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

Friday, September 7, 2012

Citizenship According to Jesus and Barack

Warning: very light politics ahead. Proceed with a light heart.

Joann and I listened to Obama’s speech in the car last night while driving through north Oakland searching for Fenton’s Creamery, an ice cream place that had been highly recommended to us. It was empowering.

The ice cream, I mean.

Obama made two Biblical appeals I caught, one intentional and one either accidental or at least informed by Biblical thinking or maybe just inclusive of the thrust of the Biblical narrative.

The first seemed characteristic of a political candidate seeking to be well-versed, or maybe poetic, or maybe just win the Christian vote. Obama said something like, “as the Scripture says, ‘our hope remains strong.’” I’m sure I’m misquoting him, but he didn’t reference the Scripture, and it sounds very Biblical, so if he just made it up, I’ll give it to him as being close enough.

His method may have been a bit “fortune cookie-ish,” as if the best way to read Scripture is to assume every Biblical phrase is a context-less “nugget” that probably applies directly to your situation. Which isn’t always a bad to way to use Scripture, though it often is.

But I admire his appeal to “hope” as a reminder not just of my own beliefs about the future of humankind, but of the value of holding to hope for this life—a hope that believes in the human ability to work for the common good, to live selflessly, to be driven by love, rather than an emphasis on our frequent human inability—also very real and obvious—to advocate for others in need and to live righteously. Talk about hope and you’ll get me every time—it’s a bit of a pet theme for me. J

(Side note: as Joann pointed out, very little of the audience cheered at his Biblical reference, probably indicative of the fact that this was the DNC and not the RNC).

The second reference to the Bible was indirect or perhaps not at all intentional as much as an appeal to ancient Greece and classic social ethics. After exhorting people to personal initiative as a means of economic recovery—perhaps his attempt to disallow Republicans from claiming “personal responsibility” as their party’s virtue—he then, as those of you who listened heard, called us to citizenship.

Now I recognize citizenship is one of those words that can be adapted to fit your agenda, and that what citizenship really involves—and what level of government involvement in our lives and business really encourages good citizenship and human flourishing—could be debated ad nauseum with no resolution between people with opposing political views.

But the way Obama was using the word seemed to emphasize our compassionate obligation to one another. And, maybe it’s just his super smooth voice, or George Clooney’s even smoother voice in the introductory video, but…it was kind of inspiring.

Though not an explicit appeal to Jesus’ most ultimate call—“love your neighbor as yourself,” an axiom echoed by many other religious traditions as well—the way Obama was using it seemed connected to this same common religious sentiment. Now, Obama may just have been using that word politically to encourage us toward the same goal that Romney would if he used the word....just from a different path.

But regardless of their intentions, it touched me on a more personal level: as a follower of Christ, what does it mean for me to be a good citizen? What kind of character should I possess and what kind of choices should I be making that most embody the message of selfless, compassionate love?

As a devoted Christian who will vote for Obama and generally sides with the Democratic party, it’s easy for me to be biased about what citizenship looks like toward a more liberal approach—i.e., supporting the right of gays to marry one another, or recognizing the enormous challenge of many to “help themselves” and thus the need for strong government intervention through, for example, taxes.

But it’s even more personal for me than that. I’m challenged by this thought—do I love others in ways that are convenient or that are also inconvenient as well? And, should I be willing to do good for others, regardless of how they respond?

Some of Joann’s and my Christian friends have used the great sounding board we call Facebook to vent about various political and economic issues. One such sentiment we’ve observed is an annoyance among many at having to help people that aren’t trying to help themselves. Essentially, people don’t like their tax dollars going to people they deem “lazy” or “irresponsible.” Frankly, I see a disconnect between their Christ-centered spirituality and the tenor of their statements, often said with a great deal of disgust and accusation. Is this real compassion?

I don’t think so, and admitting that is convicting, as I know I’ve repeatedly made judgments about people without knowing their story, the chain of events that led them to their current situation, or simply just the bizarre way in which the "god of luck” has chosen them to be less fortunate than me. It’s too easy to be dismissive of other people.

I am challenged to give more respect to those who struggle, emotionally or financially. I am also challenged to show compassion and generosity to others, simply because this is what good people do, what Jesus did; and I am challenged—while not abandoning practicality and strategy and big-picture thinking—to be willing to help others even when I can’t control the outcome, how they will be impacted by it. I’m challenged to do my part, even if the reactions of others to my acts of goodness are not ideal.

And I’m challenged to love in ways that aren’t simply convenient. It’s easy to do good for strangers and loved ones when there’s some benefit for you involved, when it doesn’t involve going out of your way, when it requires little abandonment of your own will and plans. But to be inconvenienced by others—for their good—is much more of a challenge. Heck…I can practice this at home. J

I feel obligated to the "Jesus way" (any Jolliff fans out there?); and Jesus did not simply say love your neighbor, but to “walk two miles” and “bless those who persecute you.”

Obama and I are probably defining "citizenship" slightly differently, though there are connections. I’d like to be a good “citizen” in the coming days by inconveniencing myself for others and doing good for others in ways that require some sacrifice; and also, by doing good for those who can’t return the favor, without judging them for their inability to repay me.

That probably means tackling some items on my wife's “honey-please” list and changing a few extra diapers. J

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