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Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

The Temptation of Political Power

Speaking about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have commented: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” This quote sums up the dominant political philosophy found throughout the world. A politician’s shared party affiliation or alliance with us is more important than the politician’s behavior. What’s most important is that our side gets to exert as much political power or influence as possible.

Sure, we think behavior and character and holding ethical ideals are important, but not at the expense of losing influence over others. In politics the game is to win, not to be honorable or consistent.

As a result, the sexual indiscretions (or even crimes) of Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump tend to be weighed differently, depending on our party affiliation. Whether we demand a balanced budget from Congress largely depends on whether we support the current president. As I once heard commentator Jonas Goldberg say, “If hypocrisy were helium, Congress would float away.” Not just Congress, but most of the American electorate.

The day before the last presidential election, when virtually everyone (including Trump, I think) assumed Hillary Clinton would win, I was very concerned about how conservatives would respond to the election result. They had so demonized Hillary that I could foresee many people refusing to recognize her election and doing everything in their power to make her presidency fail. But when Donald won the election, many liberals pursued this same response. If this response is wrong for one side, it’s wrong for both sides.

Currently our nation is facing the question of whether President Trump should be removed from office by the Senate following his impeachment by the House. (We know he won’t be, but the moral and legal question still faces us.) Our own party affiliation or support for the president will inevitably exert a powerful influence over whether we believe he is or is not guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, or whether his actions have been serious enough for removal from office. I have my own opinion on this matter, and I believe it is rationally and morally based, but I do not know how much my own prejudices and biases are influencing my own conclusions.

But there is another reason, a more important reason, why it is unwise and indeed inappropriate for me to say whether President Trump should be removed from office at this time or, later this year, re-elected. That reason is that I, as a pastor representing the mission of the church, must reject the temptation of political power. Too many Christians (and Christian leaders) have made the faulty assumption that a particular party must win elections because that party will promote our favored issues or give us more influence in the government and society. But at the heart of the Christian message is a rejection of domineering power.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is presented with three temptations before beginning his ministry. One of those temptations is the temptation of dominating political power. According to the story, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “I will give you all of these if you fall down and worship me.” The temptation is to possess all worldly power, to be able to dictate one’s will over others. But doing so is, in effect, demonic–even if it is Jesus who is exercising this domineering power!

If Jesus cannot exercise such power without worshiping the devil, neither can Christians (or anyone). The desire to dominate, to impose one’s will over others (no matter how good that will may be), is essentially anti-God.

This doesn’t mean that Christians should be uninvolved in politics or government. But we must reject political domination, sacrificing our ethical principles and integrity for the sake of maintaining or acquiring power. We must dispose of any trace of the philosophy that says, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

True power, according to biblical faith, is found in service to others. To exercise compassion, kindness and patience is the most profound way to bring about widespread good. Wholeness cannot be imposed on people by a government; it must be cultivated through love and nonviolence. Government has a necessary role in providing basic fairness and stability to society, and so legislating and upholding just laws is of the utmost importance. But the exercise of political power will not bring about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s why Jesus never sought it.

The church has a mission, and a method, vastly different from the government. Christian leaders who focus on promoting a particular political party or president are–unwittingly–distracting us from our mission and undermining Jesus’ method.

Is Politics Ruining Your Christmas?

Every time we open the newspaper, turn on the news, or look at our news feed, we are bombarded with the impeachment or the upcoming senate trial of the President. If you’re a Republican, you are likely seething at the constant attacks by Democrats in the House. If you’re a Democrat, you are likely flabbergasted by the obstinance of the Republicans in the Senate. If you’re like me, you’re weary and looking forward to it all being over.

Besides, it’s ruining our Christmas, right?

Or maybe not. Maybe this should remind us that Christmas is all about politics.

According to the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus occurred during a census. Then, like now, a census was controversial and political. It determined who got taxed, and how much. It was one of the ways the Roman Empire kept control of the people they had subjugated. Because of the census, instead of giving birth in the comfort of her own home, Mary was forced to give birth in a cattle stall far from family and friends.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, foreign dignitaries brought news to King Herod of the birth of a new king, which sent Herod into an anxious frenzy. Determined to protect the power of his own kingship, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem below the age of two to be butchered. Joseph and Mary had to take their baby and run for their lives, seeking asylum by crossing the border into Egypt and remaining there until King Herod died.

