A Reflection on the Debate: Living Above The Line

A few years back, I was reading Brian McClaren’s trilogy of
books, A New Kind of Christian, which
challenged my thinking in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to the
formation of a particular worldview. McClaren used a simple continuum to
illustrate the lenses that Americans through which people in general (and
Americans in particular) tend to view the world. The continuum looks like this:

A
—————————————————————————————————B

On the left (A) side of the continuum you have, well, The
Left or “liberal” worldview and on The Right (B) side is the “conservative”
worldview. The two sides represent a set of magnetically charged opposites that
tend to exert a significant pull on people and groups toward one or the other. We
become identified by the candidate bumper sticker on our car, our position on a
social issue, the news channel we watch, and we locate ourselves (or are
located by others) somewhere along the continuum. The only place you really
can’t be on the cultural continuum is in the middle. To be a moderate, to be a
compromiser, is to insure that you won’t get invited to the party, let alone
get elected.

Nowhere
does this continuum become more overtly apparent than in an election year. The
presidential debates are a kind of dog and pony show for the liberal and
conservative poles of the continuum, with each candidate rehearsing a series of
speeches and zingers designed to delight the people on their side while
questioning the intelligence, sanity, and personal hygiene of the other side.
Think of it as a more sophisticated and expensive version of the kind of stuff
that happens on Facebook every day—a schoolyard, neener-neener,
“My-candidate-can beat-up-your-candidate” kind of thing.

We
have come to expect this from our political process and might even have a sense
of gallows humor about it. But watching the debate tonight and thinking about
the entrenchment of the continuum, I was reminded of something that the late Edwin
Friedman wrote in his withering critique of leadership, A Failure of Nerve. Friedman wrote that what is happening in the
American “family” today is the result of a chronically anxious system that
pulls leaders so far to the poles of the continuum that they cannot take
principled stands for the good of the whole country without angering their
voter base. Presidential leadership in the 21st century is much less
about principles than it is about opinion polls. The most anxious people set
the leader’s agenda.

Friedman
offered five characteristics of a chronically anxious system that I think
describe to a tee what we have become as a nation (and what we hear in the
debates):

1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each side to
events and to one another (angry exchanges, name-calling, “zingers,”)

2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness
triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the
least mature members (giving strength to the extremists).

3. Blame displacement: an emotional state in which members focus on
forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their
own being and destiny (blaming the liberal or conservative media, for example).

4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly
seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change (“On my first day of
office, I will…” or “We will fix this issue in four years.”).

5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that
both stems from and contributes to the first four.

Watching the debate and the rhetoric and conduct of not
only this campaign but every campaign makes me think that we have much less of
a political problem than we do a leadership problem.

That
problem extends to the church as well. Interestingly, news came out this week
about a group of a thousand pastors who are going to defy the 1954 IRS statute
that prohibits pastors and churches from endorsing particular candidates or
telling people how they should vote. They’re preaching partisan sermons and
sending video of them to the IRS (again, neener-neener). But in my view, that’s
simply buying into the continuum. It’s not leadership—it’s anxiety dressed up
as leadership.

While
the continuum characterizes us and our anxiety, McClaren wants to remind us
Christians that Jesus (who in my opinion was the most differentiated person who
ever lived) doesn’t fit on our continuum. Indeed, says McClaren, Jesus always
seems to be operating somewhere above the line, touching some points of intersection
along the continuum and yet transcending them both. Jesus expresses a clear
vision called the kingdom of God and then lives his life laser-focused on that
vision through his preaching, healing, and table fellowship. He endures the
sabotage of a cross without blaming his tormentors or playing the victim. He
chooses forgiveness, rather than blame. He offers people no quick-fix solutions
to their problems—only the long road of cross-bearing discipleship. He walks
out of the tomb with scars on his risen body, reminding his people that real
change only comes through sacrifice.

I
really believe that Jesus is inviting those who would follow him to step off
the continuum and spend less time immersing ourselves in the rhetoric of
politicians and more time learning how his way, his truth, and his life offers
an alternative worldview. The politics of the kingdom and the leadership and
Lordship of Christ should be dominating our attention and setting our agenda,
regardless of what the politicians do.

Somewhere
along the line (pun intended), the Church decided to adopt the
liberal/conservative continuum and separate itself into the same polar opposite
worldview. My prayer is that the Church would choose to cease its collusion
with the culture and instead engage in a long season of deep study and
reflection on the politics of the kingdom. Perhaps then we can recapture a
prophetic voice—a differentiated voice—that speaks the truth to power.

So,
vote for the candidate of your choice but remember that the only leader who
really matters in the end is actually the one who is Lord.

 

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