This was the second week of sermons and discussions about faith and politics. The sermon, in a nutshell, was an exhortation for Christians to view themselves foremost as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and to practice love and justice in all that we do. As with the last sermon, it was as uncontroversial as one could hope for if one wanted to avoid controversy. Jesus is Lord. If we can agree on that proposition, we should be able to discuss any issue together.
I was astonished to learn that a churchgoer had characterized the program of the last two weeks as "demonic and divisive" and had gone off to one of the satellite congregations in protest. Of course, the program is dicey, but the pastor has handled it capably and lovingly, and the whole point is that we need to try to wrestle with potentially divisive issues rather than pretending that they don't exist. I couldn't figure out what the angry churchgoer found so disturbing, and I wish that he or she had chosen to discuss it with us in the discussion group. This person has not been a discussant.
Then again, I have on rare occasions heard some partisan congregants mutter that praying for peace was "political" or that any reference to "social justice" was "socialism". Last time I looked, we had signed on to worship the "Prince of Peace", and Jesus and no small number of the prophets were very concerned about social justice. I suppose on some level, everything is "political" especially if the state is always your first resort. The personal is political, it has been said; and the community is certainly political if you use politics in its broadest sense. So, if you are tetchy about "politics", just about anything is out of bounds.
The second discussion group was interesting but not as satisfying as the first. One particpant was so partisan that she came with talking points. For example, she made a point to talk about "conservatives" versus "socialists". She didn't seem to listen to anyone else's concerns or points and she seemed keen to advocate for McCain going so far as to throw out some dubious attack on his character. Her contribution was small, but it reminded me how important it is to impress on people the ground rules of such a discussion.
I was also disappointed that a couple of folks felt the need before the meeting to get me to deny that I was really an anarchist, to admit that I conceded that the state was necessary. They were not capable of listening and were too busy trying to get me to take off my tin foil hat to grasp what I was getting at. They were newcomers to the group and one of them was the partisan I wrote about above.
I am wrestling with what makes some folks so uncomfortable about the idea of open discussion with gentleness and reverence. I suspect that for some the very idea that some issues about which people hold deeply held and emotionally charged views are up for discussion is intolerable. There is no room for discussion, and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. If the pastor gets them to accept the idea that other people might have completely different points of view about, say, abortion or homosexuality or what have you and still be just as Christian as they are, their whole world will collapse on itself. The authoritarian leaning and legalistic members of the congregation will be the most unwilling or even unable to embrace openness and differences of opinion. For them, the only point of discussion is to bend the recalcitrant to their way of thinking. They are, by definition, intolerant, so calls for tolerance are intolerable.
On the other hand, the tolerant members appear to be willing to welcome the intolerant and to hear them and to engage in a dialogue. I suspect that such a dialogue would result in relatively fewer conversions to intolerance than to tolerance once everyone is really heard.