On January 2, 1999, my dad and I stood in the elevator of State Street United Methodist Church a few minutes before my wedding service began in the sanctuary. During that brief elevator ride, my dad said, “I guess I’m supposed to say something profound. All I can tell you is that marriage takes compromise.” After a pause of a few seconds, he added, “And sometimes it takes lots of compromise.”
He wasn’t telling me that I would have to sell my soul. He wasn’t suggesting that I would have to surrender my most deeply held and cherished values. He wasn’t suggesting that I approach marriage with the idea that I would win some and lose some. He was simply reminding me that relationships require mutual effort, and since marriage is perhaps the most important human relationship of all, it requires and deserves lots of mutual effort, also known as compromise.
Since when did compromise become a dirty word? Why is compromise so closely identified with surrender or abandonment of what we hold dear? That sense of surrender and loss doesn’t have a place in compromise’s original definition.
It’s root is the word promise, which comes from the Latin prefix pro-, which means “forward,” and the verb mittere, which means “to send.” When we promise something, we “send forward” our word about what we intend to do. Add the Latin prefix com-, which means “together,” and you get the idea that compromise consists of two or more parties “sending forward” their commitments to each other. More basically, compromising is the act of making promises together. Isn’t it appropriate that my dad used that word “compromise” just before my wedding service, in which Suzanne and I made promises together in the presence of God and our loved ones?
In today’s political arena, however, compromise has become despicable. Last spring, I watched (almost incredulously, I might add) a television news story about veteran Senator Richard Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary. I didn’t have any particular loyalty to Senator Lugar, but I was stunned to hear that a statesman known for his willingness to reach across party lines to find mutually beneficial solutions had apparently been defeated because he was too willing to compromise. In a CNN story, his victorious opponent “said he doesn’t anticipate successful compromise in the Senate and hopes bipartisanship will be defined as Democrats backing the Republican agenda.”
Richard Mourdock clearly isn’t the only one with such a mindset. Tonight, as the federal government is about two hours away from a shutdown, I hear plenty of politicians suggesting that compromise is something to be avoided at all cost–including, apparently, the cost of thousands of government jobs, the cost of billions of dollars in the stock market, and the cost of even more dramatically diminishing public trust in our elected “leaders.”
Democrats will not compromise with Republicans. Tea Party Republicans will not compromise with their more moderate party mates. The House will not compromise with the Senate. The President will not compromise with the Congress. Elected officials will not compromise their party platforms, regardless of the potential effect upon their constituents. Members of congress prize their vows and oaths to Grover Norquist more highly than they value their responsibilities to their home districts.
By all outward appearances, compromise is deplorable. Far from seeking to cultivate the mutually beneficial solutions, our politicians seemingly invest most of their time and effort in posturing themselves to deflect blame upon their counterparts in the other party.
But compromise hasn’t always been something to avoid. In fact, I can make a compelling case that our nation was literally founded in and upon compromise. The Constitutional Convention, our nation’s founding moment, was full of compromise. Consider, for instance, the three-fifths compromise. In determining the population for taxation and representation, delegates from the northern states advocated counting only free citizens. Delegates from the southern states sought to include slaves in the population count for determining congressional representation. In an effort to form a new union, they compromised and included “three fifths of all other Persons” (i.e. slaves) in the population count for determining representation.
Earlier in that same Constitutional Convention, when delegates had reached an impasse over whether congressional representation should be by state or by population, the convention agreed upon the Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise), which established that each state would have equal representation in the senate and that the representation in the house of representatives would be based upon population. Small states favored representation by state. Large states favored representation by population. They compromised and found a way to continue forward together.
Years later, when legislators differed over whether new territories and states should allow slavery, the Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery only in limited areas of the former Louisiana Territory. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery legislators, poised on opposite sides of what might be called the hot button issue of our nation’s history, somehow found a way to compromise so that they could go forward together.
Certainly, we can critique these decisions with the benefit of hindsight. We can scarcely imagine treating a large segment of the population as if it were only three-fifths as worthy of representation as another. We realize now that the compromises regarding slavery merely postponed the inevitable ideological and armed conflict that became the Civil War. Nevertheless, our nation’s very political roots are in the spirit and practice of compromise.
Somewhere along the way, however, we have lost touch with those roots. So, the “countdown to shutdown” continues, and our elected representatives draw lines in the sand, stick to their guns, fulfill their mandates, and a thousand other phrases, all of which is to say, they are too weak and small to find compromise for the common good.
If they were my children, I would tell them to grow up. I like to think they wouldn’t behave so badly if they were my children. As it is, I believe they are negligent. They are proving themselves unworthy of the sacred responsibilities entrusted to them.
Compromise. Promise together. Each makes a commitment to the common good. Compromise is not a bad thing in and of itself. It enables two or more to find their best future together. In our lives of faith, we might call this understanding of compromise living in covenant together, which is exactly what Suzanne and I were about to do on January 2, 1999.
“It takes compromise . . . and sometimes it takes lots of compromise.” See? My dad gets it. Why can’t the federal government?