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.
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.
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.
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.