Casting a vote beyond the political haze

For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.

I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.

Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.

Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”

As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:

Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.

I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.

Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:

No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?

There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.

~  From “Jesus for President 2012” by Shane Claiborne, Huffington Post

With such writings in his past I was amused, then, when Shane Claiborne tweeted that he will vote for president during this election:

 

Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.

I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.

I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)

I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.

No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.

Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.

Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)

With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.

By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas - Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213
By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas – Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213

like trees we can trust

Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.  -Psalm  33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22

Where is our trust, really?  Lately, the political conversation in the United States has me wondering.  Do we make our leaders into messiahs, believing blindly that they’ll save us from our troubles?  Do we falsely think that the correct policies and governmental laws will save us from our problems?  Why do so many people seem to think that more jobs will be the solution?

I know I wrote about this recently, but Brother Ben’s blog post continues to keep me thinking.  As Christians we must keep ourselves in check. Jesus is our savior, not a politician or a policy.  We know that our government- and democracy in itself- is imperfect. We are flawed. By ourselves, we would be hopeless.

With Jesus, though, we discover over and over where to put our trust.  We can act for change as the Body of Christ through votes, service, prayer, and other Gospel activity.  When we say “yes” to Jesus’ way then we become instruments building up the true Kingdom.

In my experience, the more I find myself saying yes to Jesus the less important I feel.  It’s excellent really. I am very relieved that peace on earth and justice for all is not really up to me- or any human for that matter- but my cooperation with God’s goods ways naturally brings about the peace and justice I pray for.  God’s got this; I can calm down.

Yup, God’s ways are naturally very good! And, like the psalm says, they shall fulfill our hunger.  As we trust, we must let go.  As we let go, we will become fed and able to grow into new, great things.

I love pondering the wonders of nature in order to gain some clues about how things are supposed to work for us in our spiritual lives.  In this part of the world this time of year, a lot of colorful leaves are coating the earth.  Recently, some cool gentle rains have fallen, causing the leaves to deteriorate some and sink into the soil beneath the trees they once decorated.  Trees work hard to create these leaves once a year and their activity of creating them gives them great life and growth through the hot months.  But then, as the cool months approach it is time for grounding.  The trees must let go of their creations, of their attachments.  As the trees let go and strip themselves they are transformed.  Amazingly, as the leaves rot into the earth, the leaves that they let go of become the rich, grounding soil that allow the trees to keep on growing.

Personally, I can learn much from trees.  If I detach from the things that I work hard to create, I shall end up being nourished by them.  As I am nourished, I’ll become more grounded and able to grow and create more life.

Collectively, we could learn great lessons from the beauty of trees too.  Trees surrender themselves to God’s designs. They teach us how to trust and remember that our grounded-ness and growth isn’t just in our hands.  Sure, OK, trees don’t really have a choice in the matter.  The fact that we do, however, could inspire us even more.

We can spin in circles from the chaos of political debate.  Or, as the psalmist invites us, we can trust in God with the calm surrender that the trees model.  I believe that if we do the latter, we’ll live into the answers we hope for.  Amen!

“tree community” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

praying for a democracy of love

I used to like politics. For a period of my life I worked as a lobbyist and I loved it.  Democracy and citizenship excited me. I believed in the democratic power to build God’s kingdom of peace and justice through cooperative problem solving.  I appreciated the diverse perspectives. It seemed that every person in every party had the same  vision: peace, liberty and security for the common good.  For the most part, people of all political parties still seem to be motivated by a common desire: creating a country where everyone is better off (even if the route to get there is completely different).

Lately, though, politics has sickened me.  The debate isn’t interesting, it’s predictable. The squabble sounds horrible. Some of the behavior (of adults!) reminds me of the bad habits of junior high students.  We put-down others, we tease, we say mean and untrue things just to make ourselves look better.  I frequently feel disheartened that adults aren’t modeling peaceful, cooperative, problem-solving for our youth.  What are the children learning from us?

