The Spiritual Landscape
In the space of just a few hours, I have seen Christian leaders on Facebook compare members of the GOP to herds of wild animals. I have read the assertion that every Republican cheats on his wife and exploits the poor. And I've read that all Republicans are morons and hate-mongers. (Those aren't exact quotations, but they are certainly fair to the spirit of what was said.)
I have also read about a publishing company that produces religious bumper stickers calling for the president's days to be shortened by appealing to the words of Psalm 109:2-3. And one Christian political figure is in hot water for emailing the same sentiment around to others, appealing to his readers, "Let us bow our heads and pray."
Inevitably, every one of those posts enlists cheers and jeers—and a fresh round of similar observations from still other Christians, lay and ordained alike.
This is not a private conversation with an individual, like-minded neighbor over the backyard fence. It's sharp elbows and political commentary offered up in the defense of the Gospel in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of readers— maybe more. And for many, it's prophetic speech.
That's not what I hear. What I hear is name-calling, sweeping generalization, and slander. What I hear are good, thoughtful people saying cruel, thoughtless things. I hear people saying those things not just about one person, but about millions of people, known and unknown, in a few lines of text. I hear people implying that if they are not prepared to do violence to another human being, they are willing to pray for another person's misfortune.
Are we listening to ourselves, friends?
Can we hear that our language is indistinguishable from the political hue and cry going on around us?
Do we notice that a third voice—a God-given perspective—is completely missing from a conversation where voices left and right have all the representation that they need?
Are we so hungry for relevance that we are willing to allow ourselves to be used as an instrument of party politics?
Have we forgotten that our communities include people who subscribe to both political parties?
Do we really believe that there are no Republicans who care about people?
Do we really believe that there are no Democrats who are not closet communists?
Do we really want to risk our relationships with people who belong to one party or the other, in the name of venting our emotions in public?
Can we be sure that we haven't already alienated some of those people?
Do we really believe that by labeling and libeling people that we illuminate the truth?
This is not prophetic speech. It is not speaking truth to power. It is not persuasive. And it does not make the church more relevant to the political process. In fact, it makes it possible to dismiss Christians as a subset of political opinion left and right -- people with quaint motives for being involved—but little to add to the debate.
The mark of intellectual and spiritual maturity is the ability not to just take sides in a debate, but to take responsibility for the way in which the debate itself is conducted. That's a tough place to stand and when you stand there you run the risk of being characterized as a Pollyanna and a quietist. But without people willing to do that thankless task all that is left are the politics of attrition.
There was a time when the church was somewhat better at brokering those conversations. We appealed for people to listen to one another. We reminded them that the truth matters more than winning. We counseled them that the truth is always more complicated than we recognize at first. Based on our own inward journeys, we were prepared to acknowledge that we are more broken than we would like to admit. And, based on the experience of others on the journey, we learned that there is more good in others than we are willing, at first, to notice or acknowledge. Those are important gifts to give--particularly when times are hard.
But for the moment, it is hard to see us playing that role. Instead, we are Facebook prophets. Baptized, left and right, as much at war with one another as everyone around us. We are not a voice crying in the wilderness, but a voice shouting with the crowds.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/