Maybe we have our sights set too low. Maybe we’ve settled for merely “correct” as we have come to understand it rather than recognizing we might actually be capable of entertaining the profound. There is often enough logic to justify our small notions of correctness. But when we look further toward the mystery and the ambiguity, we lose the safety and security of our certitude. We might have to accept the existence of someone or something we don’t fully understand. We will probably lose the perception of control that we’ve always mistakenly assumed. Correct is fine for what it is. But the profound is a journey worthy of your soul.
“Everything’s wrong says he. That’s a big text. But does he want to make everything right? Not he. He’d lose his text.”
—George Eliot, from Felix Holt
What’s my text? What’s yours?
It’s not a question I ask myself very often…maybe never. But I’m asking it today and I’ll throw it out there for you to consider if you will.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing a particular text being thrown around: some form of, “they are wrong…they are scary”. Much is due to our current emersion in partisan politics and a very contentious election between two extremely polarizing figures. There could only be one winner.
Having come out of that election with a “winner”, it’s obvious that nothing really has been settled. We are still a country divided. Neither side claims the other side’s President as their own. Both sides have protested something. However, it seems when distilled down to the common denominator, each side is operating from a very similar text: “they are wrong…they are scary.” At least we have some common ground. (Insert darkly ironic sarcasm here.)
I’m not talking about individual policies or issues. On that there is much diversity. Much passion. Much thought. Many many words written and talks given. Much scholarship and study, and prayer on behalf of both sides. I’m not trying to deny those differences. I have my own positions on those issues that I hold passionately and thoughtfully. And quiet frankly, I’m right! (Roll your eyes…snicker if you like, but you feel the same way about your positions on “the issues”.)
But what I AM writing about here is the common text we seem to have devolved into following: “they (the other side) are wrong…they are scary”. I’ll not hear anyone try to tell me that their side doesn’t do that. All sides are doing it. But is that all there is to our text. Is that really the only option? The other side is all wrong? Really? Is that all we got?
George Eliot points out the reason this text has become so dominant. In an odd way, seeing the world through this dualistic (and extremely simplistic) text relieves the tension. We don’t have to solve any problem as long as we can demonize the other side and rest comfortably in our little nest of “answers”. But, meanwhile, we are all on the verge of “unfriending” people we have loved all our lives and calling people names we know probably do not fully apply.
I think we have many more options than that. And I’m not about to let the polititians and the “news industry” determine my “text.” In his book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit“, Parker Palmer suggests 5 “Habits of the Heart” that I know would be a wonderful alternative text for you to try. (if you don’t know who Parker Palmer is, find out…pick a book…any book he’s written. I’ll suggest “Let Your Life Speak” as a good start.) By “Habits of the Heart”, Palmer means the filters we habitually use to interpret our experiences. They are habits that we filter everything we experience through. They are:
- We understand that we are in this together.
- We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”.
- We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
- We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
- We must strengthen our capacity to create community.
I’m not going to elaborate on these. I think they are obviously superior to the divisive “THEY are wrong…THEY are scary.” So…I dare you. Get a new text. Practice it. I dare you.
The cover was pretty striking. The image to the right with the headline: “The Fall of Aleppo: Putin’s victory, the West’s failure”. I tried to imagine what it would be like to care for this child in such a place. Then, what was maybe the most disturbing point about this issue…I turned the page. 3 times.
- First page: 2 page ad for “Rolex, The Cellini”: retail value $15,200. “It doesn’t just tell time. It tells history.”
- Second page: 2 page ad for BMW 750Li xDrive: beginning MRSP $98,000. “Sheer Driving Pleasure”. Has a remote control key to park the car for you into tight spaces. So you don’t have to actually drive it yourself.
