Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politics All the Way Down: On Rick Perry's "The Response"

In early August, a friend of mine sent a message out to a dozen or so people he trusted to help him in a process of discernment. He lives in Houston and was drawn to attend (with his family) Ricky Perry's "The Response." However, he had heard vitriolic critiques leveled at the event, going so far as to call it a heretical event. He was honestly seeking to discern whether attending would be a wise decision, feeling as he did (and does) the moral and spiritual and political morass in which the nation finds itself today. Others replied, more or less unanimously in support of going -- even if not personally enthusiastic about it -- while I offered a different perspective. I thought it would be worthwhile to share it here, much after the fact, for reflection. (A bit of an epilogue is attached to the end.)

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Thanks so much for your thoughtful message. As you might imagine, I have lots of thoughts, so I'll try to organize them in some kind of coherent way.

1. Regarding the event as "heresy," I can't imagine on what grounds someone would make that claim. And I'm not sure if the source (I couldn't find it on Google) is "left wing" (and so not liking this "right wing" event) or "super right wing" (and so not liking something that's to the so-called "left" of it). Either way, heresy is a big accusation, and doesn't just mean "bad idea," but is a categorical claim that some belief or practice stands in direct opposition to the gospel, such that a Christian could not share in it without thereby undoing their own Christian identity. "The Response" is something worth critically thinking about, but it's hard to imagine finding grounds to label it heresy, at least in my book.

2. Having said that, I do have real and serious concerns about the event, more or less all of which are in contrast to the responses I saw from others who responded to your message. Let's see if I can get them in a readable order...

a. I appreciate and admire your desire to get "beyond" politics, or to set politics aside, but I don't think that's possible in this situation. This event is inherently political: organized and led by the governor of Texas, bathed in American colors/language/etc., "by" and "for" Americans concerned about the status of their nation. I can't imagine anything more political!

b. This is more of an aside, but I am also working out of the assumption that there can finally be no clear line between "spiritual" and "political." By that I don't mean that "the spiritual" always picks a side in governmental policy -- there is always ambiguity and disagreement there -- but rather that "the political" names the thousandfold perspectives and practices that make for "living our life together," for ordering our shared life in the neighborhood, municipality, town, city, state, region, nation. So that even something as simple as worshiping Jesus as Lord is a political act, because, even though it seems normal or "only" spiritual, it says to the rulers and authorities that they aren't ultimately in charge, and that we serve a different master -- which means that they can't be sure of our obedience or loyalty, which in turn is an enormous political fact.

c. Returning to "The Response" (TR for short): my concern is that this event is political in a bad way. First, because it is spearheaded and advertised by the sitting governor of Texas, a profoundly conservative Republican politician who -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- is a potential presidential candidate. That fact alone "colors" TR in a certain way that, in my opinion, marks it out as a certain kind of political territory; and that kind of political alignment quickly becomes a popular alignment between "that party" and "those Christians," whether true or not, since it is a public event and so a matter of public perception. And that, to me, seems not to be a good thing.

d. Second, apart from the political partisanship in play, there is an extraordinary blurring of the lines between "Christian" and "American" (or "church" and "nation") here that makes me extremely uncomfortable. Notice the video ad by Perry: what is he standing in between? A cross and a communion table? Nope: an American flag and a Texas flag. Note also the confusion of "we" language in his address and in the longer video accompaniment: Who exactly is the "we"? Is it "we Christians," the "we" of the church? Or is it "we Americans," the "we" of the nation? The constant overlap seems to imply that "we" names a single subject, when there are always two; moreover, it suggests that the "dominant" identity is American, to which "Christian" is subordinate.

In other words, it is not the church that is gathering in Houston to pray for the country in which it happens to reside, but rather the nation as such, praying out of a fierce loyalty and overriding patriotism and identity-giving love for the country. But can Christians "be" and "feel" that way, when they know that America is merely one nation among others, a mere grain of sand or blade of grass before God, to be raised up and brought down at whatever point in history? "America" names something temporal and non-lasting, and so something which cannot ground our fundamental identity: nothing more (but also nothing less) than the concrete neighbors to whom we have been sent in mission, to witness to God's kingdom -- which mission and kingdom give us our true identity.

e. I also have concerns about something that seems to be less on the surface, but no less a part of TR. It is this subtle theme of "bad things happening to us recently," and that this is related somehow to "we" (again, as a nation) not being in proper relation to God. I have encountered this before, and while I realize it means well, it strikes me as somewhat of a bizarre notion. The implication seems to be that if "we" (Americans) get "back" (was there some previous golden age?) into a proper relationship to God, as a nation, then prosperity, or a lack of problems, or a lack of natural disasters, or other bad things will stop happening to us. Which then implies that those things are God's punishment of "us" for not being who "we" need to be.

