More is Better

A Sermon Delivered at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, Sunday, July 28, 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

by Joseph W.H. Lough

Today’s Readings: Revised Common Lectionary (Alternate Reading)

“More is better.” “More is better?” Not always.

With a show of hands, how many of you have seen AT&T Mobile’s “More is better ad campaign”?

The ad campaign features a boyish corporate executive sitting cross-legged in suit and tie in a circle surrounded by kindergarteners.

“Who thinks two is better than one?” he asks the children. ALL THE CHILDRENS’ HANDS SHOOT UP.

“So which is better?” the executive then asks, “Being able to shoot two lasers out of both of your eyes at the same time or just one laser out of one eye?”

CHILDREN: “Twoooooooo.”

EXECUTIVE: “OK. Two lasers out of two eyes. Why?”

To which one child offers: “Its just fun. OK. One beam, like, does just a little bit of damage. Two beams do a lot of damage. It will make things explode!”

EXECUTIVE: “And that’s more fun? And that’s more powerful, you’re saying?

CHILDREN: “Yeah. For sure.”

VOICE OVER: “It’s Not Complicated. Doing two things at once is better.”

AT&T’s “More is Better” campaign has been wildly popular. The entire campaign has this same boyish corporate executive asking kindergarteners “Which is better, bigger or smaller?” Answer? Bigger. “Which is better, faster or slower?” Answer? Faster. “Which is better, More or Less?” Answer: More. And, as you have just heard, “Which is better, Two or One?” Answer: Two.

It’s not complicated.

Yet, according to today’s readings, it can be very complicated indeed.

In our opening reading, for the sake of his kinsman and his kinsman’s family, Abraham prays God’s mercy upon the people who chose more over less, the people of Sodom.

In our Psalm, God regards the lowly – those who have less – over the haughty, those who believe they deserve more.

By contrast, in our reading from Colossians, members of the community are faulted for believing that self-mortification offers a sure path to spiritual enlightenment; it does not.

And, finally, in our reading from the Gospel, we are urged to petition our Father, quite simply, for our daily bread.

It’s not complicated. But it is.

Today’s readings eventually lead us to the Holy Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood and to the radical self-giving and hospitality embodied in this resplendent feast.

There is no quick and easy, instant, fast-food alternative to this Holy Meal because the Meal Itself – the Body and Blood – the Feast – is not a mere means to some other end: it is the End itself, the Goal. This Holy Eucharist is Life and Life more abundant, so that to seek a detour around it or through it is to miss is it and go away hungry.

Which may be confusing, because our story begins – as many stories of divine promise and abundance begin – in the barren desert. And this may be confusing because it is so easy to mistake this barrenness itself – this absence and deprivation – for the quick-fix, the sure path, the infallible mechanism that will lead us to our goal. It is not and it will not.

And, so, although we may be inclined to fault Lot for having chosen more over less, or to praise Abram for having chosen less over more, we would be mistaken for doing so.

For remember, Abraham’s and Lot’s families have been journeying through the barren desert together. It was to avoid overgrazing and over-cultivation that they were forced to part company. And when Lot chooses the lush and verdant Jordan Valley over the arid and barren coastal plains, it is worth remembering that Abraham would happily have settled in the valley instead:

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. . . . So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

Lot chose more over less, but had he chosen the arid coastal plain, then it would have been Abram moving his tent as far as Sodom.

It is not where you are or where you find yourself but what you do where you are.

Abraham’s superiority to Lot no more consists of his settling in the coastal region than Sarah’s superiority to Lot’s wife consists in her barrenness. All shall be fed. All shall be comforted. All shall be filled at the Feast to which All of us are being called.

Nor does Abraham’s blessing arise out of his moral condemnation of Lot’s conduct or the conduct of those who live in the fertile Jordan Valley. Indeed, far from condemning those in the Valley, Abraham prays God’s mercy upon them:

Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Suppose there are forty-five? Then will you sweep it away? No. Forty? No. Thirty? No. Twenty? No. Suppose there are Ten? No.

