"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, January 28, 2011

The State of the Union/Church: Civility and Competition

Joann and I watched the State of the Union the other night. Truthfully, part of the fun of our viewing experience was our heckling. We couldn’t help but visualize Fred Armisen (SNL) every time Obama spoke with his distinct cadence. And the woman in the audience spoken of by Obama who, with cameras on her, clarified for those around her, “that’s me…that’s me,” gave me a good laugh. And John Boehner’s grimaces and discomfort with many of Obama’s remarks contrasted with Biden’s laid-back, occasionally amused demeanor was entertaining.

I also watched with curiosity about our nation’s direction, as I’m heavily concerned with exploring how the Church should respond to and engage with the issues of our time. There were the usual issues mentioned which Christians often address with conflicting opinions—our wars abroad, oil and the environment, spending. But there were a couple of themes in particular that jumped out at me.

First, an admission of my assumptions. I don’t think the Church should be disengaged with social and political issues, as we have a voice that should be heard. I also understand the Church to be, by the intent of its founder, a radical community (hopefully radical about the right things). I believe we should strive to make the love of God known by manifesting that love in all facets of our lives—personal and social. I think sometimes our witness will involve activism. But I may be more interested in how the Church should be embodying in its own community the kind of action we hope to see taken by our greater national community, so that we can truly be a light. We must both speak out as well deal with our own internal struggles.

1) Civility. I would love to be able to tell my non-Christian friends, “You’re frustrated with the lack of civility in public discourse? Then look to the Church for hope—it is a shining example of what it means to have respectful, truth-seeking dialogue!”

I suppose my perspective is a bit jaded by a series of church conflicts involving friends and friends of friends. And the story seems fairly similar in a lot of these conflicts, usually involving either some element of personal attack, passive-aggressive behavior, hidden agendas, or one party refusing to budge on its position or perspective, seemingly convinced that being open-minded or truly listening to the other puts one at risk of “losing the battle” or being wrong.

It seems we even give the illusion at times of being civil, when such civility is more of a surfacy “niceness” hiding less kind feelings, rather than sincere kindness and warmth. I also observe a lot of Christian dialogue online, which is sometimes very respectable but at times can get heated, typically involving those who are more religiously conservative attacking the more liberal, though it does go both ways.

Civility in politics is a problem, yes. I got a bit annoyed hearing that Rush Limbaugh recently did some kind of derogatory impression of Asian people. Not that I idolized him and have been suddenly disillusioned. Speaking of Limbaugh, am I the only one that finds it hilarious that an SNL alum (Al Franken) is a senator now? Can’t wait for Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler to enter the political arena. Yes, imagine it…hard not to smile, right?

But civility in the Church can be a problem too, and being a witness to the world means getting our act together on this matter, I think. I want my fellow Christians and I to be a model to the world about what it means to engage in dialogue in a way that doesn’t reflect partisanship, defensiveness, stubbornness, or laziness, but that reflects a love-driven pursuit of truth, justice and goodness for all. I hope that, in light of the current political climate, Christian leaders are teaching their communities the importance of such discourse and modeling it themselves.

2) Competition. I think my bias here is not informed by my religious convictions alone but also my experiences with an international community. As I listened to Obama push for a spirit of learning and investment in various projects, citing frequently the need to “lead the world” when it comes to our success as nation, I wondered: is this an attitude that I, as a follower of Christ, can get behind?

I think having lived outside of America for a while, in the home of our apparent new economic “enemy,” China, I have been gradually losing whatever nationalism I possessed. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the life I’ve been afforded, a life heavily shaped by living in a capitalistic society that perhaps got where it was because of a competitive drive to be the best. But as people seem more willing to admit today than when I was in grade school, our nation’s founding and early successes came at the expense of others, be they Native Americans or slaves or the nation’s poor.

I get why being competitive can be good. I’ve heard the arguments that economic competition doesn’t necessitate that some win and some lose but rather that wealth is created and not simply transferred. And perhaps the competitive spirit, as in sports, spurs people on to be the best they can be.

But as a person who doesn’t find my identity primarily in being an American but in being a part of the diverse human community, created and loved by God, it’s hard to get excited about the idea that it’s an inherent good for my nation to be the best at everything.

Optimistically, maybe such fervor can inspire other nations to improve their situations and economies and quality of life, while also inspiring Americans to collaborate, work hard and empower individuals who are “stuck” to find hope and inspiration to improve their lives while also encouraging parents to be better parents.

Pessimistically, maybe such competitive fervor encourages other nations (like China) to continue to raise up success as a goal and pursue rapid growth at the expense of its families and its spiritual and emotional health, while at the same time teaching Americans that what counts is being the best, turning us inward and encouraging excessive nationalism, and turning progress into an idol that destroys our soul.

I don’t really know. The heart of the issue for me is whether or not the Church can come alongside this competitive spirit and also be faithful to the spirit of Jesus. I think the Church often acts competitively. Churches, maybe not in words but in practice, seem to compete with each other, hoping their particular set of programs, worship, preaching, community, whatever, will draw people. I’ve heard it said many times that most church growth today is actually transfer growth—people leaving one church for another.

I also wonder if maybe the way we’ve been taught to share our faith with others has a bit of a competitive edge, in that the thought of conversion and church growth is thrilling and/or validating because such things indicate that “we’re on the winning team” and give us a sense of rightness or security. But I don’t think the Church will ever be on the “winning” team in our world, at least not until the end of all things when all will one day know more fully and accurately (even Christians) who God is. I tend to think our goal as the Church should not be to prove ourselves as much as live as faithful witnesses to a God of love, offering people hope and bringing about change where appropriate. We’re called to be faithful, not victorious; I believe victory is God’s department.

I think this issue, like that of immigration, poses a similar set of challenges to the Church: to question any “us vs. them” mentality; to grapple with what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves on a global scale; to wrestle with what we assume we are entitled to because we have been born and raised in America; and to consider what our part as the Church is in such matters. Is it to mind our own business and stay out of politics? To play the role that liberals want the government to play and conservatives want the family to play? To live as a light to the world in the way we dialogue, collaborate, and understand the worth of every individual be they from our own tribe or another? To heckle? :)


Brad Tricola said...

Great post. I was wondering out loud recently about the competitive talk about our economic enemy China. Do we assume that if one country is doing well economically, others (we) will do poorly? It seems to go the other way in reality. When when country starts doing poorly others begin to do poorly, like in our most recent global recession.

Matt Boswell said...

Good question and good point! I wonder if maybe those fearing China's upward progression are not worried about our own economy suffering as a result, but more about national pride. Or maybe they simply see "competitive talk" as a good motivator to improve our own economy. Not sure.