Editorial

A letter to progressive Christians in the USA

I write from a healthy distance: 1,566 miles, one international border and a curious cultural divide away from Capitol Hill, the global epicenter of raw power.

Things must look different from out here on the snowy Canadian prairie because I just don’t understand how progressive Christians – with whom I generally agree – have become so caught up in the machinations of super-power.

Whether it’s Jim Wallis’s bestselling God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, the Network of Spiritual Progressives standing up to the Righteous Religious lobby, justice-minded US evangelicals meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister-in-waiting to make poverty history, or Barack and Hillary addressing Sojourners magazine’s Pentecost event in DC, it seems increasing attention is paid to what happens in Washington and how close one’s favored kind of Christians are to the action.

I know it makes a huge difference who is president, and I certainly think citizens should apply savvy and creativity to the political process. But this Capitol-intensive Christianity I see among progressives – this form of faith so concerned with being involved in what happens at the top – makes me uneasy. Doesn’t the church have a higher calling; a calling qualitatively different than gaining maximum sway in the globe’s most intense pursuit of worldly power?

So, for what it’s worth, here are three admittedly unsolicited suggestions from the political backseat of the continent.

1. Chill

I’m not sure I should say this but I feel y’all in the US are too caught up in the phenomenon of “America.” Yep, even the progressive Christians. You take your nation and its politics so seriously. Obviously US politics directly affects the lives of many people and cannot be ignored altogether, but super-power is not the ultimate power. As people of faith we have the luxury of a broader perspective, a perspective that allows us to operate on a plane beyond power-politics.

So have a coffee, chill, turn off the news, maybe take a trip north. We get hyped up over elections here too – and sometimes I curse the scoundrel who is currently king of our castle – but in the end he’s just the Prime Minister. We don’t expect him to be a moral or spiritual figurehead. We don’t actually care that much if he smoked up two decades ago or even two weeks ago.

Neither our moral nor spiritual center is with our politicians. And our political process is healthier for it. It is less polarized, less moralistic, and God isn’t in anyone’s corner. Sure we have religious politicians (our public health care system came straight from the social gospel) but because they rarely play the divine trump card, the polemic stakes don’t get elevated to the level of God-is-on-my-side dead end absolutes.

It’s just the US
Here “God Bless Canada” sounds completely bizarre, patriotism is optional, and, as far as I know, no one has ever pledged allegiance to our flag (literally). It’s just Canada.

And ya know what folks – it’s just the US. It will fade away, quite possibly within most of our lifetimes (for better or worse). Of course we all need to be responsible citizens but we also have the responsibility of a bigger perspective. The world – including the US populace – needs less “America,” and progressive Christianity tends to offer more.

I fear I may be coming across too harshly. I should say that if Canadians are more humble it has much less to do with virtue than an inferiority complex rooted in our perpetual underdog status on the international stage (and our also-ran status at the Olympics). My intent is not to claim moral high ground but simply to share a perspective from out on the frosty periphery.

And let me add that I do not question the integrity or intentions of the Sojourners crew and others on the progressive front lines. The world owes them a debt for skillfully broadening the debate on politics and morality in the US. I just think that debate needs to continue in a broader context.

De-nationalizing belief
Perhaps one way to chill out the hype around DC would be for the church to organize on a hemispheric basis – the Church of the Americas. Wouldn’t it be a relief to rise above national identities and squabbles? The Red versus Blue quagmire would look quite different. Existing national faith organizations could gather under a broader umbrella, and that umbrella group could address both nations and bodies like the IMF and World Bank from an authoritative stance clearly above national partisan interest. I think society would take note and breathe a sigh of relief. And surely such a re-framing would shake loose some fresh, big-perspective thinking.

