On seeking consensus

A friend of mine here at JPUSA has brought to my attention that there are quite a few people who think that my leftist (his term) views, particularly on the war in Iraq, are the official voice at JPUSA. Well, let me set the record straight. I do not personally speak for JPUSA, and neither should anyone ever think that my politics are the result of a majority consensus. With this in mind, let me open a huge can of worms and say that I believe consensus to be a dangerous thing.

The Christian Church has quite a rich history that can inform this matter of seeking consensus. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s quite messy. In Jesus’ name Christians too often have sought to be “on the same page” politically, socially, and doctrinally in a way that left many people ostracized, shunned, and yes—dead. St. Augustine’s position on the Donatists and Luther’s position on the peasants and the Jews is one example.

Here at JPUSA I am proud of the fact that we don’t stipulate that members must share a particular position on the War in Iraq. I am far less proud that I don’t have more open conversations about it. I have too often sought the path of least resistance. Sometimes that’s been good and sometimes that’s wrong. God knows far better than I where I stand in that regard.

I came to Chicago from Southwestern Missouri.  I think of Chicago, and my neighborhood in particular, as a bubble politically. I feel safe to speak my mind politically without fear that I’ll lose my job or be shunned by my family. I know that’s a luxury that not everyone has. It is possible for me to surround myself with an alternative “progressive” faith that affirms everything I want to hear. I don’t have to listen to SRN news or Prime Time America with Greg Wheatley on mainstream Christian radio stations (which I consider propaganda) I can pick NPR and the BBC for my news. Jim Wallis can be my new little pope as an alternative to James Dobson, and together we’ll pride ourselves on the New Christian Left, using revival language to snare people who like Jonathan Edwards (sans the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon). But I also know what this is—it is building for myself a little safe camp of consensus, a world of 24/7 agreement where I get to hear, “Oh you’re so smart Chris! And look at those fools, they’re so dumb!” This makes me think of the episode of Spongebob where Squidwerd finally finds a town where everyone is just like him (anal). And you know what happens? He hates it!

Lack of consensus is painful. Someone always feels left out, alone, and yes resentful. There are those who chide us at JPUSA because we won’t come up with a clear statement on issues like the war, or who the next president should be. They argue that lives are at stake. You know what I say? I say that my life is richer because of my brother or sister who disagrees with me. That guy I stand in the dinner line with is more important to me than a position paper making some of us right and some wrong. It’s true that a refusal to join the Left or Right is an invitation to get shot at by both sides. It is a divestment from power, and it makes me think of the kenosis in Phillipians 2.

2:1  If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
3  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
8  he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
9  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
10  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12  Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
13  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14  Do all things without murmuring and arguing,
15  so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
16  It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
17  But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you–
18  and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Regardless of where our country heads politically this year I will be on the losing side—intentionally. Why? Because I care about human beings more than being right. Because I refuse to be any demagogue’s patsie–be they left or right. And because I believe in those Scriptures that call the Lord judge over all the earth, the real Ruler.

Now, on Iraq, I am against all forms of military occupation. The economic sanctions destroyed Iraq and killed countless civilians long before Bush ordered one bomb dropped. The US has proven itself a biased and illegitimate broker in Middle East peace under both Clinton and Bush. (Israeli settlements grew least under George H.W. Bush!) Find me a candidate that will say that!



Filed under Community, Politics

4 responses to “On seeking consensus

  1. Chris,

    Strange to respond to my walking buddy on his blog. But yes, I too agree with you on your point re JPUSA’s refusal to issue “policy statements” on Iraq and many related issues. (On homelessness and issues connected to it, I think we may have more of a consensus, and need to have one! Which illustrates some of the nuances of life, I suppose…)

    I do not, however, wholly share your disdain for consensus, even while admitting you make very good points re its dangers. But in our evangelical subculture, at least, I am so often faced with — forgive the term — clueless members of the political right that I in fact need a little “shelter time” with people who disagree with that bastardized version of Christianity. The Right has Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. I have Keith Oberman, whom I tape religiously and watch each night as an act of self-soothing.

    But more importantly that choosing one’s consensus partners from the media, I also find it very comforting to find one’s consensus partners within my and your local body of believers here at JPUSA. (I would do likewise if in another fellowship.)

    Let me explain. When I am talking with someone about a presidential race, and they bring up the middle name of Barack Obama as a reason to vote against him (no, this didn’t happen at JPUSA, thank God — just an example), that conversation is over. There is such an intellectual and spiritual disconnect that happens I no longer can have meaningful conversations with that person. Should I force the issue, pushing them on their illogic and even xenophobia? Sure I should. Maybe, in some cases, I would. But at some point, after a few strange encounters where it is obvious they are feeling toward me the same state of disconnect I am feeling toward them, I realize it is not a good idea to continue the conversation.

    This leads to further problems, in that while I can stand with them in some things, I am unable to share the tremendous angst I feel over what the Christian Right has done to this country. I cannot share with them the fact — a plain fact it is to me — that George W. Bush won both his terms in office *only* because of the Christian Right. Once he was there, and especially once 9/11 legitimated his immoral, illogical, and utterly without foundation in reality assault on Iraq, along with the “Patriot Act” and other erosions of freedom here and abroad, it became apparent that evangelicalism and even Christianity itself would never be freed of the blood stains his policies caused.

    I need consensus in order that I don’t go mad. I need friends whom I can rant with, discuss with while being one at heart and mind, and finally even to weep and pray with. I cannot do that with people who don’t “get it.”

    And yet, I do also recognize the need not to become insular — which is just what the Christian Right seems to have done. I do need to hear from the other side… *sometimes*. But again, I also need to feel the comfort and shelter of those who do indeed think more as I do and see the world through lenses less colored by the Right’s tired rhetoric of “Family Values” or “Moral Agendas.”