When I was a child attending public school, I was taught a basic American value: we are supposed to care for others even if they are different from us.  I don’t remember adults showing me anything different.  Tolerance for diversity is supposed to be what our country is made out of.

For Christians, it’s even tougher and goes much deeper; we are called to LOVE everyone, even our enemies.   Love is a lot more self-giving and challenging than caring alone.  As stated by Thomas Merton “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy. This is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both our neighbors and ourselves worthy if anything can.” 

I am hoping and praying that Christians can really love others, even if they are in a different political party or have a totally different worldview.  Let’s love! Then perhaps the energy of love will transform all of us to be the people we’re made to be, like Merton suggests.  By the grace of God, I believe we could even reunite and work together for the common good once again!

photo credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1390217

consciousness, change and Joseph Kony

A lot of interesting things are happening in the movements for change in our society.  Videos are going viral, the Occupy movement continues, we’ve experienced an Arab Spring, and our nation is divided so much about issues (like wealth, poverty, war, abortion, contraception and sexuality) that I’m beginning to wonder if the two-party political system is failing.

General global consciousness is awakening.  More people seem to be concerned and talking about social problems and issues of morality than I can remember happening in the past.  Naturally when we start discussing the things of right and wrong, we begin talking about God and religion.  Our true human nature drives us to desire justice.  For Christians like me we learn what real justice is by looking to Jesus.

Many of the debates are very heated because there’s a lot of passion surrounding the topics people are concerned about. The topics of contraception, abortion, the treatment of the poor, the rights of women and human rights in general are pretty big deals.  Tension and chaos are getting us uptight.  The debate can be overwhelming, confusing and complicated.  Are there easy answers? Can there be?

About the viral video this week- all about children soldiers in Uganda- (Kony 2012) the CEO of Invisible Children made an important statement about the video’s popularity: “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white,” – Ben Keesey

I think it’s true that the global, human family is hungry for some simple black and white morality.  We want some things to be cut and dry.  Ah, it’s a beautiful day! Wow, the sun is shining!  How wonderful, I can see clearly now!  When things seem clear, we feel refreshed.

The thing is, helping things be better means that we can’t stay cozy.  Our thinking doesn’t always stay clear when we let ourselves really get into it all.   Actually, to really effect change we need to turn toward the darkness. We need to face the ugly, awful truth that people are suffering and sin is destructive.  We need to learn the facts. We need to do social analysis and learn different perspectives.  We must be willing to get into the cracks of civilization where it’s complicated and uncomfortable.  We often play a part in the systems of violence without knowing it.  It’s haunting and humbling to know that we are part of a human family who is- in part- quite awful.  Facing the despair is Messy Jesus Business and it’s the stuff of the season of Lent.

Alas, we learn about the ugly and the awful but we don’t stall in it so long that we become infected with depression.  We become motivated to work hard because we want a better world.

alex

We desire to see the Kingdom of God and really know peace on earth.  We want change. We want things to be fair for everyone and we want to preserve rights and freedom.  We believe that all people matter. The power of the Kony 2012 video- and its cries for action- is that it is organized and direct.  We are made to believe that we can create change and are shown how.

We can join our diverse human family and build a kindom of equality, peace and justice – a real Easter message.  Thank God, we’re on our way.  We know that Jesus shall rise and Love and Life shall conquer death and evil. This great arrival of God’s glory is something we want to get really ready for.  We’re trying to get ready for this joy we’ll know when justice reigns.  We’re fasting, praying, giving alms, serving and living in solidarity with those who suffer.  Or, we’re trying our best to do the Lenten actions and accepting the fact that we keep falling a bit short.

So our Lenten work continues and we keep gaining awareness.  Our personal conversions create cultural conversions, and together we’re truly working for change.  As we reside in the challenging space of the Lenten desert where things are ugly and true, we all are getting ready to experience the fullness of God’s goodness. For that we shall be grateful and for that we shall keep trying.  As we do this work, we remain aware that God is with us, no matter how ugly the world may be.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lmiersbond/4709653204/

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.

in God’s time

We can’t really know what God is up to.

