Means and Ends

There is a lot of talk in the 2016 US Presidential election campaign about the purity of intention with regard to issues important to millennials. Many pundits suggest that without this critical voting block Hillary Clinton will lose. That is why you see her speaking to college campuses, talking about her plan for free tuition and sharing the stage with the man whom millennials love, Bernie Sanders. Who would have thought that a 74 year old cranky man would be the hero of millennials?

Of course that same dynamic did cost Al Gore the election in 2000. In Florida enough millennials voted for the pure Ralph Nader that Gore came up short, whether you believe the vote count then or not. This business of knowing when to vote or work or volunteer for something or someone that is not quite what you want but appears better than the alternative is an age old question. Purists insist that the means do not justify the ends, more moderate people say a half loaf is better than no bread at all.

I like the expression, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I always find it odd that friends and family think me some purist because I work with, and advocate for, poor folks, people on the margins of society. People see that and assume I am some idealist, purist, but I am not. How can someone work in a church for 26 years and be a purist? All large and conventional institutions by definition are organized around the principle that you can’t always get the Promised Land in a hurry, that incremental change is the path we must take.

I always like to say that if you really do respect others and recognize diversity you cannot expect to always have things go your way, even if you believe your way is the path of Truth and Justice. Of course there are moments when those of us who serve institutions like the church or another non-profit need to stand firm and say, “no further”. I have reached a few of those moments myself. They are uncomfortable. I always say that if the “standing on principle” is easy it is likely a function of self-righteousness, not justice. If the decision is hard then the chances are strong it is motivated by and animated through a cause greater than self.

All of us compromise. The question I ask of the institutions I serve, is this compromise about self-interest or the interest of others? When looking at a politician or political party my approach is not to look for someone or some group that gives me everything I want but rather to ask myself if their compromises are more motivated by self-interest or the interests of others. Are they playing the long game or playing a selfish game?

My goal is to work at things that create the conditions for Truth and Justice, the kind of world Jesus embodied in his words and ministry. It’s a messy process, not least of which because I am a flawed instrument of this effort. Too often my own self-interest takes precedent over the larger goal of my life and ministry. But I do hold myself and the institutions I serve to this standard. Humility is the glue that helps me do this. And humour, often directed at myself, is the way I express that humility. Small steps. But a clear path.