The way we talk about “politics” in the US these days – on TV, in newspapers, all over the anti-social media, in casual conversation – mostly collapses the meaning of “politics” to “the partisan politics of contesting and winning or losing national elections.” It does this to the extent that even very smart people get sucked in to thinking of “politics” as having no other meaning than this.
I hate this ruination of our language, and its consequences for our thinking.
I have been battling it almost my entire life, certainly my entire professional career, in various ways. By the time I had that near-argument with one of my beloved professors at seminary, to the effect that his idea that there was no “politics” in “the family” was NOT the benign or innocent idea he wanted to imagine it was, I’d already had a lifetime’s experience of looking with fascination at the way politics – understood as all the ways we human beings manage to arrive at collective decisions about things – pervades every realm of human life.
It wasn’t an accident that I wrote a master’s thesis on models of decision making in the church.
So I’ll just run through this Aristotelian position one more time, here: There is no humanity without society. There is no society without politics. Ergo, there is no humanity without politics.
And a corollary of that logic is this: Human spiritual life has a political dimension.
That’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just a thing. But there’s no way around it. The efforts people make to deny our participation in all kinds of politics throughout our lives are much like our efforts to deny other basic things, like: that we interpret everything we read, that no one alive has uninfluenced thoughts or unconditioned behavior, that everyone has gender, or that our minds are nothing without our bodies. That is: they serve no good purpose. To paraphrase Theodor Adorno, the more passionately we deny our intrinsically human political nature for the sake of an apolitical ideal, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, we are delivered up to it.
All of which leads to a further comment. This comment ought not to come as a surprise to anyone, but it probably will. There are politics IN the church – in every congregation, denomination, organization, ecumenical gathering, etc. – and politics OF the church – the political consequences of Christians’ convictions and commitments. Of course. It must be this way, it can’t be any other way. Because our convictions and commitments feed into the decisions we make individually, and also into all the decisions we urge the groups we participate in to make, and into all the ways we articulate those convictions and commitments, and into all our thoughts and feelings about what is, and what is not, legitimate, desirable, admirable, reasonable, equitable, indispensable, defensible, when it comes to … everything, but in particular, what we end up doing and saying.
It was no accident that George III called the American Revolution “the Presbyterian Revolution,” given the Presbyterians’ commitment to synodical polity, based on their theological conviction that the Holy Spirit works through deliberative bodies, and their theologically principled rejection of episcopal authority.
It was no accident that the Mennonites, committed pacifists because of their reading of the gospels, became perennial refugees as they were expelled from one after another Christian European state that had decided that warfare in the name and for the sake of that state was compatible with Christian faith and incumbent on its Christian citizens.
It is no accident that groups like Christians United Against Gun Violence and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship would come up with the idea to dedicate a Sunday to congregational worship focusing on the interpretation of contemporary gun violence through the lens of scripture, and to congregational responses like writing letters to legislators, the people in our contemporary world who have the mostly final say on what “we” are going to do about things, like whether we ask everyone to pass a driver’s test to get a driver’s license, or ask everyone to pass a gun safety test to get a gun owner’s license.
It’s no accident, and it’s no aberration. It’s politics. Which we can’t choose whether or not to have, or whether or not to participate in. The most we get to choose is how.
And as with everything in our lost and fallen world, we need to keep praying for the freedom to choose even that.
Images: “Dark orange Chrysanthemums along Thorngate Drive in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia” [cropped], by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Chrysanthemums,” Fannie Eliza Duvall (1861 – 1934), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons