The separation of church and state notwithstanding, our religious communities are by no means insulated from our current political maelstrom. Far from it. Late in this latest political race, in the context of COVID, of an increase in sectarian violence, in both racism and talk of anti-racism, church bodies discuss how to hold Americans together in their pews, how to hold America itself together. It is language that recognizes the profound risk of a greater rift. It makes sense; the church is practiced in the language of reconciliation and of unity. It has sometimes, although not always, used the language of non-violence.
As a clergyperson in America, a citizen of less than a decade’s standing, in many ways still a stranger in a strange land, I have noticed something else in the language that I am hearing and seeing and being invited to subscribe to through email chains and online resources.
I am invited to find common ground, middle ground, to eschew the extremes and split the difference between polar opposites by resisting the draw of each. I am also invited to resist that pull toward the middle ground, to stand firm on my mark on the political spectrum, believing (as each of us must) that it represents our best chance of achieving justice, mercy, and the will of God.
But what if our political landscape, even in its Platonic ideal form, is not the perfect overlay for the terrain of the kingdom of God?
There is a prideful instinct within us that assumes that we can, perhaps even have, designed the political system and philosophy that will lead us into the promised land of peace, prosperity, justice, and rest, if only we could all agree to meet there, on common ground. Idolatry is insidious. I am concerned that, for all our brave talk of the Gospel, there is a part of us that is still tempted to find our own way toward the knowledge of good and evil, knowing better than God what is good for us (see Genesis 3).
The problem is that only God is perfect. The grammar of the Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect union,” belies itself; perfection is not possible for anyone but God. Even Jesus, when addressed as, “Good teacher,” replied that God alone is good (Mark 10:17-18). The grammar of the document over which we tear ourselves to pieces and hope to put ourselves back together recognizes by its very construction, by relativizing perfection, that it aspires to something that we are not altogether in a position to provide. However perfectly we live into the ideals we have set before us as a nation, America is not the kingdom of God.
None of this means that we do not do our best to engage with the political systems at our disposal (nor that some systems are more helpful than others). They are the tools that provide us input into the steering system of the culture, the ethos, and the economy of this country and the world. It is part of the stewardship enjoined upon us in Genesis to wield the power that we have. It is an opportunity to resist evil, to interpret the struggle to live as God intended us, to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives, on a good day.
The problem of idolatry is that it tempts us to see the means as the end. In saying so, I am not calling anyone who has sent me those emails or signed me up to those Facebook groups or even preached me those sermons an idolater: God forbid. People in glass houses should not throw stones, and I am as fragile in my faith and orthodoxy as the next heretic. I am also committed to non-violence.
I do think that we are each vulnerable to that temptation to rest on solid ground, on something we know and can grasp (or view behind glass at the Library of Congress), as though it were the Rock of our salvation, the Cornerstone of our being.
Finding common ground amid the rubble of our political devastation is an endeavor worth pursuing, but it is not reconciliation, nor is turning our back on the arguments that divide us repentance. Reconciliation will not happen while anyone’s human dignity is denied, and repentance is more creative than repairing the machine that got us here.
Redemption will not be found in the ballot box. May we pray not to find perdition there, either. But hope demands that we set our sights higher than that, even as, in the meantime, we do what we may to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly toward our God.