Far from arising out of Abraham’s moral indignation over the conduct of the people living in Sodom, Abraham’s blessing would appear to arise out of his and Sarah’s compassion and generosity; the same kindness and generosity that compelled them to feed three total strangers who approached their tents in the middle of the barren desert:

And the Lord appeared to Abram by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”

And indeed according to the rabbis, Abraham and Sarah here washed the feet and served Feast to the Lord himself – the very feast to which all of us also are welcomed and are now moving.

So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to

Jan Provoost - Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel -...
Jan Provoost - Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel - WGA18441 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sarah and said, “Quick! Three SEE-uhs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

No. Although Abraham’s blessing begins in the barren desert, the desert is not its object, not its goal. Rather do we find ourselves here, in the feeding of the three strangers, right there, directly face-to-face with the feast of the Lord’s Supper.

Which is one reason why, when we hear the Epistle and when we listen to its counsel – see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ – we already know the deceitful philosophy the Epistle has in mind.

It is a philosophy that would pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, . . . with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” It is a philosophy that wants to qualify or disqualify you, “insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by our sensuous minds.”

Has someone said that you can’t come to this table because of what you eat or don’t eat? or because you chose the fertile Jordan Valley over the arid coastal plain; because you live in Sodom and not in Canaan; because you haven’t seen enough visions or haven’t spoken to enough angels?

It’s not complicated. But it is.

Has someone told you that there are seven, or five, or ten or four steps guaranteed to lead you to this Table?

No. There is no fast-food alternative to this Feast.

To be sure, some people want instant Eucharistic feast – now – without all of the fuss of kneading and baking the bread, without all the hassle of having strangers around our table . . .

And so miss the opportunity to Feast at the very table of the Lord.

. . . right away – now – as though there were a dietary formula that could substitute for the care, attention, and simple grace of fellowship around this table; as though there were a Eucharistic drive-through, instant grace – mix and stir – without all of the cutting, pealing, chopping, and waiting, all of the listening and attending that are necessarily entailed by any meal worth lingering over.

But to this meal there is no, no drive-through, no how-to manual or hand-book; there is no Eucharistic Happy Meal. You can’t get this meal by talking to angels or by inducing visions. You cannot get this meal through meritorious acts of ascetic self-denial or bodily self-mortification. Whether you choose the already fruited valley or the still barren coastline. There is no “follow the dots” coloring book version.

So, how do you get there? How will we know we are on the right path?

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

And lead us not into temptation.”

Oh, yes. To be sure. I will admit. The fast-food alternative is much easier. Which of us, in Lot’s place, would not choose the fruited valley over the arid plain? I know I would. The Deli alternative – where someone else does all of the chopping, cutting, kneading, and cooking – is much easier for some than the clamor of the noisy kitchen. And which of us when faced with a loud, boisterous, unruly table of total strangers would not prefer a quiet, candle-lit, corner at some familiar haunt? I know I would.

“Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”

And so miss entertaining the Lord himself.

It’s not complicated.

Have you chosen the fruited valley? Come. Do you find yourself in the arid plain? Come. Do you like more? Come. Do you prefer less? Come. Do you like fast? Come. Do you like slow. Do you prefer two laser eyes to one? Please, come. Join us. There is plenty for all at this Holy Feast. Amen.

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Flying to the Former Yugoslavia with WW Rostow

I like to fly, preferably long distances, preferably non-stop. Flying offers me uninterrupted time to read, write, and reflect without the constraints or limitations of normal, day-to-day routines. Which may explain why flying, for me, serves such an appropriate metaphor for freedom.

I was again reminded of the reasons flying for me invokes freedom while traveling yesterday from SFO to DCA to attend the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation for my upcoming Fulbright in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, I am not the first to use this metaphor. WW Rostow invoked it in 1960 in his attempt to offer a “non-materialist” account of economic development. Economic development, according to Rostow, reaches its intended goal with take-off: when all of the institutions, laws, wealth, and cultural understandings are in place to sustain long-range economic growth, such as in the US or Europe. And with “take-off” comes freedom.

