The morning after: politics beyond an election

Now what? I woke up the morning after Election Day politically disoriented. The empty feeling in my stomach didn’t go away after eating my usual yogurt and granola. What would I do in a world without politics? Do I have to wait another four years to fill that gnawing political void?

Not according to Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas in their new book: Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary (Cascade, 2008). Politics is not restricted to something that happens when we vote, they argue. Instead, politics involves all the ways we tend to “common goods” which exceed “settled institutional forms” (3). In other words, politics happens outside the voting booth as well. Politics happens in our neighborhoods, not just in Washington, D.C. Democracy involves “a multitude of peoples enacting myriad forms of the politics of the radical ordinary in ways,” they write (8). For Coles and Hauerwas, democracy is everyday politics that turns us to the importance of “concrete practices of tending to one another” (8).

Coles describes the Civil Rights movement as a story of everyday democracy. He does not focus on the familiar story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead Coles turns our gaze from powerful pulpits to the ordinary African-American churchwomen who gave Dr. King something to talk about. Ella Baker is the protagonist of this story. She was a political organizer who spread the Civil Rights movement among everyday folk. According to Coles, Baker’s politics displayed “the arts and the techniques of ‘sitting at the feet’ of the least of these” (78). Her political work in Harlem consisted in “the fine art of strolling,” where Baker sought out discussions with people on the streets. These relationships turned into political networks that birthed life in the midst “depression-era suffering” (61). The Civil Rights movement was not created from nothing. Rather, it flowed from the work of ordinary organizers like Ella Baker. Her democratic politics started at the kitchen table and community meals. Baker was fond of saying, “If you share your food with people, you share your lives with people” (57). For Coles, with whom we eat is as politically significant as what we do in the voting booth. Meals of communion fuel our political imagination.

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Stanley Hauerwas finds politics in an equally unexpected place: L’Arche communities. These are groups of people with varying degrees of disability and ability. Assistants live with core members who are disabled and cannot get along without help. While some may wonder how there can be any time for politics in such communities, Hauerwas argues, “one must recognize L’Arche as a politics” (316). For Hauerwas, L’Arche forms a political body, a people, who embody significant political sensibilities. “[T]he heart of L’Arche is patience,” writes Hauerwas, which is “the politics of peace” (316). For Hauerwas, patience is a political virtue in short supply. When the rulers of nation-states keep violence on the table as a political option, they kill their own imaginations. War is a shortcut around the difficult and risky work of patience. L’Arche shows the world that another way is possible. L’Arche testifies, writes Hauerwas, “to what will be missed if we only attempt what we assume will work” (320).

Mennonites will be particularly interested in Coles’ thoughts on footwashing in L’Arche communities, and the way he ties this practice to the work of the Mennonite Central Committee. According to Coles, Vanier’s key insight is that washing another’s feet is also a position of power: “Vanier is very clear that power, even the power of ‘servant-leaders,’ can ‘quickly corrupt,’” writes Coles. We are always tempted, as Vanier puts it, “to exercise authority and help the poor from ‘on top,’ as someone superior, out of pity or even a certain disdain” (219). The greatest danger, according to Coles, is to think that we have everything to give and nothing to receive. Here is where Vanier emphasizes our need to have someone wash our feet—to endure the exposure of someone taking our feet into their hands.

The practice of footwashing displays the profound giving and receiving that is at the heart of MCC, argues Coles. There are “very profound receptive practices that seem integral to work being done by the Mennonite Central Committee and other exemplary Mennonite organizations,” he writes (225). Coles lauds the ability of Mennonites to enter into relationships without wielding power over another, and instead learning from people who are rich in local knowledge. Although Coles is not a Christian, he is profoundly attracted to how Mennonites embody receptivity, which is tied to the virtue of patience and the conviction of nonviolence. He asks, “Could it be that such receptivity is among the most vital liturgical practices in Mennonite communities…?” (225).

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As is expected, Hauerwas and Coles constantly think through the work of John Howard Yoder. But they also engage Peter Dula of Eastern Mennonite University and Alex Sider of Bluffton University. Hauerwas closes the first chapter with a discussion of Dula and Sider’s essay, “Radical Democracy, Radical Ecclesiology” (Cross Currents, winter 2006), where they wonder if Hauerwas’ Creedal theology is compatible with a vision of church that is radically democratic—where authority over doctrine and practice is shared by all members. For Dula and Sider, a radically democratic church is fragile and vulnerable.

Hauerwas quotes Dula and Sider to this effect: “a dialogue is democratic when the terms of the conversation are not settled in advance by a framework given prior to the dialogue… Democracy sheds all guarantees and takes the risk of keeping nothing safe” (30). Hauerwas responds: “orthodoxy is the exemplification of the training necessary for the formation of a people who are not only capable of working for justice, but who are themselves just” (30). In other words, orthodoxy names the ongoing conversation with the past voices that continues to call our churches to faithfulness, to work for God’s justice.

The book closes with a transcript of a conversation between Coles and Hauerwas. Coles starts the dialogue by asking Hauerwas to return to his thoughts on Dula and Sider. Echoing Dula and Sider, Coles also worries that Hauerwas’ defense of hierarchical ecclesial authority provides no room for “insurgent dialogical practices and powers ‘from below’” (324). Politics starts at home, and Coles wants Hauerwas to think through the paradox of naming himself a “high-church Mennonite.” For Coles, Mennonite forms of church display an egalitarian and vulnerably receptive politics that is at odds with high-church hierarchy.

In his response, Hauerwas says what he means by locating himself within the Mennonite tradition: “To be a ‘high-church Mennonite’ is my way to suggest that…God is leading us back to the profound unity of Christians—a unity found in our refusal to kill one another in the name of national loyalties” (326). For Hauerwas, Mennonites remind the wider church that nonviolence makes possible ecumenical relationships.

Hauerwas also points to another traditional Mennonite practice that displays a deeply democratic politics: choosing ministers by lot! “I think it is a good test to ask, what kind of community do you need to be for those in leadership to be chosen by lot and, after time, to return to what they were doing before they were chosen?” (326). Hauerwas asks the church (and Mennonites!) to consider the profoundly democratic political witness of choosing ministers by lot. For the most part, the mainstream Mennonite church in the United States no longer performs this practice. What does it mean that our denomination has now created a professionalized class of ministers like me? The political practices that Coles and Hauerwas point to as good news are no longer determinative for our ecclesial politics.

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Mary, the mother of Jesus, captures the heart of Coles and Hauerwas’ political vision when she says in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, “The Lord has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things/ but has sent the rich away empty” (vv. 52-53). Coles and Hauerwas teach us how we can sing Mary’s Magnificat and begin to hear the political overtones. In Mary’s song the political landscape is turned upside down—or, maybe, right side up. We don’t take our cues from the politics of Capital Hill, but from the lowly, the humble, the poor—people like Mary and Jesus.

Coles uses Ralph Waldo Emerson to call us to this political vision: “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low” (48). Hauerwas uses the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero: “It is the poor who tell us what the polis is” (229). Political participation starts when we sit patiently at the feet of “the least of these.” They are the humbled and humiliated, like Jesus, who give us new eyes to see the possibility of a world made new, the world Mary prophesied when she heard the good news of the coming of Christ.

We have forgotten, Hauerwas writes, that “Christianity is determinatively the faith of the poor” (107). We profess the faith of the poor, because we say that a homeless Palestinian Jew is worthy of our worship.

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