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Unreasonable Debate

October 3, 2012 — 2 Comments

This evening, many Americans will be watching the first of the so-called “Presidential Debates”. The media build-up to these events will only be exceeded by the mind-numbing analysis legions of political pundits will provide in the aftermath of these made-for-prime-time productions. There will be lots of speculation (and plenty of polling) about “who won” when the thing is done. And then, in a few days, we will go through the exercise again.

I haven’t read all of the particulars about the formats that will be used. I am quite sure, though, that the behind the scenes negotiations regarding structure and ground rules has been intense.  I suspect each candidate’s camp has worked hard to manage the framework of the debates in order to showcase their candidate’s perceived strengths while exploiting the other candidate’s perceived weaknesses. Both sides will likely settle for a defensive debate stance, in which they will play the event so as “not to lose”.

I don’t know what exactly will happen. Yet, I am fairly certain of one thing I will not hear. At no point during the evening’s proceedings will either candidate say to (or about) the other, “I agree with Mr.___’s understanding of this particular issue and I could see how we could work together towards a solution beginning with his proposal.” This isn’t my cynicism speaking as much as it’s my understanding of the way things are in the rock ’em, sock ’em zero-sum game of partisan politics currently being played out in the U.S. No one expects the other side to budge, and indeed, neither candidate can budge. To budge from their well-fortified positions is to risk both the loss of enthusiasm on the part of the partisan faithful and to be perceived as weak by those voters who remain undecided. Any reasonable person can understand why all of this unreasonableness is necessary on the part of the candidates. The focus is on winning the election and you don’t win by risking reasonableness.

Of course this is precisely what makes the politics of the Gospel so disconcerting.  Our Good News is that it is in losing all that we find everything worth having (not exactly a ringing endorsement for unbridled capitalism funded by tax cuts or government-supported “job creation” programs funded by tax hikes). Followers of Jesus (regardless of their voting proclivities), follow a leader who said things like, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Let the greatest among you be a servant of all. The ones who lose their life for my sake will find it. Take up your cross and follow me.”

These well-worn Jesus sound bites are a part of the Muzak of a comfortable liturgy. We can doze through them. None of us get offended when we hear them anymore (if we ever did). We expect Jesus to say such things. Thankfully, through years of religious practice, we have been well-inoculated against the risk that we would actually be infected by the outlandishness of the claims Jesus makes on us who name him as Savior and Lord. We have been schooled in our mostly middle class congregations to  understand these things “metaphorically”. It’s only when we are asked to take these sayings outside of the safety of the liturgy, and start attempting to live like we mean the stuff Jesus said we get squeamish or defensive or angry.

The candidates this evening will go at each other in an attempt to win a few million votes. Jesus doesn’t want our vote. He wants something much more frightening. He wants our lives. And he’s pretty unreasonable about it.

Grab a Shovel!

October 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

After making my decision about not voting this year (see “Out of the Voting Booth”), I’ve spent the last few days thinking to myself, “Well, now what?”

There is no shortage of BIG issues in the world, the United States, or even here in the Milwaukee Metropolitan area. Many of these issues appear almost intractable. The more I’ve thought about it all, the more helpless and paralyzed I’ve felt. At least when I was blaming the politicians I could delude myself into thinking my complaining, in and of itself, was making some sort of difference. I could smugly talk about the ineptness of any politician for whom I had not voted. I could also blame the opposition for any policy failures of the incumbents for whom I had voted. In many ways, my political life had been reduced to reading about partisan agendas, griping about politicians and making a mark on a ballot on this or that election day. While voting is a sacred privilege, I wonder if the way I’ve practiced it in the past hasn’t been more a sacrilege — since my political involvement has begun and ended in the voting booth.

Less than a week into my self-imposed hiatus from the 2012 elections, I am beginning to understand that simply “sitting this one out” isn’t enough. Now I have to get to work examining my own complicity in perpetuating the systems and policies that have made me comfortable even as others struggle for their daily bread. I can no longer compartmentalize my life. I no longer have the luxury of hiding behind the cult of individualism that is the preferred religion of our culture. Following Jesus isn’t about having one’s spiritual needs met. Following Jesus isn’t building a bigger church or promoting a bigger agenda or backing the “correct” candidate. Following Jesus seems to be about living as simply as possible, attending to one’s neighbor (regardless of political and/or religious preferences) and confronting systems that seek to “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (Book of Common Prayer, page 302).

