Friday, March 02, 2012

The Demise of Diplomats and Compromisers

In today's world and for many years prior, politics and government are kept strictly separate from religion. The fears of cultural contamination drive many to extreme ends. Some fundamentalist Christians try to self-isolate as a way to prevent the corruption they assign to a sinful, fallen world. This takes the many forms. One is homeschooling children and seeking to keep them more or less perpetually inside a protective bubble. Decisions like these are radical interpretations of a basic standard observed by many faiths. Namely, they seek to live in this world, and yet not be of it.

Biblical authority provides few laws and commandments that might overrule the hand of government in religious groups or houses of worship. Though he lived in a very politically charged, uneasy time, even regularly interacting with political groups, Jesus is mostly silent on the issue. The closest he comes to making an expressly political statement occurs when he is being asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman Empire. Deftly sidestepping the question, he changes the context, replying that God’s needs are different from those of the Empire.
Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate about the nature of his kingdom: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But now (or 'as it is') my kingdom is not from the world" (John 18:36); i.e., his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reflects a traditional division in Christian thought by which state and church have separate spheres of influence.

But, in all fairness, the breadth of the separation between church and state extends well beyond one passage and one anecdote. Ideological identity determines the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable government intervention. Regardless of what system of belief we hold, each of us reveals a hand’s off perspective regarding governance in our daily life. It just depends upon which issue we are discussing.

This is especially true with particularly sensitive topics. We also decry government enforcement of the law when we believe that our basic freedoms are being impugned. This is not to come down hard on one side or the other, but instead to show the similarities of our grievances. The worries and fears are the same, regardless of the context.

The arguments that progressive religious groups make and have made over time argue that a common, universal good overrules discriminatory attitudes. This was true with suffrage for women, Civil Rights for African-Americans, women's rights to become ordained ministers and church leaders, and now marriage equality for LGBTs.

Conservative Catholics and other Christian denominations believe that they are being railroaded, forced to accept secular doctrines and dogmas that they find morally deplorable. They do not see the religious under-girding of fellow believers. Like Rick Santorum said about Barack Obama, liberal Christians aren't "real" believers. Unfortunately, Christians of these stripes have a habit of believing that they are the keepers of the truest, purest version of their faith.

This is a dangerous, if not self-defeating line of logic. Purity contests usually put up walls, preventing compromise and greater understanding. While it is true that left-leaning believers can at times want to reduce faith to a form of least possible potential offense to anyone, purity provides no answers for how to live together with the rest of the world. More often than not, it suggests that circling the wagons and preserving a particularly static theology is of utmost importance.

Should we take on that same conundrum, we will behave like historical re-enactors and cultural preservationists. And who among us would wish to live in a museum?

In truth, the religious left and the religious right are expressly political, even as they push government away from their own affairs. Under a sharp examination of perceived bias, each side’s argument is not nearly as damning, nor as potentially dangerous as thought by its opposition. The real problems arise when communication breaks down and opposing groups fall into a chaotic spiral of paranoia and fears of imminent destruction.

Once that stage has been reached, it feeds upon itself until pent up anger becomes direct aggression and provocation. Wars and other similarly impulsive, rash behaviors are the inevitable byproduct of these feelings.

This is what we must guard against, as future victories and setbacks dot the landscape. People have long been predicting some sort of epic conflagration. I’m not much of a believer in the end times, but I do know that we’re now no longer talking to each other. Instead, we’d rather talk past each other, our voices raised, hearing nothing besides the sound of our own voice.

Stirring up a response for the sake of debate was fine when debate was actually practiced. Now, everyone wants to throw rocks at the hive. We have forgotten that it is entirely feasible to be a diplomat when needed and a compromiser when the situation demands it. Civility is one thing, but anger management is another.

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