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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Faith and Politics

Haven't posted in awhile -- end of the academic year, travel, a college graduation. Last Friday, driving south on the Jersey turnpike, my son & I stopped for dinner and heard part of the Sojourners' Presidential Forum on Faith, Values and Poverty. This broadcast was strongly supported by Sojourners/Call to Renewal as a corrective to the perception that all Christians support a conservative social agenda, and I supported this idea, especially since the promise was that it was a chance for Christians to challenge the candidates to describe their approaches to eradicating poverty and seeking peace, these being fundamental gospel values. Looking back at the youtube clip, where Jim Wallis is interviewing the candidates, I am encouraged by the focus on poverty and policy. But going back to the Jersey turnpike - when the TV was on in the background, what troubled me about the part we happened to hear was that people were asking the candidates to describe their personal theologies and spiritual practices, and their responses rang false in those conversations. It is true that as Christians we are called always to be "ready to give an account of the hope that is in us" (1 Peter 3:15). But a political forum, where people are trying to speak to a constuency and get elected, tends to debase the conversation, and the theology sounds shallow and in need of more explanation. Much better were the parts I've watched since then where candidates spoke directly to the issues.

I find I'm uncomfortable about too much focus on the personal beliefs of leaders. To ask about these beliefs in a Christian context is to have what winds up being a narrowly Christian theological conversation, one that excludes people of other faiths or of no faith. It is more likely to make people hostile and suspicious than it is to invite them in to what should be seen as an agenda that is for everyone. My own approach to political issues does come out of my faith, but I suspect we get to peace and justice by many routes, and I am worried about a shallow "orthodoxy" or perceived litmus test about belief becoming part of our political discourse.

Here's the challenge for us as Christians and as citizens: to call the country to account on issues affecting peace and justice, especially poverty and the growing income gap -- and to do this, as we do, in the name of Christ, but to resist the tempation to insist that everyone do it that way: the important thing is the actual approach to the call to bring "good news to the poor" through practical public policy, and, when that isn't working, also through the kind of healing activity that churches and congregations can offer. Both. In one place in the gospels, Jesus says "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-41) -- that's when someone is casting out demons in his name, even though he's not one of the disciples. (This passage is worth remembering, especially since President Bush famously declared "whoever is not with us is against us". He was both paraphrasing and quoting out of context another passage --Matthew 12:30-- when Jesus, responding to challenges to his spiritual authority (people have been suggesting that he himself is casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub, the devil), says "he who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters." The context is really different from the way the President applied it to national policy and the "war on terror.")

But in the Mark passage, Jesus says that no one who has done a good work in his name will be able to speak ill of him afterwards. The disciples want to rebuke the exorcist because he hasn't joined their group in their way (doesn't perhaps meet their definition of orthodoxy) but Jesus sees him as making common cause with the healing of the people. That's where we need to be, I think, as Christians involved in politics, and especially for those of us who self-identify as "progressive" Christians entering the public conversation more boldly. We need to look, not at the orthodoxy of the candidates' beliefs or the language they use to express their faith (something it's always hard to find adequate language for, if we're honest), but at the fruits of their faith and moral position, however expressed, in the way they think and speak about policy. And in their actions.

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