National Parks as Incubators of Democratic Values, or: How Giant Sequoias Make Us a Better People (Repost)

St. Mary Lake from Sun Point(The following is a post I wrote in August 2012. I wanted to share it again as we are in the midst of another heated presidential election. The national parks provide us more than recreation or a chance to reconnect with nature. If we take time to reflect on their meaning, we can see they also shape us into better democratic citizens. If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit one soon.)

Back in June, my family visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. As we hiked along the Congress Trail, I carried my infant son and he began to cry just before we came upon a group of three people. They silently and excitedly motioned us to come over and together we watched a black bear cub playing on a fallen tree on the other side of a clearing. My kid continued to cry in spurts despite my best efforts to soothe him. Thankfully he did not disturb the cub’s focus. After a few minutes we began to leave and I apologized for my son’s noisiness, to which one of the women in the group smiled and responded in a wonderful Southern drawl, “That’s OK, this park belongs to him too.”

After that trip I have returned to Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The early episodes detail the creation of these parks, which was unprecedented in the world’s history. Never before had a nation set aside public land in order to preserve the natural wonders for its citizens to experience. When Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it stated that the land would be set aside, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Reflecting on my experiences in national parks as well as learning more about their history brings to mind a concept that has surprisingly received little attention in this election year: democracy. Those who originally sought to create national parks did so for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect the land, vegetation, and wildlife, what we today might call environmental conservation. Second, they protected the lands with an eye toward their neighbors and children — they believed it would be good for others, including future generations, to experience the lands in as pristine states as possible. They agreed to limit personal and private claims for development or exploitation of their resources. They believed to preserve the lands was democratic. Burns’ documentary quotes George Caitlin, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others at length. Their words extolling the inherently democratic values of national parks evoke inspiration consistent with the natural beauty they sought to protect.

Because the creators of the national parks chose to curb their own possible gain, everyone who has the ability to travel there can experience the wonder of Yosemite Valley without paying exorbitant entry fees. One does not have to cough up cash to a photographer with sole proprietary rights to all pictures from Glacier Point. The granite of Half Dome will never be quarried for kitchen countertops. Burns’ films show there were people who wanted to lay private claims on what became the national parks for purposes of tourism or commercial use of the resources. But the American citizens, through their representatives, decided that these lands should belong to everyone. No one should have more of a claim to the lands than anyone else. I stand amazed at the selflessness required to secure natural beauty for all people present and future. These are values one still finds in the parks. When I was a child my parents would never let me take home even a rock from a stream bed and they argued, “If everyone took a rock home, one day there would be no rocks left.” The national parks are incubators of sharing and restraint, two key values of democratic virtue.

The woman we met on the Congress Trail clearly understood the virtue shaping the national parks’ existence, but I find little about democratic values in today’s public discourse. Most of the discussion has focused on economics, namely whether we are moving toward absolute free markets or socialism. Reducing life to mere economics, however, will not account for something as magnificent as preserving the Grand Canyon. While one can detail the relationships between economics and democracy, or argue whether free markets or socialism is more democratic, the fact is that economics is different from democracy. From the points of view of both the free market and socialism, Grand Canyon National Park is extremely inefficient. A mere $25.00 gets a carload of people into the park for seven days.  People would gladly pay higher fees and far more money could be made either for private investors or the state. From the perspective of economics, the raw resources in the parks are going to waste. Economics, however, cannot understand the democratic values that make these sanctuaries of beauty and wilderness available to all. The parks exist not for the return to shareholders or for the promotion of the state, but, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” National parks remind us that benefit and enjoyment sometimes come in forms other than money and consumable products. Benefit and enjoyment are not granted by the state, but rather, when people choose to restrain their own private claims and freely share with one another.

Good things happen to us when we encounter natural majesty for which we have a shared responsibility to maintain. When my son meets a woman from another state and they have a mutual interest in preserving the habitat of a black bear cub, community is created, a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself is fostered, and they are made, if only for a moment, more generous toward each other and nature.

