Over the past year of observing American politics, I’ve experienced the gamut of emotions that come with passionately held beliefs. I’ve felt exhilarated. I’ve felt outraged. I’ve holed up and refused to talk about it anymore; I’ve talked incessantly, refusing to be quiet. I’ve posted Facebook comments. I’ve engaged in real life conversations. I’ve learned the names and addresses of my representatives, and I’ve written letters and made phone calls. I’ve ridden the wave of earnest and outrageous responses.
But lately, I’ve held back despite clear calls to march, write, share, and express. Why? Often because I don’t just want to add another opinion, another voice to the many already noisy, crowded conversations unless I’m willing to follow it up with action. And often, those action steps aren’t always obvious. Not every issue affects me or my community directly, so forming an opinion feels largely theoretical. On the other hand, there are issues I feel strongly about that do affect me, my family, and my community. Healthcare, immigration, drug abuse, education, racism, gender equality, and more are issues that matter right now, right here. What if instead of constant outrage about everything I just started there with some definitive action on a few issues that hit closest to home?
In his book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, C. Christopher Smith writes about how his church on the near East side of Indianapolis began to engage in politics. “Our church has not entered into broader economic or political arenas on the basis of abstract issues that we feel strongly about but rather as extensions of the work of knowing and loving our place,” Smith writes. He goes on to say that reading was critical to that engagement because it helped “us understand the arenas that we are working in and the issues that we are engaging.”
For instance, I just called my Congressman, Todd Rokita of Indiana’s 4th District, to express my concern and urge him to take possible legislative action in response to the recent executive order barring all refugees to our country for four months, all refugees and immigrants from Syria indefinitely, and travelers from six other nations for 90 days. I feel strongly about this issue, but in my small, rural midwestern city, I don’t know of any organizations currently working to bring refugees or immigrants from those countries to America. I likely have a limited perspective on this issue because it doesn’t impact me directly.
On the other hand, many people in our community are immigrants from Mexico, my stepsons attend public schools here in our community, and recently four women who are battling drug addiction and are part of a local rehabilitation facility visited our Sunday School class. My voice about these issues is not just theoretical. I understand the implications more directly. I have a vested interest in executive orders or legislation that brush against these concerns. And I not only can express an opinion to and urge action from an elected official, I can just go ahead and get involved myself.
Of course, the old saying, “All politics is local,” isn’t entirely true. There are some issues that don’t affect me or my community directly and still deserve my voice and my action.
Also, a larger point from Smith’s book is that before we act, reading, researching, and informing ourselves allow our actions to be more deliberate and less reactionary. For instance, I should have read the full text of the executive order before I called my Congressman to express an opinion about it. It actually contains some provisions that I agree with. (I did read it after I had placed the call.)
Finally, perhaps the best part of beginning our engagement locally, however, is it emphasizes the action over the politics. “Our political action as churches should be guided by the work we are already engaged in as church communities. That work should take precedence over the politics, but sometimes policy will impede our work or even contribute to the systems we are trying to reform,” Smith writes. “In these cases we may need to get engaged to help remove (or minimize the effect of) unjust policies.”
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asks. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
My goal in this series of posts about asking questions, entering conversations, and engaging our culture is not intended as a covert attempt to slip my political opinions into your browser or inbox. Promise. I just desperately want to find practical, actionable ways to interact, connect, and get involved — with the hope of bridging gaps not creating new ones. I’d love to hear how you are coping during a contentious, divided time in our nation’s history. What are you reading? How are you expressing your opinions? Are you taking specific action steps to get involved? Why or why not?
One more thing: I recently led a discussion about Smith’s book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, in my church’s book club. We only got through a few of the questions, but I had prepared several more. I offer those questions here in case you are interested in reading the book and interacting with others about its content and ideas.
- How do you think reading helps you act rather than react in your family, community, and world? (p 19)
- Do you agree that as a society we read more than ever but few of us read well? Explain. (p. 25)
- Have you ever practiced Lectio Divina? What was your experience?
- “We often learn to function in a social imaginary without actually accepting the convictions that give it its particular identity.” Do you agree? Share an example. How does reading help with this? (p. 46)
- How important is conversation in your life? (p. 50)
- In what ways do you think your church seeks to allow the Word of God to shape you (both individual and collectively)? Do you agree that this is the call of Christians?
- Do you read in communion with others? Which of the three steps — “Read the text,” The text reads us,” and “Read the world” — seems easier or more obvious to you?
- How has reading helped you discern or develop your vocation?
- How do we develop or regain a sense of place through reading? Do you think a sense of place is important in communities? Why or why not?
- How do you feel about “civic conversation”? Do you think it’s even possible anymore? (p. 93)
- How do you think we can help the local economy and ecology flourish through reading?
- What do you think are the limits and possibilities of grappling with issues from the grassroots up? (p. 111)
- Do you think our obsession with presidential politics unmasks a preference for a trickle-down approach to solutions, as the author suggests?
- Reading not only helps us understand our place; it helps us understand other places. How do you think the two are connected?
- How do we reimagine our community economically by simply thinking about the livelihood of those who live here? (p. 126)
- How does reading help us engage in the political practice of lawmaking?
- How do we encourage and practice slow, attentive reading of scripture?
- How do we connect reading to other church activities, particularly for nonreaders?
- How do we create more conversational spaces?