Teaching faith and humility to Congress

Teaching faith and humility to Congress February 13, 2015

I was having dinner about 18 months ago in D.C. with some friends when they asked me why I care so much about religion, faith and politics. I told them that when both sides stop talking, will not work together and would rather throw mud than praise, there are only two options to bridge the divide.

Aside from a giant kegger on the National Mall, sharing of one’s faith, religion and values is the next best step. One of the few times both Democrats and Republicans occupy the same space voluntarily is during prayer in faith community. Talk of religion and faith, when done right, can turn divisive rhetoric into productive discussion and ideas. It reminds people of the values inherent in every religion: peace, love and justice.

To put this idea into practice, the historic seminary and graduate school, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, organized a non-partisan training session for members of Congress on topics including the cleverly titled, ‘Not Just on Sundays: How to Talk about your own Faith’ and ‘Policy Panel: How Policy and Faith Interact.’ There was even a public session held in D.C. that you watch for yourself.

View the Public Session of the Union Theological Seminary faith training.

“Just as King Solomon knew that you couldn’t cut a baby in half and expect it to live, we know that you can’t separate faith, values, and politics and expect our democracy to thrive,” said Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in a written statement advertising the event.

With a Republican-controlled Congress able to dictate immigration reform, environmental issues, Obamacare and really almost any issue they want, these sessions were especially apt.

Eleison’s own Burns Strider said many elected officials are eager for this type of unconventional training.

“You can’t argue with a packed room on a snowy day in January. It’s clear that the progressive community in DC is hungry for dialogue and closer relationships with America’s faith community. What Union is doing is really important and I’m happy that it’s them because I have a lot of faith in Serene and her team. Their passion and resolve to bring folks together is powerful.” Strider said.

It is disappointing all lawmakers didn’t attend – not to mention everyone in the media — because just 10 days later, many leading conservative and secular minds criticized President Barack Obama in a hypocritical and unjust way after delivering one of his most insightful and compelling speeches about understanding, humility and religious extremism.

During the 63rd National Prayer Breakfast this month, the President shared unequivocal language about the horrible deeds perpetrated by those claiming religious certainty by murdering journalists in Paris and school children in Pakistan. He expressed doubt over how to reconcile religion that drives us to do right while the same teachings create fanatics using their faith as a wedge and excuse to kill.

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?” the President asked.

His answer: humility.

“I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth,” Obama said.

And this is where the conservatives unleashed their attacks because this followed his now widespread remarks that Christianity is not without sin, referencing the horrible atrocities of the Crusades, Inquisition, Jim Crow laws and slavery. The reactions were less than civil with some headlines completely out of context, claiming the President equated ISIS with Christianity. Even GOP leaders such as former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore called the President out of touch with American values by offending every Christian in the United States.

Really? This is the level of hyperbolic discourse the country needs?

EJ Dionne wrote the best reaction, “Good grief. Do Obama’s critics think that Christians reduce their credibility by acknowledging their imperfections? Is it disrespectful of Christ to admit that Christians regularly fall short of His teachings? That would make St. Augustine a heretic.”

There is an argument that linking atrocities from past millennia and last month don’t have that much in common. But declaring their horrible outcomes without similarity is also incorrect.

If we forget where we come from, there is no way to move forward. And recognizing the struggles facing our 21st Century nation as complicated and gray is not weak. It’s bold to understand these problems aren’t black and white, left or right, Christian or Muslim. Killing every terrorist isn’t possible, nor will it solve the problem of religious extremism. Keeping out every immigrant isn’t possible, nor does it address the need to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

Starting in a place of doubt allows for creative solutions to complicated problems. But I think I’m going to revise my hypothesis. Both alcohol and prayer are needed to bridge the Washington divide. The first round is on me. Bring your rosary, too.

Joseph Gidjunis is the former Director of the Young Democrats of America Faith & Values Initiative and an award-winning photojournalist who owns JPG Photography in Philadelphia. He serves as a remote fellow for Eleison. He is married with two wonderful dogs.

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