Sunday, October 03, 2010

a conscientious objector to the culture wars

I recently wrote a note to my Facebook Friends: "if you love Rush Limbaugh or hate Sarah Palin we are still friends, but I do not engage." This seemed to please many of my friends, but it did not go down well with a few of my friends on the far left and right of the color wheel. I think I know the reason why: they need each other.

I want to begin by acknowledging that politics is a notable profession, and those who serve in politics or run for political office have my respect. I have campaigned for friends who have been called to pursue a variety of roles, from judge and county commissioner to city council and school board. I have campaigned for those I have respected at higher levels, including congress. And, dare I say it, I have helped in the efforts of friends who felt called to the office of Bishop. Some of these are now among our episcopal leaders.

Politics is the sphere of life where resources are allocated, decisions are made, and policy is determined. My objection is not to politics; it is to the culture wars that have shaped our politics, and not to the good.

By using the term culture wars, I begin by noting the skewed sense of rhetoric that has infected our public discourse (and here I would urge the reader to find a copy of Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By). For the culture warrior, all of life is a battle, even a violent activity where there are winners and losers, the victorious and the defeated. But not only are the losers to be defeated: they must be humiliated and shamed. And all of this can take place under the illusion that God is on the side of the victorious. I question whether this is in fact the case.

Two recent experiences reminded me of how pervasive the culture wars are. I read an excellent piece by Leighton Ford about the New York City mosque, and the call of Jesus to reconciliation. First circulated among a group of friends, it was later posted at Faith and Leadership. Two very good friends had the same immediate reaction: what did Franklin Graham think about it? Their first impulse----and these are very reflective people---was to situate Leighton in the culture wars, in contrast to his brother in law.

I also came, at some point, to a sense of frustration about the endless media obsession with a thirty member congregation in Florida whose pastor was threatening to burn a copy of the Koran. It is, I confess, an appalling story. Two years ago I participated in a news conference in the Islamic Center in Charlotte, speaking against the desecration of a copy of the Koran in our own community. Once we were beyond the action and reaction of the more recent event, however, the matter took on a life of its own. It was no longer about a small community in Florida. The usual subjects had taken their sides, each entrenched in their own convictions.

The culture wars (and here I would include the religion section of Huffington Post and Glenn Beck among the most visible examples) do not lead to our well being; they simply enlist us in a fight that ignores the nuances on either side that contain a kernel of truth. The culture wars give an ultimacy to that which is actually transient: our ultimate concern is not the culture, but actually the Christ who engages the culture in a variety of complex ways. The culture wars do not also acknowledge how we, as Christians have shaped these cultures, for good and for ill (see the work of Andy Crouch). And lastly, the culture wars are a testament to our rejection of the gospel itself: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself....and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5).

I find it odd that liberal Christians would share more in common with liberals who do not share their faith than conservative Christians who do, and I find it equally troubling that conservative Christians would share more in common with conservatives of no faith than their brothers and sisters in Christ who are liberal. I do not quite know what to do with this reality in which we find ourselves, but I sense that it conveys a truth, that we have become conformed to a culture at war with itself.

So when I claim a conscientious objector status to the culture wars, I am not responding in a bland "why can't we all just get along" manner. I want to make a stronger statement: the culture wars are actually destructive to our common life, in all of its political and ecclesial dimensions. I can only seek to walk in the way of peace, and trust in a reconciliation that is the gift of God.

So, if you love Rush Limbaugh or hate Sarah Palin we are still friends, but I do not engage.