Compromise is an important part of leadership, federal budget debate

(This letter was originally submitted to The Rockdale Citizen on May 11, 2011).

Dear Editor,

On May 10th, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) unveiled a budget proposal that cuts national spending from 25% of the GDP to 18.5%.   Like other plans, Toomey’s enacts restrictions on entitlement spending and healthcare reform.

As I listened to the conference, what I found interesting was not the proposal itself, but the rhetoric framing the budget debate as communicated from the Republican co-signers of the proposal.  It was Toomey’s fellow Senators, Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio (of South Carolina and Florida respectively), that thanked him for his leadership on this issue.

Leadership:  When it comes to the budget debate, this loaded term invokes the apparent in-action of the Obama Administration in contrast to the Republican Party’s commitment to resolve the issue.

Whenever I hear about leadership, I get a little nervous.  Are the Republicans looking for leadership that seeks to balance the budget in a prudent and tempered fashion—a type of leadership that navigates through the complexity of a multi-trillion dollar system?  Or are they seeking the type of leadership like that of the previous presidential Administration, in which the executive branch bullied the legislative and judicial branches?

Leadership without patience and prudence has the potential to unleash unintended and long-term consequences.  The previous Administration’s costly and ill-informed unilateral attack on Iraq is just one example where lack of prudence failed to garner positive, cost-cutting results.

And there is something to be said about the Democratic Party’s inability to form a budget proposal whatsoever.  Certainly, a recession makes a proposal all the more difficult; but for a party that had control of both houses of Congress, this lack of leadership is inexcusable.

Suffice it to say, budgets are more complex than some might assume.  It took my wife and me days to carve out a budget on a mere five-figure income.  Imagine the time it takes to do that on a trillion-dollar scale—with a “scalpel” (in the words of President Obama) at that.

When it comes to weighty matters in which an entire nation is involved, leadership with an eye towards compromise is key to bringing about positive reform.  After all, the Constitution itself  was born out of compromise—Remember the “Great Compromise” in which the Founding Fathers married the best of the New Jersey and Virginia plans to develop representation in Congress?

Compromise is not a sign of weakness; it’s the foundation upon which our very democracy was built.

If leadership is the problem, both parties seem to be guilty, for true leadership happens when persons of difference can sit down and produce a plan that’s in the best interest of the greatest good.

There is great concern that federal debt must be dealt with, lest the issue become a problem for our children in years to come—to quote Sen. Rubio, if there is no action, “We will be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.”

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what kind of legacy we are leaving our children when it comes to wise governing.  I’d rather model for my children healthy teamwork and conflict resolution than to pass on the anxious uncertainty inherent in partisan pontificating.   Let’s pray that both parties can get their act together and get us on the road to economic stability.


Rev. Joe LaGuardia

Good citizen, good Christian: The Obligation of Jury Duty

Is jury duty a blessing or bane?

The other day, when our church’s administrators and I were hanging around the office, one of the administrators mentioned she had jury duty next week.  Jury duty–just the sheer phrase makes us take a deep breath.

Without asking whether or not she wanted advice, the other administrator and I talked about ways to get out of jury duty.   Our conversation was as natural as drinking water; I didn’t give it a second thought.

Upon reflection–the next day I believe it was–I started to think about our response to the administrator.  We assumed that she wanted to get out of jury duty.  We didn’t stop and ask whether she felt blessed to serve her county, let alone her country, in this capacity.

God works (and speaks!) in mysterious ways, because it wasn’t two days later that I heard a lawyer on some random radio talk show speak about the privilege of jury duty.

Privilege?  I never served jury duty (never been asked), but all I hear is how much time it takes, how lousy the pay is, and how mediocre the food could be.  My dad always despised it because he was a one-man small business owner, and one day spent in jury duty compromised the amount of bread he put on our dinner table.

As I was listening to this lawyer, however, something changed in my thinking on this subject.

Jury duty is one of the primary ways of flexing our constitutional muscles–specifically the third article and sixth amendment of said Constitution.  There was a time before the War of American Independence when Britain was abusing American colonialists by taking people to court with naval trials–some of which were held on ships off the American coast.

