I was reading the New York Times and eating a sandwich at the Potbelly around the corner from the Target on Elston at the beginning of this week when a man who was washing the windows interrupted me to ask if there was any good news on the economy. I wasn’t sure what he meant. The economy has been so bad for so long, but most of the stories in the Times that day were about the new Republican majority in the House, and what might be expected from them. I wasn’t in the mood for a conversation about politics. I just wanted to eat my sandwich in peace.
“Well,” I answered, “it sounds like the new Congress is looking at massively reducing federal spending, making cuts across the board in some pretty important areas like education and healthcare.” I turned my attention back to my newspaper, hoping I’d fulfilled my social obligation.
The pause was only a couple seconds long before the window washer inquired, “well, what do you think? Is that a good idea?”
I felt a little trapped. I didn’t really want to talk politics with a stranger over lunch. I don’t know how all of you are with this subject, but I get a little nervous talking politics these days. The climate in our country is so divided, and it’s not just in Washington. We’ve heard it all before, but it remains true that in today’s media-saturated environment, people can pretty much read the newspapers, watch the television and follow the internet sites that support their political and social perspectives without being challenged to seriously consider conflicting points of view. There’s plenty of conflict in our news today, but not the kind of healthy, creative conflict that leads to new thinking and new solutions. It’s mostly the kind that leads to entrenched opinions and disregard for those who differ from us.
And like I said, I’d just come for my sandwich.
“Well, I’ll admit I’m torn on this one,” I took a deep breath and replied. “I understand that taxes are how we provide for the common good, and I’m not thrilled with the idea of cutting money out of our school budgets, or reversing the gains we’ve made in providing health care for uninsured Americans. But, these property taxes are killing me, and I don’t understand why we’re not talking about cuts in military spending when even top military brass are calling for those cuts.”
I watched his face and waited to see if this was going to get ugly. He was still listening.
He nodded, “yeah, we’ve outsourced all our wars to the contractors anyways. We’ve got dishwashers making more money than our soldiers and serving in the same place. It’s a mess.”
Oh good, I hadn’t offended him too much. I could politely slip back into my solitude and finish my lunch.
“What do you do?” he continued.
“I’m a pastor.”
“Oh, then you’re required to be against the military,” he said.
Now come on! First politics, then religion? Was this man completely unfamiliar with the rules of etiquette? No politics or religion at the dinner table, and I was trying to eat my lunch!
“Well, I’m not against the military, I’m for peace. I think we all are, but we don’t always agree on how to make peace and how to preserve it.” My mind went to an article I’d just read about how President Obama had named Reinhold Niehbur as one of his favorite theologians. Niehbur is remembered among other things for his philosophy of Christian Realism. In the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Niebuhr reminded us that human perfection is so clearly an illusion, and that Christians must deal with the violent realities of the world in which we live, which is not the reign of God.
He also wrote the Serenity Prayer, used in so many 12-step groups and known by practically everyone, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can change, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
“People look to their pastors though, to help them decide what’s right and wrong. That’s gotta be heavy for a young guy like you. And the Muslims, nobody likes the Arabs.”
Oh God, I felt like I was sinking. I tried a bit of scripture, “Peter preaches in the book of Acts that ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God.]”
He looked at me with a new skepticism. It was that moment we all know, when the chasm in our politics is laid bare, and the truth comes out. “There’s so much that’s wrong with our world today,” he replied. “Our nation is falling apart. There are, you know, like ten things that happen when a nation is dying. They’ve happened in every great nation right before they fall. And the first is all this multiculturalism.”
I was speechless. Not because I’ve never heard this before, just that I had no speech to deliver. I just wanted to eat my sandwich and read my paper, and not think about how to answer in a kind and Christian way the charge that multiculturalism, which I understood in this context to mean racial diversity, is destroying our nation. I blinked twice.
“You’re not saying anything, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ll let you finish your meal.” He picked up his bucket and walked away. I was quiet for a moment, trying to understand the feeling of personal failure that now rested on me.
Talk of politics, whether it’s at the corner store or in the pulpit, makes people nervous. I know. We come to church some mornings just hoping for a few words to encourage us, a bit of good news. We just want to eat our bread and drink our wine and be left alone, or barring that, to gather in the company of those who already believe as we do.
But that kind of community does a dangerous disservice to the gospel.
Yesterday morning, standing outside a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot through the head along with at least 17 others in an attack that killed six, including a U.S. District Court judge, John Roll, and a 9 year-old little girl, Christina Green. Giffords, who is in critical but stable condition following brain surgery, had been receiving death threats for months for her vocal opposition to new immigration enforcement laws passed in Arizona over the past year. She was the rare Democrat in a largely Republican area.
Her shooter showed many signs of instability in the weeks before yesterday’s incident, and he bears responsibility for his own behavior. Still, already we are hearing that campaign materials had been circulated showing crosshairs over the names of opposition lawmakers, including Congresswoman Giffords – indicating that in our divided nation, politics has become a kind of civil war in which opponents are eliminated rather than listened to and respected for the truths they have to offer.
Again, Peter preaches,
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God.] Y
ou know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the only one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sin through his name.
On this Sunday, in which we celebrate both the baptism of our Lord and the epiphany that God is a light to all nations, even those who are divided against themselves, we hear and remember once again that to eat and drink with Christ is to be called to witness to what God has done. The words leap off the page, “God shows no partiality… in every nation… preaching peace… Lord of all… he commanded us to preach… he is the only one ordained by God as judge… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness.”
We have to allow our mealtimes to be interrupted, by both politics and religion. God has commanded us to preach – not a sectarian gospel of self-righteousness, but the good news that only God is judge; that no one is beyond forgiveness; that no nation, or political party, has the lock on truth, but that each is filled with God’s beloved children.
In fact, we are not only called to allow these divisive topics to interrupt our meals, we are called to sit down at table and break bread with the very people with whom we disagree. We are called to be witnesses and peacemakers, and we begin – as we do each week – by sharing bread and wine at the Lord’s table, remembering that by our baptisms we have been made one family to each other.
I don’t have much else to say. I am still, in some ways, speechless. The violence that erupted in Arizona is horrifying, and yet all too familiar in these years of school yard shootings and clinic bombings. We seem to have lost whatever capacity we had for civil conversation and honest disagreement. Every disagreement is prelude to a war. But I do believe that in Christ there is no east or west, no Republican or Democrat, no American or Afghani, even no Christian or Muslim.
We are all acceptable to God. We are all God’s beloved children. Lord, forgive us for our words and deeds that hide this simple truth from a world hungry for peace, and feed us at your table.