    I have a family. I have morals. And I will always and forever repudiate what to me is the doing of dirt to Jesus Christ by those involved in the Christian Right.

    Sorry this is long… but one more thought. I grew up in a very relativist church theologically. And there I learned the danger of so-called “liberal” theology, which I as a non-believer mocked as vacuuous. When I met Christ, the real, historical Christ, I for a time blamed “liberalism” for this bad theology I’d grown up under. But today, I think liberalism gets a bad rap. It is the Right which exercises relativism in its most sinister forms… whether in dealing with the Middle East or in dealing with just what “pro-life” means.

    What point am I making in all this? God knows. (Siiiiiiggggghh.) I guess in the end what I would say is that — as an extreme for instance — President Bush may have met the same Jesus I met. But as for whether I could comfortably fellowship with President Bush, or feel that we had any deep resonance together, I don’t think we would or could.

    Sometimes it comes down to positionally being in the same family (whether our biological family or the Family of God) vs. relationally being in the same family. Even that is too stark; there’s not an either/or exactly there. But I do think that true community in some very deep ways requires resonance on the deep things. We would say “Jesus” or “love” or “doctrine” might be these deep things… and we could convince ourselves that we agree on so much there. But then comes the existential reality, the fact that in a concrete world, faith is what faith does. In that light, I often feel closer to “leftie” non-christian acquaintances than I do to my Christian Right fellow believers.

    I could say way more, but have said too much already.

    Great post, and obviously thought-provoking for me. Maybe I’ll be less negative should the discussion continue…

  2. I liked the way you fleshed this out Jon. Here’s something else to throw in the works: the Fellowship of Intentional Communities has a book length treatment on consensus here:
    (No, I haven’t read it yet!)

  3. initially this was an email to Chris, but asked if i’d
    post it as a comment. i’d say it’s a bit long, but i think
    Jon already out did me. :)

    i remember many years ago when Denny Cadieux (one
    of the pastors), who was very conservative and
    ‘family values’ oriented (of course that wasn’t
    the terminology used then) chose, along with the
    other pastors, to endorse Helen Schiller for
    Alderman, primarily because of her stance on
    poverty, and some of his political contacts called
    him up all distraught and asked “What’s going on
    Denny, we thought you were Orbach (the Republican
    candidate) people?” Denny simply replied,
    “We are Jesus People!”

    i don’t think that any political movement, ideology,
    or any kingdom of man will ever be very close to be
    in step with the Kingdom of God.

    Your ‘bubble’ theory is really on the mark. Humans
    crave acceptance. But the political definitions of
    Liberal and Conservative will never be able to
    completely work with Christianity. So the whole
    idea of Christian Lefties, or a Conservative Christian
    Coalition are flawed from inception. Where you and
    I differ is probably on the issue of consensus, though
    it is probably more on the definition of the word then
    the practical application.

    Decision by consensus is one of the hallmarks of
    true Anarchism (as well as pure Marxist Communism).
    Our Pastors makes decisions by consensus. Consensus,
    rather then laying out a paradigm to which we all must
    conform (which is really Dictatorship by another name),
    is more about vigorous communication and discussion
    until we can find a solution. Rather then saying “we all
    must agree, so conform”, it is an invitation to keep discussing
    until we can find a compromise we all can agree upon.
    Moreover, it is an acknowledgement that there are some issues
    where we won’t be able to reach a holistic compromise, so
    we maintain space to accommodate the diversity of views,
    while focusing on the more important tenants that we can
    agree on. Above all it is not about vote or majority rule,
    consensus is about communication and mutual respect ,
    and doing “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
    but in humility consider others better then yourselves.”

    Of course the problem is decision by consensus is not very
    efficient. And in our age where efficiency of the system is
    king and where the needs of the economy trump the needs
    of humanity, consensus (with it’s emphasis on respect and
    dignity of the person over the ‘decision’) is a hard ideal to

    Though, I think you may have a truer inclination of what
    most people think of when they hear the word consensus.
    Similar to what most people think of when they hear the
    term Anarchy being nothing like the true meaning of the word.

    By the way, I think your writing style is really getting top
    notch, keep it up!


  4. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable most of the time. Almost none of my close friends share my societal beliefs of anything like that, and I have deep bonds with a couple people who are different culturally, nationally, spiritually, politically and just about everything else.

    There are some things I am very open to learning, and sometimes I can be relatively close minded. In the same way I press tentatively in conversation; if someone is unwilling to learn, I present the opportunity and leave it to them. There are some people who are willing to move out of ignorance when the opportunity is presented, and others who are more comfortable there, and discerning the difference prevents a lot of grief.

    I have to say though, that while in the past most of my playing devil’s advocate has been dragging hard-right/fascist/conservative/theocratic folks to a more middle ground, today it’s necessary more and more for the ‘divinely inspired Left’ which is doubly ridiculous, as having just finished wagging the finger at the Religious Right many are walking into the exact same behaviour and rhetoric. Therefore, as Jon has experienced on his blog (love love) I have found myself, for the first time in my life, playing devil’s advocate for the right.

    My (now wife) girlfriend voted for George Bush in the last election. People, Christians, around us in Australia questioned the fact that I could even handle going out with her. But she weighed the issues, heard me out on some of my ideas, looked at what values she prioritized, and made the decision she felt right. I might debate the rationale, or the priorities but I admitted that she took the right approach even if I didn’t agree with her result. It was her vote, not mine, and I love her the same. Daily we have to outwork these differences in decision making, and as a community expands this becomes more difficult and time consuming but still a worthwhile endeavour.

    Just a plug as well, there’s a great exploration of many of these ideas over at Jesus Manifesto (.com) if you’re interested.


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