2. Power-down

As intriguing as it is to read about star-studded national prayer breakfasts, Wallis’s parking lot encounters with Bono, or the religious musings of a favored Oval Office hopeful, the Christian scriptures keep pointing me back toward the bottom. Sure Jesus went to the capital, but he was riding a donkey. One can easily identify the political implications of what he said (and I have at times in my life tried to cast him as a political activist) but Jesus modeled a seemingly counter-intuitive, paradoxical approach to power. In the conspicuous absence of revolution or a well-groomed lobbying campaign, Jesus offered a seemingly irrational death on the margins. Sure he stepped on religious and wealthy toes, but those of his time who longed for political change ended up bitterly disappointed.

The rational approach to power in our day, I suppose, would be to create the most effective progressive Christian lobby possible, complete with public organizing campaigns, razor-sharp research and savvy media work – all stuff I love doing and have much experience with. But the paradoxical approach would somehow have to look different, even foolish.

Adopting methods of the Right
Here is the test I use when it comes to church posture in relation to power: to what extent do the methods of progressive Christians mirror those of the Religious Right? (The differences between the two groups are, of course, immense, but they share at least a couple assumptions.) The Holy Right seeks to influence governmental politics. They try to get as close to the White House as possible. They use church organizing infrastructure as political organizing infrastructure. They associate openly with politicians, backing some and bashing others. They court the media. They have their eyes on power.

Not much paradox there. Sometimes – not nearly always – it looks like progressive Christians are trying to out play the Right at its own game, envious of the Religious Right’s success in Washington. Surely there is a better option.

What if the church focussed on everything except politics? No matter who is president or how slow the Democratic strategists are to “get it,” much else can happen: communities can organize, non-corporatized food can be grown on church lots, fossil fuels can be avoided en masse, churches can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enemies can be boldly loved, massive consumer pressure can be exerted on the bad boys of business, and Christians can be a calming, defiant presence in places of violence. Of course policy changes would help in many cases but the point is that there is more power to be discovered and shared at the bottom than grasped for at the top. That’s the paradox.

Of course the progressive faith organizations contribute to, and report on many of these things – and for that we all owe them a great debt – but I see a tension between the heavy focus on Washington and pursuit of paradoxical power on the margins.

The halls of powerlessness
Involvement on the margins of society will necessarily lead to some engagement with government. In my own faith-based work on indigenous rights and energy issues I have briefed politicians, met with CEOs and received visits from federal security agents. All that is a necessary aspect of ground-level justice work, but circulating within reach of political influence has a problematic appeal. As nice as the resulting eye-brow-raising stories are, the halls of power can easily become a preoccupation. So I believe the church’s political engagement must start, finish and always be directly tied in with its presence on the margins, where primary energy should be exerted. There is a difference between occasional forays from the margins to governmental centers and a general orientation toward power politics.

Religion can go so many places politics can’t, so why are we headed to Capitol Hill? I want religion to be everything politics is not: gracious, fearless (the powerful are so paranoid), beautiful, trustworthy, healing and strong in weakness. Let’s trust the paradox.

3. Be the opposition

I very much appreciate that Wallis and company make an effort to present themselves as non-partisan champions of the moral center. (Though close association with high-level Democrats and Wallis’s campaign advice to the Dems in the New York Times did let the colors show.)

Even if this non-partisan posture were fully convincing, much of the progressive dialogue is about, and in relation to, the left-right paradigm of partisan politics. With the US and indeed the world increasingly polarized, we need people who not only re-adjust the binary left-right paradigm, but stand altogether and unmistakably outside it; people who perhaps don’t even use left and right as reference points at all.

Surely there are already enough people and groups orbiting DC. Religion, with its paradoxical view of power and its big perspective can provide a much-needed alternative center of gravity.

Rather than bolstering or advising the opposition party in the US, progressive Christians could be a sort of opposition to politics itself – a healthy counter-balance to the whole hierarchy of power rather than players in it.

God is not a political pundit
As Christians, let’s give less credence to the top of the power pyramid rather than more. As much as we may have enjoyed watching the news on election night last November – and it wasn’t only Americans cheering – let’s resist the temptation to place too much of our hope in a revived Democratic party. Instead, let’s claim the bottom.

