Religion and Politics

You’ve probably heard the saying “You shouldn’t talk politics or religion in polite company.” I have two things to say about that – 1. Wrong. You shouldn’t talk politics or religion in the company of people who are more concerned with being right than in seeing the humanity of others, with people who have no interest in learning, and with people who are most concerned with their own comfort and not having to do any self-examination. 2. How’s that working for you? Avoidance of difficult topics doesn’t make them go away. It usually means we get worse at dealing with them, we live in a fantasy world, or we are so privileged that we think we are exempt from having to deal with these things while other people don’t have a choice in the matter.

What am I talking about? Especially on the second point. Not talking about religion and politics is often equated with being apolitical. But the reality is that there is no such thing as apolitical.  It’s just avoidance of talking about these things. Not talking about something actually says a whole lot without saying a word.  Not talking about politics is actually making a whole lot of political statements. What really matters though is how you talk about something and what the focus is about.  What is the foundation?

I’ve done this before and I’ll say it again here – there is a difference between political and partisan. They are related, but not the same thing. Political is a broader category. Political has to do with how decisions are made. Political has to do with relationships. Political has to do with governing. It also has to do with campaigning, messaging, and more. Partisan has to do with political parties and ideologies. There’s a difference between being partisan and being political. Partisanship is about advancing a political party or candidate. Being political can deal with a campaign, but usually goes far beyond that. Here’s an example – It is political to advocate for the poor, or a specific policy or bill because that policy or bill, if enacted, will raise the standard of living for the poor. It is partisan to say that only party x fights for the rights of the poor and that’s why you should vote for that party.

How we talk about these things matters greatly. It is a mistake to equate political with partisan. Not everything is partisan. Nor should it be.

Back to the main point – not talking about a topic says a whole lot about that topic. The deeper issue though becomes why we might not talk about a topic. Maybe we don’t know enough about the topic. Then we need to ask why not? Do we think it doesn’t affect us? Were we not taught about it? What’s going on? Should we care?

Maybe we don’t talk about a topic because it is uncomfortable to talk about. That raises a whole other set of questions like – why? Why do we think we deserve to be comfortable about this topic? Why is our comfort more important that the comfort of those impacted by the topic?

Maybe we don’t talk about a topic for some other reason – it is considered unclean in some way, or in conflict with a norm or the culture or sub-culture we are a part of. This might raise a slew of other questions.

Maybe we don’t talk about a topic because we are concerned about getting into a fight over it. This goes back to the first point I made – who are you talking with and what is their openness to actually having a conversation, rather than just winning an argument.

I have found that a good portion of political, partisan, and theological fights devolve into attacks against another person – not just the positions or ideas they may have about a topic. Why do people feel the need to verbally attack someone else who disagrees with them? The easy answer is that the other person is perceived as a threat. The other person, and their associated religious or theological belief system threaten the person who is launching the attack against them. Maybe it’s a perceived threat against their identity. For many people, their beliefs are tied to their identity.

For some people, the threat lies in another area – confidence. When we don’t feel fully confident, we put up our defenses. We recognize that there are weaknesses or holes that we just don’t know about. Maybe we haven’t thought very deep about a topic, instead relying on arguments we have heard from those we trust, but not actually done our own thinking about it. We might feel vulnerable.

Another reason people attack in such situations is because what is threatened is their sense of knowing. Knowing gives us a sense of control. It makes us feel secure.

In a way, control and knowing help us avoid death, or a variation of it. This doesn’t have to be literal death though. It could mean a more figurative form of death. Maybe the death of an idea or belief. Humans, especially in our modern times, and in especially in Western cultures, seem to be hellbent on avoiding anything to do with death. We go to great extremes with this – either completely avoiding any hint of talking about it or dealing with it, or sensationalizing it to the point of ridiculousness and being unbelievable. Why do we do this? Because death has a role that we don’t like. It gets in our face and reminds us that we are not in control. And if we are honest, we know that and it scares us.

Attacks are also a way of dealing with the pain that is inside of ourselves. How we deal with pain matters. There are healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with pain. Unhealthy ways of dealing with our own pain often involve lashing out at others in the hope that this will ease our own pain. But it doesn’t work. It never does. It might provide us with short term relief, but that wears off quickly and the underlying pain remains because we never actually dealt honestly with source of our pain. This is why when we are attacked, it is best to stop, take a breath, and listen for the pain the attacker is in. It’s about connecting with this person where they are. These attacks are designed to cause pain. But that can only happen when accept a truth in the attack. It is far better to see an attack for what it is and turn back to the attacker and listen for their pain that they are lashing out from. It is better to see their humanity and find a way to connect with them in their pain. To turn an attack into a cry for help.

Religion and politics are important topics that we should not avoid having conversation about. We should avoid unhealthy ways of talking about them. Instead, let’s talk about religion and politics. And let’s do it in a way in which we can learn from each other, we can see each other’s humanity, we can be vulnerable with each other, we can grow, we can see what we have in common, we can move past right/wrong and instead move towards progress for our communities. Let’s talk about religion and politics in ways that offer healing for both you and I together. Let’s talk about religion and politics in ways that tap into our ideals. Let’s talk about religion and politics in ways that make people want to be a part of them, not avoid them. Let’s talk about religion and politics in ways that acknowledge difficult and painful realities and also offer repair so we can move towards wholeness.

Let’s talk about religion and politics, not avoid them. Avoiding doesn’t maintain peace. It maintains a lie. Talking about religion and politics isn’t easy. But it can be life giving. The potential is there.

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