Compromise January 12, 2022

Marriage is no place for quid pro quo. Yes, every household has division of labor, often established implicitly. Maybe the husband routinely repairs the house while the wife shops for groceries. But this arrangement cannot be “because I did this,” then “you are obligated to do that.” Or, more damaging still: “I disclosed something to you” then “you are expected in short order to disclose to me.” Marriage is a free gift… with benefits. Smile. Used sparingly, tradeoffs/compromises do have a place with one’s children and extended family because interests within a family are fluid and negotiable.

In public life, however, quid pro quo is normal. In fact, compromise is a public virtue. It is part of being a mature Christian.

At one extreme are those who compromise too readily. It is not worthwhile to deal with such people. A person without solid values, without a moral code cannot make wise compromises. This applies equally to family life. A relationship with too many utterances of “I don’t care” or “whatever,” will be unsatisfying.

At the other extreme some people refuse to compromise. They routinely think about a tradeoff as a betrayal of absolute principle. Yes, it is dishonorable to violate absolute principles. But compromises, rightly understood, are always for a time and to a degree. Justice, in other words, is approximate this side of heaven. There is no justice in heaven, only perfect Love and thus no need for any bargaining.

Let’s say that someone holds certain Sabbath strictures to be absolute principles: no shopping or maybe no curing of the ill until the workweek. In specific cases that person must ask: Are these really absolute rules or can an exception be made in certain types of situations? Jesus, of course, dealt with this issue over and over.

Sometimes a given compromise, intended as a means to an end, feels too close to a sell out of that end. The direct taking of innocent human life is always wrong, many believe. But if the realistic goal is to reduce the number of abortions, could hypothetically those people support a compromise that allows legal abortion only in the first trimester, realizing that in the next legislative session they will lobby further? Or is this compromise too close to a betrayal?

Some people refuse to compromise because what is really at stake is pride. Perfectionism, the enemy of compromise, is a sin. Perfectionists seek an unblemished world. They imagine ideal relationships and institutions that for them existed once upon a time. These are the righteous types who soon enough are lonely.

Abraham and Moses were clever enough to negotiate with God. Eve and Adam failed to negotiate; they sinned. What if they had said to God: “How about only once each week we eat one fruit (apple) from the special tree?” God might have replied: “OK, but only if you share it.”

Look, compromise is always a risky calculation based on an imperfect calculation of the future. What if several members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia refused any compromise on slavery and called the bluff of South Carolina, Georgia and others? Would there be no United States today? Would England have sensed an opening to re-colonize? Would perhaps thousands of people been spared the injustice of slavery?

What if at Yalta in early 1945 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had taken a hard line against Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), making no compromise about Poland? Would World War II turn out differently? Would the Polish people be spared communist oppression? Would the United Nations exist? Would the Cold War be hot?

Virtuous people draw upon prudence, courage and imperfect knowledge to advance the good through compromise. They know that the only cure for injustice is incremental politics, bargaining, necessary tradeoffs plus partial and temporary alliances. Those on one extreme sideline prefer passive-aggressive non-participation. Those on the other extreme sideline prefer ineffective moralizing.

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Browse Our Archives