Unfastened From the Party Line: Contemplative Prayer and Public Discourse

Cain & Abel

Unfastened From the Party Line: Contemplative Prayer and Public Discourse

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord.

Isaiah 1:18

Of two evils, choose neither.

Charles Spurgeon

Judging a Book by Its Cover

After a visit to my parents’ house in New Hampshire, my wife Maureen and I like to meander along the backroads home to the Catskills. At about our half-way point is a small but thriving bookstore/café where we generally make a stop. While browsing through the crowded shelves I came across a book entitled, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. Though one should never judge a book by its cover, I could not help but to give this particular cover a nod of consent. The title represents a problem that is deep and dangerous in our time.

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Moments later, Maureen appeared from her bookshelf wanderings with her own find in hand. Its title read, The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left.[1] This title is taken from a book that was published with low expectations in 1987 that almost immediately became a NY Times bestseller. It is called, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.

The Sorry State of Our Public Discourse (if you can call it that)

I have not read any of these books, so it is not my intention to speak about them, nor am I endorsing them. Their titles merely act as a touching-off point for this post. The first title, I think, is the real touchstone: I have often lamented the poor state of public dialogue in our country, and have often found it difficult to have conversations of any value with my fellow Americans, be they “liberal” or “conservative”, labels that I tend to shy from because of their dehumanizing effect. Too often we are unwilling even to entertain the thought that some of the agendas of our beloved party could be misguided, or that particular items might be let go of for the sake of larger, more pressing concerns. Thinking through each issue and how one issue might relate to another, listening to what the other has to say, giving a little to gain more together, these somehow seem to us like committing treason against the party line. It is easier, and perhaps even more entertaining, to fight public propaganda wars than it is to try to understand one another. In the end, however, such a course is much more expensive on all counts.

Though this kind of politicizing and polarizing has tragically and detrimentally found its way into the ranks of the Church, what I will muse on here is the internally confused but nonetheless entrenched agendas of the American public in general. Though no particular party is monolithic, our public discourse (if we can even call it that) tends to be very black and white, “us and them”, on both sides. This may in part be the result of modern media, which plays on emotion and is presented as a rapid succession of simplified sound-bites, heavy on from-the-hip opinion and light on the rounded and thought-out research.[2] It would take a much longer work to address these issues in any satisfying way. Here we will just shine a light on some of the more blatant confusions that crop up among the ranks in political and social discourse. We do this in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will be inspired to disengage from the party hysteria for a spell and, as a result, to think and to talk about our collective well-being in a more generous, nuanced way.

It has to be noted that, though we here speak of public policy and law, the ultimate question before us is not one of law and government-sponsored regulation, but one of love. When the humble, self-gifting love that comprises the true calling of the human being is abandoned, law and regulation become necessary and confusion appears.

The Environment, Abortion, Guns, and Government Regulation

Though I’m a very religious person, I have to admit that some cows that we believe to be sacred are not sacred at all. So, too, is it true that some cows need to be sacrificed. The common good is better served for all parties if each party is willing to sacrifice; in the sacrificing our public life becomes sacred. There is no common good without sacrifice. Let’s consider the environment, abortion, guns, and government regulation.

At face value it would seem that those who care for the environment (and, for that matter, issues of human rights and social justice) would naturally also lean towards a life affirming stance when it comes to the human body and human lives. It might make sense that, if we are to say that we need laws and guidelines that dictate what we do on the property we own, it would be a small step to see that these laws would naturally extend to our bodies as well. In fact, laws do extend to human bodies when it comes to murder, thankfully. It is against the law to take another life, and in some places even one’s own life because, well, taking life is taking life.

If it is wrong to take life unnecessarily or wantonly from the body of the earth, then it is wrong to take life unnecessarily from the bodies of people. But, as we know, this is not how the issue is often viewed. Piercing the earth with a fracking rig to extract gas is wrong (and I think it is for a host of reasons), but it is somehow okay when a doctor pierces the womb of a woman to extract a developing infant when that infant causes no threat to the woman other than the fact that she will have to be a mother to it. We call this “healthcare”. The father is complicit, as well. While we are reminded that we should find space in our hearts for refugees, for aliens and migrants, and for the homosexual or trans-gender person, we yet still find it incredibly difficult to welcome our own children and care for their mothers. Indeed, though we have found it appropriate to ensure that the handicapped can have adequate access to our public places, we now have the option to abort an infant if it shows signs of disability rather than taking the risk of welcoming and caring for it. Many people I know who are passionately pro-environmental and up on social justice issues are equally passionate about affirming abortion. After all, as the argument goes, a fetus is just a bunch of cells and it’s our right to do what we please with the cells that are our own. Then again, a tree is a bunch of cells also, and so are we! Water, air and rocks? Forget it! They are nothing if we follow such a worldview. They are things that we can own, and because we own them we can do what we want with them.