We’re told by Luke that an angel announced to a bunch of minimum-wage shepherds that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Titles like “Messiah” and “Lord” are political titles. The Roman Emperor claimed to be “Lord”–the human face of divine power. So this story challenges us to consider whether an emperor who leads countless legions, or an infant from impoverished parents, is the one who truly wields divine power.

You see? All of our political issues are here in one form or another. Immigration. Mass killing. Employment. Healthcare. Poverty. Foreign interference. Police. Power.

Over the centuries we’ve romanticized and sentimentalized the story of Christmas, but originally it was a frightening and astonishing political story. Our politics have not changed that much from the days of Caesar Augustus. We’re still fighting over political power, using every dirty trick, lie, wedge issue, distortion, foreign interference, lawsuit, and hypocritical argument at our disposal. The question that we ought to be contemplating is whether we will engage in the world-changing politics of Jesus.

Christmas is not a time to run away from politics, distracting ourselves with gift-buying and parties. This is a time for us to look as honestly and realistically as possible at all of the corruption and lies and violence in our world–including in our own political party. It’s easy to see the faults and weaknesses of our opponents, but can we be less blind about our own favored groups? Don’t make excuses by saying, “That’s the way the world is.” That is a denial of the angel’s message and what we claim to believe in and hope for.

Embrace Christmas, and let it ruin our politics.

Hope for Israelis and Palestinians?

Last week I attended a remarkable event: a presentation by a rabbi who lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and a Palestinian activist who are working together for peace. They belong to an organization called Roots–a grassroots movement of Jewish settlers and Palestinians committed to dialogue, conflict mediation, and hands-on peacemaking. I would not have thought such a partnership possible.

The rabbi and the Palestinian each told their story. The rabbi is an ardent Zionist, believing that the land known as Palestine belongs to the Jewish people as a promise by God. He defended Jewish settlements in the West Bank where the most important history of the ancient Jewish people took place. The Palestinian also spoke passionately about the injustice of having their land–which they have possessed for centuries–taken away, and about the constant indignities and discrimination and imprisonment Palestinians face as a stateless, powerless people. I was impressed with their honesty: they were not sugar-coating their feelings or experiences.

Each also told the story of how dialogue between them took shape. Just being able to meet was nearly impossible. Palestinians are not allowed into West Bank Jewish settlements (except for a limited number of laborers under surveillance), and Jewish Israelis are not allowed into Palestinian cities in the West Bank. As a result, Jews and Palestinians lead completely segregated lives, and this lack of contact breeds suspicion and hatred. But a Palestinian family made their small farm available as a place to meet. The rabbi and the activist (among other Jews and Palestinians) were invited to meet together to talk. Both were sternly warned by their families not to do it; but eventually they took the fearful step. To their mutual astonishment, they eventually discovered that each other were understandable, even likable, human beings.

The Roots organization continues to grow. Jewish and Palestinian children attend camp together, learning each other’s songs and playing together. Local Palestinians are brought to the home of an Israeli terror victim; Jews help to rebuild a mosque after an extremist attack. What makes the organization work is that it does not propose a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It recognizes that within the current climate of mutual hatred and distrust, no political solution is feasible. Therefore, the ground must be laid by simply having more conversation, undermining the violent stereotypes each side has for the other.

Over time, the rabbi came to realize that the land belongs to the Palestinians as well as to the Jews. And the Palestinian came to realize that the Jews need a home as well.

During the question and answer period after their presentations, an audience member suggested that, although Roots does not propose a political solution, the extensive expansion of Jewish settlements into the West Bank has made only one solution viable: one nation of Jews and Palestinians for the whole land, with equal rights and opportunity for all. The rabbi and the Palestinian disagreed. Neither favored a one-state solution, and they claimed that the vast majority of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians do not favor it either. The rabbi suggested that neither the one-state solution nor the two-state solution is workable. He favored what he called “the three-state solution”: Two side-by-side nations–one Jewish and one Palestinian–but with freedom to live in either Israel or Palestine. Palestinian refugees may return to either country. Regardless of which nation one resides in, one’s citizenship and voting rights are in one’s own ethnic nation. The two nations would be combined by a common economic partnership–like the European Union. (Notably, the Palestinian activist neither endorsed nor rejected this idea; he refused to offer a political solution but instead pointed back to the need for more conversation.)