The analogy between air flight and economic development – and the ways that both are able to invoke our experience of “freedom” – works on a metaphorical level in part because when I am flying (and especially when I am flying on someone else’s nickel) I allow myself to forget for a moment all of the hard work that actually goes into getting me from one place to another; not only the work of the stewards, the pilots, the ground crew, the hospitality industry, the ticketing agents, and so on, but also the work of those who purchased the fare. I feel free – I am free – only because of the unfreedom I and others have been (or will be) willing to endure to enjoy this brief four or five hours of unconstrained bliss. For, as economists everywhere, going back at least as far as Aristotle, have noted: freedom is born of necessity. We do not have one without the other. The “absence of constraint,” which we often associate with freedom, cannot arise except through the “presence of work,” which is one common definition of necessity. (Only among fascists and some communists did anyone seriously entertain the convenient fiction that Arbeit macht frei, “work makes us free.”)

Yet, beginning in the late nineteenth century with the writings of Carl Menger, some economists allowed themselves to forget the close relationship that exists between freedom and necessity. Easing back into their seats at 35,000 feet, they began to forget that the freedom they were experiencing was not really produced by the “absence of constraint.” For, notwithstanding their experience of freedom, this experience could not have been possible without the work of the ground crews, pilots, stewards, hospitality workers, ticketing agents, and so on, not to mention the work to pay for the ticket, upon which their experience of “take-off” is based. Which is why, rather than defining freedom as “the absence of constraint,” it might instead be more helpful to define freedom as “the fruits of constraint.” Work does not make us free. But neither is freedom the absence of constraint.

The reason this metaphor may be important for economic policy in the former Yugoslavia and for the Balkans more generally is that it was under the false flag of freedom that neoliberal economic theorists and policy makers promised Balkan communities that, by eliminating the constraints of public institutions, regulations, and protections, they could realize the economic and political freedoms enjoyed by individuals and communities in the rest of the global economic community. All they needed to do was dismantle the constraining state apparatus, cast off the legal and regulatory chains imposed by public institutions and replace them with free market mechanisms – and all would be well. As I lean back in my seat at 35,000 feet, all that I must do to experience the exhilaration of freedom is momentarily forget the cost of my fare and the work of all of those who made my flight possible, including the air regulations and rights-of-way governing the behavior of planes operating within regulated air space, both in the air and on the ground. The illusion is broken, however, the instant that all of these constraints flood back into my experience.

And it is for this reason that Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen prefers the contrast between “freedom” and “unfreedom” to the contrast between “freedom” and “necessity.” Only with the rise of neoclassical economic theory, and even then not among all theorists (Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes, for example), did the absence of constraint come to be mistaken for freedom. Most economists prior to the 1870s knew quite well and eagerly acknowledged that freedom entailed the conditions that make for freedom. Freedom, in other words, entails laws, regulations, institutions, historical and social conditions, not to mention cultural understandings, without which freedom is no more than a mathematical statement: the null set. And, yet, beginning in the 1950s, following World War II, a militant community of economists clustered around the University of Chicago began to argue – against every philosophical precedent in Western history – that freedom was nothing other than this null set, the absence of constraint, the absence of conditions, mathematically zero. And they began to argue that it was only with the removal of these conditions and constraints that true freedom would reign.

Communities in Western Europe and North America that enjoy political, economic, and intellectual freedoms did not come upon their freedoms by following an ideological program. They did not come upon their freedoms by removing all legal, institutional, social, political, or economic constraints. To the contrary, as Karl Polanyi has shown, it was precisely through the implementation of an extensive web of regulations, laws and institutions that the political, economic and intellectual freedoms we value were created and are sustained. Work does not make us free. But neither is freedom the absence of constraint.

