Originally posted January 2014
Welcome to Washington, city of glories and shames.
Yesterday I stepped into a world that I know very well, the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill. For 15 years I taught there, and most every semester since I left, am asked to return and lecture, at the beginning and end of each semester—I do it for love’s sake.
The assignment is to set before the students the challenge of learning about what matters as they enter this city, and to ask them what their semester of study will mean as they leave. There is nothing romantic about it. Without remorse, I offer them Lord Bismarck, the German politician of the 19th-century—so almost a million miles from the partisan, polarizing politics of America in the early 21st-century –who perceptively said, “If you want to respect sausage or law, then don’t watch either being made.”
Having watched Washington for as long as I have, I don’t think it is cynicism; rather it is hard-won realism. Reading the relationships of our first fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, the sausage-making of the city is not new, even though the intensity and rancor of this political moment is very hard to take. Not much that matters gets done when trust is lost. When promises are made that are never meant to be kept, we stop believing—even our children understand that about life.
And that is as true in China, as it is Kenya, as it is in these United States. There is an integral relationship between a healthy social ecology and political and economic flourishing. Without the former, we do not get the latter. No one does, anyone anywhere.
So I spent a couple of hours talking with the students about learning and life in the Capitol City, about habits of the heart that might sustain us, particularly pressing them on the relationship between faith, vocation and culture, between our deepest convictions about life, the way we live life, and the consequences for life, for all of us, the polis that we are. Whether we most deeply believe in animism, Buddhism. Maoism, evolutionary materialism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, in-your-face-hedonism—or make up your own –faith shapes vocation which shapes culture, for blessing and for curse. Ideas do have legs, and in a pluralist democracy, that is its own challenge. E pluribus unum is our promise to each other, and it is a hard one to keep.
For quite a while, I talked about the breakfast I had yesterday with my two neighbors and friends, Todd Deatherage and Mark Rodgers, each with their long lives on Capitol Hill. We meet as often as possible on Wednesday mornings at our local Caribou Coffee, week by week listening to each other as we reflect on the ups and downs of life and labor. In a word, it is our vocations that we talk about, the large, complex word that “vocation” is for all of us. This week we spent most of our time talking through a particularly messy situation that one of us is in. For all that is the worst of Washington, different visions of the way the world works, and should work, becomes hard-ball, stab-you-in-the-back politics—and everyone loses.
Tragically, there are some people who come to this city who are drawn, like moths to light, to that kind of politics. Even more sadly, they are sustained by too many people all over America who believe their stories of partisan woe, and send hard-earned dollars to “protect America” from the Enemies. Of course it happens on all sides, across the political spectrum. We should all groan, because we all suffer.
I did my best yesterday to offer the students a vision of another way to live and learn here, another way to care about who we are and how we work out our common good. Could we honestly, actually, commit ourselves to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—within the sausage-making realities of Washington and the world? I told them the story of Senator Mark Hatfield, long-loved by many—and despised by others –for his pursuit of a more principled politics, author of the classic, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” and in whose honor their library is named. I watched faces carefully as I lectured, wanting to know if what I was saying was being heard, wondering if they had ears to ear.
That is always my hope—and at the end of the day, it is hope I am betting on as I spend a few hours each semester with the American Studies Program.