Peculiar Menagerie: Sheep, Snakes, Wolves and Doves…



(This week’s post provides a faithful Christian critique of this year’s election contest. This will be a special monthly blog feature during the 2012 election season.)

‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ (Matthew 10:16 NRSV)

Jesus’ statement to his disciples is a provocative one. After calling all the disciples to the task of following him, he commissions them to drive out demons and heal whomever they encounter. He gives them further instruction as to how they should conduct themselves. Those instructions include teachings on how to behave in various villages, what to take on their journey and how to act if they are not received. His concluding statement is the quoted text, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

The metaphor is simple yet powerful. Disciples are easy pickings for wolves, unless they exercise the wisdom of serpents. If they are not careful of where they step and how they act in the world, then they can bring unnecessary attention and drama to themselves. It could even lead to their demise. Jesus’ admonition is both a warning and a statement of ontological truth. It is a warning to be attentive to the dangers of the world and all that belongs to it. It is an ontological statement, because it says something about the makeup of a disciple’s character. The disciples are in dangerous territory, yet the exercise of mental discipline and behavioral restraint mitigates the challenges .

These words of Jesus still apply to the disciples of today….

This year is a pivotal year in our nation’s history. While this statement might be one of the most overused statements in recent times (for a number of reasons), it is particularly true in this present moment. Sure, the nation has to choose a president and members of Congress. And true, we will decide the country’s direction and the leadership we want to have. But more and more this election is about the moral makeup of this country. This year’s election will define the nation’s character and soul. Who are “We the People” going to be?

The portrayal of cultural issues and the context of our current social discourse are conducted in a narrowly constructed binary fashion. Politics and the corresponding partisanship virtually define all issues as being this or that: Liberal or Conservative, Republican or Democrat (despite the rise of Independents), Red or Blue, pro-immigration or anti-immigration, pro-life or pro-choice, homophobic or pro equal rights. Listening to political speeches and pundits serves as a profound lesson in reductionism. Every policy question is a moral choice about the future of the nation and the quality of life in America. Life, for the political actors (and I do mean actors), is always reduced to who is on what side and the position they are advancing. The effect is a limiting of life’s diversity to one extreme on the other. For me, it is maddening to see life boiled down to these false dichotomies…

The truth of the matter is that life is always more complicated than any of the arguments of political ideologues. A simple example of the contrived political arguments can be seen in Newt Gingrich’s statements regarding child labor and the work ethic of poor urban children. (Digression: I would explain his perspective a little further but you must be on the lunar colony that he proposes building to not know about his perspective on this issue. See link). Frankly, you cannot get more out of touch with the complexity of life and willfully perpetuate myths about poor children (which has increased significantly in the last decade). His comments assume that poor “urban African-American children” are offspring of lazy, drug-addicted parents with no sense of purpose. This paints that segment of the population in such a way that it becomes easily digestible in the binary code of this-or-that. Simply disgusting

The reality for poor parents of all ethnicities in America is much more complicated and diverse than any one career politician (regardless of political party) could ever grasp or articulate in a sound bite. My own experience of working with the poor of our community involves dealing with parents who have strong values and an even stronger commitment to providing a loving and stable environment for their family. Sure, many of them augment their income with government assistance and other non-profit help but, most of the parents I work with are dedicated to their children and work two or even three jobs to keep food in cupboards, lights operable and heat on. They are not all drug addicts or convicts, but some are. Some have made bad choices, others are victims of circumstance. Life is varied and difficult amongst the wolves and not everybody understands the comfort of being in the sheepfold with Jesus

Regardless of the mistakes and shortcomings that are all a part of everyone’s life, I have seen parents of the poor pass strong values and a healthy work ethic on to their children in ways that the parents of privileged children seem to neglect. I have seen the children of limited means learn to become effective participants in society through mentorships, education and study, familial love, and yes, even through hard work. It is clear through my experience, that limited binary thinking is not equipped to define the diversity of life that we encounter as disciples. Life is too expansive for red and blue prisms to view the world. I like to think many of the professed Christians who are in politics understand this dynamic of life and infinite complexities. Sadly, I also think I am wrong…

The real challenge for us this 2012 election season is living faithfully with Christian values, while maintaining a discerning attitude toward the partisan ideologues that have painted the world in stark black and white terms. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, wrote a book entitled Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics (check it out my reading list). In it, he argues that the politically divisive issues of our time are not ever as simple as the partisans on either side define them. There are always subtexts, caveats and loopholes that make life much more complicated (and interesting) than the simple binary code of our discourse. For Adam, the color is gray, which is indicative of dullness or neutrality. For me, natural colors are a metaphor for the diversity of life itself. The color may not be gray, but instead a cacophony of color as a rainbow. regardless of the color scheme, the text codifies the idea that millions of other Christians in America share; quite simply the world is a much more complex place than black or white divisions.

I am asking that Christians who seek adherence to their faith and faithfully exercise their civic obligation to think about what they hear this year (and every year). I challenge you to see the world in a shade of gray. Life isn’t just a rich or poor, pro-life or pro-choice, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, Christian or everybody else choice. There are colorful areas in the middle, where life thrives and flourishes. Faith lives and thrives in these areas and not in the concrete gray of our ideological bunkers. Disciples in Jesus’ day (as it is in ours) are to “be wise” and “cunning” in the exercise of faith. We must be ready to continue carry on living amongst the wolves of institutional maintenance and binary thinking. It is a thinking and critiquing Christian that glimpses a vision of truth…

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