God is not a Republican or a Democrat. Or a backroom campaign strategist, or an American political pundit, or a lobbyist. I take great solace in knowing there is something entirely beyond the realm of Red and Blue, a higher plane that supersedes election cycles, frantic campaigning and the din of the lobbying frenzy. Ultimately our hope is in a paradoxical, unlikely power. And that is why I think the faith community has a higher calling than governmental politics.

Will Braun lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he serves as editor of Geez magazine.

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21 Comments

  1. I don’t think you understand America. A born and raised Canadian and “born-again” Christian, I have American roots that go back to the pilgrims. America cannot be understood in purely rational terms. America is an emotion. One of my ancestors, Lyman Howe, an innkeeper, had these words put in his mouth by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

    “So through the night rode Paul Revere;

    And so through the night went his cry of alarm

    To every Middlesex village and farm,—-

    A cry of defiance, and not of fear,

    A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

    And a word that shall echo for evermore!

    For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,

    Through all our history, to the last,

    In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

    The people will waken and listen to hear

    The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

    And the midnight message of Paul Revere.”

    (http://poetry.eserver.org/paul-revere.html)

    Feel the emotion?

    America is defiant. There is a tradition of fighting for important beliefs. Angry scraps between right and left, conservative vs. liberal, are actually healthy, and will never, ever end.

    Don’t criticize it. Understand it. Harness it.

    David Brett April 2nd, 2007 9:38am

  2. I very much appreciate the challenge to operate out of, “an alternative center of gravity.” I believe Greg Boyd’s recent book The Myth of a Christian Nation addresses many of the same ideas you present here. He describes the difference between “power over” other people, and “power under”. Political power, even when sought for noble aims,is at it’s core power over. Christ models, as you said, a kind of power, (power under), that may look naive and irrelevant to the world, but is based on self-sacrifical love that can change the world profoundly from way outside the Beltway. I like your realism in reminding Christians that operating inside of political power structures is not inherently wrong, but it should never be where we place our singular focus and eternal hope for the redemption of this world. This is my first forray into Geez and I shall return!

    Jeremy Christiansen April 3rd, 2007 2:49am

  3. As a born-and-raised Canadian who lived 9 years of undergrad and grad school in Texas, I humbly suggest that David “Harness it” Brett needs to read more Tolkien.

    Thanks Will – that was a breath of badly needed fresh air.

    JR April 6th, 2007 1:41am

  4. RE: David

    “America is an Emotion”

    Hmm, I disagree. America is a place, what you feel towards that place is an emotion. the same feelings quoted in the poem you presented are felt by many in america, it’s just history repeating itself, no?

    Scott April 8th, 2007 1:32am

  5. There are two important, but understated points being made here:

    1. Church matters – but not in the way we currently harness its ‘power’. “What if the church focussed on everything except politics?”

    2. An also understated but huge implication for us Christians, which of course is the underlying theme of virtually all your content: It’s up to us.

    Dan Dyck April 8th, 2007 3:07am

  6. Thanks for the article! Indeed a breath of fresh air, and that always comes in from outside, doesn’t it? In response to Scott, I totally agree with your comment but would like to add an intriguing quote I heard recently. I wish I knew who said it, but it is “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The same themes re-surface in altered but familiar forms. The debate on Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to rhyme closely with that on Viet Nam, but it is not a repeat, just a rhyme.

    I especially like the perspective of “chill, its just America.” I love my neighbours to the sunny South, but it is often tiresome and annoying how desperately seriously they take themselves. Sure, they have the world’s biggest army, and a majority of the political baggage to drag around, and the biggest debt in the history of this little backwater planet. But hey, it is just one little planet on the edge of a medium sized galaxy in a very large universe. Take a look way way up and let’s have some perspective. In a hundred years chances are none of us will be here, and the U.S. empire may well not be either.

    Carlton Larsen April 12th, 2007 3:00am

  7. I’m happy to read this. The worst part, for me, is that whenever I’ve attempted to say these things to my “progressive” friends and to “progressive” audiences, I’m labeled as a conservative fundamentalist. I guess I just need to move to Canada. Seriously.

