I've recently becoming engaged in writing my senators and congresspeople (state and federal) over proposed new laws concerning firearms. I'm a bit scandalized that it was this issue that awoke me from my political slumbers, but perhaps we can't choose what will serve as a spark to get us moving. In the process of listening to right and left debate the issue, and watching myself become involved, it has become clear that both sides not only reduce the issue to opposing soundbites, but also reduce the humanity of the opposition.
Here in Colorado, one agitated pro-gun guy left a nasty voice-mail for a female African American representative in which he hoped for her violent demise; on a national lefty talk show, Randi Rhodes opined that gun manufacturers don't care how many innocent people die by the abuse of their product as long as they make a profit.
Emotions are a wonderful thing. They can draw us closer to reality (think of how love allows one to better see the beloved). They can also have the opposite effect: they can occlude reality and make us disconnected from others.
Party of God?
When it came to political activism, Jesus never met people's expectations. In Jesus' day as in our own, there were plenty of “leaders” who had all the answers but misconstrued the questions. In St. Mark's gospel we read of this example:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it? Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: Why tempt you me? bring me a penny that I may see it. And they brought it him. And he saith to them: Whose is this image and inscription? They say to him, Caesar' s. And Jesus answering, said to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar' s, and to God the things that are God' s. And they marvelled at him.
Jesus doesn't give them an answer and yet He does give them the opportunity to face the question in the right way.
In America today, there is no lack of answers, but there is an abysmal absence of thoughtful questions. Democrats and Republicans count of the people's ignorance and sloth to win votes and the media gleefully repackages these political reductions of reality.
From gun-control to education to “sexual health,” seemingly everyone is willing to demonize the opposition and reduce debate to a shouting match. In such an environment, one could retreat to a cozy apolitical ghetto. Or one could decide to be a protagonist.
The recovery of the human
Antagonists and antagonisms are never lacking. The question is not really What would Jesus do? but How do I face the whole of reality? (and this includes the political). This is a personal work that cannot be placed on the shoulders of others – no matter how correct we view their positions. Catholics in America need fewer gurus, not more. Ours is an age of alleged experts and this applies to the ecclesial and secular environments. This does not mean that others cannot be witnesses or guides for us; it simply means we need to take seriously the personal responsibility that being Christian is.
Perhaps what Catholics can bring into the public square is not necessarily better answers, but to see and bear witness to the questions that lie at the heart of our political dis-ease. Of the need for this, one can simply think of how one views the opposition (of whatever sort): are they even human?
Getting back to my vexation over the gun-control issue above, I can assure you that I've had moments of doubt about the humanity of political opponents. In short, it's been quite easy to shift from seeing them as folks made in the image and likeness of God to viewing them as hostile matriarchs and metrosexuals trying to “take ma guns away from me.” But this way of thinking is useless.
For real political progress to occur in America, there needs to be acknowledgment of our human needs and our solidarity with others, regardless of party or politics.
Fr. Julián Carrón recently noted that in Europe politicians are “more defined by party alignments than by self-awareness of their ecclesial experience and the desire for the common good” (La Repubblica, 10 April 2013). Our recent national election bears out that this is true not only for politicians, but for the electorate as well.
We don't need more political parties, but we do need to attend to what is most human in ourselves and in others.