We’re Walking Here

There was a wonderful op-ed in the NY Times this week about the ways people transport themselves safely from one place to another in Manhattan. There are cabs, buses, cars, subways, and bicycles – more bicycles than ever, and the roads are getting friendlier to them all the time — but in New York City, THE FOOT, the PEDESTRIAN is king! The title of the op-ed was, “We’re walkin’ here!” a rift on Dustin Hoffman’s famous ad lib in Midnight Cowboy where he and Jon Voigt were filming and almost got hit by a cab: “Hey!,” Hoffman yelled, “We’re walkin’ here!” (They kept that in the movie!) As the op-ed put it, in New York, …in matters of traffic safety, all are equal, but pedestrians are more equal than others.

The point was that despite the fact that two pedestrians have been killed by cyclists in the City in the past two months, pedestrians are actually safer in Manhattan than they have ever been. As an example the Times went back to 1904, on a typical Sunday afternoon, there were NINE deaths by horses and carriages run amok just around Central Park. So while two deaths in two months is not good, thanks to laws that are enforced, the streets are oh-so-obviously safer than ever.

The Times then took the opportunity to remind New York citizens that, yes, the traffic laws apply to EVERYONE, and that means you.

Hey! We’re walkin’ here!!!

As most of you know, my beloved mother-in-law died last year. She was the subject of so many of my sermons as our political views were…diametrically opposite. She consistently voted Republican, which is generally considered the more conservative party in the United States. I think a better description is that the Republican Party in the United States tends to favor small government. Republicans will often quote their mentor and “saint,” Ronald Regan, who famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The general attitude among Republicans is that if the government is doing it, it’s slow, wasteful, incompetently managed, and costs way more than it should — and, in every case, private business could do it faster, cheaper, and better.

So we have a story this morning about Jesus, the Pharisees, and the coin. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” This is a question about government, a question about empire, a question about where our money goes and what it buys. The word that’s used here is “lawful”– is it LAWFUL to pay taxes? — but the Pharisees set it up with a moral frame: “We know, Jesus, you teach the way of God in accordance with The Truth.” “Is it lawful to pay taxes?”

In other words, where does God stand with Rome and the Emperor – and government in general?

There had to be some among Jesus’ followers — then and NOW — who hoped and expected him to say, “Absolutely not! The people of God should NOT pay taxes to the immoral, corrupt emperor of Rome!” Imagine what our world would look like if he HAD said that. “God does not want you to support your government.”

But Jesus didn’t say that.  He said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God that which belongs to God.” Bureaucrats all over the world heave a giant sigh of relief!

So I wanted to talk a little about government this morning. And because we’re Christians and we live intentionally – which means we don’t just mindlessly follow the culture — I don’t want to talk about government the way everybody USUALLY talks about it – which is ALL BAD!

Of course, every one of us has a story:   “I waited hours in line to renew my cedula” “I spent all morning trying to get a driver’s license.” Everybody in Panama knows that the supreme court justice Alejandro Moncada Luna is corrupt, and he’ll lose his job but he won’t go to jail. I take La Prensa, and to read it is to get a daily drumbeat of misery, the awful things the government does, the wasteful way it spends money, the corruption among the politicians, the streets that flood, the electricity that goes off, San Miguelito without water.

And if you think people and the press bad-mouth the government here, you should try living in the U.S. There are cable news networks dedicated to GLEEFULLY reciting hour after hour of government incompetence and how you should be AFRAID because the government will not protect you from EBOLA – which out of 350 million people living in the U.S., THREE have Ebola. Three. But the INCOMPETENT government allowed those three to get it, and now we’re ALL in danger!!! Run for your lives!

And don’t even get us STARTED on how the government can’t protect us from ISLAMIC TERRORISTS…

Anti-government talk is everywhere. Even the gurus of the emerging Christian church (the progressives, the liberals) – Brian McLaren, Peggy Pickle, Robin Meyers – include in all their books how Jesus calls us to be anti-imperial, that he doesn’t want us to buy into justice purchased by the rich, that we must speak truth to power, that we must approach our dealings with anything large and powerful – most especially The Government — with great skepticism.