And, yet, when sophisticated, educated, western economists and policy makers promised communities living under the constraints of Soviet-style communism that all they needed to do to claim their freedom was to cast off all public, governmental, state controlled laws, regulations, and institutions and replace them with the free market, who can blame them for casting off their oppressor and seizing upon this null set in the name of freedom? The only problem is that except in pure mathematics there is in reality no such thing as a “null set.” (By definition, “reality” is not a zero: it is not null.) So to confuse “freedom” for this “null set,” or to mistake “freedom” for the absence of all conditions or constraints, is a pure fiction.

Although it is most closely associated with Thomas Hobbes, there is no political theorist of note who has ever argued that freedom can appear, persist, or be maintained in the absence of all conditions or constraints. Which is why it took a generation of economic theorists entranced by the notion of mathematical zero and completely ignorant of history to propose an economic policy based in large measure on the absence of constraint.

The consequence of the removal of such constraints is what we have experienced in the Balkans, which could be mistaken for freedom only by someone committed to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche – freedom as absence, freedom as death. But this also suggests a way forward. Policy makers both within and beyond the Balkans need to begin to understand freedom not as the absence of constraint, but as the conditions that make for freedom: the institutions, laws, and regulations, but also the cultural understandings and the real wealth.

It was a tragic error when western policy-makers proposed that freedom could be achieved through the removal of institutions, laws, and regulations. But this error is only compounded when we counsel austerity and deprivation – necessity – as the path to liberty. Policy-makers should instead be reflecting critically upon the conditions that make for freedom and should be doing all in their power to realize these conditions not only in the Balkans, but throughout the world. For, we have seen and are still seeing where the opposite policy leads.

Is Libertarian Populism Bunk? It Depends.

Joseph W.H. Lough

In his July 11 column, Paul Krugman explores libertarian “Delusions of Populism.” I wish that I were so sure.


English: "Paul Krugman lectured on "...
English: "Paul Krugman lectured on "After Bush - The End of the Neo-Conservatives and the Moment for the Democrats" to over 500 guests in the jam-packed big lecture hall at the German National Library in Frankfurt" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a couple problems with Professor Krugman’s take. According to Krugman, those promoting the new libertarian populism are relying upon the misleading data and analysis of Sean Trende who is widely believed among libertarians to have shown that Republicans failed to make headway in 2012 because of lower-than-2008 turn-out among white blue-collar voters. Correctly, Professor Krugman shows that this lower-than-2008 turn-out among white blue-collar voters was matched by lower-than-2008 turn-out among non-white voters. Its a draw.

But Professor Krugman’s leading objection is that the policies Republicans propose as well as the actual legislation they have sought to enact harm the very white blue-collar voters they are seeking to motivate.

So, what are my problems with Professor Krugman’s analysis? At bottom, my objections are the same as always: economists have very poor political radars. (Krugman has tacitly admitted as much by his assiduous refusal to accept any and all political posts.) More substantively, however, my first objection concerns the differing samples for Krugman and Trende. Krugman – read his column – is clearly thinking about swing states. Trende by contrast is thinking of building upon political gains in state legislatures and and the House with the aim of reinforcing a political movement among blue-collar white voters.

Trende’s analysis actually goes a fair distance toward explaining one of the most contradictory features of the 2010 midterm and 2012 elections: how Republicans manage to do so well in House elections when they are losing the White House and the Senate. Demographically, no one will disagree that as a nation we are becoming increasingly chromatic or that women constitute an ever larger role in both economics and politics. Yet, rather than broaden the social and political franchise to include more people of color and women, the Republicans have clearly settled upon an alternative strategy: to restrict the franchise even further.

