I talked with two guys yesterday “in the field,” that is, taking photographs, who believed that “the matting makes all the difference.” That’s how denominations get started. Photo denominations are built on the differences in cameras (Nikon or Canon, digital or film, 35mm or medium or large format) and other equipment (tripods, printers, storage devices, software…the possibilities and their combinations are quite many), and presentation (black and white or color, matting, framing, size of print). These things matter to a lot of people. They build strong cases for their position, and actually argue about who is right, and how everybody ought to see and do things as they do.
And, then, there are those of us who argue about the absurdity of arguing. We have our own denomination, and consider ourselves True Purists because we will not succumb to discussing the merits of matting, or any of the rest. We say things like, “It’s all relative,” and “Everyone has a right to her or his own position,” and “It isn’t important.” Sometimes we emphasize the “isn’t” because it matters to us that it doesn’t matter, and any idiot ought to be able to see as much.
How do you live in light of what is important to you without pulling all stops in trying to make that important to everyone? If you believe animals should not be raised to be killed so that people can wear furs, why aren’t you content with not wearing furs yourself? Why do you persist in getting me to not wear furs? Or, why do you go only so far in getting me to not wear furs? Why do you stop with writing occasional letters to the editor? Or, with putting bumper stickers on your car? Or, with carrying signs? Why don’t you bomb fur storage locations and burn down retail outlets that sell furs? Why do you draw the line in one place and not the other? With a little encouragement, could you be influenced to change tactics? To redraw your lines?
How do we live together in ways that respect the right of the other to positions and opinions different from our own? It is easy enough to say, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” when there is an entire country that we can put between us (But, even then, it’s too bad for the Native Americans who get in our way!). We can “Agree to disagree,” when the stakes are low and we have nothing really to lose. Up the ante, make it matter, believe that there is no acceptable alternative to doing it your way. What happens then?
When we think, “Everybody should think like I do! Nobody should think differently than I do!”, things get sticky. When you cannot disagree with me, it’s tough going. That’s when I bring in the thugs to convince you to see it my way. The religious right is co-opting the Republican Party to do its thug work. It’s strategy is simply “vote the people who don’t think like we do out of office.”
You have to wonder if the founders of democracy saw it coming. What’s the point of everyone getting to vote, if it only takes one more than half of those who do vote to control the forces of history and carry the will of one more than half of those who vote into the far distant future? What’s the point of everyone getting to vote, if everyone thinks like they are told to think, if everyone votes like they are told to vote? You have to wonder if the founders of democracy realized that they were creating the Propaganda Wars, where those who control the minds of the voters control the country. Did they know they were inventing the Political Machine? Did they know they were creating a monster?
Karl Rove doesn’t have to be President, if he can control who is President. The founders of democracy could not have imagined Karl Rove, and the power of the media to create images, and enflame emotions, and substitute catch phrases and slogans for substance. Image is everything. The people one more than half of us elect sound like our kind of people—like the people we would want to have a beer with—like the people who value the kinds of things we think we are supposed to value, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, NASCAR, mother, freedom, and the dear old US of A. If you can be made to sound like one of us, at least one more than half of us will vote you into office every time, particularly if the person running against you can be made to sound like an emotional air-head. The founders of democracy could not have seen this coming.
But, give them credit. They did what they could to make it difficult to swing the country back to where they came from. They invented, not just democracy, but constitutional democracy. They made it hard for one more than half of us to elect someone who could do anything he or she wanted to do. But, that only makes it hard. The Bill of Rights can be neatly ignored by those who say they are not at all ignoring the Bill of Rights (Just as the polar ice caps can melt while those responsible for the melting say there is no such thing as global warming). The constitution can be amended, with a little work, to allow and prohibit whatever will guarantee the continuation of the vote going the way those in power want it to go. They will give us anything as long as we give them control.
Democracy cannot survive the tactic of block voting. To force your way, you only have to get more of your people to vote than their people. To ensure your way forever, the people who vote for your way only have to have more babies than the people who vote against you. In democratic Israel, the Palestinians are having more babies than the Israelis. What impact do you think that is going to have on democracy there in the next generation? Conservative Christian voters in the US are moving toward the “more than 50% of registered voters” category. You think you’re playing on a level field? You think the deck isn’t about to be stacked resolutely against you? You think it’s about finding “the right candidate” to espouse your views and win the election? Your candidate is on the verge of not ever having a chance, no matter how smooth she or he is. Where does that leave you?
