In the Absence of Nuance: Engaging Modern Politics

Earlier this week I watched the Canadian election leaders debate, where Canadians were treated to, among other things. political platforms from the party leaders currently running for office (well, it was mainly grown adults interrupting others, but I digress). We heard the front runners, the Liberals and Conservatives, argue over whose plan for taxes was more reasonable. Others offered appeals to guide action on climate change, some based on scientific evidence, others based on socio-economic realities. Plans for immigration and diversity were debated, and while there was supposed to be discussion about reconciliation efforts with Canada’s indigenous peoples, the primary lens for engaging this topic was economics (which certainly says something about how political leaders view Canada’s indigneous people). It certainly wasn’t the most inspiring example of political discourse and it didn’t leave the audience with much clarity on the diverse political perspectives in this country (unless, of course, you only evaluate politics based on catchy phrases and memorable insults in a televised debate). 

I found myself reflecting on this debate alongside some fundamental questions of society and morality that I have been processing with students via moral philosophy. Two questions in particular came to mind: What is naturally good? (Natural Law) And, where is goodness self evident? (Prima Facie Duties). Both of these theories, though in different ways, suggest that human engagement with the world comes with an innate ability or intuition that guides our beliefs and actions in complex situations. What is right comes naturally. What is good can be assessed intuitively. 
Listening to the leaders argue their diverse opinions, it was interesting how each suggestion, each critique, each vision for Canada, came with such ease at a fundamental level. Each politician approached their conclusions with the assumption that their view obviously the naturally and intuitively right one. OF COURSE pipelines are necessary Canadians to flourish! OBVIOUSLY pipelines are unnecessary and harmful for Canadians to flourish! NATURALLY, lower taxes are what Canadians need. CLEARLY, increased social services are the answer to Canada’s socio-economic problems. CERTAINLY, pursuing reconciliation with indigneous peoples and welcoming immigrants is a shared Canadian value. DEFINITELY, growing cultural diversity and inclusion is unsustainable for Canadian values and society. 

As I heard assertion after assertion, one thing was clear. And it wasn’t that one politician was a CLEAR and OBVIOUS winner. No, the only clarity of note was the glaring absence of nuance, the utter lack of complexity and depth in this sound-bite rich but substantially-shallow political discourse. 

Yes, you could say it was the limits of the medium. A televised debate can only get so far, especially in today’s climate of bite-sized media consumption. Can we really expect leaders to provide the “why” behind their proposals in 40 seconds or less? Or in a tweet? Yes, that’s certainly a factor. But I think the problem goes deeper. Political discourse, and the corresponding media consumption that comes at election time, rarely includes engagement with the foundational perspectives that guide our beliefs and practices. Personally, I don’t think economic growth via lower taxes, accepting environmental costs (to put it lightly!), and economically motivated reconciliation efforts (which are incredibly dehumanizing to Canada’s indigenous peoples) are at all obvious. But rarely do we get to hear debate on the fundamental values that undergird our political arrangements. Rarely do we pause and consider how what one group thinks is naturally good, another group finds fundamentally wrong. The closest we’ve gotten in this election that I’ve observed was when NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, responded to a reporter’s question about clean drinking water, exposing the racist undertones in the tendency to rush to economic factors for indigenous reconciliation. Sadly, such engagement is the exception.

I don’t have an easy solution to this limit of political discourse. At the very least, my observations have confirmed my commitment to practicing critical engagement, where as citizens we ask the deeper questions of why we come to certain conclusions, both to ourselves and to those we disagree with. In the process, hopefully we can learn that what is “natural” or “intuitive” may be as much opinion as fact, which instead of leading to cynical despair or ignorant rejection, can produce a humility of engagement that considers one another’s perspectives with depth and respect. Now, that’s a leaders debate I’d like to watch!

Defining Culture: Participation

As I discussed in my previous post, our attitude towards culture will influence how we define culture. 

Generally, my attitude towards culture is quite positive. I’m naturally an optimist, so I tend to look for the best in people, situations, and the world around me. Yet as a Christian, I also think there is some ground to have hope for the cultures in which we find ourselves. While sin, death, and brokenness can wreak havoc in countless ways in history and across cultures, I don’t think such cultural trauma comes without glimpses of goodness. I’m convinced that God’s  “good” declared upon the world (Gen. 1:31) echoes forward in time, pulling us ahead with a vision of God’s intent for all cultures. Even today, then, we get glimpses of goodness.

