Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Problem of Partisanship

The scripture referred to is made to 2 Corinthians 5:6-17.

I've never understood the fervor people have for their hometown team. It's not like you chose the team because it's the best one around. It could just as easily be the worst team in the nation. We all know of cities who continue to support teams that lose year after year. Then again it might be a good team. But that's not why you chose it. You chose it because of geography; because you live near it.

Which is fine. They represent your city or region. But getting into heated fights with fans of other teams makes no sense. After all they chose their team for geographical reasons as well. And most, if not all of the team members, probably did not come from anywhere local but were hired from somewhere else with offers of millions of dollars. If someone else had offered more, they would probably have gone to that club's town. Look at LeBron James. He was beloved by the citizens of Cleveland until he went to play for Miami and then he was vilified. Until he returned to Cleveland, where he is treated as a hero again. Nothing changed about LeBron's athletic ability, just his location in space and the team he played for. Cleveland and Miami's shifting attitudes were pure partisanship.

Partisanship is when you are loyal to a side or a party, period. It has nothing to do with that side's virtues or the others' vices. It has nothing to do with ideology or causes. Partisans forgive flip-flops made by their own side simply because it is their side. And they will attack and ridicule the other side, regardless of its views or virtues simply because it is the other side. We see this in politics. It doesn't matter if the idea your opponents are supporting used to be the brainchild of your own party. Once the other party adopts it you are against it. If the other party suddenly declared itself anti-cancer, your party might seriously consider being pro-cancer, if you can just find the right spin, because you cannot admit that they might be right about something. When you are partisan, winning is more important than being right or being good or being reasonable. The ends justify any means you can think of, even if it goes against everything you supposedly believe in.

We see this partisanship in the church, too. Some people are more committed to their denominations than they are to God and refuse to admit that their denomination is or ever has been wrong, nor that another denomination might have some good points. When people do things in the name of Christ that contradict what Jesus actually said or stands for, that's not Christianity; that's partisanship. It's mindless loyalty to a side.

Partisanship is all about the superficial. It's about brands or symbols or colors or certain words or phrases or gestures or rituals. What it's not about is substance. And if you think about it, a lot of the problems we have in our society are about partisanship and not about anything substantive. Our politics are about getting elected and reelected and money and media and images and getting people stirred up about anything at all so long as it helps the politician. What it is not about is being wise and just leaders serving the common good. What it is not about is engaging with important issues and coming up with real solutions. Partisanship cares more about being seen as a winner than actually solving problems. In fact, resolving things works against partisanship because it thrives on conflict.

The problem with partisan words and actions is that in this superficial world a lot of people take them at face value. A lot of damage is done to religions when highly visible members do and say things that are purely partisan but which the public sees as characteristic of the beliefs or practices of that group. I am thinking of the Florida pastor who announced that he was going to burn Qurans. That message said nothing of the gospel, of grace or love or forgiveness or reconciliation. There was nothing of Paul's attempt on Mars Hill to reach those with different beliefs by emphasizing what we have in common in order to present the good news. It was akin to burning the flag of an enemy, an act of provocation and partisanship. I'm sure you can think of many other examples of so-called Christians doing and saying things that reveal an “Us vs. Them” mentality and which are the antithesis of the ministry of reconciliation God has given us.

The other problem is that some people do see these words and actions for what they are, partisan behavior, and cynically assume that such Christians, or all Christians, are equally cynical in using them. In other words they see Christians and other religions as so many teams, ultimately interchangeable because none of them actually point to, or indeed are concerned with, the truth. They are merely interested in gaining the most followers and the most power over the lives of others. In Galatians Paul condemns partisanship and terms it a work of the flesh, that is, purely human, unspiritual thinking.

In today's passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul talks of those who boast about people on the basis of their “outward appearance and not in the heart.” In this he is echoing what the Lord says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “God does not view things the way men do. People look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” Unfortunately because Christians are also human, we tend to fall into the same mental trap. We boast of things that are big, flashy and impressive. Large churches can do more by virtue of having more people to do things and more money to do it with, and so we pay a lot more attention to them than the smaller church working with less people and capital. But if the bigger church is built around the larger-than-life personality of a superstar preacher rather than around Jesus, then when that preacher retires, dies, or is disgraced that church will falter or even fail. Think Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Heritage USA.

I'm not saying that all large churches are similarly flawed or that small churches are more virtuous but that what is essential is whether they are focusing on following Jesus. Are they asking themselves “What would Jesus do with the resources we have?” Are they more interested in impressive numbers or in transforming lives?

It is the deep-down change of human beings that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus wasn't interested in merely collecting partisans. John's gospel tells us that after Jesus fed the 5000 the people were ready to make him king. But Jesus eluded them and then, when they caught up with him, he gave a very hard-to-stomach speech about him being the bread of life and how people would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. We are told that after this, many disciples left him. Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave and they said, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life...” Jesus wouldn't pander to the crowds to get power, and his true disciples were more focused on the life-transforming truth he told than in going along with the crowd.