    Sean Cannon May 15th, 2007 10:33am

  8. At this point I think it would be a mistake to withdraw ourselves from politics. As it stands DC has a mighty influence on the world, and ignoring Capitol Hill will not necessarily stop the machine. Why not take a hold of politics, reform it, reclaim it? Not in a way that hinges on what we believe God has told us, or what we hold as some universal maxim of morality that all should follow in the form of policy, or what money can do for us, but on values we hold in a pluralist North America: peace and all it entails and produces, and to its benefit AND detriment how we translate what peace is.

    It IS The US: Power Up in order to Power Down

    I agree with your call to grass-roots, what a wonderful thing to be in relationship with your community, knowing what it truly needs because we are a part of it. But because of the US’s current influence we inevitably need to work top-down as well, speak in their language, create dialogue, work with what we have and reclaim it to reform it into something new. Salvation, redemption, was this not the language Jesus used?

    I see this as more of a peaceful gesture, human gesture rather than just de-valuing it altogether. You agree that we should not ignore politics, but in the way you suggest lessening its power I do not feel will work at this moment. This is a critical time to be involved with politics. So many things are at stake: the war, the environment, health care, ending world poverty, immigration, social security all currently functioning under the vehicle of government. Poor policy-making will continue because of lobbying and campaign finance funded by rich companies or individuals, and if we divorce ourselves from it the beat may still go on. Awhile back congress tried to pass the McCain-Feingold bill eliminating the influence of campaign finance, you have people like Obama trying to conjure funds ethically sourced.

    Opening Up the Halls of Power

    We’re working towards eliminating these influences and I think we should join in on that struggle and clean up politics, as well as involve ourselves in government so that we can decentralize the current isolationist government. Does this involve power-politics? It may, but I do not think all coercion is detrimental to people. If we coerce our government to change, we can incur to end the overstepping of coercion that government has had on us.

    In certain ways, we cannot divorce what happens in politics with morality. I agree we need to divorce politics from static tenants and what you called the trump card of “God told me to do it.” But in a way we all act in accordance to our morality/values, whatever the source of that is, and we are a country run by government that makes policy that is enforced, so values then have to come into play. I agree I do not think we should see our leaders as a moral compass, but I am going to continue to hold leaders to standards because right now they do influence.

    God Is Not a Political Pundit: But Some Still Think He Is

    And I agree, rather than elevating “America” as this persona, we need to relax. The same could be said of our current president. We cannot monumentalize our president as a moral compass, but we also cannot monumentalize our president as a moral monster. I agree with my professor in that George Bush believes he is acting morally. To monumentalize him as a monster is to dehumanize him. The same could be said of the religious right: I cannot be so cynical as to assume that they would actually want to cause harm. If we write off this group, we dehumanize this group, and we are capable of committing similar atrocities that we condemn them for committing.

    I agree that we need to transcend party lines, but we have to remember that so many people find their identity in these things. We need not necessarily agree, but we need to be empathetic, “try on” why it is people find their identity in this, create dialogue before we can ask them to transcend party lines, in addition to your proposed opposition. For right now to create dialogue we cannot part the plane of politics, for right now this is how the country is operating and we need to make ourselves a part of it. For right now I am putting my hope in the Democratic party because although it’s not perfect it’s what we’ve got.

    Centralizing Belief?

    I do not claim to know much about IMF or World Bank, but what about the Paul Wolfowitz scandal? I took, considering your sentence structure, that you were implying that these organization are non-partisan. Wasn’t Wolfowitz, the President of World Bank, backed by President Bush? And wouldn’t starting a “Church of Americas” create a new problem, a centralized organization that may be able to commit similar atrocities as the government? Anything large always runs the risk of hurting because it is not in local relationship. What would this organization look like, what does your proposed Christian lobbying look like? Would it have tenants, or would it encompass our pluralist society?