The effect of all this anti-government talk is, of course, that even as the countries of West Africa and Afghanistan and Somalia disintegrate and show us how awful life can be without effective government, for all the rest of us the word “government” has come to mean “the great evil of our age.”

But Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…” Much as his followers saw him as an anti-Roman revolutionary, he had A LOT more to say about the hypocrites in his own culture and religion than he did about the conquering Roman Empire. In fact, on the subject of the Roman government of the day, Jesus actually said very little.

So with that in mind, on the subject of government – good government — I want to make three points. I would start by putting a couple of faces to the word “government,” faces we sit with every Sunday, people who work hard all week in, yes, government offices, doing the “work of the people.” Our own Elisa Dorado, chair of the Youth & Adult Activities Committee, is a pharmacist in the government-run Social Security Hospital. She works amidst shortages, low pay, long lines out the door, and difficult situations. She’s on call this Christmas, so we won’t see her around for our annual service – but she will be doing what she does every day, serving the people of Panama and making sure they get the medicines they need. Likewise, our pastor’s wife, Mitzie Samudio de Schnell, is a mover and shaker inside the budget workings of the Panama government. She, too, can tell stories of political maneuverings and difficult choices; but, like Elisa and so many others, she is a dedicated public servant who works every day to create a better Panama for all of us.

So that’s my first point. As Christians, when we complain about anything, we are committed by faith to put people first. So, people first, when we all speak of our government, let’s put these two hard-working government servants (and maybe others we know), people we love and respect, right at the front of our thoughts. I think that will change the tone of the conversation. I know myself that if I have both of those people metaphorically standing beside me, I will automatically be more positive, more respectful – and I’m pretty sure my thinking on the subject will be more constructive and productive.

So let’s start there.

THEN this. There are some vital and important projects that ONLY government can and will do. The rich can and will insulate themselves from the vagaries of life and nature, but the Kingdom of God, as Jesus envisioned it, is a place where suffering is mitigated and everyone has a chance to do well. Churches and charities are great, but only government has the resources for the large need. I always use the example of Hurricane Katrina and how the Red Cross raised a $1 Billion (with a B) dollars in donations. No non-profit in the history of the world had ever raised that much money that fast. However, Katrina did $250 billion dollars’ worth of damage – 250 times what the Red Cross could raise. Private industry looks at a mess like that and says, “Sure, we’ll help. Pay us, first.” Stockholders of publicly-traded companies are NOT into charity. No, only the government can and will spend that kind of money on the well-being of its people.

And, finally, as I was contemplating this topic, I threw the idea up on my Facebook page and was amazed at not only the quality but the sheer numbers of comments I got back. People are thinking about this! My friend, Dillon Lynch, a Panama Canal Authority employee who has worked for government organizations all his life, wrote me a wonderful e-mail about how before he opens his mouth to criticize anything or anybody, he looks at himself first. He says, “Am I right with God on this?”

(“Am I right with God on this?” Actually, we should ask that question before we open our mouths on ANY subject.)

And then our nephew Steve, who is a lawyer in Virginia, wrote, “When people complain to me about the government, I think, ‘Wait, this is a democracy, and I voted! That’s ME you’re talking about!”

“Hey, we’re walkin’ here!”

So my third point is that all this negative talk is hurting us – yes, US – because WE are our government. If we don’t like what’s going on, it is incumbent upon US to change it. And if we appreciate the work that’s being done, we need to SAY THAT, TOO. The governments of Panama and the United States and Germany and everywhere else we hail from are ALL doing good work – you have only to look to countries with little to no government to appreciate it — and to think only in the negative about them is making us and our children cynical, sarcastic and miserable. It’s unbalanced, and it’s creating an “all-government-is-bad” atmosphere where collaboration and change simply can’t happen. That is NOT the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned.

I’ll end by telling this little story about my libertarian anti-government cousin, who writes long screeds about how horrible and incompetent all governments are, especially his own. Two weeks ago, he lost the title to his van and needed a new one fast so he could sell it. He wrote on Facebook, “The title for my van came in only two days! It’s a miracle! Thank God!” I commented that he had mistakenly “rendered unto God” appreciation that properly belonged to some anonymous, efficient public servant.

It was the truth, and so I wrote it on my cousin’s page:  “Thank God for good government!”