The politics of minority self-destruction: a call to surrender

Feb 14, 2019 by

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Fellow Christians: In a nation undergoing historic dimensions of polarization and partisan self-destruction, our hour has again come to navigate our perennial struggle over citizenship responsibilities — whether we should retreat from the “world” to proclaim our purity or engage it to practice “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).

I will advance a politics of agape (sacrificial love) engaging polar sides on the fast track to ruination. Our churches, torn by culture war, are not now qualified to make this engagement. They will be if they recover the centrality of agape-inspired surrender in Christian politics.

Death spiral. In a context of gross inequality and of the onset of a majority racial-ethnic minority nation, economic and cultural anxiety has occasioned recourse to in-group insularity searching for security in primal or tribal attachment. Ramparts of protection rise on the basis of racial, sexual or other bastions of “identity politics.”

On the one hand, the Republican Party has become a haven for a vociferous, even fanatical, white nationalism seeking American rebirth at the behest of an authoritarian strongman (“Make America Great Again”; “I alone can fix it”). The party weds to a celebration of violence and the scapegoating of nonwhite and weaker people (confusing cruelty on the Southern border with strength in Washington).

The party’s authoritarianism derives emotional energy from resentment and hatred; rooted in a sense of victimization at the hands of other races, of outsiders (“illegal aliens”) and of cosmopolitan elites (Hollywood, the “fake news” media). The strongman makes demagogic, visceral, instinctual, appeal to this energy. The result is nihilistic recourse to capricious behavior evidencing no ethics, only will to power.

In other words: strong is good because it “wins”; weakness is bad because it “loses.” Weakness itself gets demonized and turned into an enemy. The party’s preservation subsists in an ever more daring and ever more dangerous escalation of toughness against hated foils.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party becomes a haven for racial, gender and sexual identity groups that present disintegrated tribalism in place of the erstwhile party that not only dreamed of being home to Martin Luther King Jr.’s integrated and “beloved community” but also envisioned being the habitat for the labor movement’s solidarity and universal working class.

In 2019 the party celebrates victory in the House of Representatives and trumpets the return of “checks and balances.” This phrase is code for a lurch to the left, the kind of ideological shift comprising the perfect foil for reaction from the right: reinforcing spiral into polarization, impasse and breakdown of government.

Death spiral codified: failure of the Constitution. Veneration of the U.S. Constitution has recoiled on us as blindness to its actual functioning.

The nation’s primary system has long occasioned low-turnout elections. Low turnout has empowered minority extremes in candidate selection, generating cliffhanger outcomes twice resolved by the Electoral College in favor of losers of the popular vote.

The Senate, meanwhile, with two senators per state regardless of population, has exacerbated polarization, giving it an unfortunate rural-versus-urban cast, further entrenching minority power.

Four justices on the Supreme Court exemplify this entrenchment: nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote, ratified by a Senate unrepresentative of the majority. Minority-driven impasse has engendered governmental dysfunction, which has estranged the broad middle of the voting population, intensifying the sway of extremes in a vicious cycle of disengagement from the ballot box.

The upshot: minority rule. Supermajorities required by the Constitution to reform the electoral structures through amendment are not feasible. Americans are trapped in an obsolete Constitutional structure impervious to revision. A nation that cannot brook reform matched in scale to ever-mounting national and international crises will crater under their impact.

The politics of Christian citizenship. A shorthand definition of agape can immediately orient us to our political priority: divinely empowered self-giving love for neighbors, strangers and enemies. God invites us into vulnerability; we find our strength in weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10; a nonspiritualized Phil. 3:18-20).

Hence, we open to the “least of these,” the migrants, the refugees — all the whipping posts stigmatized as failures. We constitute ourselves as the true opposite of the fanatical “strength” on the right. We see, simultaneously, that the political left functions as a symbiotic foil feeding energy into the fanaticism. Only agape can break the death grip of polarization.

It does this by surrendering the fight. I do not mean surrender in the sense of capitulation or admission of defeat. I mean refusing to fight. Changing the terms of engagement. We need to surrender the culture war in the churches because polarization’s combat leads to a dead end devoid of winners.

We know how to surrender: we stop talking about our differences, recover the vow of silence, join with adversaries in mission or service projects that repair a public building, offer shelter for those without a roof and create a safe space for victims of violence. In this surrender we testify that peace is possible. What other calling of consequence do we have?

Gordon Scoville is the intentional interim pastor of Bellwood Mennonite Church in Milford, Neb.  In this commentary, he speaks only for himself and not for the congregation.

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