Everybody just hold on, stop spinning, reorient yourselves, catch your balance… Good? Good. Now let’s talk about that whirlwind we just went through: the debt ceiling crisis. Or, as one journalist refers to it: “an insanity-inducing syllabus of everything that’s wrong with the American political system. Everything.” It certainly wasn’t America’s final hour. Without rehashing too much the stories and viewpoints that have been aired all over the news networks, I’d like to point out a couple of the complexities that undergirded the crisis of leadership we’ve just witnessed. (Some of these issues build on ideas I discussed in my blog about Ohio’s Senate Bill 5.) And since we’re dealing with complexities, it’s important that we take a moment for compassion and humility before we rip on our elected leaders.
1) Politicians are faced with the old “serving two masters” conundrum. Let me explain. Before you rail against uncompromising or lying politicians, consider the choice we offer them. We want our leaders to inspire us and make big promises, talk about changing the world and Washington, give us a reason to vote for them. We elect leaders who make big promises. Unfortunately, our system of government requires compromise. Republicans especially were ridiculed for not budging from their refusal to raise taxes and their insistence on a balanced budget amendment. You know what? Those were the promises they had to make if they wanted to be elected. Republicans were stuck between serving the wishes of those who elected them (not compromising) and compromising to serve the American people (which makes them promise-breakers). I imagine this conversation going on in politicians’ heads: “Did their vote mean that they think I will carry out their wishes? Or did it mean they trust me to make good decisions in the best interest of the whole country?”
The former is usually why we elect a leader, and the latter tends to be an afterthought once opposition is faced in Washington. We examine all of a candidate’s positions on particular issues and tend to vote for the candidate whose platforms square most with our own. When politicians get to Washington, they realize that their promises will simply not be fulfilled. And that’s how our system of government is supposed to work (not the broken promises part, but the checks and balances part). The parties are supposed to balance each other out, to converse with each other. Otherwise, we have a kind of democratic dictatorship where 51% of the people can dictate whatever they want regardless of the needs or opinions of the other 49%. When our politicians don’t vote exactly the way they promised, we call them “liars” and then vote for some other candidate who makes the same big promises. Many of the same people who railed against the Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise will turn around and accuse politicians of lying when they don’t do what they said on the campaign trail. Is it still lying? Yes. Is lying still a sin? Yes. But sin (in this case, lying) is often a symptom of a society as much as it is an individual action. We would be wise to ask, “What kind of society produces leaders who consistently turn out to be liars?”
What needs to change is not so much Washington as us. We need to be able to make voting decisions based on whether we trust the wisdom and concern of a candidate to do what is best for the country, not just what benefits us. Non-compromise is not a viable or healthy political platform to run on as many votes as it may inspire. Yes, this requires us to go deeper than campaign slogans and rallying cries. No, I don’t expect most voters to change their approach to voting. But as Christians, let’s at least recognize the difficult position our politicians are in and bring a different voice to the political arena. Be willing to speak out a word of compassion the next time you hear someone ridiculing a politician–even if it’s a politician you don’t agree with. Insist on depth when talking about political candidates and issues instead of settling for sound-byte superficiality.
2. Above, I spoke about Republicans. Much of the same could be said for President Obama, who made promises in his presidential campaign that he truly had no hope of fulfilling–many of these changes hadn’t already been made for good reasons. These promises sounded good, but that is not always the same as being good or being in the best interest of most people. For instance, much has been made of then-Sen. Obama’s vote against raising the debt ceiling in 2006. Quietly, vaguely, and impersonally, Pres. Obama admitted that that vote was a mistake. Why quietly, vaguely, and impersonally? Because for some reason, admitting past errors is politically devastating. In what kind of society or political climate is humble confession a vice, not a virtue? As Christians, humble confession is a virtue that allows us to enter into God’s loving mercy. Humility is more a sign of courage in the political sphere than any vote or platform a politician might take. As Christians, though, why should we expect politicians to be courageously humble and confessional if we don’t practice those virtues ourselves? I’m not talking about the Catholic sacrament. I’m talking about having confession and forgiveness be normal practices in our relationships and communities. We need to hear the Scriptures calling us to grow in our transparency in our Church communities and to set an example to our nation and our leaders of the kind of character that can lead to real, lasting change in Washington or anywhere else.
