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Essay: This Lent, take up some practices that counter the worst of our politics

MICHAEL WEAR, president of the Center for Christianity and Public Life in the US and author of ‘The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life’says Lent is a good time to be thinking about resisting what the US election season is “demanding we become”…

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There is a pervasive weariness regarding the upcoming presidential election, the predominant sentiment being something like: I can’t believe we have to do this again.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but yes, we have to do this again. But we do have some control over the experience. We can decide whether the presidential election will simply happen to us, or whether we take it as an opportunity to make ourselves healthier people and possibly lead to a healthier politics. We can adopt practices that help us to resist becoming what the election season is demanding we become.

This combo image shows President Joe Biden, left, on 5th January, 2024, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, right, on 19th January, 2024. PICTURE: AP Photo/File photo. 

Lent, the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Easter that begins on Wednesday is a good season to think about these practices. It recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, led by the Spirit, prior to being tempted by the devil. In addition to offering him food, the devil promised Jesus the “kingdoms of this world” if only Jesus would bow down and worship him.

According to one interpretation, Jesus’ fasting made him weaker and more susceptible to succumbing to temptation, as if the purpose of fasting was to raise the difficulty level.

“We can take Jesus’ spiritual practice as a model for how to survive the trials of our times as well. In reliance on God, learning from Jesus, we can take up practices that equip us to resist the temptations of life, including our politics. “

But I think this reading gets it wrong. Instead, Jesus’ 40 days of discipline in the desert equipped Him for the time of testing. When he told the devil that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he was speaking from his lived experience. We can take Jesus’ spiritual practice as a model for how to survive the trials of our times as well. In reliance on God, learning from Jesus, we can take up practices that equip us to resist the temptations of life, including our politics.

We are in the early stages of an election cycle that will be dominated by the logic of what social scientists have termed “political sectarianism,” a framework that helps us understand the kind of polarization we have today. Sectarianism comprises a “toxic cocktail” of three ingredientsothering, which is “the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself”; aversion, “the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans”; and moralisation, “the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous,” as opposed to merely wrongheaded.

The consequences of this mode of politics are profoundly negative for governance – the behaviur of many Republicans regarding the border security compromise negotiated in the Senate is emblematic what happens when political sectarianism has taken root. Political sectarianism also profoundly frays our social ties and can harm our personal relationships and dearest communities. It can turn each of us individually into a kind of person we do not wish to become. As politics makes grand promises of what it can do for us, we succumb to its logic of othering, aversion and moralisation.

In my new book, The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life, I offer a range of Christian spiritual practices that can help us push back on the demands of our toxic politics. Of the many practices available, some – such as prayer and fasting – have been tried and found edifying for millennia. Others are more modern, and tailored for the particular technologies and temptations of our time. Here are three practices, each of which undermines one of the ingredients of political sectarianism:

In opposition to aversion, we can pursue fellowship across political difference. Throughout my life in the political world, I’ve seen others alienated from their closest relationships and communities, and I’ve been subjected to it as well. It can be unmooring and isolating. While the feelings that accompany aversion to another are intense, those feelings do not arise from reason, but from distrust based on who a person voted for, regardless of other factors, including a shared faith.

Fellowship with those of other political affiliations can displace the priority of political allegiances in one’s own outlook, and the dehumanization that can result from it, while also serving as a counterwitness in a political culture that treats partisan affiliation as a brand and identity.

In opposition to othering, we can find opportunities for service. Othering can be deterred by fellowship too, but in othering there is a distance that is not present in aversion.

Service, particularly service for recipients whose views run counter to one’s politics, can undermine the othering tendency. While it is more common to think of the importance of service for those in positions of privilege, service can also be a vital discipline for those who feel as if they have nothing to offer – or, more specifically, as if they have nothing that those they disagree with politically would possibly want.

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It turns out that those the world counts as undesirable, those who never receive recognition, often have much to offer in service. Through service, status is disrupted, and the categories of those who contribute and those who receive can be turned upside down so that we can see one another more clearly. With the new sight of service, the perceived offensiveness of the other can be transformed into the offensiveness of othering at all.

Finally, in opposition to moralisation, we can take up the practice of confession. For those who are religious and even those who are not, admitting wrongdoing to those we have harmed, particularly in the context of political disagreement, can be a powerful practice that can shape our outlook and deepen our sense of humility.

To the political moralist used to condemning on the basis of “political iniquity,” the discipline of confession might be viewed as punishment. If you approach confession with the anticipation not of merciless punishment but of grace-filled embrace, confession will transform how you view yourself and those around you. You may even find that you become less prone to quick condemnation based on political disagreement.

In a political season like this, the temptation is to allow the toxic logic of our politics to run its course, at least until we get to less consequential times. We must recognize that these times are consequential in large part precisely because of what our politics is doing to us, how our politics is shaping us, and the kind of incentives and allowances we provide to our politics.

Lent is as good a time as any to take up practices in our own lives that resist the dehumanizing tendencies of political sectarianism. Political campaigns are largely about telling us who stands in the way of the kind of political outcomes we want. This year, we can take up a different matter: How do we become the kind of people our politics needs?

Michael Wear is president and CEO of the Center for Christianity and Public Life and the author, most recently, of The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life.

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