Looking for the Exit

One of the benefits of convalescing after surgery is that you have a lot of time to think. Those of you who have followed me for any length of time know that I’ve had more surgeries in the past two years than the average person probably has in a lifetime, so I’ve had ample time for reflection and self-examination. I am genetically predisposed to reflection before reaction in any case, which should be apparent in my writing. If you’re looking for an immediate reaction to current events, I’m afraid I’m not your man. In fact, the more contentious the issue, the more time I’m likely to spend mulling it over before I write about it.

Therefore, I assure you that what I’m about to say is something to which I’ve given a great deal of thought over the past two years, and it’s something I’ve hinted at in several columns over that time frame.

I’m done with politics. Specifically, I’m done with politics as it’s practiced in modern-day America. It is shallow, divisive, destructive, utilitarian, insulting and incapable of solving the critical problems we face today.

It makes fools of seemingly intelligent people, brings out and nourishes our worst tendencies as individual human beings, encourages groupthink over individual conscience, demands unquestioned loyalty over integrity of philosophy, morality or worldview, and places the acquisition and maintenance of power over commitment to principle.

It encourages selfishness over service, arrogance over humility, conflict over comity, emotion over intellect, immediacy over introspection, superficiality over substance, bombast over restraint, and gamesmanship over statesmanship.

It refuses to presume even an iota of good will, principle or intelligence on the part of those who oppose you, and reduces complex human beings with unique experiences and expertise to cartoon characters in a pulp fiction novel, and complex issues requiring nuance and thought into sound bites in an attack ad.

Politics thrives on stereotypes and simplified narratives, and is therefore not conducive to people reasoning together at a time when what we need most are clear heads, sharp minds, comity and a willingness to examine all the information before reaching conclusions.

So I'm done with politics. We will never solve the challenges facing us as a nation as long as we allow politics to govern our thoughts, words and actions.

I make this declaration out of sadness as much as frustration. As a child, even before I fully understood much of anything, the two great passions of my life were faith and politics. I’ve never doubted that, whatever God’s plan was for my life, it would involve the exercise of my faith in the public square. I’ve struggled, and continue to struggle, with the form that would take, and it took some time, maturity, and wisdom acquired through adversity to properly prioritize my relationship with Jesus Christ over all else.

Even as I witnessed the underbelly of politics, I would console myself with the stories of great men and women throughout history who have stepped into the public arena to achieve great things for mankind. Two of my personal heroes, William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass, were true statesmen who gave their lives to the cause of ending chattel slavery in their respective nations. Another hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, left Nazi Germany for a comfortable life as a preacher and teacher in the United States, yet returned to confront the evil that had overtaken his homeland, and he gave his life praising Jesus Christ even as he was executed.

Nobility in service to a higher cause is a lost art in modern American politics, however, and there is no one today of whom I’m aware that, in my opinion, rises to the level of these great men and women of the past.

I’m not naïve about the nature of politics. It has always been about power, first and foremost, and the potential for corruption is ever present. So what has changed?

I think we've changed. Certainly, what we are willing to tolerate in our public officials, and the breadth and depth of our participation in the political process, have changed.

Two men who, in times past, would have been ashamed to show their faces in public after their misdeeds, could very well end up as mayor and comptroller respectively of our nation’s largest city.

A disgraced former governor who violated the public trust, and his marriage vows, was recently elected to the U.S. Congress, and is taking his former mistress to Washington with him.

The U.S. Congress is perhaps the least liked institution in America, yet incumbent reelection rates hover above the 90th percentile because it’s someone else’s legislator who is the problem, not our own.

The politician who does more popular magazine covers and talk shows than press conferences is considered a brilliant tactician because notoriety trumps substance when it comes to winning elections.

Nearly 40 percent of the electorate chooses not to vote in presidential elections, which means about a third of all eligible voters decide for the entire nation who the president will be. An even smaller percentage of those who vote do enough research on the issues and candidates to make fully informed decisions. Experience and knowledge mean less than whether or not we’d like to have a beer with our prospective leader.

Responsible citizenship is indispensable to good government, but if we are distracted, ignorant, morally ambiguous, easily manipulated, besotted by trivia or celebrity, or otherwise disengaged from that role, then there is no restraint on the political system to prevent it from becoming corrupt.

The sad part of our lack of vigilance is that we then allow ourselves to be manipulated by personalities, institutions and agendas out of Washington, DC, and the toxicity emanating from our nation's capital seeps into the entire body politic. Take a casual stroll through your Facebook timeline or Twitter feed if you don’t believe me.

Yes, I understand that much of social media is comprised of slacktivists and keyboard commandos who type a mean meme but are loathe to actually do anything. The most vocal, however, set the tone for public discourse, since the rest of us are either silent or not outrageous enough to be heard.

The last line of defense against a corrupt government is a free press which, to quote American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, exists to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," regardless of the political affiliation of "the comfortable."

"Old" media, however, is no longer a dependable counterbalance against the excesses of politics. Independent journalism, which Walter Lippmann called "an organic necessity in a great society", is dead for the most part.

