Thursday, October 27, 2016

Faith and Politics: Talking About Both Without Killing Each Other

Upon hearing that we at St. Paul's were planning an Adult Formation series called “Faith and Politics” two weeks before the most contentious presidential election of all our lifetimes, I think some people thought we’d lost all sense. They’re not necessarily wrong.

But since when was the Christian faith all that sensible? I mean, I’m getting ready to preach a sermon on Jesus’ sage advice, “Love your enemies.” Huh?

Jim Schmotzer and I started meeting to plan this series many weeks ago, and we spent a long time considering how easy it would be for such a series to go very badly. Especially in the area of politics, if we’re not working at being self-aware, it’s easy to show up to the conversation with a one-sided agenda. To that end, we used the entire first session not to talk about faith and politics, but to talk about the assumptions and group norms we wanted to establish before the conversation even begins.

First we showed a brief video from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry. We gave our definition of and vision for Adult Formation and talked about the reasons that a series on faith and politics makes sense:

Adult formation is a lifelong process of integration—discovering and experiencing God in all dimensions of our lives in order to grow into the full stature of Christ. (see Ephesians 4:13)

The vision of the Adult Formation Committee of St. Paul’s is to implement and support opportunities for the congregation to mature in faith as we discover and experience God in all dimensions of our lives.

Our goal for this series is to help you understand your personal political history, how you got where you are now, and also to help you to become ever more conscious of the ways that your faith informs your politics.

Next we talked about the Johnson Amendment as a way of clarifying the church’s tax-exempt status and the realms in which the church can (and should?) get into politics.

These are the assumptions we brought to the table for the group to consider as we begin the series.

  1. We’re not going to tell you how to vote, and none of us will tell each other how to vote. We’re not going to make assumptions about what another person’s vote means. This class is for sharing ideas and for learning together … not for changing minds. You have the right to change your mind … or not.

  2. The church is not a place to escape from the world of politics, but a workshop for extrapolating the consequences of our decision to follow Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives … including our participation in civil society. And although we’re doing this toward the end of a heated election season, we don’t want to limit this class to this particular election cycle. We relate to the world politically every day.

  3. Politics can be divisive because none of us has all the answers, and that makes us feel insecure. The arena of politics is big, important, unpredictable, and never finished. We may vote with a political destination in mind, but in reality, we only ever vote for a political direction, based on both our hopes and our fears.

  4. As Christians, we are to allow our faith to inform our politics, and not the other way around. Christians of any political party are able to assert this without hypocrisy. In baptism we vow to follow Jesus Christ as Lord, and to hold Jesus above all earthly rulers.

  5. Christianity is inherently political, but that’s not the same as being partisan. No political party lives fully into God’s vision of the world as expressed in Jesus Christ ... and no political party will ever do so. But our Christian faith makes demands on our lives that do and must cause us to engage in the world of politics.

  6. There are people in this room who intend to vote for different presidential candidates and different down-ballot candidates and measures. And Jesus has commanded us to love one another. The church, of all places, should be a place where people can disagree fiercely while loving and serving wholly. The fact that the church isn’t often this way is a sign of our human brokenness and calls us to renewed efforts to love as Jesus loved.

  7. We are not defined by the political parties with which we may choose to align. Our political identities can drive a wedge in a relationship the moment they’re revealed, whereas people of various political identities can come together and do good work together in a specific context.

  8. Our political preferences are determined through a variety of internal and external processes that we ourselves may not fully understand. And that goes for all of us, no matter how much we’ve considered the matter. Even so, we hope that this series will help each of us to shed more light on our own political inclinations.

  9. In this series, we are on holy ground, because we seek to be fully ourselves while also opening ourselves to growth and change. The Christian life cannot flourish without an acceptance that change is God’s will, and that growth is God’s desire for our lives.

  10. Conflict is an invitation to intimacy, and it is more important for Christians to be loving than to be right. If you find yourself getting “hooked” by a conversation or by somebody’s inability to act based on the above assumptions, remember these things.

Only after all that background work did we establish group norms that we will choose to live by for the other three weeks. These norms were offered by the participants, not planned ahead of time:

  • No fist-fighting.
  • Listen with an open mind in order to understand. Try to “listen under” what the other is saying. Reflect back what you hear. “What I hear you saying is _______.”
  • Here is a model to use right away when feelings are hurt: “I felt _______ when you ________. The story I’m making up in my head is _______. I promise to ___, and what I’d like from you is ____.”
  • Understand that some people process best through their feelings, and others through their brains.
  • Ask for clarification, and understand that others may need clarification. Don’t assume that people know what you know.
  • You have permission to participate or to opt out.
  • Speak for yourself—not for others.
  • Before speaking, ask yourself: “Is this true? Is this fair? Is this helpful? Is this kind?”
  • Buddha: “To respond from anger is to respond from weakness.”
And so we have begun our four-week exploration of faith and politics. In week two, we’ll explore examples in the Bible and in church history of faith and politics overlapping for better or worse. In week three, we’ll explore our own political and faith histories and learn from our own past how we got to be where we are. And in week four? Well, we’ll see … Jim and I have lots of ideas, but for now, we’re staying open to see where the group goes.

1 comment:

  1. Good work, Jim and Josh. I appreciate the good sense and reasonableness of what you've done here. Keep up the good work.