All this to say, I”m not ready to give up on culture. I’ve recently encountered two definitions of culture that inspire my hope. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch discusses culture as something that is historically rooted, visible, as well as moldable. We can learn and influence our world if we know the culture. Examining culture can tell us much about the world we live in, but also how we continue to inform and create this culture. In this view we aren’t passive recipients or stationary residents of culture. Rather, our cultural task as citizens is to be culture creators. We help produce the artifacts for our time. We make the culture. Looking at tangible things (i.e. “artifacts”) in the culture can be one way we engage this culture we create. Crouch offers a list of questions that help guide this engagement:
  1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
  4. What does this cultural artifact made impossible (or at least very difficult)?
  5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

The other definition of culture comes from the wealth of insight in James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World. For Hunter, defining culture is complex, not limited to one particular point. A single definition or understanding won’t suffice. He acknowledges the diverse ways culture develops in various parts of history and different places in the world. In doing so, he articulates seven key characteristics that describe the complexity of culture:
  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations
  2. Culture is a product of history
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power
  5. Culture is governed by quality, not quantity
  6. Culture is generated within networks
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent

The word “participation” describes well how I understand our role as humans in the world and in our faith. I find participation a helpful word for how I define culture as well. Culture is composed of the complex areas of our world that continually shape us, both directly and indirectly, but areas that at the same time, we also shape. In this sense, we participate in culture. We aren’t merely passive recipients of culture, but nor are we rulers over culture. In culture, we both create and are created. And as a Christian, Jesus’ prayer for his followers sums up this dynamic well: 
I have given them your word and the culture has hated them, for they are not of the culture any more than I am of the culture. My prayer is not that you take them out of the culture but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the culture, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the culture, I have sent them into the culture. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (John 17:13-18).

Ordinary Significance

"New" Old South Church at dusk.
Sunday morning in Boston. I stepped through the door of the 19th Century cathedral to catch my breath amidst a stimulating academic conference and get a glimpse into church life in this historic city. I chose the closest old cathedral (I wish I had more profound reasoning…)  

I was met with an empty space - did I read the service time wrong? - and wondered if perhaps what was left of this congregation was merely an architectural relic of the past. I looked around at the beauty of the space - stone pillars, carved woodwork, and colorful stained glass - and then prepared to leave. Upon my exit I saw a small sign: “Thanksgiving Service: meeting elsewhere.” I was then invited to board an old school bus, which promptly chugged its way through the crowded downtown Boston streets to what to me was an unknown destination. Little did I know I’d be stepping into a place of significance for this congregation, but also for the city of Boston and the United States of America.

Old South Meeting House.
The congregation I visited is Old South Church, one of the original churches in Boston, meeting since the late 1600’s. The building I was in, it turns out, is the location of religious and social significance. It was a place for faith formation for significant American leaders (Benjamin Franklin was baptized there) and a gathering spot of rebellion as the Boston Tea Party was formed in the very room I found myself. During the worship gathering, we remembered some of this significant past. We sang hymns, including the Battle Hymn of the Republic, making this Anabaptist Canadian more than a little uncomfortable. We prayed for the congregation, the city and the country. This congregation had been part of big things in a big history in a big place. My immediate response was one of awe at the significance of where I found myself.

But awe is a funny thing. I found myself getting caught up in the significance of this historic church, only noticing the big things. And I do think there’s great value in the significant moments of history. A sense of wonder at history can continue to shape our lives today. We are part of something bigger than ourselves and this current moment. Yet finding myself amidst such significance was overwhelming in ways. Basking in the awe of others can lead to doubt. Who am I? What could I possibly contribute to a world with such examples of significance?

Inside the Old South Meeting House
In her homily, Reverend Nancy Taylor alluded briefly to some of the significant history of Old South Church, a regular part of the congregation’s Thanksgiving service is reminding themselves of their storied past as a way to inspired a storied future. Yet she didn’t dwell on the significant. Benjamin Franklin and the Boston Tea Party were only mentioned in passing. Instead, Taylor told stories of lesser-known leaders and times of struggle in the church's past. In looking at history, She invited us to ponder the “interstices” - the little things between the big things - to see the importance of the insignificant in between the significant. It’s in these times of ordinary life in the world, often full of struggle and conflict and challenge, that we find God and the church faithfully present to the place in history they find themselves. Patience in times of affliction. Reconciliation in moments of conflict. Comfort in periods of sorrow. A few moments of historical significance are paralleled with countless moments of ordinary significance.
I left the experience still with a sense of awe - it was surreal to be in that space - but also with a deep sense of comfort. God is not only present in the significant moments, but in all moments -  “I am with you always…” (Mt. 28:20).

"Let's Talk About Whiteness"

I'm convinced we need to speak more openly about the ongoing realities of racial segregation in the places we inhabit. In my own town of Abbotsford, BC, there are glimpses of hope, such as the Rally Against Racism and Bigotry and the ways some local neighbourhoods are becoming more culturally integrated. But lack of understanding, latent racism, and a uncertain way forward often leads to inaction.
As one in a place of cultural privilege in Canada, I often experience guilt, frustration, or helplessness when facing these realities. What does this have to do with me? But instead of withdraw from the discomfort, I'm finding that when I engage it, new understanding and new behavior often results, however difficult that engagement is.
To this end, I highly recommend this recent podcast from On Being as valuable insight to move engagement forward: "Let's Talk About Whiteness"
Could we learn to talk about whiteness? The writer Eula Biss has been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — but also how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.

