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Participation in Politics and Theology: Deal With It!

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In my book Towards a Theopoetic of the Cross, out now from the Progressive Christian Alliance Press, I argue for a form of theology-making and faith-living based in what I called my "theopoetic method" -- faith and thought constructed from the insights of four sources: the Academic, the Worshipping Community, the Hungers and Desires of the Poor and the Insights of the Poetic/Mystic. Like other "Systems of Four" before it -- Integral Theory, Creation Spirituality and the Wesley Quadrangle -- this methodology does not argue for the supreme position of reason distanced from our interior dimensions, historic/community commitments and our creative insights. Instead, it suggests that we need to find a way in which the various tables co-create the work of the church in the world in a form that honors the insights of each table as being valid.

In many ways these methodologies are arguing for a non-dualistic approach. For instance, the academic may bring us insights from feminist and queer theory, which challenges our notions of how we have done church. This, rightfully, provides a critique of our language, worship and action in the world. But the historic worshipping community brings its whole history into that conversation -- its failings as well as the resources of a living tradition with the ability to return to its roots and ask new questions of how and why it does things. In this way we can see the historic worshipping community as a living tradition in more than its present moment and how, with the resources of the past, it can shape a new and living future.

I had not thought of this at the time that I wrote the book but can now see possibilities for our political conversation, especially in light of the attack this month on an elected politician. It is easy to create volume -- in writing and speaking -- on the level of violence in American political discourse. But ultimately the problem with the conversation is that it is rooted in an us/them structure dependent on having a "them," which we are in opposition to, and not a "we" with which we are shaping shared space. While political parties are always positioned in cultural opposition to some ideas and support of others, that is a long way from a constructed identity of ourselves as "heroes" and an opposing political position as "villains."

I saw this first hand while a student at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Dr. Falwell and various speakers and professors at the school would often refer to liberals and Democrats as somehow trying to erode freedom or destroy our American Christian heritage and culture. We have heard such comments in recent history when we are told that an opposing political view is against the constitution, is giving comfort to the enemy or is letting the terrorists win. We hear it when the current president is called a socialist for large government programs, while his predecessors' large government programs somehow do not fall under that category.

If theology is participation -- participation in the work of God, the Church using the theopoetic method to participate in the creation of their theology or our participation in the work of the church -- then maybe politics is also participation. Easy enough to say and true enough: Democracy thrives on the participation of the people in the work of the nation -- not the party! We work for the nation, with the party providing a vocabulary and structure for how we understand that work. But what if participation were rooted not in the rhetoric of our parties but in recognizing a few possibilities:

1. There is no "them" out to get "us," especially in regards to American political parties.

2. None of us fall strictly into the dogmas and doctrines of any one political party. Our political decisions are rooted in an inner negotiation of political opinions, contextual needs and other concerns.

3. Liberal and conservative are not dualisms, but symmetries. Think of it like DNA. DNA "conserves" the movements, insights and developments of the past, but DNA also "liberates" the possibilities, freedoms and potentials of the next generation.

If we began our political negotiations with the above perspectives in mind might we not come to a place of participatory, non-dualistic decision making. If this is the case then American politics after the shooting of an elected U.S. official should begin to shift away from "us/them" thinking and into negotiated common space, or "we space." Do we really need Sarah Palin arguing for smaller government and personal responsibility as if it were in opposition to liberal or Democratic conversations around the common good and morally responsible government? Neither of these positions is mutually exclusive and each can and must be balanced by the insights and pushbacks of the opposition.

But a pushback is a much different position to take than language, which paints opposition parties as anti-American or as being out to destroy America and our freedoms or give comfort to our enemies. If we can construct our politics as a conversation that negotiates for common space, shared dreams and shared values, then maybe we can stop talking about how we can moderate our political discourse and begin shaping a shared future.

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