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Theologically engage public issues today

Karen L Bloomquist

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

 Moving beyond politics and religion as usual?

In recent months, something has been set lose on the US political scene: people are expressing their outrage and anger at politics as usual, with many having voted for either Trump or Sanders, for rather different reasons. How could a bombastic sensationalist who has never held political office and a democratic socialist who wants to revolutionize politics become so popular? Many polls and political pundits have surveyed and tried to interpret what is behind this rebellion. As Michael Gerson has commented (Face the Nation, 6/19/16), “the Republican Party is in panic; will this now result in a revolt?”

Certainly there are huge chasms of differences between the appeal of Trump and Sanders, but the point here is that neither can be contained with the usual structures and rules that have tended to prevail in political parties. Both have stirred up anger and outrage over established political processes and funding, and evoked shocks on the usual political landscape. Both have attracted large masses who are expressing their rebellion against established politics as usual.

For one candidate, winning is all that matters, with a vacuum of policy substance. For the other, “winning” through established electoral processes is not the main goal, but major policy changes are. Conceding to a “victor” is not the point; the usual measures of “defeat” don’t apply.

Yet the media and establishment commentators seem only able to interpret who has won, or is likely to win. Candidates are compared with one another as to their “win- ability” with this or that segment of the voters. In the process, more people become even more disillusioned with the political scene, and thus more unlikely to vote. The goal of winning, rather than genuine discussion and debate over how to address the significant public issues at stake today, reveals how captive political life has become to the reigning assumptions and mandates operating in a society and economy where the “winner” takes all, and “losers” quickly disappear from the public stage.

The igniting and spread of a movement through the Sanders campaign, based on outrage with politics-as-usual, has gone far beyond what anyone expected. The question now is how a movement for change, even a “revolution” in politics-as-usual, can be sustained far beyond any election. As any community organizer knows well, this requires real vision and hard work over the long haul, far beyond an election cycle. A movement was set lose and fueled that gives hope, especially to younger folks or others cynical about politics-as-usual, and for whom their “dreams don’t fit.” A movement has been mobilized that gives real hope for the future that politics can be different. In that sense it is “eschatological.”

Mike Clawson has recently written (Patheos, 5/20/16): “From a Christian perspective we might say that movement politics are eschatological….Christ’s earliest followers, and his most radical disciples in every century since, have dreamed of and worked toward a better reality – ...the ‘kingdom of God.’ This kingdom vision is far larger and far more significant than Bernie’s movement of course, but they do overlap in many ways. And like the Jesus movement, the movement sparked by the Sanders campaign looks not just to present realities, but to future possibilities, believing that these should be embraced and worked for in the present, not just cynically dismissed as pie-in-the-sky naiveté. ….The people have awoken, the winds are shifting, and the possibilities have already been changed. Soon even the cynical, pragmatic politicians will be adjusting their sails.”

There are similarities between people’s disillusionment with politics-as-usual and with church-as-usual, with a massive yearning that both could be different. It is what draws many to study theology, even though there are many signs that the institutional church is shrinking, and that financially-lucrative positions in churches are drying up. Younger people are not flocking to or aligning themselves with traditional political parties as they have in past, nor are they flocking to established churches or seminaries as they did previously.

At the center of what ignited the first century followers of Jesus was the resurrection in which his death was not the end but the beginning of the story. Observers then didn’t quite get this then, nor do political commentators get something similar that is occurring today. What has been exposed now is the pain and anger of promises of the “American dream” being betrayed (Bloomquist, The Dream Betrayed, Fortress 1990), What especially white working-class folks have been feeling for some time, and largely remaining invisible to maintainers of the social order and thus not attended to, even in churches. Such folks are “not seen (are overlooked) or remembered (are forgotten), and are made to feel like ‘losers.’ They yearn for more than sympathy, for solidarity [across differences] that can lead to transformation of the assumptions, systems and policies – the unquestioned gods to which they have been sacrificed.” (Bloomquist, Seeing-Remembering-Connecting: Subversive Practices of Being Church, Wipf and Stock, 2016, p. 32).

Matters of basic meaning, hope and values are at stake, and people need to be able to express (lament) what they feel has been lost. When this is neglected, it is no wonder that there are outbursts of misogny, racism and xenophobia, which some political forces then draw upon. What is critical instead is that space be opened for people to see-remember-connect, which are basic practices of what it means to be church today. Through practices that are common yet distinctive to what it means to be church, people can begin to counter today’s illusions, amnesia, and dis-connecteness that enable what is dominating us today to continue.

Today an enormous reservoir of hope has opened up – hope that things could be different – on the U.S. political scene, and hopefully also in established churches. How might this be sustained and furthered? In 1517, a movement was set loose that not only changed the monolithic Western church, but also the political face of Europe in some major, lasting ways. Might something similar be set loose today?