Is everything political?
I first heard Gilles Deleuze’s phrase, “politics precedes being,” when I read Daniel Bell’s book The Economy of Desire. Daniel Bell makes the argument that capitalism has captured our desire, and that God is demanding it back. You can read some of our work with Bell’s book on our Daily Prayer if you want more. So there is something philosophical to be said about the reality that everything may indeed be political. And if we’re using Merriam-Webster’s fifth definition of the word, it might indeed be that general: “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” But I don’t mean that Deleuzian definition or the obscure one from Webster. Although this question might be worth exploring more theologically and philosophically, I’m more talking about the fact that everything around us seems to be politicized.
Even the Gospel itself is politicized, it seems. Sometimes by politically-interested people, but often times by people who are reacting to our increasingly polarized society. I am in a major cooking publication’s Facebook group with tens of thousands of members from across the country. It’s a helpful group to be a part of because it helps me see the country and the zeitgeist of the age. Most recently, a man living in the Northwest posted a photo of a pie with a mild statement about “voting blue” in the upcoming election and it garnered an epic response. A lot of people posted about how they wanted to be in this cooking group to escape politics; others were dramatically opposed to any sort of mention of politics in the group and accused the original poster of being manipulative. It was quite a sight to see! And I thought, “Are we making everything political?” Or are we overstating how political things are? And what does that mean for our world? What does that mean for our faith? What does that mean for Jesus?
Society assigns me political meaning
So, I want to tread lightly here because it’s no secret that I like following the news and national politics. I like watching history-in-the-making. It is entertaining, but also enlightening and helpful. I like holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, as one famous 20th Century theologian said. So I’m generally going to see certain parts of our world and life together through a political framework, simply because of my interest.
I acknowledge that my education in history has led me to those interests. My father’s interest in politics has also shaped me too. I have often wondered if my political interests are just a matter of my hobby alone. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an intriguing piece called “The Rich White Civil War,” where he basically said political discourse is largely an argument between rich white people. Here’s Brooks:
You could say that tribalism is the fruit of privilege. People with more stresses in their lives necessarily pay less attention to politics. People with college degrees are more likely to describe their ideology as central to their identity. They are much more likely to derive moral meaning from their label, more likely to affiliate with a herd based on their label and more likely to vote on the party line.
However, I thought about that more. For the underprivileged, their political paradigm is not abstract, it’s embodied. That’s why when people say things like “let’s not let politics get in the way of relationships,” they are speaking for the place of privilege. Some of us wear our politics on our skin, so it’s impossible to separate it from who we are. My skin color has political meaning. It’s meaning that I didn’t assign it. And it’s a meaning that I would like to get rid of, generally speaking. I don’t have to add fuel to the meaning that is undeservedly gained, and I’m working on finding my ultimate meaning and identity in Jesus. But I can’t take away the fact that society sees me as different because of it.
Furthermore, as Christians, we enact and embody our theology and our philosophy. It’s not bound up in our minds, it is incarnational. It demands to be demonstrated. The Gospel then often appears political and economic. It certainly has implications in those fields, even while not being fundamentally economic or political. These days, though, it may unfortunately appear partisan too. While I do not think our prophecy as Christians should be captured by partisanship, I do believe sometimes we appear incidentally partisan. The church needs to be prophetic, but needs to make sure that its prophecy doesn’t appear partisan.
Truth and morality are now partisan
But that goes back to my first question. It seems to me like everything is becoming partisan these days. Even truth and morality appear partisan! The most heinous acts can occur, like last week’s anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh, and we can’t speak clearly about the matter without seeming political. The president can lie and calling out the lie is all-of-a-sudden political. Talking about Christian generosity and charity is a political statement!
We can’t even speak the truth, or separate from rumors, without being accused of politicking. I can’t say I’m surprised by this, but it does seem new and unique to our time and place. I do think the country’s more deeply polarized than it has ever been, and I think that is in part a response to its first black president, but it is also one that is exploited by the current president too. And it seems like political extremism is growing, with Brazil now getting another far-right populist. This isn’t business-as-usual. Something is off.
And I know something is off when I agree with The Weekly Standard! My college-aged self would be flabbergasted. Here is that publication’s plain outline of the mainstream conspiracy and false flag theories that are no longer as marginal as they once were; they’re simply a part of the “discourse.” Truth is partisan now and this is a new and troubling reality. I say this because even my simplest moral statements on the state of the country is reduced to just an “interpretation of the news.” Jesus can be similarly denuded if we aren’t careful, the Gospel watered down into nothing.
The country is so polarized that truth itself is offensive. We just think every truth is a matter of opinion. We are taught that the most noble thing to do is not take a side. It is just a matter of perspective. Christians are not partisan, but we hear and speak God’s truth. I don’t want to lose that prophetic edge despite all of my actions being seen as partisan. This is the darkest seed of postmodernism. We’ve socially constructed truth and morality to the point where the most apparently evil and heinous actions are just reduced to, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The fact is Jesus does give us truth and he’ll deliver it even if tears apart a family.
A time to be loud and a time to be quiet
Christian leaders need to know that speaking the truth and declaring morality will cause them to be accused of being partisan. That is not an excuse to be flagrantly allied with a political party, however. I don’t think we should equally vilify “both sides,” as a way to appear politically quiet and neutral. But we need to know that the more explicitly political we are, the harder it will be to win over those who disagree with us, or the easier it is for us to be muted.
At the same time, however, there are people who will be naturally attracted to us because we are unafraid to speak the truth to power, unafraid to talk about injustice and so there are reasons to make our convictions plain. Our loudness can be a turn off to some, so we need to modulate it without watering it down. We need to make it clear to the world that our incidental partisan appearance is the result of our convictions in Jesus, our understanding and application of the Bible, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. We also need to reject the accusation that our convictions from Jesus are partisan while also interrogating ourselves to make sure we aren’t just trumpeting political talking points. We may sound more like MSNBC and Fox News than we intend! I’m asking myself the same questions, but I won’t shy away from the truth and morality because I am afraid of being accused of pandering to a political party.
The reality is that Christian morality and truth can easily be pulled into one political party or another. I believe we should resist that. At the same time, though, the political center is not Jesus’ radical alternative. We need more creativity and imagination in presenting our critique of societal problems. Our prophecy can be denuded by too much intentional symmetry with a political party, but our incidental symmetry with some parties cannot be avoided when we stand with the poor and the oppressed. In our polarized times, enunciating our convictions can isolate some people, and we’re interested in including and transforming everyone. Simply being silent can do the same; if we don’t cry out, the stones will (see Luke 19:40).