This proposed “three-state solution” took my breath away. It represented out-of-the-box thinking that addressed the needs and desires of both sides in a fresh way. For the first time in a very long time I thought there might actually be the possibility of a just solution rather than an unjust “solution” imposed by Israel that keeps the wounds bleeding and festering for generations to come.

But this possible solution–or any possible solution–can only become politically feasible if both Jews and Palestinians have a lot more empathy, understanding, and trust for one another; and that can only happen with far more honest and constructive conversation than what is happening now. The Roots organization, and others like it, need to be supported and expanded as rapidly as possible.

While these healing conversations and interactions take place, the Israeli and Palestinian governments need to stop taking steps and making decisions that make an eventual just political solution harder. Further land acquisition in the West Bank by Israel should be stopped. The demonizing of each side through media and education must be stopped. Acts of terror and humiliation by both sides must stop.

And here in the United States we must promote understanding and empathy for both sides so that we are not inadvertently making a just solution harder for them to achieve. Those conversations between Jews and Palestinians must happen here as well–and  include Christian Zionists having conversations with American Palestinians. If we visit Israel, also visit Palestine. Talk with everyone. God may have a chosen people, but God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). God demands justice from all nations.

 

 

Facts for White People about Race

In my childhood church hung a painting of two hands clasped in a handshake–one white, one black. As a boy, I stared at that picture many times, and it imprinted on me the inner conviction that one of my tasks in life is to help overcome racial division.

Recently I read two books on this subject: How to be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M. Fleming, and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I particularity recommend Oluo’s book, though both were challenging and helpful. I was struck by Oluo’s comment that conversations about race need to be between people of the same race as well as between races. White people need to talk with other white people about race, and black people need to talk with other black people about race. There is so much we need to talk about that it would be too exhausting for all of these needed conversations to happen exclusively between races. So let me, a white person, share some crucial thoughts with other white people about race:

Race is a fictional category, not a biological category, created to justify superiority and slavery. There is more genetic variation between two separate groups of mountain gorillas than there is between races of human beings. There is no such thing as an African race, an Asian race, a European race, an Indigenous American race, etc. Humans have long divided people according to ethnicity (language, culture, customs, etc.), but only in the last few hundred years did we begin dividing people according to so-called races. This was done in order to claim the inherent superiority of one race (white European), and the inferiority of the others. The African “race” was labeled as so inferior that its suitable condition was enslavement.

Our society has been so built around this fictional construct, we cannot now ignore it. I remember my mother once asking, “Why do African Americans insist on being called African Americans? Why can’t we just all be called Americans?” The irony of this statement is that it is the whites who created and insisted on these categories! And as much as I may wish we could dispense with these categories, the fact is that our society is fundamentally structured around these categories. To cease to acknowledge these categories would be to cease to acknowledge the disparities and discrimination faced by those races that are non-white. For instance, the average white household has at least ten times as much wealth as the average black household in the U.S. If we did not use the category “African Americans” (or blacks, or whites), we would have no way to talk about this incredible disparity and try to figure out how it happened and how to alleviate it.

Racism has at least two different definitions that we need to pay attention to. The most widely used definition for racism is animosity or prejudice toward people of another race. Based on this definition, a lot of whites insist they are not racist, while at the same time claiming that a lot of blacks are racist. From my own perspective, based on this definition, we are all racist. I say this because there is no way to grow up in our society without picking up stereotypes and attitudes concerning people of various races. Do I make a point of trying to treat everyone exactly the same? Yes. But I am aware that when I hear that a white child  was shot in a drive-by shooting, I get a little more upset than when I hear of the same thing happening to a black child. I have been conditioned by my society to value black lives less. (Hence, the Black Lives Matter movement, which is not racist, but is simply trying to make us value black lives as much as white lives.) This valuing of black lives less than white lives begins extremely early. Studies indicate that even small children (even small black children!) prefer a white baby doll over a black baby doll. We’re all racist, because we have all been conditioned to be aware of race and to value races differently.

