For many of us, politics is a dirty word. It speaks of dishonesty, misused power, patronage, self -interest, pressure groups, propaganda, and ideology. Phrases such as “an honest politician” or “a hardworking administrator” are commonly seen as oxymorons. The very word politics conjures up images of what is fat and lazy, crooked and unnecessary. Given this, the temptation is great for us to avoid politics or to be as minimally involved as possible. Our attitude towards politics tends to parallel our attitude towards taxes, they are unfortunate evil to be avoided.
Sadly, that attitude is often a commentary on the concrete state of politics in the countries and localities we live in. Most of the time, in fact, politics are dominated by abuse, patronage, payoffs, propaganda, ideology, and self-interest. However, with that being said, something else too needs saying:
Politics is in its concrete life, like the church, full of sin and self-interest. Yet, like the church, politics demands our involvement despite this. The temptation to say: “This is a dirty business. I’ll have no part of it! I’ll be content to quietly mind my own business” is one that the Gospel itself demands we resist. No Christian or concerned human being is afforded the luxury of avoiding politics since no one is afforded the option of avoiding community.
We are essentially social beings, meant to live with others. A non-negotiable imperative to be involved in politics follows from that. Upon politics depends a community’s ability or inability to organize itself. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that, singularly, the most important thing within every community is politics. Without effective politics, we are the helpless victims of chance, fate, loneliness and an unpredictable impinging future.
What is meant here?
Without politics a community has no effective centre of power and action with which to respond to the contingencies of nature, time, and history. Without politics there is no community. Community doesn’t just happen. It depends upon equitable and just relationships, upon information and education, upon laws, structures, and institutions which help regulate and promote harmony, which protect the weak and helpless, and which mark and create occasions to gather and celebrate. As well, community depends upon shaping both the present and the future so that they are not experienced as pure fate.
Langdon Gilkey states that the function of politics is to transform fate into destiny. He goes on to add that at the root of many of our present difficulties lies a failure in politics…tyranny, war, ecological disaster, and anarchy are, in the end, political problems, not biological or psychological ones.
To have community, some of life must be positively shaped. This demands politics. This is the definition of politics. Because of this, politics demands the participation of all. To avoid politics is to attempt to avoid community and that temptation is condemned, way back, when God looked at Adam and said: “It is not good for the man to be alone!”And, it is precisely because we are too much alone that so many of the problems of our time overwhelm us. More and more, we are experiencing our lives as fate rather than destiny. This indicates, in the end, a breakdown of politics.
Thus, for example, we watch the news at night and feel depressed and helpless as we see the mega problems of our world, the strain on the ecology, the threat of nuclear war, the omnipresence of injustice and poverty, the breakdown of family life and sexual morality, the decertification of the unborn, and the paralyzing grip of consumerism on our consciousness.
Moreover, we sit around our coffee circles and lament about the rat race, about the tyranny of our mortgages, and about our powerlessness to challenge our own kids….whether it be about designer jeans, sexual morality, or church going.
Why do we feel so helpless in the face of these things? We feel helpless because, practically, we are helpless, helpless because we are alone, not effectively linked with others, unable individually and in our small family, coffee, and church circles to have much impact. We are experiencing what Adam experienced before the creation of Eve and community, that it is not good to be alone!
Effective compassion is as much collective as it is individual. We are helpless against the mega problems of our world because we are watching the news alone, apolitically. We are helpless against the rat race and consumerism because we lament about these in coffee circles that are too apolitical, that is, isolated from each other. If sincere people in the world everywhere watched the news together, we could turn the world around. If coffee circles everywhere linked with each other, we could effectively shape our own lives and those of our children. But this involves politics, the ability of a community to organize itself. That is why everyone has to be involved in politics. When, for whatever reasons, masses of sincere people avoid politics (perhaps mostly because of its earthiness and tensions), then politics becomes precisely a vehicle to promote self-interest. Politics then is taken over by the self-interested.
We must all be politically involved for, as Edward Schillebeeckx says, “what we dream alone, remains a dream. What we dream with others can become a reality.”