Why We Have To Be Political

As the passing days move us closer and closer to election day, the whole notion of politics and politicians becomes more and more distasteful. My last blog post was political. I tried to expand the definition of what it means to vote pro-life. While the response was overwhelmingly positive, some of the feedback took on a subtle apologetic tone for appreciating something so blatantly political. For instance, there was this Facebook comment from a wonderful 15-year old:  “I am not one to get into politics, but. . .”

We live in this culture where to be political is somehow seen as a character flaw or worse. “I’m a normal person; I wouldn’t be caught dead being political.” To admit to being political is almost like admitting to something seedy, something your mother warned you about.

I admit the sleaziness of what passes for politics; the demagoguery of far too many politicians give politics a bad name. Especially at this time in our national calendar, I think many people just want politics and politicians to go away. Last night The PBS News Hour aired a piece in which their reporters had spent some time interviewing citizens outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay right before the Sunday afternoon Packers game, Wisconsin being a closely contested state and all. Over and over, the response was a variation on the theme, “I just want this to be over.”

But I’d like to work on redeeming that word. See, political is not a four-letter word. My 15-year old respondent IS political because she cares about what happens in her community, in her country, and in her world. Anyone who cares at all has to be political.

A long time ago as a young pastor, I really did believe that I could remain apolitical. Separation of church and state and all that. Just preach the gospel and leave the politics to the pros.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that our faith has to be lived out in the world and that necessitates that we be political. To be political is to care about the places where we live, our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our towns and counties and states and country, wherever we are in community together. To be political is to care about the issues that matter, the policies being debated, the decisions that are being made, and how those decisions will impact not only our lives, but the lives of the most vulnerable and those who have no voice.  To be political means somehow acting on what we believe.

Politics, unfortunately, has been confused with partisanship. And the partisans among us too often descend to the sliminess of demagoguery. Partisanship is when I am more concerned about my own party winning than I am with the larger common good. Demagoguery is when I appeal to the basest emotions — fear and suspicion of the other — to get my own agenda pushed forward. Demagoguery will allow any means, including patent lies, to get a win in my column. (It’s been refreshing to see President Obama and Governor Christie eschew partisanship and demagoguery as they respond to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Now they’re being politicians in the best sense of the word.)

A month or so ago, over a thousand pastors ascended their pulpits and used their preaching as a platform to instruct the members of their congregations who they should vote for. That’s not being political, that’s being partisan. As a minister in the church, if I’m doing my job, I can’t help but be political, including the content of my preaching. But it’s not my job to tell people what to think on the issues that affect us or who they should vote for. It’s my job to encourage people to reflect on and pray about, to engage in conversation and action about how our faith informs those issues. It’s my job to encourage people to take their civic responsibilities seriously and not to check their faith at the door of the church as they leave on Sunday morning.

So, let’s identify partisanship and demagoguery where they exist, call it out, and reclaim the task of engaging our responsibility to be political. We care about our communities. We want to appeal to what’s good and right in our communal character. A pox on the name-calling and fear-mongering and all the tactics that appeal to what’s most base about the human animal. Let’s be political and be proud of it.

If there is any hope for a bright future for this nation, indeed for the entire world, that hope lies in people of faith taking seriously their call to engage the world.  In an informal conversation about mission, one of the bishops of our church was asked why it’s so important for congregations to be involved in evangelism. His response was wonderfully expansive and hopeful. “Because Jesus Christ working through the church is the only hope to save this broken creation.” And that’s precisely why we simply have to be political.

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