As I read about the issues shaping this year’s election debate, I wonder how the lessons we learn in the national parks and the democratic values that gave rise to them them should play a larger part of the discussion. Currently we restrain ourselves by allowing ourselves just one vote. No one can (legally) sell their vote or purchase more opportunities to vote. This value of ensuring one vote per person and restraining ourselves from commoditizing that vote makes little economic sense, but it makes terrific democratic sense.  Where else might restraining and sharing for the purpose of ensuring all have a say or receive benefit help us move forward together?

If economics cannot make sense of the democratic values that formed the national parks, it seems unlikely to me that economics will be able to foster those values. I do not intend to demean economics. Rather, I hope we begin to see that there are matters that are beyond an economic scope. Economics should not be the primary or final arbiter of determining value. We need economics because we must produce, distribute, and consume goods to survive and progress. At the same time, let us remember Theodore Roosevelt’s beautiful charge he gave while visiting the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Free markets, socialism, and other economies will always tempt us to look at the Grand Canyon and think that we could somehow make it better, more efficient, or more profitable. The truth is we cannot improve on it and we need values that encourage restraint and sharing, that help us to appreciate that the biggest hole in the ground, or the largest living things on Earth, are all our responsibility and are means of benefit and enjoyment for everyone. We need these values not only to protect natural beauty, but also our nation.

Responding to Terrorism: Ted Cruz’s Fear or Jeff Flake’s Community?

Following yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, the United States presidential candidates all released statements denouncing the violence, offering condolences to the people of Belgium, and taking the opportunity to briefly lay out their counterterrorism plans. Gov. John Kasich, Sec. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote clearly and reasonably. Donald Trump responded as Trump always does with a mixture of demagoguery and self-aggrandizement. While his positions are not necessarily unforeseen and novel, we should still be surprised by their xenophobia and utter lack of compassion.

The most shocking response came from Sen. Ted Cruz, who stated, “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Reporters noted in the brevity of this statement Cruz didn’t offer many details. His campaign has since doubled-down saying his call is no different than targeting other things like, “drugs, gangs, human trafficking, and organized crime.” Read those statements again. Cruz and his campaign have likened being Muslim to engaging in criminal activity. For a candidate to call for law enforcement to secure Muslim neighborhoods while making religious liberty one of his core issues is hypocrisy. Cruz seems to care for religious liberty so long as one shares his views of Christianity. Further, Washington Post Fact Checker found Cruz’s statements about the effectiveness of NYPD’s program spying on Muslims almost entirely wrong. The program didn’t yield information that led to a single case. It only created distrust between Muslim communities and the police. Cruz’s response is the most shocking because he is supposed to be an alternative voice to Trump’s fear-mongering, yet on this matter and others, little daylight exists between their positions or rhetoric.

Cruz decides to meet a truly frightening event in Brussels with even more fear. This is a natural human reaction and Cruz gives voice to our baser instincts. Good leaders empathize with people’s thoughts. They name our fears. But they don’t lead us in a race to the bottom. While good leaders understand our fears, they call the people to something greater. A good leader would remind all Americans that our Muslim neighbors are as much a part of this nation as anyone else. A good leader would seek to strengthen ties with Muslim communities, to welcome them to the table, to listen to their voices, not isolate them under the peering eye of surveillance. Rather than fostering courage and neighborliness, Cruz wants non-Muslim Americans to let their fears overtake them and drive their decisions.

In his call yesterday to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods, Cruz betrays his commitments as an elected official and as a follower of Jesus. As a senator and candidate seeking to be president of all Americans, no matter their religious affiliation, Cruz ought to reject the very actions he is now calling for. He should seek ways to work with Muslims to root out extremism just as other community policing efforts have used the resources of communities to root out violence from their neighborhoods. More importantly, for someone who touts his Christian faith, Cruz should follow Jesus’s call to treat others as he wants to be treated. Our Christian history is one of governments persecuting us because of our faith. It is a deeply Christian practice to extend the same freedoms of conscience and religion we want to people of other faiths.

