By Joe Boyd
In the early 1980s, Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill popularized a phrase that has stayed in the American lexicon ever since: “All politics is local.” I find that phrase moderately comforting at this time in American history when our political dialogue seems to have gone off the rails.
I’m an advocate for individuals being politically active at national, state, and municipal levels. I also respect those who are less active for calculated reasons. That said, I have come to believe the church cannot afford to be inactive in the most local of contexts. This may mean formal involvement in community forums and school boards, but I think there is a “politic” even smaller and more important than that.
Affairs of the City
Words change emphasis through time, of course, but I use the word politic (singular) to hark back to the concept’s original meaning. Literally, politic means “the affairs of the city.” It’s everyday community life.
The more we begin to see people living next to us as people, the less we become entrenched idealogues. This is true on both sides of the aisle. When our held-firm political ideals are met face-to-face with a human being, something most unexpected tends to happen. To put it eloquently, we chill out.
If we look at some of the political hot buttons that most divide us as opportunities to “go local,” communities can begin to change. The most important question to ask is often, “Do I have a true friend who happens to be . . . ?”
Do I have a friend who happens to be Muslim? Once you do, things start to recalibrate.
Do I have a friend who happens to be transgender? I do. It has made what I thought was a fringe behavior something very real and important to me.
Do I have a friend who happens to be gay?
Do I have a friend who happens to know firsthand the reality of systemic poverty?
Do I have a friend who happens to be addicted to drugs?
Do I have a friend who happens to be very wealthy?
Do I have a friend who happens to have a special need?
Do I have a friend who happens to be in the United States illegally?
Do I have a friend who happens to be an outspoken atheist?
Do I have a friend who happens to be much more conservative than I?
Jesus was a friend of “sinners.” It should be noted that, though Jesus would sometimes use that word as a springboard for his teaching, it was originally introduced by his enemies to discredit him. Jesus’ enemies saw him with the “less than” people and immediately labeled the outcasts as “sinners.”
Clearly, Jesus saw sin in people and in the world, but he did not see it as his self-righteous opponents did. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were similar to the immovable political pundits on our cable news networks today. They are the conservatives who see every liberal as ridiculous or the liberals who see every conservative as ignorant. Labeling people is without question the easiest way to dehumanize. Once we dehumanize people and make them policies to be debated, we can be as hateful to them as we choose.
Jesus, the Operative
Jesus changed everything. He was the rabbi in the middle of the party culture, the guru among cheaters and liars, the holy man who befriended and empowered prostitutes.
Jesus was arguably the biggest political operative in all of antiquity. You could make a case he still is today. Remarkably, he chose to keep his politic local even though he could have made many power plays. (I happen to believe this is the main point of the temptation narratives in the Gospels.) He loved those in front of him with reckless abandon. He confronted the abusers of power to their face, not behind their backs. Yes, he was executed as a threat to the Roman Empire—but all he did was love those in Galilee and the surrounding areas. That’s the most dangerous sort of politics.
For those of us who follow him, we are called to be friends of the ones others may call “sinners.” It’s the only way to change the world because all politics is local . . . and personal.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.