Columnist Julie G. Olmsted: Right to choose mercy over meanness

  • Gerald Friedman speaks at a tax reform protest on the steps of Northampton City Hall on Monday. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Growing up in a house full of Democrats, I always heard Republicans were for “the rich,” and Democrats were for “the people.”

When I came of age and began thinking deeply about all this stuff, I found that in many ways, philosophically, I agreed with Republicans and their platform as I understood it: self-reliance, hard work, helping your neighbor out but keeping the government at a good healthy distance when it came to overregulating our lives and our money. But there were problems.

For example, I am a pro-life person, having suffered for many years over an abortion I had at a fairly young age. But having received forgiveness for and freedom from that pain and guilt, I remain pro-life and pro-choice at the same time. How could government tell women what to do when it came to such a deeply personal and consequential choice in their lives?

And does not the protection of a woman’s right to choose comport with the Republican ideal of “limited” government — that is, limited power over half the population and those they love and live with (like … everybody)? As a bumper sticker I read says: “Don’t believe in abortion? Don’t have one.”

Additionally, I am a sort of naturally independent and self-reliant person who loves to work. But what about those others who can’t seem to get a handle on “all this,” when it comes to living successfully a relatively modest life? They aren’t entrepreneurs or business owners. They don’t even necessarily aspire to own a home. They just want to be able to pay their bills, go out for pizza occasionally, see a movie and have a vacation to the lake or the big city once in a while.

And then there are the “lazy bums,” those whom we all might judge harshly. They seem incapable of holding a job. They’re not necessarily any good at relationships or consistency of any kind in life. What do we do with them? It’s a conundrum that hobbles the notion of a strict Republican or Democratic point of view. Maybe our discernment should rather be between mercy and meanness.

Tough love is a term made popular a couple of decades ago. I think it translates to letting someone sink or swim, when it comes to personal life choices. Establish a limit, a “red line,” a point past which you will not go in your active support. Boundaries are important and I’m still learning about them.

I believe that some of my careless and noneffective responses to life are really about boundary confusion. Physical, emotional and psychic boundaries are all worthy areas of study and I am definitely a student. But how boundaries and limits are tempered with love and forgiveness I am thinking makes the difference between mercy and meanness.

Everything I have heard about the currently proposed tax plan indicates that it is characterized by meanness. On top of the tax increases for the middle class over the course of a few years, the withdrawal of home deductions, the end of the health care mandate (which makes possible coverage for everyone) and the taxation on university endowments given to doctoral students as stipends for survival, there is the president stating without shame that this tax plan is a “big, beautiful Christmas present for the middle class.”

Every nonpartisan expert who I have heard comment on the plan reports these findings of meanness that strip ordinary people of their dignity and hope for a brighter future. This is a shift from a position of faith in the potential of our people (mercy) to a plan for a “survival of the fittest” model of governance (meanness).

Mercy takes a chance on people. The tourism industry in our country has taken a huge hit since the implementation of the travel ban. Not just from people who are citizens of those countries, but from people all over the globe.

This is analogous to the idea that when any organization (like a church) is openly welcoming to the LGBTQ community, it appeals not only to members of that community but also to the community that love and appreciate them.

So it is with the travel ban. Many have apparently been taking a pass on visiting what typically would be an exciting travel destination (New York City), because they think the city is no longer an open, big-hearted place that welcomes the stranger. They want little to do with a place like that. It seems to be a spirit of meanness, and little faith in humanity that promotes such a policy.

Mercy understands not all will fall into line. Not all will behave “properly.” Not all will get a job and stay there, work hard, save money, climb the ladder of success and be shiny productive members of society. Mercy knows that indeed, “the poor will always be with us,” and that it is up to those who have more to work for, take care of and be patient with those who just can’t seem to get it all together. It’s not necessarily “fair.” But it is right.

Beyond decisions based on party loyalty should be discernment based on being a nation of justice for all, with the scale tipped slightly and intentionally in favor of mercy.

Julie G. Olmsted, of Northampton, is pastor of Trinitarian Congregational Church in Northfield.