September 24, 2012
You may not know this, but I put myself through college working in restaurants. My dining service career began as a dishwasher and baker in a local bakery while attending high school. My last restaurant position was as a garde manger for the Hyatt in Cambridge, MA.
In graduate school, I decided to offer my cooking skills as a weekend volunteer in a Boston soup kitchen … where I served as a “kitchen executive” for 13 years. Typically, there were three volunteer teams of four or five people, who came from different religious and political backgrounds. We all had one thing in common, though … our desire to serve Boston’s hungry and homeless. To ensure that we remained focused on our commonality, and not distracted by our differences, we had a house rule that you had to “check” your theological and political baggage at the door.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of checking our political and theological baggage at the door. As a missionary in Colombia, in some ways the decision about “checking baggage” is imposed by proximity and work. I work in the Episcopal Church, so my “theological baggage,” so to speak, is a given and doesn’t need to be checked. Political “baggage,” however, is another matter.
I suspect that for most missionaries, it’s not that big of a deal to check their political baggage as they’re no longer living in the US, and have a certain obligation to be politically neutral in their host countries. But at present, the US is in the midst of a presidential election cycle. So, one of the things that comes up for me in conversation with friends from the States, as well as with new friends in Colombia curious to know my political perspective, is whether or not I’m a Democrat or a Republican. My answer is always the same …“I’m a Christian … who has been registered as an Independent for most of my life,” and who, I suspect, most people would consider a political centrist … fiscally conservative and socially liberal. To some, to call myself “Christian” or “Independent” may sound like a cop out in today’s polarized political environment. But unlike those who have found themselves driven from the mainline parties in recent years by the deep divisions caused by polarization and what we call the “culture wars,” I’ve been an Independent all of my adult life. I offer as proof that I was among the 7% who voted for John Anderson (1980 … Carter, Reagan & Anderson).
For most people, when they hear “Christian” and “politics” they assume what has become known as the “religious right.” If you want to put a name to my perspective, I guess you’d call me a member of the “religious left.” What’s become of those who would consider themselves members of the religious left, I’m not sure … but I’m confident they exist. In fact, the religious left preceded the religious right. Those of us who consider ourselves members of the religious left are the descendants of the Social Gospel Movement that was very active in such things as unionization and labor reform in the early 20th century.
I suspect few of us care about the details of how issues get addressed, but think I can safely say that the religious left is concerned about equal opportunity in the economy, the protection of the public through appropriate government regulation and economic reform, economic justice for the poor, affordable healthcare, quality education, and respect for human dignity at the core of immigration policy.
To be honest, I’m glad to be living in Colombia right now. I’m glad I won’t be barraged with mindless and meaningless political advertising … I’m glad I won’t be subjected to the hatred that passes for political debate … I’m glad I won’t begin my workday angry through the first week in November, due to reading the morning paper … and I’m glad I won’t be embroiled in what has become known as the “culture wars” … While I’m glad for those things, I’m also sad for the United States of America … sad that people like me are losing, or have lost, hope in the political systems and structures that once earned the USA the envy and respect of many around the world.
I used to place a great deal of hope in the US constitution. That hope has waned in recent years as I’ve watched our elected officials trample it with the Patriot Act and the DOMA. We have allowed the constitution to be used to take away rights and codify the limitation of rights for individual segments of the population; it was meant to protect and provide rights … not take them away. One important protection embedded in the constitution was the intentional prevention of a tyranny of the majority. As Mel Gibson says in the movie The Patriot, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away, for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?” The constitutional framers knew that an individual’s rights may not be perceived as rights by the majority, so they embedded protections as they recalled that the majority of us came to the US escaping political and religious persecution in countries where we were in the minority. We have somehow arrived at a different understanding of the constitution in recent years, only managing to dust it off when our own personal liberties are threatened. That’s unfortunate. … Yes, my hope in constitutional democracy has waned …
There is another place, however, where I have always found hope and choose to place my faith. Some people think that religion of any kind is a bunch of bunk and the church is a dying institution. They point to the disputes in the Anglican Communion, scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, declining attendance in mainline denominations, increased secularization, and so forth. While I’m not going to argue any of those points, what I will say is that every religious/faith tradition offers some kind of hope. Hope in an eternal life … hope in some kind of (spiritual) enlightenment … hope in humanity … hope in a better tomorrow … hope in something that’s bigger than each of us individually … HOPE … Politics is politics, and it’s fleeting. … Democrat? … Republican?… I do my civic duty, thinking about what I value, what I believe is just, and weighing who I believe might best address the needs of the nation. But, in the end, I place my faith, and my hope, in God and Christ. … again, I’m a Christian.