I was reading an otherwise uninspiring interview in The Atlantic with Michael Wear, a theologically and socially conservative Christian who was also an advisor to President Obama, when I cam across this:
One of the things I found at the White House and since I left is this class of people who aren’t driving the political decisions right now, and have significant forces against them, but who are not satisfied with the political tribalism that we have right now. I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.
Politics, particularly ideology, has come to provide a meaning and purpose in our lives that I don’t believe it was ever intended. Ideology crowds out the human, makes us strangers, and insists we rule over others for our own protection (and their enlightenment).
It may be that as human beings, we crave meaning and purpose. I know I do, and I know I am flopping about right now (and have been for a few years) with meaninglessness and purposelessness and a deep loneliness born of an isolation from community. To an extent, the imaginary community in my head I form from this blog and meet in my ministry help, but those are highly mediated interactions (and I doubt their reality half the time), and my work as a reporter is also deeply isolating because I am a permanent spectator, and I rather like being a participant in the work of the community.
(It does not help being nearly 50, knowing that I am called to be a pastor, a shepherd of God’s people, also knowing no church will let me do that.)
Our current poverty doesn’t help either. It is hard to be connected to other people in a capitalist society structured to have us live atomized lives alone.
So I appreciate why politics, why ideology, takes up so much space. It connects us when nothing else does, creates shared purposed when nothing else can, gives life meaning when nothing else does. But Wear is right, this focus on politics, on the ability for human beings to save ourselves through political actions, does a “deep spiritual harm.” It fills us with false meaning and false hope and creates false connections. It substitutes an ideal humanity for a real one.
I have no answers. But I think part of the problem is our focus on greatness here. On world saving. I spend a lot of time covering local government, and it is the unglamorous part of government. It paves roads, pumps water, treats sewage. We miss the local because we no longer realize we all, mostly, live small lives together. Yes, the market has atomized us, turned us into consumers who aim for self-contained lives in which we share nothing. We no longer have the ability to think in terms of the small collective, the place in which we live, which has a town council and a school board and a noxious weed district.
This smallness is terribly unideological. In the recent election, a former NFL star and Tea Party type running for Congress called Barack Obama “a tyrant” in a public forum. No one countered him, but no one echoed his sentiment either. It was out of place, and did not belong, to the things that more or less matter even here as issues even in our degraded elections.
The people and the places that can hold on to that small collective will manage to weather the coming awfulness. It won’t always be pretty, and there will be hierarchies of human value — some people will always matter more than others. But survival won’t be found in attaching one’s self to a great cause and riding it to triumph. It will be found in the small things, and the small places, where it is possible to break through to each other and be human.