Most actors can convincingly change the way they look, speak and act for a role without it changing who they are at their core. In the last year, more than 2 dozen women have revealed that Bill Cosby was personally quite different from the beloved father figure he played on TV. Rock Hudson, the love interest in many Doris Day movies, and a Hollywood heartthrob for decades, came out as gay towards the end of his life. Many a movie bad guy is known by his costars and friends as a nice guy in real life. And in real life, sociopaths, who are devoid of genuine empathy for others, hide in plain sight by observing and imitating normal people expertly. Jesus was not looking to make people good in a superficial sense. In fact, the word translated “hypocrite” in Jesus' excoriation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 literally means “stage actor.” The thrust of his criticism is that they were not at heart what they appeared to be to the world. Which is why, he said, the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented—literally, had a “change of mind”—were entering the kingdom of God way ahead of the Pharisees.

C.S. Lewis said that God is not so interested in making people nice as in making them new. We tend to confuse niceness with goodness. And yet we have all encountered people who seem very nice but who are actually quite treacherous. Serial killer Ted Bundy disarmed his victims with his nice persona. He was so good at this that ex-cop and future crime writer Ann Rule, who worked with Bundy at a suicide hotline, was at one point contemplating introducing him to her single daughter! On the other hand, the head of neurosurgery at one of the hospitals I worked had the worst bedside manner of any doctor I've met but he was absolutely the surgeon you would want to operate on your brain. Ted Bundy would kill you while the doctor would cure you. But if you judged them by their first impressions you would probably end up with the wrong guy cutting into you.

What God wants instead of niceness or superficial modifications is an inside-out change of the way we think, speak and act. And it starts with altering the way we perceive things. We need to start seeing the world as God does. We need to see people as created in the image of the God who is love. We need to see sin as both the willful departure from the ways God wants us to go as well as a disorder of the heart which needs healing. We need to see ourselves as both rebels against God and estranged objects of his love needing his forgiveness, healing and grace. We need to see this world as something not that God wants to end but to which he wants to give a new beginning.

If we start seeing things this way, we will start thinking differently. If I am a partisan I think of ways to destroy my enemies; if I am a Christian I think of ways to love and redeem them. (Matthew 5:44) As a partisan I can resort to anything to achieve my goals; as a Christian I cannot do anything unloving or immoral in reaching God's goals for me. As a partisan, whoever is not for us is against us; as a Christian, whoever is not against us is for us, as Jesus said. (Luke 9:50)

If we start thinking differently, we start speaking differently. As a partisan, I can trash talk others; as a Christian, what I say should build people up, giving grace to those who hear it. (Ephesians 4:29) As a partisan I can be as harsh as I want with others; as a Christian I must speak the truth with love. (Eph 4:15) As a partisan I'm expected to call people names and insult them; as a Christian I know that insulting a brother or sister or calling them a fool is deadly serious in the eyes of God. (Matthew 5:22)

If we start speaking differently, we must behave differently. As a partisan I can say one thing and do another; as a Christian, I must love, not just in word or speech but in truth and action. (1 John 3:18) As a partisan I can do what's expedient; as a Christian I must do what is right. As a partisan I want to do what looks good; as a Christian I must do what is good.

Of course, none of us can do this by ourselves but must rely on the Holy Spirit. We are sealed by the Spirit at our baptism and he equips and empowers us to live as Christians. More importantly he sanctifies us, changes us into the people God created us to be. He makes us more Christlike which means he turns our hearts from the things we desire that we shouldn't and helps us to start desiring the right things. Because the whole “thinking to speaking to doing” thing only works if we are totally rational beings like Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek. But as Paul confesses in Romans 7, you can know what you ought to do and yet find yourself unable to do it. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us that we can be truly and thoroughly changed.

And that's what God is aiming for: not to make new partisans for his side but new people with a new heart and a new mind. As Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away. Behold! The new has come!” There are two words in there that are associated with God. Creation is the expected one. The first thing that the Bible says is that God created everything. The first way that most people think about God is that he is our creator. The weird thing is that people think that his creating days are over. He did it all back then and apparently retired. Or he's itching to destroy everything he once made. But that's not the picture we get in the Bible.

The second word associated with God is “new.” God hasn't stopped creating just because the physical world seems complete. He is still creating. In Isaiah 43, God says, “See, I am doing a new thing.” In Ezekiel 36:26, he says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you...” Jesus talks about new wine; he makes a new covenant and gives us a new commandment. In Isaiah God announces he will make a new heaven and a new earth and in Revelation we see it. And in Revelation 21:5, he says, “Behold! I am making all things new!”

We tend to think of God as old and picture him as having a long white beard. We think of him as old-fashioned with his best work in the past. But that's not true. He is still creative. He is making all things new. And that includes us. The old ways, the ways of tribalism and partisanship, of designating people as enemies and fighting them, are passing away. The time is near when the new creation will sweep them all away. And we are supposed to be his vanguard: people made new by his Spirit, sowing the seeds of new growth for a new world. In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We need to think new thoughts, speak and act in new ways. If we continue in the old ways, the ways we always acted, nothing will change. But if we obey our creative God and act as his agents of change, we will find hope. And on that day when the new heavens and the new earth are revealed and we stand in the new Jerusalem we will know the truth of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you in mirth. He will renew you with his love; he will celebrate you with singing.” 

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