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A Politics in Progress

A Politics in Progress

Four years ago, I was sitting in a pancake house in west Nashville, talking to my dad over breakfast. “If Hilary Clinton wins the nomination,” I said, “I’m moving to Canada.”

Yes, I know, I know… I went there, coming within inches of making the number one spot on Buzzfeed. Thankfully, however, much has changed since then.

Apart from my ignorance regarding foreign politics, I found myself more generally in a confused place just before the 2008 presidential election. I assumed I was a Conservative. That meant Liberals would lead the country into ruin. They would let those pesky homosexuals get married and those nefarious feminists run amok. They would usher in a time of debauchery and Socialism—probably the same thing—and we would become oppressed under the mighty weight of Big Government. What we needed was small government and Big Business and tax cuts. Lots of tax cuts.

I spouted talking points left and right (no pun intended), unsure of where they came from. What surprised me most was that anger—that anger that swelled from somewhere deep within, inculcated into my responses and borne into the recesses of my mind—that animated how I saw the world.

Yet it all felt very disjointed. On the one hand, I believed I had certain convictions about various issues. These I called “stances.” These stances, however, did not seem to match what I called my “posture,” or my general approach to the world. On the one hand, my stances seemed ostensibly immutable, while on the other hand my “posture” called for an open mind and a patient heart. Moreover, they both seemed to come from the same place—my Christian faith.

But this isn’t a conversion story from a supposed ignorant and amoral conservatism to a more moral and allegedly enlightened progressivism. On the contrary, to assume that I’m telling you that kind of a story is to very nearly illustrate the crux of this post; the point I hope to make rests not in the particular ideas I previously propounded, but rather in the reason I propounded them. Because, though some would heartily disagree with me, I don’t think “Conservative” is a dirty word. I’m taking this somewhere else.

Reading the recent discussions here on RELEVANT, one comes away with a rather singular impression: we’re all upset. Inherited labels don’t seem to define us well, and many of them don’t fit quite right. We squirm trying to get our arms through the sleeves of terms like “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Progressive,” “Moderate,” “Libertarian,” or even “Christian.” We talk at great length about forging new identities or learning to deal with inherited ones.

Post Modernism’s greatest gift (or curse) is its frustration with labels, with binaries, with genres and names and attachments. And, as inheritors of these ideas (as with our labels and stances), we like to talk about them.

Having grown up a Southern Baptist in Nashville, I know a thing or two about expectations and labels. And, like many who seem to be readers of this magazine (I myself was a subscriber for years), I pushed back against it. I lost my faith and found it again. I visited dozens of churches. I dabbled in Roman Catholicism and studied the liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox. I got involved with interfaith service work. Ultimately, I landed in the Episcopal Church, and felt truly at home there all of one week before I realized it had its own problems, too.

Wrestling with my own identity taught me quite a bit about other people. It was while learning about other cultures and serving alongside people of other faiths that I began to view them in a new way. I began to realize that we should not automatically demonize someone who thinks differently than we do, and that, oftentimes, the intentions of the other—though possibly misguided—generally come from a place of genuine hope for a better world.

As I’ve sorted through my own political beliefs, I’ve come to realize that the politics I’ve learned from the Bible—just like my relations with other people— have much more to do with postures than stances. The dissonance that I experienced as I entered adulthood between how I felt about things and how I was told to feel about things began to evaporate once I realized that part of the problem comes when our identity as a Christian— our “posture,” if you will—becomes melded to our stances. When this happens we worry more about “red state, blue state” than we do about being in a state of grace, and I think this is a gigantic failing on our part.

Christ taught us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He teaches that we should go two miles if we are asked only to go one. And, in the supreme act of empathy, the Gospel of St. Luke tells us that Jesus prays on the cross for mercy over his executioners, because, as the King James says, “they know not what they do.”

Thus, even in the midst of the crucifixion, we find an understanding that cuts across our expectations of a man in Jesus’ position. It is this posture, this spectacular display of forbearance and graciousness, that we should seek to emulate when engaging in political discourse.

Or take the moment described in St. Matthew’s Gospel when Christ recounts to the Saducees the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV.) History has proven these two simple exhortations some of the most difficult tenets to uphold in all of the Christian faith.

I’m often shocked by the way professed Christians act when confronted with differing viewpoints—whether they be political, theological or otherwise. Instead of stopping to view the other person in light of grace, in view of Christ’s prayer on the cross or his charge to love our neighbor as ourselves, people so often dismiss others as illegitimate. It’s not just that they hold a different opinion, but that the other is also invalid and irredeemable.

Yet how can we love our neighbors without at least attempting to understand them? How can we so easily dismiss those who disagree with us when Christ demonstrates how we should reach beyond this surface reaction to more deeply assess their motivation? How can we have Christ as our example and yet still fail so miserably at extending grace to ourselves and to others as we seek to understand and shape the world?

Back when I still thought Canada posed a better alternative to another Clinton presidency, I’m not sure I would have known how to approach discussions of faith, identity and politics. My experiences since then, however, have led me to think that the problem isn’t with the labels—with the stances—I think it’s with us. It’s with our misguided prioritizing of stances over posture. Christ interestingly gave us very little that we would classify as a stance in the way I’ve been using the term. Instead Christ gives us a posture, a framework—he gives us ideals and exhortations and encouragements and examples.

Trying to live them out is the only way I know how to talk about politics. Join me.

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