Friday, August 21, 2009

The Statesman and the Churchman: Lost American Icons


Everyone wants to be a politician. Which is rather odd given their reputation. Everyone complains about politicians, most agree that 100 politicians on the bottom floor of the ocean would be "a good start," and we tend to see them as sellouts devoid of principle. For a politician to be trusted in America, he or she has to overcome the pre-existing baggage that comes with the job. Yet, it is hard to find leaders that don't seek to be politicians. Even politicians want to be politicians.
Let me clarify as there are alternatives. In the political realm, one can choose to be a statesman. Perhaps this is a man who doesn't accomplish all he might like. He may take the high road, he may compromise some of his own agenda, and most importantly, he always represents his nation before himself or his ideology. He may refrain from defending himself against attacks for the good of the nation. And he governs with the wisdom of the ages, knowing that the problems he faces will never be completely solved by his efforts. (But that doesn't stop him from trying.) The statesman represents the ideals of his state before the ideas of his party, though the two can often work together in legislative efforts. He is modest, but forceful when needed, gracious, but firm. He and the state are not one; but the values of the state are represented by the life of the man.

Compare that with the crowd in Washington, and the contrast is stark. I will be so generous as to say this is true of both parties from time to time. Both sides have policy initiatives they want to get through, and both sides will engage in "hardball" tactics to get them through the slimy, greasy gears of the law-making machine. But there does seem to be little of the statesman in our current administration. Instead of defending the honor and the values of this nation, our president besmirches the good name of America while currying favor for himself in Europe and the Middle East. Instead of admitting errors when speaking of police action or attempting to force legislation that would forever change healthcare in this nation, he persists even harder in his original mistake. Instead of respecting the natural, unforced political action of grassroots conservatives, many on the left are remarkably un-statesmanlike in their assessments, even accusing such protesters of being un-American.
But, as I said, one can safely assume that sort of behavior in the political world. Egos and legacies are at stake. It is especially disgusting in the Church. A friend of mine told me of a group of 20 clergy who attended a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania. They arrived en masse, well organized and prepared to support the nationalization of, er, addition of choices and competition in healthcare. At the current Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, the activists have stuffed the ballot box, redefining what is biblically normative regarding human sexuality. The presiding bishop read a letter from President Obama at a recent youth gathering 36,000 strong, where the president urged the young people to be active in their communities working for change. This is not a church that is afraid to get involved in politics; far from it. Clergy want to be politicians.

So whatever happened to the churchman? You know, the wise pastor who has seen it all before? The soft-spoken clergyman or woman who is content to trust in the Gospel, to trust that God is leading his Church, to defend the doctrines of the Church while mourning the inevitable conflict? The churchman, like the statesman, is willing to sacrifice his own ego for the good of the Church, to sacrifice his own agenda for the traditions and truths the Church has always taught. The churchman is kind and warm, even to his enemies, and he loves those who do not believe as he does, even as he tries to change their mind. The churchman is never too upset by the daily scheming of clergy around him and is happy to serve where he is needed. They are the trusted clergy that may not produce the flashiest sermons or be the most socially popular, but they are called upon when there is a tragedy, or there is a need for clergy to speak to an especially difficult moment. They build up enormous spiritual capital through years of faithful preaching and teaching, capital that they never spend, but instead keep in the bank out of humility.

Like the statesman, the churchman is largely gone. In an age of slick media, protestant seminaries produce effective communicators who tailor a message around the needs of the unchurched rather than the needs of the faithful. Success is not measured in right preaching or teaching but in achieving change, either "prophetic" or by increases in attendance. Wisdom takes too long to accumulate, and the masses must be gathered and counted quickly. ("Quick, start the rock music!") Pulpits are traded in for stages and altars are traded in for trap sets. The pastor is no longer a man pointing to Christ as a good churchman might do; he is squarely in the middle of it all, with props, designer clothes and hair gel aiding in his effectiveness.

Yet it is these men and women, the statesman and the churchman, who are vital characters in the civil society. (I would add that journalists should perform a similar role, yet they also want to be politicians. As two of the greats have passed this week, it is worth remembering them as similarly objective and wise, and needed.) They function as wise grandparents who are able to adapt to change even as they fight for traditions. They are able to be strong when others panic. They are able to speak of deep truths instead of mere sentiment. They are the keepers of knowledge and readers of books, while most of us remember facts and peruse articles. The statesman and the churchmen are our barometers, our measuring sticks, our role models and our mentors. Where have they all gone? Far too many of them are more interested in playing politics than defining and defending core values. I hope they make a reappearance soon.

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