As we near the Fourth of July holiday, a weekend in which citizens and residents of the United States of America will celebrate 234 years of independence, we also live at a time of increasing political and cultural polarization. The political bases of the two parties have moved further and further from the center, so that less that civil statements and actions have come to the fore. Bruce Epperly writes as a theological progressive and political liberal -- I note that both these terms are considered "unAmerican" in some circles." Just today, I heard Jeff Sessions ask, with derision in his voice, whether Elena Kagan is a "progressive." So, where are we as a nation when "birthers" and Tea Partiers seem to have taken hold of the imagination? Bruce addresses some of these questions in what should prove to be one of his most provocative contributions to this blog.
On Not Polarizing Too Much:
The Challenges of Prophetic Hospitality
Bruce G. Epperly
This week’s contribution includes affirmations, concerns, and confessions in responding to the growing polarization of our political and religious worlds. I begin with a concern: I believe that there are growing movements of political and religious polarization in our national life today. I believe these movements threaten the gains we have made as a nation in terms of health care, diversity, environmental protection, and human rights. These movements are motivated by a vision of reality that clearly and dramatically separates persons and policies in terms of good and evil, black and white, in and out, and us and them. When these movements draw on religious resources, they articulate a vision of God which is defined primarily in terms of judgment, power, exclusion, and destruction, rather than love, healing, and acceptance. In a world of diverse visions of reality and lifestyles, these groups believe that God is the ultimate divider, and calls us to do likewise. I will also make a confession: Many of the members of these movements of the religious and political “right” assume that people like me are the enemy, representing something that is destructive of true Christianity and the USA’s best interests.
While we progressives and liberals can be polarizing as well, seldom do progressive and liberal Christians or political activists threaten violence, insurrection, or question the patriotism of those with whom we disagree. I cannot recall among the many progressive and liberal diatribes against President Bush (which involved more than a little impolite conversation and words of demonization) calls for his assassination, the de-legitimization of his second election to the presidency, or the overthrow of the government. I suspect this was because in spite of their occasional vitriol, progressives and liberals are inherently big picture, inclusive, and global thinkers. I have concerns in terms of the growing influence of political and religious polarizing groups, especially in the context of their attempts to become the dominant voice of the Republican Party.
The question these groups raise for me as a progressive Christian is: “Can I be both prophetic and hospitable in relationship to the groups that judge my path as demonic, wrong, and hell-bent? Can I find ways to forcefully but lovingly respond to such groups and their belief systems?” I must confess these are challenges to me personally and spiritually, especially when I hear the comments of “birthers,” Tea Party members, libertarians, and Christian militia leaders. I am often angry, and am tempted to polarize in my own thoughts. I wrestle with how can I passionately advocate for what I believe is right for our nation and the future of our world, and what is congruent with my faith as a Christian – concern for global climate change, a greater sense of community and inclusion, welcome to strangers, health care for all persons, and affirmation of the interdependence of nations – and not demonize with whom I disagree, even when such persons see my views as demonic and dangerous to Christianity and the nation. How can I balance prophetic passion and justice-seeking with healing hospitality?
In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott admits that finding a way to envisage President Bush in a new light was her primary spiritual challenge. She passionately opposed everything about his leadership and policies, domestic and foreign. But, she came to realize that her hatred and demonizing of the President was hurting her spiritual growth and was standing in the way of following Jesus. She still continued to oppose President Bush’s policies, but began to visualize him as a child of God. This began a process of spiritual transformation that changed her life.
In many ways I feel like Anne Lamott when it comes to the rising polarizing political and religious right wing. As I seek to provide prophetic hospitality, my response is both theological and spiritual. First, as a process theologian, I believe that God influences every person to greater or lesser degree. The most vitriolic “birthers” are still touched by God; that is the meaning of omnipresence. While I suspect that they are turning their back on God’s call to a wider more creative and global vision of Shalom, God is still working within their lives, seeking wholeness and community. Second, all persons, even the most radical Tea Party persons, are God’s beloved children, deserving my basic human respect, despite the political gulf between us. Third, all persons, including myself, can experience transformation and conversion. From this perspective, my own political disagreements need to be framed as provocative alternatives, rather than attacks, grounded in the hope that “opponents” may awaken to the value of contrasting positions. Fourth, in order to avoid polarization, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, I am called to see the falsehood in my own truth, and the potential truth in the “opponent’s” falsehood. Sometimes, this is simply the recognition that your “opponent” is motivated by fear – fear of change, fear of economic insecurity, fear of otherness, fear of the inevitable decline in the American empire, and fear of losing one’s ethnic, social, or political place in society. To me, fear is the common denominator of all these groups in their quest to deport the alien, hold onto tax money, and delegitimize an African American president. Perhaps, they shout louder because they know that their cause is ultimately lost and that they are going against the grain of history and the nature of reality in its interdependence and diversity.
Theology inspires spiritual practices. I am working at “breathing deeply,” trying preserve my spiritual center when my own anger takes center stage. Gentle breath prayers break down the walls of division and open us to new possibilities for personal and communal transformation. Second, with Mother Teresa, I seek to see Christ “in all his distressing disguises,” including shouting Tea Party members, recalcitrant lawmakers, and violent militia persons.
Finally, as I seek to be hospitable to my “opponents,” I look for the truth in their falsehood even as I passionately affirm my vision of interdependence, community support, healthy diversity, equality for all persons, and ongoing evolution. I seek to experience God moving through all our lives, gently and persistently, even my political and religious “opponents.” Whether or not, we can find common cause in this time of knee-jerk divisiveness, I hope to bring forth the best in myself and my community by living by love rather than fear, imagination rather than stagnation, and hospitality rather than isolation.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.