On Politics

A lot of parishioners don’t like politics. Especially in church.

I understand. People joining the Episcopal church are often those fleeing churches where pastors are busy telling people how to think. Episcopalians are often tired of those Christians who are obsessed about homosexuality and abortion.

Further, since we also believe in the separation of church and state, we don’t want the rector telling us how to vote, or his crazy views about Distributivism and Henry George and Peak Oil.

So I promise won’t tell you if I think we should subsidize organic farms, expand our health care system, or get out of Iraq, although after much prayer and consideration, they all seem like wise ideas that I would support if someone else suggested them.

So when someone says to me, we should keep politics out of churches, I’m sympathetic. Politics makes some people into losers; it’s participants are mealy-mouthed opportunists and imprudent utopians.

Politics seems false, it seems inauthentic, it seems dirty.

But we can’t avoid politics. Not in our government, our businesses, in church, our weddings or even in our extended families. Children themselves learn to make alliances with the parent of choice or with other children. They negotiate and barter and cajole. They compete with their siblings for scarce resources, like Legos or Fish Sticks. Politics is how things get done. Or don’t get done.

Paul and Jesus knew this.

Paul however, introduced a new way of engaging in politics. Each of the communities he writes to are having political problems. Factions of people one-upping each other, competing to be closer to God, trying to be more holy. Or, in the case of Corinth, they were taking the notion of “Christian liberty” a bit too far (it gets graphic, so I won’t share the details here).

Paul attempts to mitigate the tensions created by human envy, resentment and excess. So he has a few ideas about the role of the spirit in the community. I’ll offer two.

First he often says, “Judge not.” Just because someone is wrong doesn’t mean you won’t someday be wrong yourself. Yes – state what you think, but be ready to be corrected. I recognize that some of you might be confused because if there is one thing Christians seem to do, its judge others. Although we should not be silent, we state what we know with humility and the acknowledgement we can be wrong. The most important thing is for us to regulate ourselves first.

The second is “love your enemies.” Now let’s clarify this.

In the imperial, pagan world, the meaning of life – especially in political communities – is vindication. For a good part of human history, those vindicated had the power of life and death over the losers. The victors got the women and money; the losers get killed. Vindication, if it were true vindication, is total.

Now if this seems a bit strange to you, think about the last time you were proven right at someone else’s expense. It is so very sweet to be right about something. If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with your partner or parent and been able to tell them they are absolutely wrong, with evidence, you know the feeling. It’s delicious. At least for a moment.

But Paul challenges the young Christian communities to work differently.

When Paul and Jesus say love your enemies, he’s not saying, there are no enemies. Instead, they are saying, your enemies are never permanent. In fact, you are probably a lot like your enemies.

While in the world of the Roman empire, vindication meant death to the loser. With Christ, that changed. Jesus, free of resentment, forgave the vindicated. It’s a reminder: vindication is never total, it is always temporary. And losing, failing, stumbling, does not separate us from the love of God.

When the Romans excecuted Jesus, they didn’t expect that his followers would see him alive again. The power of empire had been broken forever. Their vindication was revealed to be temporary, to be broken, to be fragile.

And we don’t need to be resentful or defensive when we lose. Its enough to get back up again, and stay connected. Our enemies are always temporary; and there is never a reason to hold a grudge. Jesus seems to say, we win some, we lose some, so lets all open a bottle of champagne whatever happens.

So there is no reason for Christians to be afraid of politics. We do politics a bit differently. In victory we do not banish the loser; in losing we do not resent the victor. That’s tough in elections, for example, where the stakes are high.

In the conversations that are the work of politics, the theologian David Tracy reminds us: “Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.”

Kanye West and Joe Wilson

Although I’ve tittered at the media spectacle of Joe Wilson, Kanye West and others, I’m going to hold back on making any grand comments. I haven’t read the health care bill, nor have I ever been interested in the Video Music Awards.

I do think there is a general anxiety about the loss of order around us. To some extent we’re relearning and creating the etiquette, the simple rituals and courtesies, that order our common life. Gone, it seems, are titles and euphemisms. Instead, equality and directness.

The old school perspective was like so: honor the traditions of your fathers and mothers – they still make sense. Hold on to your principles. Respect the rituals that keep us gathered. Be loyal to your family and friends. Acknowledge that there are culturally holy places. Respect the role and office, even if you disagree with person holding it. Let there be civility.

Here’s the critique: sometimes etiquette masks and legitimates provinciality, ignorance and arrogance. It perpetuates injustice by evading simple issues of fairness. In these cases, speaking out makes sense, because the truth needs to be spoken. And the old school perspective is hard to maintain when money needs to be made at civility’s expense. Rudeness sells.

We need both reverence and the shock of truth. When we aren’t sure of what is going on, then we may respect the red lights, the stop signs and the social cues around us. Sometimes in the midst of disorder, being more intentional about respecting others is crucial. But when we need to make a change, speaking the truth is part of how we move forward.

Of course, sometimes we may be wrong when we speak. That’s another risk. But we can survive our mistakes because the tension between order and the catalyzing force of truth is held together by one thing: charity. It may not have been shared with us. But it is necessary for us to survive things changing, and the many mistakes we make along the way.

If we can’t show magnanimity even to our enemies, how can we move forward?

It is difficult to do such. However, the source of that strength is nothing else but faith that we have the strength to be magnanimous in the first place. And the faith that it works. Faith that love is what God wants for us, and part of his infinite beauty. Even Joe Wilson and Kanye West, though they broke the rules, even though they might be wrong, may also in time, be forgiven by God.

The media, however, not so much.