When you think of politics today, what comes to mind? It is doubtful that this conjures up heartwarming images of brotherhood, unity, cooperation, and other values most hold dear. With so much furious tension in the air, where should Christians find themselves? What party line best represents who we are and what we stand for?
Last night I enjoyed the special privilege of attending a lecture on Emory University's campus entitled "Passionate Convictions & Respectful Conversations: Faith in a Pluralistic Democracy." Father John Jenkins C.S.C., the president of the University of Notre Dame, was the guest speaker.
We are all aware of the "passionate convictions" of folks on all sides of political issues these days. Likewise, we are all also bothered by the absence of "respectful conversations." (That is why the title alone, regardless of the notable presenter, was worth attending!) Father Jenkins came to talk about the role of Christians in public life and how we can lead the way in creating an environment of peaceful dialogue where respect and humility define the day rather than division and accusation. The best quotes of the night was "Politics has always profited in demonizing the other side." As followers of the Prince of Peace, Lover of Enemies, and Crucified Lord, we cannot allow the rhetoric and labels of society to enter our hearts or exit our mouths.
I would like to summarize points he made about how Christians ought to engage in politics, and then offer my own rubric for how I (currently) understand what should guide how Christians deal with politics, who they vote for, and what party best represents our interests.
FATHER JENKIN'S LECTURE:
*The anger in politics is partly because we feel that we someone rejects our view on an issue they are questioning the whole framework that gives our lives meaning.
*Generally, the more religiously involved persons are the more Republican they are.
*When an issue touches our religious convictions, too often the opponent is not only seen as wrong but evil
*Religious convictions are used regularly to give life and to take life, to bring peace and to make war, to bless others and to condemn others. Religious convictions, then, do not inherently help the politic process, though they can and should.
*He spoke of Project Home in Philly whose mission is the "strong moral conviction of the dignity of every human being." This ought to guide our words, emotions, and activism.
*Though some want religion out of politics, it is impossible to ask citizens to remove their value systems from their politics - whether those systems are formed by religion or not
So, THE QUESTIONS of the day are: How can we use our convictions as a force for good rather than divisiveness? How can we maintain the ultimacy of our faith while being generous rather than demonizing the other side?
How to Engage Peacefully
*He has three suggestions for this to occur. But first he debunks relativism as the way to end the tension and fighting. Some think that if we had less conviction and just saw all truth as personal rather than communal or absolute, then we would not need to fight any more. Turning convictions into preferences and loosing a sense of ultimacy of our faith is not necessary. We can have both passionate conviction and respectful conversation. Here is how he suggest doing so:
1) Our convictions must not be co-opted by partisan politics.
*Not all elements of ANY party will line up with a biblically formed life. All parties will be silent on some of the issues that should matter most to Christians. Refusing to choose "a side" and defend it on every issue can do a long way to creating dialogue. (More on this in my own opinions below)
*It is wiser to join coalitions of folks who are working together to address particular issues on our society. That way you can begin with your faith, rather than a party, on an issue and unite with others to make a change for justice. Although, he warns, causes must always live in subordination to our faith.
2) We need large doses of epistemic (relating to our knowledge) humility and charity.
*This is where we say yes to vigorous action and work for those things that are at the heart of our faith. BUT we do it with charity and humility.
*Even if an issue (like immigration for me) appears to you to be of moral import and a Kingdom concern, you should advocate. But it must be done with:
A. Humility - You do not know everything about every issue. You have a lot to learn, which means learning from those who disagree with you. Be humble and willing to learn. Be willing to change. You might be wrong.
B. Charity - Do not demonize those who disagree with you. Do not fight with them. Jesus is not honored by argument. Seek to understand them. Don't call names. There is a good chance that if this person is a Christian they have similar core values with you. Start on that. Be willing to criticize yourself and admit what you don't know. Be willing to change. You might be wrong. Even if they are wrong, treat them with respect. Don't be condescending. Your opponent is not evil. Don't undermine the gospel in your attitude about an issue you feel is central to the gospel.
3) Recognize the power of witness
*Our number one goal is to be a witness to the grace and love of Jesus, not to win battles or to maintain the interests of any one party.
*We can best be a witness in the public sphere when we are collaborating with coalitions that are dealing with specific issues rather than anonymously fighting in the name of a party against the other party.
*Christian action should take the form of persuasion not debate.
