Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Swan Song 2.0: The End of the Affair (Redux)

Politics is an addiction. I freely admit it.

"My name is Robert. I'm a political junkie."

Back in the day, before I made a daily practice of feeding my habit, instead of reacting to the latest news, I thought about things like this. Maybe not the most stirring meditation or the most insightful commentary, but certainly different enough from what usually gets posted in left blogistan to be of some interest. Certainly something more worthy of my time and (negligible) talents.

But politics is an addiction; and if there is no support group to take me through recovery, it's simply time to go cold turkey.

Politics is a dead end, for a spiritual seeker. Politics is about power, pure and simple. Politics is about selecting the lesser of two evils, the least offensive of two parties. Politics is not even about justice, the golden thread that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Politics is about control. My faith is about giving up control. My faith is rooted in the demand for justice. My faith is practically antithetical to politics.

Consider the present situation: the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 with the votes of 12 Democrats. To use President Bush's favorite phrase, support for that bill is simply unacceptable. Torture is reprehensible. There is no excuse for voting for it. But 12 Democratic Senators did. What do I do to express my outrage, my disgust, my dissent? Support their GOP opponents? And that yields me what? So I compromise, yield on my principals, accept the lesser of two evils? And why? For power?

Yes, for power. Purely and simply, for power. There is no other reason, no other excuse. Because someone has to wield power, and I should always accept the lesser of two evils to see that is done. Except I don't.

This isn't a naive choice. This isn't a choice based on foolish expectations that somehow the "universal mind" will come nearer to fruition if I just keep voting for the least offensive party, if I keep challenging the current status quo. I'm perfectly happy to see the power-greedy monkeys of the GOP get knocked off their perch. But I'd be just as happy if those monkeys were Democrats, and I'm not so naive as to believe only the GOP is capable of such abuses of power. Certainly theirs tend to be more militaristic, but 12 Democratic Senators have proven they can be just as "tough," just as militaristic. And that leaves me with no party to support anymore.

I wish I could believe the status quo would change come November. I wish I could believe that in January, with the swearing in of a new Congress, that this nightmare would be swept away, that the Augean stables of Washington, D.C. would be cleansed. But all that I can realistically expect is the stable hands will be given new uniforms; and that simply isn't good enough. I wish I could believe that in 2008 a new Thomas Jefferson would be inaugurated, who would sweep away the cobwebs of the Military Commission Act of 2006, and Abu Ghraib, and Gitmo, and secret prisons, with the antiseptic of sunlight and habeas corpus and respect for law and constitutional governance: but I see no one of that stature in the Democratic party. Instead I see the "Holy Trinity" of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama (already being crowned "king" by Joe Klein, the man who would be kingmaker, largely because Obama has written (or had written) yet another book) being declared the leaders of the Democratic party. And I see no change in the Democratic party, anymore than voters do. The Democrats are winning, not on any platform for change or destruction of the reprehensible and unacceptable status quo, but simply on party status: "We aren't the GOP!" is all that's really drawing voters to the Democratic side. And what challenge to the status quo is that?

Niebuhr's reference to those who seek power is applicable here:

In each case they identified all evil with the type of power from which they suffered and which they did not control; and they regarded particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history.
He speaks to all of left blogistan, even to those who would wield power with what they are sure is the best interests of the powerless, in mind. The struggle for power can't help but break down into an "us v. them" zero-sum game, where the evil we most clearly identify is not our evil, but theirs. Except the evil "we" identify in "them" is always the weakness in ourselves, the powerlessness we are most keenly aware of, and therefore most sure is the greatest power our enemy has, and if we just controlled it, all would be well, or certainly much better. But that is precisely why Jesus said you see the splinter in your brother's eye, but can't see the log in your own. What you see is a reflection. It is your own weakness you wish to overcome, by laying claim to the reins of power.

But the paradox of Christianity, is the power of powerlessness. Power doesn't exist to serve you. Power is the ultimate master. It always and only serves its own ends, which are merely to exert power as fully as possible. Christians, especially, are called to be servants, servants of all. We cannot be servants to each other, however, if we are servants to power. We surely cannot serve two masters.

