03 February 2013

A Theology of Compromise?

There's a short piece here by Clay Cooke titled "Christians for Compromise." Cooke in turn links to a WaPo article here in which the newspaper's "Faith" correspondent asked three notable Protestant Evangelicals, "Would God want us to compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff?" Two said no, one replied yes.

The nos came from Cal Thomas and Jim Wallis. Thomas argued that any compromise including tax increases and excluding cuts in social programs amounted to idolatry of the Leviathan State. Wallis, by contrast, claimed that any reduction in social spending amounted to a repudiation of Jesus' admonition to care for "the least of these." This regularly recurring phenomenon of American Evangelical contradiction is one reason why I rarely refer to myself as an "Evangelical."

The "tie-breaker," if you will, in the WaPo article was provided by Richard J. Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. Mouw suggested that instantiation of the biblical virtues of wisdom and discernment by fallen people in a fallen world entails compromise. Cooke sympathizes with Mouw and summarizes his position by observing that Christians shouldn't compromise about everything: "not all political issues contain the same level of ambiguity as federal fiscal procedures. For example, many Christians persuasively argue for steadfast stances on abortion, immigration and climate change." Even with respect to these issues, Cooke goes on to write that
Sin is not most basically “out there” in the world; it is not to be equated with right-wing Tea Party ideals or Barack Obama’s “liberal” policies. Rather, sin is fundamentally in us. Thus to observe the problem with American politics, one only needs to look in the mirror. If Christians apprehend this fact, they will recognize that policy discussions require humility and discernment instead of rigid ideology. They will see, in short, the urgent need for a spirit of compromise.
One should not expect a detailed theological argument in a blog post but Cooke and even Mouw leave me wanting more. Cooke at best provides a "negative" theological argument in favor of compromise. He combines the theological categories of human finitude and human sinfulness. We don't know everything, especially the follow-alongs of choices, and most especially legislative choices. This counsels wariness when pressing a law-making advantage to the hilt or voting against the good because it's not perfect. Be careful of what you wish for, as the saying goes. (Prohibition, anyone?) Combine our lack of knowledge, particularly about the future, with our sinfulness--our propensity to take advantage of opportunities to gain at another's loss--and an attitude opposed to compromise can lead to bad results.

A related, even more pragmatic reason for making at least some compromises a virtue, is that compromise is often the only way to move forward at all, the proverbial half a loaf is better than none. Even legislative log-rolling (or "sweeteners," as Alexander Hamilton described them to a naive James Madison) might fall into this category of legitimate compromise.

Even if my two suggestions are correct, however, neither provides a standard (much less a rule) for determining when compromise reflects a prudent (if not virtuous) acknowledgement of the human condition and when it instead discloses the vice of cowardice. And here I must confess my ignorance. I don't know a principled means to tell the difference; in other words, I don't the principal by which we identify non-negotiable principals. But it's here--developing a theology of compromise--where I suggest that theologians expend some effort to benefit the rest of us.

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