Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Sectarian Lure of Cynicism
The hats – and maybe a hair piece – are flying into the political ring and it’s a pretty sorry sight. Retreads, mean spirited extremists, ideologues, bad jokes. The common denominator seems to be enormous ego and oceans of private cash. The next months will likely resemble a game of musical chairs as, one by one, campaigns implode, candidates let slip the intemperate or just plain stupid remark, and king or queen makers shift their bets toward emerging front runners. Columnists will churn out a constant stream of analysis drawing upon a seemingly endless cache of metaphors, as this paragraph alone illustrates! And the conventions are still a year off.
If this were France we might not care much. It could even be entertaining in a sick sort of way. Their current president was spied speeding away from a tryst with his lover on a motor scooter while his partner – a woman he wasn’t married to – was back at the palace. And he remains in office! Then there’s the one time rising star of French politics, Dominique Strauss Kahn. His recent claim to legal high ground was arguing that there was no way for him to know that the young women at the sex parties he attended were prostitutes. And that the stress of running the IMF required this form of relaxation. Uh huh.
But presidential politics is not entertainment. While we probably overestimate the impact of a single president for good or ill, the Bush years alone demonstrate how one individual, given the right circumstances and advisors along with a compliant Congress and electorate, can inflict woe on large swaths of the world’s population. To travel outside the United States is to be reminded of our dominating influence. In 2008 a mid-level bureaucrat in a town in central Chile, a lay pastor in our partner church there, asked me during our presidential primary season how I thought the super delegates would vote. Super delegates? That wasn’t a question I expected in a van traveling to a mountain church conference center over 5,000 miles away. Can any of us name the current President of Chile?
Cynicism remains a seductive lure. Why pay attention? Why bother voting? Indeed, there are religious traditions – monastic, Anabaptist, and others – that take a sectarian position, urging their adherents to remain unsullied by the corruptions of the world. “Come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean,” has a certain appeal these days as we ponder election ballots everywhere tainted by moneyed self-interest.
But our tradition has rejected the sectarian lure and its assumption that this world is broken beyond any repair. Reformed Christians maintain a healthy suspicion in light of the sin – personal and corporate – that lays claim to each of us, including every candidate in the presidential ring right now. But we also reject an attractive cynicism that assumes we can somehow remain aloof and, therefore, morally superior. No, we are all inherently complicit in the good and ill that makes up this world and are called to bear witness to God’s realm of righteousness and peace here and now, not simply retreat into some vague future promised in the bye and bye..
This does not necessarily mean we sign on enthusiastically to any one particular campaign, or naively lodge our hope in one charismatic personality. Idolizing anyone is, of course, a form of idolatry or misplaced trust, and in the end it will make fools of conservatives and progressives alike. But personal piety without public responsibility is its own form of idolatry for it places all trust in our own privilege to opt out of public life and still live comfortably, a privilege few share.
Think of a priest friend who organizes fellow priests nationally to address the critical issues around immigration. Think of a friend and former colleague who blogs every day in retirement with an informed and passionate critique of the relentless gutting of our public school systems for the sake of private gain. Think of young colleagues who help organize low wage workers living at the very extreme edge of our widening income inequality. Think of a group of scientists who employ their intellect and training to educate citizens about the catastrophic perils of nuclear proliferation and climate change. Think of a retired social worker who has transformed her commitment to justice for Palestinians into a potent grass roots movement in the church for bold action against the Occupation. I doubt that any one of these good friends and colleagues is particularly inspired by the current group of presidential wannabes. But they have each determined that faith and citizenship eliminates cynicism as an option.
In the end, of course, we will have to vote. Yes, we will (I remind even myself!). In this year of all years as we celebrate the martyrs of the civil rights movement who, fifty years ago, prodded the President and the Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, how can we not accept our responsibility to vote? How disrespectful and condescending it would be to their memory to stay home with a cynical sneer, as if we are too superior for this public duty. It may not make much of a difference. That’s not the point. My friends and colleagues named above make a difference, but only sometimes. Yet successful outcomes don’t exhaust the reason for public and political engagement. Bearing witness to peace and the perils of arms, to human rights for the oppressed, to dignity for the impoverished, to preserving the creation, to the bright and productive futures of our children – this is what calls us from the sectarian lure of cynicism. This is why we can’t simply ignore the endless political posturing and preening, as obscene as it sometimes becomes.
And this is what I will keep reminding myself for the next seventeen months.
John H. Thomas
June 18, 2015