Monday, September 16, 2013

getting into politics

Image from
I live in Quebec. In the past week, our provincial government has proposed that we adopt what they call the Quebec Charter of Values which, in part, restricts public employees from wearing prominent religious symbols such as crosses, hijabs, veils, turbans, or yarmulkes. This effort to render our public space more secular, free of religious influence, has caused quite a stir. Most people I know are disappointed, outraged, or embarrassed by this proposal. The Charter of Values seems to say the exact opposite of everything I as a citizen of Quebec want to communicate: that we are a province that seeks to be inclusive, invitational, and respectful of people's differences. So what do we do about this proposed charter? I have colleagues in the university who are now wearing their religious gear more proudly and more openly than ever before. Others are writing to their members of parliament. Thousands of people walked through the streets of Montreal on Saturday in protest of the proposed charter. Of course, there are also those who agree with its restrictions and see it as a step towards uniformity and peaceful existence.

A question that arises in situations like this is "How involved should we, as Christians, be in the political arena?" I am fairly apolitical, meaning I don't align myself with any particular party or position. In addition, I have to confess that I have little faith in any political system to bring about true, positive change in our world. Any positive change I have ever been witness to has not been accomplished through enforced legislation, but through people creatively acting out of love, kindness, and wisdom. However, this past week my position on politics changed somewhat. I have been reading the thoughts of 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt. She was a German Jew born in 1906 who lived through World War II, barely escaping her country before "all hell broke loose." Her definition of politics is refreshing; for Arendt, politics is simply human beings acting in the public realm, working together, sharing a love of the world. Arendt sees action as risk, courage, rising to the occasion, and this action includes discourse and dialogue between people; action is based in community.

The two actions which Arendt sees as being exemplary in the public realm, in life together, are forgiveness and promise. Yes, this is what a Jewish, non-religious, female political theorist who lived through World War II believes are the most powerful actions we can bring to the public forum. Inspired by the words of Jesus, Arendt holds that forgiveness is a type of relationship which reflects our plurality, our commitment to one another and to our world. To clarify, she says that one does not forgive an act, but a person. And by forgiving a person, a community is able to move forward, to have a new beginning instead of being stuck in its history. Though she never lived to see it implemented, this principle was instrumental in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  This commission provided South Africa with a peaceful way forward after apartheid. Since then, the TRC model has been used in over 25 countries to deal with wrongs committed by governments or prominent people.

While forgiveness is meant to bring release and facilitate transformation, the second action Arendt names, promise, is meant to provide respite, what she calls "islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty." Promise is about having faith in others and hoping for positive outcomes. It means that telling the truth becomes highly valued and how we treat others becomes primary. As a result, maintaining a certain image (that we are the most powerful nation in the world or have a distinct identity) becomes irrelevant; we begin to value honesty and faithfulness more than a position of power. There is no place for political spin (deception) in the realm of promise because truth and trustworthiness are held in highest regard. Thoughtful, collective discernment (which includes seeing the world from another's perspective) replaces cold calculation in decision-making. What is at stake is relationship, not reputation or GNP.

Arendt gives me hope for political process because even in one of the darkest times in recent history, she was able to see how public life, living together, could be done well. While a reporter for the trial of Adolf Eichmann (one of the organizers of the Holocaust), she came to the realization that these horrible crimes had not been committed by people who were evil down to the core. Sitting at the front of the courtroom was a man who was quite ordinary, who was good at following orders, who worked hard, and thought he was a good citizen. What he did not do was stop and think, stop and exercise judgment, stop and see things from another perspective, stop and question what was happening around him.  He took no risk, exhibited no courage, and did not act out of love for the world.  He was more committed to an image, an ideal, to personal and political power than to the people of the world.

So what does this mean for those of us in tricky political situations here and now? How do we as Christians and leaders engage in the public realm?  I believe Arendt provides us with three principles to guide our way:

1. Act.  While prayerfulness, thoughtfulness, contemplation, reading, research, discussion (sermons), and debate all have their place, they are no substitute for courageous action. In fact, all these things are best seen as preliminaries used to discern proper and wise courses of action. Action implies that we engage with people, put ourselves out there, and become a visible part of the community. Action does not equate with confrontation, forcefulness, condemnation, or violence. Action simply means that we are not silent, passive, or hidden. We actively show our love for our world.

2. Get face to face. There is a tendency for us to be passive-aggressive when it comes to public figures and politicians (or even anyone we disagree with) regarding issues. We judge them, criticize them in a manner that gives no chance for response, and show our hostility indirectly. One of the main strengths of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model is that it puts people face to face; it gives them a chance to listen, to have a dialogue, to be changed by the other. There is no substitute for direct contact with others, whether in our community or with our leaders. Dean has started something called "Dinners with Dean." Every other week he invites a few people over so that we can talk face to face and get to know each other. This is not just hanging out with friends, but with people that we don't know very well. Wouldn't it be great if we could all invite our public officials over for dinner and show them some hospitality? While that may not be feasible, we can get face to face with our neighbours, our colleagues, and those we often isolate and judge. We can change the dynamic.

3. Cultivate faith and hope. This is not easy in the realm of politics, but it is not impossible. We can do our part to change things by exemplifying all those qualities we want to see in our leaders and in all aspects of the government. The next time you are on the phone with a government employee or standing in line for a service, embody patience, kindness, self-control, mercy, and faithfulness. Listen more than you speak, ask instead of demand, be observant and respectful to the person you are dealing with. This takes courage, but it is a way of inserting promises where they have been broken, a way of showing thoughtfulness and consistency where these have been neglected.  It is a way of bringing faith, hope, and love for our world back into public places.

While I wholeheartedly support the right to wear crosses and crucifixes in public, perhaps putting on the character of Jesus is a more effective way to bear witness to our faith. And no one can take that away from us.

Matte from Montreal

References: Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl, The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised by how passive-aggressive seems to be a default orientation for some Christians. Not only is it ineffectual (except maybe at making people feel bad) it can never accomplish what directly addressing situations can. Jesus' example is one who addresses situations head on. There are a few examples where he lets his disciples get in situations where they can realize their own culpability (syro-phoenician woman for example), but there he is modelling the indirect damage caused by their unwillingness to be upfront and direct. Of course the woman wisely refuses to let that be her experience of Jesus and presses in earning praise from the Saviour.

    The bottom line is that we all engage politically - even choosing not to be political is a form of engagement - so why not try to do it to the best of our ability? I am convinced that this is the least Jesus wants us to do. And you give a great way forward to doing just that. Great article Matte!