But we can wonder, and we do.  Wondering about what God is doing makes me feel like I am the size of an ant in an expansive universe.   Actually, I am, in a way.

Somehow, though, I am part of it all.

Paradigms of planet, church, religion and humanity are shifting all around us.  Sometimes, these shifts are gradual and gentle, like water flowing silently downstream  Other times, though, the societal changes are so bold we almost feel damaged.  We collapse on crosswalks and sprint down the streets of tomorrow while the statues of our ancestors laugh at our blindness.  Can we see the beauty that surrounds us today?

But, it’s hard to know beauty when there is a lot of clutter.  As we listen to the news and hold it up to what we’re working for, we quickly become discouraged.  The mess is confusing and we’re worried. What’s happening to our democracy? What’s going on in Christianity? Passions and power quake the church and government and we wonder what to have faith in.

Could it be ourselves?  Or shall we, can we, have faith in God?

A week ago I was a participant in a wonderfully strange conference.  Giving Voice, a national organization for young women religious, sponsored an inter-generational conference in Chicago to discuss what is happening in this life of ours, religious life.  We came with a sense that God is up to something new and different.  Together we wondered what that was.  The wondering was strange because we were talking about something that we didn’t know.

In Madeleine L’Engle‘s book  A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tries to answer the questions of children.  “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”  I desire to explain what I’ve experienced and sensed, but what is emerging seems to be beyond anything we have ever known.

I know it though, God is up to something. Paradigms are shifting; the world is changing right under our feet.  When the earth moves, it can feel dangerous.  We don’t know what will break around us.  We grip to reactions based in fear and power and doubt survival.  We crash and forget what we most need to move on: eachother.  As tumultuous as all the crashing and changing may feel, we can trust God and have hope.  God is in control and shifts can be good.

At the “young nun” conference we sought to contemplate the goodness that vibrates through the groans.  The process was deep and profound.  We listened, prayed, shared, played, questioned, connected and organized.  We learned too.  We were blessed to be with Sandra Schneiders, who is a great historian and theologian.  She’s pretty much the expert on religious life and what is has been, is, and could be.  In other words, Schneiders is a woman who can speak quite well about how God has worked with people throughout time.

We pondered what it means to be religious women in this time of unknowing.  We leaned in, all 150 women religious seemingly stuck in 2011. We felt connected to the deep roots of our ancient tradition and movements toward the future.  In these moments, I pondered how our human minds limit understanding what time really is.  Science agrees with what my spirit senses, too.  Time, as we know it, is an illusion.

So, we’re a part of this illusive time and God needs us to work.  Schneiders’ analysis of this Kairos was based in her insights that the signs of these times are globalization, secularization, pluralization, and de-traditionalization.  We are called to respond to what’s going on and how it impacts spirituality, politics, service and poverty.  As I listened, I felt relieved, actually.  We can commune in the struggles together.

Through it all I kept wondering.  What are we supposed to do?  If the needs of this time are so great- and they are- then how are we supposed to be present?  What actions do we need to take to birth a new paradigm and way of being?

As we ponder the power of Now, we get to listen to the whispers of the Spirit who always compels us to grow and change.  At the end of the conference, consciousness brought forth the art of poetry.  We peacefully walked through the shift and blessed the words of wonder.  There was silence as we gazed at what the time had emerged.

In art there are answers.  We need not worry about how to bring forth a new paradigm, after all.  We can just focus on living the reign of God.  After we do this for some time, then we’ll be able to look around and be awed that God has used us to help create something new.  Thanks be to God!

