A Commencement, A Wedding, and an Alternative Politics

As the President of the United States delivered the commencement address at my institutional home, Calvin College, I was celebrating a wedding with a young couple that my wife and I counseled during their engagement. Being on sabbatical excused me from attending, so I chose the wedding over the President’s visit. Because of this, I was confronted with questions on two fronts.

To astonished West Michiganders (while Michigan was colored a blue state in the last election, it’s western environs are a deep rouge), I had to admit that I was going to pass on this wonderful “honor” to be in the presence of the President. But to many of my equally disappointed colleagues, I also had to explain why I wasn’t there to wear an armband at the ceremony, and why I didn’t sign the faculty’s letter of protest which received national media attention. It was the latter group I found to be less charitable, calling into question my commitment to the vaulted Niebuhrian dream of “transforming culture.” One colleague even dug up the Reformed tradition’s oldest and vilest epithet, suggesting that I was acting like (gasp!) an “Anabaptist.”

But being at the wedding, I want to suggest, was a political act. (Of course, it was also a good time; but not that good: it was a Baptist wedding, so sans libations).

Let me backtrack a bit: as most now know, our campus was shaken from its West Michigan Republican slumber with the announcement that our commencement address would be delivered by the President of the United States. Almost immediately, all kinds of coalitions of dissent and protest began to form. Eventually amongst the faculty two dominant modes of engagement won out: a plan to wear symbolic armbands during the commencement, and an opportunity to sign an “open letter” to President Bush, articulating a critique of his own policies and a more constructive vision of politics seeking justice for all.

And then it slowly began to happen: the unfolding of a Seinfeld episode. You know the one: where Kramer participates in the AIDS walk but prefers not to wear a pink ribbon.

“What!?,” is the response. “Who won’t wear the ribbon? Why won’t you wear the ribbon? You’re against AIDS, aren’t you? Then why won’t you wear the ribbon?” Kramer collapses under the blows of other protesters.

I began to experience something similar: “Why won’t you sign the letter? Aren’t you opposed to Bush’s policies?” Yes, absolutely was my reply; but I also wasn’t comfortable with the articulation of an alternative which still, to my mind, was trying to play the game by the rules of a politics that wasn’t mine.

For instance, I couldn’t sign on to “respecting” (rather than simply “obeying” [Rom. 13]) the office of the President since I’m not sure that the executive branch has ever been a force for justice in the world. And quite to the contrary, this is the office of the Commander-in-Chief: the office that has, with the push of the proverbial “button,” rained untold suffering on many, from the horrendous bombings of Japan to Clinton’s wag-the-dog war crimes in Sudan, not to mention the current Iraq war. So I just can’t bring myself to look on this “office” with too much respect. Nor could I sign on to the criticism of the Iraq war as “unjust” and “unjustified” because the letter, while purporting to speak from Christian confession, entertained that war could be just, which I don’t.

So, with a sense of respect for those undertaking this organized dissent, I politely declined participation, sent our RSVP to the wedding, and began to check the couples’ gift registry.

While I was prepared for brusk treatment from those on the Right, I wasn’t really prepared for the hegemonic response from my “progressive” sisters and brothers. Because of my (non)response—which they variously labeled as quietest, pietist, escapist, perfectionist, purist, Anabaptist, and sectarian—a number of my colleagues judged that I was either a cop-out or a sell-out. One was even happy to label my “silence” as evil. If you won’t wear the ribbon, if you won’t sign the letter, if you won’t wear the armband, you must be complicit with the system. By not signing the letter, I might as well have pushed the button on the cruise missiles that tragically shattered an Iraqi family’s wedding.

Being called evil is a bit hard to take—especially for someone who has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq (and war in general), as well as the injustices that are the fruit of capitalist systems for distributing resources, not to mention the maddening conflation of foreign policy with bastardized theology. But because I didn’t respond in the “right way,” because I wasn’t “participating in the political process,” I was remaining silent—silently evil.

Once I gathered my thoughts however, I responded with a question: Why would you conclude that because I’m not signing your letter that I’m being “silent?” Is there only one way to speak? If I don’t do what you’re doing, does that mean I’m not doing anything?

A proper response in this situation must proceed from a careful diagnosis. And it is here that I think my progressive colleagues are a bit shortsighted. We need to first ask: Why was it that so many in Calvin’s constituency—and many other Christians in West Michigan—eagerly welcomed President Bush into a central ritual of our college community? Why is it that the Reformed cultural elite have come to so closely identify being faithful with being committed to a party that privileges the wealthy, is aggressively militaristic, and caters to the nouveau riche of late capitalism?

My answer would be both simple and complex: this represents a failure of discipleship. If we find the climate of highly-churched West Michigan to be so complicit with institutionalized social injustice, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Clearly, our churches, far from forming us otherwise, are actually contributing to the formation of docile subjects of the GOP machine.

What, then, would be a fitting response? Armbands? A letter?

If the problem is a failure of discipleship, the only proper response must be a rigorous commitment to re-imagining Christian formation. The best response will be a matter of worship, not publicity. (And, in fact, I fear the “open letter” to President Bush only exacerbated the problem, galvanizing the constituency and confirming all their suspicions about “liberal” academics, losing a chance to really be heard by our constituency.)

So we went to the wedding. We participated in a liturgy of worship that, to some degree, had the goal of constituting a “peculiar people” whose politics is otherwise. And what I’ll continue “doing” is try to reshape and re-educate the imagination of the church so that in time they will be formed as disciples who will immediately see the injustice of exploitive domestic policies and the utter inconsistency between Christian confession and militaristic foreign policy. I guess I’m taking a longer term view (which doesn’t play well with activist urgency). I’m also taking a stance of hopeful charity, trusting the possibility that the Spirit can change hearts and minds—even in West Michigan! (Such a miracle would be enough to make the staunchest Reformed folk entertain Pentecostal visions.)

And here I must confess that I don’t see many of my progressive sisters and brothers eager or willing to take up this hard, long work of discipleship and formation in the churches. Many of my colleagues who so loudly and publicly protested the Bush visit with their armbands and other declarations tend to inhabit ecclesial spaces where they’ll find many sympathetic to their political stance—and from there articulate their prophetic critique. But as Richard Mouw wisely counseled me several months ago, we need fewer prophets, and more teachers. Or as Klaas Schilder put it a half-century ago, in his own little book on Christ and Culture penned in the shadow of fascism:

“Blessed is my wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way. He is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it. Let them mock him: they do not know what they are doing, those cultural gadabouts of the other side!”

So I’ll continue to see my adult Sunday School class or our Bible study group as political spaces where, slowly to be sure, disciples of Jesus are shaped by the politics of Jesus. This politics doesn’t play the game of party lines or state power, but rather seeks to form us otherwise—as those who desire a different kingdom and who serve a king-in-waiting.