To be honest, I can't make heads or tails of this, except as straightforward prosperity gospel. By contrast, the church-we, disciples of Christ, know that suffering and hardship and difficulty are not consequences of disobedience, but something we should expect just as much if not more so when we are faithful, as well as what happens "to the just and the unjust alike"! So how could we interpret "bad things happening" in themselves as God's judgment on us or punishment of us?

f. Besides what would it even look like for the nation as a whole to "get back on track"? Sometimes there is this notion that there was a golden age in the past when America was "more" Christian or more "faithful" -- but that is 100% false. It certainly wasn't in the first 90 years of horrific enslavement of black brothers and sisters, nor the following century of rampant abuse and exclusion and bigotry, alongside poverty, war, and mistreatment of women. (And this, no matter how many people were going to church or self-identified Christians.)

That leads us up to the last 50 years, which I doubt anyone would call an exemplary time of America's relationship to God. Hence my queasiness with these kinds of sentiment: they seem to posit a return to some kind of prior mythical "good" time, when there in fact was none; and they seem also, simultaneously, to suggest that if only we'd get our house in order, then bad stuff would stop happening. But unless we're willing to jump on the prosperity gospel train, I can't see endorsing that way of thinking.

f. Last two thoughts. First, regarding sincerity: I don't disagree at all with some others who replied to your message, talking about certain people organizing and involving themselves with TR, that they are sincere and well-meaning and faithful believers who only want to submit themselves to God on behalf of a tired and struggling nation. Nor do any of my comments above have anything to do with your own desire to participate, insofar as you are coming from a place of serious and authentic desire to turn to God, before anything else, for comfort and deliverance in times that are truly challenging for us and our neighbors and the nation in which we find ourselves.

My thoughts and comments have to do with the event itself, with what it "is" and "stands for," and with the implicit philosophy or worldview that seems to be driving it. My only critique of the claim to sincerity is the following: I don't think sincerity of heart is the only thing to evaluate in situations like this. People can be well-meaning and have good character and still be wrong -- or, at the very least, they can go about what they want to achieve in a less-than-wise way. That's not an indictment of the men and women themselves, only an indication of how ridiculously complex all this is.

g. Finally, I should be clear that I think many of the stated purposes and objectives of TR are worthwhile things I agree with: seeking God's leading; repenting of injustice; prayer for wisdom and guidance; communal expressions of worship and self-forgetfulness; etc. It would be interesting to imagine what faithful forms of these and other practices might be on the part of the church, and/or how those might intersect with something like a national (non-religious/non-Christian/inter-faith) expression of repentance/turning/changing/justice-seeking, if at all. My interpretation of "The Response" is simply that I don't think it succeeds on either front, but rather is a self-damaging blend of the two.

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My friend ended up going, and afterwards wrote about how powerful and meaningful an experience it was. Other than what he perceived to be a couple minor exceptions, the event seemed to be apolitical, God-focused, and uplifting -- with Perry largely sidelined. Moreover, he said that the makeup of the attendees was as ethnically and socioeconomically diverse as anything he'd ever participated in, perhaps reflecting the political diversity present, too. In the subsequent weeks, however, I noted the essays and articles piling up in critique of the event, seemingly confirming my fears about it. I sent some along to him; he politely but firmly demurred, and again defended himself and the event; and so I replied with my concluding thoughts below.

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Thanks for your thoughtful reply. A brief reply of my own:

To some extent, it seems like this comes down to a question prior to the one about whether the event was authentic and God-glorifying "on the inside." That question is: How should Christians, particularly in America, evaluate and discern their participation in particular events whose image presented to society is likely to communicate something negative -- especially if what is communicated does not "match" what actually occurs within the event itself?

My open bias and inclination is always suspicion, particularly of events bound up with governmental politics. Hence, whether it was actually the case -- and from your report, which I of course trust, it sounds like (at least in some respects) it definitively was not the case -- the broad cultural image cast around the country of "The Response" was a kind of "warm-up with the evangelicals" for Perry as a lead-up to his announcement to run for President. And, to be honest, that remains my cynical (but sincere) reading.

Thus, the question now becomes: If all that is true, can the event have been as authentic and God-present as it seemed to you?

And I want to make clear that I think the answer to that second question can still be "Yes" even if the motivations and political machinations behind the scenes were as cynical as I suspect (or, better, fear).

In the end, who knows? I'm glad it was a good experience, and so cross-culturally edifying. I retain my doubts about Perry, even as I'm delighted to hear that he wasn't exactly center stage. In any case, glad to have the dialogue.

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