Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Biggest Idol of All

I mentioned last blog how depressed I was by the failure of the Congressional Super Committee to make any progress.  I had friends who just laughed cynically over the whole thing:  "What did you expect, Charlie?  It's congress!"  

I get it--but I don't want to cave in to cynicism.  I don't think the Christian should.  I think it is too easy to say that the Super Committee log-jam happened simply because each member was trying to save his or her political skin.  I am sure that that was part of the picture, but there were also sincerely held and conflicting ideals in the mix.   

Being an involved citizen (or congressperson) is a little like being married. It is living 24/7 with somebody besides yourself (in the case of politics, lots of somebodies). This would be fine if nobody but you wanted to be at the center of things. Unfortunately, everyone else is just like you in thinking that his opinion, his candidate, and his strategy for making things better are all the best. This is where the heat in politics comes from most deeply: everybody wants things to go his way. 

Given this analysis we can see where the solution to political heat must begin—and continue. Each of us must surrender the throne he has wrongly assumed. He must surrender it first to God, by sincerely trusting God for the outcomes he seeks, and second to his neighbor in service. 

Doing these things will not mean that we will no longer have any heartfelt disagreements—even in the church. Nor does it guarantee that, if you serve me, I will in turn serve you (people spurned Jesus’ love and they may well spurn yours). Nevertheless if you do your part, you will find the heat in you dropping down a notch or two. For your sense that all is well will no longer depend on getting things your way. “Winning” will no longer mean getting your candidate or policy in place; it will mean doing the right thing and leaving the results in God’s hands. You will find yourself more able to back down when someone insults you. Winning a school board debate won’t be quite as important as it once was, since your ego will no longer be invested in the outcome, and for that reason compromise will be easier. When love begins to replace winning for growing numbers of citizens, life together becomes more tolerable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Political Log James, Idolatry, and the Golden Rule

In the last few blogs I have been saying that idolatry is the reason we get so angry over political differences.  We commit idolatry whenever we shift our deepest hopes and allegiances from God and to something (or someone) else—say a candidate or a political strategy or an ideal—like privacy at all costs.  Idolatry is an addiction, a habit of the heart, pulling at us like gravity.     We have a very difficult time shaking it.

Why did the congressional super committee just fail?  There are lots of complex reasons I am sure.  But if we could see down to the foundations of the heart we would see idolatry at work.  And I am not just picking on those twelve.  Had I been given the misfortune of sitting on that committee I would have been as susceptible as any of them to the forces of my heart’s misplaced affection—political ambition, fear of people, or something else.   

The beginning of the way out of idolatry, and of the log-jams it creates, is a trust in God that is sufficiently strong to warrant living aggressively by the Golden Rule.   We are not very good at this.  Many activist believers, for example, have sought to redress the anti-Christian bias in textbooks, or to make public school facilities available after hours for Christian meetings (often with good results), or to pursue litigation in defense of Christian conscience, or to expose the anti-Christian bias in the academy. These are, of course, all worthy undertakings, as far as they go. If Christians do not blow the whistle on anti-Christian bias, who will?
The difficulty, as I see it, is that we often do not go far enough. Our active interest in the freedom of conscience often extends only as far as we have felt our rights and freedoms as Christians being threatened. Assuming that you desire prayer in public schools (I realize that Christians differ on the wisdom of doing so at all), would you do so with as much fervor if you lived in Honolulu, where praying would as likely be to a Hindu deity as to Christ, as you would if you lived in Memphis, which is in a heavily Christian part of our country)? Perhaps not. Sadly, in our valid concern over the decay of faith in our society, we may find ourselves advocating action that marginalizes the faith of the lonely Jewish kid in the otherwise Christian fourth grade classroom in rural Mississippi.
Do you see the problem? Christians are, or appear to be, religiously self-serving when it comes to their engagement with public life. We can make such an idol of the freedom of our own conscience that we become blind to the fact that freedom of every conscience is a Christian principle worth fighting for.