As British subjects, these colonialists decried that the trials were partial–the accused were not being judged by their peers.  Abuse of this system was rampant, especially when King George III really wanted those Americans to pay their stamp, tea, and sugar taxes.

This abuse was one of the reasons why the war for independence took place.  When our country’s forefathers crafted the Constitution, they made sure to learn from history and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  They guaranteed every American a speedy trial by a jury made up of one’s peers.

This constitutional right was a tenuous one, especially in cases involving race and gender.  Before the 1960s, most minorities were tried by white juries; most of the jurists were men.  It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights movement that we finally gained a truly just and fair system.

It is that very system that we try to shun today.  If everyone is looking to get out of the jury pool, then what peers will be left to insure a fair trial for the accused?  Jury duty is both an honor and a privilege, and it insures that the integrity of our judicial system is held accountable.

When Paul wrote his letter to churches in Rome, he addressed a Christian’s obligation to the state.  The Roman Christians, not dissimilar from us, were trying to use their faith in Christ to abstain from civic duty.  Many stopped paying taxes.

In Romans 13:1, 7, Paul combated this line of thinking: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servant, busy with this very thing.”

I know that when I get my jury duty card in the mail, I will have the same thoughts as many others.  Serving will be inconvenient and tiresome.  But from the perspective of God’s Word, I am obligated–and blessed–to serve in this long judicial tradition.   What an honor it will be to not only serve my country, but to serve God as well.

Empathy matters in the high court of the heart

Be ready for the next big political showdown. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens prepares to resign from the highest court in the nation, politicians, the president and pundits will debate who will replace him. No doubt, in today’s political climate, it will be an arduous road.

Usually justice candidates fall in one of two camps. One camp includes the strict, or conservative, constructionalists. These justices look at the Constitution as something fixed and literal; justices do not seek to define or make policy so much as police the traditions of the American legal system.

The second camp is made up of the loose, or liberal, constructionalists. These justices, Stevens included, see the Constitution as a living, breathing document that contains principles that transcend time. These justices are said to utilize empathy to help enlighten how the Constitution can shape a more perfect union.

The intriguing aspect of this debate, which I have incorporated in my government class a time or two, focuses on to what degree a judge commingles justice with empathy. Justices that lean too heavily on empathy risk having their feelings override legal precedent, whereas justices that have very little empathy seem to already have their minds made up about certain cases even before lawyers deliver opening statements.

Although the media always presents these two camps in absolutist terms, the truth is that many justices fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to empathy. Judges decide cases to the letter of the law, but also seek to understand how human communities shape the laws being applied.

As Christians, we are called to be just and merciful in all situations. We have no choice but to show empathy when we relate to our neighbors, families, and coworkers because empathy is something God gives us in order to understand others.

Empathy is not about, as Sean Hannity once declared, “social engineering.” Empathy is not so mechanical or predictable that it can be applied to “fix” society.

Rather, empathy is a personal commitment to invest in the feelings, disparities, and needs of another. This requires an ability to listen to others and to one’s own feelings, all the while examining our responses to situations. Empathy acknowledges context and ambiguity, compromise and development.

A rich story of empathy can be found in Mark 8, in which Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of four thousand. In the story, Jesus taught the crowd over the course of several days, and the crowd grew hungry.

The text says that Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus’ empathy became a catalyst for a miracle, and a mere handful of food fed the multitudes.

The greatest lesson of this story comes at the end. The Pharisees, known for their staunch reading of Old Testament Law, had little use for empathy. If an individual broke the law and any one of its 600-plus commandments, then the individual was punished without hesitation.

Jesus called this line of legalistic thinking — a type of thinking that fails to see the human equation in the midst of law — “yeast” that infects a social community. So, I guess in a way, empathy is social engineering in that it allows God to engineer our motivation in helping others and coming to terms with the precedent that Jesus’ compassion set so long ago in the high court of the human heart.

The debate over empathy and its role in the justice system will go on for decades, but for Christians who follow the compassionate Christ, the debate of how we are to respond to others was settled long ago.