Wednesday, May 19, 2010

U.S. politics catch up to postmodernism?

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
[Note: a different version of this post appears on my other website,]

So far I've only written about politics one other time on this blog, and that's an intentional move. I've never been too cracked up about politics as they're conceived and practiced in my home nation, the good ol' (although not that old) U.S. of A. For most of my voting life, I've been a registered independent, although had to declare an affiliation back in 2008 to participate in the interesting Iowa caucus system. Recently, I've avoided most news outlets that primarily focus on politics and that's been nice. But today, I got the bug to just peek at and read this top story: Activists seize control of politics.

So read on after the break to catch some of my thoughts on politics and more...

Seen a certain way - and I think the article above moves this direction - American politics seem to be catching up with broader currents of postmodernism in our society. Organizationally, this means (among other things) the breakdown of the authority of huge bureaucracies. Our political system is huge and has developed its fair share of bureaucratic baggage. Sure, there's still the two-party system, but holy cow is it ever a free-for-all these days. And the political process has finally caught up with the fracturing of the popular media into political camps that consumers choose based on their preference. MSNBC and FOX are campaign platforms (echo chambers) for the respective parties.

It's important to note I'm not making a Democrat vs. Republican/liberal vs. conservative argument here, because both parties are now hip to the new rules and realities and both have displayed their ability to successfully play the game. (I'm also at least partially aware that such a political free-for-all as we have now isn't new in the U.S., but more on that later.)

How's this for a highly selective reading of history:
  • Rush Limbaugh on the radio - early 90's
  • Blogs appear - 2002/3
  • Howard Dean raises a crap-load of campaign money on the internet - 2003/4
  • Joe Lieberman loses Democratic primary, wins as Independent - 2006
  • Obama campaign mobilizes a successful grassroots movement, on- & off-line - 2007/8
  • Rise of the Tea Party, another grassroots movement, who are now winning elections - 2009/10
Other factors:
  • Aforementioned rise of partisan cable news networks
  • Slow death of print newspapers (still ongoing)
  • Rise of social media (Twitter/Facebook/etc.), complementing blogs
  • Increasing convergence of net/social media on mobile telecommunications devices (your cell phone isn't just your cell phone anymore)
Here's how I see it: Our/America's Western society is becoming more tribal, and tribal lines are being drawn along technological/consumeristic lines, even in politics. The societal structures that formed this secular political nation-state in the 18th century are dissolving and we're seeing it all around us in so many different ways that most people are completely unaware of it. This is what strikes me as funny (not in a ha-ha way) when I see tea party activists getting themselves whipped up into a religious fervor about getting back to the basic principles that our nation's founders intended. This is my response: You can't go back home. I'm perhaps showing my partisan hand here, but trust me I'm just as suspicious of "the other side."

(Note: upcoming use of the masculine pronoun for God, which I simply echo from Isaiah, but use advisedly.)

My theological reading of all this starts with: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1) Political intrigue is written all over the pages of the Bible. At seminary, I'm in a book study course right now on Isaiah, and here's what I've learned about the considerable national/political intrigue found there: God is not amused. God wants a faithful people to follow his teaching, and what does he find? Nation plotting against nation, forging alliances, betraying alliances, and the people of Israel just as guilty as all the rest, implicated in the whole mess. It infects their faith and allegiance to God, it robs justice from the poor, the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans. Israel's wickedness favors those in power, including those in religious office, and makes a mockery of God's holy name. The consequence is dire: God gets upset and cleans house. Ultimately, there is hope and redemption, but not before the terrible cleansing.

I don't write much about politics because I see the church playing the role of Israel in this modern retelling of ancient near-eastern history, visible inside (theologically) and outside the Bible. Perhaps one reading could be that the now century-long liberal/conservative divide in the church becomes the monarchical Northern Kingdom/Southern Kingdom split in the house of Jacob. God's children, Israel, now divided, squabbling, raging, and grasping for all manner of weaponry with which to gain security (prosperity) or worse, smite their lost siblings. I want no part of such war.

Jesus, the author and perfecter of this particular and historical faith, holds no truths to be self-evident. Truth is evident only in allegiance/faithfulness to a God who has a particular story to tell, with long and arduous oral and textual history...based on people's lives and God's work therein. This story has been told through a particular people intended to be the reflection of God's goodness and greatness to all of creation. A blessing people, a priestly kingdom. But in Isaiah we see this people at a particular moment in history horrendously co-opted and far off the mark. So to take the shape of politics and religion in America as given (thanks to Phillip Kenneson) and, as a church, play along as if this were the way things have always been done is a terrible, terrible mistake. God was not amused then, why should now be any different?

Phew, listen to me getting all riled and and tribal about the faith! My heart's beating strongly in my chest! Well, this could go on and in many different directions, but I'll leave off with a striking passage from Isaiah 8, thus says the LORD through his prophet:

"Do not call conspiracy
    everything that these people call conspiracy;
    do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread,
    and he will be a sanctuary..." (NIV)

May God's people be aware. May we have a politics of faithfulness.

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