Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Good Example is Hard to Find

When I am preaching, one of the trickiest things is coming up with examples. This past weekend I used one that is important to me, but may strike you as odd. I said that we needed to be able to tell Jesus who we say He is when we are listening to the candidates and commentators in the upcoming months of our national election process.

In my own mind, I knew clearly what the challenge was that I was identifying, but was not certain exactly what course of action I would prescribe. Some folks, I fear, may not even have seen what the difficulty is. Listening? How could we fall into sin doing that?

First of all, why do we need to listen at all to the political dialogue? Why not just tune out the whole business? Well, we don’t need to listen to everything, surely, nor everybody. We should have criteria. But we do need to pay attention well enough to fulfill our obligations as citizens, and not to allow people to manipulate us.

What are the characteristics of Christian listening to political speech? The first word that comes to mind is skepticism, but a more accurate way to say it would be to listen critically. Is the speaker trying to get an emotional reaction out of you – positive or negative? Is he trying to make you feel threatened, or excited? Is his criticism ad hominem – Candidate or Party X doesn’t care about a) the poor or b) our national security, or is it a thoughtful assessment of potential flaws in the candidate’s proposal? If it is ad hominem, there is no reason we should credit the speech or the speaker.

Which brings us to another, trickier criterion. “Enlightened self-interest” is a principle of our economy and our political system. Nonetheless, as Christians we have to be wary of selfishness – our own and that of others, as well as those who appeal to it. Often folks look at a candidate and ask, what are you going to do for me? Unless it is in the context of our wanting the country, or our region, to thrive; or unless it is redressing some injustice, this is a very dangerous yardstick to take to the election. More often we are likely to see candidates offering certain groups something just for them that is a shameless appeal to selfishness. We also know that we don’t see the backroom deals where the real selfishness occurs, but that is a matter for their confessors, not yours.

Especially in these times when resources are constricting, it is sacrifice, not selfishness, that will animate any program of success. Everybody can quote Kennedy’s don’t ask what your country can do for you speech, but who is willing to call folks to sacrifice – measured, directed, and purposeful?

Finally, what we Christians bring to any political conversation needs always be first and last: charity. That begins with not claiming to be able to identify and condemn people’s motivations for their actions. Let the actions (and words) stand for themselves. It is also rooted in the humility of admitting to ourselves that we don’t get everything right, and not jumping on every single mistake.

Using these tools will help us determine very quickly to whom we should be listening. When we listen critically and find content rather than mere conviction, discover someone who is neither manifesting nor manipulating inappropriate self interest, and find in them evidence of both charity and humility, we will have found someone, candidate or commentator, who has something to say that we should hear. I am sad to say that it is precisely this of which I have found precious few examples.

Monsignor Smith