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Oneing - Politics and Religion

A Moment for Something More Soulful Than Politics

Joan Chittister was one of the contributors to the fall 2017 issue of Oneing, a publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation. The theme of the issue is “Politics and Religion” and Sister Joan’s piece is titled, “A Moment for Something More Soulful than Politics.” 

A Moment for Something More Soulful Than Politics

In the presidential primary of 2016, Donald Trump scorned John McCain’s heralded heroic captivity during the Vietnam War. “The heroes I prefer,” Trump said, “are the ones who don’t get captured.” The attack stunned the nation. The young naval aviator, Lieutenant John McCain, had stood up to the whole Japanese system. Offered release, McCain refused to take it until the rest of the squadron would be released, as well. It was three more years before that happened.

In 2017, as the acme of the great GOP attempt to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature legislation on health care without an acceptable replacement, two women senators, Marie Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain voted against such an unpredictable legislative maneuver. The repeal attempt went down to defeat by three heroes who confronted the system with truth and courage.

President Trump found himself faced with a clear picture of what heroes really are—both in captivity and not. Heroes are those who are free enough internally to face any amount of external pressure for the sake of the greater good.

It’s not a rare event. In fact, it is a given. It comes to each of us always.

In every life there is a cross-over moment after which a person will never be the same again. Somewhere, somehow the challenge comes that sets us on a different path. The path of purpose. The path of integrity. The path of transcendence that lifts us—heart, mind and soul—above the pitiable level of the mundane.

It is the moment at which transcending the expected, the petty, the daily, becomes more impacting, more holy-making than any amount of political success.

As a culture, we may have come to that point in this culture en masse. It is a call to all of us to be our best, our least superficial, our most serious about it means to be a Christian as well as a citizen.

The system we have divided from itself must be put together or we may never really be One, be united as a people, again.

Mark Twain may have put it best: “Patriotism,” he writes, “is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.” Aye, there’s the rub...which is which?

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet wrestles with the demands of conscience in the face of the growing crises of the Kingdom, he weighs the effects of two possible approaches: He can confront the situation at the heart of the problem. He can unmask the perfidy that threatens to steal his country away from him. Or, fearful of the consequences of public opposition, he can simply ignore it. Minimize it. Sleep through it."

Who doesn’t understand the dilemna? The political world is a stockpile of polar opposites: Which option shall we choose—confrontation with a disorderly system or self-preservation through.

We can speak up as our democracy begins to break down before our eyes and bear the public stress that comes with that.

Or, in our own case, in this time, “sleeping through it” means to do everything possible to avoid the situation. We can hope that, at least eventually, everything will die down rather than do something about it. After all, the cure could indeed be worse than the disease.

Indeed, a Hamlet wails in us all, “Aye, there’s the rub.”

The truth is that we know the depth of our own situation only too well these days. We’re in it, after all. Even to write about it here seems almost surreal. I keep waiting to wake up again in a nice, orderly America, long great, definitely grown, a paragon of professional, presidential civility, certainly a beacon to many.

Instead, I’m caught in a maelstrom of the unexpected:

A foreign government has inserted itself into our democracy in an attempt to upset the credibility of the democratic system itself.

The popular vote—the majority choice of the voters—does not assure an election.

The President of the country is also its Tweeter-in-chief and the dominant debaser, demeaner and prevaricator of the country, as well.

Meanwhile, presidency and monarchy are being confused while people stand helplessly by as the corpse of civil liberty sinks into a national grave.

The self-proclaimed sexual predator president is insulting his own Attorney General now, just one more person in a long line of personal casualties. While, meanwhile, we go on trying to convince our children not to bully anyone and not to give into it themselves.

Perhaps worst of all, the Congress of the United States dithers with people’s lives in the hope of scoring political points while universal health care, education, cyber security, climate change and international affairs take second place to the presidential reality show and local soap operas.

And whatever issues of constitutionality may be created by any of these things, the president apparently thinks that he can solve the problems by pardoning himself.

Worst of all, all this chaos, political instability, and lack of experience was demonstrated in living color in the process called a primary. In that standard political ritual, with over a dozen candidates to choose from, if the voting public itself had heeded the obvious, this political debacle could have been avoided.

The question is, why didn’t they heed the obvious? And if they did, why did they ignore the implications for the country? After all, “they’ is “we”; we did this to ourselves.