- Third page: Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator: retail value $3500 (had interior cameras for “food management and direct grocery ordering). Comes with app for your phone so you might look in your refrigerator from your phone…rather than the annoying practice of opening the door.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:5 (NRSV)
I ran across this article while digging deeper into a topic in a book I’m reading. Krista Tippett, the author of the book, who had been living in Berlin for quite some time and whose job it was to keep her finger on the pulse of relationships on both sides of the wall, observed: “…it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life, it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.” While the politicians and bureaucrats had some influence, it was ultimately the people who assumed and acted upon their freedom that brought down the Iron Curtain. Giving politicians power is akin to turning a 3 year old loose with power tools. It is ultimately people assuming and claiming the lives of “intimacy, dignity and beauty” for which they had been created that brought down the wall. I fear we give the political process entirely too much credit. To believe the rhetoric and live our lives by it is foolish at best. It is toxic for us to allow the narrative by which we live our lives to be defined by 3 year olds fighting over the power tools. It paints everything in a dualistic way that creates division and discord. We were created for so much more than that.
“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target. It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly. What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”
In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united. For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump. However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.” Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.
What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. How can this be?
This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful. In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home. He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:
“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile. The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned. What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”
Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building. Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them. And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.
As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse. Or Hillary Clinton. And it isn’t congress. Or Barack Obama. Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”. Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods. These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active. And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations. What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears. We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available. Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names. I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Of labels, he says:
“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.” —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves. The tools at our disposal include all of us. All of our values. All of our beliefs. All of our perspectives. All of our creativity. I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others? Absolutely. Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed? Adamantly! I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.” But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings. And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.
As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:
- To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer. I have a bias.
- To give myself and others a break. For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands. We’re all doing the best we can.
- To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.
Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you? I don’t mean to preach. I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”. While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices. We can decide how we respond to our neighbors. We can decide the words we use. We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me. And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before. I’m confident we will again. Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman. Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.
It’s been a difficult Advent to try and speak about peace. Every where one looks the evidence of its absence is overwhelming. I would write a few sentences here summing up the news headlines of late but I’d rather not. We all know them far too well.
If I turn from the headlines toward my expanded neighborhood of friends and acquaintances on social media, it seems there is an election looming. In fact, there seems to be one looming 365 days a year. And a cursory look at the posts on my feed seem to imply that one particular brand of politics or the other has the solution[s] and/or “leader[s]” to remedy this chronic lack of peace we’ve all been experiencing for quite some time. Call me cynical but, I’m not really buying what they’re selling. Seems as though this has been the claim by all sides of every issue for as long as I’ve been alert enough to pay attention.
So, what to do? Do I give in to the cynicism of the age?
I don’t have an answer. But I do have my faith. The faith I have is rooted in a God who loves. Call me naive. Call me idealistic. But, the older I get, my cynicism toward the powers of this world only grows and my faith in this loving God is continually confirmed. Even when someone throws the turmoil of this world at my “loving God” saying the chaos is proof that my faith is in vain, I realize that I would rather live my faith in this loving God than in the false hopes and unfulfilled promises of the powers that be in our world. It’s simply a better way to live my life. I would rather live in that love of God than in the fear and frustration offered by the alternative.
One of my favorite quotes about peace is by Nicholas Wolsterstorff:
“The state of shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to nature, and none’s relation to oneself…An ever-beckoning temptation for the [American] evangelical is to assume that all God really cares about for human beings here on earth is that they be born again and thus destined for salvation… [However], what God desires for human beings is that comprehensive mode of flourishing which the Bible calls shalom…God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.”
If the system you subscribe to isn’t offering this type of peace…this shalom…then, well, it might not be worthy of your faith. And it just might be contributing to the absence of peace we’re all enduring in our world.
I think my favorite Christmas song is Christmas Bells and my favorite rendition is by John Gorka. Check it out here. (Here is a live version of the song.)
The aggressive and dominative view of reality places, at the center, the individual with its bodily form, its feelings and emotions, its appetites and needs, its loves and hates, its actions and reactions. All these are seen as forming together a basic and indubitable reality to which everything else must be referred, so that all other things are also estimated in their individuality, their actions and reactions, and all the ways in which they impinge upon the interests of the individual self. The world is then seen as a multiplicity of conflicting and limited beings, all enclosed in the limits of their own individuality, all therefore complete in a permanent and vulnerable incompleteness, all seeking to find a certain completeness by asserting themselves at the expense of others, dominating and using others. The world becomes, then, an immense conflict in which the only peace is that which is accorded to the victory of the strong, and in order to taste the joy of this peace, the weak must submit to the strong and join them in their adventures so that they may share in their power.
— Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World