A US election, social media, and Christian internationalism
This is kind of a sermon on Romans 14, only without any direct reference to that text.
I shall never forget a night in New York City in which Enda [McDonagh; Irish Roman Catholic theologian] told a group of neo-conservatives he would rather live in Zimbabwe than America. He wonderfully defended his ‘preference’ in the face of their utter disbelief that any ‘rational’ person would actually make such a choice. How could you not want to live ‘in the lead society’ of the world? Enda pointed out he already lived in the ‘lead society’ of the world. It was called the Catholic Church. (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Where Would I Be Without Friends?’ in Nation & Wells (eds) Faithfulness and Fortitude: In Conversation with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, p. 331)
Reflecting on reflection on reflection on the outcome of yesterday’s US Presidential election might seem at least one step too far removed from reality, and also rather rapid, but it is the reality of the social media world we live in that people’s reactions to other people’s reactions to an event are freely available within minutes of the event happening.
The reactions, first: the data passing across my various feeds seems to suggest that, in every country in the world bar one, thoughtful Christian people seem to be remarkably united in publicly expressing pleasure and relief at the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the USA; the single exception is the USA itself, where the reaction is considerably more mixed, and the majority position probably leans towards sadness at the outcome, with a significant minority expressing something like horror.
Now, I am conscious that my news feeds are not a scientific poll, but others’ comments seem to suggest that they are seeing the same sort of pattern, and such comments are sufficiently widespread that I feel justified in claiming that amongst thoughtful, committed, Christians who are active on social media at least, this is the general shape of the reaction. (See also the BBC poll of 21 countries, in which only Pakistan favoured Romney, suggesting that non-American Christians are not unusual in favouring Obama.)
The reaction to the reaction has often been incomprehension, and sometimes anger: ‘how could a Christian support…’ ‘I cannot understand why you are so fixated on…’ ‘How can you call yourself a Christian and…’ ‘Can you not see that…’ (and other, less pleasant, ways of saying the same things). Thoughtful, informed, British (and European, African, Asian, Australasian, …) Christians publicly declare themselves – ourselves – to be unable to comprehend the political opinions of our American sisters and brothers, and vice-versa.
However, if we take seriously Enda McDonagh’s reported comments in my opening quotation, I think we have to say that – at least for the international Christian community – such mutual incomprehension is not an option, especially not now we are talking to each other directly via social media. In particular, we have to say that expressed responses directed at a sister or brother that say ‘what you have said is so far from anything I can imagine that I genuinely doubt your faith/sanity’ – and say it in angry and insulting ways – are clearly inappropriate.
The answer, however, is not to say ‘don’t say that’ – or, rather, that is an important part of the answer, particularly if you are saying it in an aggressive or insulting way – but it is not enough; if we feel angry towards a fellow Christian, we’ve got an problem that needs dealing with (Mt. 5:22), and just pretending it is not there is not adequate. If we choose to inhabit the world of social media, we are choosing to be in a space that will be often disorientating and sometimes challenging because it exposes us to people of different cultures. Our incomprehension and anger are natural, probably inevitable, responses to that disorientation; our task as Christian disciples is to discover how to comprehend and love, even if we still find we disagree.
An alternative would be to disengage from social media and so to avoid the disorientation; this might be the best answer for some, whose struggles in the area of Christian charity are particularly acute. For most Christians, however, I think we should receive the disorientation and challenge of our brothers and sisters on social media as a gift, a gift that challenges us to discover the extent to which our opinions are shaped by the gospel, rather than by the culture we inhabit – and that challenges us to understand the breadth of opinions that might be consonant with the gospel. Sometimes, the challenge will force us to change our mind; more often, perhaps, it will force us to understand the extent to which positions we assumed to be inevitable for a Christian are in fact the result of a fairly complex process of trying to inculturate the gospel in our own context. Always, the challenge will force us to greater humility, and to greater understanding of the implications of the gospel. Always, it will make us a little bit better fitted to be citizens of heaven, and a little bit worse as citizens of our various earthly cities.
In the case in point, the difference in opinion is not very hard to begin to explain. At least three factors seem plausible as proposed causes. First, we know that news narratives are different – not just because of editorial slants, but because of local interests. To take one example, the big stories in the UK about Mitt Romney came, inevitably, during his brief visit here in the summer, a visit which I suppose even he would concede was something of a disaster. In his public comments, he came across as ignorant, rude, arrogant, and rather unintelligent; I know that this is in no way an accurate picture, but it is what we saw of him the one time he was top of our news agenda, and it sticks in the mind; a number of such stories could go some way to explaining the difference in political opinion observed. (Similarly, I noticed a line in an opinion piece a few weeks back by an American political commentator I respect – it might have been Ross Douthat – commenting that 10-15% of the Obama campaign ads he had seen had majored on abortion; if the narrative British Christians had heard had been, crudely, ‘Vote Obama, the pro-abortion candidate,’ we might have been less enamoured of the ticket.)
Second, the rest of the world’s view of what policies are important in a domestic US election is inevitably skewed; we care disproportionately about foreign policy questions, and issues that are inescapably international (global warming; global economy; that sort of thing). Saying that the outside world’s primary concern was which candidate was less likely to start another war or three is crass and simplistic, but contains a significant element of truth. (This is also why the rest of the world has a right to a view: the POTUS will make decisions that affect our lives directly and significantly; we should care who holds the office.) Estimating the relative importance of policies differently will inevitably lead to different views of who should be elected.
Third, there are significant aspects of the standard American political narrative that most of the rest of the world just can’t understand: most notably, perhaps, the resistance to universal healthcare that is free at the point of delivery, which in Europe we simply assume will be a pressing aspiration of any society wealthy enough to afford it; again, there is the powerful narrative of American exceptionalism, which just sounds implausible to the many of the rest of us; thirdly, I do think that it is hard for non-US Christians to understand just how significant it is that certain crucial issues of personal morality have become defining points of party political platforms in the USA, just because it has not happened here. Equally, I understand that the European and British tradition of Christian Socialism sounds like nothing more than an oxymoron to many American Christians. Again, such cultural differences offer plausible reasons for the observed differences of opinion.
This last reason is the hard work, the point where we need to struggle to understand how someone else’s understanding of the implications of the gospel can be so different from ours. It is also the place where we need to exercise a certain amount of humility concerning the limitations of our own understanding. I think I am beginning to be able to imagine just how important the partisan nature of the debate over abortion and human sexuality is for (many) Christians in the USA; I confess that I still cannot really understand how a Christian can be opposed to universal healthcare – but I know that many thoughtful, intelligent sisters and brothers are, and so I know that the problem there is my failure to grasp their reasoning, not any lack of reasoning on their part. There is a discussion to be had, and very probably a lasting disagreement to acknowledge, and I suspect I will learn some things about my own views in the discussion as I have it, about just how significant for me a very deeply rooted, but probably not very gospel-shaped, British pride in the NHS is, for instance.
And learning things like that will shape me better for life in the coming Kingdom.