3. Back to Republicans. I don’t remember who or where, but in one interview, a conservative leader tried to make his stance as clear as possible: “America is spending more money than we’re taking in. That means we need to spend less.” I kept waiting for the interviewer to say, “Or…or…” Take in more! This leader shined a bright light on the glaring half-truth of his position. The statement should have gone: “America is spending more money than we’re taking in. That means we need to spend less or take in more.” It’s simple math and logic. The leader needed to at least finish the statement and then tell us why “take in more” wasn’t a helpful option in his opinion. Instead, this leader insulted the intelligence of the people he is supposed to lead by telling us half the story…and most Americans let it happen. Please, friends, don’t learn your logic from a politician. If we are going to talk about an issue, we must listen to politicians who disagree with us, and people outside the political sphere. As Christians, we need Jesus and the Scriptures to form our worldviews. Too often, we let our party form our worldviews and then–strangely enough–our Jesus and scriptural interpretation come out looking an awful lot like our party.
4. And finally, one more lesson from Pres. Obama. On July 24, he addressed the nation on television during primetime, expressing frustration at conservatives’ unwillingness to move towards him, enumerating the ways he has moved towards them, and pleading with the American people to speak out against the political games. At first, I wanted to say, “Amen!” to his call to compromise and the need for both sides to sacrifice in order to get something done. What re-discouraged me was when I put myself in the shoes of Republicans listening to the speech. I could just hear conservatives groaning, “NOW he wants compromise.” Jesus contrasts Kingdom-of-God-style leadership with worldly leadership, calling us to be servant-leaders at all time, not only when it is politically beneficial. I believe Pres. Obama’s address would have gone over a lot better if he had made a similar address directed at Democrats during the two years they controlled all of Congress and the Presidency. Power is tempting. We are tempted to use it while we have it, to push our things through the easy way. We are tempted to do this whether we have presidential authority or parental authority. We think, “Forget the hard tasks of persuasion and compromise. I have the authority to get things done!” It’s easy to justify, especially if we think our things are good things. But if we want others to be willing to compromise with us when they have power, we must be willing to exercise restraint when we have power. Sound familiar? While I don’t support Republicans continuing the “I have some power and I’m going to use it to get what I want” cycle, in some ways and in my opinion, it was a bit of reaping what was sown, another notch in the cycle of ignoring the other side as long as we have the power to do our thing. In much the same way, the Church is reaping what we have sown during the era in the Western world in which Christianity held authority over public life (“Christendom”), often taking shortcuts to achieve “Christian” goals. We are now experiencing increasing disinterest, mistrust, and bitterness towards the Church. Leadership is not just about making the right decisions or having the right ideas. It is about engendering trust in others, illustrating why one would want to follow, and being willing to hold oneself to the same standards to which one holds others.
I’m glad we came to some sort of resolution concerning the debt ceiling. But the complexities that spawned this clash are far from resolved. Christians can be leaders in helping this country reassess how we vote, think about issues, and interact in the public sphere. In order to lead, we must see the contrast between Jesus’ Way and the patterns of this world. We must model humility, confession, sacrifice for the good of others, integrity, loving speech, gracious words to and about our leaders, and even a willingness to submit to leaders we don’t always agree with. When Paul commanded us to submit to governing authorities and Jesus commanded us to give Caesar what is due Caesar, they knew exactly the kinds of people who were in those power positions, men of more questionable character than our leaders and with even more power. Certainly there are times where civil disobedience is the proper Christian response, but not over every issue. This road to real transformation in ourselves and our society is a longer, harder road than just making the right vote or joining the popular momentum. But then again, no one said following Jesus was easy.