The Value of “Compromise”

Compromise.  What is your immediate reaction to this word?  Does your heart rejoice or sink at the thought of needing to compromise?  Compromise seems similar to being “luke-warm” and we wonder if it would be better to be hot or cold.

At the Edge of the Precipice:  Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union by Robert V. Remini is a book that challenges our current connotations of the word – compromise.  1850 was a time in the United States where South and North are about to divide over the issue of slavery as new states and new lands are incorporated into the Union.  Instead of breaking in 1850, a compromise is developed that in retrospect delays the Civil War, but the argument is made that the compromise helped to “save” the Union.

Robert V. Remini is historian of the United States House of Representatives and he provides a wide angle lens for viewing the 1850 Compromise.  His central figure to this moment in history is Henry Clay.

Writing about Henry Clay, Remini states:  “Clay was never rigid in his ideological thinking.  He understood that politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness.  It is about governing and if politicians could not compromise, they would never govern effectively.”  (p. 21) 

I do believe that Remini’s arguments as to the benefit of the 1850 Compromise are sound.  I read this book before reading Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics which focuses on the recent debt crisis in the United States and the inability of Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise.

Why is it so hard to create space for a compromise?  Compromise is seen as expedient.  Compromise is seen as compromising values.  Compromise is not usually placed in a wider context or story.

As a pastor who is married and who facilitated a number of pre-marital and marital counseling sessions, I knew of and spoke of the value of compromise in relationships.  I testify that Jackie and I would not have recently celebrated thirty years of marriage without also knowing that we have compromised along the way.

It is because we value our marriage that we see the value of compromise.  Compromise is never to be an end in itself; it is part of a process within a larger story.  For example, Henry Clay presented a compromise because he saw value in an on-going Union.

Our current polarized society is a reflection of a world where values of others and the value of others are usually depreciated.  There is no agreement on a larger narrative for our society.  We do not know why we would compromise and as a result, we sink into retrenched positions.

If we are to be counter-cultural as a church, we need to continue to articulate what we value and how we value not only the Scriptures or the traditions of the church, but also those who do not know the Savior.

I continue to be challenged by the “principled compromises” of the Apostle Paul who wrote –

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”  1 Corinthians 9:19-23

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