Racism also refers to social systems that give an advantage to one race over another. I heard a man recently say, “I don’t care if a person is white, black, brown, or purple. I treat everyone the same.” I’m sure he believes this, and for the sake of argument, let’s say this is true. Even if this were true for every person who lives in the United States, we would still have systemic racism. We have systems in place in our society that automatically advantage whites over people of color. For instance, that tenfold advantage in accumulated wealth that the average white family has over the average black family: that allows the white family to weather financial emergencies such as a lost job or an expensive medical procedure that would result in homelessness for most black families. White families have an advantage in social networking and connections; they have an advantage in having (on average) more generations of college education and the opportunities that education has opened up. Whites have an advantage, simply by being the largest racial group in the U.S., of almost always being generously represented in city, state and national government; in the police force and judicial system; in advertising and products; and in entertainment. So even if everyone were without any prejudice at all, whites in this country would still have significant advantages for success. And those advantages are at the cost of all others being disadvantaged. That makes U.S. society, as a system, racist (favoring one race over another)–even if none of us individually are racist. Unless we whites acknowledge our automatic privileges of being the “norm” or the majority, and unless we are doing something to counteract those advantages so that our society is truly a more equal playing field for all, we may find ourselves being labeled racist–regardless of our personal feelings about other races.

The problem with the police is not “bad apples,” but a system that perpetuates racism. We have all seen the shocking videos of police officers shooting unarmed or nonthreatening African Americans. Until I saw those videos (due to the proliferation of smart phone videos), I did not think police racism was a major problem. Yes, some police officers let their power go to their heads and act inappropriately (with everyone), but I did not realize how African Americans literally fear for their lives every time they are pulled over for a traffic stop. The statistics are clear: the police pull over and arrest African Americans all out of proportion to their traffic infractions. Why? I assume this is because of racial profiling (as one retired officer admitted to me). Because African Americans, on average, commit more crimes, all African Americans automatically get closer scrutiny and are more easily assumed to be engaging in illegal activity. This results in false arrests, undermining trust and cooperation with the police, and a rise in resentment in hostile interactions. Thus, racial profiling becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Poverty is not about laziness. I have met several people struggling with poverty who, in my opinion, keep making disastrous financial decisions. Their ongoing poverty is, to some extent, their own fault. But I do not personally know anyone whom I would say is poor because they are lazy or unwilling to work. Most of the poor people I know work very hard–harder than many affluent people. But as hard as they work, they cannot get out of poverty because their wages are too small, they have no or inadequate medical coverage, they have inadequate transportation, they can’t afford childcare so they can work more, they have no safety net for emergencies, etc. To gain financial stability often requires beginning from a platform of stability and adequate resources, but those who have grown up within generations of poverty and economically depressed areas do not have such a platform from which to begin. When we add a social system that disadvantages people because of their race, race-based poverty is the result.

The older I get, the farther away I realize we are from solving the most basic problems connected with our racial divisions. But I can at least listen without defensiveness to the experiences of people of color, learn more facts, engage in constructive conversation, and be a good neighbor in my own racially mixed neighborhood.

Mass Extinctions

One of the important books I read while on vacation was Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud.

Geology is one of those often overlooked sciences that doesn’t have quite the pizzazz of physics, biology, or even chemistry. It’s just about rocks, right? Bjornerud, a professor of geology and environmental studies, makes a compelling (and poetic) case for  appreciating earth’s geology and the importance for thinking like a geologist–taking the very, very long perspective, even of geologic ages, not just next year’s benefits. She calls this way of thinking timefulness.

She begins by telling the interesting story of how scientists, bit by bit, figured out the age of the planet, the beginning of life, and how to date rock layers and fossils. About four and a half billion years ago the earth formed, and then began a fascinating process of geologic and atmospheric upheavals that are still continuing today. The earth and its atmosphere are not static. The continents have drifted, mountains have risen and fallen, the temperature has gone up and down drastically, and the make-up of the atmosphere has completely shifted at least four times. We human beings inhabit this planet only because geologic and atmospheric conditions have been just right for us for the tiniest sliver of earth’s time. If conditions change (and they will, and are changing even now), we may find ourselves on an inhospitable planet.