Even more important, where in the midst of such polarization and national disunity is even the hope of oneing, of integrating the social with what we say are our spiritual selves? Where is the missing link between the spiritual life and civic life? Where is the tie between religion and politics in a time when “God bless America” is a national creed but "America First” has become its god?

Even a ghost of an answer makes serious demands on us all: To heal such division means that we are obliged to search out and identify our own personal value system. It requires us to admit to ourselves what it is that really drives our individual social decisions, our votes, our political alliances. Is it the need to look powerful? The desire for personal control? The hope to cash in on quick fixes or profit from the petty skimming? The need to be approved by the titled class? Do we have the courage to confront the debased with the ideal—even in the face of ridicule and recrimination—or is cowardice our secret spiritual sickness? In the case, our national health can only get worse.

A national cure also surely demands that we begin to see tradition as a call to return to the best of the past, not a burden to be overcome. It is the sense of a commonly held tradition of the common good, once a strong part of the American past, that we clearly lack in the present. We have searched for months to find some senators, some representatives, some house and senate leaders who themselves were sufficiently beyond petty party differences to care enough to speak for us all. Instead, such profiles in courage were rare on the political ground. And so politics became the problem rather than part of the answer to the national division that plagued us.

Any answer that can possibly heal the national fissure must surely enable us see conservatism as the anchor of society and, at the same time, to welcome liberalism as the path to the future that is already here.

Most of all, a real answer to such bickering and character assassination will necessitate that we make “love one another as I have loved you” the bedrock of both our personal relationships and our society.

To make those spiritual concepts a real part of life and so bring this country together again, at least five issues are paramount:

First, partisan politics, a relatively new concept in national politics, has to be seen for what it is—a fungus on the democratic system that chokes its growth and smothers its oxygen. Partisan politics—the notion that the herd mentality is more important to democracy than individual conscience and personal responsibility for the civil system—has to end. Otherwise, the very keepers of the kingdom will have sliced and diced into national uselessness.

Second, we must return to a fundamental American conservative posture. We must remember that the Constitution is more important than the politics or the politicians of the moment. To manipulate voting blocks, to gerrymander the system, to intimidate a voting population into staying away from the polls for the sake of party dominance is not government. It is treason.

Third, we must remember that civil discourse is the pillar of democracy. The deterioration of public discussion to the level of street talk—led in this case by the president himself—limits thinking and invites name-calling. Then, the inherent value of the issue disappears in a flame and flash of irrationality and intimidation. At that point, all objectivity goes to dust and force drains a democracy of its essential component—fearlessness and respect for the other.

Fourth, we must realize that to be an effective country we must become as much citizens of the world as we are citizens of this country. There is no country anymore that can stand alone. Not even us—as economics and national security so clearly show.

Fifth, to be ONE we don’t need one party, one program, one set of policies. What could be more dull, more stagnant, more destructive of the soulfulness it takes to create and preserve the best of the human enterprise than such a narrow minded view of planetary life. What we need is one heart for the world at large, a single-minded commitment to this “more perfect union, and one national soul large enough to listen to one another for the sake of us all.

So, where can we look for ONEing in the political arena? Only within the confines of our own hearts. Politics—government—does not exist for itself. And if it does, that is precisely when it becomes at least death-dealing if not entirely evil. Nation states and empires have all died the death in the wake of such power run amuck, of such distortion of human community.

In the end, politics is nothing more than an instrument of social good and human development. It is to be the right arm of the one whose soul has melted into God. It is to be the living breath of those who say they are religious people and patriotic citizens. It is to be the link between politics and personal faith.

This period of politics, instead, flirts with the notion of being the security of the secure, the enrichment of the rich. In the name of personal responsibility it disdains those who cannot sustain themselves with dignity in a world in transition from the industrial revolution to the technological revolution.

Instead, it sets out to divorce itself from the very values that made this country great: the democratic system, the Judeo-Christian values it has embodied. But the fact is that it is the strength of the link between religion and politics that will determine both the quality of our politics and the authenticity of our religion.

The echo of Martin Luther King, Jr. can be heard again: this time, perhaps, with more of the warning of the prophet than the hope of the spiritually naive. King wrote, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

It is between those two poles—real religion and genuine patriotism—that the Hamlet in all of us is now challenged to ONE our democratic ideals with our souls.

To phrase Hamlet more directly, it is time for us to wake up. Sleeping through this sad American moment will never enable us to become again who we have said so often we are.