News organizations are driven by their survival instinct in a multimedia age, which leads them to trade their integrity for increased access to powerful people. Like most of us, journalists have biases, but too many of them seem unable to isolate them from the practice of their profession, making them advocates rather than reporters. These flawed reporters of the human condition, however, have immense power to shape public opinion, especially in the brief time they have to impress their words and images upon the public consciousness. Most people will not take the time to question or second-guess what they read or hear.

So with the people and the press no longer manning the watchtower, politicians and political institutions have descended into the muck and mire, and their antics bring out the worst in all of us.

There is no politician, political party, or policy platform that will bring us salvation or paradise, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can move on to truly addressing and solving our problems.

Government is not going away, nor are the political forces which dominate it, so I am not advocating total disengagement. Is is our disengagement that has largely allowed government to become what it is today. Moreover, government is a necessity for national security, law and order, interstate commerce, and justice. We should continue to defend our unalienable rights against governmental abuses, and we should insist, with clarity and conviction, on a government which does what it is designed to do, no more or less, and performs its designated functions in service to the people.

What we need to do as citizens, however, is to take responsibility for fixing things right where we live, and looking to government as a last resort, and only after we've concluded we cannot solve the problems ourselves. Too many times, we look to government to do for us what we are empowered to do ourselves, and we pour an inordinate amount of time, talent, toil and treasure into a process which is ultimately about power, not principles or problem-solving.

Have we ever stopped to think that, despite the trillions of dollars the U.S. government has spent in the past 237 years, and the thousands of people who have ascended to positions of authority in Washington, DC, that we are still essentially dealing with the same problems? And have we noticed that these problems seems to be handled best when we take matters into our own hands, in our own communities?

My former church in southern Maryland, Chesapeake Church, is making radical and positive change in the community through End Hunger in Calvert County, feeding thousands of hungry people, and providing job training and workforce development so people can find good jobs that enable them to feed themselves and their families. I met a pastor this week whose church is growing fresh produce in southeast Washington, DC, one of the most troubled urban areas in the country, to ensure that its underserved residents have nutritious food. The urban agriculture project, named Project Eden, is also creating jobs and encouraging economic development, with an emphasis on giving second chances to ex-offenders looking to rebuild their lives.

Both of these initiatives thrive on the efforts of volunteers and key partnerships, even with local and state government, but they are spearheaded and managed by people at the local level who saw a problem and decided to tackle it, not waiting for governmental permission, or the establishment of a multi-billion dollar federal program in which only 30 cents of every dollar actually reaches the intended recipients.

For example, Project Eden has partnerships with Walmart and the University of the District of Columbia, while End Hunger's extensive list of partners include the College of Southern Maryland, Calvert County Public Schools, Bank of America, the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, and the Calvert County Office of Economic Development, among others.

I am energized and inspired by programs such as these, and there are thousands of them all over the country, tackling poverty, hunger, literacy and education, health care, prison and justice reform, economic development, personal finances, job training and workforce development, and more. A key factor in their success is that they not only meet needs, they equip people so they can lift themselves up going forward. Compassion isn't just caring for the downtrodden, but also enabling them to rise up from their circumstances.

I am equally frustrated and challenged, however, by the attitudes of many who flippantly dismiss these efforts as inadequate to the challenges we face. The only thing preventing us from fixing the problems in our communities is us - our laziness, our selfishness, our unwillingness to take responsibility for the well-being of our neighbors and the places we call home. Don't pat yourself on the back and call yourself charitable just because you pay taxes. That's a cop-out, and the amount of tax money which actually reaches the people who need help is equivalent to the scraps poor people glean from the fields after the harvest is done.

So I'm done with what John Wilson, professor of history emeritus at Hillsdale College, calls “the ephemera of American politics."

Don't get me wrong - I won't be silent when politics, by design or default, infringes on human life, dignity and flourishing. Silence is acquiescence, and history is full of regretful people who stayed silent until it was too late. Politics affects all of us and is ingrained in practically every area of our lives, and we ignore it at our peril.

I no longer care, however, about the success or failure of a political party, or the horse races between political candidates, or the details of electoral politics, or the screeching back and forth across political boundaries. That's small and petty to me now.

I care about substantive ideas and principles, and how best to put them into practice for the benefit of others. I want to devote my time, energy and resources to "seeking the welfare of the city." I want to promote real solutions to real problems. I want to bring like-minded people and organizations together so they can find strength and encouragement from one another. I want to engage minds and hearts so that people can be who God made them to be. I care about what breaks the heart of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

When Jesus spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the Book of Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners," and then declared that He was the fulfillment of that Scripture verse.

Our goal as Christians is to be more like Him, and to use whatever spiritual gifts and talents we've been given to do the work He has set before us, which is to care for "the least of these." I am still working on what that means for me personally, given all my life experiences and abilities, all of which can be used by God for His purposes. I know now, however, what it doesn't mean, and I know where I intend to direct my efforts going forward.