Five times life on this planet has suffered catastrophic mass extinctions, and when life re-emerged, it was quite different from the dominant lifeforms that preceded it. 440 million years ago, 86% of all species went extinct during an abrupt ice age followed by rapid warming; 365 million years ago rapid cooling killed off 75% of all species; 250 million years ago, cold and then extremely warm weather led to the extermination of 95% of all species; 200 million years ago a hot and dry period caused the extinction of 80% of all species; and 65 million years ago an abrupt cold spell killed off 76% of all species. The climate change that brought about this last mass extinction was caused almost certainly by a large asteroid striking the earth. But so far there is no evidence that asteroid or comet strikes caused the previous mass extinctions; rather, it is more probable the drastic climate changes were caused by geologic factors on the earth.

The sobering news is that climate is once again changing rapidly. Carbon dioxide, which is a heart-trapping gas, has been stable in our atmosphere for the last twelve thousand years, at about 255 parts per million. This stable level gave humans a comfortable and dependable temperature for flourishing and coincides with the rise of human civilizations. By 1800 the level of carbon dioxide had very gradually risen to 280 ppm. But then came the industrial revolution and the ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), concrete production, and deforestation, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By 1960 the level was 315 ppm–rising as fast in 160 years as it had in the previous eleven or twelve thousand years. In 1990 we passed the 350 ppm mark, which many climatologists consider the upper threshold for maintaining climate stability favorable to humans. By 2000 we reached 370 ppm, and as of today we are well over 400 ppm. There hasn’t been this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in over four million years–when the climate was quite hotter. We humans are rapidly changing the climate of the planet.

Bjornerud puts all of this change into geologic perspective, looking for analogies in the geologic record. We may not be in the midst of a mass extinction like the one 65 million years ago, but species are still disappearing at an alarming rate. For instance, the average extinction rate for amphibians over tens of millions of years is about one species per hundred years. Today, the extinction rate for all animals is at least 100 times, and perhaps 10,000 times, the geologic average. We may not be facing imminent extinction ourselves, but we are in for much more volatile and destructive weather, and a planet with rapidly decreasing biodiversity.

What can be done? The short answer is to achieve carbon emission neutrality as soon as possible. This is politically and economically controversial, but the longer we put it off, the more costly will be the consequences. Because cutting carbon emissions is so difficult, many scientists have suggested finding ways to get the carbon out of the atmosphere or block the heating rays of the sun. Bjornerud goes through each of these proposals one by one, demonstrating how unfeasible they are, or how the costs would be impossible. One approach–massive reforestation of the planet wherever possible–would indeed help to soak up carbon, but it does so only temporarily since decaying trees would then re-release the carbon. Another approach–injecting massive amounts of sulfates into the atmosphere to deflect some of the warmth of the sun–might work but would require international cooperation for centuries (a highly unlikely prospect) and turn the sky permanently white.

Bjornerud concludes: “An irony of our technological advancement is that it has created a society that is in many ways scientifically more naive than the preindustrial world, in which no citizen who learned physics through backbreaking work and understood climate through subsistence agriculture would have assumed that he or she was exempt from the laws of nature. The ‘modern’ kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that repeating falsehoods like incantations can transform them into scientific truth. It is also yoked to a quasi-mystical faith in the free market, which, according to the prophets, will somehow allow us to live beyond our means indefinitely.”

Bjornerud says we need the “Seventh Generation” approach–an idea advocated by Iroquois Indians over three hundred years ago “that leaders should take actions only after contemplating their likely effects on ‘the unborn of the future Nation … whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.'” Thinking in terms of seven generations goes beyond our own lifetimes, and prevents us from “stealing from the future.”

This is just a taste of the rich information and challenges in this book. I cannot think of a subject that will have more profound effects for our future wellbeing than this one. We owe future generations a decent chance to survive and flourish.

Religious Freedom

During my vacation these past two weeks I read two very important books. I’d like to talk about the first one today, and the second one next week.