Contrast Cruz’s (and Trump’s) response to these attacks to Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Arizona) visit to a mosque in December 2015. In his address to his neighbors, Flake highlighted values and practices shared between his Mormon faith and their Muslim religion—reverence for the Almighty, acts of service, fasting. When much of the country was still reeling in fear from the ISIS-inspired attacks in San Bernardino, Flake displayed great leadership and fostered community. He extended welcome to his Muslim neighbors and received their welcome as they hosted him and his family at the mosque. In the face of fear, we can be like Flake and seek friendship as we denounce violence. We can strengthen civil and religious ties for the common good. Flake gave us a real picture of leadership and hope for a healed community. Cruz offers us only more division and more fear.

Expanding Our Definition of Charity

I came across another great quotation for Lent from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables:

[Monsieur Madeleine] had entire confidence in this overseer, a very respectable person, firm, just, upright, full of that charity which consists in giving, but not having to the same extent that charity which consists in understanding and pardoning.

Let that one sink in. How often are we willing to give to a cause to help people we see as less fortunate as us, but we are at the same time unwilling to understand the lives of those very people and forgive those behaviors we find distasteful?

Do we give money and gifts in kind to a homeless shelter and yet shake our heads with disgust at the homeless man or woman asking for money at the intersection? Will we write checks to organizations fighting human trafficking and still angrily judge the prostitute?

We are invited to expand our definition of charity beyond merely giving money or material goods (necessary actions, to be sure). Charity can also consist of understanding and pardoning others. True charity requires all these aspects. A charity without understanding and pardon is a patriarchal, drive-by kind of caring. A charity with understanding and pardon is the beginning of solidarity. Expressing this type of charity is when we become more like Christ, who does not keep us at arm’s length, but who knows us and our situations intimately. His real charity in understanding our lives allows him to pardon us and give us what truly helps.

During Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to broaden our definition of charity. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to express the charity of understanding and pardon.

Facebook Fast Insights (So Far)

I am fasting from Facebook for the third year in a row this Lenten season. Each time I have similar experiences. Like any fast, the first few days are the hardest when I am most keenly aware of how habitual my Facebook use has become. Though I removed the app from my phone, I still found myself reflexively reaching for it as I stood in line at the grocery store or when I felt bored watching the kids.

I also gain new insights every time I do this. As my Covenant family puts it: the same act in a different context is a different act. Here is what I’ve seen from this year’s fast.

Distraction Abounds

The point of a Facebook fast is to pay attention to what God might be saying to me through my physical context—both the space I inhabit and the people around me. This is an uphill battle. Never underestimate my ability to find new ways to distract myself and waste time. As Lent progresses I need to delete more apps that become Facebook replacements. So long, Instagram. Sayonara, Trivia Crack. I even read the news as a means of diversion and I have to limit how many times I hit refresh on my Google News page. Lessening distraction is a necessary first step to becoming more present, but being present is a discipline that requires greater work than simply cutting out those things that take away my focus.

Enjoying a Break from the Heat

Forty days is enough time for seismic activity. In previous Facebook fasts, I missed out on the social media conversation around world-changing events like Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and Pope Francis’s election. So far this time I haven’t participated in the discussions concerning the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Antonin Scalia’s death and a slew of presidential primary elections. Some years I have longed for the push and pull with others in response to major events. This year I find myself grateful to be away. Discourse on social media tends to produce more heat than light and I am glad to take a break from reading and participating in the acrimony. My blood pressure may have dropped. I’m not fighting with people in my head as much.

