy.” It certainly requires that we accept a much more utilitarian understanding of pregnancy. It makes pregnancy a kind of business proposition, even though there may be, and often is, love involved in surrogacy contexts.

Additionally, “surrogate parenting allows the genetic, gestational and social components of parenthood to be fragmented, creating unprecedented relationships among people bound together by contractual obligation rather than by the bonds of kinship and caring.” I wonder if we understand yet the full consequences of pulling apart the “genetic, gestational and social components of parenthood.” I honestly don’t know. In some ways, it seems benign, no different than adoption, or perhaps better than adoption, since the genetic parents will be raising the child. Yet the generative act never happens for the genetic parents. Any child of theirs is not the product of the physical and spiritual union God designed to bring about children. This is particularly apparent when it comes to gay couples or single men and women who want to use a surrogate. In such a case we may have a gay man’s sperm, an anonymous woman’s egg, brought together in a laboratory, with another separate woman carrying the child through pregnancy, and both of these women then entirely absent from the child’s subsequent life. This is indeed a radical departure from the social nexus in which the vast majority of human beings have been conceived and raised.

Further, in surrogacy, we ask a young woman to carry the child, to nurture the child as she does so, but to remain disinterested enough in the child she is carrying so that she can happily give the child away when the pregnancy is over. And we don’t ask her to give the child away through an accident of circumstances. Rather, we ask her to enter into the pregnancy for the specific, sole and intentional purpose of relinquishing the child in the end. What effect does this have, if any? Does the fact that all of this is done contractually, with people being sued, change us as people? Does it change the way we view having children, in the sense that we feel entitled to them?

Finally, “surrogate parenting alters deep-rooted social and moral assumptions about the relationship between parents and children . . . [It] is premised on the ability and willingness of women to abdicate [their parental] responsibility without moral compunction or regret [and] makes the obligations that accompany parenthood alienable and negotiable.” Does the commercial aspect change the nature of how we see children and their place in our lives?

I think all of this is worth pondering. We so easily compartmentalize things, and think that action A over here has little or no effect on action/person B over there. And then we rush into things. We seem to have done so here.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

February 25, 2015 at 6:56 pm

A Paradise of Glory and a River of Pleasure

leave a comment »

The Gideons put a fantastic little preface at the beginning of their pocket New Testaments, giving the reader a primer on what the Bible is and what should be done with it. I won’t quote all of it, but this gives you a flavor: “It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory and a river of pleasure. It is given you in life, will be opened at the judgment, and be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labor, and will condemn all who trifle with its sacred contents.” Motivating and sobering words. The whole preface is worth pondering if you can get your hands on a Gideons Bible.

The Bible is replete with promises that God will carry, bear, uphold and lift up His people. What a great comfort!! God says, “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes…Even to your old age I will be the same, And even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you…The eternal God is a dwelling place, And underneath are the everlasting arms…Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms…Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, The God who is our salvation….For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, so that you do not strike your foot against a stone…But You, O Lord, are a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head…Be gracious to me, O Lord; See my affliction from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death…He delivers me from my enemies; Surely You lift me above those who rise up against me…He will lift me up on a rock…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”

Watching the Academy Awards the other night brought to my mind again a piece I’d read awhile back on The Public Discourse, entitled: “The Girl in the Tuxedo: Two Variations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” The author, Jean Lloyd, ponders the radically different way her struggles with sexual identity would have been treated had she been dealing with them now, in 2015, rather than in the 1980s when she actually was dealing with them. Today, resisting confusing transgender impulses in the teen years is not really considered an option, or at least not a respectable one. She concludes:

In 2015, sexual orientation redirection efforts are precluded from discussion, even if she explicitly asks for them. However, if she senses she is transgender, her right to redirection must be honored. If she wishes, she can quickly begin the process of “transitioning” to become a male. This path will involve intensive gender re-socialization, hormone therapy, and if she wants, irreversible amputative and reconstructive surgeries. This is an arduous and painful journey, with many risks and harms, irremediable loss and regret among them. But it is considered worth these risks and pain. She is, after all, only fifteen, and it would be unfair at such an age to limit the horizon of her possible identity paths and the options available to her. . . And at long last, she—become he—will have what she wanted. Or, if not exactly what she wanted, at least what those initial counselors, affirmations, and “freedoms” had left open to her younger self, in flagrant disregard of the long-term possibilities and options they had foreclosed.

