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What Keeps You Going?


On last Saturday’s Pull Up a Chair thread, Christy asked folks to think about where each of us comes from. "Every one of you is a political junkie for a reason. And this morning, I’d like to talk about some of the whys of that. What got you involved in politics? . . ."

Lots of interesting answers, and I reacted to many of them with a "Oh, me too!" Some of us talked about people who inspired us, and others talked about people who pissed us off. Either way, these people got us off the couch and into politics. Some talked about events in which we were caught up – or events we chose to leap into with great abandon. Some talked about big national things, and others talked about family issues and local concerns. On other threads, these same kinds of stories pop up, as folks comment about the topic at hand, offering up a little of their own background to give some context for their thoughts. In the midst of all this political soul-baring, I also noticed a fair amount of religious language (it’s an occupational hazard).

And then there was last night’s Late Night FDL: Why It Matters thread by TRex.

If you haven’t read it, go now – we’ll wait. (If you read it already, you might want read it again to refresh your memory.) Read the post, then skip down (if you must skip) to comment 103 @ 10:31, then 108 @ 10:33, then 116 @ 10:36, and then continue reading the comments. We’ll keep waiting.

We all have our sources of strength for times like these, and they come from our most basic [often religious and spiritual] beliefs. The TheoCons are famous for their quoting of scripture and their leatherbound bibles with the floppy covers. They revel securely in the knowledge that every answer they need to any political question is right there in the Book. But TheoCons aren’t the only ones who are inspired by the Bible, and the Bible isn’t the only source of religious inspiration around that gets folks going, nor is it the only source of religious strength that keeps folks going when it all hits the fan.

Many of us on the political left are just as passionate about our beliefs as the TheoCons. We often fear to raise those beliefs directly, to avoid getting a negative reaction from those we want to engage. We [who have religious beliefs] don’t want to get tarred with the Dobson brush or labelled a Falwell Fundy. Still, many of those we’re trying to reach politically are solid, middle of the road religious people – and we run the risk of leaving a valuable tool to reach them unused, if we don’t talk about religious things.

Speaking out of one’s core beliefs is the best way to connect with someone else at that same level. If these beliefs are strong enough to get me off the couch and into the game, maybe they’ll do the same for others. But how? We don’t want to be pushy, like the "if you just accept Jesus in your heart" pitch from the TheoCons. Let me offer a couple of examples of political speech rooted in the speaker’s religious [deeply held] beliefs.

35 years ago, a young poet and preacher visited Sesame Street, and did a call-and-response thing with a bunch of the kids. "I am," said the visitor, and the kids shouted back "I am." "Somebody!" said the poet, and the kids yelled "Somebody!" The guest and the kids repeated the couplet, and then it progressed: "I may be poor, but I am somebody. I may be young, but I am somebody, I may be on welfare, but I am somebody . . ." The guest was Jesse Jackson, and a decade later he turned that poem into the heart of a campaign speech.

The words that echoed on Sesame Street may have been Jesse’s, but they came from scripture. St. Paul wrote his friends in Corinth, trying to get them to quit trying to pull rank on each other, and used the metaphor of the body to remind them that every one of them is Somebody of worth, and none of them are beneath respect. "If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body," said Paul. Eyes, ears, head, feet, even the "less respectable" parts (the "naughty bits" as Monty Python calls them) – all part of the body. Poor, young, on welfare . . . all part of the body, and behold: the religious and the political meet.

"Oh, but Jesse’s a preacher – he’s supposed to do that. He’s trained to do that. . ." OK, how about a non-preacher, like Bono? His Remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast this past February were a personal statement of political action rooted in spiritual and religious beliefs. A few snippets . . .

One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God. For me, at least, it got in the way.

Seeing what religious people, in the name of God, did to my native land… and in this country, seeing God’s second-hand car salesmen on the cable TV channels, offering indulgences for cash… in fact, all over the world, seeing the self-righteousness roll down like a mighty stream from certain corners of the religious establishment…

I must confess, I changed the channel. I wanted my MTV.

Even though I was a believer. Perhaps because I was a believer.

I was cynical… not about God, but about God’s politics. (There you are, Jim.)

Then, in 1997, a couple of eccentric, septuagenarian British Christians went and ruined my shtick—my reproachfulness. They did it by describing the Millennium, the year 2000, as a Jubilee year, as an opportunity to cancel the chronic debts of the world’s poorest people. They had the audacity to renew the Lord’s call—and were joined by Pope John Paul II, who, from an Irish half-Catholic’s point of view, may have had a more direct line to the Almighty.

‘Jubilee’—why ‘Jubilee’? What was this year of Jubilee, this year of our Lords favor?

I’d always read the Scriptures, even the obscure stuff. There it was in Leviticus (25:35)… ‘If your brother becomes poor,’ the Scriptures say, ‘and cannot maintain himself… you shall maintain him… You shall not lend him your money at interest, not give him your food for profit.’


Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor.  In fact, the poor are where God lives. 

Check Judaism.  Check Islam.  Check pretty much anyone.

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill…  I hope so.  He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff… maybe, maybe not…  But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. 

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.  “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places”

It’s not a coincidence that in the Scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times.  It’s not an accident.  That’s a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions.  [You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor.]   ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’  (Matthew 25:40).   As I say, good news to the poor. 

Let’s take Christy’s question from Saturday and give it a twist. We each have deep (often called religious or spiritual) roots that feed us – roots that we have in common with others. I am convinced that these deeply rooted religious ideas and ideals can be used to strengthen the power of the progressive community. We can use that strength to motivate each other, and use that strength to engage and persuade others to join in our political movement. People talk about the Religious Right motivating the folks in their pews, and about the power of the Black church, but there’s a whole lot of other folks of all kinds of religious stripes that could use some political engagement, and the deepest engagement comes out of the deepest beliefs. I got an email the other day which said, "I don’t see how someone could read [a particular statement of religious belief] and not be a liberal."

Let me ask you this: What would you put in those brackets, from your own religious background? It might be a particular parable of Jesus, a saying of the Buddha, or a passage from Thoreau. It might be a poem from the Book of Psalms, a rap you heard at the club last weekend, or a folk song by Woodie Guthrie. It might be a prayer, a speech, a song, or a sermon. Whatever it is, it’s given you strength and purpose and drive and a commitment to progressive politics, and probably can do the same for others.

And if it’s good stuff, you may just get the Estelle Reiner reaction to Meg Ryan’s passionate outburst, from When Harry Met Sally: "I’ll have what she’s having." That’s when you know you’ve connected.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.