“The public, which has been wrong before and is wrong now, can accept only demons and angels on the stage” Théophile Gautier
I was having lunch with my friend Mark* recently, who is not only one of the brightest people I know, but truly the most open-minded as well. Our conversation turned to politics and the subject of Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party came up. Mark commented, while he disagreed with many of their positions and methods, he appreciated their motivation. "At heart, Michelle Bachman wants this country to be run by Christian convictions." He observed. "I want this country to live by the Christian convictions of justice, protection for the most vulnerable, care for creation, and working for peace. The point of divergence would be on what constitutes Christian values and their order of priority." As I walked away from lunch, I was struck with the nearly extinct virtue my friend possessed: the ability to respect the convictions of others as genuine, without diminishing the differences between his position and theirs.
While the "Occupy wherever" movement is not explicitly religious, it does seem to embrace other Christian values that the libertarian Tea Party ignores. Frankly, I am surprised that it has taken this long for the streets to rise up against institutions that have bankrupted this country, continue to hold its future hostage, while making its upper management and shareholders rich. Many of them may not know what they stand for any more than the average Tea Party member actually understands the Constitution, but the "Green Tea Party,"*
is voicing the frustrations and fears of the first generation in a long time (maybe ever) in this country who are looking forward to a dimensioned standard of living than their parents enjoyed.
That's why I find it disappointing that a tea party activist proclaimed the Occupy Wall street protesters "unemployed, uneducated, and uninformed." (New York Times, 10/21/11) First of all, I am not sure the Tea party folks really wants to play the Occupy folks in Jeopardy. Secondly, it seems to me that diverse populist groups would be better served by stepping back and seeing that they share a common dissatisfaction with the status quo and a shared conviction that our country has somehow lost its way. But I doubt that will happen.
One of the great public psychoses of our age is the discrepancy between the public commitment to plurality and diversity and the totalitarian spirit of private interests. One alleged victim can hold the entire institution hostage; bastions of free thought and expression have "zero tolerance policies" that make acting like a kid a disciplinary action. We have a congress that is willing to play politics with our national credit rating. I am a member of a denomination that contains minority interests groups who have no problem risking the disaffiliation of half its membership in the name of their understanding of justice. We have a leader of the Tea Party accuse the "Occupy" folks of lacking any respect for our form of government, while her movement indiscriminately wants to dismantle the social contract.
As Christians, whether our natural affinities lie with the Tea Party, Green Tea party, or non-aligned coffee drinkers, we need to be able to both affirm truth wherever it may lie, and critique error and ignorance across political and ideological divides. There is no clear formula for the "in the world, but not of the world" matrix that Jesus gave us, but it does allow us to be engaged with society's problems (in) while creating a certain objective distance (not of). While neither a rigid originalist approach to the Constitution, nor a radical street democracy are going to solve any real problems, sincerity and strength of conviction can be fertile ground for positive change. But unless conviction and earnestness are held in check by some higher standard, they can become justification for greater harm, destruction and tyranny. For Christians, Jesus is still the way and the means by which competing truths need to be filtered, regardless of your tea preference.
So if Jesus and the disciples were around today, which group would they join? Matthew would probably be more comfortable with the Tea Party and I can see the sons of Thunder (James & John) drinking with the Greens. Judas would probably drop off his resume at a Wall Street firm, just in case; while Peter would be for whatever group they would be visiting at the time. Thomas would think the whole thing a waste of time and go to Starbucks. What about Jesus? Which side would he take? That is easy-neither! But my guess he would show up at rallies from both sides, listen, then offer whoever had ears to hear a better way. Not a bad strategy for 2011.
*Mark's name has not been changed to protect his innocence. There are inherent risks to being my friend. This is one of them.