Niebuhr addresses this, too, though I would say he lacks the courge of his convictions to take the matter to the sticking point. For a former Detroit pastor who courageously took on labor issues, I sometimes think Neibuhr betrays the comfort of his later years as a professor in a seminary, and prefers the struggle with abstract concepts which, after all, can't really struggle back, or the debate over foreign policy issues which, after all, can never be one person's responsibility, especially a seminary professor's, to the personal quotidian struggles of a pastor, of individuals:

The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the sources of social evil and the hope of so purifying human "reason" by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind.
Those words, too, could apply to left blogistan, both the atheists and the religious. Substitute "left blogistan" for "liberal world," and you have a very contemporary observation, indeed. If everyone would just think like us, then all would be well and all manner of thing would be well, and if we don't work toward that end, we are not working for justice! But it isn't, of course, nearly that simple. The struggle against injustice, as Dr. King understood, is not a political matter, not a matter of gaining the support of a majority through compromise and collaboration. As Dr. King outlined it to the pastors of Birmingham, Alabama: "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action." And as he says:

We have gone through an these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic with with-drawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
It is the last part of that which is the most important to me: the process of self-purification. "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" Well, are we? When do we decide that is false civility? How much humility is too much humility? When does love come to an end?

These are not simple questions; but they are deeply and profoundly, Christian questions. That is not to say they are not Jewish questions as well, or Muslim questions, Buddhist questions, Hindu questions. I can only speak from my Christian perspective, but I don't mean to be exclusive about it; I mean only to be honest about my limitations.

And my limits with politics have been reached. I cannot effectively oppose the use of torture by Americans any longer because I cannot vote for an alternative to the legalization of torture. Which is not to overlook the legacy of the School of the Americas, which taught D'Aubisson and the rapist of Marianela Garda Vilas, the murderers of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel. But where do I turn, now, to undo that legacy? Who, indeed, stands against it? Which politician stands for justice against injustice, for truth against lies, for life against death?

Which politician can, and remain a politician?

Martin Luther King never campaigned for a political candidate. He never saw his movement as one aligned with either political party. LBJ was right; the Civil Rights Act he signed gave the South to the GOP for the foreseeable future. So be it; LBJ did the right thing. But politicians since have learned the lesson. Obama, Clinton, Biden: what do they stand for, except the status quo? As I said elsewhere, to someone else:

Politicians will always use religion, or any other cultural institution, to effect power. Some effect power for good ends, like LBJ. Some for bad ends, like George W. Bush. Using religion to achieve a political end is no more remarkable than exploiting a national tragedy. If it is more common, it is simply because it is more available.

But religion in politics is the rub. Hoping Democrats will be kinder and gentler abusers of politics seems a faint hope indeed. Better they should leave it alone, in that case. Expecting them to use it well is equally bizarre, especially if they try to expand "religion" to include something other than Protestant Christianity (do you really see another John Kerry appealing to fellow Catholics by citing doctrine?). At that point it becomes pandering all over again. What does any American politician know of Islam, Buddhism, or even just Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox? And if they proclaimed their personal knowledge of another religion publicly, wouldn't they be a political freak? Joe Lieberman wears his Judaism on his sleeve when it serves his purpose, much as Bush goes to church to show off his piety (who started that in modern times anyway, Carter? Don't remember LBJ or Kennedy or even Nixon going to church while in office.) But he's never let any tenet of Judaism get in the way of his political aims. John Danforth is an Episcopal priest; but that didn't stop him from pushing Clarence Thomas onto the Supreme Court.

Which makes them no worse than the rest of us. But there's the rub: religion is supposed to make us better, else what's the point? Upon further consideration, is the relationship between religion and politics necessary? It was always assumed in American history, but that's largely because it went unchallenged, which was the point of my history lesson . Once the challenge took root in the public square, once someone took separation of church and state seriously, the political troubles started. Religion is part and parcel of American culture, but then so is the Jeffersonian separation of state and church. Not much reliance on God in the salient points of Jefferson's 1st Inaugural, but he says a whole lot I'd like to hear emphasized right now, and I wouldn't mind hearing the Democrats doing it.

Gustavo Gutierrez went to some lengths to deliberately disentangle his "liberation theology" from competing secular ideologies like Marxism and sociology, so as to keep his work grounded in doing God's will. I just have to say, I think he had a point.

But that's hardly news, is it?
That's a resolve I hope to cling to, now. A reliance on discerning God's will, not on discerning the subtle differences between political parties.

No comments:

Post a Comment