Last week, the Connecticut legislature passed a broad set of laws intended to limit gun violence, both by curtailing the availability of high-capacity guns and by increasing access to essential support services for those who live with mental illness. Now, many people read this blog, and I suspect that you represent a wide range of opinion on what should be done to try to prevent mass shootings, but that’s not what I want to write about today.
What struck me was the comment made by the Senate minority leader, John McKinney, who represents Newtown: “I wake up in the morning and put this green ribbon and pin on my jacket lapel to remember those we’ve lost…And what I’m proud of is that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, understood that some issues, and this one particularly, should rise above politics.” (Peter Applebome, “Legislators in Connecticut Agree on Broad New Gun Laws,” New York Times, April 1, 2013) I know what he meant;I think we all know what he meant. He meant that certain issues are of such crucial importance to our national and local well-being that we need to come together and address them in meaningful and substantive ways. In other words, they should be above, not politics, but partisanship.
What interested me was the slippage between the two words, because it seems to mirror a fundamental misconception that is trapping our legislators in stasis. Politics is not partisanship. Politics is the art of working with people with whom we disagree about quite a lot in order to discern our points of common interest and work together to do what needs to be done. Partisanship is about ideological purity; politics is about getting one’s hands dirty and doing the grunt work of democracy.
For all its emphasis on right conduct, the Christian tradition has little patience with false purity, purity that serves as an excuse to avoid caring for the people of God. One of the first things that happened after Christ’s resurrection was the development of dissension in the ranks. What did you need to do to be saved? Did Gentiles need to be circumcised? Were you allowed to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols? How did a Christian dress? What were the proper roles of men and women? Rather than standing secure in their own righteousness, the disciples convened a council: they laid out the issues that were dividing them and struggled to understand what God might be doing and fought with one another and, finally, came to an agreement that would allow the church to move forward. That compromise allowed Gentiles to be incorporated into the church; without it, we would not exist today.
St. Benedict gives good guidance on how to make this work: “As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger. The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately.” (Rule of Benedict, Ch. 3)
We do not often have one person whose role allows them to make all the final decisions, but the rest of the model would work well for our families, churches, and communities. 1) Decide which decisions are important enough to work on. 2)Lay out the issues with as much clarity as possible. 3) Listen to each person’s opinions and insights. 4) Include those on the margins, those who seem least important. Our decisions affect them, too. 5) Lay out each opinion carefully, but not obstinately; be willing to be persuaded that someone else’s way may be better than your own. 6) Be willing to try something new: the young whom Benedict specifically includes are the people least likely to be vested in the way things have “always” been.
In the end, Christianity is not about ideological purity, but about living into the bonds of mutual love. What would our country, our churches, or our families look like if we tried to live this way? How would your own behavior need to change?