    We’re Not All De-Nationalized

    I’m in a funny position, I am an American living in Canada. This may be offensive, and of course I understand my experience is not necessarily representative of the country, but I get the impression that Canadians are nationalist as well, in a different way. And you admit that you’re not claiming supremacy over the United States. But while I’ve been here I have heard many times over that “we are not America”. I agree Canada has certain triumphs over America—I consider your healthcare system a triumph—but I find Canadians articulating their identity in what they are not. Anton Chekhov said “Love, friendship and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.” This is why I am impressed with your article because along with criticism you offer up solutions. If in fact Canada is not America, then dialogue with us what we can change. Thanks for offering up your creativity, refreshing to hear.

    Jamie Nelson May 16th, 2007 7:03am

  9. The quip that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is attributed to Mark Twain.

    Ref: Historic recurrence

    Thomas Spainhour May 22nd, 2007 2:32am

  10. As a Canadian living in America I can totally relate. Why do people HAVE to be patriotic? If it’s because they happened to be born here, it’s a weak argument. And why are those flags up on the stage at church? I can’t remember ever seeing that in any church in Canada.

    Oh Americans. Late to the world, late to the war, always thinking their in the front…

    James June 21st, 2007 8:11am

  11. Funnily enough, we did salute the flag in my school in SmallTown Alberta back in the late 70’s. “I salute the flag, emblem of my country, and to her I pledge my love and loyalty.”

    The words are stuck in my head to this day – perhaps because it was a strange and wonderful new thing that hadn’t been the custom at my previous school. (and I got to salute … how cool is that)

    Ailsa June 26th, 2007 1:51am

  12. RE: David Brett

    According to Bill Bryson (Made In America) Paul Revere never made it to Concord. From his tiny fonted footnote: “Among the inaccuracies, Revere didn’t hang the lanterns in the old North Church, because it wasn’t called that until later; at the time of the Revolution it was Christchurch; he made two rides, not one; and he never made it to Concord, as Longfellow has it, but was arrested along the way. As a historian Longfellow was decidedly hopeless, but as a creator of catch phrases he was in the first rank. Among those that live with us yet: ‘Footprints on the sands of time’, ‘This is the forest primeval’, ‘Into each life some rain must fall’, ‘ships that pass in the night’, and ‘I shot an arrow into the air/It fell to the earth, I know not where.’”

    On that information one could certainly extrapolate (albeit presumptively) and say America IS an emotion, or at least a catchprase. This from an American.

    But, you know, metaphors are always half-lies for what they omit. Then, to extrapolate further, America is a lie by omission.

    Michelle July 26th, 2007 3:24am

  13. I appreciate the advice that “it’s just the U.S.” and to “chill.” Hard to follow said advice when our leaders are pushing us towards extinction while the populace is either apathetic or on board with the plan.

    peter August 14th, 2007 2:06am

  14. I think the church today has the same problem that the synagogues did back then. We are all expecting some radical political move from Jesus but what we don’t understand is that he has brought a NEW KINGDOM!!!! Thanks for your encouragement.

    Jeanette August 16th, 2007 4:31am

  15. I’ve heard this rhyme (thank you Carlton) before. The watershed for Christianity was Constantine. Canada has seen what Constantinianism has done to Quebec -Duplessis. It is not about cause and effect, as Mr. Nelson seems to assert, but cross and resurrection as Yoder has explained. There will always be a feeling among the creatures of this earth that we are poised on the brink right now and we’re entering a new era of policy. Accompanying that will be the sense that we need our moral voice in that policy. What the church needs is to “open source” our dogma and allow our best insights to be lived in ritual, in everyday practices all over. One ritual I had the privilege of sharing yesterday was harvesting a crop of potatoes with two recovering crack addicts, a chronic sniffer and a man who has FASD. Getting our hands dirty in the soil was a wonderful practice that the church should embrace fully (think liturgy). Policy makers can mandate the building of more jails if they want, I’m going to make sure that some of the potential inmates know how to garden.

