After Politics, How Much Emotional Space Is Left?

Michael Wear was President Obama’s director of his 2012 faith-outreach efforts. He is also a theologically conservative evangelical Christian. Some people might find that non-partisan placement a bit odd or problematic.

Wear remarked in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

One of the things I found at the White House and since I left is this class of people who aren’t driving the political decisions right now, and have significant forces against them, but who are not satisfied with the political tribalism that we have right now. I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Wear was responding to a question if he himself felt lonely. He concluded:

Certainly, it would be a lot more comfortable for me professionally if I held the party line on everything. Politically, I definitely feel isolated. But a lot of people feel isolated right now. And personally, I don’t feel lonely because I find my community in the church. That has been a great bond.

Many of us across the political and ideological spectrum feel isolated today. Where do we find a sense of connection or bond? How much emotional space is left after politics? And how do we create more emotional space if politics has taken up more than its fair share?

One of the barometers for informing us as to how much emotional space we have is: can we enter into conversation with people of other positions without blowing up and taking all the air out of the room? While it is very important to hold one’s convictions close to one’s heart and have a sense of urgency rather than hedge one’s bets at every turn, we need to make sure we don’t lose our identity with political wins and losses. Another barometer would be: how steadfast in our convictions would we remain if threatened with penalties, possible imprisonment, or even extinction for protesting oppressive laws?

The ancient Jewish figure Daniel was a political leader in a foreign land. No doubt, a lot of emotional space in his life was devoted to politics. I would assume there were many times when he felt isolated, as he was exiled from the land of his birth among the very people responsible for Jerusalem’s destruction, and renamed in view of a Babylonian deity. I would assume his emotional space shrunk a bit more and his sense of isolation increased when the decree came for all the people to worship and pray to a pagan ruler under whom Daniel served in exile; the punishment for disobedience was death in the massive jaws of the lions’ den (Daniel 6:6-9). But two things preserved space and connection: Daniel’s faith in God and his people/community of faith. Daniel 6:10 addresses both of them:

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously (Daniel 6:10; ESV).

Instead of praying to the king in the foreign land, Daniel continued to plead and pray to his God for his people and their return to the land of their birth (See also Daniel 9:1-19). The whole aim of the decree—which the high officials of the empire encouraged the king to make—was to trap Daniel in the act of prayer to God for his people (See also 6:11). It didn’t take long to catch Daniel, since he didn’t miss a heartbeat, step, or prayer. He kept right on with his prayers and petitions of calling out to his God with thanksgiving to deliver his people from exile. So should we today.

Daniel did not allow politics to take up too much space in his life. While I am sure he was filled with angst in serving at a very high level of office in an empire that ruled over his own people, he looked to God to deliver. Daniel was not an escapist; in fact, his prayers to his God rather than the king, while facing Jerusalem with windows open so that all could see, was a prophetic rebuke and a sign of civil disobedience—three times daily. Would I have the emotional space to continue on with my daily practice of praying to the God of my people in the face of the threat of being thrown into the lions’ den?

No matter how lonely, isolated or discouraged, no matter how much others question, mock or threaten us, we must continue crying out to God for his kingdom come, his will to be done, on earth in his church and world. Don’t expend all your emotion on those who cannot change the future. Agitate, advocate and spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and isolated, but breathe deep from the Spirit as you do so.

There are many ways to make sure one does not expend all one’s emotion on politics, such as reading books, walking the dog, exercising or playing with the kids. The list goes on. Certainly, God is not separate from such activities. Still, nothing can compare or serve as a substitute for filling one’s lungs and one’s imagination with prayers for the spread of God’s rule through Jesus in our hearts, lives, and world. As we spend ourselves emotionally in crying out to God, he will expand our hearts and lives with his Spirit’s presence so that we can breathe again.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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