You can read the whole piece here.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

February 24, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Motivated by Rewards

leave a comment »

LBJMy pastor told us awhile back that he didn’t see anything wrong with offering rewards to little children as a motivation for doing work. I guess I had always agreed with this, insofar as I thought about it. But since then, I have practiced it more regularly. So, for example, I might offer a lollipop or some kind of dessert or special activity to my boys as a motivation for cleaning up a room. I don’t offer this every time, but I find that when I do offer it, they generally put more energy and effort into their work, and it gets done without me standing over them (making cleaning into a race against the clock also gets them going, but that’s another story). Does it seem wrong to offer such rewards? Does it seem to make their obedience disingenuous? Perhaps, but I see that God, too, offers rewards to his children. St. Paul writes: “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor…If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.” (1 Cor. 3:7-8, 14). “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” (Col. 3:23-24). If God offers rewards in order to motivate our faithful labor, I don’t see why we ought not do the same for our children. 

Lyndon Johnson illustrates the George Costanza doctrine: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Historian Robert Caro recounts Johnson saying that a man who advocated something had to believe it deeply and genuinely in his heart, or his advocacy would be weak and ineffectual. Thus, Johnson had an incredible ability to convince himself of the truth of something he wanted to pursue, even if it was wrong. No doubt we all have this ability, to one degree or another, but apparently Johnson had it in spades. This also meant that some of the erroneous things of which Johnson convinced himself turned out to be ruinous to his political career. Caro explains this when it comes to JKF. Johnson genuinely believed that Kennedy could not win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960, and believed it deeply when so much evidence was pointing the other way. Johnson had his reasons for believing this, but it was false nonetheless, as he soon found out. I have to think Johnson also convinced himself of the rightness of what he was doing in Vietnam several years later, the results of which need no detailing. He wouldn’t back down, even in the face of all his advisors contradicting what he wanted to believe. I certainly agree with Johnson that we do well to have conviction about the truth of our positions. We will best persuade people when we have this. But we also learn a lesson from Johnson about the finitude and fickleness of our own instincts, intuitions and ability to read people and situations, no matter how keen. We must be open to the wisdom of other wise people, distrustful of our own apparent “smartness” or “brilliance,” and open to our own capacities for self-deception and self-preservation. It can be a scary thing to face, which I feel a sense of even as I write this.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

February 21, 2015 at 11:38 am

The Fear of Humiliation

leave a comment »

LBJBy the accounts of those who knew him well, Lyndon Johnson was largely ruled by a fear of humiliation. This does explain a lot about his life as a politician, and though it’s not always the case that what we fear comes upon us, humiliation was a good part of Johnson’s lot. As Senate Majority Leader in the late 1950s, Johnson was literally large and in charge. He ruled the roost and ran the Senate like a boss. He was a master of all the parliamentary and procedural tricks, and he commanded persuasive respect and power. According to Robert Caro, he knew how to read others as well as anyone, but the one man he failed to read correctly was John F. Kennedy. This meant underestimating Kennedy in 1960, and having to settle for becoming Kennedy’s vice-president, which also meant that Johnson suffered a fall from the tremendous power and influence he wielded in the Senate to a largely meaningless position as the number two man. Of course, Johnson ultimately got his hands on the big prize, but even then, he was brought to his knees by his escalation of Vietnam and the domestic strife connected with it that spiraled out of control in the late 1960s. I have to wonder what role Johnson’s fear of humiliation played in his inability to extricate the country from Vietnam.

Three of the Ten Commandments have something to do with money and possessions: You shall not steal, do not work on the Sabbath, and do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

John Piper has an interesting thought about gratitude. He wonders what happens to a people when ingratitude settles into the human springs in the high mountains of a culture and begins to trickle down into the lowlands, as it were. In other words, what is the practical outworking of a large scale rejection of gratitude within individuals, families, institutions and the culture as a whole? What kind of people do we become over the decades, particularly if, as Piper says, ingratitude amounts to a lack of dependence on God?

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

February 18, 2015 at 8:32 pm