*Seek to love, respect, and persuade - not to prove wrong, divide, and demonize
The Main Point
Everything pivots on witness. This should shape all we do and how we do it. This calls for the total commitment of our lives.
This was thoughtful, measured, and much needed. I appreciated his words and found little in need of serious critique.
I would like to offer a few insights that are guiding my current understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to engage in the public sphere or political realm.
1) Know your primary citizenship - I am a Christian. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of the heavens. My values will inherently and always be different from any government under which I am living. I just happen to be living in the USA. Where those two align.... wonderful. I am expect them more often than not to not align. I cannot think that this is a "Christian nation" and therefore think that serving it will serve Jesus. Sometime it will and sometimes it won't. If I am not fully grounded in my primary citizenship the lines will blur and I will compromise the holy name I bear witness to.
2) Start with the heart of the matter - I cannot begin with an interest that benefits me and then somehow try to justify it with my faith. What matters most to God? Not what benefits people in my tax bracket. What matters most to the Kingdom? Not what would make my country more successful. The heart of the matter must remain at the heart. Romans 13 is often quoted against political resistance or civil disobedience. Well, verses 1-7 do tell us to obey the government, but verses 8-10 tell us to live a life of love and ensure no harm is done to our neighbor. Verses 8-10 are the heart, not 1-7. Yes, I obey the laws of the land but only in as much as they do not require me to break the law of love. I won't break the law for my own selfish benefit, but I will break it and speak against it and subvert it when it is unjust and bringing harm to my neighbor (make sure to remember how Jesus defines that word neighbor!).
3) Don't be a servant of a party - As a human being (regardless if a Christian, an atheist, or whatever), if I find myself fully agreeing with everything a person or party does, then they have stopped thinking for myself. I am not a Republican or a Democrat. Both parties make decisions that are in direct contrast to my understanding of Jesus. For me, I cannot justify being a servant of either party. I personally don't feel that I can be a Republican or a Democrat. I am not saying this is a rule for everyone.
4) The WAY I participate is just as important as WHY - Even if I am advocating for the poor in the name of Jesus but I am doing it with disrespect and arrogance, I am wrong.
5) Immerse myself in the story of Jesus - The interests of Jesus, the character of Jesus, the subversive views of Jesus must shape my opinions and teach me how to tell the story. I cannot let a cable news station or political commentator tell me how to think or how to view others that disagree with me. TV is about getting ratings and I cannot forget that truth is less important than ratings to media outlets on both sides of the fence. Jesus teaches me how to think not (fill in the blank with a conservative and a liberal media personality).
6) Immerse myself in the prophets - If I am living in obedience to the Word, then it will be subversive to the powers that be. I often hear that since this is a Christian nation I can in good conscience support what it does and says. Well, even in the theocracy of Israel, the government was questioned and prophesied against. If I am a tame supporter of the status quo, a complacent beneficiary of the system, then I have forfeited my call to have a prophetic voice. Making sure justice is done is more important than subservience to the law of the land.
7) Immerse myself in stories that offer an alternative vision - When I hear Christians disagreeing over the amount of money we spend on the military, a defense I often hear is the rationale that if we didn't have just war then evil men and unjust systems would reign and harm innocent people. This thinking is the result of a national imagination that has not been trained to think that there are alternative, effect methods for dealing with evil. We need to open ourselves up to history and to those narratives that teach us that there are other ways that do not require violence to accomplish good. Western understandings of law and justice are not the only ones out there.
8) This is a representative democracy - The beauty of the USA is that we all have a voice. The ethics of people who live in a democracy are not created by the laws. The laws are to represent the ethics of the people. There is a big difference. Under the first way I would not be allowed to question or act against the law. I would have to assume that all the laws were good and I have to obey them. It is my duty as a citizen (regardless of my faith) to shape the ethics of our country. This has always required a rejection of those parts of our laws that are inhuman or unjust. As a Christian I am especially called to subvert oppression. As a Christian in the USA I have the right to do so. I need to embrace that right and do it with peaceful resistance and courageous subversion.
On the personal side...
1) I have a lot to learn - These things represent where I am RIGHT NOW. I am reading and conversating and thinking and praying. Will you help me learn? Share your thoughts with me.
2) I need to be more humble - Just as I have a lot to learn about particular issues I am interested in advocating for, I have even more to learn about how to respect other people, listen more deeply, and share my ideas humbly. Please read this whole post in that manner. I am trying to follow Jesus faithfully in the time and place I find myself. I want to be helped by you to do that better as I hope that I can help you.