The first book is Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle For Religious Freedom by Steven Waldman. The title almost says it all. The concept of religious freedom has been part of the history of this nation since the beginning, but it has been understood and practiced (or not) in widely different ways. America’s religious history is, unfortunately, marred by frequent and shocking episodes of violence. And that violence continues even today.

We sometimes look at the Pilgrims as our pioneers of religious freedom, and it is true that they came to this land seeking religious freedom, but it was religious freedom for themselves, not for others. For the Pilgrims, religious freedom meant freedom for them to practice their own religion–and impose it on anyone who lived in their colony. This attitude predominated in most of the colonies (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island being exceptions to an extent)each favoring a particular religious expression, and outlawing all others. Waldman credits the Baptists in particular (especially in places such as Virginia), for espousing the concept that all religions should be allowed to be practiced, even within the same colony or state. A lot of Baptists had to go to jail (or worse) before this radical idea began catching on.

Famously, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But what does this mean? Waldman lays out the various ways the founding fathers, and later the Supreme Court, understood this sentence. He gives particular attention to the thinking of James Madison who, more than anyone else, was the designer of the Constitution. It is a complicated and fascinating history. Waldman makes the case that the first amendment is a careful and difficult balance between the government protecting the exercise of all religions, while at the same time not endorsing or getting entangled in any religion. In many cases, these two goals are at odds with each other, which results in a crazy patchwork of laws that are not entirely consistent. Nevertheless, Waldman believes the courts have generally moved in the right direction, sustaining the proper balance.

Despite this amendment in our Constitution, local and state governments over the centuries have frequently suppressed or even attacked various religions: Catholicism, Judaism, Native American spirituality, African religions brought by the slaves, Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, and–especially today–Islam. Waldman notes the sad irony that, in the past, Protestant evangelicals were in the vanguard of promoting religious freedom, but today it is white evangelicals who are most frequently undermining the religious freedom of Muslims.

On the other hand, Waldman notes that evangelicals who believe their religious beliefs and practices are under threat are not entirely wrong. Though many of their claims are based on exaggerations or baseless conspiracies, some of their fears are quite legitimate, and Waldman calls on the government to be more careful in allowing the free exercise of Christian conscience–as well as the free exercise of all other religions.

Waldman is clearly sympathetic to historic evangelicalism, while also not being afraid to call out its current hypocrisies when it comes to religious freedom. The last five chapters are “must reading” for understanding the massive political and religious changes that have occurred in the U.S. in the past forty years. No one can talk intelligently about the current dynamics of religious freedom in this country without having read (or being familiar with) the information in these 100 pages.

Waldman makes a strong case that the U.S. is unique in its approach to religious freedom, and because of it, religion thrives in this country much more than in any other developed country in the world. But if we make Christianity, or the so-called “Judeo-Christian heritage,” the ipso facto preferred religion of the U.S., it will backfire to the detriment of Christianity. Religion thrives in the U.S. precisely because it is not endorsed by the government. 

If you are interested in the complex issues surrounding religious freedom, please read this book. 

If I Were Running for President

When I was seven years old an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied, “President of the United States.” I don’t know why I said that. I may have been influenced by the recent assassination of JFK and the nation’s outpouring of grief for a president who had brought hope and optimism to so many. As I grew older, I shifted my interest to other professions (becoming a writer, or an archaeologist, or a minister), but I have never quite lost my political dreams.

With so many people currently running for president (and my being somewhat disappointed in all of them), I can’t help but imagine what kind of platform I would run on. It’s all fantasy, of course, but I would love to address the most important issues facing our nation and world without pandering to a certain segment of society or worrying about popularity. If I could be entirely honest with the American people, here are the issues I would run on:

Taxes. The fact is, the government doesn’t take in nearly enough taxes to cover the cost of all of the things we demand from it and receive from it now. The result is a national debt that is unimaginably high and virtually impossible to pay off for generations to come. So it’s time to face reality and raise taxes in a smart way to at least cover our current expenses. The middle class needs to pay a bit more, and the rich need to pay significantly more.