Democracy is a tool to achieve the purposes of those who can turn out the vote. You can soothe yourself with romantic visions of free and independent voters electing the person with the platform and the persuasive power to effect the best future for all concerned, but if the Shiites turn out more voters than the Sunnis, it is going to be a Shiite future, and the Sunnis aren’t going to have much fun.
Can democracy be saved? I don’t know. It’s easy to imagine democracy working among those with small range of disagreement about what is important. If you are in agreement that creation science is in and science is out, and you are only debating whether the indoctrination process should start in the third grade or the sixth grade, and you are electing candidates based on those choices, you probably can have a fully democratic, in the best sense of the term, election. Religious Right Republicans could elect Religious Right Republican candidates in a “free and independent election.”
But, make the outcome matter, with world-views and religious principles hanging in the balance, and anything goes. We will gerrymander precinct and district lines, punch cards for the infirm and invalid, and figure ways to get the dead to vote (for our candidate, of course). And, we all can chuckle and laugh when the race is for the police jury, or the county commissioners, or the mayor of Chicago, but let it Really Matter, let the FUTURE hang in the balance, and see how you like it when they have theirs coming in by the bus loads and you have yours dropping by if its convenient. As the stakes increase, the chances of a free and independent election diminish, and quickly disappear.
When controlling the outcome forever (or, at least for the foreseeable future) matters, democratic principles go out the window. Then, anything goes in the effort to have our way prevail, because our way is THE way! Our way MATTERS! What’s the point in having a way if you don’t think it should be everybody’s way? How can you have a way that is only one way among many, without serving that way, and saying there are many ways, and no one has the right to force one way only upon the people, and doing everything you can to guarantee the practice of many ways in the land? And, when the Muslims say, “One Way! Our Way!”, how do you get them to embrace the importance of many ways and simply voice their objection to the depiction of the Prophet in political cartoons without killing the cartoonists, because they respect other ways as much as their own way? What happens to respect for other ways when your way really, really matters?
And, I know you well enough to know that at this point, you are thinking, “He has lost his mind.” We have come to the end of the time appointed for me to talk to you and I haven’t said a think about God, or Jesus, or the Bible. You’re thinking, “This isn’t a sermon. It’s an Op-Ed piece for the News and Record.” Well, if you are going to give me anything, give me the benefit of the doubt, and another five minutes.
Where do you think democracy came from? Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin, and the Presbyterian way of doing things. Okay. Calvin got it from the Romans, who got it from the Greeks, but the point is that Presbyterianism is hanging in the balance here. We cannot be Presbyterian and vote in blocks. Representative Democracy is the Presbyterian Way. And the representatives don’t represent us. We elect them to think for themselves. To listen collectively for the wind of God moving among them, and to vote out of their hearts for the best that can be imagined. We do not elect them to vote along Party lines, or even to vote as they think their constituency would want them to vote. They vote for themselves.
For Presbyterianism—for Democracy—to work we have to be thinking for ourselves. It is the vote of individual conscience that serves the Good. When we pack our votes together to insure that our way is served, there goes the Good. It is presumptuous and vile and evil to assume that our way is the good way. This gets to the heart of Presbyterianism and spirituality.
We don’t know which way is the good way. We have to listen prayerfully to the leading of the spirit of God. And, who do we listen to when we are listening for God? Each other! Presbyterians understand the importance of listening to each other! We don’t come to the vote with our minds made up—we come to the vote with hearts, and minds open to the conversation, to the dialogue, to the dialectic.
Spiritual growth is a dialectic. It is a conversation with all aspects of experience. Everybody comes to table with everybody else. Everybody says how they see things. Everybody puts their perspective on the table. Everybody’s perspective enlarges everybody else’s. After we talk, we may decide not to vote, but to think about what we have heard, and come back, and talk some more. Everything hangs, in the church and out of it, on our ability and willingness to engage one another in honest conversation from the heart, with no ax to grind, and no bone to pick, and no case to make. Conversation free from the controlling influence of vested interest carries us to the heart of God and serves the Good. We have to engage one another with compassion and grace, and keep the dialectic alive. We have to speak our hearts and minds in free and open exchange, not to compel others to our point of view, but to see things we have never imagined, and to grow beyond our wildest dreams.