I’ve just returned from the Young Democrats Convention. There was plenty of drama and intrigue to go around. I sometimes felt frustrated and annoyed, but mostly I was excited to get a glimpse of the Democratic Party’s plans for 2006 and beyond and to begin strategizing to make those plans a reality.
After all the hope and all the planning over the weekend, it was irritating to drive back to Atlanta on 316. Just as I was beginning to have a picture of Georgia as a progressive, populist state, billboards every mile or so quoting God shoved another picture of Geogia: “Don’t make me come down there. – God” and “You think it’s hot now, just keep taking my name in vain. – God” are just two examples of the religious fervor that bombards the hapless driver. Who knew God was such a smart ass?
This use of religion can only make its adherents feel smug and self-satisfied and the rest of us angry. Surely no one thinks that these signs actually produce converts. Great. Another example of religion widening the divide between red and blue in America. Just what we need.
Such divisiveness is particularly troubling to me. I live in two worlds – the world of Democratic Party politics and progressive activism and the world of Christian ministry. For the past couple of years I have spent significant time in the political world. This fall, my attention will shift somewhat when I start attending seminary full time and I concentrate my efforts on my ministry. To me, though, these worlds are integrated and political activism will continue to be a part of my life. One world would not exist without the other. I see no conflict.
However, I am used to both my political friends and my religious friends having a hard time understanding why I see it this way. Therefore, it was refreshing to read this article on Alternet written by a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas. He and his congregation have recently allowed an atheist to become a member. As a result, this pastor has received angry mail from Christians who conclude that liberals will stop at nothing and have no convictions. At the same time the atheist member has been criticized by his community for joining a superstitious, morally bankrupt organization. But, the pastor explains, “neither the church nor Jensen views his membership as surrendering anything, but instead as an attempt to build connections. Such efforts are crucial in a world where there seems not to be a lot of wood to build the bridges we need. And the shame is, while we fight among ourselves, the world is burning.”
Personally, it’s very difficult for me to talk about publicly about religion. I’m so embarrassed by the religious right and the historical examples of intolerance, persecution and complicity in crimes against humanity. I’d rather not be associated with the likes of George Bush, John Ashcroft and Pat Robertson. But I’m inspired by the movements of the past that have been motivated by religion – the civil rights movement, India’s fight for independence, and abolition. I’m also encouraged by the work of religious leaders like Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of the Left Hand of God. These are religious progressives who are brave enough to start the conversation about the left’s need to build relationships with religious people. I hope that I can be an advocate for cooperation between spirituality and politics in my ministry.
The world is suffering. It needs healing. Who will help us in our cause? How can we include them in our plans? Can we be inclusive enough so that believers and non-believers can work together to save this world? After this weekend’s convention, can we even be inclusive enough to work with different chapters and with members who have different levels of experience and maturity? Can we be inclusive enough to work with people who have different priorities than whatever our pet cause may be? It’s hard for me to believe it’s possible. Those highway 316 billboards are so hateful and I know how frustrated I get working with people who have a different perspective from me. It’s easier just to go home and seek out my own kind.
I guess in order to build bridges and make connections we have to start slowly. Maybe open ourselves a little by trying to listen to others instead of planning our response while they’re still talking – actually try and get inside their head for a while and understand where they’re coming from. That’s something I could certainly practice.
Thinking about Cathy Cox’s speech on Saturday gives me another idea as well. I was so impressed by her vision for a state of Georgia we would actually be proud to live in. Listening to her made it easy for me to forget bickering and infighting. I think we have to fall in love with a vision of where we’re going to the point where we forget our grievances and reach out to anyone who might help us get there. We have to trust that we won’t lose ourselves in the process of sharing that vision with those who are different.