‘Come and See’: A reflection from Afghanistan

Guest blogger: Jerica Arents

“Tell them to come and see who we are.” Almost every Afghan we met said that. Tell them to come and see.  While my mind flashed to nightly news programs that portray all Afghans as dark, bearded men with big guns, ordinary Afghans told me that they want Americans to see them as just that: ordinary people. In October, I participated in a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegationto Afghanistan. Kathy Kelly, David Smith-Ferri, and I spent almost a month in Afghanistan, joining the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Bamiyan for a week and spending the rest of the trip in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. The purpose of the delegation was to make human connections with those people who are bearing the brunt of our country’s policies of warmaking. Entering the 10th year of U.S. occupation, and after 30 years of almost constant war, ordinary Afghans want the 43 occupying countries and the greater international community to stop the fighting. Come and see, the Afghans would ask wearily. We are human beings.

Jerica, Kathy Kelly and David Smith-Ferri with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Band-i-Amir, Afghanistan

We were welcomed into the country by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), a group of young men in Bamiyan, an Afghan province directly west of Kabul. Bamiyan is a relatively stable area of the country with a large population of ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks. While we were there, the young men invited us into their daily lives. They work at small shops and in the fields, harvesting potatoes or hauling water by donkey. Their large families welcomed us into their homes with smiles and nods and messages of peace. We shared simple meals over food and with laughter, and seemingly insurmountable differences grew negligible.

A man and his son originally from Helmand Province, now living in an internally displaced persons camp in Kabul.

All of the families in the surrounding villages of Bamiyan share memories of fleeing the Taliban during their reign in the late 1990s — stories of large groups running down mountains in the dark, clutching small children and any possessions they could grab. Many of the very young and very old didn’t survive. Countless women and men in Bamiyan suffer from depression after experiencing the ravaging nature of war. “We age very quickly here,” reflected the mother of one of the AYPVs. Noting her weathered hands and worn eyes, I assumed she was in her late-50s. But the translator, after explaining that most women there suffer from anemia, persistent headaches, and debilitating depression, told us that the mother was only 38 years old. She went on, concluding: “I have experienced 30 years of war in less than 40 years of life.”

As the days passed, we started to weave together each young man’s story — stories experienced in the midst of lifelong war that have forced these teenagers to age quickly, too. Abdulai, a bright-eyed and generous 15-year-old member of the AYPV, lived through the Taliban’s abduction and murder of his father. Others told stories of witnessing their loved ones die, seizing the bullet-ridden bodies of their uncles and brothers. Faiz’s parents both died from illness before he turned 7. “When I remember my childhood,” he said, “tears come to my eyes.” But still, their hope was infectious. During a phone call with a young Gazan, 12-year-old Ghulamai, we heard words of encouragement that bridged the miles between these two occupied lands. “Please remain strong and brave,” pleaded Ghulamai. “We will endure this together, with you. If it’s beyond enduring, please call us. Life will pass, but if it’s beyond enduring, call us.”

The history of Afghanistan, I am learning, is a complicated web of interlocking systems of violence — a murder mystery-like story with warlords, ethnic oppression, drug rings, shadow governments, and corruption. But I am struck with the wisdom that was shared with us over tea in a Kabul café from a Western woman who has lived in the country for the last decade: There is not a military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. Forty billion dollars of U.S. humanitarian aid since the invasion in 2001 has done nothing for the poor. Policies to pump the country with even more weapons will never result in lasting peace. Young men with little education and no opportunity to provide food for their fatherless families will continue to join the Taliban for a meager salary. Come and see, the boys beg us. As they continue to bear the brunt of our military machine, may we hear them.

Jerica and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Original post: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/01/04/come-and-see-a-reflection-from-afghanistan/

This week’s guest blogger, Jerica Arents,  is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies.  Jerica lives in the White Rose Catholic Worker in Chicago where Sister Julia loves to hang out to play games, sing songs, pray for peace and justice and eat dumpster-dived food.

All photos are the property of Jerica Arents. For permission to reprint please comment on this blog entry.