When I write an article on politics or the economy, it generally gets fairly wide readership. Those on Christian theology less so, meaning a lot less so. I’m never sure why. In any case, when the lectionary for Morning Prayer brought me to Romans 12.9-21, I felt compelled to offer theologically grounded political commentary. Here is what Paul had so say to those in Rome who read his letter.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12 9-21)
What would a political agenda look like if Paul’s advice was taken seriously? Would it show hatred for evil by accusing political opponents, or anyone who disagrees, as evil? That would be hard to do if in the same breath it had to be generous in love and mutual affection, outdoing others in honoring others. To do that requires respecting the dignity of every human being. I don’t believe an agenda anchored in mutual affection and showing honor can be articulated by leaders who take pleasure in ridiculing and humiliating others, who declare opponents to be treasonous, and who openly despise losers and their kin, especially those of a different skin color. Yet many self proclaimed Christians seem to have no problem with it as long as they think their own social and economic well being is being taken care of. How do they do it? It’s a mystery to me, but it seems to indicate that selfishness easily trumps both Jesus and Paul’s teaching about the way of following Christ.
Imagine a political agenda that celebrated welcoming strangers, and living in harmony with one another. A management buzzword that died a well deserved death needs to be resurrected to resume its proper meaning: synergy. Synergy happens when differing ideas and individual efforts are given the opportunity to work together toward common goals. It requires respect for diversity. It’s what happens when the best basketball game plan is beautifully executed by a well trained team. It’s not an easy thing to do. Human organizations from nations to small work groups try, but too often let it deteriorate into conformity that stifles creative individuality. It also deteriorates when teams try to be all stars with no benchwarmers. All are needed.
Repressive regimes in every organization, both states and companies, enforce conformity and call it harmony. It’s not. Harmony always accommodates a wide range of abilities and behaviors, celebrates differences, and encourages individual responsibility. Years ago I taught courses in organization and management that emphasized the value of harmony in diversity needed to optimize effectiveness in work groups. Experiments and studies piled up the evidence that it could work. W. Edwards Deming demonstrated its value to an entire nation in the rebuilding of the Japanese economy. Nevertheless, managers and top executives nodded yes, yes, but their desire to exercise command and control by dictating what that should look like usually overrode the better way.
The current administration, and our dysfunctional congress of many years, prefer to define harmony as the product of winners dictating terms to losers. There is no place for working together in mutual affection for the good of the whole, little respect for diversity of abilities and ideas, and a tendency toward public ridicule of the dignity of others.
Imagine a political agenda in which the least of those in the community were blessed, and not cursed for being the least. What would it mean to bless and not curse? In politics, some argue that blessing lies in taking away all forms of welfare, thus forcing the least to fend for themselves, gaining self worth in the process. Others argue that blessing lies in providing the necessities of life to those who cannot provide for themselves, thus honoring their dignity as fellow human beings. It isn’t either/or. It’s both/and. The measure of the proportions of both and and is a political decision that understands blessing as something other than welfare or its elimination, and it begins, not ends, with public recognition of the dignity of every human being.
In like manner, a foreign policy that blesses, not curses, one’s “enemies” would not repay evil with evil. Living in peace with one another is not always possible, but it is always more possible than we think it is. Even in the aftermath of bitter, violent conflict, blessing can and should displace cursing. The imperative to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty is what drove the Marshall Plan in post war Europe, and the Deming inspired rebuilding of Japan’s industry. Overcoming evil with good works, but like living in harmony, it’s hard to do. In the face of overwhelming evidence that it works, it remains difficult to convince of lot of people. In many years of vigorous conversation with my friend Don, he’s never been able to understand it as anything other than lying down like a doormat, letting everyone trample all over you. For him, it’s either win or lose, live or die, there’s no alternative. Don’s conviction is not uncommon. Faithful Christian though he is, Don is certain that Jesus and Paul were wrong about this one.
But he does like the wrath of God part. So do many others. For one thing, it allows room for us to claim to be the wrath of God in our fight to vanquish foes to the status of permanent losers. Even if we can’t do that, it allows us to look forward to the day when God’s wrath is unleashed on others. That the definitive demonstration of God’s wrath was worked out on the cross with words of forgiveness and reconciliation is conveniently ignored in favor of something more reasonable, such as the Archangel Michael defeating the devil’s forces, sending them all to eternal damnation.
How likely is it that we could have a Romans 12 driven political agenda? We could have glimpses of it, elements of it, but not under the current administration, not with the current congress, and not with the dominance of tea party type thinking among the electorate. One final word of caution. Tea party type thinking exists on the far left just as much as it exists on the far right, so a word of advice to my fellow liberals: do not be haughty, you’re not that good.