More importantly, there is a significant, well-funded minority of white blue-collar voters who stand ready to do all in their power – both within and outside the law – to make sure that majorities do not govern. This significant, well-funded minority is disheartened by legislation broadening the social and political franchise. This is because they believe that our nation’s economic problems are a consequence of undocumented workers, labor unions, federal jobs, and over-regulated industry. When centrist, largely mid-Atlantic and northern Republicans recommend that the party broaden the social and political franchise, this contradicts the talking-points of rank-and-file white, male, blue-collar voters. By promoting these talking points, as Trende’s analysis surely does, he aims to provide ammunition to the largely southern, mid-western and western libertarian base.

Krugman either ignores or is insufficiently wary of the tremendous role the politics of resentment plays in the Republican party: the problem is not economic policy; the problem is undocumented workers and government regulation. For House Republicans, who must feed off of increasingly gerrymandered voting districts nested in between seas of brown and black voters, this message of resentment is essential to their political survival. The counter-message, advanced by northern and coastal Republicans, is a death-sentence.

The second problem with Professor Krugman’s analysis is that he seems to take seriously Republican assertions that they are eager to help blue-collar voters. But why would the Millionaires Club that makes up and finances the Republican leadership have any interest in policies designed to improve the lot of blue-collar workers? Their aim is political, pure and simple. For, again, they know that the moment they back down on the no-new-taxes-close-the-boarders-deregulate industry-dismantle the federal government platform, they will already have conceded too much to those who know that our nation’s economic woes arise not from too excessive, but too parsimonious a social, political, and economic franchise.

It is this message of hate and resentment that puts fire in the belly of the Republican base, not the message of a broader social and political franchise.

So, of course, Professor Krugman is right. But I don’t think he adequately grasps the Republican strategy and its aims.

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The Tragedy of Egypt

The coup d’état in Egypt is as tragic as it is predictable. It is predictable because in nations where social relations are not mediated by the abstract value form of the commodity, other less homogeneous, universal, and ubiquitous social forms tend to mediate social life; forms that differ from one community to another and even from one neighborhood to another. Under such circumstances, only a strong sovereign is able to create and preserve social order.


Coat of Arms of Egypt, Official version. Gover...
Coat of Arms of Egypt, Official version. Government Website (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is also tragic because there is no necessity that difference must lead to violence; violence is predicated on the expectation of universal identity and therefore on the requirement that difference be eliminated or repressed. But it is not a necessity.

In the west, the appearance of universal law was predicated on the elimination and/or repression of particularity — and specifically of religious particularity since all religious liturgy arises out of the specific history of a particular collection of communities. This helps explain why the Judaism, Islam or Christianity that predominated in the west after the 16th century bore no resemblance to its precapitalist precursors.

Two cautions: if Egypt is to maintain its transition to universalism, it must make more serious efforts to distribute the universal value form among all members of society, allowing as large a proportion of its citizens as possible to enjoy the benefits of capital. Absent a broad distribution of capital, particularity will assert itself, inviting the intervention of the strong sovereign.

Second, as western nations are increasingly drawn toward privatization, we might take a lesson from those parts of the world where particularity has gained the upper hand. Is that really where we want to go?

Finally, we might want to reflect more critically on the essentially contradictory character of capital itself, which pushes out both in privatization and particularity, but which does so by means of the universal, homogeneous value form of the commodity. One alternative to capital might be for us to recognize at a bare minimum a set of substantive preconditions for human beings to flourish in the absence of violence or absolutist domination. Indeed, it was precisely this task that occupied the best minds of the west from the 18th through the 20th centuries, when the particularism of free market capitalism gained complete domination over global institutions.

Until then, most observers agreed that minimum education, housing, health, and welfare requirements could not be guaranteed by private markets and, therefore, that it was in the interests of all civilized bodies to work together to provide such goods to all the world’s citizens. The UN Charter was written and signed under the belief that this was so.


Symbol of the three Abrahamic religions.
Symbol of the three Abrahamic religions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Egypt needs our help. But the greatest help we might provide Egypt is to restore the vision of a post capitalist social contract not simply in Egypt, but in all of those places where particularity, privatization, and difference threaten to extinguish the vision of a universalism that flourishes because of – and not in spite of – difference.

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