Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.

Unfinished business

My writing has stalled over the last few weeks, both because of the Christmas holidays and because of the political and social turmoil from our recent election and its aftermath.

In the next few days, I hope to continue my posts on socialism. I have at least five more to write: “education: privilege or right?” “the Cold War and socialism,” “socialism and totalitarianism,” “socialism, capitalism and race,” and, “the freedom of free markets.” I also need to compose a concluding, draw-it-together post. Then I can start editing what I have written, including helpful comments from several of you readers, with the intention of eventually publishing it as a book.

Meanwhile, I have several other books in the pipeline. In 2017-2018, I had twelve posts about the twelve days of Christmas; then, in December 2018, I had a series of Advent posts. I had hoped to combine these into a book last fall, but things slowed down with the other book I was writing. So I edited and printed those posts and used them as family devotions over Advent and Christmas. Now I’ve set that work aside for a few months, but next summer or early fall I’ll pull it out again, edit one more time, and send it to the publisher.

During the quarantine last spring I typed up some presentations I had made in previous years called “Witnesses to the Passion.” Each told the account of our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion from a different point of view: Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldier at the cross, the young man who ran away, and so on. I plan to compose two more presentations—a Temple guard who witnessed the arrest and trials of Jesus and was also posted to guard his tomb, and Thomas the apostle. Then I need a good introduction, and I can send this work to the publisher.

I also have two projects to begin writing. The first will be a series of devotions parallel to the witnesses of the Passion but looking more at items involved in the Passion: the thirty pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, and so on. I have not yet made my list of details to cover, but I hope to have at least forty, to make a Lenten devotional book. No doubt I will share some of those chapters as posts. The second was suggested by a woman in my Bible class. She says I ought to write a book about love: what the Bible means by love, how love is understood (and misunderstood) in our culture, and how to respond to our culture’s distorted versions of love. I’m a bit nervous about that book—it would possibly strike some people as intolerant, which certain people will not tolerate, as we all know. Perhaps that is all the more reason for me to write it.

Meanwhile, we still wrestle with issues related to the election and to the really stupid and futile response last week. Efforts by Democrats and the mainstream media to link every Trump supporter and every conservative to violence in the Capitol could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to repression of the conservative viewpoint—arrests, loss of jobs, being denied access to social media, and the like. With that in mind, I still want to risk two additional posts beyond the socialism posts I have mentioned. One would explore the possibility of the United States turning to a five-party system; the other would analyze voting fraud in the last election and would ask if it was illegal but not immoral.

There’s no telling what the future will bring. But these are my writing plans for the immediate future. J.

Freedom, government encroachment, and compromise

The range of options between pure socialism and pure capitalism is a spectrum which includes free market capitalism and the welfare state. Sometimes advocates of capitalism accuse their opponents of promoting socialism when those opponents only want more restrictions for the benefit of workers and consumers without desiring socialism. Sometimes people even call for socialism without realizing that what they truly want is not socialism but merely a more comprehensive welfare state. Labels can be slippery tools in our hands, especially when we exist on a spectrum of options.

One of the clearest guides to distinguishing capitalism and socialism is intent. Those who want a few more regulations to protect workers and consumers are still working within the free market system. Those who want to spread the wealth—to take money away from the rich and give it to the working classes, or to give away for free what was formerly bought or earned—by taxing and penalizing wealth are clearly working for socialism and against capitalism.

Here is one example I have seen online: imagine a society where the wealthiest people are earning $50,000 a year and the poor are earning only $25,000 a year. Imagine a change that brings the wealthiest people up to $100,000 a year and lifts the poor to $50,000 a year. Someone inclined to support capitalism will rejoice that all the people in the society have seen improvement. Someone inclined to socialism will complain that the disparity—the difference between the wealthy and the poor—has doubled because of the change, and that disparity is not fair.

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels, imagined a society that tried, by law, to make life fair for everyone. People stronger than average were forced to carry weights. People smarter than average were forced to wear earpieces that distracted them with random noises. People more attractive than average were forced to wear clothes and makeup that made them ugly. Such efforts to make us more equal in every way clearly cause more harm than good. Bringing the higher-level people down to average does not necessarily help lift the lower-level people up to average. In fact, every attempt to reduce the wealth of the richest people through taxes and other legislation only causes them to move their wealth away from the places where it is vulnerable. It discourages them from making more wealth by selling improved products, hiring more workers, and performing other tasks that increase the wealth of the rich and also add benefits to the working classes and the poor.

