Saturday, September 08, 2012

Christianity And Our Nasty Political Moment

A friend of mine shared this article this morning on Facebook.  While the author's intentions are good, the article itself is a mush of good feeling and misplaced earnestness, such as the following:
Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.
The piece goes on to list seven things that while true in some general sense are also irrelevant to the specifics of our virulent public debate.  I tend to be wary of general principles, although I do have my own unexamined and unfalsifiable ones.  They can serve us in certain situations, but are wholly inappropriate for others.

Since I had a discussion on this very subject not that long ago with my dear preacher-lady wife, I think it only fair to make clear my own position on this particular reality within which we all live.  I am doing so by altering, ever so slightly, the wording and thoughts behind the seven points.

1.  Neither party cares about religious faith.  Whether it's Christianity in its many varieties, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or no religion, political parties exist not to encourage and foster people of faith, but to promote and advance particular agendas for attaining and maintaining power.  At heart, that is what politics is about.  How that is achieved includes manipulating symbols and the emotional responses to various institutions from the family through racial and ethnic groups to religious organizations and their principles.  Neither party is innocent of this particular amoral failing; the Democratic Party's rush to make sure there was a statement about belief in God demonstrates the silly lengths to which they will go to assuage the feelings people express.

2. The things about which we argue, sometimes with heat and vitriol, are important.  Reducing our public discourse to entertainment and commerce has lowered the quality of how independent journalists cover the process.  Rather than important matters that impact all our lives, the notion that all this stuff is little different from "Casey Kasem's Top 40" or "Real Housewives of Atlanta" has made it impossible to communicate to people that politics as a means of gaining and maintaining power in order to do some things and not do other things for the country as a whole.  Instead, our journalists all act as if our politicians are celebrities, Congress is a game show hosted by some guy named Boehner, and there is little need to be either serious or thoughtful because "everyone knows" none of it matters.

3.  Patriotism is not the point.  The next time you see someone driving down the road in a car with one of those "These Colors Don't Run" bumper stickers, remember: Anyone who feels a need to express such a position must, somewhere deep, have far more ambivalent feelings about the United States.  Indeed, as a practical matter, looking at the actions of various figures in power from the parties, I sometimes wonder how it is possible the myth of hyper-patriotism has any strength left, what with all the oxygen stolen from that particular room by all the people talking without actually doing anything.  If you want to know what it means to be a patriotic American, read the Constitution (it's short) and The Federalist Papers (longer, but still doable).  Anyone says anything else, well, they're just ignorant.

4.  If you insist on agreeing with every position your party takes on any particular issue, you're not a Christian.  For all those who blather on about "sin", invoking the Old Testament as if there weren't a New Testament that clarified what the stuff in the Old Testament meant for us Christians, you'd think idolatry would be something they understood.  Apparently not, though.  If you identify with either major party in the United States to the extent that you keep pointing out things in the party platform as reasons, then you are a member of the Republican Church or Democratic Church, rather than the Church of Jesus Christ.

5.  Jesus prayed for everyone.  Jesus also took sides with the powerless and outcast.  Any good and honest Christian reflection begins not with this or that verse of the Bible.  It begins with the reality of the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ.  We aren't "the Body of Paul", or "The Congregation of Leviticus."  We are called by the risen Christ to be His Body in this broken world.  Incarnational living, through the Spirit, brings us back to the Jesus who ignored the social and religious and political mores and laws for the sake of the people outside polite society.  He didn't turn down invitations from folks in positions of power and authority; he did not privilege them, their ideas, or practices, however.  Taking refuge in the admonition to "Pray for your leaders," ignores the reality that we are also called, first, to live out the ministry of Jesus.  That means taking sides, ticking off the folks who hold the keys to the earthly kingdom, and getting our hands and feet and reputations dirty by being known as drunkards and people who would be with prostitutes.

6.  Fear Not.  This is, actually, the only one of the seven with which I agree whole-heartedly.  I don't subscribe to the kind of nonchalance about the repercussions of who gets elected; I would insist, however, that we Christians remember that our God has many titles in the Bible and President just isn't one of them.  Even more, remember that God transformed Divine leadership in the person of the risen Christ from the earthly line of the old Kings of Israel to create a new Kingdom embodying the reality that was and is and will be Jesus Christ.  Just because they are not in any way ultimate decisions, however, does not make them unimportant; how we vote, the positions we take and candidates we support do have important, life-changing and history-changing consequences.  They just don't have anything to do with God's Providential governance of creation.

7.  Every election is important.  Treat the reality of politics with the respect it deserves.  The first election in which I cast a ballot for President was 1984.  To say I was "excited" is an understatement.  I was thrilled.  I also had no illusions about who was going to win.  By the time I filled out the absentee ballot, it was clear that Walter Mondale had all but surrendered the Presidency to Ronald Reagan, despite demonstrating in the first of the two debates between them that he could knock the President off his game pretty well and people responded to it.  1996 was much the same, only in reverse.  The Republican Party, true to form, chose as their candidate "the next in line", an elder statesman of their party who, for all we should all be grateful for his long life of service to our country, was just outmatched by the younger, vigorous incumbent.  By the time 2000 rolled around, so many voices were shouting from every source possible that we were entering some Fairytale Land of Peace and Prosperity Forever (Bill Clinton's presence at the Democratic Convention this past week brought a passel of folks reminding us How Wonderful We Were Back Then; we weren't but there were moments it certainly felt that way even then), and the next President need only be a semi-competent manager of the marvelous Machine of Prosperity.  Thus it was that we ended up not with a capable manager of the status quo but a set of reactionaries intent of dismantling the last remnants of the social and financial safety net the kept the wolves from breaking down the door; we ended up with war-monger-turned-war-criminals, thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans as we over-reacted to the events of September 11.

Politics is about acquiring, maintaining, and using power.  The religious life, at its best regardless of the particulars of doctrine and creed and claim about deity and humanity, is about setting aside power for the good of the larger community.  Christianity in particular is about living out a life in which human power is set aside for the power of God incarnate in the dead and risen Jesus of Nazareth.  God's power was revealed in that Act as powerlessness by any human definition.  We are dealing with two very different realms of human action, with very different presuppositions and assumptions and goals.  It is possible to be a faithful Christian and stand up for one's political and policy aspirations with strength and determination even in our historical moment of deep distrust and verbal vitriol, as long as we remember politics and parties do not define us.

We are marked by the Cross at our baptism, rather than the letters "R" or "D" after our name in the county clerk's voter rolls.

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