Distraction, Avoidance, and Deeper Reflection

Today’s headlines include the names Peter King and Muammar Qaddafi; the country of Japan; and the state of  Wisconsin.

Public theology is sometimes about exploring  theological perspectives on a particular story. We’ve done that in the last six months with events such as the “Ground Zero” mosque, the deposing of Mubarak, and the report of President Obama’s Debt Commission.

Other times, public theology is about stepping back from the headlines to reflect on longer-term trends and to ask, “What are we missing?”

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, points out that groups of people– as small as families and as big as nations– can avoid much-needed learning and growing, by engaging in distraction. The very definition of distraction is to shift our attention from one thing to another, without probing or going deeper. The benefit is that we don’t have to be accountable. The cost is that we miss opportunities for growth.

So what are we missing, with our distracted hop from headline to headline? Or, to put it differently, what deeper reflections do the headlines call us to?

Here are a couple:

1. With regard to the collective bargaining rights of public service employees: the larger question here has to do with our economic life as a whole, and specifically, the increasing gap between the very wealthy, and the rest. This is one uncomfortable but unavoidable context within which all questions of economic fairness are placed, in 2011 post-crash/recession realities. One contentious difference that then is revealed, is the difference between those who see a role for government in narrowing the wealth gap, and those who don’t. And within that difference is the further distinction between those who believe government has a moral obligation to the lesser well-off, and those who don’t.

2. With regard to Muslims in America and their potential radicalization: the larger questions have to do with religious plurality and how we will deal with those identified as “the other”; the foreign policy questions of who is the enemy and what is the nature of their threat; and the context of the ever-present adrenaline arousal of fear and anxiety in American society.

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