The following content is confidential, and there are no titles or names given that would put anyone in danger. Although I do not identify as a Christian, this post explores the Christian worldview and its approach to vocation through guest speakers from Washington, DC.
The American flag and the inaugration stairs, Capitol Hill Building.
All Abrahamic religions, in some way or another, are based on the same truth that once the ultimate mission of shaping the world is accomplished, they will bring peace and harmony on earth. However, the ways and methods they claim that will bring peace often involve changing the other, at times forcing the other, eliminating the other, or eliminating themselves from the other. We are all well aware that the easiest way to achieve conformity requires a little help from national politics. It sounds much like escapism, it is an escape from the beautiful pluralism we can strive to achieve, and it is, in essence, what we all are called for.
Inazu gracefully states in the very first chapter of his book that Americans fail to agree on “the purpose of [their] country, the nature of the common good and the meaning of human flourishing” (p. 15, Inazu). While we try to coexist, we fail to do so in peace. As Christians (and all other religions) would do, we find the solution in relying on the state. We delegate the holy power on a golden tray, trust with our eyes closed, and watch the state polarize us subtly.
So, what happens next? In a valuable conversation, the president of a DC-based Christian Forum said, “Our identities become political. Our religious identities become political. And, it becomes increasingly hard to find which is true and which is not”. As Christians, we face the risk of over-politicizing our faith and being present within our culture through partisan eyes only. Yes, politicizing faith creates political gain at all costs, but what happens next is disillusioning. She continued, “People start talking about elections in apocalyptic terms, our relationships start depending on the political views of the other, and in other words, this over-simplifies our faith”. She is right, we voluntarily over-simplify our faith, but is our faith really that shallow that it promotes burning the bridges between us?
The answer is no, but we still shatter things into pieces. According to Volf, “some of faith’s damaging effects can be attributed largely to differences of perspectives”, but not all. Most are simply ill-effects, or how Volf refers to them, malfunctions of religion. The Abrahamic (prophetic) religions, at their core, are based on ascend and return, and that is where we encounter the malfunctions.
The artwork at the basement of the Washington National Cathedral.
Ascend is when the prophet rises to encounter with the divine, and receive the message which then changes him. To allow the message to change us, we need to have faith in the meaning of the language. When we politicize religion we hold a risk of hollowing out the language about God from within, due to losing faith in the encounter with God. We employ God and religious language to promote perspectives that are not related to the Divine. This is when we face functional reduction, as Volf says, “shaping people and their social realities, but in which God now lies dead, no longer a transformative reality, alive only as a topographic memory” (p. 11). Politics tirelessly use the language of God, over-simplifying faith, and losing its Divine meaning.
The return malfunctions arise at the time of delivering God’s message and correspond to two sins in Christian tradition: sins of omission, as we fail to deliver the language itself and pick parts of it, and sins of commission, when we impose it on the unwilling (Volf, p. 13). Max Weber’s argument on his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, can be applied to what we face in politics today (p. 14). Politicians play the game by preset rules without applying the moral considerations because their end goal of winning is greater than all. Politics imposes its own rules to those who wish to participate in it, compelling them to conform. Volf adds, “In this new polytheism, we follow the voice of one god at work, another at home, and maybe yet another at church. Each sphere resists the claims of the one God to shape all of life” (p. 14).
There are many challenges that communicators and advocates face when developing strategic planning for organizations. The director of a global communications advising firm, talked about one of the hardest crisis management plan he had worked on for the BP, during the time when BP experienced an oil spill in one the Macondo Prospect. Upon analyzing such a tough situation, he gave the simple solution we all would not expect: Transparency. “The break down of trust requires new levels of transparency”, He said, “How did we take BP out of being a brand behind an industrial disaster? How is BP still in our lives?”, he continued. According to the Director, it was hard to convince BP to put a camera down to where the oil spill was, but they trusted the communications group, apologized, shared to the truth with their constituents, and asked engineers around the world for help. As Lederach would agree, truth brought freedom and reconciliation (p. 52).
The chief communications officer of a national multi-religious organization, deals with both internal and external communications, and he had insights to share on messaging. His golden advice when making decisions for the sake of the organization was to put away personal feelings and think about what benefits the organization the most which would hopefully eliminate any confusions on messaging as well. However, he added, “It is crucial to always be ready for the worst case scenario although the hope is that it never happens. When we anticipate the messages that can fall flat, an organization can work backward from the least bad scenario”.
The famous Rotunda, Senate Building.
Moreover, communicators and advocates are well aware that politics provide a platform for faith to be hyperactive, imposing it on the unwilling. While speaking in a religious voice may not be oppressive, bringing religions solutions to solve public issues may very well can be. It should not be the duty of the state to object the church’s perspective, defend the church or define what is right and wrong under the light of religion. As DC-based Religious Forum Director put into words what we all forget at times, “The church does not need to define its place in society, the church is society”. And, Hunter would add, the basic intent and desire behind delegating the religious power to the state “is to dominate, control, or rule” (p. 106), in other words, simply doing what Christianity does not want you to do.
According to the Forum Director, “whatever power we give to the state, the state can never solve our problems for us”, and Volf and Hunter would argue, using the state as a referee to solve or settle problems would create a psychology of ressentiment. Ressentiment involves anger, envy, hate, rage and revenge as the motivation for political action, causing us to push one another away rather than striving to walk the fine line of coexistence. So, in spite of all these malfunctions we hold dearly, how do we coexist?
The culture of ressentiment focuses on “our needs only”, however, it is important we put the effort and “try to understand the concerns of each group has on their own terms” (Hunter, p. 110). Inazu offers a three-step solution to achieve pluralism as God intended it to be, through tolerance, humility, and patience. Tolerance allows us to accept one another’s differences and develop endurance while doing so. Humility helps us project our self-reflected values to those who have different views. And finally, patience eliminates coercion and violence, in the midst of the long road of establishing coexistence in harmony.
The leader of a global peacemaking organization, is someone who dedicated his life to find peace in the face of conflict. He says, “Conflict is a dynamic learning opportunity for genuine relationships” and he takes the posture of the learner during his travels, instead of imposing his own views on others. One of his life-changing experiences was in the Middle East when he met a man named Issam*, who was a server at the hotel the leader of this organization was staying with his family. Issam asked him why was it that Americans hated him, and he said: “You need to stop hearing about us, and start hearing from us”.
The Leader believes in these words religiously “My flourishing is connected to your flourishing”. And he claims to coexist with harmony, peacefully and beautifully, we must see humanity, dignity, and the image of God in everyone, just like Jesus did when he talked to the Samaritan woman (John 4). We must immerse in conflict, equipped with tools to heal rather than to win. We must be contend, and not try to find ways to get even but get creative in the way we show love. And finally, we must strive to restore, share our table with former enemies and celebrate the big and small ways God is restoring our world.
Similarly, an official from the Obama Administration, says the only utmost important Christian political duty is to “love thy neighbor”, and “seek the peace and prosperity of the [your] city” (Jer 29:7). We hear many say “Jesus could have been just as faithful working in politics”, but we can all agree that politics is not hospitable towards followers of Christ, and often results in disappointment or religious isolation. “But, how we fight with the tendency to escape when we face conflict is simple: Have the right size of expectations, pursue justice, and have humility”.
If we keep putting a greater identity to politics than it deserves, we are in danger. And taking the final advice of the Obama official: “It takes disinvesting ourselves in politics”. Then, Christians will be capable of creating good culture as they work modeling the image of God, and will finally find the beauty in coexisting, despite all of our deep and at times painful differences.