Courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit

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By The Rev. Paul Graves 

Last week, I received a column from John Pavlovitz, a pastor whose thoughts I’ve mentioned here before. His title is attention-getting: “An Open Letter to Those Who Still Give a Damn.” His audience is people who are worn out from the political and religious dysfunctions that plague our country these days. I’m one of those people!

I’m sick and fatigued nearly to the point of despair – only nearly! – by the divides we must navigate over matters political and religious, especially when they combine into a cesspool of disrespect and dishonesty. I’m so eager to find basic alternatives to such distrusting, fear-driven chaos.

So let’s take a breath and uncover our deeper human spirit that’s been smothered by so much fearful dehumanizing talk and action! One place I’ve found some space to breathe fresher breath is Parker Palmer’s newest book: Healing the Heart of Democracy – The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

Palmer is a great guide into the basics of human spirituality. This book is a wonderful example thrust into the context of politics and the search for a healthy democracy. He begins with a poignant glimpse at the spiritual power of Abraham Lincoln during the deeply depressing Civil War.

I believe our country is in another deeply depressing time. For some, depression brings out excessive anger toward others – projecting personal pain onto people not “like us.” For others, depression is inwardly directed, leading to despair for self, for others, for our country.

As I read Palmer’s insights about Lincoln’s own fight with depression, I silently heard the plaintive sounds of John Williams’ exceptional soundtrack for the very powerful movie simply called “Lincoln.” Its melancholy yet strangely hopeful sounds echoed in me as I reflected on Lincoln’s struggle with his own spirit and the national spirit.

Palmer quotes poet Theodore Roethke: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” In my recent dark times, I’m driven to let my spirit’s eye seek the truth-pieces I live with, deep within my heart, my soul.

I don’t want to hate anybody, especially the political leaders I vehemently disagree with. Nor do I want to hate Christian leaders and followers I consider to be so wrong in their allegiances.

Yet in our current cultural climate, it’s hard not to hate, isn’t it. When that happens, it’s time to find the courage to step into the darkness within our own hearts. It’s time to sort out which beliefs we hold are true to our faith, and which ones are merely convenient to our biases and fears.

Palmer’s insight into how Lincoln entered that darkness might be instructive to you, as it is for me:

“…Because he knew dark and light intimately – knew them as inseparable elements of everything human – he refused to split North and South into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, a split that might have taken us closer to the national version of suicide.”

We currently live in a time when nationally, and often personally, we live with closed hearts, with broken hearts. We hurt, and hurting others seems to be the only way we think we have to deal with that hurt. But that just isn’t reality!

Our faith traditions teach us — the deepest values of being human teach us — about broken-open hearts. Blocking ourselves off ourselves emotionally and spiritually usually results in isolating ourselves from the deepest joys and the deepest loves we are capable of experiencing.

This is true in our searches for healthy interpersonal relationships. It’s also true in our search for political health. The external search is nourished by the broken-open heart.


The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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