Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rejecting the Party Spirit
distributed 1/13/17 - ©2017

"Party spirit" shows up in a long list of negative characteristics in one of Paul's letters (Galatians 5:20, RSV). Nearby in the list are "drunkenness, carousing, and the like" -- but those are distractions. The party spirit that worried Paul, more often translated as "factions", goes along with the earlier part of his list: anger, quarrels, and dissensions.

An old, old letter to a struggling church names a painfully relevant crisis. In our politics and in our society, there is a dangerous level of party spirit, of anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

A front page headline on yesterday's Denver Post spoke of the opening of Colorado's new legislature. "Very quick to take sides: Stark partisanship is evident on the first day of the session." It is sad to see that Colorado looks really civil compared to what I've heard about cut-throat legislative maneuvers in North Carolina's legislature in the last month.

In Washington, DC, whether with confirmation votes for Cabinet appointees or repeal of the Affordable Care Act, political reporting assumes that votes will be sharply divided along party lines, without compromise or crossovers.

Beyond the realm of formal politics, our society is fractured along many fault lines -- racial justice and policing, gender roles, immigration, education, environment vs. energy. (I've written several times about the complete lack of trust and communication between communities dependent on fossil fuels and climate activists who call for leaving it in the ground. Eco-Justice Ministries is exploring ways to address this specific division.)

Party spirit is reinforced by political structures (gerrymandered "safe" districts, primary elections that pull candidates toward the extremes, and lots of outside money), by communities with strong self-interests that rarely have contact with other views, and by "social media" which is often quite anti-social.

What do we do about this? What are some ethical and realistic approaches that can pull us back from a splintering of the social order?

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Some level of conflict is a given. In a diverse society, we will have differences -- often strong differences -- about values, policies and opinions. "Why can't we all just get along?" is not a viable way of organizing community life.

But neither are we condemned to perpetual strife between warring factions. That's the path to "failed states" -- countries that have disintegrated into chaos, with many competing militias slaughtering any who hold a different truth, or who are willing to explore compromise.

I turn again to a snippet of scripture (Luke 9:49-50). John tells Jesus, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us." But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you." (For today, I'll pick that one, as opposed to the words of Jesus two chapters later, "whoever is not with me is against me.")

We can make choices about how high we will build the walls between "us" and "them." We can acknowledge places where we experience common humanity with our neighbors, and where we share common goals with our political opponents.

I saw lots of articles about how to get through a family Thanksgiving dinner just weeks after the US election revealed bitter splits in political views. Most of them suggested that politics be kept off of the table, and that other areas of shared interest be invoked to strengthen family ties. So, too, we need to build up opportunities that bring together diverse members of our communities. Sporting events, food festivals and school programs help us remember that we are not all enemies. We do share a lot in common.

Political factions in the US range from climate "alarmists" to climate "deniers." It is hard to have an intelligible conversation across that range of views. Climate action is a place where we will have hard-fought battles. Unfortunately, though, the climate splits sometimes lead to other divisions on topics that are not directly related.

Here in Colorado, any legislation that mentions "climate change" is sure to be killed in a committee of the Republican-majority Senate, even if the proposed bill is primarily about developing renewable energy sources. Virtually all members of the state's legislature agree that renewable energy is a good thing, but the word "climate" splits the political parties into opposing camps. Leaving out the polarizing language might allow for some cooperation, even if it doesn't energize some constituency of the political base.

Faith communities can play an important role in a conflicted society. None of our congregations will be fully representative of the demographic mix of a city, but we usually do encounter more variety in the worshipping community than in other settings (work, neighborhoods or social groups). Most congregations are "purple", with a mix of liberal and conservative beliefs. Many churches bring together folk of different ages, education levels, and income.

Within congregations, we can reinforce understanding and trust that bridges our differences. We can do that -- not by ignoring the conflicts among us -- but by listening respectfully, and by probing for deeper meanings. When people tell their life stories, there are no right and wrong answers. We can honor the truth of their stories, even when we differ in our political opinions or religious beliefs.

Faith communities can build understanding, too, by developing communication across different traditions. Congregations can meet together for interfaith or inter-racial dialogue. Maybe more effectively, congregations with differing backgrounds can join together is shared projects -- a food bank, or a Habitat house -- where cooperation and friendship across differences emerges easily.

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In a polarized world, it seems to be all too easy to stress the divisions and to demonize the other. We think, "if you're not with me on one issue, you must be against me on everything." The worst sides of our media -- mass and social -- shift quickly from disagreement to character defects. If we disagree, then they must be morally evil.

If we are to function as a society, we can't allow impenetrable walls to define us. We have to recognize that we -- at some level -- have common experiences and shared goals. We must work to find or create spaces where "whoever is not against you is for you." As Jesus told the disciples, those who don't label themselves as members of my party, club or tribe can still be allies.

We are in a tough and dangerous situation. The divisions among us are prominent, and feelings are raw. There are important decisions to be made where we will disagree about values and strategies and goals. We must never back down from the causes and concerns that we hold most dear. But, at the same time, we must live into some level of grace, decency and cooperation that allows us to find common ground.

Paul warned the Galatians against "party spirit" -- anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions. "By contrast," he wrote, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." All of those, I think, can be brought together with vigorous advocacy and prophetic witness.

If the world around us is nasty, divisive and partisan, we don't have to be that way. We can -- we must -- embody "the beloved community" of respect and cooperation, even as we work hard on matters of deep disagreement. And we must call on others in the public sphere to act with basic levels of respect and decency.

NOTE: Next week's Eco-Justice Notes may be sent out a day early, to arrive before the presidential inauguration.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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