You Are Not Entitled to Listen to My Opinion

I remain as opinionated as ever about during the fast, especially about politics. Just ask my wife. But by intentionally refraining from reacting to the news—particularly the appalling news of a narcissistic demagogue sweeping through the Republican primaries—I see how unnecessary my opinion often is. I believe every person is entitled to her own opinion and I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s voice, but I gain something by keeping my mouth shut on social media. My views have time to simmer. I’m not tempted to respond just because everyone else is. I have plenty of friends who offer reasoned arguments and I feel the absence of their voices. But so much of the stuff on my Facebook feed is noise. I know I contribute my share of it. Really, I like the sound of my own voice. Being entitled to my own opinion doesn’t mean everyone else needs to read my opinion.

Sisyphus’s Status: Another Morning, Another Time up the Hill.  #ThisStoneAintGoingToRollItself

Being an at-home parent of young kids can be a Sisyphean effort. Preparing meals and changing diapers and driving to and from school and wiping away spit up and washing laundry and reading books and building train tracks and cleaning the floor. Repeat it all again the next day and the next day and the next. As I lay in bed many nights, I see that I did a lot of stuff throughout the day, but I don’t necessarily think I accomplished or produced anything. Seeking a sense of accomplishment in parenting little kids is like chasing the wind. They are their own people with their own wills. We cannot take too much credit for their development or delays. During the fast I see how Facebook has become for me a means of getting an accomplishment fix. A status update that garners a number of likes makes me feel like I am seen, like I made something worthwhile that others appreciate. This is especially true on days in which my kids want to hear nothing from me or refuse the very same food they declared their favorite just the week prior. How meaningless. Status updates might be the most fleeting bits of writing—Facebook cares so little about them they don’t have a decent search function to find one from the past. I want to listen to God about this. Am I determining my worth and identity by what I produce? Or is there an invitation here? In being made in the image of the great creator God, I believe we are made to create. Is God inviting me to live into who I am by making sure I create on a regular basis? Also, how might I find more meaning in parenting?

Fasting is hard inner work, but thankfully we have a gracious and gentle God.

The Gospel Gives Us a Strange and Peculiar Perspective

After decades of loving the musical, Les Miserables, I am finally reading Victor Hugo’s novel. I found this passage describing Bishop Myriel especially inviting. (He is the bishop who later forgives Jean Valjean and sets him on a path of compassion):

He was indulgent towards women, and towards the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily; and said: “The faults of women, children, and servants, of the feeble, the indigent and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” At other times, he said, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

As we see, he had a strange and peculiar way of judging things. I suspect that he acquired it from the Gospel.

I want to emphasize Hugo’s summation of Myriel’s outlook. What a wonderful and haunting thought. May our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ change us in such a way that the world around us would consider our way of judging things, “strange and peculiar.” Gaining respectability and social power are temptations we always face, but we have to admit there are simply some things about the gospel that will never make sense in our world.

For example, the Christian practices of forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and radical generosity and hospitality are all peculiar and nearly unintelligible in our world. Forgiveness seems unwise or even dangerous in our culture that keeps long accounts. Turning the other cheek makes no sense. Retaliation in the form of a punch, social snub, lawsuit, or drone strike, is seen as far more reasonable. Giving of one’s money, time, and abilities for the sake of others on occasion is admired in our culture. But to make a habit of it at the expense of one’s career advancement or lifestyle is foolish.

During Lent, we take an inventory of our lives. We peer into our darkness and seek to repent of sinning against God and others “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We seek the grace of God to change how we think and act. These are peculiar acts for they are intentional practices to align ourselves with God’s mission in the world, and not a part of a self-improvement program. The great fast of Lent reveals our disordered desires and willingness to place our trust in that which cannot save us. We are once again invited to a deeper conversion to God’s kingdom. The strange gospel of Jesus Christ takes our focus off ourselves and puts it onto God and our neighbors.

Bishop Myriel says later in the novel:

Have no fear of robbers and murderers. Such dangers are without, and are but petty. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. What matters it what threatens our heads and our purses? Let us think only of what threatens our souls.

This is a fantastic exhortation for us during this holy season. In the remaining weeks of Lent, have the courage to confront what threatens your soul. And may God bless you with an encounter with the gospel—that inviting, challenging, comforting, perplexing, strange, and peculiar good news.