By Robert A. Hirschfeld
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
— “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
As a bishop of the Episcopal Church, a denomination founded on the principal of the via media, or middle way, and known to engage in civil discourse with both prayerful deliberation and reason, I am led to ask: what is the deepest and truest source of my own convictions?
Do those convictions allow for a center, a meeting place, where we can come together in love and civility? Is the middle way a compromise, or better, can it be the way by which all stakeholders stay in the room without vilifying the other? Or are we doomed to a relentless devolution of our democracy, a disintegration marked by name calling: “woke,” “socialist,” or “fascist”?
I have to confess that in moments of distress at the news, my own convictions are at risk of eroding into a kind of despairing resignation, leaving more airtime for the worse impulses of those of passionate intensity on both far left and the far right to dominate all conversation. It is at those moments that I turn to the tradition of my faith as an Episcopalian.
As one who thinks about God — a lot — I can’t help but think that our current political strivings have less to do with the closeness we feel to our elected leaders, or the status of our personal finances, or the deterioration of our planet, and more to do with a deep conflict in our imagining who God is and how God wants us to live and move and be in this world. I have long wondered if all politics is theological.
Let’s look at a few examples.
On the one hand (and at the risk of over-simplifying) there is an adherence to a God whose power and presence is known arbitrarily and must be placated. Let’s call him Zeus. Voracious, jealous, intolerant of dissent or rivalry, Zeus seizes what Zeus wants, when Zeus wants it, and punishes without mercy, unless an express of mercy is self-serving. To many of us, Zeus can look good and many find themselves praying that the Zeus god will control events, turn bad things into good, and exact retribution on evildoers. Because that’s what Zeus does: manipulate, control, ridicules the meek and needy, and finds and punishes fault and frailty.
On the other hand there is desire to follow a God who chose to become weak, vulnerable, a refugee, wounded, and killed by a humanity intolerant and afraid of appearing out of step with those in political power — a God who chose to take on frail flesh and to die out of a passionate desire to restore humanity and all creation to a relationship of shalom, of peace and harmony within the very being of God. The restoration to holiness this theology imagines is motivated and shaped by compassion, love, mercy. That’s an idea of God that Jesus kept pointing to, in fact embodied. It’s an idea of God that got him killed. But a new kind of power is displayed when he rises, wounds and all, from the grave, to forgive and show that love is stronger than death.
Both ideas of God can be found and justified in both testaments of the Bible. There is plenty of wrathful slaying in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. To Yeats’s point, my conviction is that the God of self-emptying love, the God of the Beatitudes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels (Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the thirsting for righteousness and justice, the unfairly slandered), the God who chooses to give over himself, unarmed and undefended, out of love so that life can win in the end…that’s the God who delivers a freedom that outweighs the freedom that the world so often equates with a mere defense of personal rights, however noble.
Personal liberty. Individual freedom. These are phrases that have had a lot currency in our nation and certainly in my state of New Hampshire. Our founding documents are explicit that they derive from the divine, and it follows that we believe — at least those of us who believe in God — that God is utterly free to be and do whatever the heck God wills. My reading of scripture and my own spiritual tradition is that God has chosen, out of freedom, to act in a radical and costly, self-sacrificing, love. And we are called to exercise our freedom in the same way even though we frequently fail in doing so.
When we experience shifts in the political landscape, short pithy explanations from the past come to mind: U.S. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neil’s “all politics is local,” or campaign consultant James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yes, politics are local, and the economy will certainly influence our choices behind the ballot curtain. But I wonder how our theological leaning will guide what ovals we’ll be filling in in this election season.
The Rt. Rev. Robert A Hirschfeld is bishop of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire.