By Frank Wessling
There is a school of thought among Catholics that says we should purify American politics. We should do what Jesus would do, what Christ is asking.
Life itself is the real arena, but politics is an important dimension of a central idea developed by Father Ron Rolheiser, whose column runs on this page. If we reflect on what he says about “carrying tension” and apply it to the American political scene, we could do more for the common good than all of our issue campaigns combined.
In Fr. Rolheiser’s view, we are to take in, not run from, the tensions of life around us and transform them. As he wrote in a 2004 column, “One of the things we’re asked to do as Christians is to help ‘take away the sins of the world’ as Jesus did.”
How do we do that? How can we do the work that’s supposed to be God’s?
Fr. Rolheiser again: “Jesus ‘took away the sins of the world’ by holding, carrying, purifying, and transforming tension; that is, by taking in the bitterness, anger, jealousy, hatred, slander, and every other kind of thing that’s cancerous within human community and not giving it back in kind.”
That sounds like a filter of sorts for taking in the back-and-forth charges, countercharges, claims, distortions and willful deafness of our political campaigns during this election season already begun for 2012.
It isn’t meant to filter out truth, or an honest search for the best practical ways to live in healthy community. It means absorbing the ugly, angry, destructive, sinful spirit of so much political discourse and letting it die in us as we give back with a spirit of love.
Jesus did this, Fr. Rolheiser says, “by acting like a purifier…. He took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing …. He held and transformed these things rather than simply re-transmit them.
“And in this he wants imitation, not admiration.”
We could say that he wants us to behave like smart athletes: stay within ourselves and our game. Don’t be influenced by the crowd.
This is hard to do in the storm of partisan half-truths, distortion and emotional fervor that marks electoral campaigns. The essential goods that we want to encourage, especially the dignity and welfare of marginal people, become lost to sight.
A story just emerging in the news shows how it can be done, though, even in an issue as tangled as immigration. School administrators in a California district helped a young student carry on with his education while knowing he had no legal status in this country. That student went on to an outstanding university record followed by a reporting job at the Washington Post, where he was part of the team that won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the killing spree at Virginia Tech University.
The student/journalist, Filipino immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, has admitted publicly now that he is here illegally.
Fortunately, Rich Fischer, school superintendent in Mountain View, Ca., when Vargas was in high school there, saw him whole, not partially; saw him as an educator should, not as a cop might. He knew Vargas’s status in the law. So did Pat Hyland, principal of that school. But they were there for him first.
Their actions in helping Vargas gain a college scholarship were “sort of humanitarian in my mind,” Hyland told the press.
“It’s a conundrum. What are we doing to help this child survive and help this child reach his or her potential? Educators are stuck in that position.”
Fischer’s attitude is more blunt: “We’re educators,” he said. “We don’t work for the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).”
In the model laid out by Fr. Rolheiser, those educators held and carried the tension of our immigration law mess while keeping their eye on the essential. And they gave back a young man well educated and productive in society.
This doesn’t resolve the political issue of immigration, just as the peaceful praying of pro-life people at abortion clinics, and their offers of help, don’t resolve the abortion issue. But these are the kinds of things we do if we stay focused on who we are and whose example we follow. And this is the spirit of unifying love that can transform our politics.
The outcome, as St. Paul says, is a matter of faith: beyond our knowing while fulfilling our deepest desires. That’s where the greatest tension lies: in holding the faith.