Shirts & Skins

Politics is not as fun to follow these days.

When I was younger, people got into arguments about politics left and right.  But then you would move on to other things.

That’s the thing; there were other things in life to do.  Our lives were not drenched in politics. But these days you can’t watch sports without it referring to politics.

Facebook and other social media have placed us in self-selecting bubbles and our views become more intense.  It’s been interesting to see fellow pastors say things about those with other opinions that at times makes me wonder if people of different political beliefs would ever be welcomed at their churches.

In the days following the passage of the American Health Care Act, I’ve seen a lot of anger coming from the Twitter and Facebook streams.  I’ve had problems with this health care bill and I’m not afraid to share them, but some of the things I’ve seen are welcome beyond simple criticism.  There is a fury directed at the other side that is venomous.  Each side thinks the other is impure and they must be utterly defeated.

In the midst of all this, I came accross a Facebook post by Disciples Pastor Doug Skinner.  In his post he brings up to important names: Hurbert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen.  Humphrey was of course the Senator and later Vice President to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dirksen was the long time minority (Republican) leader in the senate. I want to share a few of those words here:

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.

That quote got me thinking. I looked for a photo of the Democratic Senator and later Vice President with the Republican Senate minority leader. I found one:


Dirksen is seated on the left side, while Humphrey is seated next. They are celebrating together, the end of the filler buster for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That isn’t the only picture of the two together.  The quote makes you think the two had a relationship.  They disagreed on policy, but their friendship  was strong.

Washington of the 1960s dealt with some major questions that this nation had to answer, Civil . There were disagreements.  Yet, there was still friendship at the end.

When I look at social media feeds in light of the healthcare vote, there wasn’t a sense of being  able to argue an issue and still remain friends.  There was a lot of anger and venom expressed towards anyone who might have a different opinion on the issue.  One blogger even hoped for hell for those who voted in favor of the American Health Care act.

Like I said, there are legitimate reasons for not supporting the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  But I choose to believe that people who think otherwise are not callous monsters.  I can see them as mistaken in their beliefs, but they aren’t necessarily horrible people.

How are Christians to act when it comes to public policy?  How do we handle differences, deep differences? How do we remain in community?  How do we show grace to each other?  How do we witness to the wider world a different way of being?

Maybe the problem is pride.  I sometimes think that the belief in “justice” is so strong that it makes us self-righteous. We start to think that we are on the “right side of history” and to hell with those who don’t agree.

I think what is happening in the church is that we are worshipping a golden calf, but we think we are worshipping the real god.

I stumbled across this entry from the Daily Keller website, based off evangelical pastor Tim Keller.  In this entry he explains who American Christians have made politics into an idol and that has profound changes on the body politic.  Have you every noticed what goes on the day after a major election, how the losing side speaks in almost apocalyptic terms:

When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.

If we the losing side experience something akin to a death, it also means the other side is veiwed in very dark terms:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, ‘It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.’ After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.

I think that’s what is going on right now with American Christians. When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, I could see how evangelical Christianity succumbed to gods of politics. I grew disgusted by this and thought that I could find solace in the mainline/progressive church. Just as evangelical Christianity got in bed with the Republican Party,mainline Christians have jumped in bed with the Democrats. When we started to make alliances with each political party, God became a tool to advance the interests of whatever party. God became pro-life and supported health savings accounts. God supported single-payer health care and $15/hr minimum wage. And when we make God the cheerleader of our politics, that mean anyone with a different view is not simply mistaken; they are evil. When politics becomes god it means pastors can call out people from the other side, telling people that all are welcome, except Republicans or Democrats.

Maybe the to put it to a fine point, I think we are living in an extremely graceless age.  We talk about justice, but without a sense of grace, justice becomes a cold instrument of punishment.

Presbyterian pastor David Williams wrote in the Christian Century last year an article with a provocative title: “Why Social Justice Isn’t Christian.” He writes about the dark side of justice:

…justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around. Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity. It is about the balance of competing interests in a society. It’s a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order. Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword. Social justice is about power dynamics.

That doesn’t mean, not for a moment, that both noting and resisting oppressive structures is wrong.

Because systemic injustice is fundamentally devoid of grace, the abnegation of grace, a repudiation of grace. Grace recoils at hatred and oppression. Grace shudders at our gleeful embrace of violence. Grace finds wealth in the face of another’s poverty an embarrassment. Grace does not stand idly by. Grace is the enemy of both individual and collective self-seeking.

As such, it is the both the ground of justice and the method by which justice is created.

And it goes deeper than that. In the absence of a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will either shatter or calcify a soul. It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue.

I think this is what is taking place right now. Justice is being offered with no grace. The result is that our souls are becoming calcified, becoming brittle. Too many pastors have become numb to those around us. We don’t see those accross the isle as children of God, but children of darkness. We get involved in the struggle for justice, but without grace, our actions become twisted, where we see others as nothing more than a threat.

I wasn’t around when Dirksen and Humphrey roamed the walls of the Capitol, but as I look at that picture and read Doug Skinner’s quote about these two Senators, I have to think there was more grace back then, more of a willingness to listen and not seek to shut the other side down.

In a recent interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, he talks a bit about how our current culture is sorted out like shirts and skins.  I tend to agree.  Shirts and skins means that there isn’t anything we have in common with the other side.  Senators Humphrey and Dirksen trusted each other and shared things in common.  In the church, we need to find a way to go back to being grounded in Christ.

For that to happen, those of us in the church have to be reminded that we are grounded in Christ.  When we see someone who might not be in the church, we are grounded in the fact that everyone is a child of God.

It’s time for the church to start to model a society where all truly can come to the table.  We have to learn to keep someone at the table, even if they are different. We need to stop aping the world and become centered at the communion table.

May we learn to work for justice with grace.


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