As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have politics on the brain. It’s hard to keep myself away from the constant coverage of the big party conventions. Yet politics is not my favorite pastime. I’ve been turning MPR off because the unending political talk is exhausting. I find politics boring, frustrating and inauthentic, so I’m not the best person to engage in political banter.
I find politics to be talking for the sake of talking. People who spend any time in conversation with me (or hear me preach) know I am succinct. I don’t use more words than necessary. I physically run away from small talk. Roger Ebert recently wrote about a concept Gene Siskel introduced him to called Lip Flap--or talking without saying anything of use. He describes its purpose as allowing “people to sneak up on the moment when they would sooner or later have to actually engage their minds.” When I read this, I thought, “YES!” Someone finally gave words to the frustration I’ve felt for so long.
Politics is all Lip Flap. It’s people talking to fill space, often with no point and no direction. It’s also people talking without authenticity. The debates are useless in my mind, because (on my worst days) I feel like I’m sitting and listening to discover which person is the more charming liar. Oh yes, I know I sound like a cynic. But this system makes me crazy.
I’m also a preacher. I’m someone who spends my days and weeks crafting oratory from my very heart and being. I stand and share my deepest values and beliefs with a group of people on a regular basis. Although I’m relaxing more, I still ponder each word in my sermons as I put them on paper. Every sentence counts. It's easy for me to feel superior and put down politicians.
It’s painful to know our current political system is fractured and incredibly polarized. It makes me feel hopeless, insignificant and sad. It's even harder for me to admit I participate in the polarization by becoming cynical and hard-headed. But as a citizen, I know I need to listen. As a person of faith, my ears need to be open to find clues to what others around me are thinking and feeling. My animal reaction to politics is to bury my head and wait until November is over—to only listen to people with whom I agree and keep the radio on the Top 40 station. But I can’t.
Jesus engaged in political talk. He listened to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, even though he didn’t agree with them. Darn.
Our political system is also a reflection of our larger society. We’re all becoming more fractured and polarized—even (not so shockingly) the church. Peter Steinke, a nationally-respected scholar in church conflict for many years, has noticed this change within the church. Over the years, he’s watched congregation members become more interested in being right than finding compromise. People hold on more tightly to their ideas and opinions at the expense of the community. This trend is everywhere.
The Christian Century reports that clergy in Tampa, FL and Charlotte, NC, the sites of the Republican and Democratic conventions, issued a statement called “The Common Witness.” The statement “acknowledges the wide political division in the country, encourages those involved in the political process to argue respectfully and not use religion to garner votes, and invites prayers for peace.”
How easy it is to forget when we have no words to say due to anger, fear, frustration and sadness, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. I sigh for the hungry poor, the unemployed, the prisoner, and the vulnerable. I sigh for the oppressed, the forgotten, the children, and the failing systems. I sigh for a country more intent on being right than on finding a compromise. I sigh for my own attitude.
I pray our prayers make a difference. And on my better days, I pray with thanksgiving for those who serve in the political arena. I pray for patience and hope.