Groaning in Expectation

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22 NIV)
From politics, to violence and death, to apathy, to sickness and sorrow, there is no shortage of groaning in the world today. The world groans every single day. People groan every single day. And if we’re honest, we each groan every single day. 
Now, I’ve always loved Christmas, for many reasons: Connecting with family and friends. Enjoying traditions new and old. Engaging in the story of Emmanuel, "God with us." Overall, I get a genuine sense of "peace and goodwill" that brings life and joy. And advent, this religious observation of longing and expectation, is really just the opportunity to extend my enjoyment of Christmas celebration in the month leading up December 25th.

I find myself in a different space this year. Entering into advent, appropriately I think, has seen less excitement and more expectation, groaning even. Perhaps one change is there is less holiday busyness this year. My wife and I decided to limit our extracurricular Christmas activities for 2016. Less busyness, yes. But also less celebration (here I sit alone writing on a December Saturday evening – what!?!). But this year has also been particularly heavy for many people close to us. Family members and neighbours have lost loved ones. Friends have endured persistent sickness. Mental health has hit many in our community. Oh, and then there is politics. And wars. And, well, in general, just lots and lots of groaning. This is our "present time." It’s the world’s dire groans that make the advent themes of hope and joy and peace and love so significant, but not because we become immersed in hope and joy and peace and love. Far from it. Only in the absence of such things do we begin to identify with – participate even – the groaning of creation. Advent is for groaning:

We only know hope as we groan at so much hopelessness all around us.
We only know joy because we groan at the depth of sorrow felt daily.
We only know peace as we groan at the violence of our cities and countries.
We only know love as we groan at the reality of hate in so many forms.

And we only know Jesus – Emmanuel – as we groan in his seeming absence and await the promise of his coming.

In the groaning of advent, then, we need to pause. We take these days and weeks to sit with the discomfort. But we also realize that the groaning of creation comes with an expectation. Groaning is not for its own sake. Groaning has an anticipation that, however faint, the experience of hope and joy and peace and love – and Emmanuel – speak to a reality beyond our groaning. Groaning will not last forever. The expectation of advent longs for a time when the persistent pain of our world is met with a wholeness far beyond our present reality.

So while I find myself groaning this advent, it’s with an expectation beyond my own love for Christmas or my attempts to make sense of our crazy world. As I groan in the present reality, I know it’s because I long for a new reality:

Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:3-5 NIV)

Prayers and grief - let's do something

I read the headlines. I prayed with our church. But mostly, I felt numb.

Another attack. This time in Orlando. Prayers and grief amidst politicized comments on guns, religion, and sexuality. Again, really!?!

A few days have gone by. Commentary continues. Displays of social stupidity abound, but glimmers of hope emerge in stories of unity and service. My numbness is shifting; I do care. Yet I realize caring is risky. I might have to say something. I might have to do something. Yup, I do. 

To those of us who are praying: keep praying. For comfort and peace, yes. But also for healing and reconciliation. Pray for actions of peace beyond a sentiment of peace. But then be ready when your prayers are answered. Really. One thing I’ve realized as a Christian is that prayer is never a passive exercise. Scripture, history, and personal stories reveal that prayer is often answered not in the miraculous, but in the simple miracle of us being the answer to our prayers for others. This is not conceding God’s irrelevance or suggesting humanity has all the answers (we clearly don’t). In the way of Jesus, we are sent into the world to love like Jesus. We aren’t bystanders to the kingdom of God we pray for – we are citizens! In praying for comfort, then, we are led to offer comfort. In praying for peace, we live out peace. In praying for healing, we go to people in their sorrow and suffering.

To those of us grieving with the victims: embrace the power of solidarity that comes with mourning alongside others. As I read this week, "Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too" (Frederick Buechner). But remember that lasting solidarity goes beyond a one-time extension of care and concern. Whether it’s with the LGBTQ community or the Muslim community, initial grief is good, but solidarity goes beyond the trauma of this week and commits to walking alongside those on the difficult journey towards peace and joy. And even if our grieving begins as strangers, in authentic grieving with people, we receive the gift of friendship.

Prayers and grief are important responses to tragedy and injustice. But as I write from a place of privilege in North America (Caucasian, straight, educated, Christian), I realize my words alone sound hallow against countless examples of evasive silence at best and gross injustice at worst. I’ve said something. Now it’s time to do something. Will you join me?
What can we do?
  • Connect with LGBTQ friends and family members regularly
  • Advocate for minorities in your community through promoting positive attitudes (e.g. speaking against racist comments/attitudes) and supporting programs for integrating minorities.
  • Volunteer with local organizations focused on diversity and community development
  • Build a mutual friendship with a minority individual. In particular, as a person of privilege, embrace weakness and receive the gift of friendship (don’t create the friendship on your terms)
  • Support and vote for leaders who promote equality and peace

Bono & Eugene Peterson on THE PSALMS

This honest conversation between Bono & Eugene Peterson has just been released via the Fuller Studio. Below are some quotes that are swirling in my mind after watching...

"Art becomes essential, not decorative" -Bono
"Imagination is a way to get inside the truth" -Eugene Peterson
"Praying isn't being nice before God" -Eugene Peterson
"A lot of Christian art is dishonest...realize that truthfulness will blow things apart" -Bono