Lately I’ve been reading things recommended by friends who are Tea Party enthusiasts and other friends who are more on the Green Party end. Sometimes I am dismayed or exasperated by the vehemence with which each side excoriates the other. Sometimes I’m able to let go of that and notice the similarities between them. Both say that our political and economic system is deeply flawed, that ordinary people aren’t well served by it and feel powerless to change it. Both sides call people to revolution, to a radical change initiated at the grassroots level. There are some real and important disagreements between sides, and I don’t mean to minimize these. Taxation, financial and environmental regulation, immigration, war and other issues of public policy, are hugely important. But they are only part of the picture. Real reform or revolution will also require us to live differently each day; to be a different kind of people. I think that most of us, liberal and conservative, don’t yet live as though we were citizens of the society we envision; the free and just society, the beloved community, the Kingdom of God. I think many of us might be able to agree on some important qualities of such citizens, and to work together to help each other gain these qualities. If we did this wholeheartedly and patiently, we might become more grounded, more powerful, more humble, and less willing to caricature or dismiss one another.
Here are a few practices with which I think we might begin. I’d like to hear how they sound to you, and what you would add, subtract or change.
Gain competence. Do more for ourselves and our neighbors.
I and some of my liberal friends deplore the excessive power of corporations. Tighter government regulations might help. But so long as we depend on a complex, far-flung and incomprehensible global market to provide all our basic needs, we will be powerless. Learning to grow food, build and repair housing, fix machinery, make music, tell stories, listen to and counsel one another is the root of real independence.
Some of my conservative friends deplore the impersonal and disempowering nature of government assistance to people in need. I share some of these concerns. I think institutional help is better then no help, and some needs may need to be met on the public level; but people and faith communities could do a lot more to take care of each other. What if we took responsibility for knowing the people in our neighborhoods and churches well enough so that we could provide each other with practical assistance? What if we took time to find out where there are communities with fewer resources that might need our help?
Consume less. Waste less.
This practice is essential to the practice above. If we are going to take responsibility for supplying our own needs, we’ll need to know the difference between needs and wants. If we are going to have enough to share, we’ll need to stop hoarding more than we need. If we expect this finite planet to produce enough resources to provide for everyone, we’ll have to stop taking more than our share.
Break free of addictions.
We can’t do any of this work well if we believe that we’re dependent on drugs, or electronic entertainment, or the good opinion and praise of the people around us, or...
When we do things in haste, out of fear and the desperate urge to Do Something, what I do usually doesn’t help and may actually make things worse. I just proved this to myself again yesterday morning, when I woke up to find that the predicted light frost had instead been a hard freeze; I rushed outside to sprinkle my plants with water before the sun hit their leaves, though it was still below freezing. Some of the plants I didn’t sprinkle look unhappy; most of the plants I sprinkled are dead. It’s easy to see how this works on the physical level. I think when we rush in to help people before taking time to really understand their needs, gifts and stories we may do just as much damage, though it’s harder to quantify.
Listen to the Others.
Whoever the Others may be for us, and however frustrating we find them, they’re part of the Kingdom too, and we have to learn to live with them. I’m easily tempted to dismiss or disparage groups of people (rich folks, meaning those significantly richer than me; wearers of makeup; supporters of harsh anti-immigration policies...), but usually when I get to know people who arte part of these groups I find that they have something to teach me. And there’s not much chance of my teaching them anything while I’m inwardly belittling them.
Listen to God. Obey what we hear.
This is the root. If I actually did this faithfully and well I probably wouldn’t need a long list of other principles. When I do this I am taken out of my fears, obsessions, greeds, self-contradictions, and set in the way that I should go. When I do this I know myself to be one with all the people whom I admire and love and resent and despair of, and also one with the One who bears, sustains and transforms our pettiness and grief. When we do this we are already in the Kingdom.