The IRS. Over the years the IRS has been eviscerated, greatly reducing its ability to audit tax returns. This only encourages tax cheating–especially by the rich and by large corporations. Employing a lot more IRS agents more than pays for itself; it will add billions to the government coffers and make tax payments more lawful and fair.

Fix Social Security. Democrats in particular are allergic to fixing Social Security, treating it as a sacred cow despite the fact that it will run out of money without a fix. The age at which people can receive benefits will need to be raised, and the benefits for the wealthy will need to be cut.

Audit the Pentagon. The Pentagon has never completed a full audit. The Inspector General’s report in 2016 uncovered 6.5 trillion dollars that the Pentagon cannot account for. Paperwork is simply missing. No government agency has more financial fraud and waste than the Pentagon. If I were president, I would insist on financial transparency and accountability. Related to this is the need to cut military programs that even the Pentagon does not want, but which continue in the budget at the insistence of members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from the spending. This kind of shortsightedness will bankrupt us as well as put us at a great disadvantage with our military opponents.

Cap-and-trade and Carbon Tax. One of the greatest threats to the well-being of the entire planet for generations to come is global warming. The sooner we reduce carbon and methane emissions to near zero, the better (and cheaper) for all of us. According to the economists I have read, the most effective and efficient way to do this is through a combination of cap-and-trade and a gradual tax on carbon emissions. A carbon tax does not distort the market, but rather seeks to recoup the real cost of spewing carbon into the atmosphere. About twenty-five years ago Sweden began a carbon tax. Carbon emissions are down 23% even as the economy grew 55%.

Nuclear Energy. Although we should be investing in the further development of wind and solar energy, these two green sources, by themselves, will not meet our energy needs. The safest and most efficient source of green energy is nuclear. The public is afraid of nuclear accidents, but no one died (directly or indirectly) from the accident at Three Mile Island, and only one person died from radiation exposure at Fukushima. Chernobyl was a genuine nuclear disaster, but that was due to a very poor design combined with very poor management. I would fast-track the building of up-to-date and safe nuclear power plants.

Immigration and Border Enforcement. The birthrate in the U.S. is now below replacement level. If we want our economy to thrive, and if we want enough workers putting money into Social Security to pay the benefits going to the retiring Baby-boomers, then we will need a lot more immigrants. We also need to get the millions living here illegally (who have committed no crimes) out of the shadows, giving them a route to citizenship (or at least legal status). The guest-worker program also needs to be expanded in order to fill our need for migrant workers. At the same time, we need more effective border enforcement. A wall is not the most effective option in most cases; but a lot more fencing, surveillance, and border agents are needed, as well as stiffer penalties for trying to enter the country illegally. Asylum-seekers and war refugees who are fleeing violence and likely death must be given a fair hearing and sanctuary.

Trade and Alliances. A peaceful global future depends, to a significant extent, on expanded webs of trade and strengthening alliances. Our most valuable export is our philosophy and practice of freedom: specifically, human equality and human rights which have resulted in our cultural vibrancy and creativity. At the same time, we need to show respect and understanding for societies that function differently than our own. We need to once again project a positive image to the world. Friendship and admiration make us more secure than intimidation.

National Service. I believe every person, following graduation from high school, should be required to do one year of national service (working in national parks, hospitals, schools, overseas in the Peace Corps, or in the military). This will help to enhance a greater understanding and empathy for our diverse society and world, build a sense of national unity, and provide much-needed services. It will also bring greater maturity and clarity to those who then wish to purse a college education.

Personal Faith. If I were running for president, I would want to be open about my personal faith and how it motivates me and informs my values. I would also like to show how that faith respects all faiths as well as those with no faith–a principle foundational to our nation. The freedom of (and from) religion is what has made religious faith in the United States so much more vital than it is in many other countries with a history of state-sponsored religion.

My list of issues could go on, but these are among the most important. If I were to run on such a platform, I would certainly lose; and even if I were to win the presidency, Congress would almost certainly block all or almost all of these initiatives. So why even run such a campaign? Because if no candidates are willing to tell us the truth and speak about these things, we will never address them, and we will slowly choke on our own selfishness.

[I have been writing this weekly Monday blog for over nine years. I will now be making it occasional. Thanks for reading and commenting!]