The fact is, however, that existence of any kind is a tremendous mystery. It is totally irreducible to our minimalist minds; nothing can ever be “just” anything and nothing can ever just belong to us or even to itself.

I suggest that it would do the environmental movement well, and make its real concerns much more palatable to others, if it could extract itself from issues such as abortion. Indeed, its basic arguments would be vastly more compelling if they fully embraced the sacredness of all of life. The atomized view of life, the self-possessing and selfish rhetoric that so often accompanies the pro-choice movement, seems rather incompatible with a robust environmental ethic that would require us to sacrifice our own itineraries for the sake and the life of the other. Sometimes this other is as removed from us as a certain kind of jellyfish that likes to hang out in a certain spot that we will never see deep in the ocean.

A robust environmental ethic must affirm self-sacrifice. It must teach obedience to the limitations of nature, that we should strive to work with the land rather than against it. Of course, this would mean that we should also strive to live obediently and joyfully with our bodies as they have been given us rather than working against them. This naturally has to include disease, gender and reproduction. Imagine the traction the environmental movement would gain among many of its enemies if it embraced a pro-life stance! We must ask ourselves, what is really more important? Which issue should be sacrificed for the other? Indeed, could it be that some issues are at heart incompatible? When they are placed side by side we cannot take either of them seriously.

On the other side, we raise our guns as a symbol of our personal freedoms, and resist governmental regulations that would impinge on what we do on the land that we own. Just like abortion laws impinge on the bodies that are ours, right? Wrong. For some reason, gun control and land use restrictions are out, while laws governing the body (at least in the case of abortion and its sister issue, assisted suicide) would be a welcome step forward. Strange, is it not? How can an infatuation with guns – and not just for hunting and feeding one’s family but for personal armament and entertainment – be compatible with saying that all life is sacred, from the womb to natural death? It isn’t.

It becomes very difficult to take a pro-lifer seriously when they will tell you about the sacredness of life in the womb and, in the next breath, brag about the new assault weapon they’ve procured. Such a one will complain about “liberal” (actually, justly concerned) citizens who support gun control laws because they are tired of seeing the same children who were once in the womb being mowed down by the agency of assault weapons while at school. What’s wrong with the picture? Are we for life, or are we for death? Perhaps this is the real question, and perhaps we are all a little ambiguous when it comes to committing definitively to an answer.

Contemplative Prayer

For the Christian, the drive towards non-being, the drive towards death and the profound and catastrophic effect this has on our lives and on this world, is intrinsically tied up with the notion of sin. Of course, we’re getting into another topic that would demand much more attention than we can give it in a measly blog post.

Though Christian artifacts are easily found among the rubble and confusion of our national discourse, those who would be Christian in truth must begin to see beyond the party lines. Our kingdom is not a kingdom of this contemptuous and confused world (John 18:36). Christianity is about personal, face-to-face, mutually sacrificial relationship – the kind of relationship that God has called us into with himself in Jesus Christ. Most notably, the stilling and sifting effect of prayer, specifically contemplative prayer, can help us to step out of the confused din of party talk and to begin to see and to embrace a vision of life that is comprehensive, clear, unconfused, and unfastened from the party lines, whatever they may be.

Should we not desire such a vision? Should we not seek a vision of life that is based in life? A vision of life that dares to be – not for one’s own sake as understood in a minimalist and atomized way, but to be for the sake of the other.

After all, the truth is that we need one another.

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  1. [1]Obviously, one could write a similar book on the “conservative” mind with its embrace of obstinacy, ridicule, propaganda and guns. Donald Trump, the current conservative presidential candidate, proves the thesis.
  2. [2]Modern media has the uncanny ability to incite mass frenzy very easily and very quickly. This was discovered in a small degree in 1928 when Orson Wells broadcasted his radio play “War of the Worlds”. Having missed the few announcements that the broadcast was fictional, a number of people were thrown into a panic. The studio was swarmed with police before the broadcast was even ended.

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