Politics is never enough


Once upon a time everyone thought life was regulated and ruled entirely from some power beyond our control: by gods, by “nature.” The job of we humans was to fit into a given design and slot.
Women had an obvious role, men maintained the work of their fathers, royalty did its duty, slaves did theirs and children followed in their elders’ footsteps. Everyone and everything had a customary and proper place. Tradition ruled.
Under the surface of this clockwork world, however, a pulse of creative energy kept beating. Custom, proper places and tradition were continually pressured and broken by individual persons, then small groups which grew ever larger and more insistent in seeking something different, something more. Politics was born.
And every group which settled into its own new pattern or union or nation or club continued to stir with its own ferment of individual desire and seeking until, in the 21st century, people wondered if even the Catholic Church, even the United States of America, could hold together. Despite all of the modern “communications” technology available today, we seem to communicate in such shallow ways that our worst surface features are shared more easily than our deeper common, human aspirations.
New technology means new, faster, greater networks of bullying as much as it means new ways of sharing compassion and love.
We went through a drama called the “government shutdown” early this month that was all about politics on the surface: which party, Democrat or Republican, gets greater say in setting the nation’s course for the future. But within that contest is the more fundamental question: what kind of people and community are we?
On one side the emphasis is on personal responsibility, initiative, freedom from constraint in economic life. The other side emphasizes sharing goods, collective responsibility, and freedom in personal life. A neutral observer can see that both sides offer values needed in a healthy community. We understood that these are relative goods, political goods, not absolutes, so there has been enough compromise in our politics that we have muddled through most of the time without civil war.
But the human spirit craves something ultimate, something to worship; something, it must be said, that makes us complete. St. Augustine expressed it well centuries ago: “Our hearts are restless” until they rest in God. As each of us, each of the millions of us, go about with our restless hearts it is easy to settle on some other good between us and God.
Tradition and custom might be where we settle, might be our little god. Or it might be our sense of control and power in physical strength or beauty or a position in business. We might even feel fully righteous in our politics and settle for an ideology of capitalism or socialism. This becomes easier as we drift away from openness to the God beyond our designing, or as we bracket God and set him apart from ordinary life.
We Christians know that the biggest mistake is to make a god out of our own self-desires. Jesus in the Gospel seems clear about this. The only place to settle is in love; which means embracing others in the same way as the self. In other words, do not settle into a political position unless it includes an understanding embrace of our opponents.
This would not allow us to be part of the current politics-as-war mentality which poisons the American atmosphere today. If we really believe in God, as we say, we need to let our politics be politics, not religion. We need to let it be merely the practical, relative, tentative business of living with each other in reasonable, peaceful accommodation of our differences.
Today’s restlessness is not so much against the ancient limits of tradition and custom. It is more a search for connections that hold. If we’re merely a collection of “selfies,” we’ll never get settled in any way. Pay more attention to the way the Gospel leads us toward union – communion – based in love, and the practical business of the American political union will take care of itself.
Frank Wessling

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