No matter what side of the political spectrum we hold to, it would be hard not to admit that the events of last week were unprecedented, and weird. You may think these events were awful and a disgrace on some our national leaders. You may think that they were a blow stuck in defense of liberty. But nonetheless, nothing like what we saw last week has ever happened before in American politics. It was weird.
To be honest, I struggled with an appropriate response, both internally and externally. I was struck by a sense that all of this seems hopeless; that our national political climate is spiraling out of control. Think of what we’ve had to process this year: pandemics, lockdowns, large-scale death, civil unrest, impeachments (now two), and presidential political uncertainty. It’s been difficult to say the least. And I find myself frustrated and looping on my disappointment both broadly in the whole system, and narrowly with those individuals I wish acted more honorably than they did and are.
And then I ask myself why I care at all. Because, Aristotle had it right, I think, man is (woman too) a political animal. This means we care about what happens in civil discourse. We are naturally concerned with the state of our politics locally, at the state level, and in the land of Oz, better known as Washington DC. Yet, it seems like I’ve been stuck in a cycle of caring too much about “politics” and less about civil life. I mean that my thoughts have been consumed with what is going on in our country at the national level and I have been equating that to my own personal quality of life on a day-to-day basis. I get personally offended when politicians don’t act in a way that I think is honorable as if they are intending to upset me personally. Said more simply, my life has become politics. I’m hoping that as I write this, I am not the only one. I’m hoping that some of you can relate to my dilemma.
As I was talking this over with my son, Caleb, he expressed some of the same concerns. But he had a perspective that helped me. He reminded me our civic life––we Lutherans would probably say our vocational life––starts and more often than not ends, closer to home. After I said I’d heard that somewhere before he just shook his head and laughed at me knowing my implication was, he learned that from me.
You see, when Aristotle claims we are all political animals, he doesn’t really mean that we all are or need to be obsessed with politics. Moreover, Aristotle’s claim is that we all live in a relationship and thrive on those relationships with others. In other words, we need society to function at a level that keeps us as content as we can be. The question then becomes, what is society and where is mine?
Lately, on our podcast, The Thinking Fellows, we’ve been doing a series that includes going over Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. As we go through it, one thing is clear, your society is made up of those Luther calls your neighbors. So, who are your neighbors? Well, everyone. Says Luther: “Every man is my neighbor, who although he hath done me some wrong, or hurt me by any manner of way; yet notwithstanding, he hath not put off the nature of man, or ceased to be flesh and blood, and the creature of God most like unto myself.” But, when we read the Catechism, we find out that in our day-to-day lives the list is narrower.
There is a section of that Catechism way at the back called the Table of Duties. This is where Luther teaches us how we ought to treat others and even act in civil society. He even goes into things like what a pastor owes parishioners and what parishioners owe their pastor. He also has a more global section on our roles as Christians in civil society. But the end of the list is more interesting. The end is where he tells us about our neighbors that God has directly placed into our lives. He talks about husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, as well as young people and their elders. He then closes off that section with discussing our vocation as a Christian. It’s great, you should check it out.
And here is the point Caleb made to me. Focus on your society. Have impact where you can; with those whom God has directly placed in front of you to love and serve and be loved by and served in return. You have a civil society, and so do I. I call them wife, children, grandchildren, co-workers, neighbors on my street. They all have names and they all have faces I instantly recognize. If they wrong me, I can forgive them, face-to-face, in the name of Christ. If I wrong them, I can repent to their face and receive forgiveness. I can watch my children get married and have children, and in the process, I can try to be a good husband, father, and grandfather.
You see, I will fail in this society. I will be the one acting dishonorably, often even when I think I am doing the right thing. But in this society, among my actual neighbors, Christ is present, and he is on the lips of the people I love and who love me in return. Christ always comes to us on the lips of another, sometimes, I pray on mine, and often, I know, on the lips of my neighbors.
I know this is too simplistic in many ways, as concern for what happens in this country nationally is important and inevitable. But I can’t stop asking myself this question: why would I trade this neighborhood for worries about a civil society so far away? I shouldn’t. Maybe, fewer of us should.