Government’s job is to protect the rights of all people and to defend citizens from those who would harm them. A right to life includes protection from invasion and from crime; reasonable people still differ and debate whether that right to life also includes guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter for all citizens. In a democracy, the government is chosen by the people to do the will of the people; however, doing the will of the people means more than following and obeying the latest opinion polls. Those elected to govern are expected to learn and understand what is best for the people. Elected officials and their appointed staffs consider proposals, research them, and ultimately vote whether to enact them. Opinion polls might show that more than half the population wants college to be free for all students. Elected officials must still study and learn whether free college would be a benefit to most citizens or whether the cost of free college, assumed by the government, would become a burden to most citizens. Those who govern balance benefits and burdens. They speak to each other about these benefits and burdens. Their votes represent, not only the opinions of the people they represent, but also the best interests of those they represent. As a result, their votes often disagree with the opinions of the majority of the population.

Moreover, a representative government cannot condone injustice, even if the majority wants to be unfair to the minority. In protecting human rights, the government considers all the people, not most of the people. Even though the government has fallen short of it duty in the past, permitting oppression and abuse of some of its citizens, the solution is not to be unfair to a different group. (Two wrongs do not make a right.) We cannot change the past; we can only start with the current situation and move forward, seeking to make things better for all people.

Every person running for office states positions to attract like-minded voters. Different candidates have different priorities among the number of issues that matter. Elected officials work together for the common good. Each official holds some positions that cannot be compromised and others that can be compromised. Negotiation and compromise are part of the art of politics; they are necessary skills for anyone who seeks and gains elective office.

When a government gives each benefit that some citizens wants and then forces all the citizens to pay for all the benefits, that government cannot last long. The value and cost of various benefits must be considered; agreements and compromises must be reached. The more a government encroaches upon the freedom of its citizens—even with the encouragement of many or most of those citizens—the more that government fails to govern wisely and successfully. Sooner or later, the government that offers too much and promises too much and charges too much will collapse. The social contract is canceled when government demands too much of its citizens, because they still retain their basic rights to life, to liberty, and to property. Government does not give these rights to people, and it cannot take them away. J.

Sometimes you just do not know

Picture an office filled with men, each doing his own job, each living his own life. None of them really knows any of the others. (I have made all the workers men just for the ease of using the same pronoun. Any of these people could easily be a woman. The personalities and situations are not gender-specific.)

A is grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He says he is not a morning person. He does not mention his routine of three drinks every evening, with the standard hangover each day that does not disappear until lunchtime.

B is also grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He never mentions his digestive tract problems which cause pain and discomfort throughout the day but which are worse in the morning.

C is grouchy and surly but blames it on the traffic. He does not know that he has an anxiety disorder which causes him to overreact to incidents on the highway.

D is generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in good health, is involved in a strong relationship, and is in decent financial shape.

E is also generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in a poor financial situation and has no strong relationships, but he is either too deep or too shallow to let these things shape his mood at work.

F seems generally in a good mood at work. He is compensating for ongoing depression, coping with life by pretending to have no problems or concerns.

G arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife started the day with a romantic encounter, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

H also arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife had an argument over breakfast about the family budget, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

J is generally quiet at work. He is an introvert and is most comfortable working on his computer, not relating directly to other people.

K is generally quiet at work. He is developing a short story in his head and is absorbed in the characters and the plot.

L is generally quiet at work. He is planning a terrorist attack in the coming days and wants to be sure that he does not reveal his plans to anyone.

M is generally quiet at work. He hates his job and has been filling out job applications for every opening he can find.

And so it goes. None of these men really knows any of the others. They never discuss religion or politics–no one knows who in the office is a Christian, who is atheist, or who is agnostic. No one knows who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for a third party candidate, and who did not vote. The supervisor evaluates their work without knowing which of his employees are exerting themselves in extraordinary ways to overcome problems and which are lazy and are capable of doing far more than they accomplish. When they form a team to finish a project, no one knows who is excited about the project, who is frightened by the project, and who is bored with the project.

Life is like this sometimes. We wear our masks, play our roles, and hide our identities so deeply that some of us even forget who we are. Some go home to families where they can be themselves; others must continue to play a role at home. Some have friends who accept them as they are; others perform for their friends and hide their real selves. Some can be themselves at church, while others put on an act before their brothers and sisters in the faith. Some are genuine in the face of the one true God; others try to perform even for Him.

God knows each of us–our problems, our blessings, our thoughts, even the number of hairs on our heads. He made us, and He is constantly aware of each of us. No matter who you and I pretend to be at work, at home, or out in the world, we can never fool God, and we never should try. Each of us is a sinner who desperately needs a Savior. Each of us is rescued, forgiven, and claimed for the Kingdom of God by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, just as the human body consists of eyes and ears and hands and feet and many other parts. God loves all of us and can support each of us in any difficulty. J.