The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part One
These aren’t dirty words.
I believe the endeavor to rescue words from their negative connotations by redeeming them is a worthy endeavor, even though it may take slowing down and examining what exactly it is we’re saying. When we resist the temptation to toss out the baby with the bathwater, we can find some depth and clarity.
Let’s begin with “religion”. I feel blessed to have been raised in a church environment where religion was not necessarily presented to me as a negative thing; however, as I stepped into ministry later in life and engaged with people from all sorts of faith backgrounds I quickly realized how loaded that term was for many who had been hurt by a performance-based faith. Whittling the word back to it’s original Latin root, however, we find that it quite literally means “to reconnect, tie back, bind together”. The root, ligare, is the same root used for the word ligament. We could then define it like this:
Religion is the space in which we explore and express our faith.
It has become somewhat fashionable to use the idiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious” to differentiate between something life-given and something dead and outdated. I would oh-so-gently push back on that concept, because I think it is precisely religion that enables us to give definition and direction to our spirituality. We gather together in specific places at specific times, we use agreed-upon words and phrases and stories, we sing songs together, we pray, we participate in acts like holy communion. These are all religious endeavors used to ground us in our faith. Jesus was a religious leader. He prayed the Jewish daily rhythms, attended synagogue, listened to the readings from the Torah. For Jesus, these daily acts didn’t divert him from the goal of faith, but lead him into deeper acknowledgment of God and participation in his faith. In fact, it is quite often in the actions that we come to a deeper awareness of God’s heart. Jesus’ brother James makes the connection between believing and acting using precisely this language: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Secondly, politics. If religion has become a toxic word by the way in which it has been presented to us, then politics doubly so. It is something we would rather not engage with at all. Yet I would posit, and I know this sounds harsh, if we have the luxury of saying we’re not political or we don’t see the need to participate, it may betray the fact that the political systems currently in place favor our tribe or class. Yet for those who are a minority, who are poor, who are held back by those systems, politics are a daily reminder of their powerlessness. In order to be faithful to who God is calling us to be we must be willing to look beyond our personal privilege and see the things He cares about.
The word itself derives from the Greek polis, which means “of/for the people”. We can then say:
Politics are the way in which human beings are arranged in a society.
There is a necessity to consider how everyone is affected by the established rules and regulations in order to determine if political theories or practices are “good” or “bad”. It stands to reason that for us to operate in the public sphere as christians is not only a religious act (as we express faith in Jesus) but a political one (as we champion how God desires humans are treated). I recently heard an Australian member of parliament talk about the strangeness of being asked repeatedly how much her faith affected her work, as if those two sit side-by-side in her decision-making process. The reality is, our christian faith (culminating in “Jesus is Lord”) is the very lens through which we approach all other arenas of action. There should not be a sliding scale of influence.
So what exactly poisons these two terms in ways that we, quite naturally, want to shy away from them?
There are many factors to this problem, but I want to highlight one. I believe the fundamental human desire to belong is key to how we approach religion and politics. Consider in Genesis 2 that God creates man, places him in the garden, and then observes, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God then draws Eve out of man’s side in order to create human community, the first society guided by a politics of God as God. It seems strange to us that a man who has full access to the Divine would need any sort of company, but there is a brilliant truth here: community is not the source of our identity, but the place in which we explore our identities. Adam needed Eve to come to terms with his humanity, just as Eve needed Adam.
The Canadian philosopher-theologian Jean Vanier has this to say: “Belonging is important for our growth to independence; even further, it is important for our growth to inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us”. He rightly identifies that our desire to belong to a group, to find togetherness, is the path to growing into our true identities. After all, God himself is a community, and we are His image.
Yet so often we can idolize belonging to the point of giving over too much of our individuality in order to feel loved and accepted. These are things a tribe might directly ask of us for allegiance, though often they may be culturally implied as qualifiers to participate. Regardless, idolization manipulates desire and produces a performance mentality: I have to change who I perceive myself to be in order to belong. As painful as it may be, recall your middle- and high-school experiences. More often than not we conformed to expectations of language and sub-culture in order to belong to a certain group in order to satiate our feeling of being lost without a tribe. Perhaps that temptation never fully goes away.
The idolization of belonging powerfully affects the way we maneuver religion and politics. Too easily we can take up the badge and the ideals of our chosen tribe without considering the implications to our first definition as God’s children and His image-bearers. Before long, the tribe, not God, is our source, and what was intended to help us grow close to Him(religion) and keep us safe(politics) actually impedes our intimacy. One doesn’t have to look any further than the current presidential race to see people finding the answers for their struggles in a single person or ideology, and their vehement unwillingness to be even slightly critical of their tribe, blindly justifying anything their candidate might say.
We see this most poignant in Israel’s demand for a king “such as all the other nations have”(1 Sam. 8:4), a desire that stands in opposition to God’s desire for His people that He would be King. This distresses Samuel, and one can almost hear the heartbreak in God’s response. Israel has become blind to God’s protection and provision and abandons his ways to size up with everyone else. God, in His mercy, lets Israel get what they want, in hopes that they will see the err of their desires and turn back to Him.
And how often we do the same.
Next, we’ll discuss how understanding our primary citizenship in heaven dramatically changes how we approach our earthly government.
Read my preamble here.
- Consider those two words: religion and politics. How have they been presented to you? What negative experiences have you walked through that you may want to offer up for healing?
- Belonging is a beautiful thing, when put in it’s proper context. Think back on your own story: how did you seek out a place to feel loved and accepted? Even now, how do you approach the question of belonging in your words and actions?
1. This comment is from a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre in Australia after a lecture given by Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. If you have the time and the focus, I’d recommend the lecture here.
2. Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier. Possibly my favorite book, I read this once a year.