The corrupt systems — political, economic, and all the rest — can appear as immovable mountains. Jesus once said that if his followers would have a measure of faith the size of a mustard seed (a very tiny amount indeed!), they could tell a mountain, “be removed and tossed into the sea” and it would be so. Wouldn’t we all like the quick and easy solution? Wouldn’t we love to see some mountains of poverty, racism, injustice, hunger and oppression disappear into the abyss of nothingness?

I’m beginning to wonder though. Maybe we need to roll up our sleeves in faith that our actions can make a difference. Maybe the way to begin to move mountains is one shovel full of dirt at a time. Yes, that will take a lot longer, but patience and endurance will prevail. Maybe we don’t need enough faith to levitate a mountain. Maybe we need enough faith to move ourselves and dig a little.

Out of the Voting Booth

September 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

For over a year, I have been wrestling with a decision. The wrestling began with a parishioner’s comment following a sermon in early 2011. At that time Wisconsin was in the midst of a blazing budget battle. In the liturgy at Trinity that particular morning, there were people who clearly supported the Wisconsin Governor’s position on what had to be done to bring the state’s finances in order. There were also people who would be directly and negatively affected by the pending legislation. My usual Sunday pre-sermon anxiety was amplified to the point that my typically cold hands were dripping with sweat. My heart was doing double time in my chest.

I did my best to preach the Gospel, as I understand it, faithfully that day. I believed then (and still believe now) that the identity given us in our Baptism cannot be submerged under the partisan categories of Democrat or Republican. The comment I heard at the door was, “Gary, you’re trying your best to drive down the middle of the road, but your left turn signal is on.” Clearly the parishioner thought I was critiquing one party and supporting another in the situation. My intention in the sermon was to challenge all of us who name ourselves as Christians to remember that our baptisms took precedence over a particular partisan allegiance or policy perspective.

I began voting in 1977. I believed it was my duty and privilege as a citizen of this country to do so (the public school civics classes did their job!). Through the years, I have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. I have voted in local, state and national elections. Since I have been ordained, I have done my best to speak to the politics of the Gospel as I understand those politics without in any way publicly supporting any particular candidate.

It seems we are now a part of a perpetual partisan campaign cycle in this country. We barely elect one person to an office before those who intend to oppose that person in the next election begin lining up at donor events in order to ascertain their prospects for ousting the newly minted incumbent at the earliest available opportunity. As I peruse the mainstream media and my social media feeds, one thing has become abundantly clear to me. We have lost any sense of civil discourse. Debate has been swallowed up by invectives. People who already have their minds made up are busy yelling at other people who have their minds made up to change their minds. From where I sit, Democrats and Republicans appear to be equal opportunity offenders. I will not be a part of it.

We spend a fair amount of time every four years debating the presidential candidates’ religious preferences. It’s a farce, really, because in the end, we don’t want anyone’s religion to get in the way of making the decision that will be in keeping with our particular opinion about what would be “in the best interest of the country”. This is how “born again, evangelical” candidates can consistently back policies that further marginalize the poor in the name of a free market economy and a mainline Christian President can authorize murder by remote control (euphemistically called “drone deployment”) in the name of national security. Christians line up on the left and on the right and take their best rhetorical shots at the candidate on the other side of the argument. I’m done.

So, let me be perfectly clear (a phrase oft-used by a Quaker President once upon a time). In 2012 I am choosing not to vote. I realize that for some who read this, this choice may be more blasphemous than any sort of theological error I might commit. I am choosing to do so, not primarily as a result of my frustration with the process or my disagreements with any candidate. I am making this choice for the good of my soul. In my baptism I didn’t promise to accept a political party as my Savior and Lord. I promised to follow the One whose preaching and ministry did the one thing I’ve been afraid to do — challenge the presumption of any government that would seek to arrogate to itself the powers that only belong to God.

By choosing not to vote, I am hopeful that my preaching and teaching will become bold and impassioned as I will no longer be constrained by the worry that folks will think I am somehow advocating for any particular partisan position. Call me left. Call me right. I don’t care anymore. I’d rather someone call me Christian.