    Adam September 8th, 2007 2:54am

  16. Thank you all!

    I’m a latecomer to this conversation, but the timing’s great. As a Canadian social worker enmeshed in a social policy course for my master’s right now, I desperately need the reminder that Christ is so much bigger (and so much smaller — like a mustard seed), than the right or left.

    “…the point is that there is more power to be discovered and shared at the bottom than grasped for at the top.”

    Thanks Will.

    Sarah September 10th, 2007 4:49am

  17. How about a simple, serious revival of the Two-Kingdom principle? Are we Anabaptists or are we not? Amen Brother Will and others. From an Anabaptist inside the Beltway.

    Hoyt September 14th, 2007 11:45am

  18. I would love to emmigrate to Canada- but a 70 year old Pakistani with no marketable skills who speaks only Urdu will get landed immigrant status long before any US national who doesn’t have $1M CD to invest in a company that employs at least 6 Canadians.

    As for the Canada’s National Health Insurance and other social welfare schemes- they only work because 90% of Canada’s population lives less than 1 hour’s drive from the US to absorb the wants and needs of the wealthier classes.

    As much as Canada doesn’t like it- they are as linked to US markets as the French are to the UK and German markets and similarly wouldn’t survive without them.

    That said- I wish I was born in Canada instead of California.

    As for peace and justice- how much peace and justice can you afford to buy?

    In the new global economy they have become essentially commodities like everything else. Sad but true.

    Q8Dhimmi October 2nd, 2007 6:28am

  19. The United States is not just an emotion. It is a pietistic church with a flag and an army. It is a confession. It’s a religion, pure and simple. An idolatrous religion in the way, say, Uruguay or Austria or New Zealand or Namibia or Canada or any other decent nation-state is not. America is a false religion, one that has deluded many of the people living within (and also without) into thinking it is the way, the truth and the light.

    The author of the letter is correct to point out that Wallis and the religious left are just as committed to that religious vision of America, just as nationalists, just as inclined to wage war and support empire (different wars, different kind of empire, but still war and empire) as the religious rightists are. And they are doing it for religious reasons, too.

    Charles H. Featherstone February 12th, 2008 2:54am

  20. Love your article. As an American {and one who will visit Canada-PEI- this summer} Americans do need to “chill out” re religion. Those of us with an interfaith attitude are fully aware that God does not favor America-the USA to be accurate- ahead of any other country.A touch of Spirituality-not Christanity or any other formal raligion-perhaps, as Gandhi suggested, sould become, at least, a factor in government.

    allan watson June 27th, 2009 1:11am

  21. I’m just jumping in on the tail end of this conversation. Thanks to Will for the gracious and challenging epistle to us progressive Christians in the U.S. and for interacting with our work and mission here at Sojourners. (I’ve been on the staff and in the community for 22 years.)

    The issues you raise are the ones that we also discuss constantly and pray about constantly. Back in the day (mid-1970s) Sojourners did NOT want to move to DC because it was TOO aligned with the national powers-that-be.

    In the 1980s, we did a lot of work with the international church and emphasized the Body of Christ writ large that knows “no East or West.”

    We still hold those values and self-identity. At the same time, we have had to contend with shift in U.S. power over the last 15 years to the point where there are few to none international points of accountability for the American Empire. And as we all know, one U.S. vote affects millions the world over in terms of trade policies, environmental agendas, and transnational economics all of which can crush the human dignity of our sisters and brothers both in the US and internationally.

    So, while Sojourners has worked on the outside for years (and will no doubt be on the outside again when the winds of power shift), we are seizing the moment to do the greatest good by walking through the doors of power that open to us. We don’t change our message. We just say it directly to the face of those political leaders who need to hear it for their own souls as well as for the lives and souls of those who are affected by their policies.

    So, while we are acutely (dare I say, painfully) aware of the corrosive danger of strapping theology to the side of empire, we also feel there is a prophetic role within the corridors of power – one that is completely biblical as long as it adheres to God’s word.

    Okay—enough high falutin’ rant. … When can I come to Canada? It sounds really nice there. (smile)

    Peace—Rose

    Rose Berger September 24th, 2009 4:19am

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