Thursday, September 06, 2012

Government, Politics, and Hope: A Mea Culpa

The last couple of weeks I've been floundering a bit. I've been struggling to reflect on the US Presidential election in the midst of the party conventions - and to somehow communicate my perspective on the whole thing. I don't think I've done a great job. You may have seen the evidence on Facebook or Twitter.

As a Christian, I am called to embody and live into a different culture. The people of Christ are to be formed in love with different (if often complementary) values to those of the dominant culture. It's difficult to explain or embody those differences as I am as co-opted by this US culture as anyone.

I feel like a child, re-learning the ways of the world around me with a different set of values, attempting to change my reactions and foundations. (Incidently, it's just as difficult to try and teach a child to understand the world differently the first time around).

Part of the counter-narrative, the counter-story that the gospel presents is a different take on power. Christ ignored the power structures of the day. The religious leaders, both inside and outside the temple, as well as the Roman governmental and military rulers. He acted as if they were unimportant for life. Jesus called collaborators and zealots (people who hated each other more than Democrats and Republicans).

I don't believe Christ came to found a religion, but to remind us of God's creative purpose for life. I believe the mission of the Church, of God's people, is to embody that purpose in an alternative community.

I find it more and more difficult to put my hope and faith in God's mission when I'm being pulled and pushed to put faith (even if its reserved faith or skeptical faith) in a political system. The type of power that infuses government is the type of power from which God has delivered God's people time and again throughout history.

I struggle to participate in that power, even in a small way - like voting.

I also struggle to put such faith in an ideology other than love. When choosing a candidate, we're choosing a way of looking at life. No political candidate has the Christian perspective: love, love love; give, give, give; submit, submit, submit; sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice; love, love, love. The ethic, the ideology of the gospel is the exact opposite of the ideology of power (no matter what stream of politics you subscribe to).

I believe strongly that life is about relationship. God's relationship to the world and our relationships with each other. We need each other; we were created for cooperation. There is nothing in scripture that speaks to the individual - we receive the gospel personally only as we participate in God's people, in relationship.

For that reason I am a lot more amenable to politicians and elections the smaller and more local the race. I believe the election of block captain or school board is more important than the election for President or Governor - because they're the people we deal with on a regular basis. They are the people responsible for enacting our values within our own communities.

Now I understand that there's some real benefits to a federal system, be it a county, state, or nation. There's a lot of things that are streamlined and simplified by scale. I'm not trying to say or infer that governments can't be a part of our life together.

I think the most important role government can play is holding us accountable to do the things we know to be right, but that are hard for us to follow through on. We want to take care of the poor and the elderly (there's a lot about widows and orphans and strangers in scripture), but we don't always want to make big sacrifices when those needs present themselves - so we put money in trust with the government to do that for us - to help us follow through.

You can already see the pitfalls, even in that example. Now we've moved ourselves one step away from the relationship. Those in need are now helped through a middleman, an intermediary. The same problem applies if its a private charity rather than the government.

In the end, our politics are simply our way of living with each other. Politics is not limited to governments and elections. I believe strongly that, for Christians, the Church is the avenue in which we express our politics. We love each other and we take that love out into the world - we bring that politic to everything else we do. Our jobs, our schools, our neighborhoods, our communities, our government.

So often our culture has attempted to confine our politics to our government - so that we outsource our responsibility to live together to someone else. Life is not a competition. People with different politics don't disappear just because they lose an election. When we're neighbors, we still have to see each other when we put the trash out. We have to live together - and not in dominance or victory, but in peace.

I don't see our government working for the good of anyone, for the end result of peace. We have lofty goals, things like justice and freedom. I'm not sure we really understand what those words mean. In the end, government is a play for power - for the authority or the ability to enact our politics, our vision, on the nation, the state or the school board. As great as the opportunities are for good, that kind of power doesn't bring what we seek. It just doesn't.

It is part of the paradox of faith. The gospel finds power in weakness and authority in submission. The gospel finds influence by avoiding power. The politics of Christ is humble love.

I have not been humble or particularly loving. I see a strong correlation in the two parties to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee. The tax collector comes to worship and prays for forgiveness - have mercy on me, O God, a sinner. The pharisee prays - thank God I am not as sinful as that tax collector. One is attuned to the heart of God, the other is not. Our reaction, however, is too often to say, "thank God I am not like the pharisee" and thus become him.

The political parties point the finger at one another like the pharisee toward the tax collector. I pointed the finger right back.

There is a better way. There must be. I haven't yet found it. I'll keep trying.

I treat the political conventions like a baseball game - tweeting my comments and trying to be funny and mostly failing. I truly don't view them as much more than a spectator sport. A lot of people take this stuff deadly serious, more than they should. But elections and governments have the opportunity to be more than a sport - there is some value there, we just can't let it be the source of hope.

I included the video above. Emmanuel Cleaver is a United Methodist minister and the Representative from Kansas City. He's a great man, a good pastor, and a strong man of faith. He's doing his best to bring the politics of the Church into the public sphere. You can see in the speech above how much he believes in hope.

I think it's a bit misplaced to associate those politics with government and elections - Republican or Democrat. A party means a platform and an ideology - and we've covered that already.

I do think we can and should speak together on big issues. One of the travesties of our political system (one with two parties) is that our public debates are generally limited to either/or options. We tend to view every major issue with one of two solutions. There is always another way.

I think we'd be more likely to find those ways forward if we'd stop associating ourselves with an ideology or a platform and just talk about issues.

I tried to do that a few weeks ago with the voter ID situation. I will do that in the future as the election approaches. I don't think I'll vote; I just don't think either man represents a workable politic, nor do I think any human should be given the kind of power the President of the US has - it's unhealthy and unloving to put anyone in that role.

I believe that candidates who get our hopes up for change, for success, for a future that meets our expectations, they represent a temptation to think we can make things work through the sheer force of will, through our own power.

In the end, I don't vote because we cannot build the tower to heaven, no matter how just, how free, how virtuous we craft our government, it will not satisfy the longing we have for peace, freedom, and justice. I just don't like fooling myself or getting my hopes up. For me, that's what a vote does. I want to stand up and cheer Rev. Cleaver in his video, but I just don't believe his God-given vision is possible through governments and elections.

The next three blog posts will be concerning those three words - peace, freedom, and justice - the ways we use them and my understanding of the Christian perspective on each. I hope we can have a conversation about how our politics plays out across the many spheres in which we live together.

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