Sunday, July 1, 2012

Silent Sentinels

If I had lived a hundred years ago, would I have been one of the silent sentinels, the women who stood outside the White House, day and night, from January 1917 to June 1919, advocating for the right to vote?

Would I have risked public humiliation to march with the suffragettes? Or would I have stayed home, even more silent, waiting for others to win the freedom I wanted?

Rotate the question just a little: if I lived in Damascus, now, would I be actively protesting Assad’s tyranny, or quietly waiting for things to blow over?

If I lived in Cairo, would I be finding my way to Tehrir Square?

We look back with rosy glasses to our own Declaration of Independence without much thought about the crisis of conscience faced by those called on to sign it. Robert Livingston, member of the five-man committee that met to craft its wording, never signed. Other delegates took their time adding their names; at least three refused to sign.

We forget that there were Loyalists, or Tories, maybe as many as one in five colonists, who sided with the status quo. And we forget that there were many who were neutral – hoping the conflict would pass them by, not sure independence was worth the cost.

I approach Independence Day with a sense of uneasiness. In part, I wonder if the holiday celebrates war, and wonder: if Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, other colonies gained independence without war, would the same have been possible if the American colonists had exercised greater restraint, greater patience, more creative means of persuasion?

But my uneasiness also stems from a sense of unearned privilege: what have I ever done to deserve the freedoms denied to so many? And what have I done to use those freedoms wisely, or to see them extended to those without?

If freedom is a gift, it’s a gift with a cost, and a weight of responsibility.

What happens when too many of us take our freedoms for granted, or exercise our rights without adequate attention?

The Supreme Court decision last week on the Affordable Care Act threw the question into high relief.

Some people I know and respect listened to the news, then turned quickly to others things. “I’m not interested.” “Politics bores me.” These are people who care deeply about the needs of the world, who give time, money, prayer for those in trouble. These friends quickly dismiss the idea that a piece of legislation could be part of caring for human need, or that concern for others should prompt attention to political process. To them, the actions of government are irrelevant.

Others I know saw the court’s decision as a victory in the war on women. I understand why they use the term, but it seems to me that once we start thinking in terms of “war,” we are all losers. War breeds violence, hatred, inevitable loss. Are there better ways to carry on the discussion?

Yet others in my circle of friends consider the Affordable Care Act a dangerous move toward socialism, think President Obama is destroying the country, and are focusing great energy on seeing him defeated in November. People who have never invested much time in the political process are energized and angry. The more I listen, the more I wonder: What’s fueling the anger?

From what I can see, the Affordable Care Act is an imperfect attempt to resolve a wide mix of troubling problems: insurance companies that pocket too much profit and drive our health expenses ever higher; individuals with no primary care who use emergency rooms as their sole source of medical attention; a growing list of “existing conditions” that make adequate coverage impossible; families bankrupted when a parent loses both job and insurance and health expenses swallow a lifetime of savings. And yes, a system that costs women more in premiums, and sometimes denies women the legitimate care they need.

M Turner Obamacare
From what I can tell, the ACA is already benefitting many young adults, caught in part-time jobs while they look for full-time work that will offer health benefits and a salary adequate to pay back college loans. It’s benefitting friends who have struggled with existing conditions, and will eventually make preventive care possible for friends who currently postpone appointments and stop taking medications because they can’t afford them.

The issue for me, though, isn’t so much this particular legislation, it’s the conversation surrounding it. Are those who disagree with me on specific points evil monsters, or well-intentioned people who see things differently? Is Barack Obama an evil man? Is he trying to destroy America?

When a leader – on any side – advocates a policy or position I disagree with, am I free to speak of him as the enemy? Am I free to respond with anger? Am I justified in listening to public diatribes that ridicule, disrespect, misrepresent?

I understand those who run from any political dialogue because they’re tired of the angry rhetoric, or bored by the unstoppable harangues.

And I understand those who grab the party platform, endorse the party favorites, and dismiss all opposition.

But as a Christian, a follower of Christ, steward of gifts I’ve been given, including the right to vote, to speak, to investigate, I find myself caught in a troubling conundrum:

I believe I’m to honor and respect those in authority, even when I disagree with them.

I’m also to look for the best in others, to want their good, to rejoice in the truth.

I’m to listen more than I speak, to seek and model wisdom. I’m to advocate for the poor, earnestly desire justice, demonstrate humility.

And I’m called, as all followers of Christ are called, to be a peacemaker. Do I interpret that globally, advocating for an end to war? Nationally, advocating for peace between parties? Personally, looking for points of agreement with individuals whose opinions challenge mine? All three? Is that possible?

Here are a few questions I take seriously, and will be puzzling and praying about as we near the next election:

What is God for? I hear, maybe too often, about what He's against. But spread our priorities out in front of His word: which ones are worth pursuing? Which aren’t?

Should government be concerned with private morality (sexual expression, family composition), or with public morality (issues of equality, just policy, equitable economy)? Both? Neither? Is it possible to separate the two?

Is the best government the smallest? What are the proper roles of government? What happens when those roles are abandoned?

What is my own responsibility? Is it enough to be a good parent, wife, neighbor, here, in my own small part of the world, or am I called to use the privileges I’ve been given to advocate for others less able to advocate for themselves?

Who stands for the common good? Is it okay to pursue policies that benefit me, my own group, my own demographic, or am I called to affirm policies that benefit all of us – not just Americans, not just Christians, but all nations, all creation?

A Chinese proverb warns: "Unless we change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed."

Or, as a wise friend of mine recently said "Unless something changes, nothing changes."

Are we headed in the right direction? As a country? As individual followers of Christ?

And if not, what do I need to change in my own life, in my own conversations, actions, expectations?

And what will that change cost?

lines for first Tunisian democratic election, October 201

This is the first in a series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

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