One need not be a religious relativist to acknowledge this. The Jesus who claimed he was the only way to the Father never forced anyone to believe him. He has no place in his kingdom for coerced disciples, but says instead, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In a day when so many angrily assert their rights, Christians have a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate a totally different mindset, the mindset of a statesman—one that firmly defends the non-Christian’s right to believe as he or she does.
I am not suggesting that we cease bringing what we believe into the public discussion. Nor am I suggesting that we cease believing that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. But I am suggesting that we trust his Lordship enough to obey him when he commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we want our voices to be heard in the public debates, we will also want the voices of our Muslim, secular, and atheist neighbors to be heard. We will look for ways to say, in effect, “I think you are dead wrong in what you believe, but I will go to the wall for your freedom to argue for it.” We will see as equally worthy of legal consideration the rights of a Caribbean cult to sacrifice chickens in Miami and the rights of a fundamentalist church in rural Ohio to start a school. With a love undergirded by confidence in Christ’s ability to promote his kingdom in any setting, we will resist the temptation to be selfish in our religious advocacy, concerned only to defend our turf from our enemies. We will always have an eye on the common good.
If the Golden Rule should apply in the broad world of public life, should it not also apply in the narrower world of church life? Should not Republicans, Democrats, and Independents be able to worship together under the same roof? And should they not be able genuinely to listen to each other, and to disagree without blowing the church apart?  Should they not want to?
Living by the Golden Rule is not easy. It provides no clear-cut answers for how to hold to and advance our deep convictions while also honoring the neighbor who disagrees with us, whether that neighbor is an atheist or a fellow believer. The Golden Rule offers no blueprint for building a safe and godly America (which should be OK, since we have decided not to worship America—right?).   The Golden rule, rather, charts a path for us, a path whose end we cannot see, full of difficult turns (complex thinking), steep climbs (the hard work of listening), and sudden descents (humble apologies). But it is the path that Jesus commands and for that reason we should follow it. Most important, the Golden Rule gives to us the antidote to the self-protective and community-compromising worship of ourselves and our views, for by taking this path we demonstrate that we are worshiping the true God, the God who is big enough to vindicate what is true and real in his own way and in his own time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More idols that stir up political heat

I said last post that the heart of the matter in political heat is the heart.  That is to say, we often disagree so furiously with each other because we have allowed something other than God to be our heart’s first love.

I was deeply moved by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I did not endorse everything he advocated, but I was nevertheless happily amazed that our country chose to elect an African American—and that such an unprecedented change in power had occurred without violence (a rare thing in world history: John McCain admirably championed that peace when he silenced the bitter voices of his own constituency during his concession speech). When I saw the President-elect’s daughters on the victory platform on election night and imagined that they would soon be in the White House, not as guests, but as hosts, I could not help but weep. But in the midst of all the euphoria, I was also troubled by the nearly messianic status that Mr. Obama had come to enjoy. “He is only a man,” I kept saying.

What drove the adulation, I think, was idolatry—undue reliance on a political leader. 

We do the same sort of thing when we rely too heavily on a particular movement.  When the Christian Right rose to power in the 1980s, many Christians who had heretofore been inactive politically began to discover that they could affect the national agenda. And with that discovery came a tendency to expect too much of political solutions to the nation’s deepest ills.

There is nothing idolatrous about political activism or about advancing skilled politicians whom you feel will push things in a good direction. The idolatry arises when we begin to think that things will be so much better if “we can just get this law enacted,” or “we can just get this person into office and that person out of office,” or “we can just mandate this book for the history curriculum and that book for biology.” Certainly leaders and policies make some difference--  but not as much as we sometimes think, given our sprawling polity and selfish hearts. How easily (and unfairly) we tend to blame elected officials for the social ills of our time, as if greed, family problems, uneven pay scales, failures in education, and inner-city violence were simply the government’s fault. Those in office bear responsibility and their decisions affect our lives to some degree, but such scapegoating, which appears with a vengeance during election years, reflects an unrealistic and idolatrous reliance upon the machinery of government. We often grow to hate certain administrations and figures because we once loved them too much. Just think of the astonishing political reversals in the 2010 midterm elections.

If some of us tend to make a god out of public empowerment, others among us tend to make a god out of privacy. Or, perhaps, at different times we tend to make gods out of both.

Think about privacy. In certain areas of life we passionately want to be left alone to make our own way. My observation is that we do this whatever end of the political spectrum we occupy. From the left we cry foul whenever religion finds its way into our relationships (“Religion has no right to impose a particular view of marriage on me!”). From the right we cry foul when Uncle Sam finds his way into our wallets (“Congress has no right to impose such limits on my income!”). Those on the left assert the “right” to terminate a pregnancy with as much fervor as those on the right assert the “right” to bear arms.

The issues may be different, and may carry different weight, but what awakens the passion in each case is the threat, either perceived or real, to personal freedom. And the passion increases in direct proportion to how fervently we believe that that freedom is essential to our lives—the degree, in other words, to which we have permitted it to occupy a godlike place in our hearts.

The worship of privacy may be more of a problem inside the church than we think.  We may feel safe and even comfortable “going public” about our politics at church, but that may be only because there is no risk that doing so will invite any challenges. After all, we may have chosen a church where our private convictions risk no violation because everyone agrees with us.  This happens, incidentally, on both the left and the right, and we must examine ourselves before being critical of others about it.

More discussion of idolatry next blog