Monday, July 30, 2012

Politics & the Church

It's unsurprising to most who know me that I am thoroughly engaged with the necessary interaction between faith and politics.  Since so much of our lives are controlled by legislation, policies, and social pressure, it seems natural to me for faith to play a major role in determining our political decisions and the way we use the power which has been given to us.  The danger for me, and probably each of us, is that I feel called to be an advocate on a select few issues which makes me sound like a broken record.  I could go into the issues that drive my advocacy, but I think I'll leave that for another day (at least in this venue).

Let's start with the "what".  The "what" of politics, and specifically advocacy, is Power.  Most of us have a vague, innate sense of what power is.  That's fine, but I want to be clear on what I mean when I use the word "power" in this discussion.  Power is the ability to act.  Power can be used over someone, which is usually an abuse.  Power can be used for someone, which is often charitable but can also be used as a controlling mechanism.  An unpolished (and therefore unpublished) entry for this blog talks about charity, when we give what we choose to give and walk away.  It could be spare change, or it could be a great sacrifice, but charity is almost always a short-term engagement; charity is a means of giving without serving.  The power for which I hope we strive is power with someone.  Power with someone requires a relationship, learning stories and contexts, sometimes giving what is asked and sometimes giving something different as discerned through the relationship.  Becoming a servant requires knowing the one being served well enough to anticipate needs and begin acting before the request is made.  Power with someone means staying in dialogue and continuing to discern needs as relationships grow and change.

The "who" of politics, in short, is "me".  Yes, it's "me" the author, but more accurately and more usefully, it's "me" the person who is reading.  I could say it's you, but in order to facilitate your thinking about yourself as an agent (more on that soon), I want you to say (out loud, if you dare), "The person involved in politics is me!"  I hope this isn't news for you, but if it is, welcome to the arena.  An "agent" is a person who acts.  Clearly, if you are acting, then you have the power to act.  What power do you have?  Well, I can't fathom the variety of people who might read this, so I'll use myself as example and hope you can do the same work to understand your own power.  The following list is neither exhaustive nor humble, but it is, I hope, an honest evaluation of qualities which give me power in my societal context, whether we like it or not.
  • white
  • male
  • middle class
  • American
  • well-educated
  • Protestant Christian
  • clergy
  • straight
  • married
  • a parent
  • outspoken
  • employed
  • homeowner
  • tech-savvy
  • relatively young
  • able-bodied
  • physically large / strong / tall-ish
  • alive
  • human
And these are just the ones I managed to spout off the top of my head in a few minutes.  You might find the last two a bit silly, but they are both true and important to the point I'm making.  What I hope you noticed is that about half of these qualities are items over which I have no control, and I would argue that even more of them were not presented to me as options despite my actually having control (religious denomination and education among them [and sexual orientation NOT among them]).  I have been given power by my existence, and so have you.  The amount of power and the factors contributing to it may vary, and the degree to which it can be safely exercised definitely varies depending on context, but everyone has power and choice and agency.

Some of the questions are easy to answer: When? Now, of course!  Power is only effective when exercised over time; every moment I wait to act is a moment my power does not benefit anyone, or worse, a moment my power diminishes to no effect.  Where?  Here, of course!  Our neighborhood is ever expanding thanks to myriad means of communication, and I endeavor to use every means possible to be an agent of change, but relationship (the means of power with) is best built where I have the most contact.  In my case, it's face-to-face conversation; for your context, the most useful "here" might be on Facebook or Xbox Live, over the radio waves, via semaphore flags, or in Morse code.  Wherever you build strong relationships, that is where you are being called to exercise your power with others.  How?  Civilly and lovingly and regularly.  Agents are called to act for the good of all, even when such acts might trade power for justice.  We cannot maintain all our power when some of it is given without cause and is maintained at the expense of others.

Which leads us to the most challenging question: why?  Put simply, because we must.  If you're not a person of faith, then the Golden Rule applies: treat others as you want to be treated.  If the tables were turned, and you found yourself without much agency, how would you hope those with power would work with you?  If you are a person of faith (speaking specifically of Christians here), how can you not exercise your power in the political realm?  You have been given power by God.  You have been claimed by God.  You have been saved by grace from working tirelessly to achieve your own righteousness, and you have been given the faith which convinces you of this truth and allows you to avoid spinning your spiritual wheels ineffectually.  You are a beloved child of God, and the grateful response to which you are called is to love one another as you have been loved.  Jesus, God-with-us, made it possible for you to love your neighbor and used the performative language that you should "be not afraid".  You have been given power and freedom, and now you have been called to work with God to bring about the not-yet-fully-realized reign of God.  And after all, what is working toward someone's reign but being political?

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