Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Compromise Is Not Good

In spite of what I wrote in my previous posting, I do not like compromise. That is one reason I am glad to have spent my life as a teacher/preacher rather than as a politician—although, certainly, compromising on some things was sometimes necessary in church conferences (business meetings) and faculty meetings.

In politics, as most of us realize, compromise is often necessary. And compromise is not always bad. At times it is even necessary and, thus, good. But there are times when compromise is not good.

Compromise is good when it is choosing a lesser evil for the public good. That is the logic behind the Niebuhrian/Obaman justification for war in some cases (although I still question whether that is a good compromise in most cases), and that was the logic behind many Senators voting for a less than ideal health care reform bill last week.

Compromise is bad, though, when it means giving up one’s ideals for one’s own personal benefit. Thus, compromising in order to reap financial benefits or even to gain the praise of others is not good. We should stick to our ideals even though that may mean forfeiting personal rewards that would come with compromise.

Art Gish’s The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970) was one of the most important books I read in the 1970s. The Christian radicalism that Gish, a Church of the Brethren minister, wrote about is the type preached and practiced by the sixteenth-century Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists) and their descendants.

Gish claims that refusal to compromise was a part of the radicality of the Anabaptists. That is why they could persist in practicing believer’s baptism even when it was illegal to do so (as it was in Zurich after 1526). And that is why they could be consistent pacifists, when all around people were arguing that war is sometimes necessary.

The Swiss Anabaptists were true to their ideals. For that reason, some became martyrs, such as Felix Manz who was executed by being drowned in the Limmat River in central Zurich in January 1527. If push came to shove, I don’t know whether I would have the intestinal fortitude to hold fast to my ideals and beliefs rather than to compromise in order to save my life, but I have nothing but admiration for those who refuse to compromise because of their ideals.

Compromise may be necessary in politics, but doesn’t a strong religious faith mean holding firmly to one’s ideals without compromise?


  1. I've been writing this morning (draft of my portion of the NCA accreditation report for the college) and am in that "ants in my pants" writing mode where ideas just won't leave me alone (I know other writers know what I'm talking about). Sorry if I'm hogging the blog.

    There are two kinds of uncompromising persons: one cheerfully goes to the stake him or herself; the other gets his or her followers to do it instead. I think history, while certainly and proudly knowing of the former, is littered mostly with the latter. And it's the latter that give me pause to question whether there's any value in it at all.

    Of course, it's no surprise that LKS supports such uncompromising individuals who gladly suffered themselves (see your Sept. 19th post on absolutes). On the other hand, nearly everything we do in matters of state and faith make compromise itself an absolute. Heavens, isn't biblical interpretation by each successive generation an act of compromising between the claims of the communities of antiquity and the contemporary cultural context in which they have lost relevance? It's the price we have to pay to continue to affirm the biblical story as an authoritative rule of faith. There's no getting away from it. Otherwise, we would be stoning people who curse mother and father. Or worse, we would be disallowing women to respond vocationally to serve God in their churches.

    Time to accept compromise as part and parcel of holding to the claims of faith in a contemporary civilization.

  2. Thanks, MPH, for your usual perceptive comments. It seems to me, though, that the decisive difference is whether we are compromising for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. Compromising for the welfare of others is probably good in most cases; compromising for one's own personal benefit is a different matter.

  3. I was happy to receive the following comments from one of my most esteemed Thinking Friends.

    "Your mind and mine run in the same tracks on this, Leroy. In the American South I think compromise has usually won out over faithfulness with the consequence that the church has little to offer the world that the world doesn't already have more of than it needs (to paraphrase Thomas Merton).

    "Keep blogging!"

  4. In the movie "Sophie's Choice," a young mother is given a choice at a Nazi concentration camp induction center, of which child she would save. When she demurred, the guard starts to take both children away from her. In desperation she choses to save her son, on the theory that he had a better chance of surviving the camp than her young daughter. Needless to say, she is haunted by the choice for the rest of the movie.

    We cannot casually say what we will or will not negotiate. On a long list of social issues in America both sides have been painfully torn by the need to negotiate. We negotiate because we realize the results of not negotiating could be horrific. Even on economic issues, which would seem to be the model of something to negotiate, the stakes are still life and death. For example, it is estimated that thousands of Americans die every year for lack of health insurance. Over half of the bankruptcies in America are caused by health crises, frequently even for people with insurance. On the other side, many are afraid of losing the insurance they have under the current system. Dealing with terrorists, financial crises, global warming, and many other issues have huge implications. Not that this stops some Senators from selling their votes!

    Yet sometimes we do not negotiate. During the Civil War we stacked our soldiers' bodies like firewood because some things were too important to negotiate. At the end of World War II we dropped the atomic bomb, and then did it again. It does not take a Muslim to bomb a medical clinic or shoot its doctor, or bomb a church, or even a Federal building. We do it in America. Then we wonder why the Muslims sometimes do it, too.

    When Moses came down the mountain, the children of Israel asked him to cover his face, for they could not bear to look upon it. Sometimes the truth is more than we can bear. We put a loin cloth on the crucified Christ, even though we know he was naked. We put gold on the cross, even though we know it was wood. We put careful limits on what we would compromise, even though we know that Jesus taught us to prayer to be saved from the test.

    The alternative to compromise is not faith. The alternative to compromise is selling out. Sophie did not sell out, but she still paid mightily for her compromise. That is life.

  5. Oooh. CHD's post moves the topic from argument to poetry. Well said!